Time is of the essence. I need to find a window of time, or maybe a literal window, where I can sneak out to inform Rio and the others about what’s happening and what’s going to happen. I thought there was no privacy in the med coop, but this is much, much worse. There isn’t a moment where I’m not being checked on by Ima, the groomer from earlier whose name I still don’t know, or a Tamsworth guard. They ask if I’m okay to seem concerned for my comfort and wellbeing, but I know they are only asking to make sure I haven’t escaped or plotted something against the General.
If they’re going to think that, I might as live up to their expectations of me shouldn’t I? What’s an excuse I can use that’ll be convincing enough?
“Ima!” I shout, immediately hearing footsteps run towards my door with no time to waste.
“Yes, Miss Kobayashi?”
“Do not call me that, please, Chinatsu is perfectly fine.”
“Ok, what do you need Chinatsu?”
“Since it looks like I’m going to be staying here for, well, the rest of my life, I’d like my room to look a little livelier when I return from General Pol’s ranch.”
If I return.
“What did you have in mind?”
“I used to hear stories about a mammalian marketplace that the swine and rodents and everyone from every ranch would visit to buy decorations and priceless paintings from the old world to put in their abodes and dwellings. Is that true, does it exist?”
She looks hesitant to tell me, confirming that it does indeed exist.
“Yes… it does exist. I’ve accompanied the General’s wife a few times, but it’s dangerous for humans to travel there alone because there’s a dark side to the marketplace. There are sellers there who capture and traffic humans who simply go there to browse. Whatever the human was willing to pay or trade is likely far less valuable than the human itself.”
“How is that any different than when a General sells a human to another General? There’s no deed.”
“They don’t sell the humans for labor. The difference is, they’re not alive.”
“What use would mammalians have for humans if it isn’t for labor?”
She begins to look behind her to see if anyone is listening to our conversations with her eyes wide and her hands shaking.
“It would be impossible for us to go anyway. We have nothing to trade.”
I look around at all the objects in the room. I look under the bed, inside the drawers, and finally, I find something unexpected in Tomo’s drawer. A stun bolt gun. Why would he even have this? Did he steal it? Or are he and the General that close that he would allow a human being to carry such a dangerous weapon? I inspect it careful not to trigger it. I have never seen one up close, and hope I never have to after today.
“Will this do?” I ask and show the gun to Ima.
“Where on earth did you get that?”
“Tomo told me I could have it. The General okayed it, hoping it would be me feel safer staying here.”
I could tell she doesn’t believe me, so I have to change my tactic.
“Come on Ima. How long have you been laboring at this manor?”
“My whole life. My mother worked here when the General first came into power. I’ve never even seen a coop or a feeding mill before.”
“Don’t you feel deserve to expand your worldview? Get some fresh air.”
“I get fresh air all the time in the courtyard.”
“Well, I’m going whether you are coming or not.”
“You do not have the slightest idea on how to get there!”
“Meaning if I get lost, or worse, kidnapped and sold on the “dark side of the marketplace” it will be on your conscience.”
“Fine, I will call a cab.”
She looks at me in disbelief and walks out of the room into the hallway.
“Come along before I change my mind!” she shouts.
I quickly empty my toolkit to hide the stun bolt gun inside of it instead and follow Ima out of the manor. Waiting for us at the very entrance is a wagon with velvet seats and a tarp to shade us from the sun during the ride. Romano’s insignia is carved into every piece of wood and gold found on this amazing cart on wheels. Ima sits on one of the seats and looks to me,
“Well come on, are you going to stand there all day with your mouth open?”
I snap out of my amazement and hop in, sitting on the seats across from her with the stun bolt gun on my side.
After an hour-long ride, we arrive at the marketplace. I see a bustle of all kinds of mammalians; felines, canines, ungulates, and even cetaceans walking with their H2O canisters in tow. They are all browsing through the artifacts and ancient décor barking, bleating, meowing, and whistling in agreement or disagreement of the prices they are given by the merchants.
Ima and I step off the cab driven by a Tamsworth. He pays us no mind as we walk further, deeper into the market until we are completely out of his line of sight. I guess we aren’t his responsibility from this point forward. This makes my plan to escape into the crowd much easier.
“So what did you have in mind for your new quarters Miss – I mean, Chinatsu? Although what you have is a pretty pricey item, I’m not sure if it’ll afford you one or two decorations at most.”
“That should be sufficient. I don’t want to become a hoarder and have more things than I know what to do with. I never would have thought I’d even have this freedom to decorate my own dwelling to my liking after eighteen years living in a coop.”
Reality sinks in. Maybe I am taking this opportunity for granted? How many of my coop mates would kill to be in my position right now? I will never have to go without bathing, share a trough full of bland soup with dozens of other humans, or risk being assaulted in the middle of the night again if I stay at the manor. This is a privilege even if it goes against everything I believe in. I can’t help thinking how different things would have been if Panacea never made me, a girl destined to be a harvester in the fields till the day she died, her apprentice. But I don’t want this life if I can’t share it with Rio, if Tomo’s love for me is conditional, or even countless other humans still have to suffer abuse and mistreatment on the ranch every day. It isn’t fair.
Ima and I approach a booth selling woven, net hoops with dangling feathers, big and small, of all different colors hanging from a rack that spins when you push it. I stand for a second to marvel at it.
“What are these called?” I ask the grey wolf merchant sitting on a stool.
“Dreamcatchers. In ancient times, your species believed if you hung them over your bed at night, they would protect you from nightmares and only allow positive dreams in. Crazy, right?”
“I actually meant the spinny rack.”
“That isn’t for sale.”
“Oh, well the dreamcatcher sounds nice too. I have had nightmares every night for as long as I can remember, so maybe one of those will help.”
“Look human, I couldn’t care less about your mental wellbeing. What have you got to offer?”
I carefully pull out the stun bolt gun from my sack and show the wolf both sides of it. His eyes widen and his canine teeth begin to pop out.
“Where the hell did a frail, female human like you attain that?! You’ve got to be joking.”
“Can I get a dreamcatcher in exchange for this?”
“Sweetheart, you can have all the dreamcatchers in this booth in exchange for that. And then some!”
His eyes sparkle and he never takes them off the gun. He starts salivating as his furry tail perks up.
I become nervous and slowly distance myself from him, along with the gun. Ima starts to tremble more than she did when she held Aiguo during breakfast.
Out the corner of my eyes, I see two other wolves, one red as autumn leaves and one white as snow, come from behind the booth with their eyes set on us. Their canines and claws are out. I see a clearing through the crowd leading out of the marketplace and make the most regretful decision I will ever make in my life.
I toss the stun bolt gun into Ima’s hands and make a run for the clearing. Behind me, I hear Ima screaming and the combination of barks and growls coming from the two wolves.
I run out of the clearing and onto the field in the direction of my ranch. I only have a couple of hours before nightfall to alert Rio to what’s going on.
After acres and acres of weeds, with my feet now throbbing, the abandoned building with the cellar doors is now in sight. I pause to catch my breath, and then make my way over there doing my best to not be seen.
I yank the doors open so hard I nearly lose balance and fall back. But I catch myself and quickly leap into the basement.
A bunch of rebels aims their weapons at me within seconds of my entry when Koshi rushes through the mob to intervene and call them off.
“It’s okay everyone, she’s an ally. Lower your weapons.”
The group follows his order immediately as he commands it, with frightened looks in their eyes. I’m unsure if they respect Koshi, or fear him. I’m unsure how I should feel about him too. He just referred to me as an ally. Will he trust that I’m on Rio’s side if he finds out I’ve been relocated to the manor working under the very regime they are fighting against? I decide against confessing that part.
“What’s up vet?”
“Koshi, I don’t have much time, but I need to talk to you and Rio about something important.”
“She’s in the forging room. Follow me.”
He gently grasps my hand and pulls me much more tender and considerate than I would expect a brownred to handle a female. When he looks back at me, even with the scar over his eye, I can still see a sparkle.
When we reach the forgery room, Rio is standing over a sword and a barrel of fire with a welding mask over her face.
“Is this urgent?”
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t,” I reply.
Rio turns off her blowtorch, sets it on a nearby table, and lifts her mask to speak to me.
“You got any new info for me?”
“General Romano is making a deal with General Pol. He is giving Pol access to human laborers from the med barn in exchange for additional pharmaceuticals. Since he feels like it was Pol’s ranchers that stole them in the first place from the rebels here, he feels like he’s taking back what’s rightfully his.”
“What a rat. Pol doesn’t have enough vets of his own already?”
“Not anymore, and not for much longer. Apparently, there is this disease running rampant on his ranch called the Black Death, I think? The General feels as if it is also his responsibility being that it’s highly likely that a brownred doing a side deal with Pol’s ranchers might have contracted it and brought it back to our ranch, and it’s only a matter of time before it starts spreading like wildfire.”
Rio and Koshi look at each other worrisome.
“What, you guys know what that is?”
“Yeah, it’s what almost wiped the human species out long ago. It was those filthy rodents who spread it and almost killed us. Maybe they should have. It would have saved us centuries of abuse by their grubby, little hands. It must have come back; serves them right.”
“Well, I’m one of the vets Romano is sending to help them cure the ranchers of this plague. Either way, I need to find a way out of this obligation.”
“Or maybe you don’t,” Rio says.
“What do you mean?”
“This is the perfect opportunity for you to get us intel. And possibly, even a sample of the plague itself. That plus the knowledge of the General’s sick shoat will be enough leverage and ammo for our coup against Romano and all the other mammalian rulers! Don’t you see?! You are the answer to the prayers our resistance has been waiting on for so long!”
She runs to me and hugs me. I never imagined this would happen, but I embrace her back. All second thoughts about staying at the ranch and becoming one of Romano’s minions for a little bit of comfort instantly leave my head. I was wrong to ever think them in the first place.
“I need to get back to forging. It seems we will need these weapons much sooner than I had expected. Now, if you will excuse me.”
She slides back down her welding mask and switches her blowtorch back on with a brand new vigor.
I turn to leave the room still processing what I just agreed to. Koshi quickly catches up next to me and we walk together.
“I have never seen Rio so full of hope,” Koshi confesses to me.
“Yeah, me neither.”
“You’ve given me hope too. In ways you can’t even imagine.”
“I appreciate that, but, how am I supposed to accomplish this? I’m not some professional spy or even a rebel like you guys.”
“Rio’s instincts have never been wrong about anything or anyone since I’ve met her. If she believes in you, then I do too.”
“Yeah, I’ve been getting that a lot recently.”
“Oh, no one in particular.”
Koshi’s eyes start to look at me suspiciously; examining me up and down the same way they did the first time we met down here.
“Did the med barn get new uniforms?”
“Your uniform looks clean, unused, and the colors are different. Your old dress used to be blue and white, this one is gold and red.”
Why is he so observant?!
I chuckle nervously and try to turn the tables, “Why are you paying so much attention to what I wear?”
His entire expression changes into a smug smile.
I did not expect that to work.
“I don’t know what to say,” He responds, “You look good in either one, to be honest.”
He corners me with both his arms to each side of my face into the wall of the basement. “You still didn’t answer my question though.”
I stutter, “What – what was the question again? Sorry, I didn’t get much sleep last night and I-“
“Where did the new uniform come from?” he asks, his voice deeper and raspier than I’ve heard him speak in up to this point.
“Well – you see, the thing is-“
Before I can come up with a bold-faced lie, he goes cross-eyed. He puts his hands to his head and moans in pain. His knees go weak and he falls to the ground. I knee down to his level trying to examine his symptoms and what might be the cause. He then begins to shiver uncontrollably.
When I try to move his hands away from his head, he pushes me off of him.
“I’m fine! I’m fine...” he lashes out at me.
We sit for a moment together in silence.
This seems to be becoming a thing that we do.
“I apologize; I didn’t mean to yell at you.”
“It’s fine, but what happened to you?”
“I just felt a bit nauseous that’s all. It happens to brownreds after an intense fight in the cockpit. It’s really common.”
“I’ve taken care of many brownreds after their fights and I’ve never seen one with symptoms like the ones you just displayed in front of me now.”
“You think you know everything, don’t you vet?”
“Not used to someone feeling compassion for you brownred? All you males know how to do is fight, whether it’s physically in the cockpit, or with your words like you’re doing right now. You are so used to getting beat down, you don’t even know what it’s like for someone to want to heal you without it being their job.”
“You don’t know the first thing about being a brownred, okay? You don’t even know what it’s like to be a harvester. You got out. You’re one of the lucky ones. So don’t act like you understand, when you don’t.”
He gets up shakily; his knees wobble for a moment until he regains his balance. When he does, he stares at me with disdain and walks back towards the forging room and out of sight.
I’m getting sick and tired of these males looking at me like I’m a lost cause.
I stand back up off the dirt and notice the mud on the edges of my fresh, new uniform.
Great. It hasn’t even been a day. How am I going to explain this when I get back to the manor? There has to be a way to get this off.
The med barn! There has to be a bottle of vinegar hidden in a cabinet somewhere. I just need to get in and out without anyone seeing me.
When I exit the basement, I see the ranchers patrolling the fields immersed in conversation. I make a break for the med barn and reach the doors in no time. Once inside, I hurry through the halls to my unit. I slowly push the door to see if Panacea or any of the other vets are inside, but the room is empty.
I swiftly slide through the crack of the doors and shut them immediately, locking them behind me. I head straight for the cabinets, hastily searching through sanitary supplies until I finally find the vinegar.
“Yes!” I shout in a whisper to myself.
I douse a rag with the vinegar and begin roughly rubbing the mud splotches off the skirt of my dress.
But my sense of achievement is cut short when I hear the locks on the door jingle. There’s nowhere to hide, so I try to appear nonchalant and casual as if I’m supposed to be here.
The doors open; it’s Fujita.
“Chinatsu? What are you doing here? I thought you moved up in ranks to a primary veterinarian of the manor. Did you forget something?”
“No, actually, I was in the courtyard of the manor admiring the flowers and ruined my new uniform. I was embarrassed to tell anyone to wash it for me since it was my first day, so I figured I would sneak here and nobody would know how clumsy I am.”
She pauses to process what I’ve just told her.
This is it, I’m done for.
“There’s no need to be embarrassed Chinatsu, it happens to the best of us!” she giggles, “You could have come straight to me, I would have had you in and out of here in no time! I’m super duper fast when it comes to cleaning anything out of anything!”
Not the response I expected, but I’ll take it.
“Haha, you’re right, I don’t know what got into me.”
“So how do you like it at the manor so far? Panacea tells me they’ve been considering taking in a secondary vet and that I might be their first choice! We might be working side by side soon. Doesn’t that sound fun?!”
“Yeah, really fun. The manor isn’t all you might expect it to be though, Fujita.”
“It’s just… different than what you and I are used to here.”
“You won’t get better if you aren’t pushed outside your comfort zone, right?!”
“Oof, here, let me help you.”
She grabs the cloth and douses it once more with vinegar. She wipes off the dirt in firm yet gentle strokes in contrast to me viciously scrubbing it off. In a few moments, my dress looks just like when I first put it on.
“These uniforms are also much cuter than the med barn’s. You’re so lucky!” she says with a huge smile.
“So I’ve been told,” I say with a laugh. “Thanks for your help, Fujita.” I bow to her then make my way out of the unit.
That was a close call.
When I reach the manor, I run alongside the building’s cinder block walls until I reach the trellis underneath the window of my quarters. I climb the wooden panel trying to avoid my dress getting ruined for the second time today.
As I throw my leg over the windowpane to crawl in, I tumble onto the floor making a loud thud. I gain back my balance and look up to find Tomo standing with his arms crossed in the center of the room.
“Tomo I- I can explain.”
“Um, which part?”
“For starters, where you were all afternoon?”
“I was at the marketplace looking for decorations with-“
“With Ima, I know.”
“Yeah, see, we kind of lost track of each other after a while, and when I went back to where the Tamsworth parked the cab, he was gone. So I figured I’d walk back by myself before it got dark. I assumed Ima took the cab home and would get here before me. Did she not?”
“Yeah, she made it back.”
Phew, thank goodness. Now I don’t feel so guilty for throwing her to the wolves; literally.
“Good, so that clears things up. I wanted you to come along but, you were nowhere to be found.”
I attempt to wrap my arms around his neck, but he grabs them forcibly and pushes me away.
“Ima made it back, but she didn’t make it alive.”
Terror fills my heart, and the guilt comes rushing back.
“Why don’t you tell me?”
“I already told you what happened. We got separated.”
“Wolves from the canine ranch tore her to shreds. They say it all started over this.”
He pulls out the stun bolt gun from behind his back and holds it in the air.
“I had this hidden in a specific drawer that only you knew about, so why was it in her hands when the Tamsworths retrieved it from her after trying to fight off the wolves? You clearly gave it to her, but the question is why? Why would you do this Chinatsu?”
“Tomo, I’m sorry. I just needed to get out of here for a few. That’s it. I had no idea this would happen.”
“Were you trying to get away from the manor or from me?”
“Why would you think that? I-“
I stop in terror as he quickly puts the stun bolt gun to my head. I close my eyes preparing for the end, but it does not come.
“I haven’t told the General about your involvement in this yet.”
“’Yet’, so you’re planning to?”
“That depends on you, Chinatsu.” He says as he places the gun back in the drawer I found it in.
He steps to me and kisses me softly as he fiercely grips my shoulders. I dare not move a muscle.
“Come on, there is something I want to show you.”
He pulls me by the hair across the hall, the guards not flinching an inch to intervene.
“Tomo, stop! You’re hurting me!”
But he does not stop; not until we reach the grand, marble room where the young, female taxidermy was mounted the last time I step foot in there. She is still here, but I notice another body I recognize as well.
His bright, blond hair once scruffy and disheveled was now pasted back with some kind of gel. His mouth was set in a permanent smile and his stance was set in a catching pose.
I can’t help but scream. My scream is so shrill you can hear it echo down every corridor.
“Ricci!” I sob, “Why did you do this to him?!”
“Remember the sucker nutritionist from the med coop who everyone thought was killed for eating from the trough with his hands? How they never caught the two people who did it? One of them was Ricci, and I’m sure you can guess who the other one was.”
I scream even louder than before, “Let go of me! Ah!”
But his grip around my hair does not let up for a second.
“He was part of a secret resistance that has formed on this ranch within recent months. We offered him his own quarters here at the manor in exchange for him telling us the leader of this coup. He wouldn’t give us that information, so we taught him a lesson. It was a simple task really.”
I struggle and struggle to escape his grasp, but it’s no use.
“And Ricci,” he continues, “He started to feel guilty. I thought he had the guts, but after he found out how his parents died, his loyalty died along with them. So he ended up here, and I have to say, it’s some of my best work. Even better than that girl you saw yesterday.”
“… You monster.” Is all I can say between sobs as I try to catch my breath.
“You’re calling me the monster? Do you see who they are bringing on that gurney over there? Ima, or, what’s left of her. They are working on stitching her back together to mount her right up there with the rest of them. Whose fault is that? It isn’t mine. You’re the one who tricked her into taking you outside the manor. Now, are you going to tell me why? Or do I have to make you?”
“Why should I tell you anything?!”
“Cause if you don’t, you are going to be the latest addition to the General’s collection.”
“Does the General know you have that stun bolt gun stashed away?”
“What does that have to do with-“
“Because you could just rat me out now. Why don’t you?”
“Maybe it’s because I still care about you.”
“You’ve made it very clear that you don’t this evening. Those weapons are restricted for mammalian use only, so either you stole it or you and the General are really that close. Which one is it, huh?”
He remains silent, his grip on my hair loosening until he’s fully let me go.
“That’s what I thought.”
I walk back to my room with my hair still in disarray and tears streaming down my eyes.
When I reach, I shut the door behind me and sit with my back pressing against it. I cry until I fall asleep. I have no nightmares, because now I know I’m truly living in one.