Practical Fashion

Princess Silverbell stood closer to her brother, her face a mask of absolute seriousness. It was a somewhat unusual look for a young woman known for her levity during parties. At the moment she was standing next to her brother Dormal, the pair of them striking a diplomatic pose. They were the picture of young royalty, primped and preened and well trained for gatherings just like this one, where they usually ended up at the center of everyone’s attention.

Silverbell lightly laid a hand on Dormal’s arm so she could lean in and whisper in his ear. She was careful to make sure no one else could overhear and several golden curls that danced along her neck and cheek blocked her lips enough that no one would be able to read them. It was, no doubt, some nugget of great importance she felt needed sharing with the heir apparent

“Count Greenbriar wears yellow polka-dotted underwear.”

She waited patiently in the wake of her whisper. Her jade eyes moved over her brother’s face, seeking a smile or a grin. Being this close she’d be able to catch even the barest hint of a chuckle, or any suggestion of a crack in Dormal’s serious expression.

But he was too good. He’d grown in the game over the years and she couldn’t make him laugh as easily as she had in their youth. She couldn’t count how many times she’d whispered some joke or silly gossip into one of her brother’s ears during an official function and dearly cherished each and every time she’d broken their masks. Once, in their younger days, she’d even managed to reduce Valerian to a fit of giggles.

“I’ve heard it’s purple. With hearts on it, dear sister.”

She turned quickly enough to catch the flash of a familiar smile on Dormal’s lips, and a fond look in his dark blue eyes, before his carefully schooled demeanor returned. It was only a moment, but she knew he wasn’t cross with her for trying. They were together in this, after all.

“Would you like to join me in the courtyard, princess? Some air would do me well,” Dormal said drawing back enough that others nearby wouldn’t have too much trouble overhearing his intentions. They’d been at this party long enough they could get away with stepping outside for a few minutes.

He offered out his arm and she took it without hesitation, allowing him to lead her. They moved gracefully, like a proper lady and gentleman, though in private they would probably both have laughed at the notion.

“You know, I was expecting the purple-hearted line to work on you,” he said, keeping his voice low, meant only for her.

“Oh Dormal, you may not know it but I’ve seen my fair share of silly underwear in my time. Purple hearts don’t phase me. Even the nobility like to get a little wild, so long as no one else can see.” She resisted the urge to waggle her eyebrows at him, and took some pleasure in catching him just managing to smother a chuckle.

“Don’t let any of the advisors hear you talking like that. They’ll lose their minds. Can’t have the princess being improper.” There was almost a sigh in his voice when he said it.

“As if that’s ever stopped me from ruffling their feathers,” she returned with a light laugh. “I think they thought I’d seen the light when I stared making dresses like a good little lady. They weren’t so happy when Domerin and I took our most recent climbing trip. They’d be rid of me in a moment if they thought they could replace me with someone ‘proper’.”

“I’ve gotten that feeling about all of us at one point or another over the years,” Dormal said, though he didn’t sound bitter. There were still people displeased at how the queen had brought about her heirs, not that she cared, but even Silverbell could see there was little people could actually quibble about when it came to Dormal. She and her twin were happy enough to take the heat.

They moved through the large arched doors of the busy ballroom into the mild evening air. It was far less stuffy out here and the stars were already overhead, though somewhat muted by the carefully placed lights illuminating the courtyard. A light breeze blew, a fountain bubbled away nearby and lovely, fragrant foliage filled the space, giving the other attendees that moved among it the illusion of privacy. Silverbell rather hoped they paid their gardeners well. She had to admit it was a beautiful space.

But her attention was more on her brother than the plants. He’d gone quiet, and she knew him well enough to know something was troubling him. She kept them walking for the moment, subtly guiding him, as if she were seeking a tour of the gardens, knowing people would be less likely to try and approach them until they stopped.

“As if ruffling their feathers ever stopped you either, brother. I seem to remember you weren’t always opposed to a prank or two.” She spoke, giving his arm a light squeeze.

He sighed, though he mustered a weary smile.

“You know I don’t have the same freedom as you do. Not anymore at least. It’s one thing for the royal twins to pull the heir into their pranks when they’re cute kids, but now… The nobles are far less forgiving and as time goes on the walls get closer. This whole thing,” he said, nodding and indicating their surroundings, “is just the first in a long line of these. We have to put our best faces forward to assure our allies we’re dependable.”

As depressing and logical and Domal’s words were, Silverbell had to admit they were true. This wasn’t home, and forgiveness would be harder earned. They were making a diplomatic visit to one of the neighboring kingdoms, so this party was actually somewhat important. Valerian was halfway across the world but she‘d been unwilling to leave Dormal to suffer this visit on his own.

She was good at drawing attention from him and had made a veritable show of it tonight. She’d worn one of the dresses she’d mostly recently designed. It was gold and yellow primarily, and matched her hair. The theme was nature, the dress meant to be the sun and flowed off her in waves. It was decorated with intricate hand sewn flowers and leaves, enhanced with jewel-toned accents that looked like dew drops and sparkling insects. Green brocade ran like ivy across the fabric, forming a flowing pattern up the length of the dress. Her curly blonde hair was haloed around her head, pinned here and there with jade accents, giving her the look of a sprite stepped fresh out of summer. Her mother had given it the stamp of approval, much to her delight.

Her brother was a stark contrast to her, though no less attractive or formal, his clothing rich and well tailored. He wore far more muted tones, blues and near blacks, with intricate silver embroidery dancing along the fabric. It was far less showy but she still thought he looked handsome nevertheless.

But it wasn’t just distracting onlookers with her fashion that was her aim. She took great pleasure in getting in the way of particularly entitled nobles who wanted her brother’s time, drawing them into idle conversations or expertly foisting them off on other people. It was all part of the game and she was getting very good at it under her father’s tutelage.

Truthfully, though, she was glad to be here with Dormal. Though she enjoyed the game, more than she thought her brother’s ever would, it was always better when she could use her skills to help Dormal. She liked to think the two of them worked well together, a united front as siblings. It helped that they could share whispers whenever they pleased, confiding thoughts they didn’t dare share with anyone else.

But she knew her brother carried the burden of expectation far more than she did, and that it grew heavier with each passing day. She reached over and gave his arm a little pat.

“Yes, I know you’re right. As much as I’d like to pull a big old prank with you right now even I know better. You’re right, we can’t go wild like we used to. But, while we might have to put up with all this, that doesn’t mean we still can’t entertain ourselves. We’ll just have to be quiet about it.”

“Oh?” Dormal arched an eyebrow, intrigued.

“Indeed. There’s nothing stopping us from having a whispers game, or trying to make each other laugh. In fact, I challenge you, brother. I’ll bet you won’t be able to make me crack tonight.”

Dormal chuckled. “Let’s just see about that. You might have seen lots of underwear but I know what gets you laughing.”

They finally came to a stop near a bank of riotous rosebushes, blooms of pink and white showing gaudily against the darker greenery. Nearby the fountain burbled happily, multicolored flowers forming a border around it. It didn’t take long for the other party goers to notice they’d finished their wanderings, which basically advertised them as open for business. There were already glances in their direction, as people tried to come up with excuses to leave their current conversations and approach, without looking like they were rushing. She imagined it must look like a chess game from above, with each piece trying to outplay the others.

But an unattached pair managed to reach them first, a man wearing a well tailored suit and a woman on his arm in a modern-cut blue dress. They bowed as they approached, and Silverbell nodded her head in return, as did Dormal. They couldn’t exactly ignore company any longer and she put on her best polite face as they introduced themselves and made all the usual pleasantries.

The pair were hardly engaging, and Silverbell thought they smiled a little too much. She was just about ready to shift into polite but uninterested mode, able to make small talk about anything, but a sense of wrongness flooded her mind. The man had his arm around his companion but was drawing it back forward in a way that hit all her alarm bells, and almost before she knew what she was doing instinct took over.

Silverbell shoved her brother hard in the shoulder, pushing him out of the way as a knife sliced the air where he’d been not moments before. To his credit Dormal rallied quickly, catching himself before he could fall to the ground. He rounded even as the woman’s face broke into a mask of fury and she drew a slender but wicked looking knife out of the handle of her fan.

“You little bastards. Like hell we’ll have you ruling the country. Down with the monarchy!”

The two of them lunged forward to attack, blades flashing forward to cut the queen’s line short. But they might not have known just how well trained in combat the royal children were, even while dressed in formal wear. As one the two of them jumped backward, staying close to present a unified front, completely focused on the threat in front of them.

Silverbell shifted forward slightly, trying to put herself between the threat and Dormal. Her brother might know how to protect himself but his safety was of the utmost importance. But Dormal seemed determined not to let her act as a human shield for him, even if it potentially left him more vulnerable. On the edges of her vision she could see movement approaching them, but for the moment they were on their own.

Unluckily for their attackers, though, she’d come prepared. She reached behind her and through the mass of curls to the gauzy frill of flowers that circled her upper body. It took a few moments for her fingers to brush the metal that waited there. Tucked into a carefully crafted leather sheath, sewn deftly into the lining of her dress, and obscured by ornamental flowers and her hair, was a sword.

She gripped the handle and drew it free with a whisper of sound. The blade was thin and completely unadorned, too long to be a knife but too short to be a proper sword. She’d had to work with what would fit against her back without calling attention to itself, but it would do in a pinch.

“Dormal, here!”

Silverbell passed the blade to her brother. He looked momentarily shocked at where it had come from but took it surprisingly in stride, his own combat training kicking as he lifted the weapon to block an incoming attack. Giving the sword up meant she had no weapon, but she’d rather Dormal be able to directly protect himself. It seemed a good choice, as the pair seemed more focused on him. Thankfully their weapons were hardly larger, no doubt having had to be clever to sneak them in here.

In the background she heard other guests panicking and crying for the guard, the attack impossible to ignore now. Some of them scurried away in fear, while others retreated more slowly. She was sure many were intrigued but didn’t want to be anywhere near the scene, lest they be thought sympathetic to the attackers. The guards hardly needed the call, already converging on their location, swords drawn. They were always nearby, of course, but Silverbell never ceased to be impressed with how they almost managed to melt out of the shadows.

The guards moved in, seeking to pin down the attackers, but they’d chosen a good spot for their attack, as the amount of foliage made it difficult to properly circle them. The pair seemed aware of this extra presence. They’d clearly planned on making a quick kill and escape, not having expected the prince to be able to defend himself so well, or to be armed. They continued pressing forward toward Dormal, eager to be done with him, making it difficult for the guards to easily separate them and the prince in the crowded space.

Dormal was holding his own but Silverbell didn’t think he could manage for long with two people going for him and only a small sword and limited space to work with. Her natural instinct was to shift forms but it would make her dress too big and she’d be at a distinct disadvantage against an armed opponent. The last thing she wanted was to present herself as an easy target and she didn’t think the people here would appreciate her ripping her dress off to fight in nothing but her underthings, as game as she was to do it.

But, she had a solution for this as well. She just hoped it worked.

Silverbell growled, but instead of pouncing with teeth and claws she reached up to her shoulder and took hold of a blue flower she’d handsewn. It was large, forming a sort of focal point on her outfit, and several of the brocaded vines ran down from it. She twisted her hand and the adornment came away easily, but she didn’t stop there. As she pulled it loosened one of the attached vines, the material not so much ripping as easily popping away from the sunny yellow fabric it had been pinned to. She’d practiced this in her room, and in moments she’d wrapped the now loose end of the rope around one hand, the blue flower acting as a weight at the other. She’d sewn an ironstar into it, a stone that was surprisingly heavy for its size.

The pair were still pressing her brother, Dormal dodging and blocking as best he could, and when there was enough of an opening she went for it. She had plenty of experience handling grappling hooks from climbing with Domerin, and she swung the weighted flower at the man who was darting in at her brother. It struck him hard in the shoulder and he gave a yelp as his sword arm dropped, momentarily stunned.

Dormal used the opportunity to dart in and strike the man with the butt of his sword, sending him tumbling to the ground into a flowerbush where he landed in a heap, his sword thumping to the dirt next to him.

The attacking woman was stunned for a moment by the sudden change in the wind, her eyes darting back and forth. Seeing the two armed royal children standing side by side, her partner down, and the encroaching guards, she must have realized she’d lost. Instead of standing her ground she snarled and dove past the two of them, not too proud to run. She aimed for a nearby hedge, one with loose enough branches she could probably get through if she really tried.

But like hell Silverbell was going to let her get away like that after she’d attacked her brother. She whipped her weighted rope after the woman, the ironstar striking her hard enough in the back that she stumbled into the hedge face first, robbing her of the finesse she would have needed to slip through.

She struggled and tried to right herself, but the foliage seemed determined now to cling to her and keep her from going anywhere fast. She cried out in anger and frustration, cursing their names and positions as she shot glares back at them through the green as she continued trying to free herself to the last.

Dormal laid a hand on Silvebell’s shoulder. She started slightly, the fight still in her, but he guided her a few steps away, giving the guards room to move in. It didn’t take them long to secure both the unconscious man and the cursing woman, making short work of disappearing them from the courtyard.

Silverbell could feel the eyes of the nobility upon them, already whispers filling the air, reminding her somewhat of the buzzing of bees about to strike. But the guards wouldn’t let anyone else get close, forming a tight circle around them and escorting them away from the gathered crowd and away from prying eyes. Their host was quick to find them as they moved through the hallways, bounding along beside, burbling apologies and promising swift and harsh justice against their attackers. He’d already called for his personal doctor, though Dormal assured the man they were unharmed.

Silverbell hardly heard any of it, her pulse still rushing in her ears. She kept close to Dormal, arm in his, wanting to reassure him that he wasn’t alone though she also took comfort from his proximity. He continued to clutch the sword and she held her rope, though the danger was well past now. The guard took them back to Dormal’s guestroom, and insisted on doing a sweep to be sure it was completely safe. The two of them stood near the door until they finished and they were finally left alone for a few moments to breathe.

“You all right?” Silverbell asked, plopping down beside Dormal on a small, plush couch. Only now that they were alone did her adrenaline start to bleed out of her. She’d wrapped the vine rope into a bundle, the ironstar sitting like a stone in her lap. She leaned a bit against Dormal and rested her cheek against his shoulder, the way she might have when they’d been children.

“A little shaken up,” Dormal admitted, letting out a little breath, shoulders slumping slightly. He’d laid the sword in his lap but wasn’t gripping it like he had been. “But I’ll be okay. Father taught me well. What about you?”

“Honestly, I was way more worried about you in the moment. When they went after you I saw red. I just knew I couldn’t let them hurt you. It’s only now the gravity of it’s hitting me.” She gave a little shiver at the thought of it.

“I guess it’s lucky you came prepared then. What is all this? Surely you don’t have a pocket dimension down your skirt.” He indicated the weaponry, a hint of his familiar humor returning, though he clearly wasn’t trying to mock. He even lifted the plain blade, turning it over in his hand to examine it now that he had a moment to do so, though he seemed more mystified by the fancy rope in her lap.

His comments drew a chuckle from her. “Well, I figured we’re going to be in lots of different situations. I can’t exactly carry a gun on my hip when I’m wearing something like this. If I’m going to design my own clothing, why not make it functional as well as fancy?”

“A practical way of looking at it. Though now I’m imagining you scaling the side of a cliff in that dress.”

“And ruin all my work!? This dress took me more than a month to put together.” She shot him a look but laughter was quick to follow. In a way it felt absurd to find anything humorous after something so dangerous had just happened. “I’m just glad it came in handy. I know I joke a lot and try to make these gatherings a bit less of a slog for you, but I haven’t forgotten the serious side of things.”

She was pretty much the opposite of serious most of the time, but she was honest, at least with her family. Dormal was silent a moment before shifting and putting his arm around her shoulders. She didn’t resist, just taking comfort from knowing her brother was well and truly safe.

“I know,” he said, after a short silence. “I appreciate that you do both. Things wouldn’t be as easy for me if you weren’t here. I know mother, father, and Crescent won’t always be able to accompany me, but it’s good knowing I’ve got family at my back.”

A comfortable silence settled between them for a time, it quiet here despite all the hubbub going on outside. Eventually they’d have to deal with the rest of the mess, but not just yet.

“I’m hoping we can still make underwear jokes, by the way,” Dormal said, a little grin touching his face. “And don’t be surprised if I ask you to sew some hidden weapons into my clothes too.”

“Like hell itself could stop me,” Silverbell laughed, her voice ringing out sweetly like their mother’s. “Just be careful what you ask for, or I might just make you some polka-dotted underwear.”

Dormal’s laugh echoed her own, and at least for this time she counted them as even on the laugh front.

Photo by Judson Moore on Unsplash

Round Trip

“No luck at first destination. Heard rumor of supply at Stillwater. Am going to look into it. Should take me a couple days travel. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Crescent. Got all that?”

“Don’t worry. We’ll get it delivered as soon as we can, I promise.”

“Thank you,” Crescent sighed with relief, though doubt still clung to him. He repeated the message one more time just to be absolutely sure there was no confusion. The caravan leader seemed a bit miffed that he hadn’t taken her word the first time, but repeated his words dutifully back. He thought she might be more patient than she would have otherwise, given the recipient of the message was meant to be Domerin Lorcasf. Doing him a good turn tended to be a good thing.

He knew he’d only annoy her if he kept pushing so he thanked her profusely again, before handing over the promised rations to her. Food was simple enough payment; he could hunt if he really started running low and he’d wanted to keep the rest to trade for the medicine. He bid her safe travels and left, though walking away wasn’t easy.

At some point you just had to trust you’d done enough. The message wasn’t what he’d really wanted to say. He’d wanted the woman to pass on that he missed Domerin, hoped he was doing okay, and that things weren’t becoming too much in his absence. That he was trying his best to get back to him as quick as he could. But he hadn’t dared say anything more familiar, not through a third party, so he’d stuck to the most basic of information.

Communications were difficult over long distances and though he knew the woman he’d left the message with was trustworthy, there was no complete guarantee that it would reach Domerin safely. Danger lurked in the wastes and he could really only hope word got through.

It felt like such a tenuous thread connecting him to Domerin, a small hope to promise him that he was still looking, and was still going to come home. He hated being so far away but had quickly come to understand that distance had not dulled his desire to reconnect with Domerin. On the contrary, it had only made it grow the stronger.

In some ways it had been a hard decision to follow this lead and Domerin’s warnings about tough choices ahead hadn’t made it any easier. His desire to return to the caravan had almost been overwhelming. He felt adrift out here, out of place and alone. There were moments he still felt guilty for leaving Domerin alone. But no matter how he might feel, he’d come out here to help Domerin. Right now, this was how he could best do that. The other man was worth whatever hardship or discomfort might come, and he held his tie to Domerin close to his heart, unwilling to let it go.

He couldn’t help but wonder how Domerin was getting on and if he was okay without him. It wasn’t that he worried about the man physically, he could take more than care of himself. Mentally and emotionally however… people didn’t realize how deeply things affected Domerin, and how much he truly cared, how much he carried on his shoulders. Even he’d been blinded to that somewhat lately, much to his great regret.

How many times had he flippantly taken his punishment while not caring about how his actions had affected Domerin? How many times had he made the man think he’d only cared about the strength of his will in the bedroom? Even once would have been too much. Perhaps it was no wonder the man had asked if their relationship had ever been real. It wasn’t as if he’d ever really grown up and learned how to treat things seriously.

It was partly why he knew how important this trip was, and what kept him going through the stress and danger. Domerin had done so much for him, and it was long past time he was the one helping him.

Crescent was relieved when he finally reached the next settlement, taking some solace in the fact that he’d likely get to spend at least one night in a proper bed. The road was dangerous, even for someone as well versed in survival as he was and traveling alone was fatiguing when you had to worry about keeping one eye open for attacks in the night. It had been a long time since he’d had to be so wary on the road, recalling with a pang those early days before the caravan when he and Domerin had been traveling by themselves. Things had been hard back then, with just the two of them but they’d kept each other safe, and had taken happiness in their freedom.

Once he’d gotten in town he found what he was seeking easily enough: a reputable looking inn right on the main drag. He parked his bike out front and headed in, securing the loot he’d brought along, trusting no one else with something so precious. He needed a drink after being on the road so long and knew these sorts of places were perfect for getting the lay of the land. Surely someone here could direct him to what he was seeking. The sooner he got an idea of who might have the supplies he needed the sooner he could start home.

It was cleaner inside than he’d come to expect of places like this and he headed straight to the bar. The tender was absent for the moment, giving him a bit of time to look around while he waited. At this time of day the place wasn’t packed, but there were always barflies to be found, scatted through the room, huddled over their drinks. The little conversation there was was muted, but the atmosphere was pretty relaxed overall. Oddly enough, music played in the background, the sort of thing with a flowing beat a person could dance to.

After a cursory glance of the room it became clear why. Across from the doorway, framed by two windows, a woman stood on a slightly raised platform, swaying back and forth silkily. A tight little dress hugged her body as she moved her hips in time to the music, while her hands lifted and flowed in graceful patterns in front and to her sides. Black hair fell freely down around her shoulders and her gaze beckoned to anyone watching, seeking to both entertain but more likely to entice.
She’d caught the eyes of several patrons who seemed more interested in the small show than their drinks, though Crescent thought her skills were likely wasted on an audience like this one. Perhaps business was better once it got closer to evening; one could probably make good money entrancing the drunk.
She must have caught him looking at her, as she met his gaze and let a sultry little smile touch her lips as she swayed back and forth. It was difficult not to look at her. He had to admit she was good at her craft and a familiar hint of heat rose inside him. It was easier when he’d been traveling, when there’d been no one around to catch his eye, though even that hadn’t stopped him from feeling the embers sometimes.

But being alone had also forced him to sit with those thoughts as he’d never really done before. He was always around people, always had something to occupy his mind. Spending long hours in contemplation with nothing to distract him from what was inside had been something new. He’d feared it at first, as badly as he feared deep, dark water but as time had gone on it had grown somewhat easier in certain ways. The embers might still be there, but he could manage knowing there were more important things that needed done.

He’d been lost in his thoughts but drew back quickly when he felt a presence close by. When he looked up it was into the light blue eyes of the woman who’d been dancing, who’d taken his reverie as a chance to approach, and who now stood leaning against the bar next to him. As a stranger in town perhaps she’d considered him her best option for business. She was quite lovely to look at and he caught a hint of some sweet perfume lingering around her.

“Hey honey,” the woman nearly purred, her voice smooth and sultry. She reached out and laid a light hand on his arm “Looking for some company?”

It would be a lie to say he didn’t miss touch like that and the soft press of fingers was somewhat welcome to a man used to communicating party through the physical. But he shook his head. What she was offering, no matter her skill, was transactional. He’d had a lot of time to think about that while he’d been alone. All those others had filled a temporary void, but none of them touched his spirit the way Domerin did.

Besides that, he was here to help Domerin and that was all that mattered. Whatever nature might try and demand of him, he didn’t have to be its slave or give in to it. And even more than that he didn’t want to. He’d thought a lot about Domerin since leaving the caravan but it wasn’t thoughts of his bed that had occupied his mind. It had been the man himself. Wonder and worry over how he was doing, and a powerful feeling of missing him. Domerin needed him, and he would not allow anything to sway him from doing what he’d come here to do.

“No thanks,” he said, giving her a smile but also shifting gently back away from her touch. He didn’t want it to linger while also making it clear he wasn’t angry with her boldness.

The woman looked sad at his rejection, but shouldered it well, likely more troubled by the loss of potential coin rather than from some hit to her pride.

Before she could respond, though, he went on. “I might not be interested in company but I would be willing to pay for some information, if you’re willing.”

“What sort of information?” She arched a dark brow, unsure but intrigued, sliding onto the stool next to his own. “If I can help I’ll do what I can.”

“Thanks,” he said, giving her another smile. “I’m looking to trade for some medical supplies. A particular drug, to be specific, which is pretty difficult to find. I’ve heard I might be able to find something like that here. Do you know who I could ask?”

She arched an eyebrow, giving him a look for a moment. “If you’re looking for something dangerous I’m afraid I can’t help you. I’m-”

“It’s nothing like that,” he interjected quickly, shaking his head. “It’s for a sick person. This is the only thing that can help them. Please, anything you could share would be a great help.” He tried to sound as honest as he could, trying to think of how Domerin might have approached the situation, rather than his own way of blunt forcing through situations.

His words seemed to reassure her and she relaxed, spending a few moments thinking.

“You could speak with Bronn Aldridge, the trade master over at the supply depot. There’s a bit of a trade hub that runs through town here, and there’s a chance he has medicine stored away. Apparently people find all sorts of stuff there. There’s also…” She hesitated a moment, looking uncomfortable before she shook her head. “No, don’t worry about it. It’s not something you’d want to know.”

“At this point anything can help, even if it doesn’t seem helpful.” Crescent had arched a brow, both questioning and curious at her change in tone, but he needed to have ever potential lead before he started following them.

“Well… you could possibly try Old Madge – er, Dr. Madge.” The woman glanced around as if she expected someone to jump out of the shadows at her at any moment, but the bar was a subdued as before. She leaned in a bit closer, lowering her voice so she could whisper the rest. “She runs the body clinic here in town. Has all sorts of medicines and drugs and the like. You can try there, it’s just… it’s a pretty weird place. If I were you I’d avoid it if possible. People don’t go there unless they’re pretty desperate.”

“Thank you,” he said again, and he truly meant it. “That was very helpful. And I’ll keep your advice in mind.” He would pay her for the information and bid her well before seeking the tender to get himself a room for the night. He was exhausted and needed some rest, though he had further decisions to make.

He wondered how Domerin would have approached the situation, having a few ideas. But he knew that wasn’t quite the right answer. Domerin had trusted him enough to be willing to send him on this mission. After their breakdown he hadn’t been sure he’d ever be able to earn any trust back from him again. So he couldn’t only rely on what Domerin would have done, but instead had to believe the man trusted him enough to make good choices.

That didn’t stop him from wishing Domerin was here, though. Even back when they’d first won their freedom he’d always felt like they tackled problems better together. They’d been a team from the days they’d first met, even if their only goal back then had been survival. It was an aspect of their relationship he hadn’t realized he would miss so much until it was gone.

“So this is what you’re after, is it?” The woman didn’t look up from the scrap of paper with the name of the drug carefully printed on it but clearly recognized it, which was a relief.

Crescent shifted slightly from foot to foot before answering. There was something a little too eager in her tone that set him on edge. He’d gone to see the trade master that morning, but the man had only been able to give him half of what he needed. He’d paid and stashed the goods safely back in his room at the inn but he couldn’t leave without a full dose and that had left him with only one option remaining.

After the warning he hadn’t wanted to come here but at this point he was desperate. He’d spent some time considering his course of action and thought Domerin would at least have checked things out.

The ‘clinic’ was a small building tacked on front of what looked like an old warehouse. The entrance had had a somewhat cold feeling to it. He’d waited for a time in what had essentially been a lobby, a small room filled with people who’d apparently come for medial care. But he’d gotten a desperate feeling from the lot of them, noticing sunken eyes and ashen skin, noting both physical maladies and distressed and nervous looks. There were things here he didn’t think doctors like Seibel, for all their skill, could possibly cure. What was different about this place?

He wasn’t sure, but there was something off about it. There was an antiseptic smell that lightly burned his nose and he hadn’t failed to notice the burly orderlies standing near doors as he’d been lead back into what felt like a labyrinth of hallways. He would speak with one of the staff about his need but kept his guard up even so.

Dr. Madge was a lean woman, with drawn pinched skin, and greying hair pulled back into a tight bun. There was something almost hungry in her green eyes, sharp as two fangs ready to dig into his flesh. She looked him over and he shivered slightly. It was unusual that someone in this day and age could make him feel uncomfortable but he knew this feeling; it was hardly the first time he’d been looked at as if he were a piece of meat instead of a person. It wasn’t something you ever forgot and it set him instantly on edge.

“Yes. I can’t take anything different, or any less than what I’ve asked for.” He kept his tone carefully steady but made it clear he wouldn’t bend on this. He wasn’t sure just how much she might try to take him for a fool. Whatever went on in this place he didn’t want her thinking he was as desperate as some of the people he’d seen in the waiting area, even if he was.

She didn’t answer right away, making a soft sound of contemplation before she looked back up at him.

“I have what you need. For a price.” She said, fixing him with a look, as if she wanted to pin him to a board. “Drugs like this are very hard to find these days. They’re quite valuable.”

“I know they’re difficult to come by and that it won’t be cheap. Pardon me for being blunt, but how much to you want?”

“Payment, of course. Everyone is always so keen to get to that part.” Despite her words, she didn’t seem phased by his question or forwardness but also didn’t seem particularly keen to rush either. She was comfortable here and knew she had the power. She gave a little wave of her hand when she finally went on. “You understand loot is one thing. It’s easy enough to come by. You can always get more. What I offer is not easy to replicate, if they can be made properly at all anymore. So when it comes to medical supplies of this nature, I only trade for other medical supplies. I would always be on the losing end of the transaction otherwise.”

Crescent frowned. This was an outcome neither he or Domerin had foreseen. They had supplies in the caravan, and he understood how precious they were, but he didn’t have anything like that with him.

“What can I give you then? It’s not that I don’t understand your terms, but I have no medication to trade.”

Instead of calling the meeting to an end at his admission a pleased little smile curled the doctor’s lips. It set the fur of his tail standing on end, and he was only glad there was a desk between them to hide it from her view.

“Believe me, this is not an unusual situation here.” She waved her hand slightly, giving off a sense of sympathy he didn’t buy. “Most people don’t walk around with much, aside from perhaps a few bandages. There are other ways to trade aside from pre-made supplies, which you happen to have in abundance. Your blood will be more than enough payment for the amount of the medicine you require.”

He stared at her, his shock no doubt clear to see on his face, for the moment speechless.

He’d heard that in the old days blood was used heavily in medicine, but that hadn’t been the case for a long time. He had no idea what she would do with something like that but it was suddenly very obvious why it was called the body clinic. This was the price for the desperate. He shuddered to think what others might be willing to pay. It took him several moments to find words, and he wasn’t sure he quite kept the hint of disgust out of them.

“What in all hells do you want my blood for!?”

“Does it matter, if it gets you what you want?” She asked, replying as if he’d asked her about the weather. “That, Mr. Crescent, is my offer. You are, of course, free to accept or reject it. It’s completely your choice. If you don’t wish to do business one of my associates will take you back to the entrance.”

She went silent then but her gaze remained fixed on him now, unwavering, waiting for him to make his choice.

Crescent stared up at the ceiling as his blood ran steadily from the needle in his arm, through the tube connected to it, and into the container he refused to look at. He was resting on a padded table in a small room, trying to keep his breathing even. He still wasn’t sure he’d made the right choice. This was dangerous, he knew that, but he got the feeling Domerin would have been willing to take the personal risk to help another, provided he took what precautions he could.

Dr. Madge had already fetched the precious medicine he’d come for. He’d made absolutely sure the name was correct and checked that all the pills he’d been given matched the picture Domerin had given him, before he tucked it all away carefully into an interior pocket of his shorts.

Only then had he allowed them to take him to this room and lay him down, though he hadn’t let down his guard for a moment. Part of him had been tempted to run but with his goal in hand he wouldn’t risk messing this up now. Part of his agreement had included making sure all the supplies were clean, and he kept a close eye on the doctor as she worked. She’d opened a fresh, wrapped needle and tubing in front of him and he didn’t look away until it was in his arm, Domerin’s voice echoing in his mind all the while, warning him to take care so there were no tricks.

The pinch of the needle hadn’t hurt much but once everything had been set up he had little to do but wait until they were done. His mind drifted instantly to Domerin, the thought of the man a source of great comfort in a stressful and unsure situation. He didn’t think the man would be very happy to find him here, but he still felt like this was the right decision. He still wondered how the man was doing and how he’d be when he got back.

As the minutes went on he felt somewhat sluggish and slow, the edges of his mind fuzzy. The doctor floated at the corner of his vision, monitoring him, and his ears twitched as muted sounds reached him from somewhere beyond the closed door. He was sure he heard cries among them, people calling out. It was unnerving, unable to tell what else might be happening in this place, but as time went on his eyelids started to feel heavy and he could hear his heartbeat in his ears. The sound wasn’t unusual though each time his eyes closed the tone and timber of the distant cries shifted. They grew closer, more immediate, and far more familiar.

Behind his eyelids blurred images and flashes of light bloomed, mixed with the screams that were in his head now, everything bathed in a reddish blackness. There was pain everywhere and a feeling of dull horror in his gut, and he realized with a mounting fear that it was his voice he heard. It wasn’t from now. The pain of the needle was slight and he could still feel the padded table under him, yet somehow it was also real.

His own voice cried out across the span of time and memory.

He didn’t think about that day very often. The day their old master had had enough of their disobedience. The day he deemed their worth less than his own anger. The day Domerin had broken his mind to save him from certain death. For a long time after he’d actively pushed those memories to a far corner of his mind, until it had become a habit. After his body had healed he hadn’t wanted to recall the pain. But those memories were always there, a fixed point in he and Domerin’s history. They still bore the scars on both mind and body.

“Dom…” He muttered, voice thick. He tried to shift his body, to lift his hand, fighting to wake but felt like he was drowning in cotton.

“Lie still.” A voice spoke close to him. “Still more to go…” Something gripped his arms, holding him in place and at this point he could do nothing but submit to it. It reminded him too much of the ropes and chains that had bound him on that day. His distress rose as he remembered the bite of each lash and blow until everything had been pain, until his world had started to grow dark. Fear welled up inside him and he cried out.

But before he could totally lose himself the thought of Domerin entered into his mind. The pain didn’t stop but the darkness did and his cries shifted instead into other voices, calling out in anguish and fear as something new broke into existence. Even if he couldn’t see he knew, just as he’d known back then, that Domerin was there, protecting him. The thought of the man comforted him and he imagined arms surrounding him, holding him close, and keeping him safe.

He’d always felt safe with Domerin, even before that, when they’d been huddled together in the darkness of a closet, both small and afraid. He’d known, in those moments, that he wanted to be with the man always, and was willing to risk any danger to stay by his side. He’d never regretted that choice, even to this day.

He let out a breath and relaxed. The worst of it faded away. His heart still beat in his ears but he felt a sudden release of pressure against his arm and eased further back against the padding as hands shifted him into a more comfortable position.

He tried to open his eyes but they wouldn’t obey and, for a time, oblivion claimed him.

A last wisp of smoke curled into the sky from the dying remains of his small fire. It was too dangerous to leave it lit out here at night in such open country. Besides, he didn’t really need the light it provided and it wasn’t so cold this time of year that his fur and a light blanket wouldn’t keep him warm until the sun returned.

He was curled into a little ball, bedroll tucked up against a semi-sheltered rocky outcrop, cradling the small lockbox that held the medicine in the center of his furred warmth. He was still somewhat tired from his visit to the clinic and rest was welcomed after a long day of travel.

He’d been out of sorts after waking up. They’d taken far more blood than he’d been comfortable with. The doctor hadn’t been the least bit apologetic and, since he finally had what he’d come for, he’d decided not to press the issue. He’d taken the rest of the day and that night to rest up in his rented room before heading out first thing the next morning, knowing he’d do no one any good if he couldn’t drive. He managed well enough so long as he was careful.

As he laid there his mind drifted back to those moments on the table. His thoughts had been disjointed at the time but he remembered enough and the thought of it made him shiver with how powerfully the memories had come over him. He honestly hadn’t thought they could still affect him that way.

He’d always been so content to live in the moment, to never look back. For him it was easy. But he also remembered Domerin coming to his rescue and in doing so giving himself over to something dark that lived inside his mind. And he was coming to realize Domerin never had the luxury he did. The man had broken his mind to save and protect him and the consequences of that went far past just having Tierloc in his head.

The wounds inflicted by their old master had healed after awhile, and his mind had bounced back. But things had changed because of that day and Domerin had never quite been fully the same. His new reality wouldn’t let him. But their hard won freedom, and Domerin’s new companion, had not changed how he felt about the man.

But had he ever really told him that? Domerin had told him what happened to him in those moments but he’d never spoken to the man more about their connection before Tierloc had come. It felt to him as if everything had been defined in the after, with the weight of expectation resting on everything, and the shadow of Tierloc now looming over their lives. Even if he’d died that day he would have done so happy with the small time he and Domerin had gotten to share. But he’d never told the man that either. How could Domerin think any differently than he did?

He laid silently there in the darkness. Out here, without the lights of fire, vehicle, or building, the stars above shone brightly. The entire sky was painted with speckled points of light that shone away, heedless of those below. He spent a good portion of his time outside at night when he was on guard duty but these days his eyes were ever on the ground, searching the shadows for danger. How long had it been since he’d really just looked up? He used to do it all the time.

He remembered nights he and Domerin had simply lain under the stars together, with only the dying embers of a fire to light their surroundings. No caravan, no one else to take care of, no logistics. Just the two of them. They hadn’t even needed to say anything, or do anything. Just being with each other had been enough. At some point he’d lost sight of that.

The stars blurred and he reached up a hand to rub at his eyes, finding hot tears running down through his fur. His whole body ached worse than he thought it might ever had and he curled close in on himself, shivering slightly, though it did little to ease the feeling inside.

There’d been a time when he’d been terrified of the fire inside him but, after everything, that wasn’t what roared away inside him, calling for his attention. He ached, right down to his bones, for Domerin. More than anything else he wanted to see the man. To see him smile, to sit next to him, to spend those quiet moments together, to assure him that things were going to work out. To reconnect.

He finally knew what homesickness felt like. Not for the caravan, or even the people in it, but for the man he considered home. In the end, that was all that mattered. The roughness of the road and the fatigue in his bones would be nothing when he got to see Domerin again. Only this time he’d learned better than to take what he had for granted.

“Soon,” he whispered into the night, rubbing away the last of his tears. “Soon I’ll be home to you. Just wait for me a little longer.”

Lessons in Lock Picking

The room was silent, aside from the muffled sounds of cars on the road outside and the light swish of a ceiling fan. Late afternoon sun filtered in through the semi-open blinds.

The light jangle of a chain dancing over wood broke the relative silence, accompanied now and again by the metallic clank and scrape of metal against the desk situated in the corner. The room’s sole occupant was hunched over it, staring intently at his hands.

Kestrel grunted, displeased. He was known for being cool and calm, no matter how stressful the situation was. He’d stared down armed robbers and thugs, been in fistfights and foot chases. But this? This was impossible.

He’d been fidgeting on the chair for the last several minutes, his patience having finally broken. He drew in a few deep breaths, trying to calm himself but as he stared at his handcuffed wrists a growl pulled from his throat and he jerked his arms apart, twisting and turning his hands as if that would somehow free him. The chain held fast, and all it accomplished was metal biting into his wrists and a jolt of pain up his arms into his shoulders.

He let out a breath, holding his hands up and out in front of him as he assessed the situation. The cuffs weren’t looped around anything, and he had a bobby pin sitting right there on the desk, waiting for him to pick it up again. Technically he could just get up and walk away but Silkfoot had made it very clear the cuffs weren’t coming off until he passed the required test.

The man had been pretty quick to start him on lock picking, an essential skill for the type of life he lead. He hadn’t had too much trouble mastering simple things like handcuffs, at least not when the cuffs were sitting on the table in front of him and he had time to work the mechanism open. But once he’d gotten the hang of that Silkfoot had started giving him different challenges to make things harder.

Or, as the man had told him, to simulate situations that might actually happen while out on a job. He’d been pretty sure Silkfoot had pulled heavily from his own experiences.

So far he’d been tasked with freeing himself while he was cuffed with his hands behind his back, and once to a pipe over his head. Eventually he thought Silkfoot would expect him to be able to get out of cuffs blindfolded using only his mouth. But, he didn’t really have cause to complain. His teacher was a master thief and knew what he was doing, despite his often freewheeling ways.

But that all seemed a long way off at the moment. His current challenge was getting the lock on each wrist open only with that same hand. It had hardly seemed like a challenge when Silkfoot explained the rules but he’d been sitting here for a good half hour and the cuffs still sat resolutely around his wrists.

He grunted and brought his fists roughly down against the tabletop, momentarily losing his cool. The chain rapped hard against the wood and the desk shuddered, sending a cup full of pens toppling over.

Silence returned as they came to rest, a few long moments passing before he felt the air change as the door behind him opened.

There was no sound as the other occupant of the house entered, no hint of footstep or whisper of cloth, but he’d been a guard long enough to know when someone was behind him. He didn’t turn, knowing he was safe. Physically, at least. He got the feeling his teacher was going to be displeased and he already regretted his outburst.

“Still at it?” Silkfoot asked, his tone holding nothing other than simple interest.

The other man slipped into the edge of his vision not a moment later, leaning over his shoulder so he could peer at Kestrel’s still-cuffed wrists. His loose cream-colored hair slipped down as he leaned, bouncing gently against his slender shoulders. The man made a soft, noncommittal, sound but gave no indication if he were pleased or not by what he saw.

“Yes, as you can see. I thought this was going to be easier than it’s proven to be.” He saw no reason to lie, not when the truth was obvious. He wasn’t sure exactly what it said about him that Silkfoot was willing to leave him alone in here to complete this challenge, seeming to trust he wouldn’t cheat. Even in the face of frustration he wouldn’t stoop so low.

Silkfoot tutted. He moved forward and pivoted on one foot and came to rest, with his usual grace, against the wall just next to the desk. There he leaned, as if they were having some casual conversation.

Kestrel was always reminded of a cat when watching the other man move. He felt bulky and slow in comparison, like a football player standing next to a dancer. Despite his size, his companion had still seemed adamant about teaching him.

“If this were real you would have been in the back of a police car by now.” Silkfoot didn’t sound angry or particularly disappointed at the lack of progress, though his brows were slightly raised, seeking more information as to the why.

“I know,” Kestrel said, his voice low. “This shouldn’t be any harder than the other challenges you gave me, but I can’t get this one. It’s hardly my fault. My wrists aren’t as flexible as yours.” He lifted his hands, trying to bend his wrists to slot the pin into the keyhole, but no matter how hard he tried he couldn’t properly reach. He wasn’t the sort to shift blame, but this seemed physically impossible.

Silkfoot silently regarded him as he tried to work, one brow simply raised until Kestrel laid his hands back down on the desk.

“You may as well leave me in them,” he said, letting out a great heaving sigh.

“That doesn’t sound like the Kestrel I know,” Silkfoot said, giving him a bit of a look. The man seemed less pleased by his apparent forfeit than he had about his failure.

“Your wrists might be thicker than mine but that’s not the issue.” He pushed smoothly off the wall and crossed the room. He fetched another chair, setting it up next to where Kestrel was sitting. He almost wished the man would just leave him like this, more frustrated to have disappointed him than anything else. The man had taken him under his wing, and put faith in him. Surely a man of his size couldn’t do what Silkfoot did.

“You’re trying too hard to force yourself.” Silkfoot said, interrupting his thoughts, as he settled into the chair next to him.

“Here.” He reached out and laid his hands over top one of Kestrel’s, gently guiding him to turn away from the desk, so he was facing the smaller man instead. He’d expected to find reproach waiting for him but instead he only found patience in those green eyes. The man drew his hands down so they came to rest on his knees, forcing Kestrel to lean forward somewhat. Despite the difference in their size, he may as well have been a captive to this man who’d so changed his life.

He looked down as Silkfoot’s hands started to move. He was almost shocked at how gentle they were. His pale fingers stood out against his dark skin, pressing gently and almost massaging as they moved to cradle the far larger hand.

“Your problem, my friend, is you’re way too tense. You need to learn to relax. You can’t bend if you don’t know how to flex.”

For a moment Kestrel bristled at the suggestion, but he knew Silkfoot was right, and it was only the frustration at the situation talking. He wasn’t exactly known for being flexible, even though to most he almost seemed to drift through life like a plastic bag in the wind. He drew in a deep breath and let it slowly out, working to let go of the tension that had built in his muscles.

Silkfoot began to press and fold his hand, curving it down toward the hole in the cuff that had so far eluded him. He took it slow, seeming intent on the goal without causing pain in the process.

For his part Kestrel tried to focus on the movement, relaxing his arm so he wasn’t offering any resistance and opening his mind to the sensation. He couldn’t help but notice how warm Silkfoot’s hands were against his own, a comforting pressure enveloping him. He marveled at how slender his fingers looked, belying the actual strength and dexterity that lay in them. He felt the little callouses on their tips as they brushed over his skin, gently but firmly guiding him.

His dark eyes shifted upward, breath catching momentarily in his throat as he looked at Silkfoot’s face, still framed by his hair. The man was focused intently on what he was doing, looking downward, but Kestrel found himself captivated by the curves of his jaw and cheeks, the way his brows lightly knitted as he worked, and the small upward curve of his lips. A warmth spread through him that he hadn’t felt in a long time. Perhaps forever, if he were being honest with himself.

He was so distracted that he hardly realized when a soft ‘click’ sounded between them, drawing his eyes downward. The pin held in his fingers was in the keyhole, his wrist bent perfectly. Silkfoot carefully drew his hands back, proving without a doubt that Kestrel could reach on his own.

“There you see?” Silkfoot looked pleased, his lips curled up into a little smile that Kestrel thought lit up his face. There was something about this man that called to him, some thread that had formed the first moment he’d laid eyes on him, when he hadn’t been meant to see him at all.

“Eventually you’ll need to learn to do this faster. Every technique you learn to free yourself is another tool in your belt. But basics first. I wouldn’t ask you to do anything I didn’t think you could do. Just remember, relax.”

Kestrel stared at him a few long moments, the words seeking to the heart of him. He trusted the man spoke true. Now that they were partners there wasn’t the same need to lie. Eventually he managed to nod and gave the man a smile in return.

“I’ll remember, promise.”

“Good!” Silkfoot stood, and returned the chair to its place. “Finish up and come find me. I’m going to order us a pizza.” As he passed by he laid a hand lightly on Kestrel’s shoulder, letting it side across his back as he made his way out the room.

Kestrel turned his focus back down to his wrists, getting them free quite quickly now. He gently rubbed the marks left behind on his skin by the metal, though his mind drifted back to Silkfoot’s hands on his own. He felt like the man had marked him too, invisibly, under the skin. Somehow, he got the feeling those marks weren’t going to fade any time soon. But that, he reasoned, wasn’t such a bad thought.

Photo by chris panas on Unsplash

Slug Magic

Beth hummed to herself as she turned the last corner on the bright yellow paper she held, her craft scissors running the final line until the star she’d been cutting out finally fell free. She held it up for inspection, but made a happy little sound as she found it passed muster.

A thud from out in the living area, like something slapping against the dining table, momentarily caught her attention and she glanced at the door to the living room.

“-ent ten years waiting for him, and now with the company go-“ Her mother’s voice drifted through the door, raised high enough for her to hear.

It was hardly unusual. Her mother could be loud sometimes and since her ire didn’t actually seemed aimed at her, or her dad, she saw no reason to worry about what her parents were talking about. Her mom had lots on her mind, especially recently, and sometimes that could make people shout.

“Robin you can’t blame the man for-“ Her father’s voice was softer and somewhat plaintive.

She started to hum louder as she worked, making her own personal version of one of her favorite songs as she doodled sparkles on the freshly cut star with a marker. When she was finished she took the shape and set it against a paper towel roll she’d whisked away from the kitchen earlier that day. Her tongue stuck out the side of her mouth as she painstakingly placed and glued the star among the other colored paper shapes that already decorated the cardboard.

“It’s not like before! What if he-“

Once she was sure the glue was dry Beth lifted the tube for a final inspection. It was covered with paper stars and hearts, adorned here and there with marker-drawn shapes and glitter glue. Some blue paper streamers her dad had shown her how to make stuck out the top like a burst of magic.

She grinned. It was perfect.

“You can’t expect him to change who he is, love. He’s-“

Beth lifted the wand and carried it with great pomp to her bed. She’d covered one of her pillows with a purple towel and framed it on either side with stuffed animals given to her by Michael and Kress. She didn’t have many of her old things anymore. Most of it had been lost when they’d fled their home but her mother’s old, much-loved and often patched, stuffed horse sat just behind the pillow. It was very important he be here today for the proceedings.

Set carefully in the center of the pillow, in a place of honor, was Nolan. He was nestled among the trappings like a king on his throne, with his stuffed court gathered around him. Only today it wasn’t his destiny to become the slug-king.

She lifted the wand again, along with her chin, and fixed the most serious look she could muster to her face.

“We are gathered here today to witness the great and powerful Nolan become the grandmaster wizard slug!” She said, her eyes flashing with the importance of her task. “We all come together to mark this momentous occasion and to congratulate our new hero.”

To the great fanfare of plush applause and cheering, she set the wand daintily down on the pillow next to Nolan. With that the appointment was official and he could immediately start using his magic to fight crime and space monsters. She’d already designated herself his sidekick.

Pleased, she grabbed her yellow and orange colored pad from the bedside table and started taking pictures. This event needed to be documented. Surely Mrs. Locklem would be thrilled.

She took pictures from just about every angle, until she was satisfied she’d done the great slug-wizard justice. Her parents voices still drifted through the doorway but she ignored them, gently settling on the edge of the bed to show the pictures to Nolan and her horse.

“Wait! We should send these to grandpa. What do you think Nolan? I bet he’ll love them!” Nolan didn’t reply, though she knew he’d approve. She’d long since learned how to send pictures to her grandfather’s pad. Her parents had set up a small network of family and trusted friends she could communicate with without supervision, so it was quick work to send them his way. She loved sending pictures to her grandfather, filled with an overwhelming glee each and every time he saw them.

But given the momentous occasion even that wasn’t quite enough. Excitement overwhelmed her, wanting to show her parents what she’d done, so she dashed out her room, brandishing her pad above her head like a flag.

Her parents were both sitting on the couch and her father jumped as she burst through the door. He started to stand, reaching for the cane which rested nearby, no doubt to shepherd her back into her room but she was too quick. She darted up to her mother who had taken up a position in the corner of the couch, her face slightly flushed. Usually she was welcoming, unless she was working on something, but Beth had learned not to bother her when that happened and her mother was clearly not working now.

“Look! Look Momma!” She waved her pad back and forth in front of her mother’s face, eager for her to see all the pictures she’d taken.

Instead of interest, a look of annoyance flashed in her mother’s eyes. Her jaw clenched as if she were biting back something she wanted to say. She was clearly displeased and reached out to grab the pad, pulling it out of Beth’s hands before she could stop her. She just managed to stop herself from trying to grab it back, knowing where that lead.

“Beth, I’ve told you time and again not to do that,” she said sternly. “Your father and I are having a serious discussion.”

Now that Beth looked closer there were bags under her mother’s eyes, and she seemed worn, like she sometimes did after one of her super long stints in the lab. Her father had something of a dark look on his face too, his lips drawn into a thin line, though he didn’t seem outwardly angry.

It had been a mistake to come out, there was no doubt about that. She shrunk slightly at the sharp look on her mother’s face, ready to apologize and hopefully slink back to her room. Her mother looked down at her pad, ready to turn off the device and no doubt confiscate it for the evening. But her finger paused, hovering just over the screen.

The pictures she’d sent to Domerin still sat bright and vibrant on the screen. Her egg sat in all his glory, resting on his purple throne, with his colorful wand and faithful horse beside him. Beth saw her mother’s blue eyes tracing over the picture. Her finger finally pressed to the screen but only so it could run along the edge of the plush horse, as if somehow she could stroke its fur through the image.

She was silent, staring at the picture before her. Her jaw quivered and for a moment she looked almost like she was in pain. Beth lightly bit her lip, feeling uncomfortable. Something was wrong.

“He just- after everything that happened he just left.” Her mother’s voice was little more than a whisper, her eyes still fixed on the same point.

“Mommy?”

Her mother’s fingers gripped the edges of the pad so tightly they’d gone pale, her hands shaking slightly. Beth feared she was going to throw the device across the room. But before her mother could do anything else a soft, cheery chime broke the silence.

Down below her mother’s finger, at the bottom corner of the first picture, a little thumbs-up icon flashed and started to glow bright green.

“What-?” Robin asked, for a moment seeming oddly lost.

Beth tentatively leaned forward, peering down at the screen. Despite the situation a small grin curled her lips and she made a little pleased sound at what she saw waiting there.

“Grandpa liked my picture! See?” She pointed down to the icon and dared give it a light tap, though her mother didn’t try to push her hand away. Domerin’s name momentarily flashed next to the glowing icon, marking him as its origin.

“But he already left. He left us.”

For a moment her mother looked lost, as if she had no idea what to do. It was a scary sight, scarier than anything that might lurk under a bed or down a dark hallway. Her mother was the strongest person she knew, aside from her grandpa, so seeing her like this was something of a shock.

Things hadn’t been quite right since they’d had to leave the Heart, their longtime home. They had friends here, and lots of good people looking out for them. She liked it here but was very aware Immorta wasn’t the White Dragons. It wasn’t where her mother had grown up. Where she and her father had met and fallen in love. That home was gone.

She looked over at her father but he was staring down at his new hand and looking somewhat lost himself. She thought of her grandpa. He would have set things right if he were here, but just a glance at her pad reminded her that he wasn’t really that far away at all. What would he do?

She hopped up on the couch between her parents, settling herself close to her mother’s side. She put one hand on her arm, just like Robin always did for her when she wasn’t feeling good. The woman gave a small start, looking over at Beth with dark rimmed eyes, as if she’d completely forgotten she was there.

Beth smiled softly at her in response and lightly squeezed her arm.

“Look mommy,” she said, far more gently this time, pointing down at the pad that still rested in the other woman’s lap. She used her free hand to slowly scroll down through the pictures, so her mother could see them all.

Even as she did there was another ding and another green thumbs-up flashed on the next picture down. A soft chorus of chimes followed in the moments after as each successive picture was liked. Beth tapped a few to prove who they’d come from, always the same name flashing over and over again. Domerin Lorcasf.

“Grandpa always likes my pictures. No matter where he is or how busy he is, he always likes all of them, even if I sent him a hundred. He’s thinking about me even if he’s on the other side of the universe. That makes me happy.” She looked up at her mother and gave her arm another little squeeze. “I bet he’s thinking about you too, mommy.”

Silence stretched between them for several long moments. Robin stared at her before her face suddenly twisted and she broke out into a great keening sob, following quickly by tear rolling freely down her cheeks.

It was alarming at first. The only time she’d seen her mother really break down and cry had been when they’d found out her grandpa was alive and coming home. But that had been a happy cry, full of joy. These tears were ugly, stomach-twisting and it hurt to watch. But before either she or her father could react she found herself enveloped in warmth as Robin’s arms went around her and drew her tight against her body.

She always loved being close to her mother. The woman was a mix of strength and softness, and always had a familiar scent she’d known since she could remember. But right now she just clung on, hoping to comfort her amid the storm. The couch behind her shifted, and her father moved to slip arms around them both. He too was warm and strong, and she slipped her arm around his new bionic one, hugging them both as tightly as she could.

It took a long while for her mother’s sobs to quiet, and even then she didn’t pull away. Despite the storm things felt right. It was a calm, solid, safe place. She, her parents, and her soon to be arriving sibling. She missed that her grandpa wasn’t here but she believed he was always with her in spirit, if not in person. Barring that, he was always only a few button presses away. Distance didn’t dull his love for them.

“He does always try to be as close as he can, doesn’t he?” Robin said, giving a sniffle, though it was followed by a sad, soft chuckle.

“He always does what he thinks is best,” her father said, his voice soft. “No force in the universe can stop him from going, love, but he won’t let them keep him from coming back either.”

“I know,” she said, her voice soft but carrying some of her familiar strength. It seemed as if there was a truth that rested deep in her soul, that had only needed speaking.

Silence fell again, and they stayed just as they were for a time, taking strength from one another. Eventually Robin shifted, letting the little ball of warmth loose, though she kept one arm around Beth, clearly happy to have her near. She took the pad and set it gently in Beth’s lap.

“Why don’t you show Daddy and I the pictures you took?”

When Beth looked up most of that familiar strength had returned to her mother’s face, though her eyes were still red from crying, and her cheeks bore the tell-tale marks of her recent tears.

“And Jerin, too?” Beth asked, lightly laying her hand on her mother’s round belly. He was family too, even if he hadn’t joined the world properly yet.

“Of course, my little spark, Jerin too. Grandpa will be back soon and not long after that you’ll both get to meet him. He’ll be happy to have such a good family around him.”

Her mother laid her hand over Beth’s smaller one atop the curve of her stomach. She smiled as she spoke and it momentarily drove the marks of sorrow from her eyes. It felt, at least for the moment, as if the clouds had lifted.

Beth smiled back and gathered up the tablet so she could share Nolan with her parents and little brother, just as she’d shared him with her grandpa. They were family, and that was a power stronger than even slug magic.

Wolf Moon

The moon shone bright in the cloudless sky. Its light flowed down through the trees, causing silver dapple to dance amid the undergrowth as branches and their leaves swayed in the breeze.

Dark green bloomed everywhere, thick and verdant, the product of healthy spring rains and the summer season soon to come. But the forest was more silent than it should have been given the myriad of life that cradled in its embrace. Squirrels and mice were silent, no night birds called, and even the foxes and badgers had gone to den. Something far greater moved through the trees, something none wanted to be in the path of.

Tree limbs shifted and leaves rustled separate from the wind, breaking the relative silence of the night. A huge shaggy shadow moved with speed through the forest, furred shoulders tall enough to brush a few of the lower branches. It paid them no mind as its bulk edged them easily out of the way.

It stopped and snuffled at the edge of a small, secluded clearing, giving a low rumble. The beast seemed pleased, tongue lolling from its mouth for a moment. It had found its quarry, now it only had to claim it. The open space beyond the trees was small, a perfect place to hide in wait for an ambush. But it wouldn’t need to be inside for long, not with how large it was, and it was more graceful than it seemed despite the close quarters.

Young saplings bowed to each side as the beast pressed forward, unable to stand against the force of muscle and sinew. It was a tighter fit than it had suspected, the trees slightly pinning around its midsection once the broad shoulders were through. The footing wasn’t completely sure either. Large paws crushed most small dangers, but broken branches and thorns still presented danger. It was a calculated risk, for sure.

Inside the clearing naked moonlight slid over long grey fur, unimpeded by the canopy. Pale yellow eyes swept over the clearing and pointed ears perked forward, ever alert, though it was the keen nose that led the way. Huge paws sent leaves flying as the giant wolf pounced in the center of the clearing, jaws snapping closed over something soft and warm that waited in the undergrowth.

A familiar scent filled its mind, knowing it had struck true. It held its quarry in a surprisingly gentle grip, careful not to have pierced its soft skin. But a light probing with its tongue told it something was wrong. It dropped the thing to the ground, finding nothing more than a now soggy pile of clothes that smelled like the elf he hunted.

Even as the wet plop sounded a shadow blurred out of the trees above. A far smaller shape had been nestled carefully up in one of the nearby saplings and when it seemed the wolf was hugged by the ring of trees it made its move, jumping gracefully down at the great shaggy shape.

A blade flashed in its hand, the metal angled toward the wolf’s neck. The clearing was meant to act as a trap for the large creature but it was more maneuverable in the small space than it seemed. As the figure landed on its neck it dropped its head, stealing the footing its attacker had been trying to secure.

A tight pinch told him a hand had managed to grasp onto fur and, if anything, he knew his assailant would hang on for dear life. But that also meant they were going to have a hard time getting a hit in. He gave a violent shake of his head, able to feel the light impact of a chest and face up against his neck as the elf tried to hold on. He used the opportunity to strike, lifting his paw and swiping hard.

It managed to catch his assailant unawares, sending them to the ground with a dull thud, followed by a groan. Before they could react further the wolf lowered himself gingerly to the ground, pinning the attacker to the ground. He was careful to put enough weight on them that it would be uncomfortable, but not enough to cause true damage.

Not that it stopped them from fighting, grunts and snarls coming from below as they tried to fight their way free. Their knife had gone flying during the fall and, with no way to escape, their struggles eventually stopped.

“I yield!” A female voice came at the same time a hand firmly tapped the beast’s side three times in quick succession.

It lifted itself off her without delay, not going to rub salt in the wound. With surprising care, it stepped over her prone form so it could hover over where she lay on the ground.

The young elf was covered in dirt, leaves, and sweat. The twin braids she’d pulled her hair into were a complete mess and her worn leathers askew. Though she was breathing heavily she still managed to scowl at the huge form that now hovered over her.

“Crushed under a wolf. What an undignified death,” she said, looking thoroughly displeased, slapping one dark-skinned hand on the ground.

The wolf huffed, lips drawing back slightly to show off the tips of his teeth.

Your sire will not care for your dignity or be swayed by your faces, cub. He will slit your throat and leave you to bleed in the dirt.

“I know what he’s like. I’ve heard the stories!” She protested. “But I won’t let that happen. People need to see him brought low after the things he’s done. I want to be standing tall when I face him, and when I’m standing over him bleeding in the dirt. I want him to beg for mercy when I gut him for what he did to my mother. He deserves no less.” A mix of anger and pride crossed her face. Her confident tone of voice was quite something for someone laying flat on their back.

The wolf bore it all with patience, giving a light huff at the end.

Pride over purpose is a fast path into the arms of Mother Night. Planning, wits, strength. All of these are undone by overconfidence. Your journey is nothing if you fail.

The young woman bit her lip, looking like she wanted to argue, but it was hard to refute the wolf’s logic. She deflated somewhat, but even reality couldn’t fully quash the fire that burned in her dark blue eyes.

“I just want to do right by my people. To make them proud. They deserve that.”

The wolf was silent. He lowered his head until it hovered close over the young woman’s chest. She reached up and wrapped her arms around his snout, unafraid of the teeth that lay just on the other side of the fur and skin. He lifted his head and body, easily drawing her along, helping her to her feet.

Leaves fluttered down from her shoulders and out of her black hair, and she brushed dirt off the well-worn leathers she sported. She had some small cuts and bruises but nothing time wouldn’t easily fix. The worst wound had been to her pride.

The wolf lightly butted his nose into her stomach, giving another low rumble in his chest. When he drew back his yellow eyes fixed on her.

They are proud of you, little bird. As am I. I would not stay if I thought our connection unworthy.

A look of both relief and gratitude showed on the young woman’s face and she laid a hand lightly on the wolf’s snout. A silent moment passed between them before the wolf let out a breath and drew away. He pushed his way back out of the trampled clearing and into the dark forest beyond. A slight limp showed the ambush hadn’t been a complete failure.

The young woman gave a little laugh as she hurried to catch up, though it wasn’t a cruel sound. She could tell it wasn’t serious and that her companion would be fine very soon.

“So it wasn’t that bad of a strategy after all,” she said, tucking her recovered knife into her belt.

The wolf gave a rumble that sounded amused but did not look back.

No, it was not. But fierce though you are, little bird, we need to work on your approach. We will reach your sire sooner than you think. Then the true test will be upon you.

For once the young woman looked thoughtful, but she didn’t hesitate to nod.

“I’ll be ready. Purpose and my people guide my hand.”

The wolf made an echoing sound of assent as the dark forest embraced them in its shadows once more.

Photo by Dominik Bednarz on Unsplash

The Frigid Heart

“More coffee?”

Ingrid blinked, her hand pausing along the line she’d been drawing, pencil hovering over the page. The question drew her out of the heady world of curves and angles and back into the present.

She had no idea how long she’d been gone this time.

A glance at the cafe windows provided no help whatsoever. The lights inside were always bright, chasing away the perpetual darkness outside that lingered for months on end at this time of year. The cheery cafe lighting and warm decor made it easy, for a time, to pretend she was anywhere else but her self imposed exile to the end of the world.

The barista stood next to her table, his dark, slightly curly hair haloed by one of the overhead lights behind him. The look suited him. With his delicate features and warm smile she was reminded a bit of some of her favorite Renaissance paintings.

This was the second time Nikolai had stopped by since she’d finished her first cup of coffee, and his smile hadn’t faded any since she’d first come into the cafe. He was always particularly attentive when she came in, which was often, and his friendliness was genuine, one of the people who made it slightly easier to be here.

“Sure, thanks,” she said, returning his smile. She set her pencil down and pushed her empty mug across the table but was careful not to let her hand linger near as he filled it from his stainless steel carafe. After only moments she could feel the heat begin radiating out from the ceramic. When he’d finished she carefully hooked one finger through the handle and drew the mug back with soft thanks.

Steam drifted up off the dark liquid but she didn’t immediately take up the mug to sip from it. It wouldn’t be odd for her to wait until her drink had cooled a bit to taste it. She usually waited quite a bit longer than that. That was her way, and Nikolai had quickly learned that asking to reheat her coffee for her was a quick path to nowhere. If he wondered why she didn’t drink it piping hot when it was far in the negatives outside, he was polite enough not to ask.

Truthfully she couldn’t really handle the liquid until it was completely chilled. No one around here did iced coffee, there was no point, but even lukewarm coffee felt scalding on her tongue. Thankfully, it was easy enough to give the contents of the mug a little nudge once she was alone so she didn’t actually have to wait long to drink it.

She’d been about to go back to her drawing when she realized Nikolai was still standing there.

“So, Ingrid…” He brushed a stray lock of hair back away from his eyes as he spoke, looking slightly nervous despite his usual charisma. A faint warning rose in the back of her mind, fearing what he wanted to say.

“You know the cultural center? I don’t know if you’ve heard but there’s going to be an exhibition there next week. Nothing big, of course, but they’re going to be showing some new artists from Moscow. You know how hard it is to get that sort of thing all the way out here.” He seemed to grow more comfortable as he spoke, this clearly something he was excited about.

“That sounds really cool! Honestly I didn’t think we’d ever get anything like that all the way up here.”

“Right? A proper exhibit here of all places? Oksana is really trying to bring new things to the city. There’s going to be food and music too. It should be a lot of fun. Would… would you like to go? Together, I mean?”

The last was spoken so fast he almost tumbled over the words. She was shocked by the question, never expecting anyone to be interested in someone like her. But she couldn’t mistake the hopeful look in his eyes, or his intent, which summoned a long absent heat to her cheeks.

Truthfully she didn’t know what to say. A part of her very much wanted to say yes. She liked him, he was sweet. What harm could it do? But hadn’t she come here specifically to avoid this sort of thing? This town was about as remote as it got but, lonely as it was, she’d come here to avoid causing hurt and pain to others.

But she didn’t just want to turn him down either. He was a good guy and she would feel terrible crushing his hope.

“It sounds like a lot of fun, and it would be fun to go with you but I need to see if I’ll be working that day or not. You know it’s hard for me to get off. Just give me a bit of time and I’ll let you know. I wouldn’t want to miss it.”

“O-oh! That would be great!” He looked a bit unsure, but the hope hadn’t left his eyes and thankfully he was good enough not to push for more. He flashed her one of his winning smiles, wished her well, and let her get back to her drawing.

Her cup sat there steaming as she puzzled over what to do.

Ingrid glanced at the bank building as she hurried down the street. The digital display read -30c in somewhat washed out gold numbers.

“Damn,” she whispered under her breath, slipping into one of the nearby shops that served as a bus stop. No one could handle standing outside for however long it took for the bus to come, so she would have to squeeze in with the other passengers.

It was warm in here with so many bodies pressed into the small space, uncomfortable for her, but she didn’t dare wait outside. It would give her away.

Despite the minor inconveniences, the Siberian city she currently called home was the best place for her, and she knew it. The constant cold suited her strange anatomy, and she never had to worry about overheating. Unlike other places she could even swim a bit here, as part of the local ice diving club. It was easy enough to blend in, so long as she remembered to be careful.

She always reminded herself to pull the fur-lined hem of her hood closer around her face. To draw her hat down further, tuck her scarf tighter, plunge her hands deeper into her pockets to ward off the cold she didn’t feel. Those were things normal people did.

For her it was an act, a very carefully cultivated persona she put on each and every time she stepped out the door. The frigid arctic wind here was more like a firm breeze in her face. The cold did not bite her skin or sink into her bones. Her thick winter coat was her costume.

“Ingrid!”

The voice wasn’t loud given the small space but it caused her to start even so. She turned, spotting Nikolai.

A part of her felt thrilled to hear his voice, while the other half cringed.

“Nikolai, hello! How have you been?” She greeted, hoping she sounded more excited than she felt.

“Well enough,” he said, slipping through the other bodies packed in so he could stand next to her, a grin on his lips. He hesitated, then pushed on. “Did you find out if you have to work on the day of the exhibit?”

She didn’t answer right away. She’d been hoping not to run into him before the event so she wouldn’t actually have to give him an answer. But that wasn’t an option now and seeing the hopeful gleam in his eyes made her chest hurt.

But she couldn’t let this go any further. She was trouble. How many others had been hurt because of her? She couldn’t put him in that position, no matter the warmth the thought of him brought to her mind.

She had to be cold, and cruel, to stop him before he ended up getting hurt worse. Better a mild burn than the alternative.

“Yes, actually, I do have the day off. But I’m afraid I won’t be able to go with you. I’m going with Aleksei instead.”

His smile faded, and he seemed stricken. She felt horrible but didn’t budge, counting on his considerate nature to save her from having to reject him again. Hurt and upset flashed in his eyes but after several long moments of silence he managed a smile he very clearly didn’t feel.

“Oh… well, I see. That’s fine. I- I hope you have fun.” He turned to step away but stopped and looked back at her.

“If you didn’t want to go with me you could have just said so. I would rather if you hadn’t lied to me and gotten my hopes up.”

It was a reproach she deserved but before she could say more he made his way out of the shop, the bell on the door jangling far too warmly for her liking.

She stood alone on the street. The overhead lamps flickered and hummed as they fought their perpetual battle against the cold, sad replacements for the lost sunlight.

Rime crusted around the fur lining of her jacket’s hood, but she paid it no mind. Water froze instantly here and, with at least another month of darkness to go, frigid air had plunged down to dangerous temperatures.

Despite her enjoyment of the cold she didn’t like when the sun was gone. It got you down after awhile, messed with your sleep schedule, and made it hard to be cheerful. She tried her best, but the rejection she’d given Nikolai still clung to her. Instead of taking the bus home she’d walked.

The street was silent, empty. No other soul could stand to be out here for very long, even with a proper coat. They risked frostbite, or worse. But she liked this time of night, with the deserted streets and the snow muffling her steps.

Without even realizing her legs had stopped in front of a familiar building, standing still as a statue. Curtained windows were illuminated by golden light, speaking to warmth and laughter in each home. No one peered through their curtains into the night. No one wanted to think about the chill outside when they were snug in beds or curled up under blankets on their couches.

Her eyes shifted, finding Nikolai’s window. Last one on the second floor he’d said. It gave him a great view of the sunrise, at least when there were sunrises.

His light was on, and she couldn’t help but wonder what he was doing now. Had he gotten over her words? Turned his mind to someone else? She hoped so. But a part of her longed to go upstairs and knock on his door, to apologize for causing him pain. To tell him just how much she liked him.

But what would she do when he wanted to come to her apartment and found that she never used her heater? That she took ice cold showers? That she could freeze the blood in his veins or bring a blizzard down that would bury this place?

No. Things were better this way. He would move on, find someone that fit him properly.

She drew in a lungful of frigid air and imagined it flowing through every corner of her body. It echoed down every limb until it curled back toward her chest. She didn’t resist as it rolled over her heart, freezing it solid. No longing. No wanting. It was safer that way.

She moved to step away. Ice groaned. Her boots had frozen to the sidewalk, as if wanting to trap her there. A simple swish of her hand and the ice retreated, flowing away like water. Snowflakes drifted from the folds of her coat. No breath was visible on the air as she exhaled.

She fixed her hood, tucked her scarf, and buried her hands deep in her pockets, turning away toward home.

 

A Charity Case

“What do you mean you won’t be able to make it?”

His voice was sharp, just on the edge of shouting. He wanted there to be no way to doubt his ire.

“I do truly apologize Mr. Darrow. I seem to have double booked myself somehow, and unfortunately the other engagement was created first. I take full responsibility for the error.”

Elim Darrow gripped his mobile phone. He’d expected more of an apology, more of of the groveling he usually got from the people he hired. It was even more galling given the nature of it. Being double booked by the head of another corporation was one thing. Having it happen with nothing but a glorified whore was a bit of a slap in the face.

“You can’t just cancel on me. You do know who I am, correct?”

There was a slight pause on the other end of the line, as if the other man were trying to temper his response, but only politeness followed.

“Yes, of course I do, Mr. Darrow. I truly am sorry for the inconvenience. I’m sure we can find a way to-”

“Who is it?” He demanded, seeing red. “Countess Rhoem? Duke Kassal?” Maybe he could convince whoever it was to cancel. It was trendy these days for even the gentry to buy into stocks, which gave him power he wouldn’t have had otherwise.

“You are well aware I cannot disclose the names of my other clients or their appointments, Mr. Darrow. I take their privacy very seriously, as I do yours.”

There was a light hint of admonishment in the man’s tone, and he girt his teeth to keep from snapping back at him. That was one point he couldn’t really argue.

“Well what are you planning to do make it up to me? One cannot run a business with dissatisfied customers.”

“I will, of course, return your deposit for the booking. And I will give you precedence on another date of your choosing, should you wish to make use of it.”

“Very well, I’ll be in touch.” He hung up the phone, not wanting to hear more.

He had no real choice but to accept, though that hadn’t made him any less angry.  Crescent was still somewhat new on the scene but he was very much in demand, the hot thing. He wanted those optics for himself; always making a point to be a trendsetter.

But as the day went on he couldn’t let it go, unable to quiet the desire to pressure Crescent’s other client to cancel, or at least to back off. One less person on the schedule would surely open up more chances for himself. But it wasn’t that easy. He realized as he stared at spreadsheets that if he couldn’t get the name of the client he’d just have to follow the man to see who he was going to meet.

Crescent didn’t allow clients to visit his home, rules of his contract made that very clear. But everyone in his line of work had to be licensed to ply their services, and they were required to have a home address.

Certain of his path he’d placed a little call over dinner to one of his government contacts. He had his hands in many ventures and it hadn’t been hard to pull a few small strings to find out where the man lived.

He knew the date and the general time, and arrived early on the day of, using one of his less flashy cars so he wouldn’t be instantly spotted. He’d gripped the fine leather steering wheel when the man excited his apartment, leaning a bit over it so he could see him better.

He looked, frankly, amazing. His blonde hair was carefully coiffed in a short style and he was sure the barest hint of makeup graced his face. His whole outfit screamed casual cool, from his jeans to his jacket; everything matched perfectly and it was surprisingly subdued given some of the outfits he’d seen the man wear. The clothes were carefully tailored and it would take a familiar eye to be able to spot they were designer.

He could see why the man was in demand, given how he did himself up and the confident way he strode down the street. That was why he was so confused when the man gracefully sauntered his way just down the street to the nearest bus stop.

It wasn’t a fluke, and he watched with his mouth hanging a bit open as Crescent chatted cheerily with the assortment of people waiting there. He’d assumed the man knew them, but with a growing sense of horror he watched the man actually climb on to a city bus. He was so shocked it took him a few moments to realize he was meant to follow.

It wasn’t hard to keep up with the slow moving vehicle, even if he still had a hard time believing someone like Crescent taking public transport. Surely whoever had booked him could have sent a car? He would have at least offered. All the more reason to approach.

It was about twenty minutes before he jerked into a spot when he saw the man exit the bus on a tidy, tree-lined street. He didn’t know this neighborhood very well but it was lined with far older buildings than the mostly modern structures that made up the city center.

Crescent headed down the street from the bus stop and Elim slid out of his car to follow him at a bit of a distance. He’d dressed down, at least for him, and worn shades to block his eyes. Despite being a businessman he moved in the right social circles, which meant most average people could at least identify him.

Crescent’s destination was a two story historical building that sat surrounded by an ornate iron fence and a very well tended garden out front that sported all manner of blooming flowers. It must have been someone’s house, built back when there had been more single residences than skyscrapers in the city.

He didn’t recognize who might own it but given the size it must have taken some money to keep a house like that out of the hands of developers. He was focused on Crescent but as he got closer he noticed the house was slightly shabbier than the garden surrounding it. Paint was weathered on the outer walls and the fence and shutters looked like they could do with replacing. Still, it was in surprisingly good shape for its age.

The blonde man had already gone through the gate and hopped up the stone steps that led to a wrap-around porch filled with potted plants and padded chairs.

He paused at the edge of the property to watch but noticed some people coming up the sidewalk. He hurried forward, not wanting it to seem like he was loitering. As he approached the wrought-iron gate a sudden urge took him and he stepped through, making his way at a quick clip up the walk while Crescent pressed the bell next to the red painted door.

The man must have heard his footsteps tapping on the stone, as he turned just as Elim mounted the porch.

Crescent’s jade eyes went wide when he first saw him, clearly not having expected this, and he took some small pleasure in being able to surprise someone known to be unflappable. After a moment they narrowed, though he got the feeling the man was carefully schooling his expression.

“Mr. Darrow, this is a surprise. What exactly are you doing here?” There was a note of warning in his tone, and he was versed enough in social clues to know the man did not appreciate finding him here.

He puffed himself up a bit. “I came to have a little chat with your current client. Somehow I think I would be better for-”

“Mr. Darrow! Excuse me, Mr. Darrow!?”

An annoyingly insistent voice cut him off from behind. The incessant click of a camera accompanied it, making the questions it lobbed impossible to ignore.

He turned on his heel, slick leather shoes scraping on the porch wood as he moved. Behind them, arrayed on the walkway was a small cadre of paparazzi.

It was hard not to just start shouting at them instantly. They were like cockroaches, appearing out of nowhere, an unwanted disease, always insisting on making it so he couldn’t sneeze in public without everyone knowing.

With a sinking feeling he realized he hadn’t been nearly as careful as he’d thought.

A woman with bright coral lipstick and sleek brown hair waited at the fore, a broad smile plastered to her face. A man next to her had a camera practically pointed in his face, still clicking away.

“Mr. Darrow,” the woman said, her voice sickly sweet, looking for all the world like the cat that had caught the canary. She held her phone out toward him, a recording app clearly visible on the screen. “It’s wonderful to see you. Care to tell our readers what you’re doing out and about today with your lovely companion?”

“Crescent,” the blonde man said, giving the woman a winning smile, no sign of his prior annoyance on his face. “Ms. Larris, isn’t it? From the Weekly Sun?”

He might not have been as well known, but given the sorts of people he was gaining as clientele it was unlikely he was a complete unknown to the gossip rags. Being seen with someone so high profile would certainly do him some favors.

“The one and only.” The reporter seemed pleased to have been recognized, her coral lips drawing into a little smug smile, but she turned her eyes back to him after a moment.

“Well, Mr. Darrow?”

Usually questions like this didn’t bother a man of his stature. It was easy to ignore snooping reporters, letting them make up their own speculations as to his reasons for being out and about. But today he froze. He had no idea where exactly he was. He wasn’t going to a meeting or some society soiree, and he had no idea what they would make up.

He realized like a punch in the gut what a bad idea this had been and he couldn’t just lie his way out of it.

But the reporter didn’t get a chance to prompt him again as the door behind them swung open.

The woman standing in the doorway had curly raven hair that haloed her head. She wore a flowered dress that was simple compared to the fine clothing of the two callers. Her brown eyes sparked with warmth as she took in Crescent but the moment she noticed the cameras on her doorstep she blinked, clearly surprised.

“Oh, I wasn’t-” The woman stammered.

“Well, you see…” Elim said at the same moment, his brain attempting to weave any sort of story to alleviate the crisis. They both fell into silence when they realized the other had spoken.

The awkwardness was a yawning gulf but before either could say more, Crescent stepped forward to face the cameras, a bright and frankly disarming smile on his lips.

Dread squeezed his heart, terrified of what the man was going to say, not exactly able to reach out and stop him now.

“I’m afraid you’ve caught us out. Mr. Darrow and I have just arrived here, at Brightridge Orphanage. Mrs. Abioye, the headmistress” he said shifting aside slightly to indicate the woman still standing in the doorway, “is a good friend of mine. Mr. Darrow and I are here for the afternoon.”

Elim’s eyes widened slightly. Why the hell had Crescent been going to an orphanage?

“Are you looking to adopt?” The reporter asked, not skipping a beat, a playful grin on her lips as she shifted her gaze back to him.

He gave her a cool look in return, this far easier to answer. “I am not, thank you. As you know I would appreciate if you did not make such assumptions about my personal life. Such things can be ill advised.”

The woman seemed unperturbed, her smile only growing a bit wider. No doubt it would have made her year to break a story about the head of one of the biggest companies in the world adopting a child. With a prostitute on his arm, no less.

“Well, then, Mr. Darrow the world wants to know what you’re doing here.” There was veiled suggestion in her voice, telling him she’d be just as happy to make something up for her voracious readers.

Crescent gave the woman another winning smile, not seeming bothered by her subtle badgering. He looked at ease in the spotlight. The first time Elim had seen the man, escorting some noblewoman or another, he’d seen him making that smile and it had been one of the reasons he’d asked for his business card.

“We’re here to do our afternoon of service for the children. You know, volunteering to clean, mend, cook and to spend time with the kids here. Giving isn’t all about just signing a check. I encourage each and every one of you to look into volunteer opportunities. They really do help make a difference.”

No one spoke, even Ms. Larris at a loss for words.

It took a moment for Elim to realize exactly what Crescent had said, unable to believe it. A professional whore was really at an orphanage to do some sort of community work?

The woman in the doorway rallied a bit and she stepped forward, giving a small smile. “We do indeed have many opportunities. We’re filled up for today, and all volunteers must pass a background check, but if you’d like to volunteer you can contact me by phone. Our contact information is on our website. However, this is private property, and I’ll have to ask you all to step away from the house if you’d be so kind.”

Since the grounds were included, the reporters really had no choice but to comply. Larris looked displeased but she indicated for the rest of them to make their way back to the sidewalk, where they could watch from outside the gate.

“You’ll have to grant us an interview about your experiences afterward, Mr. Darrow. My readers would love to know more about this new side of you.”

He gave a noncommittal wave of his had and the reporter skittered away to go be with the rest of her pack. Given the cheeky smile that remained, though, he got the feeling she’d be waiting when he left. He was not known for his philanthropy and suddenly finding him at a place like this was a mystery someone like her couldn’t turn down.

He turned back to the door, breathing a sigh of relief. Maybe he could slip out the back and call a cab home. As weird as it was that Crescent had come here, he had no desire to linger longer.

Crescent and the headmistress were speaking quietly to each other, though they stopped when he stepped forward.

“Madam is there an easy way to exit the back of this place? I can be out of your hair in short order.” He made sure to keep his voice soft, though it was unlikely any of the reporters would overhear.

The woman gave him a slightly quizzical look before glancing at Crescent, but she said nothing, merely disappearing back into the front hallway inside the house.

“You’re really planning to leave?” Crescent asked, also keeping his voice soft.

He blinked, not having expected this. “Look, what I did aside, you can’t really expect me to stay. What would I even do here? I’m a businessman, not a nanny.”

Crescent was silent, but his look shifted and suddenly there was a disconcertingly concerned look on his face.

“And what, pray tell, are you going to do when the reporters realize you slipped out the back of an orphanage? When they come to you later looking for an interview and you can’t tell them a whit of what you did here? Knowing how tenacious Ms. Larris is I could probably expect a phone call from her next.”

The words sent ice through his veins. Knowing Larris she probably had people watching all the streets around here, and he would not put it past her to try and get a deal out of Crescent for all the juicy details.

“Now you listen here, I’ll not be-”

“I’ll have none of that from you, Elim Darrow.” Crescent cut him off, shocking him into silence.

The man stepped forward and reached out to take his wrist. His grip was surprisingly strong, though the touch looked casual, exactly how a man in his position would touch a client.

A smile took up residence on his lips and there was a pleasant light in his eyes. From a distance it must have looked as if he were talking about the happiest thing to have ever happened. The juxtaposition between the man’s look and the cutting edge in his whisper was almost mind-blowing. Those jade eyes fixed on him, trapping him in place.

“You broke the terms of our contract. And now you bring this mess onto my friend’s doorstep and expect her to help you. You’re lucky I’m not over there giving an interview right now, telling Ms. Larris and her readers that you tailed a legally licensed companion to a private engagement to damage his business.”

He swallowed hard, that fear returning like a lead weight dropped on his head. Right now, in this moment, no amount of money or power in the world could easily save him from potential social ruin. Crescent had him trapped.

“What do you want? Money? Contacts?” He asked, not quite able to keep himself from snapping while all the while dreading the answer.

“Never, Mr. Darrow.  I’m a businessman, not a blackmailer. But I am not without charity. So, you will walk into this house and have fun with these children today. You will roll up your sleeves and fingerpaint with them. Teach them to read. Play tea party. You will do whatever they want until it’s time for us to leave. And you will smile as you do so. That is your choice. Take it or leave it.”

Elim Darrow stared at Crescent in the wake of his words. The smile was still there but there was a sharp glint in his eyes that told him he spoke the truth. He’d seen that look in board meetings throughout his life and he’d learned when it was wise to heed them.

He was angry, embarrassed, and annoyed. But he also knew when he didn’t have a choice. So he schooled his expression, drew his wrist from Crescent’s grip, and stepped through the door to meet his fate.

Photo by Katia Zawadzka on Unsplash

October Spooky Writing Challenge – Harvest

This prompt was inspired by the October Spooky Writing Challenge, Day 2 theme: Harvest. (View all themes here.)

The night was dark, lit only by the distant moonlight. The stalks of corn seemed to tower over the field, like orderly soldiers standing in perfect rows. Not that the girl walking among them could see that, since they’d long since grown taller than her, leaving her vision full of an endless sea of green leaves. The tall tips of the plants waved back and forth over her head as the gentle breeze disturbed them.

This was hardly the first time Robin Henderson had walked through these cornfields. She and her cousins practically knew every rut in the ground here, having played hide and go seek among the stalks since the time they were children. There was nothing scary here, aside from the times her aunt Susan came hollering down from the house to chase them away with warnings of extra chores, worried about them knocking down unripe cobs during their games.

Her temper was scarier than any monster that could possibly stalk through the orderly rows of her family’s specially bioengineered corn. Knowing her aunt she’d probably give any monster that tried extra chores too.

“I shouldn’t even be here,” Robin muttered bitterly to herself, kicking a little mound of dirt with her boot. She was not having fun, and not because she was bored. She’d been circling through the fields for the last half hour, peering at her watch regularly. She wanted to be out of here, back to the warm fire they’d made out back of the house, but pride kept her walking, despite the somewhat uneasy feeling that had been growing steadily in her gut. Walking through the corn at night definitely had a different feeling than playing in it.

She looked up at the scarecrow that hung over the center of the corn. It was a friendly sight, especially on the way back from a long trip or hard day’s work. It meant the house was near, and along with it hot food and a soft bed. But the shadows tonight made it almost look like the head had moved since she’d last passed by, giving her the willies. She pushed the thought out of her mind quickly and lifted her chin.

“No way we’re letting those jerks make us look bad, right?” She asked it, projecting confidence in her voice she didn’t exactly feel.

“Right,” she echoed herself when the straw figure gave no answer. She passed under the guardian, trying to ignore the feeling that it was watching her go somehow. Just to be safe she shuffled along faster until it was out of sight.

Crickets chirped all around around her, unperturbed by her passing, even when she cut through the rows on her mostly circular path through the field. There was just enough moon above to give her light to see by, though looking up made her feel like she’d fallen down some sort of well, the sky and stars impossibly far away.

She wasn’t afraid of the dark. Days long cattle drives, staying up nights in the barn to help horses birth, and sometimes even sneaking out to watch the stars from the branches of the old oak had long since acclimated her to the familiar nightscape that surrounded the ranch.

But tonight felt different.

The air felt chiller as it slipped through the stalks of corn, making the rustling of the leaves sound like distant, whispered conversations she couldn’t quite make out the words to. When she’d been younger she’d always thought the rustling was how the plants talked to each other. She was older now, but the notion seemed oddly plausible tonight, and far less comforting.

She blamed her cousins.

She’d invited a couple girls from in town to spend the night after her aunt’s insistence she try to make some friends. She’d been reluctant, but asked some girls from school over anyway, thinking she’d be fine if she chose the least annoying ones. Her aunt had provided a great dinner before Robin had lead them out back of the house so they could talk in front of the firepit.

They’d been nice enough, she had to admit, though she’d been somewhat lost when they started giggling about boys they thought were cute, while her interests still trended heavily toward riding horses and fiddling with broken tools. But overall, things had been fine until her cousins decided to crash the party.

They were older than her by several years, teenagers, and her guests had been instantly enamored, a fact which Edwin and Jasper had decided to play up to the nines. That included teasing her, though that was something she had been well equipped to deal with. They often teased her, though not maliciously, but they seemed to turn into silly idiots whenever they were around girls that weren’t her.

She’d been hoping they’d go away, until they started telling ghost stories. Most of them were eye-rollingly bad, including when Edwin started in on the ‘local legends’, including the one about their family member who had apparently gone missing as a child.

“We should have had a great uncle,” Edwin had said, likely with what he thought was a grim expression, wagging his fingers in front of his face. “But he was always obsessed with the cornfields. Thought there was something inside it. Swore up and down he saw figures moving through it in the dark from his bedroom window. One day he couldn’t handle it anymore, and went in there at midnight. He was never seen again.”

The two girls gave a pair of squeals, while Robin had rolled her eyes.

“That’s all rubbish you know it Edwin. Great Uncle Albert ran off to Scottsdale to start his own bar because he hated his father.” Or so she’d heard, though her version of events didn’t seem very well received.

“That’s what the family says to keep the real truth hidden.” Edwin had said, giving the other girls a knowing look. “Who could really doubt the supernatural on a night like this?”

“I can! I’m not afraid of some stupid cornfield, and midnight is just a time when we should be in bed!”

But those words had sealed her fate. Almost immediately Jasper had dared her to go inside, and she hadn’t been able to resist the challenge to follow in her supposed missing family members footsteps and to find out what really happened at midnight.

And so here she was, feeling not nearly as brave as she had when she’d agreed to this.

She wasn’t afraid of ghost stories, especially not badly told ones. No family member had gone missing in the corn, or anywhere else for that matter. So why did her skin crawl each time she passed the scarecrow that kept the jackbirds at bay? She’d seen her aunt take the thing down and redress it every year after the weather had done a number on its previous set of clothes. It was just straw on a frame, nothing to worry over.

Now, though, it felt sinister each time she passed it, as if the eyes cut crudely into the muslin-covered head were watching her. She tried to tell herself it was the wind, or a change in the shadows, but the moon hadn’t yet budged from the spot it had been in when she’d first entered.

“You just keep the crops safe,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady. “You’re a tool, no different than the tractor.”

But the tractor didn’t have a face. A face that now seemed to be turned down looking in her direction, instead of out over the corn. She knew it hadn’t been like that the last time she’d come by here and she gave a little squeak of fear.

“It’s just a stupid dare. I should just go back up to the house and get in bed. Hang the lot of them.” But she didn’t turn in the direction she knew the house lay.  She’d never hear the end of it if she ran away. It was just her mind playing tricks on her and her pride ran deeper than perhaps her common sense did at the moment. She couldn’t let her fear get the better of her, not now.

“I’ll show those jerks,” she muttered. But that didn’t stop the icy chill that crept up her spine and she felt her legs moving more quickly, carrying her away from the pole and the scarecrow it carried.

“Only five minutes left,” Robin muttered to herself.

One more round through the corn before the clock hit midnight and she could get out of here, and show her cousins where they could stick it. She shifted her course to cut through the rows, planning to be at the center when midnight hit, just to rub it in their faces all the harder. The stalks gave way easily for her, and she looked up with a victorious grin on her lips just as her watch beeped to tell her midnight had come.

The scarecrow was gone.

She froze, heart leaping into her throat and blinked as if her vision had failed her. But, no matter how many times she tried to reset the image, the pole remained empty and there was no sign of the straw man anywhere on the ground. Real fear bloomed in her chest, clawing its way up her back and into her throat as she stared at the empty place, her world turning upside down.

There was a sharp snap nearby, the breaking of a twig underfoot somewhere to her left. It shattered the quiet night and drew a choked little scream from her lips before she turned and ran. Behind her the sound of rustling came, leaves crunching underfoot, the sound of a body slithering through the corn. Something was chasing her, that much she knew. She turned in what she hoped was the direction of the house, moving as fast as her legs could carry her.

But no matter how fast she ran the rustling got louder, and she swore she could feel a hand hovering just over her shoulder, a cold breath on her neck. She wished more than anything she had the rifle her mother had given her and taught her how to use, no matter how ineffectual it might be on straw. But all she had to do was outrun it, get to the edge of the field, and she swore she could see the silo light not that far away.

The row of corn in front of her shifted and exploded apart, a shadow flying out of it in her direction, cutting off her escape route. She skidded to a stop, too close to turn, and stared. It was the scarecrow, looming large over her, its empty eyes staring down its prey. It’s arms were raised high as it approached, ready to grab her. And in those moments she knew it would take her away forever, just like great uncle Albert. Maybe going to start a  bar in Scottsdale was just a metaphor for being dragged to hell. The scarecrow lumbered forward, grabbing for her, to make sure she found out the truth the hard way.

Robin screamed and without even thinking her fist flew out in front of her as hard as she could make it, mind fighting back even as the fear ran through her. If this creature was going to take her she’d go down fighting. Her fist collided with the faded plaid shirt the scarecrow had been draped in, sending a jolt of pain through her arm. There was a thud, instead of the whisper of cloth and hay she’d expected. The scarecrow stopped in its tracks. It didn’t cackle. It didn’t moan. It didn’t keep grabbing for her.

Instead it gave a grunt, and fell to the ground, clutching it’s stomach and giving a very human sounding cry.

Realization dawned on her as she recognized the voice, and her fear turned to fury.

“Edwin, you jerk!” She screamed, not even caring if it woke the nearby house. She reached down a yanked the floppy hat and muslin cloth away, revealing her cousin hunched up with a world of pain on his face. His hair was a mess, his face covered in sweat, but she could just imagine the smirk on his face when she’d screamed and ran.

It had been a blind, lucky punch but Robin felt good that it had connected. He deserved that, and worse, as far as she was concerned.

Somewhere to the left the corn rustled and then burst out into laughter as Jasper stepped out of it, carrying a small handful of half broken sticks. She glared death at him, but he stepped around her to go check on his brother.

“Geez, Robin, you walloped him one good. You didn’t have to hit him so hard.”

“I didn’t have to hit him so hard!? You’re the ones that scared me half to death out here.”

Edwin still looked pale but he managed one of his smug looks anyway. “And you ran away like a little scardy cat too. Just wait till your new friends hear about that.”

Robin’s face went hard, and she lifted her chin.

“You just wait until Aunt Susan hears about this, and sees all the mess you made in the field. She’ll make you wish the scarecrow had come and taken you away.”

Both her cousins went pale and their eyes wide, but before they could start begging for her silence she turned and stalked away.

She might not have found her great uncle Albert, but at least she knew for sure there was no such thing as the harvest.

Photo by Axel van der Donk on Unsplash

Picture Prompt – Faerie Tales

Milly let out a sigh as she leaned her body against the railing, peering out over the edge at the blueish-green water that lapped gently against the concrete wall that surrounded the lake. It should have been relaxing, but the park around her was hardly quiet or serene.

Alongside the expected sounds of children shouting on the nearby playground and ducks happily honking for bread, what felt like half a dozen little conversations buzzed in her ears as people in costume enjoyed the bright sunlight.

Just a few feet away Batman was eating ice cream he’d bought from a cart vendor, while Mario took a selfie with the lake’s fancy fountain in the background. She didn’t recognize most of the characters, this sort of thing had never really been her interest, but at least everyone seemed to be having fun.

It was still a little bizarre, if she was being honest with herself, but photographing this convention had been a job she couldn’t turn down. Her bank account was looking a little sparse these days and the job paid pretty well. Besides, she hoped if she did a good job more work might be coming her way soon. That had been enough to keep her going so far.

She’d underestimated how crazy the crush of bodies was going to be inside the convention hall, especially that morning, and had needed just a few minutes to take in some fresh air. Thankfully she’d brought along a small packed lunch and had booked it across the street for a short break in the park. She hadn’t expected to see all the cosplayers out here too but she’d taken the opportunity to snap a few pictures in a more natural environment. It would at least give her a good reason to be out here. But she needed a few moments of mental rest too, and nibbling at one half of her PBJ while she stared at the water did just the trick.

“It’s pretty wild, huh?”

vinicius-henrique-557379-unsplash

The voice was soft and sweet, drawing Milly’s eyes up from the sun sparkling on the water. She might have been annoyed to see another caped crusader but her snarky comment became trapped in her throat, turning into a strangled cough.

The woman who’d spoke was probably around her age, with wild curls haloing her head. Her tanned skin was sprinkled with freckles and the loveliest pair of green eyes peered mischievously at her, silently prompting for an answer.

For a moment Milly just stared. The woman’s simple grey dress hung well down to her ankles, revealing a pair of bare feet. A twisted tiara of gold wire set with pearls adorned her brow and with delight she noticed her earrings were little stars. The tips of pointed ears peeked out from from her curls and a blush of makeup across her face completed the look. She was ethereal and earthy somehow all at once.

If she hadn’t already seen a group of elves and hobbits eating hotdogs earlier she would have been convinced the woman had stepped out of a fairy story. She didn’t think she’d seen anyone else wearing the same costume as her yet, and couldn’t identify what it was from, but that was something of a delight given she’d probably photographed about seven different versions of Spiderman since arriving that morning. Apparently not everyone dressed up as the most well known characters.

“Cat got your tongue?” The woman spoke again, though now her lips edged up into a little smile, as if she were well aware the effect she had on people.

“S-sorry!” She stammered, feeling her cheeks heat a bit. “You mean all the people in costume?”

Despite her reaction the woman smiled and nodded. Had it been anyone else she might have thought they were making fun of her, but the woman’s smile just made her feel oddly at ease.

“It is a strange assortment, is it not?” The woman said, turning her head slightly to take in the colorful gatherings all around them. Feathers, spandex, and crazy colorful wigs weren’t exactly every day street-wear but they were common sights here, making the park feel like it had temporarily slipped into another world.

“It is,” she admitted. “It’s honestly relieving to find someone else who thinks that. This is the first convention like this I’ve ever been too. I don’t really follow pop culture and all that, and let’s just say I wasn’t really prepared. Usually I take pictures at plant shows. It’s a… bit of a different crowd. Though, if I’m honest gardeners wear some strange outfits too.” She chuckled, hoping that didn’t sound as lame as it now did when she played it back in her head.

“Oh, I’m well aware of the strangeness of gardeners,” the woman said, giving a little giggle that sent a pleasant shiver right up Milly’s spine. “I’m very fond of them, and of plants myself. My mother has quite the massive garden.”

“That’s wonderful! I wish I could have a garden,” she said, giving a little sigh, “but I live in an apartment so it’s just a few little pots on the windowsill for me.”

“It’s still a noble endeavor to bring green to any space, no matter how small. You strike me as someone with very happy plants.” The woman said, giving her another small smile.

“W-well thank you, I try.” She said, again feeling her cheeks heat. It didn’t seem noble to her, though it made her happy each time she watered her plants, or sung to them, though she’d never admit that out loud. People tended to laugh.

She couldn’t help wondering what sort of garden the woman had access too, but wasn’t sure it was polite to ask.

“Besides,” the woman continued, “you’d be surprised at how alike gardeners and these convention-goers are. They are passionate, and seek to share that passion with the world, and do not care what others might think of their apparent strangeness.”

For a moment a feeling of pure dread crept up Milly’s spine at the woman’s words, her brown eyes going a bit wide. “I’m sorry, I hope I didn’t give you the impression that I thought you were strange! I might not be into all this comic book stuff but there’s nothing wrong with it.”

“You have caused no offense,” her companion assured, though it was difficult to read what she might be thinking. At least she hadn’t gone running for the hills. Most of the people here seemed to be in pairs or groups, but she seemed to be here on her own.

“What’s your name?” She asked, grasping for something to fill the space, terrified she’d bungled everything up.

“Poppy,” The woman said, without a hint of mischief.

Milly couldn’t tell if that was her real name or the name of whatever character she was supposed to be, having learned since starting this job that it was difficult to know just who you were talking to. One woman she’d photographed that morning had insisted she credit her as Usagi Tsukino, despite her not having been Japanese.

But it was easy to forget her companion was in costume. Unlike some of the more garish characters her costume seemed to suit her so well, every part perfect and adding to the whole. Her name fit her too. Her wild red hair reminded her of poppy petals, her sprinkling of freckles like the dark filaments inside. The grey of her dress seemed almost like morning fog, with the flowers seeking the light of the morning sun over top it.

“Well it’s very good to meet you Poppy. I’m Milly. It’s… short for Milagros.”

“The lady of miracles?” Poppy said, giving her a warm smile. “It is a beautiful name, and it suits you.”

Milly blushed. Most people didn’t know what her name meant. Many thought it was silly and old-fashioned, herself included, which was why she shortened it. But it had been given with love, and she still sometimes felt guilty about hiding it. The kind words warmed her and it was hard not to stare, finding Poppy far more relaxing than the water.

But as they spoke she began to notice that Poppy kept sneaking glances, not at her but at the last crusts of the sandwich she’d been eating.

“A-are you hungry?” It wasn’t like the convention had a lack of places to buy food, but maybe she’d left her wallet at home, or wasn’t a fan of hamburgers. She certainly didn’t look like she had anywhere to keep money on her.

“A little, but it is of no consequence,” Poppy said, for the first time showing something other than serenity on her face.

She might look ethereal but Milly recognized the very human glint of hunger in her eyes, even if she strove to hide it. She’d felt it herself growing up in a home where she didn’t always know when her next full meal would be coming. When school lunch and spare change found on the sidewalk had been a godsend. Her heart went out to the woman.

“Here,” she said, holding out the still plastic wrapped second half of her sandwich, then winced. Most people weren’t exactly very keen about being offered food from a stranger, especially not something so basic as a home-made PBJ.

Poppy reached out, but hesitated, her delicate fingers hovering in the air as they’d begun to reach. “I do not have any sort of payment to offer in return.”

“Don’t worry about paying me. It’s what I hope someone else would do for me if I was hungry.” She assured, giving the woman what she hoped was a reassuring smile.

Poppy certainly didn’t look starved, and there was no way she was homeless with the costume and makeup she was wearing. But there was a craving glint in her eye as she finally reached out to take the offering, only just barely pulling the plastic aside before she’d taken a huge bite out of it, making a sound of pleasure as if she were eating a steak instead of this simple fare.

Milly wasn’t sure how, but she made scarfing down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich look like the most graceful thing anyone had ever done. She couldn’t tear her eyes away.

Since that could hardly fill a person she fished in her bag and pulled out a little plastic baggie, offering out the tart green apple slices she’d brought along to eat with her sandwich.

Poppy seemed even more delighted by these, not hesitating to take them, her lips pulling into a pleasant purse after popping a piece in her mouth.

Milly was content enough to stand in silence while she consumed the entire bag, glad she’d brought the apple along too, and it didn’t take long for the last piece to disappear.

“I am so sorry!” Poppy said, holding out the empty bag, an apologetic look on her face. “I ate all your food.”

“It’s all right, I promise,” Milly said, waving her hand in dismissal of her concerns. “I had something to eat and that’ll get me to dinner. You really don’t need to worry.”

“I just wish I had something to offer you in return.”

Milly had been about to assure her again that there was really no problem, but she hesitated, a thought coming to mind.

“Can I… um,” she stammered, feeling her cheeks heating a bit. She hadn’t had this much trouble asking anyone else this question. “Would you mind if I took your picture?”

She realized how creepy that probably sounded and somewhat lamely pointed at the press badge around her neck.

“I’m taking pictures for a news site, and if you’re really that worried about paying me back, then a picture would more than suffice.”

The woman glanced at her camera but thankfully didn’t look creeped out, though she did seemed a bit skeptical. “If you are sure that’s enough..”

“I’m sure. Really, I promise.”

“Then of course you may.”

Milly stammered a thank you, realizing with a twinge of guilt that she probably had more than just a work motivation to want a picture of Poppy, though she wouldn’t dare admit that. She already felt like a bit of a weirdo just for the thought alone.

“Feel free to pose yourself however you like,” she said as she looked down, knowing she’d be distracted if she kept looking at Poppy. She drew her camera from where it hung over her shoulder, stepping back so she could get a good shot.

Thankfully she’d already snapped a few pictures out here, so her settings were correct for the lighting conditions, and when she was ready she lifted her camera, sighting the lens on her strange companion.

Usually these cosplayers like to strike a dramatic pose like their character would, or they sported proud smiles, testaments to their hard work. Poppy did neither. Instead she stood very simply with her back to the water, looking into the camera.

Milly felt like her gaze almost cut right through the lens and right into her mind. Her hands shook, a rush of warmth moving through her as she framed the shot and made sure it was focused. But in reality she couldn’t stop staring at the woman on the other side of the lens, her fingers feeling slow and clumsy. She’d never had this much trouble taking a picture before and she froze slightly, finger hovering over the shutter button, not thinking she could do it.

But as she watched, Poppy’s lips tugged slightly upwards, the ghost of a smile now gracing her face. That smile was like a gift from the heavens itself, and she drew in a deep breath, as if she’d just breached the surface of the lake after too long underwater. Her finger depressed the button, the shutter snapped, and it was over as quickly as it had begun.

She lowered the camera to check the photo and was pleased to see that she’d managed to catch a perfect image of her companion, even the picture seeming to hold her warmth. She was already fiddling with the buttons to send a copy wirelessly to her cloud backup, knowing she’d never forgive herself if she lost this photograph.

She was still looking down when a warmth appeared by her side and the sweet scent of blossoms filled her nose, making her think of a wildflower field she’d once visited on a job. Her shoes were replaced in her vision with the foggy grey of a familiar dress and she froze, not daring to look up, a part of her afraid this fantasy would shatter if she did.

But a moment later she felt a press around her wrist, one of her hands being drawn away from her camera. Gentle fingers played against her own calloused ones and she felt a press of warmth against her now open palm. Poppy’s skin was warm and soft, like silk warmed in the sunlight, as she pressed their palms gently together.

Milly thought if the good lord took her right now she might just die happy.

“Here,” Poppy’s voice said, far closer now, the whisper like a gentle breeze against her ear. “For doing me a good turn.”

Poppy had closed her hand around something and then, just as suddenly as she’d appeared, stepped back.

Milly opened her hand and found a blue object, about the size of an almond, resting in her palm. It almost seemed to have a slight iridescent sheen, and she turned her hand this way and that to help it catch the light. When she ran her thumb over it she felt a slightly fuzzy, uneven texture, like a peach pit, and she realized with surprise that it was a seed. She’d never seen anything like it and looked up, confused, meaning to ask her companion what plant such a beautiful seed could possibly be from.

Poppy was gone. She turned in a circle, somewhat desperately seeking her companion, but no matter how she looked she caught no sight of her wild red hair bobbing among the convention goers.

Her heart sank, and for a few moments she feared the woman hadn’t been real, that all the costumes and fantasy had affected her mind. But the hard press of the seed in her palm told her otherwise, and when she frantically mashed the buttons on her camera to pull up the gallery she still found the picture she’d taken, Poppy’s face no less beautiful on the screen than it had been before her eyes.

She took one more look around, sighing as she only saw the usual crowd, and drew out a little felted pouch from her bag. She pulled out the small remote she used for her camera and replaced it with the seed, then tucked the pouch carefully into her pocket so she wouldn’t lose it.

She knew she couldn’t linger, but she spent the rest of the day searching for glimpses of the strange woman she’d shared lunch with among every costumed group, her head turning each time a flash of red caught her eye.

Something told her she wouldn’t find her here, but somehow she didn’t despair. Each time the thought even entered her mind she pressed her hand to her pocket and felt the seed resting safely there. A little golden warmth enter her heart, accompanied by what she swore was the sweet scent of poppies.

Photo by Vinicius Henrique on Unsplash

A Job Gone Horribly Right

“Well? How did it go?” His mother’s voice cut through the steady drum of rain on the roof of the dingy rooms they called home. Her face was pinched and somewhat severe in the flickering firelight, her sharp jade eyes demanding an answer.

“I-it went fine, Mother,” he assured her, his voice wavering despite the fact that he was telling the truth. He was standing a few feet from her, back stock straight, even though he must look like something the proverbial cat dragged in.

She gave a small ‘harumph’ and proceeded to open the bag he’d brought her, as if expecting the contents to disprove his words. For the moment she paid him no heed while he stood there dripping in the middle of the floor, forced to wait for her grace.

She’d pulled the windows tightly closed against the damp, never liking to open them when it rained, complaining that the moisture ruined her expensive cosmetic paints.

Not that he was going to complain. It had been chilly outside and he was still sodden from the downpour, despite his best efforts to stay under awnings on his way back home.

The closed windows made things stuffy though, the room permeated with the oily scent of face paints, the acrid tang of homemade chemicals, and the musty undercurrent of decay that had always lingered in this building.

It was so very different from not even a few hours ago.

The exotic scent of rosewood filled his nose, suffused into the fine furniture surrounding him. A thousand little scents all clustered around, trying to call his attention to them. Furniture polish, carpet soap, old books, and faded embers. There was something warm and inviting about this place.

It was welcoming and whispered into his mind to relax, that he was safe. But he was just about the opposite of safe here, trespassing in plain sight. He’d never been in a minister’s mansion before, illegally or not and his intentions were most definitely not legal.

The uniformed guardsman standing just to the right of the only doorway put him extremely on edge as well, afraid that any moment his ruse would be discovered. But someone in his position could be forgiven for being a bit nervous. He had just lost his parents to a sudden, traumatic kidnapping only hours before, after all.

Presented by a muddy child dressed in a dirty set of very fancy noble clothing, amid a chorus of tears and wails, the tale had gotten him all too easy access to Minister Garalaine’s mansion. Her wife was soft of heart, his mother had told him, a perfect mark for his first solo job.

A cup had been set into his hands by a maid, the pale porcelain almost so fine he thought his touch would crack it if he wasn’t careful. He cradled it in his hands, letting the warmth of the liquid within seep into his skin and drawing in a lungful of the sweet, herbal smelling steam that rose from the top.

The minister’s wife was perched on the plush couch next to him, for the moment having seemed uncaring that such close proximity could dirty her fine dress, peering intently and worriedly down at him with her kind blue eyes. She smelled like lavender, and her hair fell in soft raven curls around her face. She may well have been an angel.

He’d been watching her house for weeks, learning the comings and goings of her wife, and their visitors. But he’d never really thought about her as a person. Not until she’d laid a blanket across his shoulders, until he felt the warm arm she’d laid across his shoulders as she’d led him into one of her sitting rooms. His whole story was fake, but just sitting next to her made him feel better.

“There there, you poor dear,” his benefactress had said, her voice reassuring. She gave him a little pat on the head with a gentle hand. “You drink that up, and you’ll be feeling better in no time.”

“-be able to sell these in no time,” his mother’s voice broke into his thoughts, and he blinked.  Across the room she was holding up that very same cup, even the weak light of their rooms managing to shine through it. She was also taking great care with it, meaning it must have been worth a lot.

He hadn’t known that that when he’d wrapped the cup into a silk handkerchief and slipped it into the bag. It had just been a cup, likely one in a huge set and easily replaced for ones so rich. But in those moments he’d wanted it, even if he knew his mother was just going to sell it, though he couldn’t have said why.

She had plenty of comments about what he’d taken, but in the end had seemed pleased with his haul and shuffled him off to her vanity.

He stripped out of his wet clothing and he wrapped himself in a large towel while she untangled the mess of pins in his hair and removed the dripping wig, much to his pleasure. Those things could get really uncomfortable after awhile. She indicated for him to sit while she mixed up a batch of face-paint remover, grabbed a plain cloth, and began to work the now messy makeup from his face.

He didn’t wince anymore when she did this, though he wasn’t sure why she always insisted on doing it herself. It was like a ritual. Appraise the haul, then cleanup, no matter how messy he might be. She had never been particularly gentle either, at times rubbing his skin raw and pink, but she’d only chide him if he complained.

She made him use the time in her chair to recount all the details of the job, often making comments on where she thought he’d gone wrong or needed improvement. It was easy to lose himself in those details, merely glad to have all the trappings of the trade removed so he could be himself again, or as close as he ever got.

He’d never really found the touch of her hand to be comforting. This was more business than anything else, the end of day instead of a welcome home. It made his heart and stomach ache strangely, but like always he pushed it aside.

Overall she’d seemed pleased with his work, and that put him at ease, but he couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if he’d gotten caught. But he knew the answer to that question. She would not have come for him. He would have been on his own. That, he knew, was his future.

The couch below him was so soft he was sure he was sitting on a goose-down pillow. It would need cleaning after contact with him, but his host hadn’t seemed to care. Part of him wanted to pull his hands away, but he didn’t dare.

The guardsman had been staring at him all through the interrogation, trying to pick apart every part of his story. He’d not been quite so fooled as his host by all his false tears, as expert as they were. His disguise was perfect, but the watch in this city was known for being like terriers after a rat. They trusted nothing and suspected everything.

“Now, my lord Mason,” the man had said, having to use the title clearly grating on him,”I’d like to go over your story again, just so I’m sure I’m not missing anything.” The man had to call him that until he had conformation otherwise, another little perk of pretending to be nobility. He didn’t think the man was buying it, though.

“Officer Anson,” his host’s voice cut over him before he could say more, suddenly sharp, “I know you have the best of intentions but this child has been traumatized enough. Let him rest, please!”

The man looked like he wanted to argue, the muscles in his jaw flexing as he ground his teeth to keep from saying something that would no doubt get him in trouble. But there was a reason he’d come seeking the protection of a noble house, and having an adult vouch for him was the final tool he needed to be safe. She wasn’t going to throw him to the wolves, and that would give him all the time he needed.

“Very well, Madame Garalaine, but I will need to take the young man to the watch house soon, so we can continue our investigaion.”

“Of course, officer, but nothing will come of harassing him. All in due course.”

A maid stepped into the room carrying a tray with a bowl and towel on it. She set it on a table next to him and bent, but the minister’s wife gently shooed her away. Instead she took up the towel and lightly dabbed at his face in a way that felt completely foreign to him. Both her touch, and the cloth, were so soft that he almost hardly felt it at first.

It was clear she was unused to doing this, but he would rather it her than the maid. Just a bit of water wouldn’t disturb the makeup he was wearing, but if she scrubbed hard enough it would muss it enough to be noticeable. But there was true care in her touch and her gentleness spoke to a part of him that was buried deep down inside, the part that hid well away from his learned experience that he could not expect softness and caring from adults.

“There, my boy. All cleaned up.” The woman said, drawing back just a bit so she could smile at him.

He felt his heart flutter as he took her face in, and before he realized what had happened he’d lunged forward and wrapped his arms around her, clinging to her as if she were a life-raft in a stormy sea. He had no idea what he was doing, fearful he’d destroyed the job in that one moment of madness, but as he was surrounded by the delightful scent of lavender he found he didn’t really care.

And then he felt warmth surrounding him too, as she wrapped her arms around him in return and held him close for several long moments. She was soft, but there was strength in her arms, and in that moment he felt safer than he ever had.

Eventually he was forced to draw back, and with it the reality of the world settled back on his shoulders. This was not his home, and this woman was no of his blood. He was here to rob her, to lie to her.

At least the tears that fell then were in character.

She took his hand and squeezed it. “Don’t worry little one, you’ll be staying with us tonight. We’ll take care of you.”

“My lady,” the officer said, a look of alarm on his face. “While I think your heart is in the right place, I don’t think that’s a good idea. It’s policy for anyone involved in an active investigation to be taken to-“

“Nonsense, officer. I insist. This is the best place for him.”

The look of her face brooked no argument; she was completely on his side. Again the officer hesitated and though his eyes moved over him, clearly still suspicious, he said nothing more. He knew his place and gave a small nod.

The woman seemed pleased and gave him a smile. “You can stay with us as long as you need. My wife, Helene, will help sort everything out, you’ll see. A bath and some rest will do you good.”

He’d never wanted a job to go right less than he had in those moments.

“Very good, now go to bed and get your rest.” His mother said, giving his face one last wipe with the damp cloth to finish cleaning it.

“Yes, mother. Good night.” He was tired, but sleep seemed far away, something troubling his mind. He wrapped the blanket around himself as he shuffled across the room.

“Wait. Come back here.”

He stopped instantly, turning back to look at her, half questioning and half worried. Had he done something wrong she’d forgotten to scold him about? He knew better than to disobey and returned to her side, waiting for the inevitable.

She was still sitting and peered up at him for several long moments, as if she were trying to read something in his face, though he’d long since learned to wear his own mask for her. He was happy. All was good.

Then her look softened and she reached up to gently pat his cheek with one hand and with the other she pressed something hard into his palm. When he looked down he saw the teacup cradled there.

“You did well today. I’m pleased. Keep it, as your share of the haul. You’re getting old enough for that now, I think.”

“T-thank you, mother,” he said, somewhat flabbergasted. She’d always said his cut for his work was put into their rent and food, and he never got anything from their jobs. Maybe his mask had grown good enough that she couldn’t see through it anymore.

But the moment of kindness rung a bit hollow, for he could never tell if it was true, or another one of her ploys. But he wasn’t going to turn down something he very much wanted.

Thankfully his shocked reaction was enough for her and she smiled, finally dismissing him to bed. He headed gratefully into his room. It was little more than a closet but it offered the illusion of privacy. Not that his mother ever respected that.

He set the cup down gently on his nightstand, wanting to look at it, but after second thought he wrapped it in cloth and tucked it carefully away in the small chest where he kept his valuables, half afraid of it being gone in the morning. It wouldn’t be the first time his mother had changed her mind.

He pulled on his nightclothes and crawled into bed in the darkness, drawing the well worn blanket over top himself and nesting down into the relative softness of his mattress. But sleep didn’t come right away and he shivered slightly as he listened to the wind howl outside and the constant pattering of rain, promises of worse to come. There was no fireplace in this room, so he had to make due, but it wasn’t the weather that bothered him.

His body was bone weary, but sleep seemed stubborn about coming and he shifted around on his mattress.

A gentle hand pressed him down into the embrace of the softest linens he’d ever touched. The bed was huge and plush, covered in cheerful floral blankets and fine pillows. A comfortable fire crackled away in the hearth, making the room feel cozy and inviting.

“You get some rest now, dear. We’ll sort this all out in the morning.”

Just like before the woman’s eyes and hands had been so gentle and kind, soothing mussed hair away from his face. For a moment he’d panicked, afraid she’d find out it was a wig, but if she saw through his disguise she never made any sort of indication of it. Maybe she saw what she so desperately wanted to see. Just like his mother had always told him, become what they wanted.

“If you need anything at all in the night you just ring the bell and one of the staff will come running. I know it’s unorthodox, but you can knock on my door too. This house can get a bit drafty in the night and you’ve had enough scares for one day. Just remember you’re our guest, so while you’re here this is your home. We’ll do everything in our power to take care of you.”

He blinked his eyes closed, feeling an unusual warm sting fill them. Wetness slid down his face, a tightness in his chest. She’d been so kind and not even a few hours later he’d been climbing down her outer wall with a bag full of her valuables. He didn’t know how much he’d stole, but it was the betrayal that hurt him most.

For the first time in his life he wanted to take back what he’d done. And he realized, with a twist in his stomach, it wasn’t completely because he felt bad for stealing from someone so caring. It was another, selfish reason. A foolish reason.

He wanted to be back there, in that bed, in that room, in that house. And it wasn’t even the fine linens, the expensive smells, or the sturdy walls that he missed. He would have been happy in in his tiny room if it felt the same as that one had.

It was the gentle touches, the assurances that everything was going to be just fine that he longed for. It had all been based on lies but she hadn’t known that, and had cared for him anyway. He couldn’t help but envy that false version of himself that pretended to be something he was not, something he would never be. And he cried himself to sleep for all the things he would never know, keeping absolutely silent so his mother did not overhear his despair.