Men and women stood in a line. It stretched across barren land and ended, quite abruptly, at a white tent. No birds flew overhead. No creatures scuttled for undergrowth. There was no undergrowth. Only the dirt. Only the harsh glare of the sun.
Gabriella shuffled forward. The man in front of her disappeared into the tent. Soon, it would be her turn. She waited three breathes and then Gabriella stepped out of the harsh light and into the dim interior.
Before Gabriella could prepare herself, a syringe plunged deep into the tissue of her upper arm. Gabriella sucked in a breath. Dark green liquid left the vial and seeped into her veins. The syringe wielding woman ushered her forward.
Another woman waited. She pressed a rapid succession of devices to Gabriella’s person and then, satisfied that everything was as it should be, she nodded.
“Fully synthesised. Please move forward.”
A shattered cry echoed from behind and Gabriella clenched her eyes shut. Sometimes the body rejected the serum, but that was only the first of a list of things that could go wrong. Gabriella moved toward the next station. A man waited for her.
“Arms forward. Palms up.”
Gabriella complied. A needle jabbed into her thumb. Pain jolted and something new awoke. A tiny lick of flame spurted from her hands. The man recoiled, but Gabriella stared in wonder.
A Firesage then. The military was not what Gabriella had intended, but it would do. Firesages were granted asylum.
The man gestured her forward. “Gate seven. Report to Commandant Alyssa on arrival.”
The portal was a mass of swirling darkness. Gabriella shuddered at the thought of stepping through, but there was nothing left for her here. She shed one last tear for her dying world and then, Gabriella stepped into her future.
Babalwa pushed her fingers into the pile of clothing that lay on her bed. She grabbed fabric, scrunched tight and then threw the unsuspecting garment into a large canvas bag. Her hand reached out again and repeated the process. Back and forth she went, grabbing at a shirt, or a skirt, or a pair of pants, balling the clothes up and then smashing them into the bag. The clothing didn’t deserve this kind of treatment. Babalwa liked her clothes, but she had been holding her rage back for what felt like an eternity and now that she was finally able to let go, to feel everything she was feeling without risk of hurting anyone, Babalwa could not make herself stop. The bag was half full already, a wrinkled sea of colours no more organised than the jumbled pile beside it. This was no way to pack a bag. She was going to run out of space. She knew this. She was going to have to start over.
But it made no difference. Her hand flew out again. She found fabric and clenched tight, but instead of the familiar feel of soft compliance, Babalwa felt little dots of resistance digging into her fingers and all along the fleshy cushioning of her palm. She paused. She swallowed hard and then, ever so slowly, Babalwa opened her fist. Bright orange fabric cascaded from her open hand. It was adorned with thousands of tiny beads. Black and yellow, they danced in thick lines and bold circles along the length and breadth of the skirt. Babalwa fought back tears. Most of her wardrobe was of a more modern style, but she had chosen traditional dress for her graduation. She had been so happy wearing the Umbhaco. She had felt so proud.
But that was before the final results had come through. Before she saw the class rankings. She had not ranked first. She had not even ranked second. Babalwa had come third. And third was not good enough. Third would not take her to Mushengo.
Babalwa laid the skirt down and began flattening it out. Her body shuddered as the first tears trickled silently down her cheeks.
How had it gone so wrong?
It had been her and Trish trading places for first and second. Always the two of them egging each other on to be better, go further. Always them planning and dreaming and stretching toward Mushengo. They were the best. They had always been the best. None of the other students had ever come close.
But now, when it had mattered most, Richard (Richard of all people!) had taken first place and the Royal internship that came with it. Second got an internship too, but not third. There was no prize for coming in third.
Babalwa rubbed her eyes and looked across to Trish’s bed. A pastel bedspread dotted with soft pink roses, and curving wreaths of lavender lay smooth and quiet against the mattress. Posters and photos still lined the walls and trinkets full of memories waited on the bedside table. Trish had not started packing yet. She was probably waiting for Babalwa to leave and Babalwa couldn’t blame her for it. If their places had been traded, if Babalwa had been the one going and Trish the one to stay behind, would she have been able to face her roommate?
A sob heaved through Babalwa and shattered against her lips.
It was supposed to be the both of them! Today was supposed to be happy!
And Babalwa should be happy. She had a Masters in Draconic Sciences! She should be proud. Her parents were proud. But Babalwa hadn’t spent the last six years of study pushing herself so that she could return to her home village. She wasn’t meant to tend to pocket dragons, to mere house pets. Her future was in the Royal Stables. Her future was Battle Dragons and working beasts!
Her future had collapsed under the smirk of an entitled boy.
Babalwa closed her eyes. Her final practical played vividly in her mind. She had been given a young Giwe dragon. The golden scales, interspersed with deep, black rosetta’s, had shuddered at her touch. Her task was to give the dragon a check-up and to remove a large thorn that had embedded itself in the youngling’s soft underbelly. Babalwa had been so intent on securing the swishing tail and removing the danger of the lethal, barbed tip, that she had forgotten to consider the Dragon’s front end. Young Giwe dragons had a strong, playful streak and it took months of training to rid them of their propensity to nip. When Babalwa had realised her mistake, she had acted swiftly to muzzle the beast, but not before teeth had sunk into flesh. It was a minor wound, but still deep enough to cause lingering pain whenever Babalwa moved her arm, a sharp reminder of a mistake that had cost her fifteen points. It wasn’t enough to unseat Richard, his final thesis had been near perfect, but it was enough to put Trish ahead.
Babalwa cursed herself for even having the thought. It had been Richard who had stolen her spot. Not Trish. She couldn’t let herself think badly of Trish.
As if summoned, Trish burst into the room. Her body swung around the door frame. Leather soles squeaked against well polished floor boards. She swung her arms wide and grabbed Babalwa into a fierce, gorilla armed hug.
Babalwa hadn’t had a chance to ready herself for the attack. Her arms were squished tight and straight against her sides, he face pressed awkwardly into Trish’s shoulder. And Trish was bouncing and wriggling and laughing.
“Trish, what…” Babalwa tried to choke out the question, but Trish’s voice thundered over hers.
“We did it Bubbles! We did it!”
Babalwa shook her head. “No Trish. Not me. Just you.” Babalwa tried to extract herself from the death grip, but Trish was strong. How did she have any right to be this strong? Trish laughed. She grabbed Babalwa by the shoulders and pushed her so that a small pocket of space opened between them. Trish’s eyes were sparkling. She looked deeply at Babalwa.
“We’re going. The both of us. Richard’s been expelled!”
Then Trish was pulling Babalwa into another embrace. Babalwa’s cheek smashed into Trish’s chest and she felt herself being rocked violently from side to side. Babalwa pushed herself away from Trish and this time, Trish let her go. Straightening herself up, she tried to sort through the jumbled mess in her brain.
“Yes! The moron cheated! He used his daddy’s money and paid someone else to write it! And as much as he’s had good marks, they were never quite that good. It was suspicious enough that the university decided to investigate it. And investigate it they did!”
Trish gesticulated wildly as she talked, but now she put her arms by her side. She grinned at her friend. “This is it, Bubbles. We’re living the dream. Are you ready to become a Royal. Friggen. Dragon keeper?!”
Babalwa couldn’t help the shriek that spilled from her lips. She couldn’t help the bounce that formed in her legs. She threw herself toward Trish and the girls embraced again. This time they both hugged and they both squealed. Because this time they were both going. Mushengo was waiting.
The caravan arrived in Mushengo early in the afternoon, plenty of time, Babawla had thought, to get cleaned up and start at the Royal stables. But their escort had insisted that they rest up. The trek to the capital was four days of flat grasslands, dirt roads and not much else. They were most certainly tired and in dire need of a long bath and a warm meal. Work, their escort had said, could wait another day. Babalwa disagreed. She felt like she had spent the last six years waiting. She couldn’t wait any longer. It was the same for Trish. They tried to relax, to soak their dust coated bodies in the expansive bathhouse, but soon, both women were scrubbing vigorously just to have an excuse to move. And what Babawla was sure must have been one of the best meals she had ever tasted was simply sustenance, Her mind too full to concern itself with something as mundane as flavour. When night came and Babalwa let her travel-weary muscles rest atop the sheets, her eyes refused to close. She and Trish willed the night away putting words to the dreams that floated just out of reach.
“I want to see a Dlovu in full battle armour!”
“I can’t wait to meet the Elder Keeper Nonhle!”
Eventually the room quieted and sleep came. In the morning, they rose with the sun.
“This is the tack room for all the basic housekeeping tools. If you need something for a job, you will most likely find it in here.”
Babalwa let her eyes roam the massive room. It was filled with everything, from the most basic items, like feed buckets and shovels, right down to the most expansive claw-clipper collection she had ever seen. It was going to take a while to learn where everything in this store room belonged. It was going to take her a while to learn where anything in the entire stables belonged. Babalwa had known it would be big, but the sheer size of the grounds overwhelmed her. There were over one hundred individual stalls, thirty massive arenas for training and as if that weren’t enough, a massive, man-built cliff face towered far above them. It served as a rookery for breeding pairs and a refuge for retired dragons.
A dragon keeper by the name of Akhona had been showing them around for the past three hours. Her mannerisms were short and clipped and she left very little room for casual conversation. As much as the tour had been fascinating, Babalwa was eager to part ways with Akhona. She was ready to begin the real work.
She turned from her inspection of the clippers and heard Trish ask, “Will we be meeting the Elder Keeper soon?”
“Elder Nonhle does not concern herself with apprentices. For the duration your internship you will be reporting to and working under me. Now…”
Akhona grabbed two shovels from a nearby wall. “Stalls thirteen through twenty need to be mucked out. Find me at Arena Three when you’re done.”
Hours later and ankle deep in muck, Trish started laughing.
“What’s so funny about being drenched in dragon poop?” Babalwa wrinkled her nose. Trish grinned.
“It’s the dream, Bubs! Six years of gruelling study, finally being put to good use!”
Trish made a face at the state of her hair and then she started laughing once more. Babalwa couldn’t help but join in.
Sabina watched the fire. It’s eternal glow a warm and solid presence. She selected a few logs from a nearby wood stack and shoved them into the hearth. Sparks flew to the new kindling. The flames rose and the wood snapped and crackled. Vesta was a hungry Goddess. She consumed with a passionate intensity, a hunger that was never fully sated and it was the sacred duty of Sabina and the other Vestal Priestesses to ensure that the goddess never went without. They were selected for the high honour as children. They were trained, housed and compensated generously. Their voices mattered at council, a space reserved only for men. The Roman people held them in awe. All that the Goddess asked of them in return was their complete and unwavering devotion. It would not do to have a Priestess of Vesta distracted by the demands of home and family. She could not falter. The eternal fire must never be extinguished. The stability of Rome depended on it.
“You are deep in thought today, Sabina.”
Sabina rocked back onto her haunches. She smiled at her companion. “I am only contemplating the insatiable nature of our Goddess.”
Coelia nodded. “Ours is a passionate One. Full of youthful energy and the promise of bountiful life.”
Sabina nodded. “She is passionate. That is true.”
“And is it not from passion that all life stems?”
Sabina nodded her agreement once more. She scooted herself back onto the soft mat that lay before the hearth and settled in for the night. It was true that life stemmed from passion and true also that when women struggled to kindle life within their wombs, it was to Vesta that they turned. And it made sense that Vesta would be filled with youthful vigor and passion and heat, but Sabina also couldn’t help but see the irony in all of it. How could a Virgin Goddess, served by Virginal Priestesses, be the Goddess of Fertility? It was a thought that had begun to plague Sabina’s mind recently. A thought that she would rather not share with Coelia.
The night drifted into silence. Some night vigils were filled with conversation. Others were quiet like this. It depended entirely on the company. With Coelia it could go either way. The head priestess had a wealth of knowledge to share, if the novitiates dared to ask the questions.
Tonight, Sabina did not dare. Her mind was turmoil, but not because of uncertainty. No, Sabina’s mind was a mess because she already knew what the answers were. It would not help to voice her thoughts. Coelia would not respond kindly to them. None of the Vestal Priestesses would.
Sabina hugged her knees into her chest. She kept her eyes on the flame, watching them dance and flicker, their movements as rapid as her thoughts. She should never have moved into her own residence. She should have remained at the convent, eith the other Priestesses. Where privacy did not exist. But Sabina had moved out and she had found privacy. What seemed like a simple dream for a space of her own had become a curse.
“Tell me a story,” Coelia said. Her voice was soft, but clear against the cackle of the fire. “I need something to see me through the night..”
Sabina was quiet a moment. Her mind raced. She pushed and shuffled thoughts aside, digging deep to uncover something from beneath the fog. Sabina found the tendrils of a story and began to speak.
“The Goddess Diana had many Nymphs, but none were quite as beautiful as Callisto.”
It was only as the words fell from her tongue that Sabina recognised which story it was. She swore silently to herself. Of course it would be this one. What other could suit her conflicted thoughts so well? Coelia, for her part, nodded in approval. It was a well loved tale amongst the priesthood. Callisto was a character the Priestesses could relate to, but her tale also served as a warning. The thing with warnings was that they didn’t always land true.
Sabina continued the tale. “None could deny how her soft skin and round form ignited the lust of Gods and men alike. But the followers of Diana were not meant for men. As Vestal Priestesses do for their Goddess, Calllisto too had taken the vow of Chastity for hers.
But Zeus, having seen a prize he yearned for, would not be denied. So it was that the God disguised himself as a Goddess. He appeared to Callisto as Diana herself and seduced the unsuspecting Nymph. Callisto, unable to deny her Goddess, fell for the seduction.”
Sabina paused then. The fire cackled louder. Flame lept up and Sabina felt the heat like an accusation. And who was she to refute it? With Marcus, there had been no magic nor tricks. He appeared to her as he was, a man back from his first encounter with war. Not all men take well to bloodshed and death and Marcus had been one of these men. The experience had left him lost and confused. Sabina had simply wanted to help, to ease his mind and console his tortured spirit. Marcus had accepted her kindness. There had been no seduction. Not from Marcus and not from Sabina. But intentions did not matter. What should never have been a friendship to begin with had gone far beyond that.
“All would have been well,” Sabina continued, “had Callisto’s belly not begun to swell with child. They discovered her one day while bathing and knew that she had faltered in her vows. Diana and Juno alike were angered. Diana because her follower had betrayed her and Juno because she was the wife of Zeus. It was thus that Callisto was punished, banished from Diana’s flock and transformed into a bear by Juno. It was Callisto that would carry the punishment for Zeus’ trickery.
Coelia raised her brows at the last bit. No one ever mentioned that Zeus was to blame. Even though everyone knew it, it was always seen as just that only Callisto be blamed. Sabina swallowed. She should probably not have said it, but with her mind running rampant the way it was… Coelia said nothing, however, so Sabina continued.
“Callisto gave birth to a boy. The boy became a man and that man would come across a bear while hunting. He would ready his arrow and draw back his bowstring and with his eye sighted along the shaft, he would take aim. He would not know that he took aim at his mother’s heart. Diana and Juno would have let the arrow fly, but stirred by pity for his Demi-God son, Zeus chose to intercede. Callisto and her son were cast to the heavens, forever to be remembered as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.
“And Juno, enraged by Zeus’ meddling forbid the constellations from ever meeting her waters,” Coelia concluded.
Sabina lapsed into silence. It wouldn’t be so bad, she thought, to be turned into a bear. And to be remembered in the stars? It was almost poetic. But Sabina would not be a bear and she would not get the stars.
Her punishment was death.
The marketplace bustled with activity. Animals bleated and bells jangled. The smell of too many creatures in too small a space. Of spiced foods and sweet foods. Foods frying and still more cooking on open fires. A multitude of colours as the trappings of different races and species merged and writhed like some giant organism. Merchants sang out their wares. Others haggled for better prices. It was a cacophony of smells and sights and sounds. And Ezzie ignored it all. She was neck deep in her own cut-throat squabbling.
“Now look here, that bauble isn’t worth more than forty chips.”
The merchant glared. “Seventy. My lowest offer.”
Ezzie palmed the glass sphere in her hand. It was smooth and cool to the touch. And near perfect too, but there was a slight warping where the glass rose up just a fraction. Inside the sphere was a butterfly with lemon yellow wings and a deep black body. It was just a decoration. A plastic toy locked in glass. Hardly worth Ezzie’s time, but something about those wings didn’t look quite fake enough and Ezzie had a hunch that this bauble could fetch numbers far beyond her grasp. Not that that would stop her from haggling for the lowest price possible. After all, she could be wrong. Her fingers thrummed across the tiny imperfection.
She pointed to where the glass warped.
The merchant scowled. “Do you want it or not?”
Ezzie glared at the Merchant. The merchant glared back. She needed to be careful with her next words. They would either break him or stubbornly set him at his current price. At the absolute worst, he would reverse and push the price higher again. That had happened to Ezzie before. When she was still young and new to travelling the galaxy. Before she had learned how to read people, where their buttons were and when to push them. Now, she let her eyes dart across the store to a framed picture on the back wall. It was of an old lady. She wore the same scowl the Merchant now wore and her face was set with the same grey eyes.
Ezzie cleared her throat. She smiled.
“Look, I’ll give you fifty five alright, even though its flawed. Yellow is my grandmamma’s favourite colour and she’d be utterly distraught if I came back without her birthday gift. Please?”
The man shifted his weight. He looked down at the bauble and shook his head.
“Fine,” he huffed. “Sixty. For your Gramamma.”
Ezzie beamed. She handed over the chips and held the ball to her chest. “You are too kind sir. Pleasure doing business with you.”
The Merchant huffed. Clearly he didn’t agree that their business had been a pleasure, but he took her currency all the same.
Ezzie made quick work of the crowd. She stopped in the shade of an overhang, the marketplace just a haze of sound behind her. Before her stood The Gypsy Dream. It was only a small craft, but what it lacked in size it made up for with attitude. It’s hull was a multitude of colours, of art and stories and pretty things that Ezzie had collected over time.
Ezzie sighed. Owning this ship, her ship, would never get old.
A figure pushed away from the hull. Lithe and tall and grinning.
“You get it?”
Ezzie smiled. She held the sphere out.
And then she dropped it. The sphere had barely settled in the dirt before Ezzie’s boot came smashing down. Glass crunched and glittery shards spat out. Ezzie sank onto her haunches. Her fingers tiptoed through the glass, pulling bits and discarding shards as she worked. She got the body free first.
Her heart thudded. She had known the body was fake, but a bolt of doubt speared through her nonetheless. Ezzie breathed, put the body aside and sent her fingers out once more. She hovered over a wing. Part of her wanting to stay in this moment where anything was possible. Part of her dreading defeat, but she could feel Gjen behind her. Waiting.
Ezzie lifted the wing. Yellow powder dusted her fingers. Ezzie swallowed.
It. Was. Real.
She looked up at her companion, eyes wide as saucers and a thrill of triumph shuddering through her veins. This butterfly and the powder on its wings would fuel her ship for years. Ezzie grinned. She only had one question for her partner in crime, “Where would you like to go first?”
The crowd was a restless beast. Feet pounded on floorboards. Last minute bets rang out. Tension oozed down the walls and through the air. An oily serpent gathering every heckle and cry to itself, pulsing and growing and filling what space the jostling bodies could not occupy.
Taggart sat below all of this. He was in a dimly lit room, the only source of light was a bulb dangling on a length of electric chord. It jerked and shuddered with every footfall. Light flickered against the bare walls. Bits of dirt jostled free from the wooden slats above and danced around Taggart like some poor man’s confetti. His eyes were closed and he sat on a concrete bench. It was nothing more than a cold, grey slab. The chill pressed against his naked skin and into his muscles and bones. His feet rested on hard packed earth. Distantly, Taggart could hear his name weaving through the crowd. Distantly, he could feel fingers squeezing his shoulders, but Taggart was in a far off place and he wasn’t ready to come back. Not yet.
“Tag, come on boy.”
The voice floated down to Taggart. It plucked at him, an echo getting louder, digging into him and pulling, pulling.
Taggart let out a slow breath. He opened his eyes. Dull eyes, like the cracked surface of a dried riverbed. Or a potter’s clay still waiting to be glazed. But they would change soon. Just like the rest of him.
The fingers kept digging into Taggart’s flesh, a rhythmic and urgent motion. Taggart rolled his shoulders back. It was his way of letting his Keeper, Kabeer, know that he had surfaced. Taggart didn’t want to talk. The words would cut through his focus. They would shatter the fragile calm that he had constructed over the last hour.
Kabeer released his hold on Taggart. There was a loud clap as the Keeper’s hands came together. Taggart let the noise roll over his body.
“Ah! There’s my boy!”
Kabeer stepped around and leaned his face into Taggart’s.
Kabeer’s was an old face. A grizzled face, lined and pock marked. Grey stubble covered his cheeks and a thick scar ran against the line of his jaw. There was a slight stoop to his body where age had taken his strength and gravity was pulling him down, but Kabeer fought back. You could see it in the clench of his jaw and in the spark of his eyes. His body may be falling to the ravages of time, but his mind would not. He stared at Taggart. Burning blue eyes piercing into flat brown.
“Are you ready, boy?”
Taggart nodded. It was the only acceptable answer.
Kabeer’s lips stretched and parted to reveal yellowed teeth. A side effect from the almost constant use of tobacco. Taggart could smell it on the old man’s hair and clothes. A stale cloud formed when Kabeer exhaled. It was a wonder the pipe wasn’t currently stuck between his lips. As if sensing the thought, Kabeer stepped back and reached into his pocket. He pulled out a dark, red pipe along with a bag of dried leaves. His fingers danced a familiar routine across the worn wood and into the folds of the little packet. His eyes did not leave Taggart.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Get at it, boy. It’s time to let the Beastie out.”
Taggart stared at his keeper for just a moment longer. He watched pipe meet lips and smoke curdle into the room. And then Taggart let go.
It started in his eyes. Always his eyes. The mud cracked and a burning amber flooded into the open space, pushing and drowning the brown away. His pupils shuddered. Some unseen force pulled and pushed till the black spheres became diamonds. The shift rippled down his spine and Taggart folded into himself. He dropped from the bench. Joints popped. Muscles tore. Heat seared across his skin.
Taggart was silent through it all. It hurt. Oh gods it hurt. He was ripped apart and sewn back together again and again. Of course it hurt.But it was a familiar pain. A constant in his life. Not like the first time. Never like the first time. Taggart took the pain. He gave into the shift. He let himself become.
A shiver rippled across Taggart’s new skin. It was thick and grey and covered in hard, bristle-like hairs. He had a tail now, barbed and deadly. The tip glistened with the promise of the poison inside. A ruff of a mane started between pointed ears and travelled toward a dip in his back. He stood on all fours, much bigger than he had been only moments before. Kabeer stood beside him, barely at a height with Taggart’s shoulders, but even still, Taggart was small for a Beastie. He didn’t see it as a flaw.
Taggart raised his snout and sniffed at the air. Thick gobs of drool hung from a row of razor teeth. He shook his head and flexed his paws. Kabeer smacked Taggart’s side. Taggart growled softly. He needed a moment, just a moment, to get used to this form. Kabeer was always impatient.
“We don’t have all day, boy.”
If it was strange for Kabeer to call a grown man, boy, it was even stranger for the old man to say it to a Beastie that could rip him to shreds in mere seconds. Taggart didn’t dwell on the thought. He didn’t have space for petty concerns. He had a job to do and he would do it well.
With a final shake of his head, Taggart strode into the tunnel and emerged onto the arena floor.
The crowd erupted.
Taggart gave them no heed. The people that came to watch these fights were nothing more than bloodthirsty scum too scared to get their own hands dirty. They’d sit up there, protected by money and status. And they’d look down at Taggart and at whatever other Beastie had been sent into the pit and they’d watch them tear each other apart. They didn’t deserve his attention and if not for the debts he owed, Taggart would not be their entertainment.
The ground shook. Taggart fixed his eyes to the tunnel opposite his. Growls and thuds echoed from the darkness beyond. A hush descended on the crowd. It was a new fighter, at least, new to Taggart. He did not recognise the name, but whoever and whatever was coming to face Taggart, it was colossal.
It seemed for a moment that the entire space held it’s breath. Only the pounding of those massive feet against the dirt and the roars of that thing filled the space. And then the Beastie exploded onto the sand.
Dirt scattered into the air. The Beastie blasted a circuit around the arena. It growled. It roared. It stood up on it’s hind legs and pounded at it’s chest. The crowd was a mess of shrill delirium. The Beastie was giving them exactly what they wanted. Exactly what Taggart refused to give. It was a sore point for Kabeer that Taggart refused to show boat. That the crowd so often threw their support at his opposition. But Kabeer had no room to complain. Not when Taggart kept his purse full. It was the win that mattered. Not the spectacle.
Taggart kept silent watch as his opponent continued the wild performance.
While Taggart’s Beastie looked like something crossed between a boar and a hound, this Beastie was a Gorilla through and through. A massive, hairy primate that could crush Taggart in one hand. Wicked fangs descended from it’s jaws and muscles bulged from every limb. Deadly, for sure, but if this pre-fight performance told Taggart anything it was that this fighter was erratic.
A deafening buzz sounded across the arena and the crowd fell silent. The Gorilla turned to face Taggart and without warning, it stormed at him. The fight had begun.
Taggart sidestepped the first charge easily. The gorilla turned with him and charged again. This time, Taggart moved toward his opponent. He ducked beneath one meaty arm and sliced his claws against the other Beasties ankle. It was a small strike. A graze, really, but the Gorilla shrieked with uncontrolled rage. Taggart dropped back and surveyed his opponent. For all it’s size, this Beastie was rash and undisciplined. A hand came smashing down. Taggart skirted out of harms way. He ducked around the Gorilla and then struck from behind. His teeth sank into the Gorilla’s exposed flesh. Copper flooded his mouth. Taggart let go and darted out of range.
Taggart spun, muscles bunched and ears alert, ready for the next attack. But it didn’t come. The Gorilla was standing in the centre of the arena, staring down at it’s side. At the blood oozing out of a row of puncture wounds. A minor injury for the arena, and yet, it had caused this Beastie to loose all focus. Taggart watched those hairy arms shudder. His ears pricked at a quiet whimper. The Gorilla looked up and Taggart met it’s eyes. The only thing that glistened in those deep, green pools was fear.
This wasn’t an undisciplined fighter. Not some brute used to winning on size alone. This Beastie was inexperienced. New to the ring and the pain and the bloodshed. Taggart growled again. The organisers should know better than to match fresh fighters against him, no matter their size.
Taggart paced a circle around the Gorilla. It had one giant hand pressed against it’s side. Blood pooled between sausage fingers. It eyed him warily. It was afraid to charge. It was afraid to be struck again. But the match wouldn’t end until one of them crashed into the dirt. Until one of them stopped getting up.
Taggart moved in. He would make it quick. It was the only gift he could give this rookie and maybe it would serve as a lesson in remembering to keep your guard up.
Taggart was a bolt of lightning. He moved in and out, landing quick blows and small strikes. The gorilla howled and spun and tried to keep up, but Taggart was fast and his movements dizzying. In a matter of seconds, Taggart saw his opening. His tail flicked out and the barb struck the Gorilla deep in the chest. Taggart held it there for only a moment, a quick pump of poison into the Gorilla’s veins and then he pulled back and retreated to the other side of the arena. The Gorilla looked down at it’s chest. It looked at Taggart and for a moment, it seemed like the Gorilla would charge, but then it’s body began to sway.
The poison took hold fast. It wasn’t enough to kill the fighter, but it would result in a burning fever that lasted for days. Unpleasant, but the fastest way to get both of them out of this pit. Taggart watched the Beastie twist and sway and then the colossal thing crashed to the ground. The arena shook. A hushed silence descended over the crowd. There was no cheering. There was no sport to this match. Taggart had been too efficient. It had happened too quickly for any of the audience to follow the fight. And Taggart would pay for it. The audience had not got their money’s worth. The organisers would take it from the winnings and Kabeer, in turn, would only increase the debts that Taggart owed. It was a high price to pay for a small act of mercy. A high price for a match that should never have been fought.
Taggart turned, ready to leave, but a flicker of movement caught his eye. He turned back to the arena. The Gorilla was shifting. They weren’t supposed to do that. Not in the arena. Not in front of the audience. Taggart watched, at first in fascination and then in horror. The body kept getting smaller. And smaller.
Taggart ran. He shifted into human as he went, exchanging four legs for two and the cover of his animal hide for fragile human skin. He didn’t care. Damn the rules and damn this place. That fighter was too small. Taggart skidded to a halt beside the body. He dropped to his knees.
A boy. It was just a boy. Taggart cradled one hand beneath the boy’s head and another around his shoulders. He pulled the unconscious form onto his lap. Taggart felt like a giant. His hands were too big, his fingers too clumsy.
This boy too small.
Taggart had been ten the first time his Beastie had surfaced. He remembered the fear. The pain. He remembered the confusion. This boy was barely past his first shift. How was he in the arena?
Taggart looked at the tiny body and at the wounds he had inflicted. At the torn flesh and at the blood. How was there so much blood?
The wounds would have been nothing on an adult, but a child? Taggart looked at the chest wound. The poisoned wound. Already it was red and angry. Already the inflammation spread. Taggart could feel the heat of the fever gathering. The boy’s eyes flickered below his eyelids. He moaned softly.
“I’m sorry,” Taggart whispered. “Oh gods, I’m sorry.”
Taggart adjusted his hold on the boy. He stood. Match officials were hurrying into the arena. Kabeer approached from the left and from the right, the boys Keeper, Elena. It didn’t surprise Taggart. She was a hard lady. Perhaps the most cutthroat of the Keepers. She had to be. She was a woman competing at a man’s game. Taggart understood her why, but it didn’t mean he had to like her. He pulled the boy closer.
“Tag, put the boy down.” Kabeer spoke cautiously.
The Beastie simmered behind Taggart’s eyes.
“He needs medical attention.”
“And I’m sure he will get it.”
“Now Kab! I gave him an adult dose!”
The panic rose in Taggart’s voice. A growl lingered in his throat. Kabeer stepped back. He motioned to Elena. “I am sure his keeper will see to his medical needs.”
Elena stepped close. She looked at the boy and then she motioned to one of her henchmen, “Boyd, take him to the cells. Give him comfort. If he makes it, he makes it, but honestly dear, healers are expensive and I don’t think he’s worth the investment.”
The last was directed at Taggart. A game. Elena knew that Taggart would take the bait. Of course he would. Elena was soulless. She would leave this boy to die.
“I’ll take him.”
Elena arched a brow. “And will darling Kabeer cover the transfer fees?”
Kabeer shook his head. Taggart glared at the both of them. “I’ll take him.”
“You understand the transfer and the healer’s fees will come out of your pay? All future needs, come from you?”
Taggart nodded. He could survive the arena. He could live the pit. The boy didn’t need to.
“I’ll take him.”
It was almost a kiss. Moonlight had dappled against their skin; a kaleidescope of shadow and light filtering through the oak canopy. The chirrup of night bugs had filled the air and Fiona’s eyes had fluttered closed. Her body had moved closer on instinct. She had felt his breath, felt his lips brushing against hers.
But then Ashely had dropped from the tree above them.
Reverberations slammed through the earth and Fiona jerked back. She was only half aware of Dane scrambling to his feet. Her eyes were on Ashley and then onto Sonja who was circling in from behind. Fiona cast her eyes around until she found the third, Jules, materialising out of the mist.
Where had the mist come from?
Fiona didn’t have time to figure that out. Her heart was a fluttering mess. She was in trouble. A lot of trouble.
“Fiona Harding. Breaking the rules. You know, I almost didn’t believe it when Madame briefed us, but… here you are. Even the mighty fall.”
That was Jules, cool voice and cool stride, her eyes dead set on Fiona. Ashley chuckled. “Oh give her a break Jules, she was just having a bit of fun.”
Jules’ attention shot toward Ashley. “We are not here for fun. And Madame wouldn’t see fit to give her a break.”
Ashley’s eyes glittered, cheeky retort no doubt ready, but Dane’s voice cut into the night.
“Ladies! If you’ll excuse me.” He made a sweeping bow and shot a quick wink at Fiona. Fiona’s cheeks warmed. She couldn’t help the grin that split across her face. Dane matched her grin and then he backed away, melting into the darkness as quickly and quietly as the girls had materialised out of it.
“Well you are in a lot of trouble Fiona. I’d try not to grin like an idiot if I were you.”
Fiona’s face went blank. She turned to look at her best friend, but for all of her words, Ashley was grinning like a Cheshire cat. Fiona’s lips twitched up again, but then Jules spoke and Fiona rolled her eyes.
“Shall we get this over with?” Bored. Serious.
Fiona sighed, got to her feet and dusted leaf litter from her butt. With a quick stretch and rolling of her neck, Fiona started back toward school. The other girls formed a tight triangle around her. Ashely and Sonja taking either side at the front and Jules following behind. It was all a bit much. Sure, Fiona had snuck out and sure, she had gone to meet a boy, but she wasn’t about to make a run for it. Where would she go?
A few short minutes later and the wrought iron gates loomed. The girls paused. Sonja stepped up to work the intercom and while they waited, Fiona found herself staring at the metal plaque adorning the red-brick wall. Big, curling letters proclaimed:
Madame Gresham’s Finishing School for Ambitious Young Ladies
And then the school motto in a slightly smaller font, but just as bold and daring:
Bring your own Knives
It had been that line that had made Fiona choose this school. Out of all of the schools that had promised to transform young girls into new versions of themselves, better versions of themselves, only Madame Gresham’s had said anything about the finer arts. Fiona was certain some of the other schools would teach the arts, but they were shoehorned into overcrowded curricula and lacked any real importance. Madame Gresham, on the other hand, had structured her entire curriculum around the arts. Madame Gresham was forward thinking. She was bold.
And she was incredibly hard on all of her girls.
The gate swung open and Fiona swallowed a lump of fear. She and the other girls moved onto the school grounds. Her gut tightened with each step. Beads of sweat glistened along her arms.
Oh Fiona, what were you thinking?
She hadn’t been thinking. Not really. With Dane it had been all butterflies and adrenaline. Not how Fiona should be. Not what Fiona had been taught. Too soon, they were at the school buildings. Too soon they were moving through doors and along carpet lined hallways. Too soon, they stopped in front of Madame Gresham’s office. Sonja stepped up and tapped her knuckles against the wood.
“In,” came Madame Gresham’s voice. Dulled by the walls it had to travel through, but still strong. Solid. The hairs on Fiona’s arms stood to attention. She breathed deeply.
Calm. Poise. Strength.
The door swung open. Fiona let out the breath. The procession proceeded into the office. Madame Gresham did not look at the girls. She was busy looking over a file, my file, Fiona realised, and while her eyes did not stray from the pages, she spoke.
“Good work girls. Now off with you. Fiona and I need to have a little chat.”
As one, the girls bowed and backed out of the room. Ashley gave Fiona’s hand a quick squeeze as she passed, but nothing more. It was the only support Fiona would receive. The only support anyone could give. Fiona had made this mess on her own and it was hers to clean up.
Fiona waited. Madame perused the file a moment longer, then she placed it on her desk, her slender fingers brushing the pages and she looked up at Fiona.
“Did you have a lovely time, dear?”
“I…” Fiona’s words caught in her throat. It was a trick. Say yes and betray her training. Say no, and Fiona would be a liar.
Madame did not wait for Fiona to respond.
“You are one of my top students, Fiona.” She gestured to the file. “And yet, how easily a quick smile from a handsome boy had you loosing all sense.”
Fiona swallowed. Her voice stuttered. “I did not loose all sense, Madame.”
“My training has prepared me for…”
“Did you think you could trust him?”
Fiona paused. Her spine tingled.
“Where are your knives?” Madame asked. Fiona swallowed. She looked down. Her hands went to her hips. Her fingers brushed leather and buckles, but no hilt nestled into her palm. There was no steel to weigh the scabbards down. Her knives were gone. She looked up at Madame, her eyes now wide from shock.How had she not felt her knives being taken? How had she not felt their absence?
Just then, the door opened. Fiona watched as Dane entered the room. She watched as he walked to the desk. She watched him place her knives on the polished wood and she watched him give Madame Gresham a sweeping bow before leaving the way he had come. He did not look at Fiona even once. Her stomach roiled. Fiona had to fight with everything she had not to be sick.
“Did you think it was love?”
Love, no. But the start of something, maybe…
Madame sighed. “It is a hard lesson, Fiona. Trust is a valuable commodity and not one to give out lightly, especially not by one of Madame Gresham’s girls. I trust you will be more discerning in the future?”
Fiona nodded. Her face was a mask, a stone statue with no emotion, but inside, Fiona was breaking.
Just a quick couple of photos showing the process from lumps of clay to a recognizable Rat Thing. Step one in creating this Rat Planter.
Eshente stepped through the night. Her footfalls beat a soft cadence against the backdrop of chirruping bugs and in the distance she could hear the soft grumble of a storm building. Clouds had been gathering overhead for some time and no moonlight shone through. It was mostly dark. Only a few households were still awake and even then, the light that spilled across the sidewalk was soft and pale; filtering through closed curtains before it could escape into the night. Eshe could hear sounds from within the buildings, but they were quiet sounds. The last of the dinner plates being dried and packed away. The soft chink of wine glasses. The sultry chuckle of a lover and the grumbling snore of someone already deep in sleep.
Eshe pulled up the hood of her cloak and plunged her hands into her pockets. It wasn’t cold. The night was pleasant enough for this late in the season, but Eshe should not have been out this late. Eshe should not have been alone.
A flap of leathery wings and a high pitched screech had Eshe jumping on the spot. She looked up, her breath hitching from the sudden fright. A massive, black mass moved in the palm fronds above her.
Eshe took a steadying breath.
Just a fruit bat.
The fruit bats were enormous and loud and slightly terrifying when they dropped from their perches before spreading their wings and swooping low, but ultimately, they were nothing to worry about.
Eshe let out her breath, shook her nerves free and started along the sidewalk once more.
She had not even made it five steps when a hand clamped over her mouth and an arm grabbed her waist. Eshe screamed, but the sound was lost against calloused fingers. She tried to pull away, but her attacker only held on tighter. Eshe was pressed into her assailant’s body. A body that was much larger than Eshe’s. Eshe screamed again. A hopeless act. She pulled her knees up to her chest. The sudden shift of weight threw the attacker off guard, but not enough. Eshe dropped to the ground. She felt the grip release, but she was too slow getting up. Too slow to scream for help. Hands grabbed for Eshe and she was ripped backward once more.Back into a wall of muscle. Back to the hand over her mouth. Eshe tried to fight, but her arms were pinned and her attacker wouldn’t fall for the same trick twice. They held Eshe high now, her feet just skimming the ground and they were walking backward, taking Eshe to whatever hellish end they had chosen.
Eshe could not break free.
I’ll be at the palace, Cherise. There is no safer place. Don’t bother Unam. I’m sure he has far more important work than following me around.
Had it been only that morning that Eshe had spoken those words to her maid? A lie. She had not meant for the words to be a lie, but the princess had been different today. Every other summons to the palace had been for only an hour or two. Gossip over tea. A stroll in the gardens.
Those trips had been boring for Unam. Playing chaperone for the noble ladies was a waste. Eshe had only been trying to spare him the agony of small talk and tea cakes.
And now look at what had happened. If Eshe didn’t… if she…
Unam would never forgive himself. Cherise would think it her fault for not insisting enough.
A huge sob wracked Eshe’s body. She threw her arms about again, but the attempt was feeble. She knew she couldn’t win.
A hot breath squirmed against Eshe’s neck. Her attacker leaned in close. The voice was low. Barely more than a whisper. Eshe pulled her head away as best she could.
“Shh. The less you struggle, the easier this will be. I’m sorry.”
Eshe grimaced. What kind of an attacker apologised to their victims?
The kind that wants you docile.
Eshe whimpered again. They were off the main street and down some dark alley. No light filtered onto this sidewalk. No sounds of life echoed from beyond the walls. Eshe felt her captor stop. A brief thud of what must have been the back of their foot against a door and then the alley was fading from view as Eshe was dragged into a darkened room.
“Shh,” her attacker said again, but this time she was lowering Eshe to the ground. Their journey, it seemed, had come to an end. Eshe’s butt pressed into cold stone, but still the grip did not slacken.
“I’m sorry, again, that it had to happen like this, but we need to talk and I couldn’t have anyone knowing that we met.”
A pause. A sigh. “Please don’t scream.”
The hand lifted from Eshe’s mouth and the attacker stepped back, leaving Eshe sitting on the floor. Eshe scrambled to her feet and brought her hands up in loose fists. She had barely any combat training. Mother was horrified that Eshe had any at all and now, standing in this room, already defeated she understood that her father’s little compromise had been just that. Little. She hadn’t been prepared for this. Any of it.
You shouldn’t have to be Esh! – Her mother’s voice.
Eshe swallowed her fear and faced her abductor, but the room was dark and she spoke only to shadows.
“What do you want with me?” Her voice shook as much as her hands.
There was a small click and then light rushed into the room. Eshe threw a hand over her eyes and squinted at the sudden brightness. She heard more than saw the body shifting closer again.
“To talk,” was all the woman said. And she was a woman. A fact Eshe hadn’t been able to discern in the struggle or in the whispered words. Eshe blinked her eyes a few times as they slowly adjusted to the light and then she gasped.
“You’re… you’re one of Princess Dekali’s personal guard!”
Eshe stepped back. Had she done something wrong? Had she lost the princess’ favour this easily? The guard must have seen the look of panic that flooded Eshe’s face because she stepped forward and said. “I am not here on behalf of the princess.”
Eshe watched the guard wearily. One hand snaking toward a door handle that was much too far away. The other still hovering near her face where it was guaranteed to be useless. This woman was a giant. Impossible to forget. She was all lean muscle and sharp angles. Ash white hair cropped short to her skull and eyes that were a fierce, ice blue. McGallen. Princess Dekali had called her McGallen and Eshe had to admit that she had found it hard to stay focused on the conversation when McGallen was in the room. Her eyes had kept roaming toward the statuesque guard.
“Because I need your help,” McGallen finally said. She was watching Eshe intently, but she had made no further move.
Eshe swallowed. “With what?” Her eyes darted around the room, but what she was looking for, she could not say.
“A matter that I hope is of mutual interest.”
McGallen paused, took a deep breath and then launched into an explanation.
“I was watching you today, at the cages.”
Eshe felt an involuntary blush creep into her cheeks. She had been watching McGallen too, but that had been before McGallen had kidnapped her! Eshe schooled her emotions. McGallen continued to talk.
“I noted your… discomfort. You did not like what you saw.”
“I…” Eshe tried to think of some way to excuse herself, but McGallen spoke over her. “I will remind you that I am not here on behalf of the princess.” McGallen took a step closer. Her expression softened. A sadness crept across her features. “I share in your discomfort.”
Eshe dropped her defensive pose and looked at the guard. Really looked. She was tensed. Afraid. What must it be to admit to a noble woman, to anyone, that she did not approve of the Princess’ hobbies? It was Eshe’s turn to step forward.
McGallen closed her eyes for just a heartbeat. When she opened them, the sadness had been replaced by steel.
“The princess relishes in the suffering of those creatures. I do not. She thinks it sport to bait and tease them. As one of her personal guard…
I see these acts far more frequently than I can stomach them.”
Eshe swallowed hard. She shook her head. “I’m sorry McGallen. I have no power to stop it. You should know that.”
McGallen took a few more steps, closing the gap between them. “But you can. With help. With us. You can make the difference.”
Us. There were more of them. “But why do you need me?” Eshe asked.
“Because you’re a noble. You have connections.”
McGallen glowed. “With your help,” she said. “We can save the dragons from the Princess.”
Josh breathed in the heady scent of roast coffee beans.
He had taken the two weeks of Christmas and New Years off. The manager had been less than pleased. It was a busy time of year and near impossible to find a replacement. Nobody wanted the graveyard shift on a normal night and when the promise of parties and wild revelry were afoot, they wanted it even less. Josh hadn’t wanted to go to the parties. Josh was never driven by want. He responded only to need and in that moment he had needed to escape the noise and the bodies and the confusion. He didn’t do well around people. He didn’t do well around anything. If Josh could have gotten away with it, he would not have had a job at all, but he had rent to pay and he preferred not to starve. The 24hr coffee shop and its twilight hours were an elegant solution to a complicated problem.
Except over the Christmas rush, but New Years had come and gone. The populace had returned to their beds (mostly) and the coffee shop had returned to relative peace.
Josh drowned in rich aroma.
The doors wushed open. Josh looked up. He expected noise. A cacophony of drunken camaraderie in search of caffeine and day old carbs, but the man and woman who entered the coffee shop were silent and alert. The man strode up to the counter. His stride confident; haunting. It was at once breathtakingly beautiful and terrifying. The woman remained just inside the door. Her eyes slowly swept across the shop, like she was taking every last detail in and then she turned and joined the man at the counter. She stopped with her body half facing Josh and half facing the small arrangement of tables and chairs that made up the sit-down portion of 24hr Java. The woman rested an elbow against the counter and arched her back. A languid jungle cat drinking in sunlight. Josh felt his skin prickle. He could almost hear her purring, could almost imagine the man giving off a low, throaty growl. Josh’s ears filled with static. His heart thumped and sweat began to bead across his brow.
Dimly, Josh registered the sound of someone talking. It took a moment for him to realise that the man was trying to place an order. Josh startled himself out of his stupor, blinked his eyes back into focus and turned toward the man. He tried, he really tried to look the man in the eyes, but something dangerous lurked within those chestnut pools and he shied away. Josh spoke to the counter.
“S…orry. I didn’t get that?”
“No,” said the man. “You didn’t.” The man’s voice was light. Charming almost and yet, there was heat in the words. Josh felt them slowly ignite across his arms.
“I said I would like a Green tea for myself, large. Black for the Lady, also large. Don’t get fancy with it. It makes her grumpy.”
The woman shifted to stomp on the man’s foot. He side-stepped casually and gave Josh a wink. Josh stared where the man had been. His ears were doing that thing again. That thing where the world felt muffled. Where it felt like someone had pressed the mute button. Except, each sound was suddenly heard in isolation. An amplified focus surrounded by a void. Josh twitched. His heart charged down an 800m sprint. He closed his eyes and half spoke, half whispered. “Green tea. Large, black. Got it.”
He turned his back on the customers. He stared at gleaming steel.
How could two people make this much noise?
Josh shook his head. It didn’t matter. He didn’t need to understand this. He just needed to survive it. Make the drinks. Take the money. Watch them go.
Josh reached for a takeaway cup. His fingers touched smooth cardboard and a shriek raked up his spine. Josh jerked away. Cups tumbled. A slow motion arc and then thud.
Each cup landing louder than it should. Each impact a jerk of limbs. A breath hitched in Josh’s throat. He reached for another cup. A slow breath out as he made contact. The cardboard sent another tremor through him, but Josh was expecting it this time. He held. The cup did not fall.
He fumbled the teabag into the cup and then turned to the urn. Drops of scalding water scattered onto his shaking hand. Josh ignored the bites of pain, smacked a lid onto the cup and turned to the coffee. Somehow, he managed to get that cup filled too. Somehow, he managed to turn and slide them across to the man and woman.
“Cash or card?”
The man held up his credit card. Josh punched the numbers and then slid the card reader toward the man. It was only a moment, a brief second in which the man held his card to the reader, but Josh felt the proximity like a storm. Every nerve lit up. Every hair on his body peaked. And then the machine beeped, the man pocketed his card and Josh pushed himself as far from the counter as he could get. A few more seconds and Josh could sink to the floor. He could curl into himself. He could curse and cry and come out on the other side again. Exhausted, but functional.
The man and the woman chose a table and sat down.
Josh whimpered. He didn’t know how much more of this he could take. Why hadn’t they left? Why get take-away coffee if you’re not planning to take-it-away?
A low pulse throbbed in his temples. The stark white of fluorescent bulbs became arrows and his eyes targets. Josh turned his head away, but still the light burned. He clenched his eyes shut. Heart thumping. Nerves burning. Josh flung his hands to his temples. His fists found hair and dug in. Josh folded, spine curved, chest sunk to stomach. Static rushed his ears.
Customers in the shop. Don’t loose it. Snap out of it. You can do this. You can do this.
Josh couldn’t do this.
A cry broke through. A sound of abject acceptance. Josh was an antelope caught within a lion’s maw.
He sank to the floor. The mess of paper cups welcomed his broken body. A mess of a man surrounded by the mess he had made. His body heaved. Cries rose and fell in the stutter between half swallowed breathes. There was nothing but this moment. This panic. This world with too much noise and Josh with too many nerves turned on. Feeling too much, hearing too much. It wouldn’t stop. Josh couldn’t make it stop.
Fingers wrapped around Josh’s hand. They were ice against his scalding skin. Another thing to feel. Too much. Josh jerked away, but the hand held steady.
Josh did not have the strength to fight the grip, but then he stopped needing too. Someone had turned the volume down. Josh sank into the silence. His breathing eased. The tension in his head melted. Slowly, Josh eased his fingers out of his tangled hair. Nerve endings went back to sleep and somehow, Josh’s body settled into equilibrium. It was a state unlike any he had ever know. Josh inhaled and was filled with joy.
He opened his eyes. The woman knelt before him, her fingers still clasped around his hand. Josh felt her intent gaze, but it did not bother him. The man was there too, standing above them. He watched while he sipped his tea.
Josh looked at the woman.
“What… what did you do?”
“Nothing complicated,” she replied. Her gaze remained fixed on his eyes. She stared at him like he was a curiosity. Like some puzzle that needed solving.
“What’s a boy like you, doing in a place like this?”
Josh looked from the lady to the man and then back again. Her voice had the same curious inflection as her eyes, but that particular line was, well… “Is this… some kind of creepy… pickup? Are you…”
The man chuckled. “Jana is a straight to the point kind of lady. If she wanted to proposition you, you would know.”
Jana, the woman, did not acknowledge the question or the answer that followed. She continued her inspection, fingers never leaving Josh’s hand. What would happen if she let go? What was doing? How was she doing it?
“Then what is this?” Josh’s gaze flitted between them. Two strangers who had been too loud. Much too loud for just two people and then with a touch, they had taken it all away again. Who were they? What were they? The man waited. He sipped his tea. The woman inspected. It was as if they were waiting for Josh to share a secret, only no one had let him in on it.
Jana tilted her head.
“Would you look at that,” she said. “He doesn’t know what he is.”
Nyah jostled against the other women. Bodies in various stage of undress pressed in on all sides. The locker room was silent of talk. Women shed the green overalls of their employ and replaced them with the dull tones of Labour Caste. Their bodies unfolded, easing out of work and closer to home.
Nyah was balancing on one foot, the other brought up as she fiddled with her boot laces. She wriggled in place and fought with the stubborn double knot. Her fingers dug into the coarse thread, seeking better purchase, but her knuckles brushed against something hard.
A woman, Gen, gave Nyah a questioning look.
“Just a stone in my shoe,” Nyah whispered quickly, before returning to the problem.
How had a stone gotten lodged in there?
Nyah stuck her fingers between the laces. She wriggled the stone and pulled. The course skin of the stone grabbed at the lace, but just a little bit of pressure and it pulled through. Nyah brought the stone to eye level and then hastily closed her fist. It wasn’t a stone.
Nyah dropped into a low crouch and ever so carefully, she opened her hand again.
It wasn’t a stone.
Nyah clenched her fist shut. A stream of silent curses rushed through her. How had that gotten into her shoe? How had it gotten past security?
Nyah turned toward the Greenhouse entry. She couldn’t see the door or the guards, her world was a city of shifting legs, but she knew they were there. She pressed her fingers deep into her palm and felt the little bean imprinting on her flesh. She should return it.
Nyah knew what would happen. The guards would overreact. She would no doubt be taken in for questioning; detainment. What were the chances of her innocence being believed? And the other women? They’d all be detained too. For several hours at least. The guards would rerun their security checks. Personal belongings would be pawed through with aggressive disrespect. Questions would be barked into faces, the guards intent on exposing accomplices.
Nyah looked at the other women. They weren’t friends, not exactly. The Greenhouse was not the kind of place that fostered close connection, but they were her colleagues and she understood what they endured. She understood what the end of shift meant. Home. Family. A reason for the sacrifice. If she were to turn the bean in, if she were to enrage the guards… it would be as if Nyah had taken them all hostage.
She couldn’t, she wouldn’t do that to them.
The bean dug into her palm. Are you sure you want to do this?
Nyah bent her head low. She struggled with the stubborn boot lace and finally got the knot free. She kicked the boot off. It was followed shortly by the second. Nyah took a deep breath and rose, the bean still clenched in her hand. She unzipped the overall and shrugged her arms free. She pressed her hands into the fabric and pushed it down to her hips. Nyah paused, just a fraction of a second, and carefully slid the bean into the band of her underwear. She hurriedly removed the rest of her work wear and scrambled into her Caste regulation clothing. Most of the women were filing out now, the night air swirling through the open door and into the empty spaces left behind. Nyah was acutely aware of the guards’ eyes on her. The lone straggler keeping them from their evening meal.
Everything is fine. Everything is fine.
Nyah had already been through security. The guards had no reason to search her again.
They never need a reason.
Everything is fine.
Nyah plunged her feet into her boots, grabbed her pouch and hurried out of the door. She reached the Transport just as it was about to leave. Nyah rushed through the closing doors and grabbed for the nearest handhold. Sweat beaded her forehead as the Transport began the slow glide home.
“Mama, what is that?”
It was Sunday. Nyah’s one day off and five days since she had become an unintentional smuggler. No one had come looking for her. No midnight raids. She and her family were safe. As safe as any of their neighbours.
The bean lay on the table, gently nestled in a wad of cotton wool. Nyah had a glass of water in one hand and was using it as a rather crude magnifying glass. The bean looked much like the beans she handled at the Greenhouse. Old, fragile and unlikely to sprout. This one would have been sorted for consumption. In any given week, only a small handful would be selected for growing and of those, very few survived to fruit.
Nyah settled back and wrapped an arm around her daughters small shoulders. The little body leaned into the space and pressed against her mother’s side. Nyah held the snuggle for a moment. Her husband, Marek, sat at the opposite end of the four seater. She caught his eye. He shrugged. It was up to her to decide what to tell their four year old.
“It’s a bean,” Nyah finally answered.
“What kind of bean?”
“The kind that might grow into a tree if we plant it.”
“Can we plant it? Please Mama, please. I’ll help!”
Nyah looked at the bean again, such an innocent thing. Such a complicated thing.
“Will it grow?”
Nyah looked up at her husband. “Unlikely,” she responded.
“But can we try, Mama, please? I want to try!”
Marek shrugged again. “Plant it. No real harm in burying it, is there?”
Marek was right. They would just be burying it. The bean wouldn’t sprout. It was too old, too wizened. What harm was there in doing this little activity with her daughter. It couldn’t grow. The Greenhouse Science Caste, with all their learning and equipment, were barely able to grow the trees. A bean sorter and her four year old couldn’t do better than Science Caste.
“Yes, let’s plant it,” Nyah said.
“Mama mama look! It grew it grew!”
Nyah smiled, a strained and crooked thing. The stalk was young and yet seemed brown with age. It was bent in on itself as if its own leaves were too much of a weight to bare. The leaves brushed against the soil, wrinkled and small.
“Yes Tae, I see it.”
“Can I water it Mama?”
Nyah took her daughter’s hand. “Come, I’ll help you with the tap.”
Later that night, Marek found Nyah sitting in front of the plant, her knees hugged tightly to her chest. He sat beside her, shoulders touching and looked at the scraggly thing.
“It wasn’t supposed to sprout,” Nyah whispered.
Marek took her hand. He laced his fingers into hers. “What do you want to do?”
Nyah pressed her fingers into Marek’s. “We should… end it.”
“Are you going to?”
Nyah turned to her husband, tears forming in the corners of her eyes. “Am I selfish if I say no? If it grows… if it survives… I’m putting us all at risk… but… do you know that that’s the first bean that’s sprouted in the last three years? We’ve just done what three years of Science Caste couldn’t. All because I let a four year old stick a bean into a pile of dirt. All because I’ve let a four year old look after it.
How can I kill that?”
Marek wrapped his arms around Nyah and pulled him into his chest. “It’s not selfish to let something grow. And if it does grow and if it does fruit, we will figure it out then. Right now, it’s just a sprout and most sprouts don’t make it, right?”
Nyah nodded. “ Most of them don’t make it.”
But it wasn’t supposed to sprout.
“It’s growing well.”
Nyah felt the hands snake around her waist and leaned into Marek’s bulk. The tree, and it was most certainly a tree now, looked happy. The weak stalk had grown into a thick rope, crookedly bent where growth had been a struggle, but strong now and healthy. The leaves were a thick, bright green. A few rust spots dotted their surface, a small reminder of the tree’s frail beginnings. Tael loved her tree. She sang to it and she watered it and she gave it a new name every other day. Tael could not be happier. Nyah could not be more filled with dread.
She hugged Marek’s arms tightly.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
“Hey… hey, no. Don’t be sorry. This is amazing. You are amazing.”
“If they find out…”
Marek rested his chin on Nyah’s shoulder. His breath easy and warm against her skin.
“I’ve been talking to some friends with connections to the Resistance.”
Marek uncoiled an arm from around Nyah’s waist and reached out to the tree. Nyah stood silently in his embrace and watched as his finger delicately traced the edges of a leaf.
“We always talk about having a better future for Tael, maybe, with this, we can do something.”
Nyah shifted her weight. “It’s just one tree.”
“It’s a start.”
Three men and one woman stood on one side of the tiny living area. Nyah and her husband stood on the other. To Nyah, they looked worn, dirty. She wondered what she looked like to them? An obedient Labour Caste woman, in her Labour Caste clothes and her Labour Caste house. Their expressions seemed bored and unimpressed. How many families asked the Resistance for help and got none? Their resources were limited, their space to house fugitives dwindling. The resistance simply did not help you if you could not help them. Nyah took a deep breath.
The tree was in fruit, the pods hanging heavy and proud. Sooner or later, Security would run a Street check and sooner or later, she would be found out. Nyah needed the Resistance’s help.
“Right,” the woman spoke, voice laced with fatigue. “What do you have that you think we need?”
Nyah grasped the hand Marek offered. “Before I tell you, I have some conditions.”
“Lady, you are in no position to be listing conditions.”
“Just listen. Please.”
The woman folded her arms over her chest. Her fingers tapped a rhythm against her arm. “I don’t have all night. Just get on with it.”
Nyah nodded. ”It belongs to my daughter. I need your assurance that it still stays within her care. You can have access, but it is hers.”
“And what is it?”
“Do I have your word?”
The woman clenched her teeth, clearly holding back a string of impolite words. “If it will hurry this up, yes, you have my assurance. Now, what. Is. It?”
Nyah swallowed. She stepped aside to reveal her bargaining chip.
“It’s a Cacao tree.”
The cloud was thick and acrid. It coursed into the kitchen intent on assault. Jessica stumbled back. An oven mitt (rust brown with bruises from past battles) fell to the floor. Jessica swore and then she hacked, her words getting caught on the soot and the quickly thinning air. She cleared her throat as best she could and then she threw herself back into the haze. One hand trailed the ground. She found the mitten by feel alone. Her eyes beat furiously. A steady stream of tears coursed down her cheeks. She pushed forward.
Jessica pulled the oven door fully open and thrust her mitten covered hand inside. Her fingers curled, gripped and yanked. She snapped up, clunked her latest victim onto the stove top and made a run for the patio doors.
Jessica dragged in air. It felt like a drug. Behind her, a thinning cloud of smoke wafted toward the doors and to freedom. She looked back at the kitchen and shook her head.
“Oh Jessie girl, you really need to stop doing this.”
It had become a habit of hers to turn to baking when an art block came on. Following a recipe allowed her to create without also having to deal with the tricky business of creative thinking. And giving herself that space, that time to keep her hands busy while her mind wandered, it worked. Exactly one baking session later and Jessica was ready to face the clay once more.
It had also become a habit of hers to get lost in the work while her saviour slowly turned to char.
Today’s hero-turned-burn-victim should have been a sticky date pudding. Now it was just an imagined memory on the tongue.
Jessica shrugged. It’s not like she actually wanted all of those calories.