by London Lampy
"I'm not sure we can do anything about it, he is a fucking adult."
"But what? Vin's not here and he's the only person Sampson even slightly listens to, and it's not like we can stop him talking to Barney and Sora."
I sit on my sleeping mat and watch Vio getting dressed. She's still getting badly bitten, her shoulders and ankles are now covered in scabs where she's scratched them and I feel kind of guilty that the insects leave me alone. Apparently Sampson spent all yesterday afternoon in Barney's hut talking with him and Sora and he now seems to think that Gui spoke to him while he was unconscious. It's far more likely he was having a fever dream but the two of them are encouraging him to believe that he actually did have an encounter with the echoback god.
"I know they're manipulating him," she says, pulling her trousers on. "I don't think they believe he saw this bloody Gui any more than we do, but it serves their cause to make him think he did."
"Shit," I sigh. "What do you think is going to happen?"
"The gods only know. Hopefully Sampson will snap out of it, and if he doesn't...maybe he'll stay here and end up like Barney."
I sort of like Barney. He's treated us more as guests then as hostages, he clearly means well, I agree with most of his beliefs and he did save my life when I was a baby. However I don't really trust him, he's clearly obsessed with his cause and isn't too picky about his morals when it comes to getting what he wants.
"Tippit came to talk to me yesterday, he wanted to apologise for the whole Kremmen thing," she sticks her hand in her pocket, pulls out a red berry and starts to chew it. "He's alright."
"Did he tell you about how him and Sora ended up here?"
"Yeah, poor fucker. Wouldn't want to be in his shoes, he doesn't know who he is."
"He doesn't wear shoes."
"Figure of speech. But at least he wears clothes, unlike most of the rest of them, and you now apparently."
"I'm wearing shorts." I stand up so she can see.
"Only just," Vio looks me up and down. "If you walked around like that at home you'd get arrested for indecent exposure."
"But we're not at home."
"Too fucking right," she sighs.
"Sir, I'm not sure you should be doing that, you've only just recovered from your illness," Vio says, watching our boss attempting to climb up one of the rope ladders that lead into the village.
"Don't be stupid woman, I'm fine," he snaps. "Stop standing there like a pair of stunned trout and help me up."
Vio pushes him from underneath, grumbling under her breath while I climb up the tree and pull him from above. Somehow between us he makes it to the nearest platform where he sits down for a rest.
"That chief chappie has invited me to meet him in some place called the big house, I need you to show me the way," he says to me once he's stopped panting.
Unlike Vio Sampson doesn't seem to have a fear of heights, but that's not really a good thing. As we cross one of the rope bridges he spots a brightly coloured bird sitting on a branch below us and decides to lean out for a better look. I have to grab the waistband of his borrowed trousers to stop him from going over the edge.
"I say," he says once I've hauled him back. "I wish I had my shotgun on me, those feathers would look splendid on one of Mrs Sampson's hats." I wonder what Gui would think of him taking pot shots at the wildlife to decorate his wife's head?
It takes a while but I finally get him to the big house in one piece. Mathi greets him and invites him in, sending a young women off to fetch some palm wine. In the far corner of the main room Tula is sitting with the two girls she was with at the bathing pool. I look around, I can't see Llando anywhere, but Tula spots me and beckons me toward them. She makes it clear that she wants me to sit with her and her friends, and as Sampson is now deep in conversation with Mathi I go over to them.
"Where's Llando?" I ask once I'm sitting beside her. Tula replies with a shrug, I guess she doesn't know where her twin is.
One of the girls says something about Llando, then she giggles and the other one joins in while Tula makes a dismissive sound and waves her hand. The three of them start to have a conversation, I hear my name being mentioned, and they keep glancing at me. I scowl at Tula, it's kind of annoying to know that they're talking about me but not knowing what they are saying. I get the feeling Tula's two friends are trying to persuade her to do something and after a bit they come to some kind of agreement. Tula turns to me while the others watch. "Exit...go?" she smiles at me.
"You want me to go?" I frown back.
"Sa," she replies.
Fine, I'm not much enjoying this anyway so I stand up, and so does she.
"We go," she says with a nod.
She wants me to go somewhere with her? I follow her out of the big house and when I glance back her friends are sitting with their tails around one another watching us. When they see me looking at them they nudge one another and giggle.
Tula leads me through the village and down onto the ground somewhere on the other side of the small river. "Where are we going?" I ask her, trying to work out what's going on.
"Go, sa." she smiles at me again then takes my hand, lacing her fingers between mine.
We walk together like that until we come to a large pile of boulders which she leads me behind and I start to realise what could be on her mind.
"Um, Tula, I think you might have got the wrong idea about me," I say.
She ignores me, kneels down under a tree and indicates for me to do the same thing. When I stay standing she grabs my arm and all but pulls me down beside her. Once I'm sitting she removes the wide necklace and sets it down on the ground, then looks at me expectantly.
Oh shit. This isn't something that's happened to me before, I know that a while ago Effie had a bit of a crush on me but she never tried to seduce me, although I can't really imagine Effie trying to seduce anyone. Tula frowns slightly then moves closer to me, taking my hand and placing it on her thigh.
I consider my options. I could try it I suppose, it's not something I've ever done before, but then it's not something I've ever wanted to do, and I can't say that I want to do it right now with Tula. So that only leaves turning her down, and that's going to really piss her off. If we spoke the same language at least I could explain properly, but with a mixture of the few words we have in common and hand gestures I'm not sure I can.
I take my hand off of her leg, making her glare at me. "Tula, I'm sorry, you're a pretty girl, but you're not for me."
"Hu?" She does not look impressed.
"Please don't take it personally, it's not you, I just don't like girls that way."
I haven't a clue if she's understood me, but she picks up her necklace, stands up, says something rapidly in an angry tone of voice, tosses her head which makes the beads in the ends of her braids click together then strides off without looking back. I suppose that could have been worse. I give her a few minutes then get up and leave too, following the path of the river back to the village and my hut. When I get there Vio is sitting outside talking to Tippit, she spots me then looks around.
"Where's Sampson?" she asks. Hell, I'd forgotten all about him.
"Still in the village I guess."
"You didn't stay with him?"
"No, he was talking to Mathi, he doesn't need me." I hope he doesn't.
"He does to get back down."
"I'm sure Mathi will get someone to help him." I'm not in the mood to argue with her and I sit down next to Tippit, who nods in greeting.
"Vio has been telling me that Mr Sampson has had some kind of religious conversion," he says to me.
"Seems so yes."
"Might not last that long," Vio puts in. "This was before your time," she points at me. "But a couple of years ago he got very into astrology, you know, all that telling the future from the stars crap. He had this funny little man by his side at all times who'd read Sampson's charts before he made any big decisions and tell him what to do. Sampson even made us all have our birth charts done, mine said I was of the "artistic and sensitive persuasion"." I snigger. "Yeah, exactly. Fortunately the whole damn thing only lasted about three months, the astrologer fucked up, told Sampson there were large untapped coal reserves in the mountains to the south of the city. Turned out all that was down there was a whole lot of flint, and our esteemed boss spent a fortune digging holes for no reason. He changed his mind about the stars after that, the astrologer was last seen leaving the city at high speed and Sampson doesn't look too kindly on anyone who brings up the whole sorry mess now." Both Tippet and me laugh at her story. "So I'm kind of hoping this latest thing will go the same way."
"He almost fell off one of the bridges looking at a bird," I say. "Perhaps if he fell out of the village it might occur to him that he doesn't belong here."
"Or he might break his fucking neck," Vio adds.
"The village isn't a good place to be if you don't have a tail," Tippit agrees.
I feel a bit awkward asking him about it, but... "Does it make a big difference, do you find it harder to climb now?"
"Yes, my balance is out, even after all these years. When I first came here I went up into the village, I was looking around, climbing up one of the trees and I came close to falling. You see I'd jumped from one branch to another and expected to be able to land safely, but my counterbalance wasn't there any more, it simply didn't occur to me," he shakes his head. "I've been very careful ever since, I only go up to the village occasionally, and I always stick to the bridges and platforms."
"You don't have any of it left?" Vio quizzes him.
"I've got about four inches, Sora has a bit more. The slavers aren't out for accuracy when they dock you, they just line you up and hack them off."
"Gods," I feel queasy.
"Mate, I hope you don't mind me asking, but how exactly do they do it?" Vio's voice is serious.
"Not at all, most people avoid the subject but I don't mind talking about it, it's not like I can hide the fact I don't have a tail. What they do, they tie your wrists to your ankles and lie you on your side, one of them straightens out your tail and holds it still, then another brings down an axe or a machete, and you've got to pray that they go straight through first time or they'll hack away at you until it's off. Then they cauterise the stump with a hot iron or you'll most likely bleed to death, that's one thing I'll never forget, the smell of my own burning flesh." He looks away into the distance.
"Evil bastards," Vio spits. "That's nothing more than pure fucking evil."
I put my hand on my tail, I've never really thought about the how before. Tippit looks at me and catches my eye. "You've gone very pale," he says with a small smile.
"How can they do that?" I whisper.
"It's money to them, slaves fetch a good price." He shrugs, then glances at where I'm holding onto my tail. "Do you want to see it? You're probably imagining something horrible, but it doesn't look that bad now."
"Um..." I don't know if I want to or not, but I can't deny I'm curious.
"If you don't mind," Vio says, answering for both of us.
Tippet stands up, loosens his belt and pulls down the back of his trousers. The base of his tail looks perfectly normal but below that is burnt, scarred skin, much pinker than it should be and kind of stretched looking. The stump itself is uneven, his tail was cut off at an angle, but the worst thing is the way it just stops, the way what should be there isn't.
"Fuck," Vio breaths. "You know, I think I'm beginning to see things Barney's way."
Vio said she didn't feel like a trip to the bathing pool, and I'm kind of glad. I want a bit of time by myself to think, both about what happened with Tula, and what Tippit just told us. I walk down to the pool deep in thought, how can the slavers do something so awful? Do they look at us and see monkeys, animals to do what they want with, or would they enslave other humans as well? I have heard of humans being kept as slaves, but I don't know much about it. I also don't know what I'm going to do about Tula, I'm guessing that she's very pissed off at me right now. It can't feel good having someone turn you down like that, and I don't know if she understood my explanation, or if she did maybe that pissed her off even more?
A few people are in the pool sitting around talking, but no one who I really know so I briefly wave in greeting then take my shorts off and wade in, I'm not going to jump off the waterfall again. The others stare at me at first but then go back to their gossiping and I swim over to the submerged rocks and sit on one that's furthest from anyone else. I close my eyes and listen to the sound of the waterfall, I'm not sure how long I'm sitting there before I become aware of someone else beside me. A finger pokes me in the arm and I look round to see Llando.
"Hi...Exit," he pokes me again, none too gently. "Tula..." he pulls an angry face and growls. "...Exit."
"I know Tula's angry with me," I sigh.
"Hu? Tula na...petty?"
"Petty? I think you mean pretty," I correct him.
"She's pretty, I just didn't want to."
"Exit na want..." He frowns in thought, I guess he's looking for the right word, in the end he settles for a gesture. He makes a circle with the thumb and finger of his left hand and pokes the forefinger of his right hand in and out of it a few times. "...Tula?"
Is it strange for someone to ask you why you didn't want to have sex with their sister? Back home as I understand it a brother is more likely to be angry with you for doing that to his sister than wonder why you didn't.
"No, I don't want to..." I repeat his gesture "Tula."
"Hu?" he looks puzzled.
"Because," I take a deep breath. I have no idea what his reaction to this is going to be, but he's after some kind of answer. "I want to..." I make the sex gesture again, "Llando."
His eyes go very, very wide. He doesn't reply, just stands up, launches himself off the rock into the water and swims away, getting out of the pool on the other side and walking off without looking back. I guess now I've pissed both of them off.
"Nice bath?" Vio asks as I come back into the clearing.
"Not really," I reply. "Has Sampson come back yet?"
"No. Go up there and check on him."
I don't want to, but I ought to. If I go into the village I'm bound to run into either Llando or Tula, or the both of them. "Alright," I sigh.
I climb back up and make my way to the big house. Inside the old man who I saw at the feast is once again telling a story, a small crowd of people sitting on the floor watching him. At the front are the children, and standing out head and shoulders higher than any of them is Sampson, sitting in amongst them.
The old man is being some kind of monster, growling and swinging his head from side to side as if looking for prey. The children all squeal and move back from him in delighted horror, one of them, a tiny boy with feathers in his hair, jumps into Sampson's lap and clings to him, hiding his face in Sampson's chest and peeking out at the storyteller. Sampson doesn't seem to mind, in fact quite the opposite, he ruffles the boy's hair and pretends to shoo the old man/monster away from them. Sampson looks happy and I don't want to interrupt the story so I sit down at the back to watch and wait until it's finished.
Even though I can hardly understand a word I find myself getting drawn in, forgetting about my problems with the twins until I spot Llando coming in through the doorway. He doesn't see me straight away, he appears to be looking for someone and I consider trying to make my escape before he notices I'm here, but them he catches my eye and it's too late. To my surprise he comes and sits beside me, wrapping his tail around me he leans in and speaks quietly into my ear.
"Exit...want go?" he asks.
"Go where?" I reply.
"Go Llando." That could have any number of meanings, and before I can ask him to be a bit more clear he stands up and beckons for me to follow him outside.
He leads me through the trees right to the very edge of the village, then up onto a small platform with a single hut built on it. The doorway of the hut is facing away from the village and is covered by a slightly faded but rich looking red velvet curtain. He draws back the curtain and indicates for me to go inside, so I do. A sleeping mat is laid out on the floor and next to it sits a heap of belongings, some of which look like they were made in the forest, a bow and a blowpipe are tucked into one corner, but some of the other things, a sliver hairbrush and mirror set, a pair of kitchen scissors and a ball of string must be looted items and I realise that this is Llando's sleeping hut, his bedroom.
Once we are both inside he pulls the curtain almost all the way across, leaving nothing more than a small chink of light coming in. I sit down on the mat and he does the same, kneeling in front of me, his knees touching mine. I look into his eyes, in the darkness of the windowless hut's interior his pupils have opened out and the gold is nothing more than a narrow strip around deep black pools.
He lifts his hand and puts a finger against his lips, making a shushing sound, then to emphasise what he means he places his finger on my lips. "Exit, shush," he says.
I lightly kiss his finger then take his hand in mine and move it away from my face.
"I won't tell anyone, that's you mean, don't you?" Except maybe Vio, but she's no gossip.
"Sa," he smiles.
I kiss his smile. At first he seems a bit hesitant and I wonder if he's changed his mind, but then I feel his lips part and his tongue briefly touches mine, and I swear to the gods it's the sweetest kiss I've ever had.
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