Three days without water is not an easy sit. Or walk. Or whatever. It sucks. Period. It sucks even more when you're trying to come up with a plan on how to properly catch your latest prey but you just keep thinking to yourself, If I drink my butler's blood, could I survive?
We'd been walking on the trail through the Painted Badlands for days. Any other occasion and I'd stop to take in all the different colored sands, the rich blues and bright reds and sort, but our water ran on our tenth day from the last town and I came so close to drinking my own pee it ain't even funny.
Of course Daniel never even broke a sweat, creepy bastard. He just slouched along, carrying the pack with all our stuff, only ever speaking if he had something to annoy me about, those stupid goggle-like sunglasses on his face staring straight on at nothing.
When I first caught sight of New Zelli, its elegant wooden sentry towers rising from the clay earth through the hazy mirage sweeping across the ground, I asked him, "Is that what I think it is?" Every word was a strain on my throat; I probably sounded like a frog.
"I do not know what you think, and frankly, I want to keep it that way," he said. I could tell that he was just as parched as me, just doing a slightly better job of hiding it. "But I believe that that is our destination."
I wanted to run straight on to the gates, but all I had to keep me going was the last few drops from our shared water skin and a Prancing Beetle that I'd caught an hour ago. If I passed out, there was a good chance I wouldn't get back up again. And I didn't want to chance Daniel leaving me out here to croak.
After a couple minutes that seemed to stretch on into forever, we made it to the town gate. Like most of the settlements that fell outside of the Confederacy, it was walled and moated off, its massive front gate flanked by twin towers from which archers could pick off targets with their crossbows. In the dry moat beneath were some of the biggest, nastiest-looking spikes I'd ever seen, jutting from the ground like teeth. Thankfully, nothing was impaled upon them, which was a sign that New Zelli was probably less raid-prone than some of the other settlements we'd been to.
A shadow caught my eye. Up above, a sentry appeared, sticking his head cautiously out from the window of his tower. He was so high up that just making out his face was a challenge. He shouted something at us; I turned my good ear—my right—to him so I could hear him better. "Identify yourselves!" he called. "If you're part of the faire, then buzz off! Sign-in was two days ago!"
I opened my mouth, but no words would come out. My throat was too dry. I turned to Daniel, pointed to him, then the sentry. He cleared his throat and called up in a scratchy voice, "We are Reese Holliday and Daniel Langdon, of New Athens. We are here to attend the faire."
The sentry stared at Daniel like he was just waiting for tentacles to emerge out of his butt. "Got papers on you?" he eventually asked.
"Yes," rasped Daniel.
"How come you two didn't show up when the faire started yesterday?"
"What sort of question is that?" Daniel wondered aloud. I gave him a soft kick in the shin.
"Say again?" called the sentry.
"We were delayed!" Daniel shouted as loudly as he could. He was getting hoarser by the second. "Sir, my cousin and I have been walking for days. We are extremely thirsty and tired. I can present you with our papers immediately once you let us in. I assure you, we are no threat."
The sentry considered this, stroking his meager chin hairs at us. It took him so long that I swore I could feel my fingernails growing, inching their way through my flesh and curling...oh Gods, was I starting to hallucinate? Was dehydration setting in? Was this the end? Had I come so far to die here, being pestered by some stupid guard while my butler tried to quarrel our way in? The world began to go dark.
Something hit me in the back of the head. I turned in time to see Daniel quickly withdrawing his hand. I would have slugged him in the face right there, glasses or not, had he not pointed ahead. I looked—the drawbridge was down.
Oh. Hm. I motioned for him to follow.
As we walked inside the walls, I drank in the town. New Zelli was your typical frontier settlement: two long rows of frontier architecture shaped into a V. Each row of nearly identical one to two-story wooden buildings stretched all the way down wide, unpaved avenues. Overall, there was probably about a mile's worth of town end-to-end, all protected by huge wooden walls, atop which more sentries patrolled.
Decorations were hung all over the place for the Faire, bright drapes depicting the Greek Pantheon hanging from strings hung between both sides of the respective avenues from windows where women regarded the goings-on with bored expressions on their faces. Below, faire-goers and citizens walked about, talking amongst themselves, laughing, shouting...brawling in spots. Vendors strolled up and down the place, shouting for people to come buy their wares. Priests pleaded for alms for the temple. Lawmen patrolled alongside them, resting huge iron crossbows up against their shoulders.
Inside, the guard moved to halt us both, holding up a hand. In his other he carried a long spear. He wore an open leather vest over a white cotton shirt with metal gauntlets over both his wrists and an iron kilt over faded denim pants. Yup, sentry all right. Only guards could afford not to give a damn about how ridiculous they looked.
"I'll take your papers now," he said in this low drawl of a voice that I couldn't tell if he was playing up or not.
I took our papers from my vest pocket and handed them to the guard. He scanned them over.
Wait for it...
His eyes widened and his jaw fell open as he looked at me like I was an unpinned grenade. Ah, that never got old. His head bobbed very slowly as he looked me up and down. "Well," he said, swallowing, nodding at my gloved hands. "Guess that explains those." I tucked them behind my back.
Then something in his face changed; awe was replaced with a sudden panic. "Should I alert the Sheriff?" he asked. He looked behind him, staring down the wide, long avenue of New Zelli through which the townsfolk milled about, like he was trying to pinpoint a body snatcher amongst them.
I shook my head.
"Why doesn't he talk?" the sentry asked.
"We are both very thirsty," rasped Daniel. "If you could point us out to the nearest tavern—"
"Right there," said the sentry, pointing at this ugly, two-story false front saloon with a triangular facade with a faded, kitchy sign hanging off from it. "They take kids," he assured me. "S'long as they know their prayers."
Pft. Did I know my prayers.
I held out my hand to get the papers back. He made to hand them over, but I had to really pry them out of his fingers—he seemed weirdly reluctant to give them up. "You...you sure I shouldn't get the Sheriff?" he muttered in this squeaky little voice, not a trace of drawl left.
"Absolutely," said Daniel, who now sounded more like a lizard than a human being. Kinda fitting. "Good day." He clasped a hand on my shoulder as he led me away. I wrenched it off. Cousin BS or not, I sure as hell wasn't going to let him lead me around like I was little kid.
Pushing past two wooden saloon doors styled to resemble Doric columns, we entered a dark, smelly, sparsely populated bar thick with a musty odor. I made a beeline for the bar, fighting inwardly not to leap over it and clonk the big, thick, greasy-looking barrel of a bartender on the head to take all his wares for myself. I just pointed to the first bottle of hootch I saw and knocked hard on the bar's polished wooden surface.
The bartender glared at me like I'd spilled all of his drinks. "Y'know your prayers, kid?"
I'm about to die of dehydration here, bud, I wanted to say to him. How the hell am I supposed to invoke Dionysus like this?
Daniel joined me at the bar, dropping the pack onto the hardwood floor with a dull thud. He glanced at me quickly. I swore his eyes were smirking behind those impenetrable lenses of his. Before he could even open his mouth, I knew he was going to try and beat me to the punch. He'd realized the irony just as I had: that an atheist could invoke Dionysus, and I couldn't. To hell with that.
"Dionysus," I managed to croak. Every word felt like trying to swallow a flaming pipe cleaner. Taking a dry gasp of air, I went on, "I invoke thee. Keep me quenched in days of fiery hell, keep me in the graces you give thy satyrs, and thy children, and thy—"
"Good lord, kid," said the bartender, looking at me like I'd just sprouted a second head. "Should've just said you were thirsty." He took a bottle, took its cap off with just his thumbnail and handed it to me. It took only a few seconds to make the precious drink within vanish. I put a silver drachma on the table and got another beer in reply. It was gone just as quick. I ordered a third, and made sure to savor it.
"Lords, kid," said the bartender, stifling a laugh. He turned to Daniel. "Anything for you?"
"Just water," said Daniel. The bartender poured a long, thin glass of iced water for him, and Daniel drank it all in a single, dainty sip. Only he could chug down any sort of beverage and manage to make it look so pretentious.
"Why the sunglasses?" the bartender asked him. My ever-conspicuous butler hadn't taken them off. He never took them off, not even when he slept.
Daniel arched an eyebrow at him, a sign of impending snark. Guy's already tall as a cactus: he attracts enough attention and ending the day with a fight would be disastrous. I kicked him again to avoid a scene.
He coughed and muttered under his breath, "I have sensitive eyes."
The bartender arched a brow at him. "Uh huh." He wandered off to check on the four or five other people scattered around his bar.
That little averted disaster earned me a pretty long sip. "Pace yourself," Daniel warned me as I swallowed a whole mouthfull's worth of beer.
I burped right in his face, fogging up his lenses. He muttered something under his breath and wiped at them with the sleeve of his shirt. "I nearly died of dehydration out there and had to put up with your whining for five days," I said. "If it weren't for the first part, I'd have ordered grain alcohol."
"I did not whine."
Liar. But I wasn't going to rub it in his face. For as much as he went off about spending entire months chasing our current target, he never once moaned about carrying the pack with all our stuff. The last time I tried picking that beast up, my arms nearly popped out of their sockets.
He stared forlornly at his empty water glass. "You sure you don't want anything?" I asked.
"I am not so foolish as to poison my body like you," he said.
"But," he added, "I admit, I could use a soda."
So I ordered him a sparkling strawberry Prickler, with ice. And while he went to make a request of the drooping pianist in the corner, the bartender added a drop of beer to his drink under my direction. Nowhere near enough to get Daniel tipsy, but just enough for future blackmail material, under the right circumstances.
The murky air shimmered with the hums of an unfamiliar song. "Bach?" I guessed upon my loyal servant's return to the stool alongside my own.
"Not even close," said Daniel. "Savall."
"Whoever the hell that is."
He let out a pained groan.
"I agree," I said.
Grumbling, he took a drink from his water, paused mid-sip and turned to glare at me. "I will get you for that," he said in a cold, quiet voice. And then he drank the rest.
I couldn't help but laugh. I'd forgotten that he's a real aristo-brat, with a trained culinary tongue. He probably could have been able to tell me difference of the chemical makeup if I coughed in his drink.
A prolonged yawn made me realize just how tired I really was. "So," I said, "do you mind where we stay tonight?"
Before he could answer, the doors flew apart like a hurricane had blasted them open. This hairy guy dressed in a toga sauntered in, with a crown of olive leaves sitting in his mess of brown hair. A few other young fellas dressed likewise came in after him, their faces scrunched up like they were constipated. They were all glaring indignantly at their leader.
"My fellow New Zellites!" he shouted. "I greet you!"
"Shuddup, Lewis!" moaned a patron sitting at the bar who'd buried his shiny, bald noggin in his arms. "Goway!"
But Lewis was undeterred. "We have come to enact the opening scene of our play, which you'll be able to see on the morrow, to close out the first half of the faire! Friends, countrymen, lend me your ears!"
A play? A play! My heart did a little happy dance. Man, when was the last time I'd seen a play? Dad used to take me to them, back in the good days. He'd make me dress up in all these elaborate disguises so we could get in to whatever theater had lax enough security. I used to think it was part of the culture, like a big party.
Nowadays I know different, but still, the anticipation of wondering about what we were going to see was making my heart race with excitement. Or maybe it was the beer making me feel so giddy? I doubted it, but whichever, I downed the last of my third bottle.
"Jessie!" Lewis called back towards the door. "Get in here!"
In walked this girl who just screamed, 'frontier.' She wore this big frilly apple-red dress with long sleeves and a collar that went up to her throat. Just like mine, but hers looked like it was strangling her. Didn't stop her from smiling the biggest, happiest smile I'd ever seen, though. A little glowing butterfly fluttered happily inside me.
She bounded past all the drunks and bored bar patrons sitting around all the little round tables and took her place up on the tiny stage by the staircase with her fellows. "Hi everyone!" Groans all around. "Sorry to be interrupting to be your happy hour, so we'll make this quick. We're gonna be putting on a scene from Homer's Odyssey."
Daniel crossed his arms skeptically over his chest.
"You can see our full production this Friday. So we wish you..." Jessie caught my eye. She returned my smile. "We wish you a happy History Faire!" Then she and her fellow players, all five of them, clacked the heels of their shoes together, twirled around once and bowed.
Daniel leaned over and mumbled, "Wherever we stay, it better be far from them."
"Don't be such a sourpuss," I said. "Enjoy the show!"
"We are thoroughly hydrated now," he said. "Should we not resume the hunt?"
"We're ahead of everyone else," I pointed out. "We got time. Besides, I'm tired. Just relax. You do know how to relax, right?"
"I have a permanent crimp in my back from carrying around over a hundred pounds of clothing and equipment," he reminded me. "I am surprised my spine's not bent into the shape of a question mark by now. Not that I am complaining," he said, taking another drink of his Prickler.
The scene the actors chose to play was the play's very beginning, when Telemachus leaves Ithaca to find his father. Lewis was Telemachus and Jessie played his mother Penelope, even though she had to be at least ten years younger than him. If I were to ballpark it, I'd say she was maybe a year younger than Daniel, so sixteen. Three more than me, then.
Jessie looked like she was having so much fun in the role. That was almost disconcerting, because it's not a happy role to play: a woman who thinks her husband is dead and is being sought after by a hundred strangers and her son is about to go look for his missing father, leaving her all alone? Eugh.
Still, the way she spoke to Lewis, it was with such a genuine gentleness and grace, the way she smiled at him. It was just so genuine—you really believed that she could have been his mother. Something stung in my eye and I killed it before it could become a tear.
When Telemachus left and Lewis shuffled offstage, the actors bowed. Before I knew it I was giving a hearty standing ovation, grateful that they actually made me feel something other than annoyance and exhaustion. Coupled with the (believe it or not) fairly muted effects of my beer, I was floating on a cloud. A nice, pink little cloud.
"That was nice, huh?" I asked Daniel as I sank back into my stool.
He rubbed at the lenses of his glasses with a long, skeletal finger. "I have an opinion, but you would not want to hear it."
"Okay." He was probably right. I nodded towards the door. "One more drink, and then we look for a hotel."
"As you command."
"Quit that. We're not soldiers."
"Naw," said a voice as sweet as a raspberry chew. "But you still look awful young to be in here."
Jessie had claimed the stool on my left, sitting with her hands folded in her lap. She smiled at me, but not the same smile she'd given Lewis. This wasn't motherly, it was friendly and chipper; welcoming—the kind of smile that put you at ease faster than any anesthetic.
"Jessie Valence," she said, holding out her hand.
I made sure to take off my glove before shaking hers. "Reese Holliday. This is Daniel," I said, pointing over my shoulder. "My pack-mule."
"He means babysitter," he said.
Jessie giggled. "Thanks for the applause, Reese. It's embarrassing, playing for people who're so addled they barely even know you're here."
"Well, I'm only a quarter of the way there," I said. I waved at the rainbow arrangement of different ales, beers, liqueurs, wines and draughts on display overhead. "Can I get you anything?"
"No thank you," she said, still smiling. "I don't drink."
"Finally, a sensible person," said Daniel.
"Pardon?" said Jessie, leaning past me.
"Ignore him," I said. "He's just cranky and tired. We both are. Tired, I mean. You know anywhere we can stay?"
"Oh!" She reached into a pocket in her dress (dresses have pockets? Whoda thunk?) and took out a flier. A bolt of panic ran through me. "Here you go," she said, handing it to me. "This has everywhere you can go while you're in New Zelli. Places to eat, sleep, attractions. On the back's our show time and where you can get tickets. You should come and see us!"
A little worm of shame and embarrassment crept about inside me. "Thanks," I said, waving the flier over my shoulder until Daniel plucked it from my hand, much to my relief.
The pages fluttered loudly as he leafed through it. "Hm," he grunted, carefully scrutinizing every line. "Here." His finger was pressed into a single line of text. "Kennedy's Inn and Breakfast. A hundred silver drachma a night for a single room." He looked at me for approval.
I handed him ten silver coins with big 10s stamped on them from the pouch tied to my utility belt. "Go check us in."
"Right," he said, pocketing the coins. "Shall I order us dinner?"
"Please," I said.
"Very well," he said. He stood up, hefted the pack back onto his back and nodded curtly to Jessie. "A pleasure, Ms. Valence." Hunched as an aging rabbit, he shuffled out of the bar, pushing open the faux-Dorics with his chest.
Jessie stared after him with this befuddled, snicker-worthy look on her face. Like someone who'd just witnessed a cat doing a plié. "You friend's very...prim," she said.
That wrestled the laugh outta me. Upon catching my breath, I said, "Yeah, that's one way to put it. It's tough putting up with sometimes, but still. Doesn't hurt having a servant."
"A servant?" said Jessie, her mouth open in a tiny gasp. Her lips were 'sticked blindingly red. "You mean...like a slave?"
"What? No! Oh no, no way!" I said, waving my hands frantically in front of me like some crackpot oracle. But I had to shrug, because, "I mean, well, sorta...I don't pay him." She didn't look at all impressed by that answer. "But I didn't force him to tag along with me, I swear. That was all him. On paper, we're partners."
"Partners? Like traveling salesmen?" She looked a lot more relaxed and generally less suspicious of me now, thank goodness. She tapped a finger to her pointed chin. "Come to think of it, he did have that enormous backpack, so I guess it'd make sense," she said. "Is that it?"
Now, maybe it was stupid of me...since I was asking myself that, it probably was. But I'd never gotten to talk about my work with someone this close to my own age before. Just the thought of getting to see the look on her face made me giddy to spill everything. With a little tact and restraint, of course.
"Well, I'm a bona-fide, registered Manhunter," I said probably a lot more proudly than I ought to have, beating a fist against my chest for good measure. "Been at it for a while now. Daniel is too, but I do all the legwork. He just carries our crap around."
It would all come any second now: the gasp of awe, the wide eyes, maybe even a moment of stunned silence before the inevitable adoration. Instead, I got two blinks. And not even, 'huh,' blinks, more like, 'you smell like rotten tuna' blinks. "So, what, you're just some wandering bounty hunter?" she said, frowning at me.
Just some...just a...my face was suddenly a lot hotter than I thought possible. "No, I'm a Manhunter." Way to go, Reese. That cleared it up nice and tidy.
"What's the difference?" asked Jessie.
"What's the diff..." Huh. What was the difference? My brain racked itself for a decent answer until it felt like juices were trickling out of my ears. I made a mental note to see a doctor at some point. "Well...I have a license!" I finally managed to say.
"But you still hunt down people for money, right?" she asked in a tone that was growing increasingly hostile.
I didn't like where this was going, now. "You have a problem with that?"
Maybe she sensed my growing degree of annoyance, because her eyes looked like they'd been inflated with a balloon pump. "Oh no!" Now she was the one flailing her hands about. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to sound judgmental. Did I sound judgmental?"
I pinched an invisible marble in front of my face.
"I'm sorry," she said, head bowed.
"No worries," I said. "It's in the past."
"No, really," she said, her face crestfallen, her palm placed earnestly over her heart, "I am very, humbly, truly, sincerely, greatly—"
"Sheesh," I said. "It's okay, all right? I promise. You didn't offend me. Promise." She looked unsure, and now I felt bad for making her feel bad. A change in subject was desperately in order. "So. How long you been an actress for?"
Her face lit up like a firework. I figured that she didn't probably talk to people about it all that often. "Well, just since I was little. I traveled around the Plateau with my ma and pa and my..." her smile faltered for a second. "My dog Benny. I'd act all the little bits parts in our plays."
"Ma and pa wrote one-act plays," she said, smiling with a faraway pride. "Comedies and family dramas with happy endings. I got to see so much, new towns, outposts, all sorts of new places."
"You ever go to any of the city-states?"
She shook her head. "Mama and papa said that we wouldn't be let in. The Exclusion Laws were still around then."
My stomach twisted into knots. Those laws had been passed when fears of immigrants were at an all-time high, thanks to the Blacknight Riders, a bunch of marauding cowboys. They would send their best people inside the cities and either open the gates from within or cut the power. Then they would ride in in force, plunder and pillage, take hostages, kill anyone who looked at them funny, maybe stay a week or two and gorge themselves on the city's resources, then move on to the next city-state. It took a long time for the Exclusion Laws to be repealed. As much I've tried to stamp out all the guilt squirming inside me over it, it just keeps worming its way back up into my chest.
"Mama and papa are gone now," said Jessie, shaking me out of my thoughts. "Flu took them a few years back."
"I'm so sorry." I meant it. To have two parents and lose them that way, it just wasn't fair. A cruel joke is what it was. How would I be able to cope with that if it had ever happened to me?
"Aw, don't be sorry for something that wasn't your fault," she said, speaking to me in the kind of tone you use on a sad little kid. "It was awful luck is all. Bad flu. They're in Elysium now, I know it. I told them both straight, 'Mama, papa. When you go to the sunny lands, please stay there. Don't come back. When I'm gone too, I'll head straight there and be with you forever. Promise."
Quelling the lump in my throat before it could even begin to crawl its way up was no easy feat. Clearing my throat, I asked, "What makes you think you'll stay good forever?" I wasn't trying at all to get any kind of a rise out of her, really. I was just curious. "Lots of people try to be good and end up doing bad things anyway."
"That's because they were never truly good to begin with," she said almost immediately.
If Daniel were here, he'd probably debate this girl until time ended. Me though, I just wanted to spend my evening having fun, making friends. Life was too short trying to piss people off. Why not get pissed instead?
"I guess so," I agreed. I tipped the bottom of my bottle ceiling-ward until it was dry as a creek, every remaining droplet completely drained.
Somewhy, Jessie blinked at me like I was some kind of creature she'd never even seen before. I guess I just answered my own question there, all things considering. "So where're you from, Mr. Langdon?"
"Reese, please," I said. I rapped my knuckles against the polished wood surface of the bar and stared real hard at the bartender for another round. He slid another bottle over to me and I popped off the cap with my teeth, letting it clink onto the floor. "And you asking born, raised or lived most of life?" I asked before taking a swill.
"The most exciting," she said.
I suppressed a burp. "The most exciting." What is? And should I tell her the truth? I guessed an abbreviated one couldn't hurt. "Well," I started, "I was raised out on the road with my mom and dad. Mom left after I was born, and dad raised me with the help of my uncles. Then I went off on my own, ended up in New Athens a couple years back, got my hunting license, and now I'm here."
Jessie whistled. "That's quite a bit. I'm sorry your mama left you."
"Eh," I shrugged.
"How long you been traveling for?"
"Whole year now," I said. "Been around the south coast a bit, getting bounties, keeping myself fed."
"What about...um, was it Danny?"
"Daniel," I corrected her. "What about him?"
"How'd you two end up together?" she asked. "He can't be family, right?"
"Nah. We're just glued together, by happy accident."
"How'd that happen?" said Jessie. She leaned forward, obviously intrigued.
"There was...a little kerfluffle in New Delphi," I said.
"The home of the Oracles?" she said, her jaw agape.
"Yup, that's it," I said. I was kinda surprised she hadn't already heard of what happened there; it made the news about a week afterward. Daniel was so angry reading about it he didn't speak for two weeks.
"What happened?" Jessie asked.
"Twisted story," I said. "Long too. Not sure you have the time."
"Believe me, Reese," she said. "I'm not going anywhere."
"You sure? I'd have to get into the whole business," I said. "Not sure you'd be up to hearing that."
"I'm always open for a story," she said, her eyes threatening to swallow her face.
To my infinite sorrow, I was out of beer again. I nodded towards the upside-down rainbow of multicolored bottles hanging on the wall, a wild assortment of sea blues, forest greens and desert yellows. Just their being there was a challenge.
I turned back to Jessie and, with my best charmer face on, said, "Get me top shelf, and you'll hear the whole thing. Promise."
-To any potential readers: hi, I'm Jordan Werner. This is my first story on Fiction Press. "Manhunters" is the results of me trying to take some characters I created in an old fan-fiction of mine and placing them in a new story. This has been the most successful attempt thus far. "Manhunters" was conceived as a Shonen action manga, but I can't draw. For the forseeable future, it's gonna be in serial format, with arcs and such. There's more written, and hopefully more to come.