Mushengo

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.

“BUBBLES!”

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.

“Expelled?”

“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.

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The Gypsy Dream

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.
“It’s flawed.”

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.

“Hello, beautiful.”

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.

Plastic.

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?”

Beasties

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.

Taggart growled.

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.

Too small.

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.”

Madame Gresham’s Finishing School for Ambitious Young Ladies

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.”

“Oh?”

“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.

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.”

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.”

Burn Victim

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.

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.”

Break

Chantal pushed up from the padded gym floor and sucked deeply against her mouth guard. She ran her tongue against the front of it. The plastic device was smooth, but bulky. It pushed on her upper lip and forced it into a pout. No you can’t pout with your top lip. This was an overbite. Chantal sucked at it again, swallowing the excess saliva it was so great at provoking.

I am never going to get used to wearing this thing… any of this stuff.

Chantal tilted her head back and rolled, shoulder to shoulder. The helmet wasn’t heavy, but the extra weight was enough that she could feel the shift in balance. The thick foam pads squashed her cheeks and turned her into a puffed up, sweaty mess. Chantal shook out her gloved hands and thickly padded shins and feet, took a deep breath, and steadied herself. She raised her gloves to head height, one slightly in front of the other, and looked toward her opponent. He was watching her, hands always at the ready, his stance steady. Getting used to the gear was hardly her biggest worry.

Chantal gave a short nod. Her muscles tensed.

Devon moved in. He closed the gap and struck, one fiery punch after the next. Chantal barely managed to block the first few, but she quickly recovered and was soon moving in a familiar rhythm, blocking and ducking and shifting away from danger. And that was a problem. As long as Chantal didn’t counter, didn’t land any blows of her own, Devon had the advantage. All he had to do was keep coming, keep moving with her, and eventually her guard would falter, eventually he would find ribs or stomach or one of a thousand other soft spots the body housed. And when he did, Chantal would find the floor. Again.

It happened quickly this time. Chantal misstepped, putting herself off balance. Devon saw it the moment it happened. He swept low, aiming his kick at Chantal’s faltering foot. Her leg buckled, and there was nothing she could do but tuck into the fall and brace for impact. Chantal’s forearm hit the ground first, swiftly followed by the rest of her. The contact reverberated through her bones.

“Bleh!”

Chantal rolled over onto her back and stared at the ceiling. Devon stood in the blurry periphery of her view. A giant from where she lay. A testosterone filled, muscly giant who had no issues with hitting anybody. It wasn’t fair. Why couldn’t she hit anybody? Why couldn’t she hit him?

“Do you need a break?”

Chantal shook her head. No. She didn’t need a break. She needed to break. That was the whole damn point of this exercise. They had tried the gentle approach. They had tried to ease into it, but that hadn’t worked. Chantal had learned the techniques: how to move, how to block, how to punch. But she still couldn’t hit people. Every time it came to actually striking another living, breathing human being, Chantal faltered. She seized up and held back. That’s why they were doing this. If Devon pushed her, she would push back. That was theory.

In practice, it wasn’t working.

Chantal let her frustration out in a low growl. She should want to hurt Devon, but the only aggression she felt was to herself. Why could she not break past this barrier? Had generations of patriarchal rule lodged so firmly in her mind that nothing could shake it? She was a feminist. She didn’t believe all that bullshit about women being passive and soft and needing men for protection. Hell, women needed protection from men. That was why she was here. That was why she had picked up that martial arts flier and called the number. She had had enough of girls’ night being interrupted by over entitle- jerks. Enough of smiling at them for fear that outright rejection would make them aggressive.

And then there was that Tinder date… why had she ever thought to go on a Tinder date?

Men were horrible. In so many different ways, and yet, there was this wall telling her that hitting someone was wrong, regardless of what that person was doing to her.

Turn the other cheek.

That was her church upbringing talking, but the church wouldn’t serve her here. It was as entangled with the patriarchy as any other institution. Chantal didn’t need the church. She needed a new God.

“Oh praise be to the feminine power,” she muttered under her breath.

“What was that?”

Chantal stood up and settled into her fighting stance, “I said, fuck the patriarchy.”

“That’s the spirit!”

Chantal didn’t wait for Devon to attack. She stepped in, feinted and landed a low jab to his side. The punch wasn’t hard, and she had hesitated slightly before impact, but it was a start.

Devon laughed as he countered her cross.

“Better!”

And then they were caught up in the dance once more. Devon pushed faster and Chantal kept up, this time adding her own attacks through the onslaught. Chantal lost herself to the rhythm. Lost herself to the idea that Devon would block any punch she threw at him. Her mind switched to autopilot and in one swift motion, she swept Devon’s attack aside and countered with a punch to the gut.

Devon’s stomach folded in as air rushed from his lungs. Chantal froze. She stared, wide eyed, as the “oomph” left Devon’s lips. Her mind screamed at her.

What have I done?

The punch came from nowhere. Chantal felt it like a distant echo in her ear, and she staggered back. Her brain fogged over, and she forgot to keep her guard up, forgot, for a moment what she was supposed to be doing. Devon came in fast, three shots to the abdomen and then a sneaky sweep that knocked her off her feet and back down to the floor once more.

Chantal blinked back the shock.

“Why did you stop?”

“What?”

“Why did you stop? That was good. But if you want to land my ass on the floor you can’t hes-”

Chantal lunged toward Devon’s ankle. She had his toes, for just a brief moment, and then he bounced out of harm’s way. He was smiling when Chantal got to her feet. She wasn’t. His last attack had been sneaky, low. It had quivered through her body and snagged against something important. Somewhere in the aftershock a part of her had come undone. Before, it had just been training. It had just been Devon doing his job, but the punch felt dirty. Chantal raised her gloves and began to circle. Devon mirrored her actions. He was grinning like an idiot. Chantal wanted to wipe that smirk off of his stupid, dirty face. She moved in.

“Yes! Playtime!” Devon cheered.

Chantal narrowed her eyes at him. “No,” she said. “Playtime is over.”

The blows came thick and fast. Each grunt a promise of the bruise to come. Chantal found her moment. She struck. Devon’s excited “Whoop!” echoed through the room as his body crashed to the floor.

Return

Dust lay thick on the furniture. Spots of sun leaked through the worn curtains. Somewhere, a rodent skittered away on clawed feet. Kayla stood in the middle of the living room and sighed. She wasn’t sure why she had come. She had given so many years to this place, to the waiting. It hadn’t given back, yet she couldn’t help but feel guilty for having abandoned it.
Kayla stepped around the couch and into the kitchen. Her breath caught in her throat as her hand grabbed toward the nearest wall. She swayed on the spot, fighting against what her eyes saw but her brain refused to believe. Standing beside the antique stove was her sister. Her twin sister. Gone was the unsure teenager who Kayla remembered. In her place stood a confident woman with beaded dreadlocks gathered atop her head and a hand resting easy on a solid fighting staff. The strangeness was still there. That haunting way she tilted her head as if listening to something a million miles away. The way her eyes looked glossed over yet swam with swirling clouds. And the voice, as if speaking from another place:
“Kayla. I have been waiting for you.”
Kayla didn’t know if she should laugh or cry or scream.
“Waiting for me? You’ve been waiting for me?” She shook her head. “I waited for you. For six years, Ruta, I waited.”
Ruta closed her eyes and lifted her chin, catching a breeze that wasn’t there. No, that wasn’t here. How easy it was to watch her sister drift between two worlds and feel that anger rise again, anger at not being given the same gifts as her twin.
Anger at being normal.
Kayla thought she had moved past all of that, but this shock and storm of emotions thrust her back into childhood. She knew how hard it had been on Ruta -she had watched her sister struggle with even the most mundane of tasks- and still Kayla had wanted to be the one that was different.
Ruta came back to the room. Her eyes focused on Kayla. Ruta didn’t look like she struggled with things anymore. Ruta didn’t look like someone who saw her gifts as a disability anymore.
“Why did you stop waiting?”
It wasn’t an accusation; just curiosity. Kayla let her body slide down the wall. Her eyes stared at nothing.
“I lost hope. I started to believe mom was right. You had to be dead.”
“I was dead. I will be dead again. We are all trapped in the cycle of life and death. Living is just unbecoming and reconstructing. Death and rebirth. You die too. We all do.”
Kayla looked long and hard at her twin. Ruta was right. Kayla could not find even a spark of the teenage rebel she had once been: a young girl willing to take any risk just to be different, to feel different. That girl had died.
Kayla could feel herself dying again. A cycle of unbecoming and becoming again.