“What’re you hungry for, kid?”
“Whatever’s warm and ready,” Fred answered. He didn’t really care; he had nothing better to do than to eat his dinner. “And some kinkerry juice.” The waitress nodded and slipped into the kitchen. She returned bearing a steaming plate and a glass filled with red liquid.
“That’ll be seven eildars.”(1)» Fred reached into his pocket and pulled out all the coins he had. It came to nine. He handed them to her.
She glanced at the coins and smiled. Fred supposed he should think her pretty, but he disliked everyone in the city right then. “Quite a tip for a little boy,” she said.
“I’m not a little boy.”
The waitress laughed, patted him on the head, and went to serve the next customer.
Fred studied his plate sullenly. He sat at a marble countertop at one of the small building-side restaurants. Mari’s was the name.(2)» It seemed as good a place as any to buy dinner. And the meat looked edible, and so did whatever else was there—Fred didn’t ask and didn’t care. He was in the habit of eating anything.(3)»
He barely tasted the food. It had not been a good day, and he wasn’t going to let a good plate of food ruin his mood. He had awakened as the puppet in some Eomite scheme, been punched by one of the Empress’s goons because she couldn’t handle the blunt truth, wandered alone as Strin ate in comfort—and for free—and now a waitress, whom he had generously tipped, called him a boy. So what if he had a youthful face? He had killed a Sertrima! He had destroyed (or at least disabled) an Eomite mechform! He was a warrior! A hero! He was nearly eighteen! He would be respected. Whether she wanted to or not, that waitress would respect him.
He motioned to the waitress.
“Is everything fine here?” she asked pleasantly. “Do you want me to cut your meat into little pieces?”
“I want you to know I’ll be eighteen in a couple months.”
She put her hands on her waist and eyed him skeptically. “Eighteen? Really?”
Just then, a powerful voice boomed from all sides: “Do I hear untruth in the air?” and suddenly a man stood at Fred’s right. He was a man as artisans could only dream to etch out of rock: strong, sculpted … and irresistibly handsome with his heart-melting smile.
“Who in Eternal Night are you?” Fred demanded.(4)»And just then, a voice drifted into Fred’s ear like a perfumed breeze: “We are the Guardians of Peace …” and suddenly a woman stood at Fred’s left. She was a woman as poets could only dream to paint in words and phrases: innocent, proud … and self-assured in her skimpy outfit.
The man’s powerful voice boomed again, right in Fred’s ear, “ … the Warriors of Justice … ” And just then, something warbled and the warbles formed words: “… and the Seekers of Truth!” and suddenly a plant stood before Fred on the table. And it was just that, a plant—a mossy, leafy, blooming mesh of vines, stems, and dark blue flowers.(5)»
“What … ?” Fred motioned in disbelief at the vegetation on the counter. “That is Webi, one of the Rare Talking Plants of Ragnannan,” answered the man.
“He’s on my food!” Fred jumped to his feet and met the man’s eyes, which were a full head above his own. “I don’t care who you are or why or anything else, just leave now and there won’t be any trouble.” The waitress hid a smile behind her hand and walked away.
The man, woman, and plant laughed in hearty unison. “You obviously don’t know who we are,” the plant said, and he patted Fred on the head with a leafy vine.
Fred slugged the plant, and just then his stool stood empty.
Fred looked behind him. The three were close, man and woman running beside one another in perfect synchronization; the plant’s flailing vines, as it perched on the woman’s shoulder, provided artful juxtaposition to the other two’s symmetry. Fred smashed into an elderly man, fell, rolled, and climbed to his feet as if he had never left them. He didn’t have time to admire the artistic perfection of his pursuers—they would catch him and then they would kill him. He had never liked art anyway.
Fred slammed through plazas and parks, stopping only when some pedestrian too slow to move out of his way knocked the air out of his lungs for a second. He didn’t even stop, really, just lost valuable momentum. Every time Fred looked back, though, the three were the same distance behind him. He began to think they were playing with him.
It grew difficult when the citizens of the Crystalline Castle began trying to corner him, like he was some wild beast running loose. He vaulted over a few kids, slid under the legs of a large man, pushed two or five young women into the path of his pursuers, but only out of necessity. He laughed as he slithered his way around tables, trees, and other obstacles resembling Guards of the Castle in a large outside diner. The woman’s whip tickled his ankle, but never bit. There was a nasty scene involving seven punches, three kicks, two shattered chairs, and a snapped stalk, but Fred broke free and continued running.
They finally cornered him at the base of the Aerie. From behind, the woman’s whip grasped Fred’s ankle and jerked him onto his face. The citizens of the city closed in. Fred rolled to his back as Webi tackled him, using his vines to put Fred in a stranglehold. He jumped up and down on Fred’s chest. “Defeat is inevitable,” Webi whistled. “Defeat is inevitable.” Sap flowed from his broken stalk, and the man and woman looking down at Fred with smug smiles framed Webi’s form before his nose. They waited for him to admit defeat.
“Defeat is inevitable!” Webi repeated.
“Is not!” Fred cried; it didn’t sound as impressive spoken as it did in his mind.
“Is too!” Webi whistled shrilly.
A few of the onlookers groaned. They knew where this was heading. “Keck!” a new voice said. “Let him go! The Empress requests your presence in the Council Chambers immediately.”
Webi stopped jumping on Fred’s chest, but something still throbbed. Fred thought it might be his heart. He saw the man smile, every perfect tooth flashing in the sunlight. “We serve the Empress, Cria. Webi!” The pressure on Fred’s throat disappeared and Fred realized he hadn’t been breathing well for a while. He sucked in air. The woman who had so fiercely chased him held out a hand to help him up. He got to his feet by himself.
“Beware!” she addressed the audience. They watched, spellbound. “Evildoers, even in little things, shall not go unpunished.” She snapped her wrist, and her whip sneaked around his back and bit hard. Fred jumped and turned to her, but she grasped his lips between her fingers before he could say a word. “Now go back to your lives and do right!” she declared to the crowd. They nodded to one another; a few girls hugged each other in a moment of emotion. “Watch yourself,” she said quietly to Fred. Then she smiled charmingly, released his lips, and walked away. The three entered the Aerie.(6)»
“Are you hurt?” This was the voice that had interrupted his execution. Fred turned toward the voice and grimaced. It was a Cria. Not the same one as before, thankfully, but still a Cria.
“No.” He wiped blood from the corner of his mouth. “I’ll be going now.”
She studied him carefully. “Are you from the Horizon?” she asked.
“Yeah. So?” He wanted to go back to his room.
“Did you come with Strin Telnok?”
“Yes! I’m his partner.” At last someone recognized his importance!
“A meeting’s been called. Strin’s already there. I’m sure he would like to have you join him.”
“Of course he would! Lead the way!” The Cria led him into the Aerie. He tried not to act impressed as the lift descended. “Who were those goons?”
“The Trio of Wubbatub.”
“The Trio of what?”
“I’ve never heard of it either.” The Cria laughed lightly.
The lift stopped. As the Cria stepped off, Fred muttered, “Thanks.” The Cria didn’t reply, and Fred was glad for it.