Word count: 2750 (6 to 22 minutes) | Rating: T | Original Fiction: Saving Ourselves | Note: Fantasy races (common and original), magic, post-apocalyptic setting
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The Darkening of Year 3: Shrouded Era
Some kind of music usually filled the streets of Genoa Falls, half-named for the mossy lake and waterfalls of the hills the city-state was nestled into. Candle and post lanterns lit the streets, which were worn grassless and a bit lumpy by horses, goats, and a slew of kids. Cabins sat wedged in together and even leaned against each other in some cases, but the people did what they could with what they had.
Who didn’t, with the infectious smog smothering everywhere beyond the barriers? Couldn’t be outside the walls without gear for a couple hours, or you’d lose your mind and get badly disfigured. Definitely put a damper on long, moonlit strolls. But it wasn’t the walls keeping people safe as much as protection provided by the grace and courtesy of the Mages’ Union, of course. Never could resist a chance to act the saint in a time of crisis.
Didn’t do much for them in Genoa, but every other city-state had its own story and take on the Union. Just so happened that Genoa’s ideals were closest to Dira’s. And like a favorite dog-eared book, the city-state called Dira back in over and over.
The people were resourceful, and the lands were gorgeous. Their floating gardens in the lake were immune to smog and safe outside the walls, keeping the people fed and giving the farmer types something to do. Rustling up the gear to go outside to farm was the easy part, it was getting their hands magic lamps to post out there that got tough. The smog was a threat in more ways than one, filtering out sunlight like it did.
Still, they made it work. The farmers were preparing for the fall crop these days, if Dira remembered right. As for the adventurous folks, there was always food to be imported from other city-states. All it took was signing on to join the caravanners who were trained and equipped for smog protection by, of course, the Mages’ Union.
More importantly to Dira, everyone in Genoa just plain knew how to have fun.
And the Eldin family knew it the best. Their litter of kids, anywhere from 5 to 9, were the true experts in wonder and awe. Even after hours of being in town, they circled around Dira. The littlest ones tailed him because his four arms made them easy to toss and carry, but the kids closer to 10 years old were probably there to show their migrant honorary uncle that they were big kids now. Dwarf, human, or elf, everyone was always in a hurry to grow up.
Maybe it was different for chiali, and that’s why Dira wasn’t that interested in adulthood. It’s not like there were many left of his people that he could ask. Being grown up felt mostly like he wandered into a fancy party he wasn’t invited to and didn’t want to be at, but he was stuck once he got there.
Following the swarm of four littles up the faded porch to the Eldin’s cabin, he flicked his tail idly and smiled at the two lovely women kind enough to take in orphaned kids to raise like they were blood. To say nothing of the strays like Dira, coming and going whenever he wanted to.
“Careful,” Kalghi shouted after them, answered with a tumble of giggles and apologies from the spiral stairs to the kids’ floor. Most of them would be taller than their adoptive dwarf mother someday, but few would ever be stronger than her. She huffed as the laughter died off, planting a wide, scarred hand on the railing as she leaned over to be heard wherever they’d gone off to. “And don’t you forget to thank Dira for spending all day with you!”
Dira chuckled next, closing the door behind him. They hadn’t started making dinner just yet, so the only aroma in the kitchen was from the fire warming up the stove and the vase of wildflowers on the far end of the counter. Past that was the long dining table with an extra chair right in the middle on one side, where they always set Dira up without even asking. The ladies of the house never had to, luckily for him, because he wouldn’t ask. Maybe it was a maternal ability or a skill gained as a friend of a couple years, but they just sensed his muted, half-formed loneliness.
A couple years wasn’t a lot to most folks, but that made them Dira’s oldest friends. Out of the ones he could talk to and actually have them answer, anyway.
He cracked a grin, nodding toward the staircase. “Think nothing of it. Your ducklings are a delight, my dear Kalghi.”
“Because they got manners,” she insisted, frowning fondly up to the retreating footsteps of her kids. She’d been a caravanner herself once, and living behind the barriers with Jia, her wife, didn’t take all that gruff warrior business out of her. Even with a floral towel tossed over her broad shoulder, an apron on in place of tunic armor, Kalghi carried herself like the battle-hardened rogue she always would be.
Actually… Dira hid a laugh behind a cough, but not well. It was a fun thought that she wasn’t exactly as combat ready as she used to be. In a good way, of course. Still, he’d be better off keeping that to himself unless he wanted her to punch him in the leg.
“What’re you laughing at?” Kalghi turned on that watchful frown on him, breaking form only to blow her wayward dark red hair out of her face. Well, try to.
Folding two arms behind his back, he shrugged with the upper pair. It was just easier that way, even with more accepting folks like the Eldins. Two sets of arms were too much to keep track of sometimes. “Their manners aren’t what I come back for, is all.”
“Well,” Jia jumped in with a teasing smile and her arms full of ingredients. Having never been outside the walls since the smog first started its spread, Jia was the master of domestic life in their marriage. She was familiar with a knife in a totally different practice than Kalghi. If his guess was right, she’d bring all those ingredients together into a delicious medley of pan-fried veggies and chicken with seasonings he knew next to nothing about.
But first, that impish little cat’s grin on her round, heart-shaped face said there was a lighthearted joke at his expense to come before any of that happened. She put the greens and meat down on the counter where she’d prep it all, a knowing sparkle in her deep brown eyes as she tucked her black bangs behind perfectly curved, hairless ears. Always struck him with something a little like awe that other people could do that without getting caught up on tufted, pointed ears like his. “We both know manners don’t mean a thing to you.”
“Oomph, harsh,” Dira chuckled through his answer, curling his tail. Offering up his finest wounded acting, he pressed a hand against his side over his imaginary injury.
“Oh, don’t be a baby,” she lightly chastised, pulling a knife from the block to dice the vegetables with quick, familiar chops on a worn cutting board. “I’m still glad you watched the kids today. They love you, you know.”
“Yeah, well,” he tapered off, taking a seat on the counter and playing with the tufted end of his ear before just leaving it at that. Probably wasn’t polite to say kids didn’t know any better. Had to be a smoother way to recover from that diversion than silence. “Anything good for Genoa’s good for me.”
That little stall got him just enough time to think of something better that put a playful smirk on his face. Leaning toward Jia with a wink, Dira went ahead with his plan to avoid more tricky sentimental talk. “Though I’m partial to helping you two ladies out.”
“Because we save your hide constantly?” Kalghi was not one to miss out on an opportunity to tease Dira, and her smug grin as she sauntered over to where they stood showed just how much joy she took in it. That’s what he got for having a friend as bratty as he was. The dishes were done and the table was clear, so Kalghi had a few spare moments to let him know she cared by giving him a hard time.
“Ah, my darling Kalghi, your pointedness is all part of your charm.” Turning to Jia, he traded mischief for mischief by drawing her wife into the antics. “It’s painfully clear why you love her so devotedly.”
Not even looking up from her work, Jia pushed aside the peppers into a bowl and began cutting the summer squash into evenly sliced circles. “Who do you think saves her when she puts her foot in her mouth?”
“And you had to tell him that?” Any disapproval that was there was easily erased by a quick kiss through matching smiles. These two were so in love, like the stuff of storybooks, that Dira barely knew how to handle it sometimes. For real, it had a way of making him feel jittery to see love that honest existed for anyone.
He made himself smile when Kalghi drew back from their kiss and gave her attention to him again. If he could make his tail stop flicking, curling and uncurling, she might’ve even been convinced.
“Got a question for you, actually.”
The beat of silence filled with the steady rhythm of Jia’s chopping was worse than nearly any question Kalghi could ask.
“You were gone an awful long time.”
Hidden questions, his least favorite kind. Dira sighed, his hand finding the back of his neck while his tail wrapped around his leg. They cared, that was why she asked, but that knowledge didn’t make the situation any less uncomfortable.
“None of that. Someone’s got to keep you safe.” Kalghi pulled the towel off her shoulder to smack it against his knee, and a chorus of giggles from upstairs confirmed that that particular noise carried up to the kids.
“Yeah, that’s my job.” Double teamed by worried Mom looks from just four words, all Dira could do was laugh. “You’re really good at that! The coordination gave me chills.”
“We can’t stop you, Dira.” Jia always took care to remind him the choice was his, that he was here and part of them but minded his freedom too. Like she knew how hypocritical his heart could be, pushing them away even as it wanted him to belong. At least he never had to say something so pathetic, right? His smile turned to a grimace as he wounded himself on the thought anyway. “But you are like family to us. You’re out longer each time, and your visits are so short.”
She’d stopped working on dinner, and Kalghi stepped up to put her calloused hand on his knee. He swallowed and took a deep, deep breath. Being thought of fondly was, in a lot of ways, the hardest thing he’d ever done. Not guarding all the secrets he had, dodging all the threats from the Union and the smog and people who hated him for what his ancestors did, but the one thing everyone else seemed ready to do like breathing.
Dira had obviously gone wrong somewhere, but there wasn’t any going back. That would’ve made it a ton easier.
“We can’t help worrying.” Kalghi’s smaller, light green eyes sought out his own oval silvery ones — just one more thing to set him apart. Her eyebrows furrowed while he willed his troubled look away to at least a sad smile. They would know something was upsetting him no matter what he did, but at least they didn’t have to worry about it anymore if he put on a good enough front.
“I get it,” he admitted, crossing his upper set of arms over his chest and flipping his tail into his lap. Never did like staying still long. “But I made this promise, you know? And it’s all out there.”
“Whatever you promised, do you think your friend would be thrilled with you putting yourself in danger like this? All the time?” Jia wouldn’t count herself out of the conversation, but he was glad she’d moved on to getting the chicken ready next. He was a fan of a hearty dinner, not a late one because the chef was busy babying him.
“Enh, you’re not wrong about that.”
“Just be more careful, Dira,” Kalghi took over seamlessly, patting his knee before moving away to gather up the silverware from a drawer beside him. “It’s risky enough out there with people taken by the smog.”
She hesitated, clicking her tongue and staring up at him. Kalghi never minced words, and probably thought that kind of behavior was dishonest, but even she thought some things might cross a line. That little habit of hers was her tell that she was thinking just that.
“Not to mention you being chiali.”
It wouldn’t have been hard to tell her that his race was one of his easier obstacles, but would it have made her feel better? Obviously not, and that was reason enough to keep quiet. Sure, Dira didn’t have anything to do with the war his people didn’t quite win generations ago, not that it changed him being mostly unwelcome anywhere. That prejudice didn’t give him half the trouble that his own mistakes brought to his door. Metaphorically.
“Genoa’s safe for you. We barely even have a Union post here, so there’s no one to single you out for unsanctioned magic. And everyone here adores you.” Gesturing to the door symbolically with a fistful of forks, Kalghi finished up her roster of very good points—for someone who didn’t know the whole story. And couldn’t. “What do these trips do that you can’t get done here?”
“This place’s home to me and all,” he agreed, and he wasn’t lying. When he was sleeping in roll hidden in an alcove of the woods or a hill, all rigged up with security measures, Dira would rather be with the Eldins in Genoa over even the showiest manor of other city-states. “But my promise is also a secret. And there’re people out there who need a wandering hero sometimes.”
“Oh, right, like you’ve got to be a rogue rescuer to caravanners.” And Kalghi was back with her snide smirk, rolling her eyes as she marched off to the dining room and talking over her shoulder. “You don’t have to save the world.”
“And if I don’t, who will?” He didn’t even need to use his signature smirk to disarm their suspicions first—Jia and Kalghi both thought he wasn’t serious. Who would think he was really taking on a task that extreme? It was a lost cause at best, and if he somehow pulled it off, he’d probably die before he saw the clear sky again.
Getting down from the counter, Dira finally decided it was time he pitched in here and now. Kalghi had the silverware out and Jia’d been cooking for a while, so that left the plates to him. Times like that, four arms came in handy. Stacking modest ceramic plates into the lower set of his arms using the upper set, Dira started on a task he could actually finish tonight.
By the stove, Jia flashed him a smile that showed the storm had passed. “Will you be staying the night?”
“Hm.” He gave the idea of curling up on a bed some thought, complete with a cheerfully patterned quilt light enough for the end of summer, but it left this itchy feeling in his chest. “Mind if I camp out on your roof?”
“We have a cot in the den if the kids are keeping you up.”
“Nah, I’m a sucker for stars and sunrise,” he answered as he walked by to the dining room, setting down the first two plates down and starting work his way around the table.
“No leaving before breakfast this time,” she shouted to be heard, “and you have a deal.”
Kalghi nodded firmly, so there was no question he’d be in trouble next time if he dared do that again. Laughing, Dira shook his head and accepted his fate of breakfast with the family.