I might be dead before the night’s over.
Full disclosure, I’ve thought this more than a couple times in my life. I survived the Emejre Revolution, escaped an attack on my cloister when I lived among the Tundra Caste, and conned the Dunkirkers out of a rare artifact. So far, I’ve kept my neck out of the noose. But when you live a life outside the boundaries of what most people consider dignified(or legal), there are no guarantees. The next gig you pull might be your last. Keep rolling the dice, at some point you fail the saving throw.
But tonight? Death is glaring at me from two feet away, personified in a pair of dark green eyes narrowed to mere slits, eyes hidden behind a diamond shaped mask and just above a pronounced scowl. With each step she assaults the pavement, like she’s angry at the whole world and lashing out at the planet itself. One wrong word could, quite possibly, bring the evening to a sudden and violent end.
Naturally, I double down.
“C’mon, lighten up. This is supposed to be a party.”
“I am well aware of that fact, Ms. Ansara.” She still refuses to use my first name. But it is impressive she can talk so clearly, what with her teeth gritting that tight.
“Coulda fooled me. I’ve seen funeral processions more lively than you, Ki.– Sly.” The alias trips off my tongue, probably because it makes no sense. It’s the best I could come up with on such short notice.
She answers with a quick whip of her tail from one side to the other in that distinctive, annoyed way all felines have mastered, even a hybrid like her. The fur is solid black, courtesy of a little temporary(I hope) dye to hide its recognizable spot patterns. You can find costumes in the Reservation with tail coverings, but given the wide range of shapes and sizes we Emejre have, they require a fitting. They also feel miserable. Mine’s only partially covered, but it’s still been driving me nuts since we arrived.
Still, we need to take every precaution to keep anyone in the crowd from recognizing her. Sure, most of the party goers we see are already three sheets to the wind, a few maybe even a whole ream, and wouldn’t recognize their own sibling if they had a neon sign sign with their name on it. But it only takes one person to blow your cover. I saw no sense in taking chances.
Not that people aren’t noticing her anyway. Taller than a lot of the festival attendees(she’s got at least a foot on me), she’s built like a bad ass mixed martial artist, but still carries herself with the grace of a ballet dancer. Yes, even with all the stomping. The only thing that hurts the presentation is the costume that hides most of her body, a pastel green and dark pink body suit covered in a diamond pattern. With a sneer, she tugs at the tight material over one arm.
“You’re absolutely certain this was the only thing available?”
“You try finding a costume the day of the Hallows Festival and see how that works out for you. Especially in your size.”
“The idea was to avoid attention.” She turns to face me, and the bells on either side of the jester cap jingle. “Everyone’s looking me.”
“Darn right they are. Clowns are scary.” Especially when they clomp around with a worse attitude than Pennywise.
“At best, they are an annoyance at birthday parties. I hardly find that scary.”
“Clearly, you never been in a dark alley with one.”
“How you spend your free time is your own business, Ms. Ansara. I’m simply concerned this isn’t helping with our plan to remain inconspicuous.”
“C’mon,” I say then lean in closer and lower my voice. “It’s good cover. Who’d expect you’re even here, let alone running around in a harlequin getup?”
“Fair enough.” She rolls her shoulders and presses forward, past a group of human teenagers taking pictures with a cell phone camera and snickering.“You could act a little less amused by the situation, though.”
A fair point. Even though I’ve chuckled at her expense a few times since we got here, I still feel a twinge of guilt as. Here I am, on one of the most beloved festival days in the Emejre Reservation, and I’m carting around Kimber Marie Brightshadow of all people, and put her in a ridiculous costume under the flimsiest of pretenses.
If there’s an Emejre specific version of Hell, I’ve booked myself a direct flight there.
I’m gonna take a step back and do the whole introduction thing, since you’re kind enough to take a little time out of your day to listen to me ramble.
The name’s Telara Ansara and, as I’ve already inferred, I don’t exactly work a respectable nine to five office job. I’m what my people call a Nomad. By the strictest definition, that means I don’t belong to any of the Castes. To most folks? It identifies me as a criminal who doesn’t run with any of the big boys and girls, like the Dunkirkers or the Ferro Liberis. Now, understanad there are plenty of people who don’t wear a Caste band and who live their lives on the straight and narrow. I ain’t one of them.
Like most Emejre, I was born with Gifts, those special abilities that set us apart from humans(beyond the obvious ‘half animal hybrid’ thing). Unlike most, I got a couple different ones. To use a technical term, most of them suck. I’m a healer, but nowhere near as powerful as the ones who work at the Hope Street Shelter or the Castes. I ‘m a telekinetic, but can’t lift more than a few pounds without wearing myself out. I’m even a shapeshifter… but only into full human or full squirrel forms, and even then only for short stretches of time(beware the weresquirrel).
I’ll save you my sob story, because chances are you either don’t care or already made up your mind I’m an irredeemable hooligan. I’ll just say there came a time when I needed to survive on my wits alone, and I found uses for my Gifts. A squirrel can sneak around and fit into small spaces easily, and a human can go places no Emejre could manage. I made my telekinesis precise enough to pick locks and pull wires from security cameras. And heck, even a weak healing gift’s worth a few bucks for people who don’t want record of their injuries.
I can tell you that I don’t take more than I need, or that I try to steal from certified scumbags and do my best to leave upstanding people alone, but that don’t butter no parsnips, as Dr. Richards might say. I know what I do is pretty rotten. Sometimes I try to easy my conscience by volunteering at the Hope Street Shelter, making little toys and stuffed animals for the kids or lending a hand in the kitchen. Sometimes Dr. Powers convinces me to talk to people suffering from trauma… let’s just say he knows I can relate. One of those favors led to me meeting Kimber.
If you don’t know the name Kimber Marie Brightshadow, you clearly haven’t spend more than a minute on the Rez and probably don’t know jack about the Emejre either. There’s a dozen murals of varying quality on walls across the Rez, where she stands alongside her adopted brothers and sisters. She is usually on one end, holding a staff and looking stoic and crazy intimidating. The distinctive fur patterns are tough to miss too, as she’s the only Emejre King cheetah known in the world.
Kimber was raised and trained by the great Master Bede himself. You know, Bede? The guy who created the Path of the Just and pretty well invented the whole of Emerje philosophy? She learned under him one of the last to do so. You’ll hear a lot of Emejre speak in hushed, reverent whispers about The Seven. Well, Kimber is one of those Seven. Seeing her in public is like seeing Paul himself walking down the street(Apostle or Beatle, take your pick).
Anyhow, to make a long story short, a kid I helped was witness to a crime Kimber was investigating, and I ended up tag teaming with her to solve the case. I guess she saw the advantage in having someone who knows the darker side of the Emejre Reservation and who could more easily work outside the confines of Caste laws, because we’ve been pals ever since.
Okay, fine. Pals is generous, since she insists on calling me Ms. Ansara, and I only see her when she needs my help. She’s not a warm and fuzzy person. I’ve only ever saw her smile once, and that was when she saved my life during the Emejre Revolution. I can recall every detail of that day. I’d been buried in rubble, and I thought for sure I wasn’t going to make it. Then a hand reached down, the debris cleared away, and I see her, standing over me with a smile and telling me everything will be okay. I’ll never forget that moment.
She can’t remember it.
I get it, she probably helped hundreds of other people that day, but it’s still a kick to the ego.
That’s why I thought attending the Hallows Festival together might help improve things. Y’know, make us work better as a team and all that.. I just needed a reason, and it didn’t take me long to come up with one.
Yesterday I sent her a text message and a couple of minutes later she replied and asked me to meet in the usual place. That meant a ruined church at the edge of Tundra Caste territory. The first time I set foot in my old stomping grounds, a flood of memories made the journey painful. Now it feels as normal as returning home can ever be.
The church doesn’t help. The entire front of the building is gone, leaving the interior exposed. It always reminded me of a cake after someone’s taken the first slice out. Kimber told me once an enhanced human blew it off in a battle against her brother Caine. I always run my fingers over the bricks when I came here, their edges smooth from the strike. There was no sign of the missing chunk, not even a single piece of debris on the ground. It had been wiped clean to the concrete, like it never existed.
The fact that kind of power exists in our world terrifies me.
Behind a tarp that protected most of the interior from the elements, I found Kimber kneeling behind one of the overturned pews. She laid out a few pieces of cheese on the ground, where several mice ran out and scooped them up. They scattered as I approached, and Kimber climbed back to her feet.
“You said you’d heard rumblings of something big.” She never wastes time with small talk.
“Heard some rumblings the Dunkirkers are planning a coordinated heist during the Hallows Festival.”
“Strange. A bold move, by their standards.”
“It’s one of their web operations. Lots of small crimes committed at the same time, so they recruit some small players who don’t know about the whole scheme. Safe for the Dunkirkers, none of the actual thieves know all the details and they make a killing on sheer volume.”
“I normally keep an eye on the Hallows Festival, since alcohol and large crowds strengthen stupidity. But… this sounds a little more serious.” She rubbed her chin in thought. “Particularly since Lord Sabinian likes to attend the festival, as well as many of the generals vying for control of the Red Dragon Caste. It could easily get out of hand. Would you be free to serve as my eyes on the ground?”
I fidgeted and struggled to meet her eyes. “Well, you know security ain’t gonna be a joke for something like this, with all the dignitaries attending. The rooftops aren’t gonna be free like they usually are.”
“I can easily shadowmelt either of us as I need to.” That’s what Kimber calls her teleportation gift. I’ve experienced it once, got sick as soon as we got to our destination and went home with a low grade headache for my troubles.
“Your line of sight would be compromised by the crowd,” I said quickly, not eager to relive that experience. “It wouldn’t be the best option.”
“Fair enough. I suspect from your tone you have a solution of your own in mind.”
“Since we need to be there quick as can be if things go south, there’s a better option. We gotta be in the crowds to begin with.
Kimber rubbed her temple with her index and middle fingers. “I hope this isn’t the set up for some ludicrous scheme where I blend in since everyone assumes my normal appearance is a costume.”
“What? No. Of course not. Do I look like a fool.
She rose a single eyebrow.
“Harsh. Your lack of faith hurts, Kimber.” I smirked and rose a single finger in the air. “You’ll be wearing a costume.”
“It’s the only–”
“What part of no don’t you understand?”
“In this case? Both letters.” I sighed and shrugged my shoulders and leaned against the wall. “In a perfect world, we’d have time to cook up a better plan. But we don’t, okay? C’mon, can you just do this for me… and the people that are going to be victimized?”
That was close.
You’ve probably figured it out already, but there was no grand Dunkirker plot, at least not one I knew anything about. It’s true there’s plenty of pickpockets and con artists at the Hallows Festival, and maybe we could catch one or two to maintain the illusion, but I knew Kimber wouldn’t go along with this for petty crime.
Yeah, I know. I’m a jerk.
“It sounds like this is really important to you.” She turned her back to me and tapped her foot. “Your certain this information is reliable?”
Thank everything she wasn’t looking at me and the grimace on my face. “Well… reasonable so.”
She spun around. “Clearly, I need to put my faith in you to acquire costumes. We’ll meet back here an hour before the Hallows Festival begins. But, and I cannot stress this strongly enough, Ms. Ansara… nothing embarrassing. Understood?”
I nodded. “I promise, I’ll do my best.
I know what you’re thinking, but I swear, I’m not the world’s biggest troll. The jester outfit really was the only thing I could find.
I don’t just feel terrible because the costume looks silly(albeit strangely cute). You see, Emejre traditions come from a variety of human ones. It’s kind of like a casserole you make at the end of the week. We found little things that go together, added some of our own unique spices, threw it all in the oven and hoped for the best. And like any casserole, the results vary wildly.
It doesn’t help that humans do some weird crap to celebrate their holidays to begin with. Why do they turn everything green and get hammered to celebrate a saint driving the snakes out of Ireland? Why? And Bede’s beak, do they love finding any excuse to shoot off fireworks.
Sorry, tangent. I’m back now.
Point is, we liked Halloween, or technically I guess Master Bede loved it, so he refined it into our Hallows Festival. Instead of little kids going door to door for sample size chocolate bars, everyone in the Reservation shares food in what amounts to a community wide potluck. Instead of haunted houses, we have walk through reenactments of our history(which, to be fair, pretty much work just like haunted houses). At midnight, we have a huge dance that always starts off with some big song from the 80s. Why a dance? No one knows, but Kimber told me Master Bede got the idea from a theme park attraction.
And then there’s the costumes. We don’t dress up to scare each other or because we really love a character or concept. No, that would be too easy. Our tradition says the Hallows Festival celebrates our courage, and part of that means we must confront our greatest fears. So we wear things that either symbolize, or literally are the things we’re most afraid of.
You begin to see the problem with the harlequin outfit, don’t you? Everyone that sees ‘Sly’ thinks she’s terrified of clowns. Though, to be fair, who isn’t?
As for me, I’m wearing medical scrubs, that ugly shade of green you sometimes see in hospitals but more often in every medical drama ever made. My hair is tucked into a scrub cap, and I even put a loose wrap around my tail, the same kind I’d wear if I worked in the Hope Street Shelter. Let me tell you, it’s really scragging fun to put that over a tail that’s almost as big as the rest of me(thank you, squirrel DNA). I top the whole thing off with a white lab coat, cut to let my tail through, and a stethoscope dangling around my neck.
“An interesting choice,” Kimber had said when she saw it.
“I hate needles,” I lied. “Can’t say I love regular check ups neither.”
We mingle into the crowds emerging from the Tundra Caste territory and make our way to the main thoroughfare in Aristides Plaza, which stretches all the way across Coronado Island and hooks up with roads leading to all three Caste territories. In a previous life, the highway served as the main artery to access the residential sections before looping back out to bridge that led to the mainland. There probably hasn’t been a car on it since the Revolution, save for the few burnt out husks no one ever bothered to clear out. The road reaches all the way to the vorpal defense grid on either side, the barrier that closes the Reservation from the ocean and human territory. For once, the eerie purple-ish red glow it casts over the plaza feels appropriate.
The center lanes of the road act as a walkway, while tables line the outer lanes on either side. Serving trays of all shapes and sizes cover them, from paper plates to slow cookers with multiple chambers. Most people drop and go, like I do with the pre-made cookies I bought(it’s bad luck to bring nothing to the Hallows Festival). However, a few Emejre stand by their dishes. Restaurant owners probably, or chefs looking for a job. There are even a few items from human fast food joints with locations on the Rez or in the along the Human String leading out, their sample boxes splayed out in front of huge ad banners. Even better, most of them are vegetarian. Nice of the homs to do their homework.
It all smells amazing, even with the sick scent of cooked meat wafting from a few of the trays. The sheer variety of potatoes alone boggle the mind. Mashed, fried, grilled, steamed… every cooking method represented, each with different seasonings or sauces. Fresh vegetable platters with all manner of enticing dipping sauces mingle with rice and bean offering in every color of the rainbow. I didn’t even know you could do so many different things with bread until I attended my first Hallows Festival(why did no one tell me about hushpuppies before?).
I won’t even start on the desserts.
None of this impresses ‘Sly’, though. She strides by the table and waits not so patiently as I load up a paper plate with… well, being honest? A little of everything. I find at least four different takes on cheddar broccoli rice, my favorite dish, so I need to sample them all. For science. I nibble as walk, and refill as soon as I finish something off and a new spot opens up on the plate.
“There is no possible way,” Kimber says, “you’re going to use your Gifts enough in the next month to burn all those calories.
“Ain’t like I’m on a diet or nothing,” I manage between forks full of amazingness. “Besides, picture this. Somebody trips and falls, breaks an arm. They need help–”
“Then they’d be taken to the Hope Street Shelter so it could be set properly, of course.”
“Okay, fine. Technicality.” I point my fork at her. “But there could be minor injuries. Makes sense for me to be fueled up.”
“Gas tanks can only take so much before they start spilling out.”
“Is that a crack?”
She casts a sidelong glance at me. “Just an observation”
“Not all of us need to be in tip top physical condition you know.” I can only imagine how closely Kimber watches her diet to stay in that kind of shape. Me, I’m okay with a little extra padding.
“You can still try to be healthy.”
“I’m starting to see why you’re scared of doctors.”
Yeah, that’s the reason.
Since I’d rather talk about, well, anything else, I stop at one of the nearby tables and pluck a kabob from the nearest tray. Red, orange and yellow peppers had been surrounded by a mixture of zucchini, yellow squash, mushrooms and pineapples, the whole thing smothered in what looks and smells lke teriyaki sauce. I dangle it in front of Kimber.
“C’mon, live a little.”
She wrinkles her nose. “Someone ruined perfectly good vegetables.”
“Are you kidding? Teriyaki is great.”
She shakes her head and extends a single finger to point at the middle of the kabob. At the pineapple.
I want to keel over. Don’t tell me she’s one of those people.
“You mean the stick… right?” I ask, a hint of optimism lingering in my voice.
“I mean the thing they put on the stick.”
“So… you don’t like pineapple.”
“Don’t like is a mild term. Hate. Loathe. Despise. Those words work better for me.”
“Okay, stepping back to avoid the lightning that’s about to hit you because of your blasphemy.”
“That stringy, sticky thing is an affront of nature.” There’s something odd in her tone. If it were anyone else, I’d say it sounded… almost a little playful? But Kimber never joked around like that, at least not in my experience. Maybe someone spiked the punch I tried earlier and now I was hearing htings?
“You’re hurtin’ my very soul right now.”
“”Stop being so melodramatic.” Her eyes turn back to the table. “If I eat something else from the table, will you stop waving that thing in my face?”
“Fine. Your loss.”
I can’t let good food go to waste, so I take a nice big bite. It’s every bit as delicious as I expected. Some people don’t know what they’re missing. Kimber studies the table a moment, then surprises me with her choice. It’s something small, breaded and fried. The corner of her mouth twitches in what might be an attempt at a smirk. Just as she takes the bite, she leans in a little closer. The smell hits as I’m in mid chew, and I almost gag on a pepper.
“What?” Kimber looks at me with an expression so innocent and free of malice, she must be forcing it. “Chicken’s a good lean protein. The frying does it no favors, I’ll grant you, but it’s not the worst choice. And, as someone said when we first arrived, I should live a little.” She picks up a second and pops it into her mouth.
“What? My precursor species is a carnivore, so this is perfectly acceptable.”
“Says the pineapple eater.”
For some strange reason, my appetite has left me. I dump my plate in the nearest trash can. I shoot a glare back at her.
“You’d make a killing in the diet industry.”
“Just doing my part to make sure I don’t prematurely lose a valuable asset.”
She says it in that same light, almost playful tone from before, but as we continue ‘valuable asset’ echoes a few times in my mind.
“I figure you’d be used to this by now.”
“Believe me, you never get used to this sort of thing.” Kimber puts a hand on her hip, unable to hide the deep scowl caused by the canvas in front of her. “Even so, murals are one thing. But… people actually want this in their homes?”
It’s not bad art, necessarily. I can appreciate the technical skill on display, if nothing else. But it’s so heavily stylized I can’t tell who each of the different figures represent. At the front stands Master Bede… well, Bede’s head painted onto Chris Hemsworth’s body. The twins, Gabriel and Caine, are even bigger, jacked to a point a pro wrestler might find excessive. Meanwhile, poor Sheila Gallen is depicted with a waist roughly the size of a toothpick, and… let’s just say the rest of her proportions are exaggerated to a similar degree. Even the colors are wrong, the artist having made Michael Pendragon’s dark gray fur into a deep shade of blue instead.
It’s not hard to see what caught Kimber’s ire. I lean in closer, desperate to find something nice to say. “They got your spots right. Even the stripes on your back.”
“What a comfort.” She juts a thumb at the offending image, but lowers her voice to a whisper. “They made me look like an outside linebacker.”
I look to her, back to the image, back at her again. The artist absolutely missed the mark The costume couldn’t hide the well defined muscles of her arms and broad shoulders, qualities the artist exaggerated at the expense of her natural elegance. No one who saw her at the Festival would mistake her for an outside linebacker, that’s for certain. The constant scowls and looks of intense concentration couldn’t quite hide a youthful face. Even the scar that ran just under both eyes and across the bridge of her nose only made her appearance that much more charming.
Oh. I’d been putting too much thought into it.
“It’s, uh, not a great likeness, no. Maybe because people don’t see you as often.”
“It’s better I’m not seen unless I’m needed. Makes it easier for me to operate.” I think she’s finally ready to let it go, but her head tilts to the side, and the frown tightens. “Still, it’s not as thought there aren’t photos they could use for reference.”
“They should use the mural off Hope Street. I always liked that one.”
“Really?” She seems surprised. “That’s always been one of my favorites.”
“It’s a lot more accurate,” I say, and can’t keep myself from adding, “Except for the smile.”
Her ears splay out and she ducks her head before turning back to the painting. Did I really just embarrass her? “Well, in any event, it’s more accurate than this one.”
“On the bright side? They could’ve drawn you like Sheila.”
The scowl returns with a vengeance, and Kimber folds her arms over her chest. “Then we would’ve have a problem.”
Thankfully, the painting is on consignment, so the artist isn’t there to face Kimber’s critique and potential wrath. Though I agree with her take on it, this is also typical of our experience to this point. Each time we had visited some other part of the festival, I tried to encourage Kimber and she dismissed it with a few curt comments.
The haunted house.. er, I mean, Hall of Memories? She looked disinterested, criticized the décor and almost took a swing at some poor scare actor who caught her off guard(his job, remember). A troupe of entertainers from the Asylum Theater bored her with their magic, irritated her with their songs and offended her damn near enough to rush the stage with some pointed jokes about the Path of the Just itself. She then suggested the vendor booths not far off the main drag, which I hoped might improve her mood. Spoiler: It hasn’t.
Normally artisans, resellers, entrepreneurs, entertainers and con artists alike set up shop in Mercado Square, the massive open air market not far from the entrance to Dove Caste territory. But for the Hallows Festival, officials cleared it out to create what they claimed was the largest open air dance floor in the world(they put it on banners and in ads, so it must be true). However, a few sellers won the right to sell during the Festival via a lottery, and set up along the side streets.
“If the Dunkirkers are lurking around trying to steal things,” Kimber had said, “They’d probably be where people are buying and selling, don’t you think?”
Even though she suggested it, she’s spent the entire time here acting madder than a boiled owl. In spite of this, I peruse the tables and find a few bargains. At a jewelry stand I find a gorgeous Mark of Bede carved from obsidian with turquoise accents that I can’t pass up. Another table offers a hodge podge of craft materials and supplies, and I load up a satchel with some great fabrics and a few interesting new patterns. Other than stopping at a table with some old books and picking up a few of them, Kimber spends the entire time stomping around or sulking like a kid who’s just been told they can’t have ice cream.
I decide to skip the next few tables, which sell clothing and some household goods, and a table where a few humans in uniform are recruiting for the United States Enhanced Services Bureau. The ESB’s the only ticket out of the Reservation without an escort and a tracker, and they’re always looking to add Emejre to their ranks. I notice Kimber give them some serious side eye as we walk past, but she doesn’t stop, doesn’t say anything. Thank goodness. One of them is big enough to make the figures on that painting look puny, so I doubt he’s a garden variety human.
We almost make it out when we pass by the booth of a Lucksmith, and things go south.
From what I understand, there are a few Emejre with a legitimate Gift to manipulate probability. Don’t ask me about the science, I don’t have a clue. All I know is their mere presence tilts the odds in your favor… or makes bad things happen if hire them to follow someone you don’t like. I There are probably about ten or twenty times as many Emejre who claim they have the ability, and how can you know for sure? The two behind the table are clad in loud yellow and green robes, one a dhole, the other a starling. The bird hybrid steps out from behind the table and blocks our path as we try to pass, her hands in the air.
“Hail and well met, my friends,” she says with an exaggerated English accent. “You two seem in need of a companion who can assure that fortune smiles upon you.”
“We’re good, thanks.” Kimber says and tries to hurry past, but the girl steps in front of us again.
“I’m Sylvania, a Lucksmith by trade. My friend over there is the great and powerful Seer Ezekidamus. He’s told me that the pair of you are in desperate need of better fortune.”
“No more or less than anyone else.” There’s an edge to Kimber’s response, and all I want to do is scoot past.
“Ezekidamus saw you as you walked past. A great shadow falls over you both. I see a hunter with eyes of darkness, a friend becoming the servant of the enemy…” Sylvania looks back to Ezekidamus, drawing circles in the air with one hand. She probably thinks she’s being subtle.
“I see a thief and a dreamer,” the dhole chimes in. He’s probably going for mystic and mysterious, but it comes out sounding like he’s drunk. “A saint, a child, a warrior… all that stands between the world and a massacre!”
Kimber sighs as she looks to the supposed Seer, then back to his companion. “You notice he didn’t mention a Lucksmith in there. Tell me Seer, was your friend here in that vision? Otherwise, it ends poorly for her, doesn’t it?”
The starling shrinks away from us. Ezekidemus says nothing.
“That’s what I thought.”
“W-wait!” For a second, the dhole’s act falters, but he recovers and waves his hands in the air. “The fool has lost something precious, something she can’t replace. But I can see it clearly in my mind, waiting to be found…”
Kimber’s jaw clenches, hackles raise, her body language turns hostile. It’s the only warning she gives before reaching out and latching onto Sylvania’s arm.
“Ow… please, I’m sorry!” She drops the accent. Now I only hear her panic and desperation.
“Your license,” Kimber snarls. I can see her hands shaking with barely contained fury. I’ve never seen her this angry.
“If you really are a Lucksmith, then you should have a license granted by the Dove Caste. Didn’t you know that? Your Seer friend here should have something similar… assuming his Gift is any more legitimate than yours.”
“Just let her go!” The dhole moves out from behind the table, but clearly scared to approach Kimber. “We didn’t mean to bother you two, and we’re sorry. Please! It’s just a little harmless fun.”
“Harmless? It’s not harmless when you scam people out of their hard earned money or build them up with false hope.” She turns to him, and even I take a step back when I see the fury behind her eyes. Costume or not, she looks absolutely terrifying. “I’m giving you thirty minutes to clear out. Then I’m calling a friend in the Dove Caste Security Force to check your bona fides. Since I doubt they’ll understand your little joke either, I suggest your clear out.”
Mercifully, she finally releases Sylvania’s arm. The girl tumbles backwards, tripping and hitting the ground hard. Kimber looks at me over her shoulder, then starts to walk away.
“We’re done here.”
I want to follow her, but instead I run to check on the girl. The supposed Seer has already run to her side, hugging her to his check and stroking the side of her head. She’s cradling her arm against her body. Her body’s still shaking as she presses her face against his chest, sobbing.
“It’s okay, Sylvie. It’s okay.” When he looks at me, I fully expect him to yell. Instead, he just looks confused. “I’m so sorry. I just… said the first thing that came into my head, like I always do.”
“It’s not your fault, hon. Neither of you.” I reach out to touch Sylvania’s arm, but she cries out in pain as soon as my fingers brush across it. Bede’s beak, she didn’t…
“I broke my arm a couple weeks ago,” she manages between sobs. “Healer didn’t do a great job… it’s not your friend’s fault. She didn’t know…”
Bede’s beak. Even if that’s true, to say it right now… she’s a bigger person than I’d be in the same situation. “I’m a healer. I can help you, okay?”
“We, um,” Ezekidamus says, looking down at his friend. “We don’t have any money to offer.”
“And I wouldn’t dream of asking for any. I just want to help you.”
He nods, and I press both my hands against Sylvania’s forearm and close my eyes and start to focus energy through my hands. Most Healers can sense an injury in a vague way, pain in the arm or leg or whatever. However, I can hone in with far greater precision. In no time at all, I can feel the problem. A hairline fracture in the ulna. The previous Healer hadn’t finished their job, just like she’d thought.
I take a deep breath and focus once more. I know what’s coming next.
The pain fires through my own arm first, so intense I struggle to keep my balance. First I see a couple of humans, taunting me… no, Sylvania. These are her memories. They’re threatening Ezekidamus… Zeke, she calls him. She’s terrified for him. A baseball bat swings. She steps in front and lifts her arm to block it, and I feel the pain again. The original injury.
And then the scene shifts. The more recent an injury, the more intensely the Healer sees the memory… and feels the pain.
…Kimber is glaring at me, the rage etched on her face chilling. I want to move, but she reaches out and grabs hold with a vice-like grip. She’s not even squeezing as hard as she could, but the pain’s excruciating regardless. My heart’s pounding, my breath quickening as she threatens me.
The only thing I can think… no, Sylvania can think… Stay back, Zeke. Don’t get hurt, not again…
I snap back to the alleyway. It always takes a moment to regain my bearings and to see Sylvania’s face in front of mine. She’s wiping away tears with her newly healed arm, but as soon as she notices I’ve come out of the healing trance, she throws her arms around my neck.
“Thank you so much, miss.”
I return the hug and pat Zeke on the shoulder, then turn around. Kimber’s nowhere to be found. It’s possible she used her shadowmelt to leave, but I doubt it. I stand up, then offer a few bills to them.
“We can’t possibly–”
“You can and you will,” I say, and even force them into Zeke’s hand. “We owe you. I’ll make sure she doesn’t call the dosefs, either.”
“We really didn’t mean to offend her. Honest!” Sylvania says.
“Let her know we’re sorry,” Zeke adds.
These two are too sweet to be working this kind of gig. “I’ll let her know,” I say before I follow after Kimber.
It takes me a while to catch up. I finally find her down a darkened alley, free of festival traffic.
“Sly! Sly!” She ignores me completely. “Dammit, Kimber! Hold on a second. You–”
When she spins around to face me, it’s with the same anger I saw through Sylvania’s eyes when I healed her. I take a few steps back, not sure what to expect.
“What do you want now, Ansara? Is there some other mythical Dunkirker threat we need to hunt down?”
“But what? You don’t really think I bought into your story about the Dunkirker plot, do you?”
“Is… that what this is all about?”
“I’ve trusted you implicitly since we started working together, but this was a little too far fetched. Still, I thought you had a good reason to drag me here. I thought, why not go along with it? I wanted to know why you would lie to me. The thing is, I still don’t have the answer to that.”
“Kimber…” I’m having trouble finding the words. “You… realize you hurt that girl, right?”
That gets through to her, and some of the rage ebbs. She stares at the ground, wraps her arms around herself.. “I knew this was a mistake. I never should have come here.”
“Then why did you?”
“Because.. it seemed important to you.” There’s a softness in her tone that catches me off guard.
“I just… thought maybe it’d be good for you to see the people you’re working so hard to protect. Maybe even have a little fun.” I huff and turn away from her. “Clearly, that’s been a smash success.”
“It would have been easier if you’d been honest with me from the start.”
“That would have worked? The only thing I ever been to you is an asset to use.”
“That’s not true—”
“Isn’t it? You said as much yourself tonight. How am I supposed to tell you I want to do something like this? I can’t even get you to call me by my first name!” The words come out before I can stop them, and the force behind them surprises me. “How do you expect me to believe you even care what I’ve had to give up to help you out!”
She’s quiet at first. “We all make sacrifices.”
“But I never volunteered for that! You think I’ve been able to get close to anyone in my old life, knowing I might one day have to turn them over to you?” I can’t stop the tears welling up in my eyes, but I turn away. I won’t let her see them. “I’ve met someone that could have been a real friend. Someone I genuinely liked. But I stabbed him in the back, maybe even broke his heart. Because I made a promise to you. That doesn’t even include all the times I put my neck on the line, the fact I could become a target for your sake. But all I am to you is an asset or an informant. That’s it!”
“You don’t understand. I… I can’t take on a partner–”
“I wanted to be your friend, because for some scragging reason I thought you needed one. That you deserved one.” My voice is starting to waver. “But… I can see I was wrong on both counts.”
Did she actually wince at my words? “You… you lied to me.”
“Good news, then. You don’t have to worry about that anymore. You want to keep yourself hidden, above the concerns of ordinary Emejre? Fine. You want to play the dark and tragic solitary hero? Fine. Do whatever the hell you want. But the next time you need an asset to help you out, don’t bother looking for me. I don’t need this.”
She starts to say something as I storm off, but I’m gone too fast. Besides, I don’t want to hear it.
“How long you gonna keep at it, miss?”
“I still need to hit things.”
“To be fair, you ain’t hit a thing yet.” The skinny mouse hybrid inside the booth smiles weakly at me. “’cept that time you almost hit me. No hard feelings, though. Matter of fact, tell you what. It’s slow, you need the outlet, and it’d be rude of me to run off a pretty lady in need. Long as you don’t expect a prize, you can throw as long as you want, free of charge. Fair enough?”
The nicest thing about a festival, there’s always bound to be a few midway games set up somewhere. After I stopped by the food tables to snag a few desserts(don’t judge me, food is my coping mechanism), I found the games tucked away in a small street off the main drag. I walked right past the ring toss and tests of strength, ignored the rows of beat up old arcade games and went straight for the baseball toss.
Every throw is cattywampus, reminding me I have no skill at this, but at least the kid running the game is sweet. Either he saw the tear trails running down the fur on my face and has taken pity on me, or he’s flirting. Whatever the case, I’m grateful for his company. Other than the odd encouraging word(“That one was really close!”) he doesn’t say much and dutifully retrieves the baseballs and sets them back on the counter. It’s what I need right now.
I don’t know how long I throw for, though before long my arm feels sore. At least it’s taking my mind off everything that’s happened tonight. At least, it did.
“You’re not rotating your shoulders into the throw. Going sidearm doesn’t give you a consistent release point.”
I don’t even turn around to look at her. “Now you’re criticizing how I throw?”
“No. Just trying to help you for a change.”
I just keep throwing the ball, refusing to look at her. Even when she walks to my side, I focus only on the milk jugs stacked in front of me. It would’ve been easier if I hit them, but my throws grow wilder by the second. Finally, with a deep breath, I turn to look at her.
I’m not sure what I expected, but the sad look on Kimber’s face catches me off guard. I’m so used to the scowl, I’m not sure how to react to a look of genuine pain. It makes her look younger, and I’m suddenly reminded that, despite the reverence she commands and her own self confidence, she’s still at most only a year or two older than me.
“I never realized the burden I placed on you. I should’ve taken your feelings into consideration, and for that, I apologize.”
“Well… you should be sorry.”
“I… I really do appreciate all you’ve done to help me.” There’s a different quality in her voice, as though she’s setting aside the proud warrior. “I know words alone don’t make up for everything, but…” She sighs and shakes her head.
The bells on her jester cap jingle.
I smile. A chuckle escapes my lips.”. Dammit.
“So you’re not mad that I lied to you, then?”
She looks away, and shifts her weight from one leg to another.. “Maybe a little? I never really believed it in the first place, to be honest, but…” She trails off, then meets my gaze again. “Still, I’ve done far worse tonight. I hope…”
She swallows and looks back to me. “I hope we can still work together.”
“Hmmmm.” I tap my chin, as though I’m lost in thought. “I’m thinking about it.”
Her eyes grow larger as she clasps both hands behind her back. “Please?”
Okay, that’s too adorable to refuse. “Dirty pool, pulling out a look that that. Absolutely not fair. But maybe you can make it up to me by showing me what I’m doing wrong?” I offer her the baseballs.
She relaxes, and for a second I could swear the corner of her lips are turning upward into a smile. But it never materializes, and instead she reaches out and grabs my shoulders.
Not gonna lie, there’s a brief flutter of fear as she touches me, the vision and pain of Sylvania’s memories still fresh in my mind. But this time her hands are gentle, using only enough force to shift my body into a different position, turning me gently to the side.
“Line up your shoulders with the target. Feet about the same distance apart as your shoulders. Everything needs to be in balance, and needs to stay that way through the throw.” She shifts to my side. “That means knowing how to hold your tail in balance, too.”
“Not easy, given how big it is.”
“True, but I’ve seen how well you move, so you clearly know how.”
“Still, it gets in the way a lot.”
“Well then, at least it’s pretty?”
Thank Bede for the fur hiding my blush at that moment.
“Try to keep your shoulders aligned the entire time, and never take your eyes off the target.” She passes the ball into my hand and carefully curls my fingers around it. “Pull your arm back and throw overhand to keep the ball in a straight line.”
“I… think I got all that.”
“You don’t need to do a full leg kick like a pitcher, but it can help. Your release point is good, so give it a try.”
“Got it. Shoulders straight. Legs apart. Don’t take your eye off the target.”
She steps back and I smile at her before I walk through the process she described. I grit my teeth as I hurl the ball forward. There’s a loud clunk, and I can’t help but jump up and pump a fist in the air.
“Yes! I got… um, well, one.”
“Pitchers spend years learning the right technique. It’s not a bad– um, I mean, it’s a good start.”
“Thanks. Didn’t even use telekinesis.”
“That would’ve been cheating.”
I lean back toward her and whisper, “Thief.”
Kimber shakes her head, then looked at the three jugs as the attendant sets them back up. Then she turns to the prizes before setting a twenty dollar bill on the counter.
“The big white dog,” she says. “If I can throw at all three targets at once and knock them all down, would that be enough to win him?”
The attendant laughs. “If you do that, you get the dog and keep your money.”
She nods, looks to the stacks and picks up the baseballs, two in her left and and one in her right. Her arms pull back quickly and she flings the balls forward, all three right on target.
All the jugs clatter to the ground.
“Wow.” The attendant whistles and pushes the money back toward Kimber, but she shakes her head.
“Keep it. You were so kind to to her when she needed it, it’s the least I can do.” She bows to him, Wait… she knew about that? How long had she been watching me before she approached?
Kimber then adds, “But I will take the dog.”
He pulls the stuffed animal down from the wall. As soon as it’s in her hands, though, she offers it to me.
“You deserve this.”
He’s sitting on my shoulders as we walk away.
“That was amazing. You sure you didn’t use a Gift?”
“Years of practice.” There’s a second of hesitation. “But I’ve watched plenty of baseball, which means my Gift probably did let me copy the movements of great pitchers flawlessly. So maybe a little?”
“I’ll allow it.”
“Good.” She glances at a set of basketball goals as we walk past. “Ever shot hoops before?”
“Feel like changing that today?”
“Depends.” I smirk. “You feel like losing?”
I wish I could say I live up to my boasts, but Kimber doubles my score in three straight games. We play a few more games before we move on, and other than squeaking by in a particularly intense game of Street Fighter II, Kimber wins every time. I don’t really care, nor do I complain when my body starts to ache from all the activity well before we move along. I don’t even care that Kimber never smiles once. It just means a lot to see her genuinely trying not to.
“I’m worn slap out” I finally have to say.
Kimber nods, then glances back in the direction of the main festival grounds. “There’s one other thing I need to do, though.”
I have my suspicions, but follow in silence as she leads the way, weaving our way back to the merchant area. I worry they’ve already left, given how much time we spent at the gaming area. But to my surprise, not only are Sylvania and Zeke(sorry, I can’t call him that silly name) still there, but they haven’t even broken down their table.
I remember what Zeke said about not having any money.
Understandably, they both bristle as they see Kimber draw close.
“We’ll, um, we’ll break down if—”
They stop as she drops to one knee in front of them and bows her head.
“I couldn’t leave without apologizing to the both of you. My actions were uncalled for and inexcusable. I didn’t mean to cause you any pain or hardship.” She finally looks up. “If… if you wish to call the Dove Caste Security Force and press charges, I fully understand.”
I fight the urge to run forward and stop her. If they arrested her, the story would be all over the Reservation within hours. The reputation she’d carefully cultivated would be wiped away, and she might even serve some time in jail.
“You’d really be willing to do that?” Sylvania sounds incredulous.
“The Path says that one who is Just shall harm no one, unless the lives of others are at stake. I failed to live up to that today.”
“Well…” Zeke says, and glances over at me. “To be fair. We were operating without the proper paperwork, and you didn’t call anyone on us, either.”
“Besides,” Sylvania adds, looking at me and smiling, “You didn’t know about the old wound, and your friend fixed me up. Anyone who’s friends with such a sweet and honest Healer like her can’t be all bad, can they?”
“Perhaps not,” Kimber returns to her feet.
“And, um, it might sound odd, but…” Zeke rubs the back of his neck sheepishly. “I really am sorry if anything I said bothered you.”
Kimber shakes her head. “I have lost something precious, but I fear it won’t ever be found again. But you couldn’t have known.”
“Then I’m sorry for saying something that hurt you, even inadvertently.”
“You know,” Kimber says, and glances back at me. “There are better ways to make money that this, particularly for two people as honest as you. “I know there are a few positions open at the Hope Street Shelter.”
“That would be amazing!” Sylvania’s face brightens, but then her shoulder slump. “But… they don’t usually hire people like us, especially without experience or references.”
I can tell from the look in her eye what she’s about to do. “Ask to talk to Dr. Powers directly.” She hesitates only a section before she pulls the jester cap and mask back. Even with the white paint covering the stripes on her face, there’s no way the pair won’t recognize her.
“And tell him Kimber Marie Brightshadow sends her highest recommendations.”
They’re dumbfounded at first, unable to speak. Then Sylvania starts to giggle.
“Ohmygod. Kimber Marie Brightshadow broke my arm.”
“Um… Ms. Ansara did say it was an old wound I only aggrivated.”
But the starling could care less. She beams and shakes Zeke by the shoulders. “This is the best Hallows Festival ever!”
The dhole is silent a little longer, but looks to Kimber and speaks.“Wait.. you’re scared of clowns?”
I’m sitting at the edge of the rooftop, legs dangling over the edge as I watch the last stragglers disperse from the Hallows Festival grounds. Kimber stands beside me, having wasted little time once we left in shedding the harlequin costume and returning to her usual, MMA inspired attire. I can’t lie, I sort of miss the silliness of her Hallows costume, but she’s much more at ease like this. It doesn’t hurt that the dye washed out as easily as I’d hoped.
Most of my costume remained intact, though I’d given my lab coat to a girl in a skimpy dancer costume who needed it more than me. The big stuffed dog sits beside me, ready to return to the room I’d rented out, no doubt in a place of honor. I’ve already named him Naga.
After a few minutes, Kimber sits beside me.
“Regretting not staying for the dance?”
“Not really. I’m so tired I might’ve passed out on the dance floor.” I chuckle softly and look over my shoulder at her. “Besides, the last dance I went to with someone, things didn’t turn out so well.”
“That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it again. There might be a different outcome.” She nudges me with her shoulder. “Maybe you would’ve even met The One this time.”
“Eh, kinda doubt it. Not sure I’m really looking to date right now, anway..” I rub the back of my neck “So, this is what you do, huh?”
“Normally I stand and move around a lot more.” She gives me another one of her patented almost smiles. “But sometimes I get tips about where things might be happening. I have contacts with all three Castes and a few other groups who keep an eye out for me.”
We remain silent a while longer. I notice a few people stagger past, a couple having a heated argument, a young Emejre walking as though he doesn’t want to be seen. I can’t imagine trying to keep up with all of that, scanning for the subtle signs that someone might be up to no good. I bite my lower lip as I debate saying what’s on my mind.
“I’m sorry for lying to you, Kimber.”
“I’ve already told you, I accept you apology. We both acted dumb, and you not nearly as much as me.”
“Not about that. About the costume.”
She glowers at me. “So it really wasn’t the only thing left?”
“What? No, not that. I mean mine.” I take off the stethoscope and let it hang in front of my face. “The Hallows Festival is about facing your fears, right? I’m not scared of needles or doctors. I’m scared of being a doctor.”
“What do you mean?”
“I told you about all my Gifts when we first met. How I think they’re kinda worthless.”
“The weresquirrel one is pretty handy.”
I force a chuckle. “Maybe, but the scientists in the labs weren’t impressed. Except Dr. Richards, the one who raised me .He taught me medicine, anatomy… by the time I was fifteen, I had the same level of education as a human doctor. Maybe my Gifts as a healer aren’t that strong, but the knowledge means I can target it better than any other Healer.. I should be a doctor at Hope Street Shelter… making a difference, like you do.”
Kimber waits a few seconds to respond. “But you’re afraid.”
“There was someone in the grotto, someone who got hurt in part because of me. I should’ve been able to save them. With my Gifts and my training, but… I couldn’t. I wasn’t good enough. Don’t think I’m strong enough to fail like that again.”
When she replies, there’s a gentleness to her voice I’ve never heard before. “Sometimes I can’t sleep at night, thinking about the people I couldn’t save. There were dozens during the Revolution. More since I’ve started doing this. The ones I couldn’t get to in time. The ones I never knew about. It isn’t easy.”
“How do you live with it, then?”
“I dedicate myself to making those sacrifices mean something. I promise that I’ll make up for it by trying to be there for the next person.” She takes in a halting breath, and I see the glint of tears in her eyes. “It’s… I know it’s what Dad would have wanted. But it’s not an easy road to walk, either. And since I’m the last of Master Bede’s students, I never had a choice. I need to do this for our people. You do have one. You need to make carefully.”
“You don’t think I have an obligation to help?”
“You are helping people in your own way with what you do in the Shelter already. I’m not going to lie and say I don’t know people who could use someone with your talents. But that’s a choice for you to make, what you’re most comfortable doing, and accepting the consequences of your choice.”
“Speaking from experience?”
“My symbolic value’s important. I know that. Any choice I make, that reflects on not just me but my brothers and sisters, and Dad. There are people in the Reservation who’d love to say Kimber Marie Brightshadow has taken their side as a political tool. It’s kept me from getting close to anyone.” She leans back and looks to the sky.
“You know, I shouldn’t have worn a costume tonight. I should’ve just been me,” she says after a long pause.
“That would’ve been cheating.”
“Not really. The thing I’m most scared of? It’s people seeing the real me. I feel like I need to be perfect, to live up to Dad’s legacy. I don’t want to embarrass him. But I worry, the real Kimber might do that. That’s what scares me more than anything. I started to face that tonight though. Did you know that ever since I took this role, I’ve not even really had anyone I could consider a friend?”
When I look at her, I finally see it. An honest to goodness, genuine smile. There’s such warmth behind it, a radiance that makes me smile. No one who looked on her like this would confuse her for an outside linebacker or a cold, unfeeling warrior. Not in a million years. But… I’m honored she chose to share it with me alone, in that moment.
“No real friend… until tonight?”
“Until tonight,” I reply with a smile.
“Thank you. For tonight. For everything you’ve done for me, Ms. Ansara. Er, I mean–”
I raise a hand in the air to stop her. “Nope, no no no. There’s gotta be a price for all my lying, so I need to earn you calling me that, don’t I? Besides, I’m kinda used to hearing you call me by my last name. Anything else is just gonna confuse me.”
“You are strange. One of the strangest people I’ve ever met, in fact. But… maybe that’s what I like about you.” The smile turns crooked, and there’s a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. “Dr. Ansara.”
“Gonna make me face my fears on the regular, huh?” Still, I can’t help but laugh.
“Just promise me one thing.”
“From this point forward, no more lies. From either of us.”
I look away, and once again bite my lip. “Um, okay. But in that case, there’s one other thing I need to tell you.”
“O-oh?” Her ears perk up. “What’s that?”
“You remember when you knocked down those milk jugs and won me Naga over here?”
“There… might’ve been a little telekinetic assist involved with it.”
And that’s how I heard Kimber Marie Brightshadow laugh for the first time.