Thud, thud, thud.
Adlis sat up and blinked drowsily, looking toward the wall that separated the sitting room from Kio's bedroom. It was past midnight now, and yet they were still at it. The sounds they made pierced through the wooden wall as if it weren't even there at all.
She wasn't the only one awake, she noticed. Za was sitting on his blanket in the corner, not even trying to sleep anymore. His back was against the wall, and he was hugging his knees like a little boy waiting for his parents to come discipline him.
“Get a good night's rest, he said,” Adlis quipped. Za jumped and looked guiltily at her. “We've got a lot of ground to cover, so get plenty of sleep, he said. How are we supposed to sleep when those two are making enough noise to raise the dead?”
Her ears turned a little pink, but not as much as they should have. She'd run out of things to be embarrassed about after the third hour.
“M- Maybe we should go outside,” Za said as Kio cried out again. “This d-d-doesn't feel right.”
Adlis looked out the window and shook her head. “No, we need to stay here. Who knows what kinds of things are stalking around out there?”
“Yes, Miss Adlis.”
Adlis considered lying back down again, but the continuous thumpings of the bed against the wall chased that thought from her head. Maybe if she waited long enough, the two of them would tire each other out and finally go to sleep. Looking at her masked friend, she got up and made her way over to where he sat.
“Mind if I join you?” she asked, smiling.
Za, who had been facing the wall the noises were coming from, jumped a little, as if he hadn't heard her approaching. “Uh, n-no, Miss Adlis! Not at all!”
He scooted over and she took a seat next to him. The sounds were even louder from here, since Za's corner put him right next to Kio's wall. Adlis could even feel the wall shake every time the bed slammed into it.
“They must have missed each other,” she remarked, trying to keep her mind off of what must be going on inside.
“Four years is a long time to be away from the person you love.”
Adlis looked at him, and found he was facing the wall again. “Za, are you—”
“I wasn't doin' nothin'!” he exclaimed, spinning around so fast that he nearly toppled over.
Adlis went still. Za didn't have eyes—no simmk did. They were able to “see” by their combined senses of hearing, smell, and touch. Undoubtedly he could hear Kulgan and Kio even better than Adlis could, but why would he be staring at the wall like...
“Sweet Embin,” she whispered, her ears turning a shade greener, “you were watching them, weren't you?”
Za let out a high pitched whine and curled up into a ball, head between his knees. “Please don't hate me, Miss Adlis. I couldn't help it!”
Adlis stood up. “That’s horrible, Za! What they're doing in there is private! Very, very private!”
The simmk dropped to his knees, grabbing the front of Adlis' dress. “Miss Adlis, I swear I wasn't tryin' to! I can't help it. They're bein' so loud, it just... it just...” He buried his face in her dress. “I'm sorry, Miss Adlis! Please don't hate me!”
Adlis tried to stay mad at him, but looking at him begging for forgiveness, small and pitiful, she found she couldn't hold on to her anger. With a sigh, she shook her head.
“You really couldn't help it?” she asked.
“I tried real hard, Miss Adlis, I swear!”
She closed her eyes. “All right, then. I forgive you.”
Za relaxed visibly, releasing a breath he'd been holding.
Thud, thud, thud.
“That doesn't fix the problem, though,” she said. Then, standing up and squaring her shoulders, she said, “Za, find a candle or a lantern.”
He looked up at her, nonplussed. “Miss Adlis?”
“We're going outside after all. Maybe it'll be a little quieter out there.”
Za looked at her, surprised, but then scuttled away to do as she said. While he was searching, Adlis peered out the window again. It was dark, and the only light they'd have would be the Nameless Moon and whatever Za found. That wouldn't be much trouble for him, of course. If he were to sense something dangerous, they'd go back inside. That thought gave her a little more confidence, and when Za came back with a lantern, already lit, she took it and went outside without hesitation.
Kio howled one more time as she shut the door behind them.
“How's that?” she asked, holding the lantern up so she could see. “Better?”
Za hesitated a second, and then nodded. “A- A little, Miss Adlis. I think I can block 'em out now.”
“Good, because I'm exhausted too,” Adlis admitted, sitting down in the grass with her back against the wall. She briefly wondered what state her dress was in. It had been practically fresh off the sewing machine back in Everdry, and in the past four days she'd managed to rip and stain it more than a little boy in his favorite mud puddle. And when was the last time she'd been able to wash her fur? She must have looked like a nightmare, and yet, strangely, she found she hardly cared.
Travelling through the Graylands can certainly change someone's outlook on life, she thought, resting her head against the cottage. Then again, I plan on reinforcing all those old habits as soon as I get home.
Za came and sat down next to her, fidgeting in the darkness. Adlis looked at him from the corner of her eye. He seemed to be even more nervous out here than he was inside.
“I'm sure there's nothing to worry about out here,” she told him. “If you hear something, we'll go straight back in, so relax.”
Za nodded wordlessly and sat on his hands to keep them from shaking. Adlis looked up at the stars for a couple of minutes, and then closed her eyes...
And they popped right back open. Suppressing a groan, she looked at her simmk companion. “Yes?”
“I- I was just wonderin'. Have you ever...” his voice drifted off, and he looked down at his lap. “Never mind. I'm sorry.”
Adlis arched an eyebrow. “What were going to ask, Za?”
“Nothin’. Forget I ever said anythin', Miss Adlis.”
“I'm your friend, Za. You don't have to worry about offending me. Now, out with it!”
He took a deep breath and faced her again. “Have you ever been in love before, Miss Adlis?”
Adlis sat up straight, her ears turning pink. “Now what kind of a question is that to ask a lady?”
Za cringed. “I'm sorry, Miss Adlis, but you told me to tell you...”
Adlis paused. She had said that, hadn't she? Her ears turned their natural color again, and she rested back against the wall. “Don't apologize. I'm the one who's sorry.” She took a deep breath. “No, Za, I've never been in love before.”
He looked back up at her hopefully. “Have you ever wanted to be?”
A smirk rose to her lips. “I suppose so, I guess. I've never really bothered to think about it.”
“I don't know,” she admitted with a shrug. “I guess because I always assumed my father would choose a suitor for me himself. He's the governor, after all. Can't have his special little flower marrying some lowborn puken.” She made a face, thinking about her uptight, pretentious father.
“Oh...” Za said. He settled back against the wall again, but his tense posture told Adlis he was waiting for her to say something.
What are you up to? she wondered.
Well, there was nothing for it. “Za, have you ever been in love?”
Sure enough, the simmk answered too quickly for him not to have rehearsed this in his mind. “I- I dunno, Miss Adlis. Most simmks never get married. Servants ain't got no reason to, after all. But, you know, sometimes I see a really nice girl, and my hearts start beatin' all fast like, and...”
“Oh, really?” Adlis chuckled, her smirk widening. “And who's the lucky lady?”
Za clutched his hands together, still refusing to look at her. “I-I-I don't think she knows, M- Miss Adlis. I ain't never got to tell her...”
Adlis smiled and put her hand on his shoulder. “That's sweet, Za. Next chance you get, I want you to tell her, all right?”
Za fell still. “Are you sure, Miss Adlis?”
She nodded. “Positive. You can't just let these things go to waste. You have to take your chances while you still have them!”
Assuming he does still have the chance, she realized. What if he left her behind in Tolk? He'll probably never see her again!
She bit her lip. Should she tell him? Za had to know neither of them were ever going back Tolk, didn't he? Maybe if she just kept her mouth shut, he would—
Before she knew what was going on, Za had wrapped his bony, gloved hand around one of her own, and leaned in and pressed his face against her cheek. It only lasted half a second, but she felt every fiber of his sackcloth mask touch her skin.
“Za,” she whispered, stunned, “you...”
His hand was still holding hers, and he gave it a squeeze.
“It's you, Miss Adlis!” he said, giddy with excitement. “You're that girl!”
Adlis froze. Her mouth fell open. Her brain felt like it had stopped. Slowly, after a full minute of staring dumbly at him, she began to regain her ability to think.
And suddenly it all seemed so obvious.
How could I have been so stupid? she thought. What do I tell him now?
“That's... very sweet of you, Za,” she lied. Her ears were as green as the grass she was sitting on, and for once she was glad he didn't have eyes. “I'm so surprised!”
That part, at least, wasn’t a lie.
“Ain't nobody ever treated me like you do, Miss Adlis,” he said, still clutching her hand like he thought she would run away. She wasn't sure she wouldn't if he gave her the chance. “You're nice to me, you don't beat me, you don't go 'round insultin' me. Miss Adlis, you even freed me!”
“Yes, I... I did.”
He leaned in close and whispered, “I think you're the one, Miss Adlis. I really do. Will you... be with me?”
“No!” she blurted out before she realized what she was saying. She threw herself backwards away from him, yanking her hand out of his in the process. She fell on her back, and scooted a few feet away before looking at the stunned simmk.
“Miss Adlis?” he asked. His hands were shaking again.
A knife of guilt plunged into her breast, and her ears turned blue.
“Za, I- I'm flattered,” she said, speaking as fast as she could as she picked herself back up. “I really am, but... I'm sorry, but we just can't!”
“Why not?” he asked. “I l-l-love you, and you... don't you like me?”
His stutter was back as well. How hadn't she noticed how it'd gone away when he'd started talking?
“Of course I like you!” she exclaimed. “But you're a simmk and I'm a zik. People just don't do those kinds of things.”
“Yeah they do,” he argued, and pointed back toward the cottage. “Mr. Kulgan's a Twister, but he's still married to Missus Kio.”
A pit formed in Adlis' stomach. She couldn't argue with logic like that. But at the same time, she had absolutely no interest in Za. He was a friend, and a loyal one at that, but the idea of being romantic with him was... no!
“Are you w-w-worried about my... my b-body?” Za asked, taking a step closer to her. “Cuz I been watchin' Kulgan and Missus Kio tonight. I- I saw 'em do a lot of stuff.”
He took another step toward her, and Adlis' ears turned white.
No way, she told herself. There's no way... Za would never...
“I ain't n- never been with a woman before,” he admitted. They were standing nearly toe-to-toe now. “B- But I paid good attention, Miss Adlis. I think- I think maybe I can do the same things Kulgan did.”
Her ears turned green again. Her eyes opened wide with horror. He was!
He lowered his voice to a nervous but eager whisper. “Miss Adlis, I want...” His gloved hands reached out and caressed her shoulders. “I want to make love with you.”
Adlis knew she should do something. Stop him. Every second she let him continue was just encouraging him. But she was so completely and utterly stunned that all she could do was stand there while his hands wandered to the back of her dress. And then, just like that, he undid the lacing. The scratched and torn garment fell from her shoulders, exposing her fur to the cool night air—and her bare chest.
Adlis gasped, stifling a scream, and then slapped Za across his masked face as hard as she could.
“GET YOUR HANDS OFF ME!”
His head snapped to the side, striking the side of the cabin, and he dropped like a rock. Adlis barely noticed, she was so busy trying to lace the dress back up and cover her nakedness. Her heart pounded in her throat, and her eyes stung with tears. She couldn't believe it. How could Za do this to her? After everything she'd done for him. Once she'd done the dress up and caught her breath, she spun around to confront him. He was still lying on the ground, cradling the side of his head that had hit the wall.
“Don't you ever do that to me again!” she spat. She wanted to yell, to scream, but all that came out of her mouth was a harsh, raspy whisper. “What the Pit is wrong with you?”
Za looked up at her. “Mr. Kulgan was right,” he whispered.
Adlis paused. “W- What?”
“He was right all along. He said you didn't really free me. He said you only told me I was free to make me want to keep doin' things for you. He said I was still a servant, and that's all I'd ever be.”
The zik girl's ears turned blue, and she opened her mouth to reassure the poor boy—but then she remembered what he'd done, and in an instant they were red again.
“Don't you try to put that on me!” she snapped, covering her chest even though she was clothed again. “You can't just take a lady's clothes off without asking her first. People who will shoot you for things like that!”
Za didn't reply. He sat there, one hand clutching the side of his head, the other rubbing his cheek where she'd slapped him. Again, she felt a stab of guilt. She knew how sensitive simmk bodies were. A simple flick of her finger would have been like lashing him with a whip—and she had given him an open palmed slap. She was amazed he was still conscious.
But all it took was for to remember what it had felt like for him to tear her clothes off, exposing her to the world, and all the pity she felt for him vanished again like a snowflake in a forest fire.
Za stood up, head downcast, and made slowly for the door.
“I apologize for what I did, Mistress,” he said. “I'll never do it again.”
Adlis blinked in surprise. Before she could say anything else, though, Za went inside and shut the door behind him.
NEXT TIME: Kulgan finds love, Za loses it. This is the law of equivalent exchange. In accordance to this law, there is a taboo among alchemists. Human transmutation is strictly forbidden. For what could ever equal the value of a… wait, what was I talking about?