I thought, out of all of the things we had to do to get those coins, that Vlarono was probably the most…exhilarating. I wouldn’t openly admit that to the rest of the crew, but learning how to do that in such little time – and master it well enough to beat the competition, I have to say that I’m proud of myself, and the men, the humanoids, and the woman. They all put in a great amount of effort. Yeah, we had more trying and difficult tasks to perform after Vlarono – but this one, this one I found to be the most fun!The Journal of Penen
Place: Quatazo desert
The next morning they headed to the pass and gate. The dragon handed over the promised coin, and allowed the group to go on their way through the pass. The albino dragon said that she had heard a rumor from one of her fellow dragons about a city with another coin like the ones that they were looking for. The city was called Vlarono. “That’s a tongue twister,” Isis whispered to Solomon. Solomon smirked at her secretive laughter. He was pleased to see her smiling, even in the face of adversity.
“I’ve heard of this city that we’re heading to. Vlarono is like the British Isles on Earth back in the fourteenth century or when ever. I’ve read about it in books in my uncle’s library. It was quite interesting then,” Solomon told the woman. They walked under a massive jade arbor, the gate to the pass, with pokird ivory and frig emerald carved crawberries hanging from the crystalline rafters.
“What do you mean?” Isis asked as she stared in awe at the workmanship. The carvings looked ancient, close to the time of the first humanoids to settle the Colga Galaxy.
“Well-” a blue saphine suddenly swooped down at his head. He ducked as it came at him again and again. After a few minutes of the attack, the saphine left him alone, but Solomon had forgotten what he was saying. Isis had ducked to join the group and get away from the pesky creature. She figured that she could ask Solomon about his uncle’s library later.
There was no wind in the desert and it grew hot and dry in the Red Sun’s shadow. There seemed to be no end to the zurd and sharp rocks. The color had changed to a reddish brown color from the grey ashen desert on the other side of the mountains. There were short, scraggly trees, and tall rekta. Small ponds popped up near the road constantly. Small quertpis scurried across the gravel road and sunbathed in clusters on top of giant rocks. A zondi glided in an air draft, searching for food.
“Hey Otly, didn’t you say something about being able to dig tunnels through the sand. Would you be able to dig through this?” Penen asked the elivik. He wiped sweat from his forehead with his handkerchief. The back of his slavwool white shirt was damp with it. The poor little curly haired Ipty looked like a wet dog.
“Sadly, no. The rock under the ground would get in my way,” Otly replied. He shifted his pack and scratched at the back of his neck.
It took them four days and nights before they reached Vlarono. The scenery had gradually changed from desert to tundra wilderness. The rock had followed into the forest, giant granite boulders and sharp obsidian slag protruding from the ground. Pine trees that seemed to reach the stars grew up around them. A large pine log fence encircled Vlarono in the midst of the pine forest.
Wain knocked on the large plank doors to the city and waited for an answer. “Whadda you want?” came a cranky, creaky demand from somewhere above the group. Looking up they saw an old man bending over the top of the planks to the side of the doors. He held a jug in one hand and a rusted spear in the other. He swayed on the catwalk, tipping the jug and letting the alcohol spill onto the group far below.
Patch wrinkled his nose at the acrid smell and coughed gently into his hand. Honfu, who had gotten some of the foul smelling liquid on himself, snorted and brushed it off. He stepped forward. “We would like entrance and a room or two in the inn,” Honfu answered the drunken man.
“Ha, boy! Whattcha think you’re doin’ answerin’ a man’s question?” yoddled the man. That did it. They had just been on one nasty, hot, dry hike that he would rather not repeat. He was tired of chard zurd and burnt rekta. He wanted a meal that he hadn’t made the effort to catch and a bath in a tub with water coming out of the tap. Honfu’s face reddened a crimson stain and before his brothers could stop him he shed his pack and his vest, unfurling his wings. He soared up the wall and came face to face with the old brawler.
“Honfu, get down here, now!” yelled Gotre, afraid for what might befall his baby brother. Honfu ignored him. He settled on one of the spiked pine logs in a squat, his wings spread wide as balances, level with the drunkard’s gaze. “Who’re you calling a boy, coward?” Honfu spat. The man stumbled backward from the infuriated Ipty. The old man gulped, his bottle hitting the planking and shattering into a thousand shards, the amber liquid running in pools and dribbling through the cracks.
The man signaled two guards at the gate, and then he started to descend the rough stairs in springy steps. Honfu glided back down to his waiting brothers. Gotre glared at him, his eyes glowing a feral red. He smacked the back of his brother’s head and muttered a strand of Iptilian curses under his breath. Honfu glared back at him, spluttering his own litany at his big brother.
Suddenly the gaits crashed open, startling the two. The drunk swayed in the passageway, a smirk on his face. “Well, can’t guaranty you’ll be getting any board at Casso Leaf inn but you should try the Mizdard Hill down at the end of town. They’re not always so packed with the rich tourists. No offense, but if you want a bargain and no fuss then try Mizdard. Anyways the Casso Leaf’s already packed to their lobby’s doors because of the tournament,” the old man informed the group before grabbing another jug off of a peg in the wall. He’s stocked! Isis thought in horror at the sight of all the red clay jugs on the wall.
“Ach, don’t worry none, lovey, they’s for fire-bombing uninvited guests,” the man said with a twinkle in his bloodshot eyes. “I just have a nip out o’ them when’s I get board.”
“What may we call you by? If we need any more advise about the town of course,” Otly braved the question.
“‘O’ course my name’s Sival O’Brian,” he hiccupped, “Normally I serve shifts up on the Gate Bridge, but I also run the Likgar Log pub. As a matter of fact,” he looked up at the overhead red sun and the white sun to his left and then he continued to speak, “My shift’s over and I could show you around,” he offered. The group thanked him but adamantly declined the offer, stating that they needed to find the inn.
“Wells if you has any other questions you’ll know where to find me,” Sival smiled, revealing rotting yellow teeth. The putrid smell sent chills running down Isis’s spine. He left in a stumbling sway, whistling a tune that Isis found to be awkwardly familiar for some reason. The man glanced back only once, eyeing Isis. She stepped behind Solomon, his large frame blocking the stare. Solomon looked back at the woman, a worried thought wrinkling his brow. What could creep Isis out this bad. She’s never afraid, even when the dragon attacked her. He swept a hand through his mat of hair, pushing it back from his face. He looked again at the woman. She hadn’t moved. Her hands were shaking and she looked pale in the mid-afternoon sun. “What is it?” he whispered her as they began walking down one of the muddy side streets.
“Nothing,” she replied instantly. She clammed up and wouldn’t say another word to him until they reached the inn. He tried to make her smile, “What a name. Mizdard Hill. Who would ever give an inn that sort of name?” Solomon laughed once, trying to break her silence to no avail. She shrugged, letting the comment slide right off of her.
The inn was a giant sod house with a dim gas lighting seeping out of the tinted, green glass windows. A single gas light post stood outside the door illuminated the sign of a mizdard peeking out of its hole. The script read Mizdard Hill in Old English font that had at one point been gold leafed. The hinges were rusted and creaked in the breeze. The building from the outside looked a shambles with pealing brown paint and cracks running through the windows.
They checked in at the dimly lit front desk where a female Lef Elivik was acting as a receptionist. They went to their separate rooms and unpacked their bags. The rooms were tiny. Rough hewn wood boards were nailed up, creating uneven walls. The floor was of the same splintered wood. A small, bubbly, greenish-yellow glass looked out onto a weathered Gogo oak tree through the dirty green window. The only furnishing in the room, beside a lock for the door was a small night stand with a blue and white porcelain basing and pitcher.
It’s getting very tiresome doing this every few days. I mean, we’ll only be here probably one day and then be on our way. Isis chided. She unrolled her sleeping mat and the covers and dropped it onto the floor. She laid her pack up against the night stand. She left her room and went to the lobby to meet up with the rest of the gang – hopes of a decent meal permeating her melancholy thoughts.
There was a massive wall of humans. They were cheering and whistling. Small kids were pushing one another to get into the crowd, trying to obtain a better view of something before them. “Excuse me ma’am but what is going on?” Otly asked politely of a silver haired matron in a flounced and corseted gown. The lady whirled around and gasped when she saw him. Otly towered over her by a good three hands. She stammered, her white gloved hand reflexively going to her throat. Otly looked from Patch to Rew in bewilderment. Regaining her composure she calmly informed the sand Elivik that the jousting tournaments had just started.
Fado, who was standing defensively next to the Ipty brothers, grunted at the information and turned to leave. He was not pleased with the news. Fado turned and left the tournament grounds with the brothers following close behind. Wain hurried after the Sho’ren and the Ipties, asking what was wrong. Fado only grunted in reply. Gotre and Honfu had sour expressions on their faces. Penen, who tended to be a little more adventurous than his brothers looked perplexed and a bit worried, but still interested in the tournament. Wain looked to his brother for assistance, but Rew only shrugged in reply. “These goltoma coins!” was the only answer Fado finally provided Wain. Otly and Solomon gasped at the curse.
“I don’t know where to look! It will take forever to find that coin,” Wain complained, as he looked over a map of the town that he had found in the Mizdard. He still did not understand what was wrong with Fado and the Ipty brothers. That was beginning to chafe at his nerves.
“Y’all talkin’ about the coin that’s up theres in the trophy case?” asked a mocha colored Elivik. She smiled a gorgeous white smile that almost out shown the white sun. She was as thin and tall as a Casso tree. Otly was immediately smitten with the tree Elivik. He nodded his head in reply to her dazzling smile. Solomon reached over and tapped his jaw shut. “Keep your tongue inside your mouth until she’s invited you to do otherwise,” Solomon whispered behind a blocking hand. He was having great difficulty not laughing at the sand Elivik.
“What coin?” Wain asked the tree Elivik as she settled herself into one of the plush, overstuffed chairs. Otly was in utter awe, and it was showing. Isis giggled behind her hand. Wain glared at her and she immediately quieted.
“Oh honey, don’t rush me. This coin is in the case up at the jousting tournament,” she replied sweetly.
“How do you get this coin?” Wain asked her.
“If yous win the competition. Yous and your team can join. You guys have to do…four jousting tournament, four archery, and…and… three swords or was it two swords and one archery?” she asked herself. She starred up at her brow, stuck out her tongue a little ways and tried to remember.
“Now what does this coin look like?” Wain asked once more, bringing her out of her thought.
“It’s gold and it looks very, very old. Strange thing though,” she muttered.
“What?” Otly asked expectantly. She smiled at him once more before answering, “it’s got a marble in the middle of it. Lots of people a startin’ to say that coin is made of real gold. I don’t believe nones of it. Would real gold buy much in our market?” she asked. She was now just talking to herself. The group had fled out the lobby doors, pulling Otly with them. “…but, but!” he exclaimed in protest. “Later!” Rew yelled back at him as they made their way down the muddy streets.
They ran down the streets and found the crowds were still gathered. “Where is the sign up?” Honfu demanded from a man that he found in the crowds. Smiling down at him, the man pointed to his left and then turned back to the archery contest that was being set up. Isis protested against signing up. She told Wain, as group leader, that she felt horrible about all of her black outs and felt that it would not do the group any good to do so again. Wain patted her arm and told her that everything would work out fine. Yute watched them, malcontent burning in his slanted eyes. He turned in the crowd and disappeared.
Patch came up to Isis and Wain. He tried to reassure the woman, saying, “I know whattcha mean. I’m not suited to jousting or battling. I’m a scholar for the golden moon’s glory!” Patch swore. Isis attempted a smile. The kid was at least trying to come out of his shell.
“For me I just flat out don’t enjoy this idea. I don’t like the idea of stealing the coin either. Neither of those options sound exactly easy,” Rew stretched and stood up from his chair.
“Here’s the scenario: broken bones or ending up in prison. Which would you choose?” asked Wain with a playful grin. Patch rose a finger to his chin and tugged at the soul he had growing. He rose his eyebrow and met Solomon’s gaze. He smirked, “broken bones can always mend.”
“Alright!” Wain cheered, pulling Patch under his arm and ruffling his hair. Patch shoved back and the men burst out laughing. Isis rolled her eyes at the show.
They headed up to the booth and signed in. The admissions officers gave them several forms to fill out and informed the group of rules on the jousting field and in the sword rink. They hustled back to the inn and found the lady still right where they had left her. Otly was still smitten with her, but the rest of the group was slowly realizing the Elivik was an absolute chatter box. She was staring off into space and mumbling chants in a foreign language.
They spotted an empty table in the corner of the Mizdard’s bar and gathered around it. Wain took from his side pack a planet halo which showed the globe. He taped on the halo and it zoomed in to show them Vlarono. He took a halo marker from his pocket and placed a red check on it. Rew spread the forms out on the table and asked the team who wanted to go to tournament.
“I ain’t goin,” the call from four of the teammates including Solomon and Isis were loud and redundant.
“How else are we going to get the coin?” Rew flustered, “We can’t just go up and steal it,” he stated.
“Well I still don’t wanna do it,” Fado bellowed. Neither do I. Isis silently agreed. She sat by and nervously watched the men quibble about who would and would not enter. You guys already signed the forms. She rolled her eyes as she chewed on her lip. Solomon glanced up over the halo globe at Isis. He quickly averted his eyes, it was against is nature as a Canto to ride a horse, but if he had to for the sake of Isis and the Corianada, he’d do it.
“Okay, there’re eleven competitions. Now then… there are… ten of us, so… someone’s going to have to do two,” Wain said as he read one of the forms. He raised his eyebrows to look at the members. No one would meet his gaze, but it began to dawn on the teammates and they all turned to look at him.
Wain was chosen as the one to compete in the two tournaments. He ended up with one of the jousting matches and one of the sword plays, which to him was not really so bad. They then went back to the booth and turned in the registration forms. The majority of the crowd had dissipated by then and the group was able to see what they were up against. The old man at the booth who took up their forms took them down to the lockers to show them the lances and spare armor they could use if they could not muster up any by the time their tournaments were called.
Isis crawled into her sleeping mat that night, cringing at the coming week. She had been chosen for the jousting tournament: the lesser of the three evils as Rew was want to tell her. Easy for him, he can at least heft the lance. My hand is not even long enough to grip the handle. She pitied herself as she curled onto her side in a fetal position. Her nightshirt wrapped around her stomach. Her scales caught against the fabric.
Solomon stood watching her through a crack in the door. His fondness for the woman was growing, though he continued to tell himself that he just obligated to look out for her, that his personal interest in her was not real, that he only watched out for her because of the pact. The other men had already headed to their mats. He just wanted to see her one last time before heading to his. His heart jumped as Isis rolled to her back and cried out. He watched her hand come away from her side with blood smeared across her fingers. “Shoot,” she grumbled as she stood up and headed for the door.
He backed up, afraid of being caught peeping, but it was already too late. “Solomon!” Isis yelped in surprise as she collided with him.
“I..um…I heard you and I… I thought,” he stammered.
She looked at him coolly and then slowly smirked. “If you’re going to play the peeping tom, help me get some water in the basin on the nightstand while I go find a bandage for my scales.”
He quickly grabbed the pitcher and dashed out of the room. Isis rummaged around in her pack for a long roll of stripling. It wasn’t until Solomon had returned that she found it in one of the side pockets of her pack.
Solomon stood awkwardly with the pitcher of water before Isis looked up from her hunt. “Well, come on, take a seat,” she patted the floor next to her. He placed the pitcher beside her and then turned and closed the door. He returned to her and settled himself next to the pitcher of water.
Her nightshirt had soaked through with blood and she was beginning to feel light-headed. I hope he doesn’t notice the tattoo. She prayed quietly as she debated on taking her negligee off in front of him or not. She took up the roll of striplin and began to unwind it, but the jerking motion of her shoulder caused more blood to rush from her side. She ground her teeth in frustration. Apparently, she was going to need to watch out for incorrect scale growth that would result in a twisted scale that could easily get caught and cause problems.
Solomon reached out to her and touched her side. He lifted up the side of the negligee to expose the area. She stilled under his touch, holding her breath. His touch lingered on the slick scales before a drop of blood rolled over his finger. She sucked in her breath through clenched teeth. Screw it, he’s here to help, nothing more. In frustration, she jerked the negligee up over her head. Solomon caught his breath at the action. The scales had grown to cover the outer ridges of her shoulders and up her spine, but most of her pale back remained bare and provocative.
He turned and poured the water from the pitcher into the basin. He dipped a rag into it and rung it out. He slowly wiped down her side and found the scale that was causing her such discomfort. Her mouth had gone dry under the soft strokes of the rag. “What…what do you want me to do about the…the scale?” Solomon stuttered. He was distracted from his ministrations when he noticed the slight swell of cleavage he could see from over her shoulder.
“Um, well, I guess you could try pulling it out,” she whispered into the quiet room.
“This may hurt then,” he said as he gripped the slick scale. She gripped her sleeping mat as he gave an experimental tug. She hissed as a fiery pain shot through her nerves. “Sorry,” he mumbled, letting go. Her shoulders were ridged and her small body shook with the pain. He felt sick to his stomach as he watched her shaking slow down. Blood began to pool again. “By the red sun,” he grumbled as he applied pressure.
She was sucking air in deep gasps as her nerves burned and sizzled up and down her body. Just get it out, get it out now! Her mind yelled at her. “Get a pair of pliers from Gotre,” she told him between gasps.
He got up and left the room, making for the Ipties’ room. He tapped gently on the door. Penen grumbled for him to come on in. He eased the door open to find the three Ipty sprawled out in the room, wings spread wide, covering faces and obscuring naked, snoring bodies. “Whadya want?” Penen yawned as he flipped over onto his side, his wing going to cover his eyes from the infiltrating light of the hall.
“I…I need a pair of pliers from Gotre,” he glanced over at the sleeping form in the corner. Penen groaned as he clambered up to a standing position. He pulled on a pair of pants for modesty and went hunting for his brother’s pack. He found it beneath bed rolls and tent cloth. He extracted a pair of pliers from on of the many pockets. He yawned once more as he handed the pliers over. ‘Dude, you have blood all over you!” Penen woke up completely at the sight.
Solomon looked down at his soaked clothes and stained hands. “Wh-well…”
“What happened, you okay?” Penen questioned as he began feeling over Solomon, trying to find the source of the blood.
“It’s Isis, Penen, don’t worry. One of her scales cut her and I was just trying to help,” he told the man
“Need help?” Penen offered.
“I-I don’t think so, but if I do, I’ll come and get you,” Solomon told him as he left the room.
Isis had placed a small square of striplin over the cut to stop the bleeding by the time Solomon returned. She looked up at him as he closed the door behind him. He tried to avert his eyes from her bare breasts and settled down behind her. She eased back into his hand and held her breath for the pain.
“Ready?” Solomon asked as he settled the scale in the mouth of the pliers. One of her hands went to his hand that had come to rest on her other side and grasped it tight. She nodded her head. He bit his lip and pulled hard, feeling muscle and skin pull away from the scale. Her nails bit into his fingers and she gasped at the white-hot heat. The smell of sulfur permeated the room as skin soldered back together.
“How’d you do that?” Solomon asked as he allowed his finger to caress the thin stretch of new skin. She did not answer him. She was still gasping under the pain.
“Come on, let’s get you back to bed,” he said as he got up to find a clean shirt for her to wear. He moved the basin and pitcher back to the nightstand and went to open draws in search of the shirt.
“It’s in my pack,” she told him as she got up to go looking.
He turned away from her to stare into the reddened water of the pitcher and then noticed the pliers and scale lying on the wood floor. He knelt down and picked both up, pocketing the scale. It was oval to the tip, but back up near the top of the scale that had been embedded in Isis’s skin, there was a prong structure that was reminiscent in shape of dental roots. He felt it slide against his leg and he knew the smooth feeling of the scale would be the same as her inner thigh rubbing against his hip. Stop fantasizing, she’s human. She’s just like those slave traders. She has me under that pact, I mean nothing more to her as she means nothing more to me. He bit at himself.
He rubbed up blood from the floor and forced himself to remember the electrorods to bring his desire into check. There was a tap on his shoulder. He glanced over his shoulder to take in the white shirt and the pink, jutting nipples that showed under the gauzy material. He turned his head away from the picture of sin. His body throbbed and he couldn’t repress the moan that escaped him. Isis, not realizing what she was doing to Solomon, stepped around him and settled herself on her mat.
“Thank you,” she said. He would not look at her, he just nodded, “you’re welcome, Isis.” He continued with his rubbing. A hand settled over his whitening knuckles. “Before you wear a hole into the floor,” she cooed to him. He got up without looking at her and deposited the rag in the trash bin before leaving the room. She was startled at his change in moods. Her side had finally stopped hurting. She cuddled down into her covers and shrugged off her thoughts as she tried to force herself into sleep.
Solomon returned to his room that he was sharing with Patch. Patch was snoring lightly in his corner of the room already. Solomon settled onto his mat and stared at the ceiling. Burning desire rode his body hard and it took all of his will to stop thinking about Isis and her white shirt and her creamy breasts that perked beneath eh gauze.
This is going to be a very long week. He moaned to himself as he rolled to his side and threw his arm over his head.
Solomon got up early the next morning and headed for the outdoor privy after finding the indoor common privy under general cleaning and maintenance. He found himself facing Isis who was coming back into the inn. Man, someone up there really must be pissed with me. Solomon thought to himself as he smiled uneasily back at the beautiful mercenary. He knew, he felt it deep inside himself that though Isis could appear vulnerable, after having watched her handle her scales, that she had known pain – true pain, and she knew how to handle it on her own. She was only allowing him to help her because he was interested in her. This he had come to the conclusion of this morning after looking at the scale he had taken from her the night before. He had seen the lazgun and wire scars across her shoulders and crisscrosses the bare skin of her back that her scales had not already covered. He was aware that in her line of work, pain was just a byproduct, and that he had very little to give her. His hand went up to his neck involuntarily as he pondered the little scar from the Corianada. What could possibly force a mercenary to make a pact with a useless half-Canto that could not even provide basic protection or even decent emotional support to the woman? The obsidian colored scale in his pocket held all his questions…and no answers, yet.
“We’re getting horses and armor for the tournament today, right?” Isis stopped him at the doorway. She was, as usual, unaware of the turmoil she left the Canto in. She acted as if the night before had never happened. Solomon moodily realized that to her, last night was probably like many other nights and therefore had no true meaning to her. He let out a long breath as he chided himself for having hoped for some reaction from the cold woman, a flush of the cheeks, a bashful thank you, something to show that she was more than the cold calculating creature he felt she was in that early misty morning dawn. Am I ever melancholic this morning. I probably just need to eat something. “Yeah, I know a man who can pack us up. He’ll cut us a good deal,” he shrugged as he made for the outhouse.
He joined the rest of the group for a hardy breakfast later that morning. He sat at the opposite end of the table away from Isis and did his best not to think of the previous night. Fado looked from Solomon to Honfu and Otly who both shrugged. No one knew what was wrong with the Canto who seemed to usually be attached at the hip to the woman. All Gotre knew was that Solomon had given him back a pair of newly cleaned pliers and told his brother and him thank you.
The group left the inn around noon and followed Solomon down a dusty road. He led them into a massive clearing several zines north of the little fort. There in the large clearing of rare earth buffalo grass and earth sage – seeds brought over from a pioneer woman transported on the Subgalaxia, were wild horses – true horses, not Canto, of such beauty and stature Isis would have thought them to be figments of the imagination. She gasped as they raced by her. The fluid motion of their muscles hypnotized her. Solomon watched her calm face with a small smirk of pleasure. There were bays of the color of polished oak and grays the color of storm clouds. There were blacks the color of pure jet and so many others that it was like looking at moving wood and sky.
Isis had been wondering why Solomon was back to his half horse form when it hit her. She saw him race into the herd. His muscled legs stretched into the ease of a cantered gate. She enjoyed watching him and his elated face as he felt the wind push the hair away from his shoulders and whisk against his fur. The group of horses slowly followed Solomon’s lead. In a few minutes he split one of the horses from the rest of the herd. The horse was a beautiful bay with a silver white main and tail. It nickered to Solomon who whistled a reply back. The two sauntered over to the group. Otly stared in awe at the horse and he reached up to pet the soft nose and to his total shock a hand grasped his in a firm shake.
“I’d like you to meet my uncle,” Solomon smiled, trying not to laugh at Otly’s surprised look. A thin, naked, wiry old man with a white scraggly beard and white main of hair looked up at the tall Elivik. “Um, hi,” Otly replied before escaping from the hand shake and creeping behind Fado who humphed and moved away from the shy Elivik. The Canto male chucked, his hair bouncing from side to side. “Solomon, long time no see. I take it these are your friends you were telling me about?” he asked. Solomon’s face brightened to a reddish hue under his tan.
The old man chuckled again. A smile spread across Isis’s face as she watched the transaction. It was rare that she enjoyed herself enough to allow even a grin to escape her mind and enter her face, but this was a rare occasion when she was truly happy. The field, the horses, and the Canto were in a way freeing to watch. The man turned his full smiling gaze on her and then turned back to nicker at Solomon. He replied in a whistled and his blush deepened.
“Welcome to my home. My name is Samuel, but you can call me Sam,” he said as he extended his hand to each of the group. He bent over Isis’s hand and pressed a gentleman’s kiss to her knuckles.
Honfu worshipfully stared at the man. “What is it boyo? Your chin’s hanging down to your knees,” Sam drawled. “Are all these horses Canto?” Honfu breathed as he watched a jet black mare and her filly gracefully chew on daisies. “Nope. They’re just normal horses – the descendants of the horses brought over on the Subgalaxia. They are a cross of the Colonial Spanish, Lipizzan, and Andalusian brought to Zutana by Monk Rafeal from the Isla de La Cartuja. I have three hundred bisul of private property that I let them run on. I just find it easier to join the fun sometimes, rather than watch from the side lines,” he smirked, showing off flawless white teeth. Honfu smiled back, comfortable in Uncle Sam’s presence.
“Calma?” Sam asked. He stood before the group with a large pot of black calma tea. They were seated in his snug cabin, which was just barely big enough to seat everyone. The Ipty and the Sho’ren, all seated comfortably on the dirt floor, took the strong stimulant and enjoyed it with gusto.
“So, let me get this strait,” Sam pulled at his beard as he settled himself into one of his high back leather chairs. He poured himself a cup of the noxious stuff into a thin bone china teacup and set the pot down on the dirt floor. “You guys need some of my horses to get a coin?” he asked with a quizzical look on his face. He sipped the thick brew and settled himself back more comfortably in his chair. He stared at Wain, expecting the blonde to speak.
“We were asked by this man to…obtain twelve coins for him and this is one of the coins he wanted. The only problem is that we have to win a jousting, dueling, and the archery contest to win it. We don’t trust the horses that they have in the livery stables and Solomon said that he knew where to find some good horses,” Penen said as he added a little sugar to his cup. Sam turned to the curly haired Ipty and smiled as he listened to the explanation. Wain held his tongue. He did not trust the smiling old man.
“I think I have the type of horses you’re lookin’ for,” Sam stated proudly.
Five of Sam’s best horses pawed the ground before the group. “Two of them have just turned three so they might be a handful but they’re good once you get them under control. Another is a mare. She’s calm and she comes off as being shy, but don’t let that fool you, she’s one the bravest in the herd,” he leaned over to whisper loudly to the group, “Just don’t tell her that, it’ll go to her head and then there’ll be no end to it.” He smiled and looked back at the line up of horses. “The other two are experienced males. I’ll warn you now, they are arrogant little fools; however, they’ll get the job done,” he said. He motioned the group to approach the horses. It was always amusing to watch newbies interact with the beasts.
“Miss, you’re not seriously thinking about joining ‘n the jousting are you?” Sam asked as he studied her with one of the horses.
“Eh, I signed up for it,” she shrugged coolly, playing off that she had been coerced into the tournament rather than volunteering for the job. He nodded at the explanation with a worried hesitation crossing his wrinkled face. “That horse you’re petting is Millpop. She’s the brave one I told you about,” Sam watched the woman pat the mare’s foreleg. Solomon reached out to touch her nose. She snapped her teeth at him, leaving Uncle Sam chuckling. Solomon looked wounded at the action and left to join Rew and Patch in looking at the older gelding.
“I shoulda warned you about another thing. No one’s ever been able to ride her. She’s picky about who she lets get near her. I found her in a meat packing coral trying to chew through a stay rope,” Sam informed them of her sad past. “So why’d you bring her up for us to use, if she’s never been broken?” Isis asked. “Oh, I don’t know, the young lass has been asking for some attention lately, and I just guess I had a feeling about it all,” Uncle Sam replied.
Isis eased her way to the right side of Millpop and gently laid her hands on the mare’s neck and back. The mare glanced back at the woman. The horse dropped down on one of her knees and allowed Isis to get on. Sam’s eyes were as huge as saucers as he watched the white mare take Isis around the clearing. “Don’t ask me why,” Isis replied to the stunned Canto. Sam had suspected that Millpop might take a shine to Isis if in contact for a few days, but for the horse to act so strangely as to drop down for the woman…that was not normal. Who was this woman to command the admiration of animals?
“You see what I told you Uncle?” Solomon sidled up next to him. Uncle Sam nodded his head, struck silent by what he had just witnessed. They nickered back and forth, sharing a conversation that none of the others could follow.
Patch and Fado – to his displeasure, took the colts. Otly took the bronze stud and Wain took the gelding. Wain told Sam that he would be sure to have the horses sent back before the group left the planet. Sam agreed and the group thanked him. They walked the horses back to the livery and had them stabled for the night.
Isis stayed behind in the stable with Yute who helped her groom down the horses. Solomon watched from the stable door with rising jealousy as the weasel-like man made Isis laugh over some ridiculous earth story he had heard once of a ground hog and a shadow.
What does she see in that man? He can’t even… Oh why should I care, humans are all the same anyways. He turned in a huff and headed back for the inn. Patch looked up from his mat, startled at Solomon’s furry when he slammed the door. “You okay?” Patch asked as he moved to put his plant and rock specimens back in his pack.
“Yeah, just dandy!” Solomon quipped as he flopped onto his mat. He stared at the stucco ceiling again like he had the night before. He berated himself about his feelings and cursed man-kind in general. Even Patch’s furtive movements to tidy up the room raised his ire. Solomon rolled to his side and mumbled about ineptitudes and such things.
The livery was dim in the twilight hours. Isis had finished with cleaning Millpop’s hooves when Yute pulled her against his hard body. “What are you doing!” Isis stammered in distaste. He had caught her off-guard and had pinned her. He thought he had surpassed the mercenary. She might be nimble, but she was not stronger than the man when put into such a position, and headbutting the tall man was out of the question. Millpop pawed the ground, nervous about the man.
“I see the way you look at that half breed. He’s nothing like what I could give you,” he whispered hoarsely in her ear as his rough hands kneaded into her tender flesh.
“Get off me!” she cried out, trying to knee him in the groin, but she was too close, pinned against his body. “You will regret this Yute!” she hissed as his mouth came down hard on hers. Millpop was shifting nervously and when she understood that the woman didn’t want the rough ministrations the man was giving the woman, all hell broke loose.
Millpop bit into his hand and when he let go of Isis with a yelp she kicked him from her stall and he crashed against the beam of the opposite wall. Isis hugged the mare’s neck and buried her face against the warm fur. Her body slowly stopped shaking. “Thanks, Millpop,” she cooed to the horse. It was a time before she left the stall and stepped around the unconscious man.
She made for her room and locked the door.
“Sir Ronald of Bellium, from what I have heard, is one of the easiest opponents. He is the first person that people have to beat. The next is Sir Harold. He is in the middle class. Sir Leon is the hardest to beat. No one has ever beaten him. We are the last entrees so we still have a chance of getting that coin – if we can beat Leon. Now here’s how you get points. One point for the breastplate, two points for the helmet, and three points for knocking the guy off of the horse.
Whoever has the most points in five tries wins and advances to the next level,” Solomon told the armored girl as he helped her onto Millpop and handed her the lance. She really didn’t want to do this. This wasn’t in the contract. She rolled my eyes. “Girls aren’t even supposed to do this are they?” she asked. This was outside of her normal job description.
The flag went down. Solomon shrugged. Isis tapped Millpop’s sides, readied herself for the charge of the horse. She watched in slow motion, less than a heartbeat, as Sir Ronald and she galloped down the fence. She balanced the lance into the cradle and aimed. The lance was too heavy. A loud splintering sound hit her ears and the lance rammed into her chest. She felt the impact of it shattering as it hit. Her breath was knocked out of her, but she tried to hold onto the lance. If she let go of it she would be disqualified. She rode to the end of the fence then looked back. We’ll be repeating this dance four more times. Crap. She thought, rolling she eyes once more. Her chest burned from bruising ribs and it took all her will to concentrate on breathing. Who on earth made this stupid competition up?
She swung her leg over Millpop’s back and almost fell over. The pain in her chest and head were horrible. Wain helped her to a wooden bench off the field. The crowd was deafening. “Great job, Isis, you’re advancing!” he exclaimed as he helped her out of the plates of armor. She moaned in reply. She didn’t want to advance, she just wanted to go and crawl into a small hole. Her clothes were soaked from sweat. She found a glass of calma in her hand and a towel around her neck. The smell of bodies and horse manure overwhelmed her senses in the muddy alcove. The sun was shining brightly, for now, over the assemblage. Banners snapped in the breeze and the audience catcalled to the opponents.
She watched as Otly, Fado, and Penen advanced into the next round with her. Her chest had finally become numb from the impacts and her head had stopped ringing from the crashes on the helmet.
Solomon watched from a shadowed corner as Wain helped the girl. His blood boiled as Wain’s fingers crept along her arm and he offered her a swig of water from his flask. He heard the announcer call Isis up for her competition with Sir Harold. He noted her limp and the determined set of her shoulders. His heart beat faster as he watched her dawn her helmet and fire spread in him as she mounted Millpop. It was uncharacteristic for him to feel this way. At least, it should be uncharacteristic, but…no matter what he told himself, he could not make his body stop feeling the way it did every time he looked at her. He could not stop the ache in his heart when he knew she hurt. He could not stop his hands from clasping in to fists every time he caught another man looking at her.
This guy was harder. Isis thought she didn’t know what she had done last time but it must have been beginners luck and it was continuing thankfully. Isis couldn’t figure if that was a good thing or not. This Sir Harold guy was mean.
Blood coated his horse’s flanks from the metal on his shoes. The poor beast’s pitch black coat was frothed with sweat and where the bridle bit into the horse’s gums, spittle trickled. The heavy set man rested himself easily on the teetering beast. Every side step it made caused the man to jerk hard on the reigns. A beast of burden, a beast of freedom, a beast that she identified with.
Disgust burned deep in the pit of Isis’s stomach as she stared down the pine fence at the man. The crowds roared and cheered as a camera panned around the field, lighting up the television with her face and his helmet. Old World banners snapped in the stale wind and the setting flag was raised. A beat – two – and she was flying down the field, ready to unseat the despicable man.
Crash! The lance hit square and shattered all the way to the guard. The plate crumpled under the impact. Blood frothed at his mouth and his eyes bulged as he hit the ground. His lance had grazed her arm, barely causing impact.
Men in white uniforms with a stretcher came forward and carried Herold away. Isis had Millpop saunter back to the group where she dismounted and sat down in a puff on the dirt ground. Exhaustion whipped through her system and her lungs burned with adrenalin and dirt.
“We pulled it off! We won! Um, Isis are you all right?” Honfu asked as he peered at the woman from under damp sweat soaked mop of hair that was plastered to her face. Her helmet was off and her head was resting against the plywood wall. She opened an eye to look at the Ipty. A bluish-red bruise grazed her cheekbone and mud decorated the other. She tried to draw a breath and almost choked.
“I can’t breathe in this metal pop can,” Isis heaved. She couldn’t lift her hand over her head or behind her back so it proved difficult to undo the straps in the back. Her muscles screamed at every move she made. Finally giving up she looked at Honfu for a bit of help. Before she realized it, Solomon had gracefully brushed the Ipty aside and began unclasp the straps, easing it off of her. Honfu moved aside in a huff and swaggered off to join his brothers in helping the miffed old Sho’ren out of his armor.
The chain mail was next to come off and then the sweat and blood soaked padding. Her shirt was ripped and there were deep gouges on her chest and stomach. Solomon called for a doctor who came and patched her up. Wain, who had won the last match was the only one out of the whole group besides Solomon who didn’t need stitches.
Soon after, as courtesy, the team was invited to a dinner party in their honor of winning the competition. Many of the citizens did not appreciate foreigners winning their tournament but the team won and got the coin and that was all that mattered. That was all Isis could concentrate on – that they had got the coin and they were done with this muddy little hell-hole. She was frustrated and bent and she knew she was liable to take it out on the first person she found.
“You know this is the first time that I have worn a dress in maybe a year,” Isis whispered to Solomon as she lifted the long skirts of the dress to walk over a puddle in the damp road. Solomon gazed at Isis for a while, eyeing her beautiful, scandalously low-cut dress that emphasized her full breasts and narrow waist that flared out at her hips, giving her an hourglass shape. She was still bent, but holding her temper in check. Her skin was on fire and her fingers tips ached. The dress was not helping her. She knew she was apt towards violence or lustful deviance at that moment.
They walked into the town hall and were greeted by warm woods and lovely juniper bows hung on the thick sturdy beams of the hall. Joyous music echoed through the room and the sweet smell of roasting borus and baked cakes greeted the group. The night was filled with singing and dancing, marry making, and a bit too much hard drink.
“So, what did you think of the reception?” Solomon asked as Isis and he walked out of the building.
“It was absolutely splendid. The mayor was very gracious. You were magnificent in the way that you accepted the coin with a formal bow and all. You were…handsome,” gaily Isis stated this fact, slowly easing her hand into the crook of Solomon’s elbow. The drink had been heavy, she knew that at the beginning. Her dress clung to her and she was still feeling bent. Her emotions were on a wild swing and she didn’t care where they led her at that moment.
He looked down at her and smiled, though his eyes glanced lower, finding the view tempting. His face was slightly red, and he knew he should have not fallen into a drinking game with a Sho’ren, but the night was dandy after all, and they had worked so hard to get there. She’s beautiful. So what if she’s human, she would make for a fine wife, and she would give me fine kids. Oh by the Red Sun, she’s gorgeous. His brain told him longingly. His loins tightened with anticipation. Isis just stared up at him with a mischievous smile tucked into her lips.
“Having an interesting time, Solomon?” Wain asked with a scoffing laugh as he passed by in a carriage. On either side of him clung a luscious lady in beautiful garments that clung to their every heaving curve. He had accepted the invitation from the mayor to a party after the reception. Solomon looked down. His face was beet red when he glanced up.
Isis had watched this all taking place. She had noticed Solomon’s enjoyment of the situation that she was giving him. With the smirk blossoming into a full smile she pulled him into a close by alleyway, away from Wain’s taunting. “Come on,” she had whispered.
“Where are we going?” yelped Solomon in a small protest. Isis pushed him up against the rough brick wall away from windows. She reached her arms around his neck, pulling his head down to her. He wrapped his arms around her thin corseted waist and pulled her up to him, kissing her fully. She could feel his desire pressed against her, she was dying to touch, but forbidding herself from doing so, she returned his kiss with just as much heated passion.
He groaned slightly as she moved against him, sending shock waves rippling through Isis. Her hair was tousled and her dress was out of place, but she didn’t care, she loved this moment.
“Enjoying yourself?” Isis asked seductively in a velvet soft whisper, moving against him again. A low moan was her answer from him. His hands cupped her face and held her still for his kisses. Fire coursed through Isis’s veins as his tongue touched her lips. He dropped his hands back down to her waist before he pursued farther. Her hand delicately played with the metal clippings of his belt and the line of his tucked in shirt. She traced the path of his hip bone through the cloth, his breath catching his throat.
She finally let go of him and heaved a few unsteady breaths. She readjusted her dress and skirt. “Isis,” Solomon eyed her longingly. She returned his glance with passion laden eyes. His body knew he wanted her, but his mind was screaming at him to stop.
“We need to get back, Solomon, before we’re missed,” Isis answered him. She was beginning to feel slightly awkward. It was against her character to be this upfront. She should not let her passions get the better of her. She could not chance his safety just for a night of passion.
Solomon nodded as he readjusted his shirt, but he pulled her back to him before he could stop himself. He kissed her passionately. “You’re a tease, you know that, right?” He whispered against her cheek. His tongue gently prodded between her lips. Her tongue cautiously met his. It was a new feeling for Isis – a soft kiss. He pushed in, finding her mouth warm and seductive. Their tongues tangoed and danced. Finally, Solomon gently pulled away from her with a husky groan, whispering, “You said we needed to get back.” He was slowly getting his body under control. It was the reprimand in his mind that she was just a human that echoed like steeple bells though his body.
Isis stared at him for a second, as if he had lost his mind. She nodded her head as she fixed her dress once more. Solomon offered her his arm as they walked out of the alleyway and back to the inn that the group was staying at.
They stowed their gear and took the horses back to Sam. They may have been excited to have gained three coins in such little time, but still, there were nine coins to retrieve. They knew from the coin clues that there was one more somewhere on the planet. Once they got that one they could leave to the water planet, Vico. They would contact McAlister once they got the coin and catch a transpoplane over to the planet. Maybe, thought Isis, we’ll be done with this hunt by the end of this year. Maybe…
The new clue pointed to a small desert town called Yanters. It was known for its fine metal product, but it had been getting bad publicity in the news casts lately, which dropped its stock’s values drastically. Something about inhumanity or such rumors like that.
Wain was discussing the route to Yanters that night with his brother. They were arguing about which path to take. Isis settled down on a log outside of the Mizdard close to them and tried to get a taste for what the town would be like.
“No, Rew, remember when mom took us as little kids? We came in from the west entrance,” Wain pointed to the holomap.
“Wain, your wrong, mom brought us through the east entrance. Remember how you complained you’d miss the white sun’s rise?” Rew retorted as he poked at the fire, sending sparks into the air.
“No, that was you complaining, Rew,” Wain prodded his twin with a devious smile. Rew chuckled as he caught a log and sent sparks raining in his brother’s direction.
Yute came and sat down next to Isis. Now that infernal horse isn’t here to interfere, I may get my chance in the town. He eyed her. She scooted closer to Rew and Yute just watched in jealous amusement.
“So, what’s Yanters like?” Isis ventured.
Rew turned and looked at her warmly, but his gaze cooled as he noticed Yute close behind her. He did not like the man. He had seen Isis rush back into her rooms the night she was in the stable alone with Yute. He knew something had happened to upset her and he knew it was related to that man.
“Heh, it’ll need to just be seen, Isis. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” he told her. Wain noticed the calloused voice of his brother’s and looked up. Isis left for her room and Yute left for his. Yute’s chuckle crept through the door to the inn and it sent Rew’s and Wain’s skin crawling.
“What happened, Rew?” Wain whispered, staring at the door Yute had disappeared into.
“I don’t know, but he did something to Isis,” Rew hissed. Wain’s eyes glanced at his brother.
The fire cracked in the eerie silence.
It took them a day and a half on the east trail to reach Yanters. They came upon a massive stone wall. At the top of the two-story wall were archer’s windows and turrets. Flaming torches burned every fifth step. Sizzling fat dripped from the torches down to the rocky patched earth. It was so quiet next to the wall. The only noise was when the spitting fat plopped to the ground. It was rank too. It was a repugnant smell of urine and rotting meat. It was stronger the closer the group came to the gate.
They heard the massive wood hewn gates creak open on rusted hinges and an old beggarly man was shoved out. He fell to the rocky ground and the sound of bones crunching caused the group to cringe.
“Unfits ain’t allowed here, you know that!” a young guard in a black uniform yelled through the closing gate. The old man unsteadily gained his feet and laid a hand against the grey stone wall. He slowly trudged down the wall and disappeared around the corner. Isis’s heart hammered against her chest at the prospect of being found out. She caught Solomon’s hand and pulled him away from the group.
Isis stared down at Solomon’s large hand as she stood next to him in awkward silence. Solomon raised it to touch Isis’s cheek tenderly. “The scales are growing. If I’m found out…,” she faltered. She knew it was not that the scales made her into an “unfit”. She had another background reason for the people of Yanters not to find out about the scales. Somehow she had escaped the group figuring out what they implication the scales held for her.
“We need to tell the group, Isis. We may all be in danger,” Solomon left her to inform the group. Isis trudged back to the group after Solomon motioned her back over. Her head was down, her bangs falling forward to obscuring her face. A knuckle balanced under her chin and lifter her face up to meet Wain’s; Solomon tried to ignore the touch and found it riding him hard. “We’ll get you through this, Isis. We need you here.” Wain told her. He glanced around the circle to nodding faces and felt a chill when his gaze settled on Yute’s gleaming eyes. Isis nodded solemnly.
“Come on, let’s find out if that man has any useful information before we go hurling ourselves into the khenta’s den,” Patch said as he chased after the man who had disappeared around the corner of the wall. The group followed him cautiously as the odor became worse. They rounded the corner and all horror came in sight. Humans and humanoids alike had created a large camp by the side of the wall. Lean-to shelters and gozo boxes stretched into the size of single family shelters littered the ground.
Isis was fuming as she took note of the people sprawled on cots in the noon day sun. There were paraplegics, lepers, the sick, and the deformed. “They shouldn’t have to suffer like this!” Isis whispered fiercely to Penen and Honfu. They nodded mutely at the horror. Wain had come up behind them and heard what Isis had said.
“What do you plan on doing about it? We already got another mission to accomplish, we can’t be side tracked now,” Wain said coldly as he turned his back on the people and walked back to the city gates. Isis chewed on her lip before heading for the limping old beggar they had seen earlier.
He got up from his perch and leaned on his gozo box. “What…what do you…you want here?” the old man wheezed. His gnarled hand twitched atop the light blue plastic. He had the shaking disease and he didn’t try to hide it. Isis watched him closely, wondering why these people weren’t cared for properly. “Who’s the leader of these people?” Isis asked.
The man frowned, deep furrowed creases stretched across his brow as he looked her up and down. “There is no leader. Why should we have a leader?” The man settled down on a box. He groaned as his knees cracked. Honfu grimaced at the action. Penen had gone wandering through the pack of homeless. Patch and Fado went t investigate the cooking fires. They helped with finding nutritious plants to supplement the food supplies. Wain and Rew hung back, watching Isis and the old man carefully. Yute was nowhere to be found. He had disappeared earlier when the group had followed the old man.
Isis paused at the comment, Well, why not have a leader? She looked around at the hopeless people and her anger boiled to the surface. She turned and stared at Wain, grinding her teeth. She tried to check her frustration. He stared back at her, shaking his head. It was like the colliding of two storm clouds.
“Look, Wain, can’t we help them. They need it,” she asked. He huffed and turned to stare at the people that lay before him. It was like stumbling onto a mortar shred battlefield. His shoulders tensed when his eyes settled on a beautiful brunet girl. Disgust and pity washed over his face as he saw the cataracts that blinded her. He nodded slowly, “Sure, Isis, whatever you want,” he whispered. He took a step towards the woman before he turned his head to Isis. “These people need help,” he said before leaving the scene to set up camp some ways away from the shacks.
She took a deep breath, knowing that what she was about to do was almost definitely going to expose her secret. Time never goes back on itself. She told herself. A flash of an image permeated her mind. The inside of a transpoplane. The gleam of blue eyes and a merciless smirk. Smoke. Sirens.
She squared her shoulders and walked into the midst of the humans and aliens. She didn’t know where to start until she noticed a Sho’ren staring at her openly. She walked over to him, feeling her feet move before her without her will. She stood before the stocky man and waited for something, she did not know what. He stroked his goatee and analyzed her calmly. “Why do you want to help us?” his low voice circled around her skull. “I…I” she stuttered. He cut her off. “Look, it’s a thing in your blood, this desire to help. You’ll never be able to explain it,” he told her wisely. She nodded quietly, waiting for him to continue.
He stared at her, capturing her eyes in a hypnotic gaze. His milk-kingda colored eyes bored into her’s. He seemed to know everything about her. She felt she had been stripped of everything and she stood before him as a solitary light that waited to be fueled or snuffed out.
The Sho’ren nodded his head randomly, coming to some unspoken determination. He stood from his perch and Isis was shocked. He was no Sho’ren but a man born small at birth. He chuckled at her naivety and led her to a gozo box. He motioned her through the short opening. She ducked inside and settled to the floor gracefully.
“Tea?” he asked, offering her a pitcher of brewed wild tea.
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