To live successfully as a beautiful girl is to knowingly live a lie.
The lie is multi-layered. There is the lie of men who say they enjoy your company – this is the same lie as when you tell a joke and they crack up laughing, and the same lie as you making the joke in the first place. You want attention and approval. They give it. It's a game, a transaction.
There is the lie of being invited to parties and premières because you are a notable or striking person; without your looks, you would not be there. The only challenge may be found in a beautiful poor girl facing rudeness and exclusion from beautiful rich girls, or if she's simply from the wrong clan. Even then it's not hard to ingratiate yourself. If whores can have status, there is surely no stopping a beautiful girl with chastity and charm.
Finally though, there is the lie to yourself – the lie that you made it through your own success. It was never yours. Deep down you know it. Deep down, you feel the fiery rage that they never let you do it on your own terms, not like those ugly girls who climb mountains to prove their talent. Deep down, you feel the dirty shame of someone who only succeeded at the invitation of men.
She breathed in, and paused.
'Camels,' she said.
'Funny,' Hanaman replied, 'I was going to say horses.'
They'd stopped at a major town after another few days. It had been two weeks since the switch and, so far, everything was fine. Or rather, nothing had gone wrong. Noksalika was even starting to relax a little, especially in the company of the bright and chirpy little mantrel.
'Really? But the camels have had a great run the last few seasons.' She stopped, realising Tarabonitz had rarely expressed an interest in sport, and gave him a humorous look. 'Or so I heard, right?'
'Aye, but look at the horses, they're really hungry for it. You can see it in their eyes.' He gave a long theatrical sniff, and grinned up at her. 'You can smell it on the Ethe!' Bright and chirpy, easy to talk to.
However. Hanaman was a problem, and a liability. So far, he'd been frustratingly clingy, and there'd been no easy opportunities to shake him off. Her switch with Tarabonitz had gone perfectly, but there were always other ways she could be caught, especially close up like this.
Which meant a large sporting event was a good chance to get rid of him…
The game itself was called Udquo, short for the rather ostentatious name "Udquosodic". Two teams of animals and their riders, armed with large sticks which each thinned into a spoon-shaped paddle, had to hurl a small hard ball into the other team's goal – frequently by scooping it off the floor and smacking it high through the air to another player. There were also a whole host of smaller goals and markings on the pitch which she'd never been able to figure out.
Noksalika enjoyed sport – had enjoyed sport – but her cynicism had never let her enjoy Udquo. It was supposed to be an old traditional game, recently re-invented or re-booted or re-something'd. But in reality it was only a few dozen years old and had no heritage at all. It was so miserable watching some artificial game spring out of nowhere, and everyone getting swept up in yet another new artificial craze.
Each team had their own type of mounted beast, which could be almost anything: wolves, boars, even jaguars and other large cats. But this special event was a yearly grudge match between two notable towns – so notable, Noksalika had forgotten their names, and didn't care to look them up either. One team rode camels, the other horses.
It wasn't one of the megaleague finals, but the event had a certain charm and character known across the local Ethe. A carnival atmosphere had sprung up to cater for the hundreds of thousands who'd swamped the town, with music, stalls, performers, dancers, animals, and all the fun of the fair.
Hanaman and Noksalika strolled along the stone causeway that circled the huge pitch, above varieties of seating hosted on vast banks of stone steps. People sat on moulded plastic seats and wooden benches, on gold recliners fit for an emperor, on bean bags and fluffy cushions, on logs with specially-bred spongy fungus. Some even sat at right angles to everyone else on giant stone pillars, or upside-down in treehouse bars overhanging the stadium at great distance. Far below on the pitch (or above, or sideways), the grass was a lush dark blue-green and covered in white lines, like the tribal markings of some giant kraken.
She looked back at the milling crowds to her right, with children buzzing around a clown with balloons and drunken teenagers messing about riding donkeys. She noticed one man far away, tall and dressed in rich, dark clothes and with luscious shiny dark hair. He seemed to wander as she did, alone. He noticed her attention, even over the distance, and gave her a broad smile.
He was exactly her type and she shuddered with desire, not having had sex since … since the girl. Noksalika shuddered at the memories of Tarabonitz's crushed, bloody body.
'So what don't you like about sport then?' chirped Hanaman's little voice, giving her a meaningful look. His eyes were wide and honest, disturbingly so, and he was also looking at her through the Ethe. Noksalika was caught off-guard by all these things at once. 'Uh, what do you mean?'
'Well, your Ethe profile doesn't show any interest in it at all. And everybody likes some kind of sport.'
She fumbled for something she had in common with Tarabonitz. He was right, the stupid bitch hadn't even been interested in football. 'Well … it's just … it's the way everyone dresses it up like a soap opera. They make stories and sagas and drama out of league tables and training sessions. It's so boring.'
This was her skill in acting – finding the link between her and her character, the weak spot, the overlap. Indeed she, Noksalika, couldn't stand the grandiose speculation of the tiny things. She liked the grit and the action of sport – the tackles, the passes, the heroic shots and tragic misses…
'Hmm, I thought that was half the appeal,' mused Hanaman, stroking his bearded jaw. He suddenly looked round over the masses of seated spectators. 'I think they're going to start. I'm just popping to the toilet, aye? See you down by the bean bags?'
Excellent. 'Sure no problem, I'll get some food.'
Noksalika ambled towards some stalls, counted to five in her head – then ran.
She dashed off through the crowds, who didn't seem remotely fussed the big match was about to start. It was such a risk – when the little mantrel found she was gone, he would call her through the Ethe, and then what would she do? Hey, why not kill off Tarabonitz, and swap with another unsuspecting girl, she sneered at herself unhelpfully.
She hurried passed jugglers and dwarves, students and bongo players, all the time keeping her gaze tightly ahead – look like you have every right to be somewhere, and people barely even notice. She was nearly at the far corner of the causeway, where steps led down to the flat plain of the surface-town, when a donkey careered out of nowhere and smashed her to the ground.
Noksalika lay gasping on her front, her cheek pressing against the stone. The donkey bleated and skipped off, as the drunken student staggered after it laughing. She couldn't feel much pain, but her body was in shock; her arm trembled when she tried to push herself up.
Someone loomed over her.
She turned her neck and stared up at the dark man she'd seen earlier. She watched his rugged dark features and black hair swim into focus, and her heart beat even faster. He pulled her up and they stared into each other's eyes a second – his eyes were a rich blue, with unusually large pupils. Other people drifted off as they lost interest. He wore a long black cloak with iridescent black feathers, and had a strong oily smell that she couldn't place.
She made a scene about dusting herself down, and stood so her breasts poked out that bit further. 'Thanks, you're very kind. What's – what's your name?'
He frowned and shook his head slowly. He prodded her face gently, and she gritted her teeth as small fragments of bone moved around under her skin. She flushed a deep pink, batting away his hand playfully. 'It's fine, it's fine, it'll heal.'
There was an awkward silence. She had to go, but … he was exactly her type (or one of her types, anyway), and she hadn't had sex at all in the recent rushed days … which for her was an eternity … and let's face it, would Tarabonitz herself have turned down a hot situation like this?
'Would you like something to eat or – drink?' she suggested. He smiled. She broke away from his hypnotic, rich blue eyes as sex juices started pumping urgently in her body. They walked to a nearby stall for a bottle of spirits, and she leant over the counter as she ordered it, sticking her perfect behind out to make sure he saw and got the hint.
But he didn't look – standing behind her, he just stared intently at the back of her head as it flashed green, his deep blue eyes widening.
She turned back, had a look around, and saw a passageway leading into the ground, presumably under the seating. 'Let's take this somewhere more private, shall we?' The suggestion of discretion, without being in the least bit discrete – one of her many talents.
They turned into the square passageway, letting themselves swing over the edge and walk at right angles to the causeway above. Doors and indoors cafes lined the walls, mostly empty with the crowds out on the surface. Just a few metres in, she took his hand and pulled him up against a wall.
Her breasts swelled under Tarabonitz's tight, fitted dress. He looked at her with a strange, fascinated look, and after a few seconds she had to kiss him. His mouth failed to open. She pulled back, and looked at him playfully – then he moved forward and kissed her.
It – it wasn't lacking in warmth, but he kissed as though he wasn't very experienced. Which was madness for someone of his age…
'Hey Tara, are you coming?' The bright little voice of Hanaman squeaked on the Ethe. 'They've kicked off, it's 23-0 already! Where are you?'
She instinctively ignored the message, expecting it. Hanaman could see her through the Ethe anyway, but she'd bet he wouldn't get up just to look for her. She placed her hands on the large muscles of the man's chest, letting the blood in her body rush to all the right places…
Something wasn't right.
…and he responded likewise, placing his large manly hands on top of her chest, completely ignoring her breasts.
Her eyes opened a little and the blood shrank back from her skin.
He had … he had no Ethe presence.
The man half-heartedly pressing up against her, the man vaguely brushing his palms against her chest, had no weight on the Ethe. No attachments. No profile. No name. She opened her eyes fully, just for a second without stopping the motions of kissing. Because that's all they were, motions.
He pulled away from her suddenly (some of her saliva still on his chin), dark eyes wide and darting everywhere, his nostrils drawing in great brutish sniffs. For a horrifying second she saw a body with no soul – a body with no soul – and saw herself reflected in a mirror…
'Tarabonitz, what the hell are you pl—' began a voice beside her. She turned and briefly saw Piarowef's face in a startled look of terror, before the man gave a bestial roar and plunged his fist into the wall, smashing tiles with a crunch. She screamed instinctively, and everything slowed down as she ducked and ran back towards the light of the outside. There was a rush of air behind her and she tripped again, this time hitting the floor on her elbows. Something had wrapped itself around her leg, and, judging by the screams of others behind her, it wasn't going to be pretty.
The man-thing suddenly had a tentacle where its arm had been, a long black tendril snaking for a dozen feet and coiled round her upper ankle like some tropical snake or deep sea creature. There was a wetness that burned on her skin. She saw through hair over her eyes that his – its – face was still the same, which just made it scarier, as those eyes stared vacantly at her and the mouth moved by itself. The tentacle pulled with a vicious strength, dragging her across the floor.
'Help!' she screamed, unheard over the background noise of the crowds outside. She looked on the Ethe and saw bystanders running away down the passage. 'Thanks for helping, you fucking idiots!' she yelled at them. The local Ethe was now a well of spreading panic and danger, with an empty hole at the centre where this man-monster stood…
Her fingernails scratched at the smooth worn floor uselessly, until she forced all her will through the Ethe – a sudden gash split the rock sideways and she clung on desperately. The man-thing didn't like this, making an animal growl, and started walking towards her, which largely ruined her solution. She growled herself and turned her neck back to the tentacle, trying to split it like she'd split the rock, before realising the bastard thing didn't have any Ethe presence, it wasn't part of the Ethe. Then she gave another scream because she didn't know what to do.
The stone cracked. She strained with concentration and pushed the crack deeper, then forwards; it was a jagged gash because she was never good at these things anyway, and her mental power wasn't strong enough. With no objects to hand, her idea was to dig a lump of rock out to hurl at the thing, which failed; she lay there exhausted, thrashing out with her legs.
Then she heard a couple of running steps and Hanaman shot over her head in a flying kick.
The creature grunted and smacked him out of the way, sending the mantrel sailing into the opposite wall and down to the floor.
'Hanaman! Are y—' she shouted. But he sprung up suddenly with as much agility as the man-thing had strength, and pulled a long knife from inside his shirt.
His eyes were wild and narrow as he leapt on the thing's back, plunging the knife between its shoulder blades. A huge groan sounded and the pull on her leg lessened, and she turned back to the floor with a renewed will to carve out a sharp piece of stone.
The thing thrashed with its free arm at the mantrel clinging to its shoulders, as black blood poured down to the floor. She saw Hanaman hacking at its thick neck, desperately hanging on as the flesh beneath the cloak shifted and changed shape. He'd got about halfway through when an ugly hissing noise started and black fluid sprayed up against the walls; the tentacle went limp and Noksalika shook her leg free.
With a cry, the last bit of rock splintered and she lifted it up, angry with herself that it was heavier than she'd intended. But she looked up to see Hanaman triumphantly slice through the last strands of pulsating muscle, and the head rolled off down the passageway under the fixed chair of a café front.
'Go,' he said, more gritty and certain than the easy-going mantrel she'd been travelling with. He backed off from the swaying, headless body, watching the limbs shiver and shake.
'Isn't it dead?' She gaped.
Under the chair, the head started rocking…
He breathed in. 'Run, now!'
Her last image was of the zombie-like body lurching forwards, and the head in the background crawling on crab-like legs. They burst through the passage entrance through shocked bystanders and confused golems, out into the roar of the stadium, and hurtled away.
Both of them lay panting on a riverbank under some trees. It took a few minutes to get their breath back; more than a few for Noksalika. Spring fireflies hovered lazily over the water and their faces, glowing softly.
She wiped the sweat from her eyes and stared at the fireflies, then tried to focus on the surface cities and towns high above, through the thin tree branches. High above, or far below; same thing really. She should have been able to recognise them instantly from the aerial view, from the shapes and lines of buildings and habitation … but she couldn't think right now, couldn't recall.
She shook her burnt leg, the remains of the black acid still itching painfully.
'Who are you?'
Hanaman propped himself up on his elbows, revealing black burn marks on his own small, furry ribcage. 'Hah! Me?! I could say the same about you.' His voice was still bright, but he sounded different now. Angrier, for a start.
'I asked first.'
'I've told you.'
'Stop messing around. I've never seen a mantrel do a flying kick like that. Or carry a weapon.'
'Ha, you've never been to my homeland.' He pushed himself up again, this time into a relaxed sitting position. Noksalika turned her head and saw him almost at rest, crossed legs, hooved soles facing upwards. After half an hour of near-constant running, she could barely move her legs.
'My name is Freegeneral Hanaman rLodo Gidan. You can still call me Hanaman.'
'And what does a "freegeneral" do when he's not having a drink with his mates?'
'A number of things. Right now the Committees have me on a task. A task that involves you.' His little eyes twinkled, and his mouth twitched. She tried pushing herself up onto her sitting bones, failed, and had to drag herself up with a nearby shrub. 'How exciting. So,' she tried appearing enigmatic, despite her scraggy hair and sweaty clothes, 'who am I, then?'
'Well, to all intents and purposes you are a certain Tarabonitz Suhanrohan.' He smiled. 'How are you finding it so far, Noksalika?'
She curled a lip at his knowing her real name, and wondered how to play things. 'Uncomfortable. The mind doesn't fit me.'
'I'm sure it will in time.' He rubbed his palms on his thighs, and there was a little pause. 'Why, Noksalika?' He pinned her with another stare. 'Why run away?'
She shook her head as reality caught up with her. 'First, first, first – what the fucking hell was that thing?'
His eyebrows raised and his bottom lip curled out, shrugging. 'A big man that turned out to be a monster. I was keeping an eye on you, heard your scream but didn't see the thing. It had no Ethe.' He seemed a little stunned himself at the words. 'The first I knew was when I jumped down that passage.'
'Pretty brave of you to get stuck in like that.'
'What can I say? It looked like something that needed killing.'
'And the knife?'
Her words were a whisper; his face became stony and the smile died. 'It's mine. You can't hold it. The Ethe would not allow it.'
His little face was suddenly grim, with deep lines she hadn't seen before.
'I…' she started, staring at the creases in his worn green shirt. Maybe it really had been a uniform, long ago. 'I just want to see it.'
He stuck his lower jaw out, didn't move for a second, then reached into his jacket. It came from almost nowhere, a flat foot-long blade of metal with a dull gleam. He held it by a black hilt, set with a couple of cheap-looking red stones. They could have been all the rubies in the world to her. She'd never seen a weapon, not a blade like this. Very few ever did.
He sheathed it quickly. 'And now, Noksalika, the famous Noksalika Chuunim, you tell me. Why run away?'
She stopped breathing for a second, then let all the air gush out. 'I got tired.' She stared back at him, lost. 'I wanted to get out.'
She wondered where Piarowef was right now.