Adlis cringed when the Kashni struck Kulgan. Not out of sympathy, but because she could hear the crack from the other side of the street. There wasn’t so much as a trace of pity in her heart as she watched the Twister collapse, unconscious.
The old zik who had helped her shook her head in disgust. "How horrid. To think, one of those creatures has been living with us all this time!"
Adlis looked back at Kulgan, lying unconscious in the sand, until her host shut the door behind her. "It's terrible," she agreed. In truth, she was only halfway paying attention to what the old lady was saying. The rest of her was trying to find something, anything, to cover her ears with.
"Wicked, unholy things, them," her host spat. Then, fussing like an old grandmother, she led the younger zik to a chair. "Here, dear, just sit for a while and I'll bring you some water. When was the last time you had anything to eat?"
"Yesterday morning," she answered. Her stomach gave a very unladylike growl at the mention of food. Her ears, still covered by her hands, turned pink with embarrassment and Adlis looked down at her lap.
"Well, you wait right here, and don't move a muscle." With that, the old zik bustled over to the kitchen, fetching a loaf of bread, a lump of cheese, and a jug of water. "I know it isn't much, but a girl needs to put some meat on her bones in a place like this."
"Thank you, ma'am. You're very kind."
"Oh, do away with that ma'am nonsense and call me Mystle. And it's the least I can do for a frightened young girl. Embin alone knows what those monsters must have done to you out there. Almost as bad as the Twister, they are!"
Adlis nodded her agreement. Her fur still stood on end where Kulgan had touched her. She would need to scrub it as soon as she found a decent bath, and then pray to Embin for forgiveness afterwards. Just thinking about it made her ears turn green.
I can't keep my hands like this all day, she thought while her host worked. I need to find something to cover these d’yargo things
Just as Mystle was about to return, she stopped and glanced out the window. Adlis could hear the beginnings of a rainstorm pattering on the roof. The older zik smiled.
"Ah, now that's the stuff! It's been months since Everdry's had any rain. This place didn't get its name for nothing!" She paused. "Is that your simmk servant being dragged around out there?"
Adlis jumped, almost lowering her hands. She had forgotten about Za!
"Yes, he's mine," she said, nodding. "Would you mind terribly if—"
"Of course I don't!" She set the food down in front of her and hurried to the door. "Hey, Munn! Bring him in here!"
A minute later, a Kashni whose scales were beginning to turn gray with age hauled the sopping wet Za inside. He hung limply from his arm, but the moment he noticed Adlis he sprang to life as quickly as if he'd been struck by lightning.
"Miss Adlis!" he shouted, crossing the distance between them in a flash. "You're all right! I was so worried ever since I lost sight of you! We both got dropped in the sand, and as soon as I looked up you were gone!"
He dropped to his knees in a servile position, hands folded in front of him. The simmk had no eyes besides the ones painted on his mask, but the rain running down its fabric almost looked like tears.
Adlis smiled. "Oh, stop being so overdramatic and sit down."
Za got to his feet, but hesitated when he looked at the furniture. "But I'm all wet, Miss Adlis."
"Do you mind if he sits down, Miss Mystle?" Adlis turned to her host, who was conversing with Munn.
"Of course, dear," the old zik answered distractedly.
Adlis scooted over to make room on the loveseat, and Za hesitantly sat down beside her. The bread and cheese were sitting on the table in front of her, but she didn't dare touch them. Her emotions were still in such a frenzy that she couldn't return her ears to their natural color.
"Are you okay, miss?"
She looked back up to see the old Kashni looking at her with concern.
"I- I'm fine, sir. Thank you for bringing Za back to me."
"Are you sure? You've had your hands over your ears ever since you got back. You're not hurt, are you?"
Adlis’ tail jerked worriedly, but she hid the momentary rush of panic and nodded. "There was quite a bit of gunfire out there, sir. My ears are still ringing. I'm sure I'll be fine in a few minutes, but thank you for your concern."
Munn nodded, and Adlis sighed inwardly. Her upbringing had, if nothing else, taught her how to deflect the questions of any inquisitive man.
"Well, I think you'll be happy to hear that the Red Fangs are pulling out. We weren't able to see much from town, but whatever happened over there was enough to scare 'em off."
"I think the Twister might have killed their leader," Adlis said, looking down at her lap.
Lightning flashed outside, followed by a clap of thunder that shook Mystle's windows.
Munn frowned. "Yeah, that seems likely. The filthy animal."
"Where is he now?"
"Tikta's got him locked up in the jail." He sighed and scratched the back of his head. "Embin knows that probably isn't enough to hold the likes of a Twister, much less a Gray Ranger, but it's the best we got."
"I hope your nephew takes him out and shoots him like the dog he is," Mystle spat. "The very thought of something like that living here with us makes me want to vomit!"
"You're not the only one. But it's not gonna be that easy. I hear..." Munn paused and looked at Adlis and Za, and then continued in a quieter voice that Adlis was still able to make out. "I hear you can tear them limb from limb, and they'll just regrow everything!"
"Now that's nonsense and you know it, Munn. It's those Vashiila necklaces they wear that give them their powers. They kill living things with them, and steal their immortal souls. That's how they turn into monsters whenever they Pierce."
Stories about the Twisters, people who had fallen to the temptations of the Fifth Moon, were even more widespread than those of the Red Fangs. A lot of them contradicted each other, but one thing everyone agreed on was that they were evil creatures, traitors to Embin and all of Haroz. She swore her fur must be coated in some kind of slime where he had touched her. Her ears turned green with nausea.
I can't keep this up much longer, she thought frantically. I need something to...
"Za!" she whispered suddenly. "Give me your hat!"
The simmk turned to her quizzically, and then jumped a little when she snatched the floppy, black hat from his head. It was cold and wet, and it dripped water onto her dress, but she still sighed in relief when she was finally able to rest her arms. Then, while Mystle and Munn continued to talk at the door, she finally picked up the bread and began to eat. It was dry and made from bitter desert palewheat, but to her famished stomach it tasted heavenly.
Beside her, Za shifted anxiously.
"You can eat too," she said.
"Thank you, Miss Adlis."
He grabbed a slice of bread with surprising directness for a creature without eyes, and then ducked down to hide beneath his coat where Adlis couldn’t see him peel his mask back and eat. He stuffed everything into his mouth as quickly as he could and sat back up straight again, the sides of his mask bulging.
"Za," Adlis chastised him, "it's not good manners to stuff your mouth!"
"Srrbry, Mzz Rdlrrz."
"And don't talk with your mouth full, either!"
Za paused, swallowed his bite, and then said again, "Sorry, Miss Adlis. I swear I ain't tryin' to embarrass you."
"It's all right." she patted him on the knee. "You'll get used to this eventually."
She had never asked Za's age, but she suspected he was close to her own. That was assuming, of course, that simmks aged at the same rate as ziks. Regardless, it never failed to strike her how similar talking to Za was to interacting with a small child. He was timid, eager to please, and completely hopeless in social situations.
Za looked down at this lap with sightless eyes. "Miss Adlis, do you really think they're gonna... y'know..."
"Of course they will," she reassured him.
"Because if they don't, I don't mind bein' your—"
"Za," she caught him by his chin and looked into his painted eyes, "don't talk like that. Everything is going to be fine. All we need to worry about is finding a way to get back home."
Za trembled for a few seconds, and then nodded. Those eyes might not have been real, but they were wide and spoke of curiosity and innocence. Adlis wondered if they had been painted that way for exactly that reason.
"I have a couple questions for you two, if you don't mind," Munn said, bringing her attention back to him. The old Kashni stepped further inside, and blinked in confusion when he saw Adlis wearing Za's hat.
"Yes, of course," she quickly agreed, folding her hands daintily in her lap.
Munn hesitated, but then nodded. A young zik maiden wearing a soaking wet simmk hat was, sadly, not the strangest thing he had seen today. He sat down in Mystle's chair opposite her, making the timber groan under his weight.
"Well, miss, I don't mean to pry, but I'm curious as to what a lass like you is doing in a place like this. Our lookouts saw you ride up in your carriage last night, so we know the Fangs didn't bring you here."
Adlis' face paled slightly, but she kept her composure. Munn didn't suspect anything, he was merely concerned for a helpless young lady. With this encouraging thought, she was able to look him in the eye— and lie to him.
"I'm afraid I was visiting some family I have in Hammeth, and Za took us the wrong way on the journey back to the Shi Valen Mountains."
Za jumped when his name was mentioned, and for a moment Adlis was afraid he would say something, but then he just bowed his head in shame like a proper, domesticated simmk servant.
Munn chuckled at this. "Aye. I've never had one, but I've heard stories about 'em. Hard workers, and harmless as a fly, but about as bright as a wet match in a dark cave."
Za hung his head even lower, but Adlis forced herself to laugh politely at the joke. Under her hat, her ears turned a shade yellower.
"There is something I need to ask of you, though, sir," she said, keeping her tone polite. "I'm a long way from home, and I would like to return as quickly as possible. Would you, perhaps, be able to..." She trailed her voice off, letting a hint of coyness work its way into her tone, and smiled shyly at him.
Just like she knew he would, a small blush rose to the lizard's scaly cheeks, and she smiled inwardly. Her training was paying off, even if it wasn't the way Madam Caruzo had meant it to. Any man who laid eyes on her were putty in her—
"I'm afraid not," Munn said.
Adlis sat upright with a start, the shock evident on her face.
"I hope you understand," he went on, "we just went through a major catastrophe here. Those maniacs tore half the town apart, and we lost a lot of people too. We need every man we have if we want to rebuild Everdry."
"B- But," she stammered, "how am I supposed to get home?"
"We can send someone with you as soon as we're able to, but until then you'll just have to stay here in Everdry."
"You're welcome to stay with me, dearie," Mystle chimed in, patting her on the knee. "Don’t worry. After everything you've been through, it'll do you good to rest for a bit."
Adlis nodded, her ears turning gray with shocked numbness. "Thank you, Miss Mystle. That is most kind of you."
Smiling cheerfully, the old zik bustled off to do something else, and Munn began to rise from his seat.
"Wait," Adlis blurted out, stopping him. "H- How long do you think it will be before you can spare a guide?"
Munn scratched his chin. "Hard to say, miss. A couple months, at least."
All of Adlis’ strength fled from her, and she collapsed back into her chair. "Two months," she repeated in a quiet voice.
"I'm sorry, miss, I truly am." Munn took his hat off in respect. "But I'm afraid there ain't no gettin' around it right now. Mystle here'll take good care of you, I promise."
Adlis tried to think of some way to reply, but no words came to mind. Or, rather, no helpful words. At that moment, she wanted nothing more than to call Munn every foul name she knew. Her own ears turned red underneath Za's hat at the horridness of some of the curses.
"Are you all right, miss?" Munn asked, leaning forward. "You're looking awful pale all of a sudden."
"Oh, leave her alone," Mystle waved him off. "After what she'd been through today, I'd say what she needs most is a soft, warm bed to lay in."
Adlis nodded. Her eyes were prickling now with frustrated tears that she refused to shed. Not here, not in front of the others. They already thought she was a pathetic damsel in distress. Crying would only make it worse.
"A bed sounds lovely, Miss Mystle," she whispered. "Thank you kindly."
Mystle beamed at her, and bustled off to prepare a place for her. As soon as she left, Munn put his hat back on.
"I'd better be off too, miss," he said. "There's a lot of work to be done."
Oh no, Adlis thought wryly, struggling to keep her expression calm, please don't offer any more assistance. I don't need it, really. I'm more than happy to stay in your Embin-forsaken little Pit of a village, you worthless, spineless puken!
Munn opened the door halfway, and then paused and turned around again. Even though she hadn't said anything out loud, Adlis couldn't help but flinch a little at the sudden movement.
"If you need anything, don't hesitate to ask," he said. Then, without another word, he turned and trudged out into the storm, letting the door slam shut behind him.
With the old Kashni gone, Adlis finally allowed herself to scowl. Not at Munn, though— at herself.
Get ahold of yourself! she scolded herself inside her head. You're not in Tolk anymore. When are you going to—
"What're we gonna do, Miss Adlis?" Za asked, breaking into her thoughts.
"I don't know, Za," she answered with a shake of her head.
"We're stuck out here," he whined. "We ain't got no guide, we ain't got no carriage, we ain't got nothin'! How're we gonna get outta here now?"
"I don't know, Za," she said again.
Za clapped his hands against the sides of his head, the simmk equivalent of any other creature covering their eyes. "We're gonna die out here, Miss Adlis! We're gonna die out here, and we ain't never gonna—"
"Shut up!" Adlis yelled, turning toward him so quickly his hat nearly flew off her head. Za, on the other hand, was so startled that he toppled backwards over the armrest of Mystle's loveseat and landed in a wet, black splat.
"I'm sorry, Miss Adlis," he said scrambling to get back on his feet. "I didn't mean no offense, I really didn't. I was- I was just- I'm sorry!"
Adlis immediately felt bad, and held out her hand to help her friend up. Before she could say anything, though, Mystle burst out of her spare bedroom.
"What's all this racket?" she demanded, her fur standing on end.
Adlis spun around, nearly losing the hat a second time. "I'm so sorry, Miss Mystle. It's nothing. I didn't mean to startle you."
Mystle went to look out the window, blinking when lightning lit up the darkness outside, and then let the curtain fall back in place.
"Don't you fret, child," she said. "It'll take more than a good scare to stop this ol' heart." She chuckled. "You don't survive long in Everdry, otherwise."
Adlis knew Mystle hadn't meant that to sound threatening, but Za whimpered a little bit anyway.
"The room's all made up, dear, if you want to use it," she said, sitting down in the chair Munn had used with a relieved sigh. "I've set out some clean clothes for you too, so you can change out of that, ah," she paused and raised her spectacles, "that interesting dress you're wearing."
Adlis' ears turned pink with embarrassment again, but when Mystle didn't make any more remarks she nodded and stood up.
"Thank you, ma'am," she said, heading for the room Mystle had prepared. "You're far too kind for a stranger like me."
"Think nothing of it." Mystle's eyelids were already beginning to droop. "You remind me of... of..."
Adlis stopped in the doorway, interested despite herself. "Of who?"
The only answer she got was a gentle snore.
Adlis sighed. "Oh well. Come along, Za."
Still shaking from his earlier fright, Za crept over to the room.
"And as for you!" Mystle's eyes sprang open again just as Za was passing her chair, and he shrieked in fright and nearly collapsed.
Mystle pointed an old, gray claw at him. "Your mistress has been to the Pit and back today, so I don't want you causing her any more undue worry, got it?"
"Y- Yes, ma'am," Za stammered.
Adlis bit her lip. Part of her wanted to come to Za's rescue. He wasn't her servant after all, he was her friend. And yet, she stayed where she was. A high class young lady like herself coming to the aid of her servant would raise questions from even the most polite of hosts, and questions were something Adlis wanted to avoid, desperately. And so, she merely listened and watched as the old zik scolded him.
"You better buck up and show a little backbone, boy. You hear me?"
"If I hear her having to yell at you again, I'll take the belt to you myself. Do I make myself clear?"
Za was shaking even harder now, but he held out his hands to her in the customary simmk servant fashion. "Yes, ma'am. I'm very sorry, ma'am. Please forgive this poor, stupid simmk."
Oh, no, thought Adlis.
Mystle regarded him for a second, and then raised two fingers and slapped his wrist, just above his palm. Za squealed in pain, but didn't move an inch.
"That's all," Mystle snapped, and then jerked her thumb toward the guest bedroom. "Now tend to your mistress!"
Za bobbed his head and hurried to where Adlis was waiting for him.
"I'm at your service, Mistress," he said with head bowed. "Anything you need, just say the word."
"Th- Thank you, Za," Adlis said. He wasn't the only one shaking. Beneath the hat, Adlis' ears were green with disgust. Not for Za, but for the kindhearted old zik sitting in her rocking chair. She stepped out of the way, letting Za go into the room first. Just as she was about to follow after him, though, she stopped.
"Miss Mystle?" she said with her back turned to the old lady.
Don't do it, her common sense warned her. Don't bring attention to yourself. Just thank her again and close the door.
Instead, she said, "It is customary not to punish another person's servant without their master's permission."
Mystle sat up a little straighter in surprise. "Oh, I'm- I'm sorry, dear. I didn't know."
Adlis nodded once, still not looking at her. "It's all right. Please, just don't do it again."
With that, she stepped into the bedroom and shut the door behind her. Za stood rigid at the other end of the room, by the window, with his hands clasped behind his back.
"Thank you, Mistress," he whispered, painted eyes staring at the floor.
"It's Adlis," she said back. "Not Mistress. And don't thank me, Za."
He looked up at her. "But you—"
"I should have stopped her before she hit you, Za. I'm sorry."
Slowly, Za brought his hands around to his front, and Adlis saw the ugly red welt growing from the blue skin on his wrist. Simmk were notoriously fragile, which was one of the reasons they were so easy to enslave. It also meant that when one misbehaved, their master didn't have to waste energy whipping or beating them. A simple open palmed slap was as painful as any whip to them.
Adlis looked away. She took off his hat, her ears green with disgust again.
"So what're we gonna do now, Miss Adlis?" Za asked, grabbing his hat again as soon as she set it down.
With a sigh, Adlis crossed the room and sat down in the chair in the corner. "We can't stay here, Za. We have to get back to Arborough!"
"But how? We don't have—"
"I know, Za." Adlis took a deep breath, calming herself, and leaned back wearily in her seat. "I know."
Lightning flashed outside as Atroyo made its way over Everdry. Outside her window, she could hear the townspeople celebrating and dancing in the streets as the rain turned the sand to mud beneath their prancing feet. Today was a day worth celebrating twice. Not only had the bandits been chased away and their town saved, but Embin's fourth moon had granted them rain as well. They would be up all night celebrating, Adlis thought, and it was only midmorning. Getting up, she took Mystle's curtains in both hands and yanked them shut. It did nothing to quiet the raucous voices outside, but at least Adlis didn't have to look at them.
So much joy, she thought, her hands shaking as she gripped the curtain. When will some of it be mine?
Adlis raised her head and turned to see Za regarding her with a curious tilt of his head.
"We're going home, Za," she promised him. "Don't you worry, I'll think of something."
NEXT TIME: The Red Fangs are gone, and Adlis and Za are safe. That’s one problem taken care of. But now how are they going to get out of Everdry? And what’s going on with Kulgan?