The back of this truck is freezing. I mean, I guess that’s what I get for choosing a truck full of ice to sneak into the Temple. At least it’s not melting everywhere.
My neck still feels weird, too. And the shoes I got when I traded with that peasant girl are a bit too big. And, well, the errand dress I stole from Bertha smells like sweat. I kinda feel like I’m in an old costume. Not that Mother ever let me perform in those skits with the jester, but is she had I bet it would have felt like this.
The truck jolts to a stop, and I slide across the too-smooth floor and hit a box.
All right, time to do this.
I get to my feet and scramble up the wall of crates to my right. It’s just like the platforms in the castle playplace. Oh, how I resent Mother telling me I was too old for that playplace!
I huddle on the top crate and wait. A door slams. Two.
Hurry. Hardly knowing what I’m doing, I open the window and tumble into the cab. My head, fortunately, hits a soft seat. My stomach, unfortunately, hits the middle console.
No time to hesitate. I look in both the side mirrors and see a group of five or six men on the left side of the truck, but no one on the right. Ever-so-quietly, I open the door and slip out, cursing the sound the peasant girl’s shoes make on the step and then the cobblestones. Do you know how hard it is to rush and be quiet about it? It’s anxiety inducing. I push the door to, but don’t shut it.
I rip the shoes off and stuff them into the near-empty bag I brought. I hear the door at the back of the truck opening.
I’ve been to the Temple a thousand times; this is the most dangerous place for me to be right now. I hurry around the side, to the trees, where hopefully I’ll blend in.
I pause behind a huge oak tree and take the hood out of the bag, pulling it over my red hair. Then I let out a long breath, and steady myself while I tuck the stray strands in. Now, unless someone looks too closely at my face, they’ll see no more than another peasant girl coming to request a prediction from the Woman.
I don’t know why I had those shoes on in the first place; it’s unheard of to wear shoes in the Temple. It would have been much more fun going barefoot the whole way here anyway.
I turn and stride confidently out from behind the tree like I wasn’t doing anything wrong. No man spares me a second glance. Or a first glance. Oh, the relief of not being stared at.
I have to play this part. Peasant girls are hardly ever confident, which is sad, but it is what it is. I have to slouch over and stare at the ground and put that distant look in my eyes. I feel horribly exposed, padding across the warm cobblestones, and I stop shaking only when I reach the cool dimness of the Temple.
I find a wall and lean against it, like I’m waiting for the Woman. I don’t even know if she’s here right now, but that doesn’t matter, I’m not here for her. I take a minute to enjoy the black-and-gold painted stone, and the dark red rugs all across the floor. I’m not a particularly feminine sort, but it’s always so beautiful in here. White and red roses adorn the quiet wood tables, and paintings of dancers line the shimmering walls. And it smells like those pinecones you lay out in bowls at Christmas. I’ve always loved those.
All right, now. Where would I keep a famous mythical creature, the first of its kind to be discovered in two thousand years, if I were the Woman?
The answer comes to me in an instant, but I don’t like it.
I guess maybe I AM here to see the Woman.
A gold-knobbed door opens across the hallway, and a servant in black comes out. My first instinct is to step forward and halt her, but, well.
I rush forward and put on my most meek smile. “Excuse me,” I say in a whisper, “is the Woman in right now?”
The servant gives me a dark-eyed smile. She looks tired.
“No, she’s just getting in the bath. I’m afraid you’ll have to wait. There’s a library if you want to rest in there.”
“That sounds nice, but I’ll wait out here. Books make me nervous.”
She gives me a bemused look, and continues on her way.
As soon as she turns the corner, I sidle up to her magnificent door on the left--the one with the gilt frame and the lion head knobs that are tigers on the other side and the red stained glass window. I rub the great cats’ heads before I turn them.
The Woman never locks her doors. The only time she locks anything, in fact, is when she leaves the Temple. Don’t ask how I know that.
The room is blessedly empty. Of people, that is.
Every manner of thing finds its place in the Woman’s Room. Flowers, radios, books, mermaids’ song, art, jewelry, clothes, quilts, shoes, geodes, dragon scales, car parts, fairy dust. If it holds beauty to her, she wants it, and she gives most of it away to peasant girls.
Mostly, though, it’s creatures.
And this is the one reason the Woman and I aren’t friends.
She has the creatures taken care of in every way possible--food, water, shelter, cleanliness. They’re pampered. But they aren’t loved. She has them only for show. The Herb Gerbils sit in a huge glass tank, full of all the plants they could want, but they are never petted. The white Siberian tigers always give me chills when they stare into my eyes, but it’s not power and freedom I see there; it’s a longing for it. And I won’t even get started on the little kittens who sit around all day in a cage.
I know this because I spent a long six months here after I turned thirteen, eight months ago, and I watched her all day. She never once even spoke of the animals, and looked unsettled every time I asked if I could hold one.
Why? You don’t actually want to touch one of those things, do you, Princess? They’re unsanitary. I only keep them to look at. The servants handle them. They’re not for hands such as ours.
I know what it’s like to be treated as a pretty trinket to leave on a shelf, rather than a living thing. And the insult to her servants didn’t help.
I assumed she would have her new creature prominently displayed, and I was right.
In a glass tank, like the one that holds the Herb Gerbils, sits a small creature on a mound of pillows. It has four legs, like a cat but much more heavyset. Its fur, all white and different shades of brown, is thicker and looks more stuff than a cat’s. Its tail ends in a point. Its ears are marvelous, all long and floppy, reaching all the way down past its paws so that they drag on the ground. But it’s the eyes that get me.
This animal’s eyes are huge, and dark, and soulful, and their gaze carries a profound innocence I’ve never seen in any other animal. Cats have their attitude, tigers have grace and strength, chameleons can change their colors--but this animal has a sweetness that cuts to my heart.
I know what it’s called, but I read the nameplate anyway. I’ve always, always dreamed of seeing one of these creatures--rubbing its head, playing with it, forming that bond they’re said to have with humans. I’m not about to let the Woman shut it up in a box.
I feel strangely detached from myself as I reach up and lift the top of the tank. I pull over a red plush chair to stand on, and then I’m holding it in my arms.
Just...wow. So many people said they never even existed, and here I am holding one in my arms. It’s a boy, and he reaches up with his nose to sniff at my face. They can smell feelings and places and sickness and poison and other people--I wonder what he smells on me. What does excitement and nervousness smell like?
He seems satisfied, and finally looks away.
“I’m gonna get you out of here,” I tell him quietly. He blinks his beautiful eyes in acknowledgement. I know he’s just a baby, but maybe he understands some words.
I can’t walk out the front door of the Temple with him, which is why I brought the bag.
I position it over my shoulder, and take the hard shoes out. He looks concerned as I lower him into the bag; his dark eyes grow wide.
“Don’t worry, sir,” I said. “This is the only way I can get you out. Don’t make any noise, okay?”
I wouldn’t disgrace this glorious creature with putting shoes on top of him, so I carry them under my arm. That’ll get me some weird looks.
I turn to the door just as it opens.
“Now, you can’t tell anyone I let you in here. If I let everyone see the animal, it would be stressed out. It’s right over…uh...”
My blood freezes in my veins, but all of a sudden the men's backs are turned, and the door is open.
I run for it.
Their footsteps are rapid behind me. I slide through a door.
I lock it swiftly behind me, but when I turn there are more faces.
Another door to my left. A dark hallway.
Voices raised in alarm. Pounding on the door.
I open a door at random. A closet.
I don’t feel my feet on the stone, or the weight of the creature in the bag. All there is is flight.
The door at the end of the hall opens.
I slam into a door without realizing it’s locked, and hit the floor. I make a desperate lunge for the next one, but I can barely get to my knees. I dropped my shoes long ago; my arms are around the bag. The door before me is open.
No time, no time, they’re behind you!
I finally stand, turning and holding my hands out. The men stop dead.
“Don’t,” the one with grey hair growls. “Not if you value your life, peasant.”
“Give us the bag.”
I take slow steps towards the door I flung open.
“She’s bluffing, Captain! Peasants hardly ever learn the Power!”
“The Power isn’t learned, you idiot.”
“I have the Power, and it’s strong,” I declare. “Take a step towards me and I’ll blast you to the end of the hallway.”
They take a step towards me.
I actually was bluffing, but not entirely.
A cool tide washes through me, not rapid but energizing, and a sudden violent shower of rainbows shoots from my palms and hits most of them in the chest, knocking them down. They don’t go down the hallway like I hoped they would.
I take the chance and tear through the door, slamming it and locking it.
I turn to find a room devoid of anything but walls and a floor. The ceiling is just wooden beams.
I quickly open the bag to check on the animal. He’s shaking, and makes a horrible, peculiar noise almost like a bird chirping when he sees me.
“I’m so, so sorry.” The noise breaks my heart. I stroke his head. “Almost out, okay?”
When I look up, there are vines everywhere.
They snake in swirls like ice cream over the grey stone. Everywhere. While sometimes people use it as a spectacle, with flowers and design, right now they’re just being practical. No blooms or fanciful shapes. Just plants. Someone else here has the Power as well.
I run for the other door, but thick vines have already crisscrossed the wood, holding the doorknob tight. They reach to snatch me, and I bolt to the middle of the room.
Common technique. Push the fugitive into the middle of the room with nowhere to go.
Think fast. I’ve learned how to generate Fire, but I can’t control it. I don’t want to burn down the Temple, or hurt the animal. Water only helps Plants, everyone knows that. The Base Power isn’t very strong. And I’m not deep in enough to shake the ground or fly away or turn invisible or smash down a wall.
What about the Wind?
The Wind is the strongest thing I have. Everyone always told me it would be fire, but that’s not important right now. The vines are creeping towards me, trying to locate me.
Thank goodness I’m outside. I close my eyes.
The Base Power rises again, and I catch hold of it, letting it settle all my thoughts into place. Then I sort through them, discarding most. It only takes seconds.
Threat at the door. Angry family. Dull princessed home. Summer heat. Ill-fit clothes.
The Base Power dims them to some pale nowhere.
The others are held onto.
Animal legend. Plant Power. Escape.
Another thought hits the the shimmering wall, almost shattering the surface, but the Power grabs hold of it and forces it away with the others.
One more thought comes forth to pour into my mind like cool water. A low roar, a soaring epic, unspeaking and ethereal.
For an instant, there is silence.
And then it detonates.
Breathing. Light. Trees.
Two thoughts are satisfied. The last one is acted upon.
The next thing I know, I’m under a building, gripping something small and warm in one hand, with the other arm wrapped around a soft bundle. I shudder.
I did it. I think.
I look down. I’m holding the animal in my arms, with one hand around his snout. Why?
Dimly, something tells me he was making noise. I feel terrible, but I keep my hand there. He’s very still. Stomps slam out over my head, and booted feet circle the outside of the building. Why did I come down here, instead of heading for those trees?
The Power--real Power, like leaping over a building or changing people's’ dreams--gives some people memory loss after they use it. It takes longer for the thoughts they pushed away to come back. It’s pretty bad with me; after I used the Wind the first time, I forgot how to speak for half an hour. Mother told me I just wandered the castle doing normal things, but any time someone tried to say something to me I would just stare at them for a minute and then turn away. It’s not that bad anymore, but for a bit just now the only thoughts I had were of protecting the animal and getting away from those men. And destroying the Plant Power they were using.
Speaking of which, I don’t remember blasting away those plants. That must have been cool.
I slowly let go of the animal. He seems to calm down, breathing deeply. I stroke his back. Bits and pieces of thought filter back into my head.
My name is Alex Andrea. My parents thought that was clever. They’re the king and queen of the Coastal Light. I’m twelve. I ran away from home, stealing clothes and cutting my hair, and I just stole a legendary animal thought to be extinct for two thousand years. I’m hiding under the Woman’s Temple, where you go to seek help or purification. And now I’m a fugitive in more ways than one.
I roll over in the dirt to look at the animal.
I still can’t believe I’m holding a real life dog.
“Basset Hound,” I whisper, playing with his huge ears. “That’s a bit too scientific for you. I know you can’t tell me your real name, so I’ll make something up. How ‘bout, um…”
I lay in silence, gazing at him. They say dogs live close to twenty years. So much adventure can be had in twenty years, and now I’ll have a best friend to spend it with. They say dogs have a special bond with us humans--once they love you, they’ll be so loyal they’ll die for you. That’s my favorite thing about them; they’ll never leave you. And now that I have one, by some ancient miracle, I’ll do the same for him.
“Noble,” I say, after a while. “That’s a good name.”
The footsteps have long faded, but I don’t feel like moving yet. The dog wags his tail a little, and scoots himself up to curl against my stomach. I put my hooded head in the soft earth, dreaming about the days to come, and we stay there for a long time.
When it’s dark out, I rouse the dog--Noble--and turn myself, with some difficulty, to face the gap of night outside my hiding place. I turn and look at my dog.
“Time to go.” He shakes himself off, and gives me an expectant look.
We drag ourselves out from below the Temple, into a quiet world of stars. I put my shoes on, and strike out towards the trees. The wind in my face is cool and strong, just the way I like it. When I turn, brightness leaps in my chest to see Noble toddling after me.
Soon we’ll find a place to stay. Soon I’ll change my face more. Soon I’ll figure things out. But for now, I’m free in the woods with my dog, and nothing can make me happier.