My new story, Bitter Days, is a mashup. It’s a crime story in a fantasy setting, as well as a coming-of-age story for Pageeda, a young orphan girl who lives on the gritty streets of the port city of Cosaturi. When her older sister goes missing, it’s up to Pageeda to track down her sister’s kidnappers.
Of course, she’ll need the help of Scuffee, a strangely intelligent and unusually large street cat with whom she develops a strange rapport.
The story is available at Amazon.
Meanwhile, here’s a preview of Chapter 1…
I. A Festival to Remember
— Bakil Tesar, from Around the Thousand Kingdoms, Vol. XIII
“I want to see it all!” shouted Pageeda, dragging her older sister by the hand through the throng of festivalgoers. Pageeda used her smaller size to wiggle through the crowd. Illyria, three years older and a head taller than her sister, had a tougher time and found herself repeatedly apologizing as she bumped into people. Finally, Pageeda managed to secure them a position at the front of the jostling crowd so they could see the parade as it passed.
The waterfront was the last leg of the Parade of Lights, which had already wound its way through the richer areas of the city where street people like Pageeda and Illyria were not welcome. To Illyria’s cynical eyes, the performers looked tired and just a little bored. But one look at Pageeda’s shiny face told Illyria that all her sister saw was the magic, just as she’d hoped. Pageeda looked up at her, smiling and laughing.
Pageeda clapped her hands with delight as a team of barrel walkers rolled by. Each performer danced and jumped on top of a five-foot-tall rolling barrel, playing to the crowd. A team of three muscular men pulled each barrel along using a loop of rope running through a circular track in the barrel. Pageeda looked up at her and said, “The barrel’s like a giant pulley that they’re pulling along. That’s so clever.”
Illyria didn’t have the heart to tell her that all of the barrel dancers were probably slaves. Pageeda would find out soon enough that everything in this city had its dark side.
The barrel dancers were followed by a crew of tumbling acrobats, a wagon carrying a band of musicians playing a popular jig, and more, all greeted with enthusiasm by Pageeda, hopping up and down with such excitement that the people around them were smiling and laughing at her. One man even gave Pageeda some delicious leftover pastries, dripping with some sort of sweet frosting, which she shared with Illyria. Normally street people were all but invisible to the denizens of the Zanya, but everything was different during the festival.
During festival week, people were happy, often drunk, and surprisingly free with coins. Illyria and Pageeda had collected quite a few coins this past week, despite not having been able to get near any of the highly coveted begging spots. Even better, food was plentiful, and leftovers were easy to find. Sometimes people even gave away food, like the man who’d given Pageeda the pastries, which was much better than pulling scraps out of the garbage like usual. Festival meant full bellies for them, the opportunity to taste foods they’d normally never get to sample and, just for a short time, life was a little easier.
They watched one spectacle after another as the parade wended past, until all of the acts began to blur together in a sort of sensory overload. There were Salasian soldiers marching in unison; a strident marching band; an ornately decorated wagon with a bevy of beauties posing provocatively to advertise a prominent brothel; a troop of mounted, black-skinned horsemen from the Zenophan plains; more acrobats, this time from far-off Rusitania, doing a twirling dance; and a ponderous, doublewide wagon trimmed in blue bunting and pulled by twelve white horses that represented the Church of Turkos. A black-robed wizard with long black hair and a neatly trimmed beard stood near the front of the wagon, just above a large brass figure of a serpent arranged in a figure-eight so that it looked like it was eating its own tail. Waving his arms theatrically, he conjured brilliantly colored apparitions of fantastic beasts and mythical creatures that cavorted in the air with wild abandon until they popped like soap bubbles high in the air. Turkosian temple soldiers in chain mail marched beside the wagon, all of them white-skinned with black hair.
While many in the crowd cheered loudly when the wagon came into view, many did not. Neferian refugees, who’d lost their homeland to forces aided by Turkosian mercenaries, were common in this quarter, and many looked on with bitter, angry, or defiant expressions. Some of the more daring souls even turned their backs to the wagon as it passed by.
The Turkosians were a relatively recent addition to Zanya, having begun appearing in the city about a decade ago, around the time that Illyria and her pregnant mother had arrived as refugees from the Neferian civil war. After building their influence for several years, the Turkosians had acquired the rights to Temple Hill, one of the three hills around which South Zanya was built, and promptly leveled the entire area to build their own fortress-like temple compound. Thousands of people had been ruthlessly displaced, many of them Neferian refugees.
Illyria, Pageeda and their mother had been among the displaced, which may also have been a contributing factor to the sickness that took their mother from them shortly thereafter. Illyria couldn’t help but think that the ever-increasing power of the Turkosians didn’t bode well for Zanya.
Pageeda felt Illyria tugging on her hand. She pulled herself away from the spectacle of the parade to look at her sister and saw that she was pointing at some of their friends, street kids like themselves, who were waving at them from a nearby rooftop on their side of the street. Pageeda reluctantly let Illyria pull her back through the crowd.
As they neared the edge of the crowd, Pageeda heard a man shouting, “Never forget!” in a loud voice. She tugged free of Illyria’s hand and darted through the throng, grinning as Illyria struggled not to lose sight of her in the crowd.
The voice belonged to an older man with hair that might once have been black but was now mostly gray, and a scraggly beard that reached down to his chest. “Never forget!” he shouted in a loud, quavering voice. “I fought for you!” He was sitting on the ground, right leg stretched out in front of him, and the other just a stump that ended at the knee. His right hand was also missing, and there was a nasty scar that cut across the left side of his face.
A passerby dropped a few coins in a small, wicker bowl in front of him, then walked on. The man said in a lower tone of voice, “Thank you, sir. You are a patriot.”
Pageeda stopped in front of the man. With her hands on her hips, she asked, “Never forget what?”
A hand came to rest on her shoulder as Illyria stepped up behind her.
The old man glanced briefly at Illyria and then brought his gaze back to Pageeda. “Never forget those who fought for this city and this nation. I fought at the Battle of Antigon. That’s where I lost these.” He gestured with his left hand, encompassing his missing right hand and the stump of his left leg. “For what I’ve given up for these people, they can spare a few coins now and then.”
Pageeda pulled a small coin out of her pocket and dropped it in the man’s basket. The man laughed roughly, then reached into the basket and handed the coin back to her. “Girl, you need that coin more than I do. I’ll take money from them’s that can afford it. But I thank you, nevertheless.”
Pageeda let Illyria pull her away from the beggar. As the man receded behind them, they heard him exhorting the crowd once more: “Never forget!”
Illyria clutched Pageeda’s hand as they walked into a narrow alley that smelled like refuse. Pageeda wrinkled her nose as they stepped from bright sunlight into the dimness. Pageeda stopped abruptly, yanking Illyria to a halt.
Some sort of odd-looking cat was lying partially on top of a foot-long rat that it had clearly just killed. It snarled at them, showing a mouthful of white fangs that looked larger and sharper than those of a normal feline. As Pageeda’s eyes adjusted, she noticed that its fur was dirty, clumped with what looked like tar or something sticky. It was some sort of cat, but like nothing Pageeda had ever seen before. It was more than twice the size of a large alley cat, or about half Pageeda’s size, and had outsized ears, large eyes, and huge paws.
Illyria was on Pageeda’s right side, closer to the beast. Pageeda pulled Illyria away from the dangerous-looking predator. Pageeda looked straight into the eyes of the cat and said, “Nice kitty. We don’t want your rat. You have nothing to worry about.”
Pageeda nudged her sister in an arc that skirted around the strange beast and its fresh kill. Pageeda never took her eyes off its face as they navigated around it, and the animal craned its neck so that it never took its eyes off her as they passed by.
A short distance further down the alley, they climbed up on some wooden boxes that were leaning up against a building, clambered up to the first-floor roof, and then shimmied up a wooden drainpipe that creaked in protest to reach the next level. Moments later, hand-in-hand, they joined their friends, Melis, Jamsin, and Felichuk on their perch overlooking the street.
Melis greeted them with a cheery “Hello,” and a wave. She was Illyria’s best friend, a pretty, dark-haired girl a year older than Illyria. Whenever she had extra food, which wasn’t often these days, she’d share it with Illyria, always saying that it was for Pageeda.
Pageeda rushed forward and gave Melis a hug. “Hi Melis,” she said. “Hi Jamsin.” With his long blond hair and fair skin, thirteen-year-old Jamsin was the only one of their group who wasn’t of Neferian descent. She pointedly left out a greeting for Felichuk, who was sitting beyond Jamsin.
Sitting beside Melis, Jamsin grinned and waved distractedly, occupied with another of his little wooden animal carvings. He’d acquired a small, six-inch knife a couple of years ago, although he wouldn’t say how. To pass the time, he’d started carving driftwood into animal shapes like the carvings he’d always admired in the marketplace; by now, he was actually fairly decent. He’d even given a couple of his little carvings to Pageeda.
“What are you working on, Jamsin?” Pageeda asked.
Jamsin smiled at her and held up his latest carving, a four-inch-long dolphin, generally held as a symbol of good luck by the folk of Zanya. Since he wasn’t done carving it yet, the poor dolphin looked like it was desperately trying to leap out of a piece of gray, weathered driftwood.
“I sold one of ’em yesterday for four coppers. I think the man what bought it thought he was getting something I stole from a shop.”
Pageeda and Illyria laughed appreciatively; the others had already heard the story.
Felichuk said, “Hey, Illyria, how’s it going?” He was a short, scrappy boy who had begun to annoy Pageeda with his constant efforts to impress her sister. He was always bragging about being an up-and-coming trainee for Pomaya’s gang of thieves. Pageeda didn’t think that being a trainee was worth bragging about, plus it seemed like kind of a bad idea to advertise about being a thief.
“It’s been a good day,” Illyria replied. “It’s Pageeda’s tenth birthday, so I’ve been taking her all around.”
“My birthday’s two days after Princess Analisa’s,” Pageeda interjected. “Only she’s two years older than me.”
“Big deal,” said Felichuk. “It’s not like you’re ever going to meet her.” Melis reached around Jamsin’s back and swatted Felichuk in the head, eliciting a giggle from Pageeda, who was otherwise pretending that Felichuk didn’t exist.
“I like your ribbon, Illyria,” Melis said, casting an envious glance at Illyria’s neck.
Illyria grinned. Pageeda knew she’d been looking forward to showing it off ever since she’d found the bright red ribbon on the ground a few days before, still in good shape despite being trampled by who knew how many people. Selma the Seamstress had sewed it on her tan-colored shift for free. The ribbon encircled the neck opening of her outfit; the ends were tied in a bow in front. For street kids, it was the height of fashion.
The five of them watched the parade for a while, Pageeda leaning comfortably back on the sloped roof while Illyria and Melis conversed next to her. At dusk, lights appeared throughout the city, all the normal lights of a city at night plus thousands of lights put up in honor of the Festival of Lights.
“This is my favorite part of the festival, the nighttime lights,” Illyria said. “It’s like the city we know has been replaced by some magical city where anything is possible.”
“Same dirty city.” Melis shrugged. “Just better lit.”
Pageeda pointed as she spotted the first rocket climbing skyward from its launch point on the Crescent, the rocky arc of land that sheltered Zanya’s harbor from ocean storms. Before Illyria could respond to Melis, the first of the evening fireworks detonated in an elaborate starburst high in the sky above the Bay of Fools. They watched the fireworks show in companionable silence until it ended in a rousing climax of thunderous, multi-colored explosions.
“I meant to tell you earlier, we saw this really strange cat in the alley right before we climbed up here,” Illyria said. “It looked really vicious.”
Melis said, “Cream-colored, kind of dirty, with big ears?”
“I’ve seen it around lately,” Melis said. “Didn’t look too dangerous to me.”
“You didn’t see its teeth.”
Pageeda looked at them. “He wasn’t dangerous,” she said. “He was just really hungry, and he didn’t want us to steal his dinner. And he was sad because he was all alone.”
Melis said, “Pageeda, you can’t know that.”
“I can, too,” she insisted.
Melis just smiled and shook her head, letting the matter drop.
Illyria changed the subject to general gossip about the people they knew. After a while, they said their goodbyes, and then climbed back down to the alley. As Illyria led them home, a light rain began to fall. Pageeda was so tired that she could barely stumble along holding Illyria’s hand. Within a short time, they arrived at the alley where they’d been staying for the last few weeks. Home was a hidden shelter behind a modestly upscale cafe called the Hestrian Grotto.
Pageeda didn’t realize anything was wrong until it was too late. Between the soft patter of rainfall that muffled any other noises and her own tiredness, she was caught unaware as three men wearing dark, hooded cloaks stepped out of the shadows and blocked their path. Pageeda pulled Illyria backward, but stopped as two more ambushers appeared behind them.
Pageeda froze, paralyzed with fear. While she hesitated, Illyria charged at the man directly in front of them. At the last second, she darted left. The center man tried to grab her but couldn’t get a hold on her rain-slick body. She screamed and leaped on the left-most man, viciously scratching his eyes and face with her fingernails until he toppled backward.
Illyria looked up. Pageeda had followed her and was trying to help. She grabbed Pageeda’s arm and yanked her through the gap she’d created in the ring of attackers. “Run, Pageeda! Run!”
Pageeda stumbled and fell hard enough to stun her for a moment. She saw Illyria attack another man, but someone else grabbed her sister in a chokehold from behind and lifted her off the ground. Still screaming, Illyria kicked the man in front of her and savagely bit the arm of her choker.
Pageeda bounced to her feet and started to run, but another ambusher loomed above her and grabbed her arm. He was thin and wiry, with a grip like a steel band. She noticed that a few strands of long, dark hair had escaped from beneath his hood.
She pulled her only weapon from her pocket, a piece of sharp glass from a broken bottle, and slashed her attacker’s arm. As he yelled in pain, she tried to pull away, but his grip was too strong. She slashed at his face only to have him bat her hand away, sending the glass shard flying. He yanked her towards him and tried to immobilize her in a bear hug.
She head-butted him as hard as she could and heard a satisfying crunch. Half-dazed, she clawed her way out of his loosened grip. Her hand got caught in the folds of his tunic; there was a ripping sound, and she was free.
She ran for her life.
She heard Illyria screaming behind her as she ran until, with awful suddenness, the screaming stopped.