Graveyard Shift

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.

Thud.

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.

“No… Stop…”

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.”

Advertisements

Contraband

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.

“Ow!”

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.

Oh.

No.

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.

She should.

But…

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.

Breathe.

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.”

Deadly

Haimler cut. Threads of pink descended silently from the scissors blade. They came to a gentle rest atop the polished work surface and Haimler lost himself in their simplicity. Small strings twined together, a basic material for a most intricate task.

Haimler looked up from the offcuts to examine his work. The embroidery was an uncomplicated design of spiraled roses, leaves and branches. Work that should have been left to one of his assistants, but Haimler needed the peace that the familiar task afforded him. His fingers knew the paths to take and it left his mind free to wonder.

Haimler stared at his work a moment longer before chuckling to himself. He had made the thorns far more pronounced, almost a dangerous warning, than he had intended. It seemed that his thoughts had led his fingers astray after all.

Haimler looked toward the door, his thoughts again betraying his motion. Lady Raegalynn would have returned from the Young Nobles Club by now. An event that Raegalynn despised, but her mother considered non-negotiable. The Ladies of the house were most likely arguing somewhere deep within the residence. It would not be long before both women crashed into Haimler’s office, the older of the two demanding an explanation.

Haimler put his work down and began to clean. The task did nothing to ease his growing apprehension.

 

The door swung open. Haimler jerked as it crashed against the opposite wall. Coloured offcuts fluttered out of his startled hands. The Lady Nisha stormed in, Raegalynn dragged in behind her. The mother had a fierce grip on her daughter’s wrist. Neither looked pleased.

 

“What is the meaning of this?!”

 

Haimler straightened, folded his hands behind his back and assessed the women. Lady Nisha was scowling. One hand swept the length of Raega’s dress, gesturing to the this of which she spoke.

And Lady Raegalynn… she was a vision! Dark red fabric hugged her body. It cut in tight at the waist and hips only to flare out, just slightly, as it cascaded down her legs. The skirt was made of alternating shades of ruby to wine to not quite black. Each swath of fabric ending in a jagged point. The neckline coasted the breastbone, a smaller echo of the jagged points below.

Over her shoulder was one delicate strap. She had chosen her jewellery well too. Beautiful, understated pieces that complimented the dress rather than competed with it… and her hair. Raega’s maids had done well. They had given her raven hair a new cut, daringly short on one side of her face and cascading layers against the other. Another echo to the sharpness in the dress.

“Well?” Lady Nisha demanded again.

Haimler kept his voice steady. “Lady Raegalynn needed a dress. I made her one.”

“This?!”

Lady Nisha gestured wildly. “This is not what I requested! This is not… respectable!”

Haimler shifted his weight. Respectable? No, the dress would not be considered respectable, not by Nortier standards, but that was not what he or Lady Raegalynn had been trying to achieve.

Deadly.

Lady Raegalynn had requested that Haimler make her look deadly and he had done it. Lady Raegalynn was a weapon. Haimler imagined how she must have looked at the Youth Club; a glistening dagger amongst a field of poof and lace. Magnificent, the kind of dress he had had dreamed of crafting.

It was too tight to the body, too lacking in the skirt. Within its embrace, Raegalynn boiled with a dangerous intensity.

The dress was not respectable.

 

Haimler returned his gaze to Lady Nisha. “It is what the Lady Raegalynn requested.”

 

Lady Nisha’s nostrils flared. She let go of Ragae’s wrist, her hand coming up to gesticulate fiercely. Haimler noted the red imprint of fingers on Raega’s arm.

“Her request? HER REQUEST? You know what is expected of the Ladies of Nortier. How could you allow her to leave the residence in such a state?! Raegalynn is a child! I expected more responsibility from you. How dare you entertain such foolishness!”

Haimler swallowed hard and readied himself to defend Raegalynn, but he did not have to. The young lady had stepped out from behind her mother. She spoke in deep, even tones, a bitter edge to every word.

“I am not a child.”

Lady Nisha turned, ever so slowly. “Excuse me?”

“I am Eighteen. Unless my lessons in Nortier Law have been an utter waste, I believe that that is the age of Majority, is it not?”

Lady Nisha rose above her daughter. “I am your mother! It is my responsibility to ensure you are presentable to society. These reckless acts tarnish my name. Tarnish our House. Your behaviour insults me. The other nobles will see me and see a fool. Is that what you want? Your mother to be a fool?”

Raega closed her eyes and clenched her fists. “This is not about you, mother…”

Raega did not get a chance to finish. A page stepped into the room. He coughed awkwardly. “Sorry to interrupt. Ah… an important message.”

Lady Nisha swung all of her anger toward him. “Well?!”

“Lady Raegalynn’s presence is requested at the castle. Tomorrow. For tea.”

Lady Nisha’s eyes became large. “Why? Does it say why?”

She did not wait for the page to answer. She grabbed the invitation from his hands. Her eyes darted across the square of parchment. First hurried and then slower. Finally, Lady Nisha looked up. She swallowed hard. Haimler cocked his head curiously as the Lady Nisha became suddenly unable to make eye contact.

“Well,” she said. “Well… It seems the princess would like to invite Lady Raegalynn and her Master of Wardrobe. To… discuss contemporary fashion.”

Lady Nisha rolled her shoulders. She handed the invite back to the page. “We accept the invitation. Now go.”

The page hurried out of the room. Lady Nisha followed. She paused in the doorway to gather herself and then gave both Lady Raegalynn and Haimler a piercing look.

“This discussion isn’t over.”

Mushroom Clouds

The hive was beautiful. A drop of sunlight twisting in lazy loops. It all but glowed with promise and Harry licked his lips in anticipation. He squinted up at the hive and his brain began to whorl. The hive was a good six meters from the ground, but that was hardly the problem. The real problem, the thing that gave Harry pause, was the Gigantus Fungalus.

Gigantus Fungalus were a rare species of giant mushroom and this hive, this beautiful font of sweet treasure, was nestled deeply within the black fronds of one such mushroom. Harry stroked his stubbled chin. Even within the Neglar Marshes, a veritable paradise for fungi, the Fungaluswere rare and Harry’s prime directive was to keep them safe.
Well, his actual job was harvesting honey, but it was his personal belief that one could do so without unnecessarily hurting the environment. The whole thing with the bees was unfortunate, but Harry had heard some interesting stories of keeping bees in boxes, almost like livestock and he was eager to try it out for himself. If all went to plan he would be able to secure the queen from this hive and…

“So can I cut it down yet?”

Barnaby.

Barnaby was… well, Barnaby carried enough size and weight to make up at least three extra people. His ego was of a complimentary size. Harry scowled at his partner. Of all the muscle in the village, why had he been paired with such an unconscionable jerk?

“No. You can’t cut it down. Ever. We have to preserve the ecosystem. Now shhh. I’m thinking.”

Harry circled the giant toadstool. It’s trunk was a musky off white, the cap a dull brown. The black fronds fluttered in the wind playing a taunting game of peek-a-boo with the hive. Harry pressed his hands against the trunk. It swayed slightly at his touch. They would never be able to climb it, but Harry already knew that. The giant mushrooms could not support the weight of a man. Yet, some of the other species could.
Harry squinted at the surrounding flora. He spied the telltale yellow of Agricarum Agricarum and hurried toward the outcropping. As was particular to this species, they grew in a kind of radiating spiral, each mushroom an offshoot from the one before it, creating a step-like effect. The tallest barely came to a third of the Gigantus Fungalus, but Agricarum were notorious for their springy quality. Harry clambered up onto the smallest one.

“Oh come on! Just let me hack at it!”

Harry ignored his partner and began a gentle bounce. If he could use the Agricarum as a spring board, perhaps he could launch himself high enough to grab the hive.

“You look like an idiot.”

Harry bounced a little higher. He smiled at how quickly he was gaining height and then he was falling. His feet sunk into yellow cap. Puffs of black spore shot out from under the Agricarum. Harry didn’t get a chance to react. Momentum pushed him into the air once more. When his feet found yellow again, the spore cloud erupted. Harry floundered inside the dark cloud, choking to find breath. Struggling to orient himself. He misjudged his footing, hit the cap side on and crashed roughly to the marsh floor.

Harry crawled into clean airspace and heaved. Barnaby stood a little off to the side, shielding his face with a bandanna. His voice was muffled, but Harry didn’t have any trouble deciphering the words.

“Genius plan, Mastermind.

Harry stood up, still hacking spore from his lungs. “Eh… I forgot… that… about Agricarum.”

Barnaby rolled his eyes at Harry and then he unhooked the Machete from his belt. “Right, my turn.”

“No wait!”

Barnaby paused and for a moment Harry thought that his partner had listened, but then he saw the play of rainbow light against the ground and heard the telltale hum of Anisop Pterras. Harry turned to face the large insectoid. It was hurtling straight toward them. Harry felt his chest tighten. The Pterras was as beautiful as it was deadly. All iridescent wings and gnashing mandibles. Man against beast. It shouldn’t have to be that way…

And it didn’t.

“Wait! Stop! Bandannas up. You don’t have to kill it!”

Harry didn’t wait to see if Barnaby had obeyed. He sprinted toward the yellow mushrooms, hoisting his bandanna over his mouth and nose as he went. He clambered up onto an Agricarumand he began to jump. His feet pounded into yellow and he rose into the air. Clouds of mushroom spore following him up. Black filled the air and soon Harry could not see a thing, but neither could the Pterras.

Lungs burning and body drenched in sweat, Harry finally stopped. He waited for the clouds to clear and then he made his descent. He smiled to himself. The spore clouds had been a great idea for the Pterras, but what of the hive?

Harry found Barnaby black with spore. Only his eyes shone out and they were red with anger.

“Are you done?”

“A thank-you for saving me from the Pterras would be nice.”

Barnaby gave Harry a cold stare. “I don’t need any saving.”

It was then that Harry noticed the machete still in Barnaby’s hands. Barnaby swung the blade with practiced ease.

“NO!”

The Machete sang through the air. There was a dull squelch and suck as it cut deep and severed flesh.

It felt like an eternity as the Gigantus Fungalus crashed to the floor.

Barnaby hoisted the machete over his shoulder and began walking toward the cap, toward the destruction and the prize. Harry followed after him, whimpering along the entire length of the trunk.

Beneath the fronds lay the few shattered remains of what had once been a hive. The honey had made a tasty meal for an undisturbed  Anisop Pterras.

“Why,” Barnaby muttered, “Out of all the brains in the village, did I have to get the dumbest one?”

The Dress

The dress was torture. Lace dug into flesh. Satin coiled, a slow compression from waist to throat. Below, swaths of pallid pink crested atop roiling waves. Raega was drowning. She tried to remain steady, eyes fixed on the mirrored wall before her, but she was drowning and today she could not hide it.
Atop the fitting box she stood, hands fisted by her sides. She’d force her fingers into a more natural pose, but each time they would slowly curl back and betray her anger. Her eyes weren’t any help either: large and red rimmed within a face tensed from holding back rage. Two tailor’s assistants working below her didn’t care to notice, but Haimler did. He was a man nearing sixty, but still in the prime of health. A strong presence in this room full of fluff. Raega watched his reflection as he watched her. She waited for her Master of Wardrobe to speak.
“Is the dress not to your satisfaction, Lady?”
“No, Haimler. It is not.”
The assistants paused in their work. Raega felt the air thicken. It was as if someone had placed a wad of cotton over the room, muting all of her senses. Raega wanted to scream. She wanted to claw at the lace on her neck and gasp for air. Instead, she maintained her stiff posture. She studied the emotion unraveling across her face. Haimler stepped forward. She could not bring herself to meet his gaze.
“This was your mother’s top choice, but I do have other samples for you to consider.”
Haimler clicked his fingers, and the assistants all but sprinted from the room. Raega fought the urge to scramble after them. She kept her eyes fixed to the mirror and the bloated pile of fluff she had been transformed into. She knew this had been her mother’s choice. Her mother’s choices were as suffocating as the dress Raega now wore. Raega didn’t want to go to The Club, and she didn’t want to liaise with the other young nobles. Yet, she had been going, if only to please her mother and to keep the peace. She was willing to sacrifice one evening each month to uncomfortable dresses and even less comfortable company, but she was not willing to sacrifice herself.
“You need to be more approachable.”
“Excuse me?”
“The young men find you difficult to talk to. You glare too much. Smile. Be more… feminine.”
Haimler cleared his throat, startling Raega out of her remembered conversation. He motioned toward a rack of dresses and held out his hand to help her from the fitting box. She lifted her skirts and stepped down, but before she could make her way toward the rack, Hailmer leaned in close.
“Lady Raegalynn, in my personal opinion, it would not be a bad thing for you to take a more decisive role in your choice of clothing. I am, after all, your Master of Wardrobe.”
And then he stepped back, leaving Raega to wonder if his words had been true, or only imagined.
The dresses Raega’s mother insisted she wear, the dresses all the noble ladies wore, existed in the realm of washed-out pinks and blues, sickly things that had been drained of their life. The dresses on this rack were different, the fabrics dipped into a much darker colour range. One of the dresses was a deep plum; another, a soft forest green. The necklines varied in their placement, and not all of them were as heavy in the skirt. Raega trailed her fingers down the sleeve of the deep plum gown. She followed the bumps and grooves as the floral design swirled down the arm. These dresses would no doubt cause a stir at The Club, but they still existed within that realm of fluff and lace. It still felt like they had been designed to smooth over the sharp edges. They would still render the wearer soft and approachable.
Haimler stepped forward, “Are these dresses more to your liking, Lady?”
Raega trailed her fingers down the curve of one of the lower necklines. “They’re very pretty Haimler.”
“But?”
“But I don’t want to look pretty.”
“And how is it, that you would like to look?”
Raega turned to her Master of Wardrobe. A smile twitched across her lips.
“Deadly.”

Buhle

Buhle dipped her oar into the Lagoon. Ripples spread out across the surface, distorting the once prosperous city that lay beneath the water. It had been called Cape Town, but that was before the ocean invaded the land, before the world went mad and before humankind changed. Now it was simply the Lagoon: a place where life flourished above the water and memories twisted in the currents far below. It was those memories Buhle sought. It was those memories that all Salvagers sought. At least, it was that curiosity and desire for something more that first drove them to join the salvaging crews. But time and failure weathered the spirit. Many gave up. They returned to their homes, ready to forget, to become respectable members of society once more. Others simply salvaged for the raw materials their people could use and forgot the dream. They stopped believing that technology could be recovered. It had drowned along with their ancestors.

Water swirled and pressed against the wood of Buhle’s oar. She pulled back, feeling the pressure of the oar’s passage. She felt it through her skin, muscle, bone. She felt it pressing against her spirit, that pushing, suffocating sense that the water had nothing to give. The water could not answer her dreams. It was a terrifying feeling, but the more time she spent below the surface, the more time she spent staring at the strange lines of circuitry, unable to decipher their secrets, unable to bring them back to life, the more it felt like truth. The Lagoon could not answer her dreams.

But it had not crushed them.

Buhle’s gaze drifted toward the distant foothills and the flat-top mountain that rose from them. Even from this distance, she could see the pristine white walls stretching across the summit. The people that lived atop the mountain -the Table- had secrets. At night the mountain glowed with yellow dots, like stars dropped from the sky. The lights did not flicker or dance. They remained chained in place, perfectly still and obedient. The lights on the Table did not burn like fire.
The Table did not share its secrets. Because secrets were power.

To leave the Lagoon, to step onto dry land and enter those foothills meant slavery. It meant torture. Death. Children were taught from a young age never to leave the water, but The Table had secrets, and as far as Buhle could see, the Lagoon had only ghosts.

A soft croak pulled Buhle from her thoughts. She gently rested her cheek against the toad perched on her shoulder and smiled faintly.

“Ah Buddy. You’re right of course, one battle at a time.”

They sat like that for a moment, the toad croaking a soft, almost purring melody and Buhle breathing in the contact like it was a drug. Then her village came into view, and the spell broke.

Thick concrete squares pushed up and out of The Lagoon. They were the last surviving remnants of Cape Town: the top-most stories of high-rise buildings standing defiant against the water. Coloured cloth fluttered on balconies, and everywhere was the activity of people. Men and women gutting fish, children running about and playing in the water. Still others pushing off in canoes to go hunt or fish. Floating walkways had been constructed between the buildings, and the rooftops served as common areas for people to gather. The high-rises made for easy homes -many villages such as this one existed across the Lagoon. Buhle took in a deep breath as she steered toward the docks. This visit was a farewell. She couldn’t tell her family that, wouldn’t tell them her plans, but she couldn’t bear the thought of leaving without one last chance to be with them. One more day of laughter with her brothers, one last chance to be wrapped tight within Goggo’s warm embrace…

But they would have to forgive Buhle first.

“Molo Buhle!”

Buhle looked up and smiled, the tension easing slightly as she marveled at the ridiculous enthusiasm Wezi could muster for waving. Nathi did not show the same outward excitement, but he was smiling broadly.

“Molweni, my brothers!”

Wezi leaned over to grab the canoe, mooring rope already in hand. He spoke as he worked, every action a vibrant release of energy, “Goggo will be so happy to see you! She has been asking, -and when will that little one that makes all the trouble be coming again?- Goggo makes like life is boring with just me and Nathi at home.”

Wezi’s words should have felt soft, a laughter in the breeze, but they burrowed into Buhle’s chest and held fast. She stood up, her muscles feeling as if they had been replaced with solid stone, and heaved herself onto the jetty. Wezi bounded forward, arms wide to hug his little sister, but then he paused. He stared at the toad on Buhle’s shoulder.

“You have been making trouble.”

Buhle curled into herself. Her eyes stung with the promise of tears.

“Yeah… but… I can still get a hug, can’t I?”

Buhle choked on the silence that followed. Out of all of them, she had told herself, at least Wezi would understand. Now she stood before him, broken and exposed, as he contemplated her with a deep intensity he rarely allowed people to see. Buhle turned back toward her canoe.

“If you… If you think I should go…”

“Oh no… no, Boo, of course you can still get a hug. Hey, it’s okay. You’re still my little sister.”

Wezi wrapped his arms around Buhle and pulled her in tight, switching effortlessly from manic playmate to protective big brother. Buhle nestled into his warmth and allowed a few tears to escape. The hug was over too soon, but when Buhle pulled back, she saw Nathi was already on his way to the apartment. A whimper escaped her.

Wezi wrapped an arm around Buhle’s shoulder.

“It will be better if Goggo has a few moments to prepare. This won’t be easy for her.”

“I know.”

And Buhle did know, but it still stung. Nathi didn’t wait to say hello. He didn’t even give her a chance, he just… left.

“C’mon, let me take your bag.”

Buhle handed her belongings to Wezi and started walking. Her muscles were twitching. This was hard. This was so much harder than she had ever imagined it to be.

“Hey,” Wezi said gently. “It’s going to be alright, you’ll see. Goggo will find a way to blame me and Nathi. You know how it is.”

Wezi’s voice suddenly erupted into a terrible imitation of Goggo. “You call yourself big brothers? Hai! You let my granddaughter run off with a Salvaging Crew! My granddaughter! Of course something like this would happen! You are a disgrace as brothers! Disgrace!”

Buhle couldn’t help but let a smile cross her lips, “You let me run away, huh?”

“Of course. You couldn’t possibly do anything without first obtaining our brotherly approval.”

“And do you approve?”

There were several beats of silence. Then Wezi said, “I understand.”

Buhle grabbed onto those words, simple yet layered with so much meaning, and held tight. No matter what happened, Wezi would always be waiting on the other side of it. Wezi would be her beacon in the darkness.

“Buhle…”

Buhle blinked and found herself barely an arm’s length from Goggo. She wanted to throw her arms around the old woman. She wanted to confess and cry and have all her sins washed away in soothing lullabies, but that look on Goggo’s face…

“Goggo?”

Goggo stretched her hand out toward Buhle, but jerked it back with a cry. She brought both hands up to her chest, fisting them in her clothing. Tears gathered in her eyes, and her voice broke on a single word,

“Why?”

Buhle looked at her grandmother. There was no pride shining in her eyes, no warmth, no love. Only the hurt and the shock and confusion that Buhle had caused. Buhle didn’t know how to process it. Goggo, her Goggo, in so much pain because of her.

“I… it.. it was an accident. I didn’t mean for…”

Buhle hadn’t meant to lie, but the look in Goggo’s eyes broke her, and the words tumbled out. There was always talk of spontaneous bondings. No one could actually confirm the phenomenon existed, but the first familiar pairs could not have been deliberate, and so the theory remained valid. Her lie was plausible.

“How?”

Buhle took a deep breath. It had taken months of careful study and planning. She had spent hours talking to the Bonded, finding out the strengths and weaknesses of their familiars. She had been exhaustive in her quest to know how the bond was formed and all the nuances that came with being Bonded. And then she had made her decision and gone out to find her toad. What she hadn’t spent enough time considering was the impact it would have on Goggo. Truth be told, no amount of time spent considering her family would have changed her mind. Even now, standing in the midst of the pain, she knew she would not hesitate to make the same decision. And so Buhle told them a story as close to the truth as she could allow.

“I was salvaging near the marshes. My mind was elsewhere. I wasn’t concentrating on what my hands were doing… I… I touched a toad and it just… it felt warm. I fell into the warmth… I didn’t think to pull back. I hadn’t realised… and then… ”

“No!”

Goggo was shaking.

“No! I can’t do this. I can’t… Buhle? Buhle! No!”

Goggo turned away from Buhle and stormed into the apartment block. Nathi ran after her. Buhle stumbled back. She stared at the door. Just a few weeks back, that door had offered her sanctuary and a place to belong. Now they were barriers keeping her out. Now she was the one her family needed sanctuary from.

“I’m going to go sit on the roof,” she told Wezi. “Go to Goggo. She needs you.”

“Are you sure, Buhle? I can stay with you.”

“I’ll be fine.”

Wezi nodded once. “I’ll come find you once she’s calmed down.” And then he disappeared behind that now impenetrable barrier.

#

It was Nathi who found Buhle perched on the edge of the roof. The sun was setting across the Lagoon, and the chorus of night bugs just beginning. He took a seat beside Buhle. The two of them sat there, legs dangling off the side, watching the world turn orange. When he finally spoke, his words misted over with emotion.

“Mom used to have a toad. It was a leopard like yours. She called him Spudge.”

“Mom… mom’s familiar was a leopard toad?”

Nathi nodded.

“Ah Boo, the picture you painted today. You look so much like her and then… and then you have this toad on your shoulder…”

“No wonder Goggo freaked out as much as she did…”

“Yeah.”

Buhle wiped away a tear. She had been young when their parents had died-barely walking. Goggo had spun fairy tales of their lives, but she had avoided talking about their deaths. Familiars were to blame, that was all Buhle was told.

“How did they die?”

Nathi shuddered. “It was a lake gull. It came out of nowhere and snatched Spudge. Dad had a gull as his familiar, and he sent it after the one that had got Spudge, but something went wrong. They flew into this huge flock, and soon all the gulls where snatching for Spudge. Dad’s gull didn’t stand a chance, but he tried to fight them all. Mom was screaming on the floor and then dad was crashing down beside her and… well… Uncle Themb, he -he always said that was no normal gull, that someone sent a familiar to snatch Spudge… but…”

“Why would someone want mom dead?”

“Yeah.”

Their deaths had been brutal. No wonder Goggo didn’t want to talk about it. Buhle had come home with a toad and dredged up all of those memories. A toad, just like her mother’s. Goggo had looked at Buhle and seen the ghost of her deceased daughter. Maybe if they had told Buhle… maybe if they had been more open…

No. Buhle would still have chosen to take a familiar. Her parents’ story was not the first she had heard. It was not new information. It happened, it was a risk, but it was rare. And that was the thing about being bonded. It was a two way street. The creature to whom you bonded gave you powers, but in return you gave it your life. You were forever tied and, anything that happened to your familiar happened to you too.

“I’m sorry,” Buhle whispered.

Nathi shook his head. “I always thought that one day you would come home like this. Deep down, I think Goggo has always known too. You’re restless. Always searching for something more. It was always going to happen.”

“Will she forgive me?”

“I don’t know. But she will feed you. Are you ready to go down?”

Buhle nodded. She would eat, and she would sleep, and maybe she would catch a glimpse of light in Goggo’s eyes.

#

The oar felt heavy in the water now. Buhle let it drag as tears fell freely down her cheeks. The village was behind her, nothing more than a few smudged blocks on the horizon. Before her, a cluster of canoes waited. Buhle felt broken. Broken and stupid and entirely unprepared. One last day to spend with her family, she had thought, one last day to recharge, and then she would be ready. But the day had left her broken. Dinner had been suffocating. Every time Buhle had tried to explain herself or talk about familiars, Goggo would look toward her. Goggo’s eyes would bore into her and tear little pieces of her heart until it felt like only ribbons remained. You hurt me, those eyes said. You knew that this would hurt me, and yet you did it.

Buhle had not been able to sleep. In the morning, she had chosen to pack her canoe and be on her way, forgoing her original plan to stay for lunch. Wezi and Nathi had hugged her fiercely, making sure she promised to stay longer next time. Goggo had watched it all and finally, when it was all done, she had approached her granddaughter. Buhle had stepped forward, she had tried to embrace Goggo, but Goggo had stepped back, her head shaking.

“I will always love you Buhle, but I need time. Your choice brings out my darkest memories, and you lied when I asked you why. I’m sorry, Buhle. I need time.”

The words sunk into Buhle. She was leaving the water, but her ghosts would be coming too.