Sensing Love In All the Wrong Faces
The crowd sat in quiet anticipation as a soft melody filled the concert hall. The curtain rose, and a plain, perfectly average man, Don Orville, stood in a circle of light. Average is the only description that fit him: brown hair, brown eyes, and plain facial features; not tall nor short, not big from muscle or fat, nor skinny; and he wore simple brown clothes, neither richly nor cheaply made. If not for the average amount of age-marks on his face, he could be mistaken for a mannequin.
He took a small step forward saying, “Hello, and thanks for coming. Tonight, I’m going to tell you about the journey that ended my search for love.”
“My first date, Celene was stunning. She wore a shimmering silver gown and had long, silky black hair. I almost drowned in her piercing black eyes, until her thin lips formed a saving dimpled smile.” Don paused. “She was always quick to smile and quicker to laugh. It was a golden, tinkling sound that melted my heart and… ahhh… I said and did many things that night just to hear that laugh.” As he spoke, a cloud of vapor appeared to his left, slowly molding into the featureless silhouette of a woman. Don moved to it, reaching out with a trembling hand.
He froze. “I hadn’t touched her bare skin all night. But I couldn’t let the perfect evening end without a kiss. If she wanted one.” His shaky hand met the figure’s. The silhouette puffed away and Don recoiled.
HIs voice was low as he said, “I’d explained to her, after she’d accepted my invitation, why I kept my hands to myself. I’m a Sensor; with a touch, I feel everything a person feels.”
Don smiled thinly. “The moment I touched her, I knew. Her bright eyes and happy smile hid a dread that I’d make some sort of advance. It was like getting punched in the gut.”
Don bowed to the absent phantom, bending forward slightly from the waist and ducking his chin. “And so I thanked her for the nice evening and left her standing there. I’m not sure what was worse, her polite thank you or her wave of relief.”
Don repeated the bow to the audience who moaned in sympathy as Don’s feelings washed over them. Standing straight, Don finished, “But that was just the first. Let me tell you how I came to meet my former wife.”
The lights on the stage dimmed, and Don stepped back as the crowd clapped politely.
When the lights came back up, a younger Don drank from a tall beer while looking around a noisy, dimly-lit, bar. He sat on the very last stool where the bar ended in a corner of the room, four empty stools beside him. “Come on… someone here has to be happy…”
The Bartender leaned against the bar, bored as the bouncer said something to her. The people seated at half the tables in the bar sat huddled around their drinks, speaking tersely to each other. Don swiveled back to the bar and picked up his beer. “Just us again, Amber.” He sipped his beer and huddled in on himself for several long moments.
Far to the left of where he sat, a door creaked open and he turned, his face lit with hope as three laughing women led a stumbling man into the bar. Two of the women were barely as steady as the tall and thickly muscled lout they towed but the third was radiant.
Shoulder-length black hair framed high cheekbones, wide full lips, long eyelashes, and… purple eyes! Don blinked away his surprise. She was neither plump nor skinny, but solid—her tight blue pants and form-fitted purple blouse left little to the imagination. But the joy pouring out of her ebony skin as she led the group toward the bar was just what Don needed.
When his happiness muse slid onto the stool next to him, he smiled for the first time since leaving Celene a long, miserable day ago. “Thank the Lyek for Good Luck!” He muttered quietly while pointing a finger into the air for a moment. Then he casually put his beer back on the bar, brushing her arm with the back of his hand.
Her euphoria thundered through him, banishing his crushing despair. He swayed on the stool and enjoyed the sensation.
“Oh!” She said, turning to face him, crimson lips spread in a wide, happy smile, “Sorry. I didn’t see you there!”
Don smiled and laughed. “Think nothing of it. I think I bumped you. Please, forgive me.”
“Naturally.” She looked him over before saying, “Can I buy you a drink?”
“What?” Unlike her friends—who could probably make Don feel drunk without a touch—she was completely sober. “You actually want to buy me a drink?”
She laughed a deep, hearty chuckle and nodded. “It’s not every day I meet someone as happy as I am!” She bounced and waved for the bartender.
Don’s grin widened and his laugh joined hers in the noisy bar. “Well then.” He scooped up his beer and finished it. “I’ll happily accept one of whatever you order for yourself, just as soon as you tell me your name.” He winked then added, “I’m Don Orville.”
“Xendara Feral.” She turned to the approaching barkeep. “Two Happy Otters, please.”
The barkeep frowned. “You want whats?”
“You must have a different name for them. Um… It’s made from Xanat-berries, centalopes, and alert-all.” In a blink, Xendara hopped off her stool and caught one of the girls as she teetered backward. They both laughed as Xendara eyed the barkeep. “And three medium sober-shots.”
The barkeep straightened and smiled. “I can see why you want the shots, good lookin’, but we call the other drink a ‘Drunk’s Helper’ around here.” With a wave of her hand, three empty shot-glasses settled onto the bar and filled with glowing silver liquid. Another wave, and two tall glasses floated off a shelf and filled with a slurried red-orange ice.
Laughing, Xendara flipped a gold coin to the barkeeper, who let it hit her chest and slide into her cleavage before giving a playful bounce and saying, “I’ll start a tab, beautiful. Wave if you need anything.”
Xendara nodded and looked at Don. “Ever drink a Happy Otter?”
Don shook his head. “I’ve met a couple otters though. They’re vicious negotiators and nearly impossible to satisfy.”
“Oh? Oh, that’s right! There are intelligent animals down here, aren’t there?”
Don smiled. “Yes, they’re called humans.”
“What?” She slapped the guy on the back of the head. “No. Drink that sober-shot before you drink anything else, Dorian. You too, girls.”
“But Xen, I want a beer,” Dorian whined.
“Then drink your shot, you big baby. You’re too massive for me to carry.”
“Okay, Xen.” Dorian downed his shot. “Happy? Can I have a beer now?”
Xendara beamed. “Thank you. Let me check.” A purse appeared in her hand and she opened it, peering inside. “You have funds for three beers here.”
“Put it away.” Dorian waved and stood. “I know other ways to get drinks.”
Xendara rolled her eyes and turned back to Don, whispering, “So the intelligent animals aren’t animals?”
“Right in one.” Don eyed Dorian, as he led the slightly more sober ‘girls’ to the part of the bar crowded with tables. “What’s your friend going to do?”
Xendara sighed, though the happiness coming off of her remained constant. “He’ll convince everyone to clear a space so he can Sing and Dance. He’s Adept at both.”
Don blinked. “Wait, he wants to use his Talents here?”
She shrugged. “Just to liven up the place a little. And get some free drinks.”
“Which part of the Northern Continent are you from?”
“The Pyramid Lands.” She picked up her drink and sipped, though her unblinking eyes never leave Don. “How’d you know?”
“People just use their Talents whenever they want to up there?”
“That’s sort of like asking if people breathe, handsome.”
“Please go stop him. Is this your first stop in the Wild Lands?”
“Why, yes! How’d you know?”
Don looked around wildly, swaying on his stool and wishing he also had a sober-shot. The bartender was flirting with a half-dressed girl. No bouncer in sight. He put a hand on Xendara’s arm. Her sobriety, happiness, and arousal cleared his head. “There’s the bouncer, talking with a…” He trailed off as the blood drained from his face.
Chairs and tables scraped across the floor around the beaming Dorian. The patrons helping smiled and laughed. Don squeezed Xendara’s arm. “I’ll buy him a beer. I’ll buy him six. Just MAKE HIM STOP!”
Alarm joined her other emotions. “But why? There’s no harm in it.”
“Xendara, please. Look!” He took his hand off her and pointed.
She turned, following his quivering finger. “Oh! That’s a pretty bird. And it’s talking to that woman!”
Don stopped pointing. “That’s not a ‘bird.’ A blue jay is a bird. An eagle is a bird. That’s a Song-Eater.”
“A what?” She sipped from her glass and set it on the bar.
“A dangerous creature that eats Song energy. Eating leads to arousal. Arousal to anger if there aren’t any breeding partners.” Don paused, then said quickly, “Then havoc.”
“What!? Ok, I’ll stop him.” Xendara was halfway across the room when Don heard a musical laugh. Dorian stretched, his body rippling with muscle.
The Song-Eater’s head whipped around and it hopped from its perch on the seat of a chair to the back. Smoke curled up from around its talons and its eye’s glowed red. Its brilliant yellow and orange plumage popped and sparked.
“Dorian, stop!” Xendara dodged around a table that her two friends were ‘helping’ to slide out of the way.
Dorian gracefully spun a half circle, his arms wide and a broad smile on his face. “Ohhh—” Xendara hit him in the stomach with her shoulder, tackling him to the wooden floor.
During the resulting commotion, the Song-Eater’s eyes returned to black and the electric luster faded from its feathers. It shook its head and said, “That human over there interests me. Be a good beast and fetch him, Beatrice.”
The bouncer nodded as everyone except Xendara and her friends froze. Don checked escape routes as best he could without moving.
The Song-Eater rolled her eyes. “Bring the woman who tackled him, too. Now.” It hopped into the chair and folded its legs under it. The room relaxed, slowly filling with nervous chatter. Several patrons at the bar near the Song-Eater tossed coins to the bartender and left.
The bouncer walked over to where Xendara and Dorian were getting to their feet.
Don whispered to himself, “Should I just run?” His stomach filled with dread. “Stay and help?” His heart sped up and he laughed. “Fine.”
He waved at the Bartender. “Two beers, quickly please.” He put payment on the counter and two mugs thudded onto the wood and filled with amber fluid. Don scooped them up and hurried toward the crowd in the middle of the bar.
The tall, sandy-haired man glowered. “Let me get this straight. You tackled me because of a bird,” his gaze shifted from Xendara to the bouncer, “and now that bird wants to talk to me?”
Before Xendara or Beatrice could answer, Don thrust a beer past them. “That’s right! Now, drink up and do as they say.”
Dorian laughed. “Didn’t even get to the good part and already drinks come to me!” He took the beer and nodded in thanks.
Don squeezed his eyes shut and drained his mug completely before setting it on an empty table. He grabbed the bouncer’s elbow. “They’re from the Northern Continent. Pyramid Lands.”
Dorian shook his head. “I’m from the Song Lands. The ladies are from the Pyramid Lands. Met at the Sanctum.”
Don gave him a blank look but Beatrice frowned. “That explains it. You mind your manners, you big lout. Anger the Song-Eater and she might eat you.”
“What’s a Song-Eater?”
Don patted the tall man’s elbow, saying, “I have a better idea. Smile, nod, and reply to everything she says with ‘Yes, Mizzum’ or ‘No, Mizzum.’”
He frowned. “Mizzum?”
“Close. Draw out the ‘i’ and de-emphasize the last ‘m.’ It’s a very polite term.”
The bouncer beamed and turned away. “That’s an excellent idea. Come along, please.”
Xendara smiled at Don. “Thank you!”
Don hesitated before stepping close to her and kissing her. She tensed, then threw her arms around him. Her joy and… desire!, thundered through him. He let the moment last, enjoying every second until she pushed away from him.
Dorian grinned at them. “Should I summon a bed for you two?”
Xendara shook her head. “Come on, let’s go talk to the Mizzum.”
Don laughed in approval then froze mid-step. “Wait. The Sanctum. Mage Sanctum?” Xendara nodded and he asked, “I wouldn’t ordinarily ask, but do you have a Talent that needs training too?”
“Oh yes. I have a specialized Earth Talent; I’m an Animal Friend.”
“Is that anything like a Beast Tamer?”
She frowned. “I think that’s an antiquated name for it, yes.”
Don shifted nervously. “You have complete control of it, right?”
Her eyes sparkled. “Oh yes. Why?”
“I’ll tell you later—just stuff it away to the utmost of your ability and don’t let it out. Unless you want to die.”
She blinked. “What? Okay… but just because you’re so handsome.”
Don grabbed her hand. Genuine alarm and wariness. Attraction to him. And such joy! He grinned. “Good.”
Beatrice had already introduced Dorian to the Song-Eater by the time Don and Xendara stopped beside the large man. The Song-Eater fixed an eye on Xendara. “Step aside Dorian-beast, I speak with the dark tackler.” Her voice was a shrill whistle but unmistakably clear.
“Yes, Mizzum.” The tall man moved behind Don, and sipped his beer.
“Human-beasts know me as Cleek-sak. By what name are you known, woman-beast?”
“Xendara Feral. I’m pleased to meet you, Cleek-sak.”
Don froze. Her pronunciation was almost too good.
Cleek-sak rose on her talons, predatory eyes focused. “Are you a mimic, or linguist, Xendara-beast? There’s music in your words.”
She stiffened. “No, Mizzum.”
“Awww… it’s gone now. Dorian-beast tells me that he’s from the breeding grounds. Are you from there as well?”
Xendara glanced at Don, who whispered, “The Mizzum refers to the Song Lands.”
She relaxed. “Oh! No, Mizzum. From the Pyramid Lands.”
“Shame. He was not familiar with our mountain range, and I’m not familiar with any Pyramid Lands. But then, we haven’t made the flight since you man-beasts tried to set fire to the northern continent. Tell me, whatever happened to the Flame Master?”
The northerners jerked with surprise, and Xendara replied, “He died at the end of a long and bloody war.”
“Oh?” The Song-Eater’s wings opened slightly as it settled into its seat. “He sang to me once, though he had no power in his voice.”
The Northerners frowned at each other. Dorian said, “But that would make you – oomph!”
“Very wise indeed, Mizzum.” Don interrupted, retrieving his elbow from Dorian’s stomach. Don met the Song-Eater’s gaze. “Can I… uh… May I present a gift?”
The Song-Eater blinked rapidly. “Odd. I can’t seem to focus on you, man-beast.”
Don took a small step back and bowed low, holding the posture. “The glorious sun need not notice the warmed earth, Mizzum.”
“Ah! You, at least, know how to speak properly. But it does get trite. Tell me, does Xendara-beast know that she’s your muse?”
Don kept his face down. “Her thoughts are her own, Mizzum.”
Cleek-sak pointed her beak in the air and cackled. After a moment, the duck-sized bird said, “You did well to warn her to school that Talent of hers, man-beast. I don’t remember the last time I ate a Beast Tamer.”
Don’s voice shook slightly as he replied, “Wise and gracious, Mizzum.”
“I am.” She blinked lazily. “Dorian-beast! You will follow me and Sing at my roost.”
The bouncer stepped forward. “Now, Cleek-sak, there are rules against that sort of behavior.”
Cleek-sak bobbed her head. “Of course, of course. Um… How does two dozen platinum for an hour of Singing sound, Dorian-beast?”
The large man blinked in surprise and opened his mouth, but Don rose from his bow. “Outrageous! You couldn’t possibly take this man from his holiday for less than twogroh, Mizzum.”
Xendara grabbed his arm, wariness and joy making Don’s head spin as she whispered, “What are you doing? Twodoh platinum is more than…
“Just let me work. This is what I do.”
Cleek-sak settled, resting on the seat with a clucking sound. “That’s an amusing figure, man-beast. Why I should pay more than thridoh?”
“Well, Mizzum, twogroh was, admittedly, a high amount. But less than onegroh and lemdoh is insulting to a human of dual-Adept ability.”
Cleek-sak shook her head. “Disagree. I had an Adept Singer two months ago for fourdoh.”
Don grinned. “I shall have to take your word on that, Mizzum. Maybe it’s worth onegroh and tendoh to hear new Songs from the breeding grounds?”
“Only if he knows any that are new to me. But even that’s not worth more than fivedoh.”
Don haggled, citing dangers, expertise, and novelty he wasn’t even sure Dorian possessed. Xendara’s steady hand on his arm the whole time kept him bold as the Song-Eater replied with anger, threats, and other compensations. Eventually, Don turned to a wide-eyed Dorian and said, “Adept, can you agree to Sing for an hour at the Mizzum’s roost in exchange for ten dozen platinum and one diamond necklace that the Mizzum assures me belonged to one of the Flame Master’s concubines?”
Dorian nodded. “Yes.”
Don turned back to the Song-Eater. “Mizzum, Adept Dorian accepts your fair exchange, please provide half up front and the time and location for the Song.”
“Can’t he just follow me, haggle-beast?”
“No, Mizzum. We shall use your initial payment to charter safe passage to and from the location so as to not trouble you further.”
Cleek-sak bobbed her head and reached out a talon. “In that case, take my claw, haggle-beast.”
Don did so, and the details sprang into his head. As did, “Thank-you for the gift of a rousing exchange… Don-beast! It’s been fun.”
Feeling slightly violated, Don said, “You’re welcome, Mizzum. If ever you visit here again, please remember me. I work for Mesdames Hydra and Company.”
“No wonder you plucked me so boldly! I shall send the Mesdames my congratulations on training you to civility.”
Don shook as he dropped his hand to his side and bowed. “I am humbly grateful for such consideration, Mizzum.”
The Song-Eater swelled, opening its wings wide and rearing back. Within the space of a heartbeat, the duck-sized predator grew to fill the space from floor to ceiling, the chair crushed beneath it. Gagging, it coughed up a purse that landed at Dorian’s feet. Cleek-sak’s whistling voice was deeper as she said, “Be at the roost in one hour, Dorian-beast, but do not bring your friends as I cannot guarantee their safety.”
The massive Adept stood frozen, his eyes wide until Xendara nudged him. “Yes, Mizzum.” He stammered.
With a blur of light and wings, the Song-Eater left the bar.
Don sagged, turning to face Xendara who beamed. “That was magnificent! Do Adepts really get paid so much down here?”
“They would if their hagglers had you cheering them on.”
Dorian clapped him on the back while hefting the bag in his other hand. “That’s more than I’d make in an orbit in the Pyramid Lands, and for only an hour of Singing? Too easy! I may just need to move here.”
Don shook his head. “Check back after that hour and tell me if you feel the same. Song-Eaters are very demanding. Xendara, would you get the bartender’s attention, please? I need another drink.”
While she waved, Dorian asked, “So, how much do I owe you?”
Don offered a sheepish smile. “I didn’t work that out with you up front, so, technically, nothing.”
“What!? That’s not right. What do you usually charge?”
Dorian nodded. “That seems fair.”
“In this case, I’d rather take half that and the necklace.”
“Done.” He opened the pouch. “Tendoh divided by a dozen is ten, half of that is five.” He counted out the coins and Don put them in a pouch. “Guess I’ll give you the necklace afterward.”
Don bought another beer and asked the Bartender to summon transportation for Dorian. They shook hands before the tall man turned to leave, and Don stopped him, asking, “Do runes Sing to you?”
“I’ve heard their Song before.”
“Good. I know the guy who will take you to the roost. Have him detour to pick up a copy of the partial rune we have on Song-Eaters. Give him no more than an extra silver to bring you to my residence afterward.”
“I’ll do that.” He whispered, “And keep an eye on the girls for me until I get back, okay?”
Don looked over at Xendara, who was sobering up the other two again. “I think Xendara’s got that covered.”
Dorian laughed and clapped Don on the back before leaving the bar. Don watched the tall, muscular man leave and shook his head.
Back on the stage, an older Don said, “Of course, that bargain was harder on Dorian than he ever thought it would be… he showed up at my door two days later.” Many in the crowd laughed knowingly and Don continued, “Xendara had sent her friends home and insisted that she spend the time waiting with me.
“So we had two glorious days together. Of course, it all went wrong once Dorian caught up with us.”
The bar fades away behind him, replaced with a small, sparsely furnished house. Young Don slumbers on a tousled bed while the sound of cooking drifts down a short hallway through his open bedroom door.
“Do you think that Dorian will return today?”
Don stirred, jarred awake. “Mhm? Prehmby”
“What?” Her voice, though loud, was distant.
Don sat up, sniffing. “What’s that smell?”
Xendara’s voice came out of the walls. “I’m making breakfast.”
“Smells glorious. Eggs… and… What else?”
“And ruin the surprise?”
Don shrugged. “Whatever it is, even its sizzles sound delicious.” He hopped out of bed and followed his nose.
Wearing a dark blue robe, Xendara bustled about the small kitchen. She straightened and frowned, blowing a strand of black hair out of her face when Don stepped quietly onto the tiled floor. “Why don’t you bathe or something while I finish and set the table?”
“And deprive myself of your happy company?”
She grinned and turned back to the stove. “It’s not any happier than yours.”
He put his arms around her from behind. “And I’m happy that you’re happy.”
She sniffed. “I’d be happier if you smelled better.”
Don winced. “Ouch. Okay, okay. I’ll be right back.” He gave her a quick kiss on her neck before regretfully letting go of her. And her happiness.
“Use the shower enchantment I put in your sanitary console.”
When he returned to the kitchen, the cookware was clean and put away, and two covered meals waited on the table. Xendara had slicked down her hair and her eyes sparkled as she smiled. “I timed that perfectly!” She lifted the yellow ceramic covers to display two omelets, thick buttered pancakes, and a small pile of bacon.
Don grinned. “Amazing. Thank you!”
“Gotta get some meat on those bones. All our… exercise will wear you down otherwise.”
Don sat and looked her in the eye. “Darling, I’m preternaturally average. If you want me bigger, you have to fatten up the world.”
She laughed, spraying water. “Don’t make me laugh while I’m eating!”
“I’m not sorry.”
“You might be later…”
“No… Later is right now!”
The scene darkened for a moment. When the lights came back up, they were settling at the table. Xendara reached for Don’s plate, saying, “I’ll warm this back—what!?”
He laughed. “The table’s Imbued so that food on it never gets cold.”
“That’s clever.” She sat, picking up her utensils. “Well, dig in!”
They ate for a few moments and then Don said, “It’s a shame I have to go to work later.”
“I was wondering about that. Do you think Dorian will return today?”
“Probably. If I had to guess, the Song-Eaters are making him Sing for a dozen minutes at a time, no more than three times a day.”
Xendara paused, setting her fork back on the edge of her plate. “An hour over two days? What would he do in the off times?”
“Eat and sleep, probably. They’ll expect a full discharge of everything he can do with every performance.”
While Don had spoken, she’d picked up her fork and put omelet in her mouth. As he finished, she choked, coughing bits of egg onto the table. “But that much strain could kill him!”
The sprayed food rose and settled back on her plate, unnoticed by either of them as Don met her eyes. “They never push it that far.”
She grabbed his hand, unknowingly pumping concern, gratitude, and joy through him. “Thank you. He would have accepted twodoh platinum and thought he was getting a deal.”
Don went still. “Well… on the Northern Continent, or for any other patron, he would have. But I may not have done him any favors.”
She leaned forward, smiling and intent. “Why do you say that?”
“Cleek-sak will expect a fair exchange. I may have erred bargaining so high and when I mentioned his dual Adept abilities. Even though she said ‘Sing,’ she might expect him to use Dance to fuel the Song, if he can.”
The blood drained from her face and there was a soft knock at the door.
Don’s head whipped around.
Xendara grabbed his hand. “I bet it’s Dorian, come on!”
While Don buzzed from her joy, she led him to his own front door. She pulled it open and gasped. Joy became alarm.
Dorian leaned against the house, his eyes closed. He breathed in ragged gasps. His clothes, that had been tight over his impressive figure at the bar, hung loosely on him. His cheeks sunk into his face as he rasped, “Before I go back home, I wanted you to see what’s come of your miserable use of people, Don.” A glittering necklace dropped from his hand onto the floor as he raised a bony claw to his lips. He coughed feebly.
Xendara’s eyes filled with horror. “Come in, Dorian. I’ll make some food for you.”
“Xen?” Dorian opened his eyes and looked at her. “Still playing muse, I see. Guess he hasn’t wrung you dry yet.”
She looked at Don, who shook his head. “Look, Dorian, I tried to warn you.”
“Oh?” Dorian’s cadaverous face twisted with rage and he stood to fill the doorway. Don and Xendara shrank away from him as he yelled, “You knew!”
Don held up his hands. “Not details, no.”
“So you didn’t know they’d demand all the energy I could muster safely in a dozen minutes? That they’d go into a mating frenzy while I struggled to stay conscious? That, only hours later, their tenders would cram Power Fruit down my throat so I could repeat the same performance or else?”
Shocked, Don plopped heavily on the floor. The house grew quiet. Not looking at the tall, skeletal man, Don asked weakly, “Still want to move down here?”
Dorian chuckled humorlessly. “If I had any strength, I’d choke you to death with that necklace. You better hope you never see me again, Don.”
Xendara turned to face him. “What did Cleek-sak mean by muse?” While his stomach filled with dread, Don met her gaze, unable to speak. Her thin eyebrows drew together and she said, “She asked if I knew that I was your muse, and you said that my thoughts are my own. I’d forgotten.”
Don sat frozen, the blood draining from his face.
Dorian chuckled again. “He’s a Sensor.” The man’s eyes sparkled with evil mirth.
Xendara’s voice deepened with angry concern and she stood over Don. “What’s a Sensor?”
“I… uh… well that is to say…”
“He feels what you’re feeling when you touch,” Dorian interrupted. “It’s as though he feels exactly what you do—the same way you do.”
Horror danced on her face. “Everything!?” She balled her hands into fists. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Don opened his mouth but Dorian spoke faster, “How could he? He was a miserable wreck before he touched you that night. Cleek-sak told me she didn’t recognize him at first because she had trouble telling you apart.” He took a half step closer toward the seated man. “Want to sense what I’m feeling now, Don?” He held out a shaking fist.
Don shook his head.
Xendara put a hand on her stomach. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
Don stared at the floor. “I’ve never felt as happy as I have these past couple of days.”
“So happy I could be of service.” Dorian snarled.
“Dor,” Xendara said firmly, “Wait for me outside. I just need a moment alone with him.”
“Fine. I’ll sit on the bench out there. That’s safe, isn’t it, Don?” The wasted man turned and staggered from the doorway not waiting for a reply.
Xendara followed, watching at the open door for a few moments. She nodded, satisfied, and then closed the door. She took a deep breath before kneeling in front of Don, her face a mask of controlled fury. Her voice was flat as she asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
He looked at his hands in his lap. “I don’t have an excuse.”
“True, and I don’t want one. Just an explanation.”
Don sighed. “I’d only planned on a single touch. Just to banish my own miserable mood. And then… I felt so amazing with you.”
She shook slightly. “With me? Or because that’s how I feel?”
“W-what’s the difference?”
She stood. “The difference is that you’ve only been reflecting my own feelings back at me from the moment I met you.” She strode past him. “I’m leaving.”
Don rose to his knees. “Xen, please, no. It’s not like that. I’ve never been as happy as I am with you!”
She whirled to face him. “It is exactly like that. I’ve not been attracted to you, but to the part of me that you took for your own use without permission.”
Don sank to the floor in defeat as she spun away from him. Tears rolled down his cheeks.
Dressed in her own clothes, she brushed past him and paused at the front door. “I deserve better. And, you know what? I probably would have been fine with it if you had told me at the bar. You have your own happiness and I would have helped you find it.”
The door opened, and Xendara walked out of his life.
The scene faded and Don stepped into a circle of light.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd; most had tears streaming down their cheeks. Don let them feel the crushing despair and failure of that moment for a full minute before saying, “Which is exactly why I met my next girlfriend at a bar almost a week later. Please, enjoy a short intermission—and a drink or two—before I tell you about, Alleria.”
Don shuffled into the bar, heading for his stool. He’d been on it every day for the last eight nights, hadn’t he? Tonight would make a week. It was a nice wooden stool with a cushioned seat and back rest. In addition to swiveling, it could move closer or farther away from the bar. And no one else ever wanted it.
He put his hand on the back and then realized that someone was sitting in the chair. She sat huddled in on herself, face hidden behind a curtain of black hair. She wore a black dress that covered her from shoulder to ankles.
Don froze. That was his chair! Why was there someone sitting in his chair? It was at the end of the bar, in the corner where no one will notice or touch him, and… and she sat there now. His hand fell to his side.
The chair usurper swiveled to face him. “What?” she asked, devoid of curiosity.
“Um… uh… well…”
She turned back to the bar. “Whatever. Doesn’t matter. Go away and stop noticing me.”
The weight and depth of her melancholy, combined with some energy activated by a Talent that Don noticed, but couldn’t identify, staggered him. He grabbed the bar for support and blurted, “But that’s where I sit to go unnoticed.”
She sighed. “So I suppose I should just stop existing so you can sit here, is that it?”
Don climbed shakily into a chair next to his chair. “I didn’t say that. I just think we have more in common than you think.”
He waved at the bartender and showed a coin. He pointed at the girl. “Do you mind if I buy you a drink?”
She lifted her mostly untouched drink with a pale hand, finished it, and said, “If you must.”
Impulsively, Don reached out and grabbed her hand as she pulled it back from the bar. The color drained out of the world. The brown stools faded to gray, and the yellow light turned white. People became hazy, ill-defined blobs.
Don pulled his hand back and hugged himself. Everything was awful. No one loved him and never would. It would always end in tears. Not even the beer the bartender would bring him would help. He should just leave. Go somewhere and die.
But then the strangest thing happened. Slowly, the light and color returned to the world. The awful self-loathing faded from his thoughts. Don’s head spun from the dizzying play of emotions.
“Why’d you touch me, you perv?”
“Sorry about that.” Don took a deep breath, and the room looked brighter than it ever had. His beer made a satisfying thud as it landed on the bar. He scooped it up, closed his eyes, and took a slow drink. The crisp, bitter brew tasted better than anything he could imagine. He set the cold, golden, foamy heaven on the bar and sighed happily. “Wow…”
The woman straightened and her hair opened to reveal her face. Her black eyes were close-set under thick black eyebrows and she had a permanent frown. Her pale cheeks flushed as she said, “What did you do to me, perv?”
“What? Nothing. I’m a Sensor.”
“Well, you must be a Projector too, because I’m feeling better all of a sudden.” She snatched up her new drink, closed her eyes, and took a sip. Her eyes sprang open. “But, this is good!” She looked at Don and extended a hand, saying rapidly, “Touch me again!”
“Um…” Don shrugged. “Okay.” He did.
Hope thundered through him. He swooned and would have fallen if not for the steadying hand she put on his arm. The dark cloud around her faded completely and she put her glass on the bar. Then she stepped forward and put a hand to his cheek before her lips met his.
Don was too startled to kiss back. She pulled away, grinning from ear to ear. “What’s your name?”
“Don… why? What’s going on?”
She pulled him off his stool and put his beer in his hand. “Because I need to know what name to moan as you touch all of me. Finish your beer.” She scooped up her drink and downed it before saying, “I’m Alleria.”
The holographic scene paused, showing a surprised young Don in the process of raising his beer to his lips. The older Don walked through the image and it puffed into smoke. He winked at the woman wearing baggy black pants and a loose white shirt who sat far to his left. She sighed, leaning back in her cushioned chair.
Don opened his arms wide to the crowd, “Everyone, how about a big round of applause for the crafter of these fantastic illusions, Cerebrumancer Archisha, from the Air Nation!”
The crowd clapped and cheered. Archisha stood, smiled, and waved before she disappeared behind the curtain. Don let the excited crowd express their appreciation for few moments. Once the hubbub died down, he said, “While we let her rest, I’d like to hear any questions you might have. If you’ve something you’d really like to know, please stand and ask.”
Several women jumped to their feet and Don pointed. “The lady with the lovely purple blouse and black hair first, please.”
The other women sat reluctantly and the lady left standing asked, “Why didn’t you tell Xendara that you were a Projector?”
Many other audience members murmured their assent. Don waited for quiet before replying, “Good question, and thank you. It also begs the question, why didn’t I tell her about my Talent sooner.” More assent rippled through the crowd and he continued, “Well, we all know that asking people about their Talents, unless contextually relevant, is like asking to see them naked. The truth was, I never thought to tell her and then it was too late. Also, I couldn’t tell her about being a Projector—she was the one who awakened that aspect of my Talent! I was surprised when Alleria told me I was Projecting.” Don chuckled and the crowd did too. Then he asked, “Anyone else?”
A giant at the back of the room stood and asked, his voice booming, “Why are the women so much stronger than you? Are all human men so weak?”
An uncomfortable silence hung over the crowd until Don threw his head back and roared with laughter, slapping his leg. A few nervous chuckles broke out. Eventually, Don straightened and said, “Ladies, we have an eligible bachelor! He’s close to two and half metrons tall, which makes him a youth.”
The crowd laughed and Don gave the embarrassed giant a kind look. “Young Gorgk, you will always stand taller than most of the people around you, please take some advice from one who can’t see as far.” He paused until the crimson-faced giant nodded. “Every single being on Zitera is unique. Some tall, some short, some strong, some weak, some brave, and some cowardly. Most are all of these, AND more—depending on the moment they’re in.” Don smiled. “But you are observant as well; despite our uniqueness, we all have similarities; human females tend to be stronger and run things better than men in most places in the world. That’s because we still feel the effects of the Flame Master’s war—and women, by far, outnumber men. Which means that they have to work harder for male attention. Tell me, young Gorgk; are you native to the Wild Lands?”
“No, I’m from the Song Nation.”
“Is it true that the Song Nation lost more than 95% of its male population in the war?”
The Gorgk considered for a moment. “I had heard that, yes, for humans. That was many orbits ago.”
“Yet they haven’t recovered. I’ve been there and was tempted to stay after discovering that five out of six people were lovely ladies! But then I wouldn’t be here to answer questions!” He paused. “Anyone else?”
A young lady dressed in a shimmering green gown woven from clover and small gemstones appeared in front of him on the stage. Her head came up to his waist and her ageless face turned up to him under short, fiery-red hair. “Mister,” she said, high-pitched voice carrying to everyone in the auditorium, “Why don’cha eva turn off yer Talent? Don’cha eva get weary o’ Sensin’ an’ Projectin’ all da toime?”
Don bowed as the Lyek dropped a curtsy and disappeared. He stroked his jaw for a moment before saying, “A very good question. Do your eyes ever get tired of seeing? Can you turn your hearing off?” He paced to the other side of the stage, waving his hands as he talked. “Sensors can’t stop, not really. Oh, we learn control—the same way you learn to pick out a single voice in a crowd—and I’ve learned to Project nothing, but that’s hard. It’s far easier to project the ambient mood around me.
“And weariness? When I get exhausted, everything floods in. Then I Project everything I feel. Unless, of course, I’m asleep. But you know what?” He paused, letting the question hang for a moment. “Everyone senses and projects. I just have more OOMPF than most.” The crowd clapped and Don announced, “One more!”
A single person rose from the crowd and asked, “You call this tale, ‘Sensing Love in All the Wrong Faces,’ but what makes the faces wrong? The women so far seem to have made an impression.”
Don rocked back on his heels. “Thank you for the question. These women captured my heart for a brief time—but it never really worked between us. Celene was my first crush… Xendara my first joy. Alleria… well…” He paused as Cerebrumancer Archisha resumed her seat. “Why don’t we get back to her and I’ll let you discover that for yourself?” The crowd clapped and Don held up a cautionary hand. “Brace yourselves; this next part is an emotional whirlwind. It’s also when I learned what happens when I’m exhausted.”
Don paused on the walkway to his front door. He looked at the dry grit that made up the lot in front of his home. A lone, tiny weed struggled to grow right next to his left foot. He peered down at it. “All alone are you? Bet you’d like some water.” He looked at the house. “I’ve been drained, so sorry, fresh out.” He swallowed and, as though preparing for something unpleasant, marched forward.
The door clicked closed behind him and he took a few steps into the house.
Alleria appeared in the doorway leading to the kitchen. “Don!” She put her arms up wide for a hug and walked toward him. “I’m so happy you’re home!”
Don shook his head and held up a hand as he stepped away from her. “Alleria, please. Not again. I can’t.”
She froze, looking as though he’d slapped her. “What?”
“The past two weeks were amazing, don’t get me wrong, but I just can’t be your happiness today.” His hand trembled and he lowered it to his side.
“What happened? Who has turned you against me?” Her pale cheeks flushed and she quivered with anger. “I’ll kill her.”
Don took slow steps toward a chair. He spoke softly, “It’s just been a hard day. I’m tired. There isn’t anyone else.”
“Liar. Did that cow, Xendara come back?” Alleria’s voice lost the edge of her anger and the pink faded from her cheeks.
Don sank into a plush, green recliner. “No. I spent all day arbitrating a Lyek contract for a Song-Eater. I’m exhausted.”
“I don’t believe you.” She jerked her head as though looking for something. “Celene finally realized what a mistake she made, didn’t she?” A tear leaked from the corner of her eye.
Don closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. “No. I just don’t have it in me to Project what you want from me.”
Alleria sank onto the floor and tears rolled down her face. “But I need you. Touch me, please?”
Don shifted from rubbing his temples to rubbing behind his ears and under his jaw. “It worked before because I Projected how I felt as I climbed out from a depression that wasn’t mine. But I’ve no energy to climb right now. I’ve no idea what I might Project if I touch you.”
A long silence followed. Alleria wept quietly for about two dozen seconds. Then, she stilled and said, “Fine. Whatever. Doesn’t matter. Do what you want.” Her long dark hair hid her face from him, and she curled inward with each word, hugging herself. “I’ll just go.”
Don opened his eyes and leaned forward. “I don’t want you to go.”
She sat as still as a statue. Her lips barely moved as she said, “Then touch me.”
He sighed. “It isn’t a good idea but I will if you want.”
His soft words faded to silence for a moment before Alleria’s flat voice drifted out from the curtain of her hair, “Do or don’t. I don’t care.”
He rose, taking short, shuffling steps until he stood over her. “Look at me.” The curtain parted as she tilted her head back, exposing her pale face. Don said, “Thank you. Now, give me your hand.” Slowly, her dark eyes gazing up at him, she reached.
She had painted her nails in different purples. They sparkled a little as the room brightened from yellow sunlight that streamed through a skylight. His blue suit brightened, as did the green chair and white walls.
He grabbed her hand.
Purple faded to black, and everything else dulled to gray. He frowned and pulled his hand away, ignoring her hopeful smile.
Exhaustion poured from him as he stumbled back to his chair. He sank into it, holding his head in his hands. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I… just… can’t…”
A dull ringing filled the air and he relaxed utterly.
The air rippled between the holograms and they fell apart. Archisha, who had sat motionless in her comfy chair on the side of the stage, gasped and clutched her head. “Always the same,” she growled with a deep voice that carried to the back of the auditorium. “Again and again and again.”
A man in the crowd stood and yelled, “I’m tired of being strong! Carry your own burdens for once!”
A woman in the front row cried, “I love you!” Then wept into her hands.
Don walked through the hazy holograms and stood at the edge of the stage. Arms wide, he Projected everything released by Alleria’s touch to spectators whose voices then filled the room, “There’s such joy”—”I hate you”—”That’s so wonderful”—”Don’t care”—”You did this”—”It’s my fault”—”Don’t make me”—”I need you”—”HAHAHA.”
Eventually, the crowd’s emotional outbursts peaked and a calm, exhausted lassitude settled over the auditorium. The crowd quieted. The men and women who had stood, swayed back and forth slowly, like tall trees in a gentle breeze.
Once the seated audience members swayed in their chairs, Don bowed to them slowly and then smiled at Archisha. “Shall we continue?”
His voice rippled through the crowd. Some stopped the easy sway. Others blinked or shook their heads as though dazed. The moment stalled and stretched. Finally, the last of the Projected calm faded and everyone released a collective sigh.
Archisha nodded as silence chased audience members back into their seats. “I didn’t mean that.”
“Oh, I know. Thank you for voicing my resentment.”
Don opened his eyes to a dark house. Bolting upright, he called, “Alleria?” He rose unsteadily to his feet. “Alleria, are you still here?” He waved and the room filled with pale orange light. Hot steam poured through the cracked bedroom door and floated lazily down the short hallway. He gagged when his face entered the hot, moist cloud. “What is that smell?” he muttered to himself as he hunched, covered his nose, and followed the steam. “Sweat coated with shame after rolling in feces…”
He paused outside his bedroom door, afraid of finding the source of that odor. “Alleria?” He called. The pale orange light came on in his room as he opened the door to a steamy, repugnant cloud. Don gagged again and sank to his knees. “Should have… ugh… gotten the… voice activated… console…” He crawled through the foul, sticky mist toward the distinctive hollow echo of pressurized water striking tile. “Used to…uhhh… like that sound…” He bumped the wall as tears streamed down his face. “All—uhh.” He crawled through the open doorway to the sanitary and his hands slipped out from underneath him. His face smacked into slimy, slippery tiles on the sanitary floor.
Don groaned and rubbed his eyes. Just beyond the tip of his nose, the small white console that controlled the sanitary projected small holograms that waivered in the putrid mist. He jabbed several with a shaky finger and the shower stopped. Several loud ventilation fans whirred to life.
Don rubbed his eyes and got to his knees. As the mist cleared, he crawled toward a black blob that leaned against the shower wall. “Alleria?”
Don set his hand in a tuft of stringy black hair and froze. Clumps of Alleria’s hair littered the floor behind where she sat, back to him. Blood oozed from her scalp. The powerful stench rolled off of her. “You were supposed to love me,” she whispered.
“I do,” Don said as he crawled to her.
“You resent me. And hate me. But it won’t matter for much longer.”
“What?” Don put his arms around her. “No! I was exhausted and couldn’t control what poured from me.” Fresh tears rolled down his cheeks. “Oh darling, no, this is not the way.”
“Nothing was good. You hate me.”
He didn’t hesitate as he placed a hand on her bleeding wrist to stanch the blood. “No, love, I don’t. But why try to kill yourself?” His eyes widened as the raging torrent of her deepest feelings swept through him.
Together, they said, “I don’t want to live.”
The scene faded. Don said, “She didn’t die that day, but our relationship did.” He smiled mischievously, “I’m afraid I told a small lie before. You see, I learned something important the moment I put a hand on her wrist.”
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “All her anguish and despair and self-loathing screamed louder through her blood than it ever did from skin contact. And I learned to block it—but not by avoiding, running, nor fighting.” He sat on the edge of the stage and made eye contact with people seated in the rows nearest the stage. “No, I block by reaching past the surface, and Sensing the deep, benevolent love at the core of every being.”
Gasps sifted through the crowd, rippling outward from Don. People grinned and laughed as their faces opened in wonder and joy. Happy tears leaked from their eyes. Don shrugged. “Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. It came in and out of me so quickly that I wasn’t aware of it.” He tapped his nose. “I did, however, notice an immediate change in the odor that Alleria expressed with her Talent.”
He stood and stretched. “Months later, the Healers tending to Alleria told me that I saved her life at that moment. That she’d been so lost and confused and hurt that she couldn’t find herself until I showed her.” The curtain started to close and Don climbed to his feet. “One last intermission before I tell you about meeting my former wife.”
Don stood in a pool of white light when the curtains opened again. “After Alleria, I took every client and job that would require travel. In six orbits, I visited every place that’s safe for humans in the Wild Lands, the Lyek Islands, and all onedoh and four nations on the Northern continent.” A globe appeared and little dots glowed red. “Whether in a place for a day or a month, I almost always met a woman. What’s not to love about an average guy with exotic stories, right?”
He grinned, and the light around him dimmed. A short parade of women wandered past, behind him. A smiling dark-haired and tanned lady with wavy brown hair. “Dijona was like Xendara, so I moved on.” A short, plump blonde. “Clarice, a little like Alleria. No thank you.” A gaggle of indistinct girls walked past. “Most were fun to talk with for a night, but had no interest—like Celene.”
Don snapped his fingers. “Mustn’t forget Tami!” A forbidding woman with golden hair wrapped up in a bun, a long slim nose, and sharp hazel eyes walked past. “She reminded me too much of my mom.” Don shuddered and the crowd laughed.
“And before you men get to thinking that a quiet girl from the Automatocracies would be nicer than a chatty one from anywhere else…” Three more girls walked by, and he waggled a finger at the crowd. “Just realize that, regardless of intellect, mature women think more than men.”
The men in the crowd scoffed and Don held up his hands. “Guys, you just don’t get it. We think fast and well on a single topic. Women, particularly Psions, can multi-think.” The women in the crowd clapped and Don continued, “As a grown-up boy who loves his mother, I’m certainly glad they can—but you can’t pay me to go back to a place where the women only talk mind-to-mind.” He shuddered again, exaggerating the expression and Projecting his unease. When the Gorgk youth at the back of the room shook his massive body, Don stopped Projecting and waved expansively as the holographic women faded until only a featureless silhouette remained. “I met my former wife in the Pyramid Lands at a celebration of sorts.”
The light around Don faded and the room went dark.
The crowd settled and an uneasy silence filled the auditorium. Out of that silence, a sound resonated that could not have come from any human.
Oowoo oowoo oowoo
doomph bom pah
The eerie tones drifted through the darkness, repeating over and over. Then six dancers appeared on the stage. A towering Gorgk woman punctuated each “bom” with the stomp of her left foot—but otherwise made no noise at all.
Mirroring the giant was a tall human male. If they weren’t both fully grown, and of different races, it would have had the appearance of a mother showing off her well-trained son. Sincere joy radiated from him as he clapped and stamped, large slabs of muscle rippling with each movement.
To the right of that pair, an Emeritt man twirled a human female. Despite having the physique of a professional dancer, the human appeared almost clumsy next to the slender-limbed and smooth Emeritt. His every movement flowed in perfect harmony to the music and his partner. His joy colored his hair yellow. From him echoed the eerie “oowoos.”
The final pair was a Lyek female and a Dirman male. They matched each other almost perfectly in height, though it wasn’t clear if the dark and hairy Dirman was dancing so much as trying to catch the nimble Lyek. He called, “Doomph” and leaped to grab her, the giant’s “bom” staggered him, and the Lyek laughed, “Pah!” before dancing out of reach. Through it all, the graceful Emeritt led the human through an intricate dance and the tall man mirrored the Gorgk in miniature.
It was clearly a performance since they all wore costumes that shifted colors with each repetition of the chant.
Slowly, spectators appeared—including Don—who chatted with an Emeritt woman. “I’ve not seen this version of the Mingling Peoples,” he said. “I’m not certain what to make of it.” He paused, watching the dance. “The Humans come across as bumbling and in need of constant direction.” The lady smiled knowingly and Do said, “Still, I’m enjoying it very much. We don’t have the luxury of many traditional dances in the Wild Lands.”
“Oh?” The lady replied, her voice clear. Her hair changed from brunette to pink. “I’m curious, tell me more! We’ve had no news of the southern continent since our Waverunners declared it ‘Too moody for our sensitive people.’” She paused, silver eyes lighting up. “I remember it like it was yesterday, though more than a millennium has passed. How are the humans faring?”
Don laughed. “Moody is an apt description. We’ve had a rough time of it, but our main city has survived for six orbits. We’re quite proud of that.”
Her hair turned yellow and she let out a twinkling laugh. “A six orbit-old grove is an accomplishment?”
Don shrugged. “All thanks to the stability brought in by Mesdames Hydras and Company. Tell me; are you interested in trade?”
She frowned and her hair became jet-black as she turned away. “We never discuss anything so crass during a celebration.”
Don gulped. “My apologies, I didn’t know.”
He opened his mouth to keep talking to her departing back but stopped when he heard, “Don’t bother. Would you like another drink?”
He turned and saw a brunette wearing server’s black. She had striking green eyes and a perfectly symmetrical face, all except for a beauty mark on one cheek. Don smiled. “Don’t bother with what? And yes, please.”
She nodded toward the departing Emeritt. “You can’t talk to them while their hair is black. Everyone knows that.”
“This is my first time meeting their race.” Their fingers met when she handed him a glass and his eyes went wide.
She shrugged. “Yeah? What’s with you all of a sudden? You’re gaping like an idiot.”
He blinked, unbelieving, and closed his mouth. “Um… did you modify your dress? It seems to fit you better than the other dresses.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You were watching me try on different dresses, were you?”
“Better than they fit on the other girls wearing them. Um….” He sipped from his cup. “What’s in this drink?”
She rolled her eyes. “The same thing that’s in all of them: an Emeritt honey-wine.”
He smiled sheepishly. “Well, you’ve got me all tongue tied. I was hoping to blame the liquor but I really can’t. Do you have a name? I’m Don Orville.”
Her expression turned curious as she appraised him. “I’ve many names. You may even earn one of them, Don.”
She turned to go and he reached out to grab the wrist that wasn’t supporting a tray of drinks. He missed and his hand nearly brushed her rear. “Wait!”
She flicked her hair over her shoulder and smiled. With a final “BOM,” a light flashed around the dancers and the performance ended. The room erupted in claps and cheers.
Startled, Don took his eyes off the girl for a moment. The dancers joined hands and bowed. When he looked for her again, she was gone. Don sighed.
Behind him, the tall human strode from the dance floor directly at him. “You!” He called, pointing at Don, and the people between them parted. “Come!” He gestured at himself.
“Um…” Don looked around. “Um… why?”
The man cleared the space between them. He towered above Don. Not only that, but up close, he was beautiful: straight, white teeth; balanced facial features; and a smooth jaw that could probably chip diamond. But his gray eyes were dull, vacant. His faced scrunched. “Eye?” He stroked his jaw and then smiled. “Ah, eye! Have… um…” He pointed a large index finger at his left eye then at his right eye with his middle finger. Then he counted the digits with his other hand. “Have two eye!” He smiled at Don.
Don’s wine glass dropped from his hand, forgotten. With the speed of a striking snake, the huge man casually caught the glass before Don was even aware of having let it go. “Catch! Ha-haaah!” He laughed and handed the drink back to Don. “Come. Talk Alvar.” He pointed across the crowd.
“Oh!” Don shook himself. “Okay. You want me to come with you and talk to Alvar?”
“Yes.” The dancer turned away and Don followed him. The walking mountain drew admiring looks from women and men alike as they parted in front of him. Before long, he gestured. “Alvar.”
A short, bald, stumpy, hump-backed man wearing a dirty black robe swiveled around on a barstool. “Well mix me a surprise, Ravla! You got the right guy.” He grinned, showing two rows of crooked, yellow teeth. “You’ve earned a treat. What would you like?”
The ugly man waved a lumpy, six-fingered hand covered in pink and orange stains. “Fine. Don’t step on anyone.”
Ravla floated out of sight and mingled with the hazy, indistinct crowd behind Don.
Don shook his head and laughed. “He got all the beauty and body, and you the mind.”
“You’re not as stupid as you look. Have a seat and tell me why you tried to molest my employee.”
Don sat. “Try again.”
“I saw you swipe at her like a filthy, entitled, bumpkin. I don’t tolerate wandering hands, not from visitors or natives.”
Don smiled. “That’s not how this game works, Alvar. If we’re going to negotiate something, you need to tell me what first. I don’t know you and will not start haggling before I know what the stakes are.”
The ugly humpback stood on his stool so his eyes were even with Don’s. His deformed hands curled into fists. “I’m trying to determine if we can haggle, meathead. I can’t do business with a sexual deviant.”
Don made a face. “Look, you might be able to intimidate the locals with your pungent act, but I can maintain eye contact with a nine-headed hydra. You can’t intimidate me.”
The man sat back down. “So you’re a strong mixture. Why’d you try to grab her?”
“Why do you keep asking me that? If you told Ravla to come get me before he danced, then you wanted to talk to me long before that happened.”
Alvar chuckled. “Much smarter than you look, Don. I mean what I say. Any being willing to display unsavory sexual aggression during a public celebration will not do business for long in the Pyramid Lands.” He fixes his eyes on Don. “It’s a simple mixture: you said you were watching her and then you lunged at her. Why?”
Don shrugged. “I tried for her wrist and missed. I just wanted another word.”
“And another Sense?”
“You’re smarter than you are ugly.”
Alvar’s eyes glittered. “More than you know. She’ll be around right near the end of our negotiations. A final check, as it were.”
Don sipped his wine. “Okay, Alvar, what can the Mesdames do for a Tweener?”
“That’s not a very strong place to start from, moron.”
“It is when mixing with an Alchemist.”
Alvar grinned and laughed, the hump on his back bouncing. “I’m enjoying this.”
Several minutes later, Don slid off his stool. He had a dazed expression, and nearly bumped the serving woman.
“Took you long enough, girl,” Alvar said. “Was this guy molesting you?”
She frowned. “No. He made a clumsy grab for me but missed. Why?”
“He didn’t molest you in any way?”
“No.” She raised an eyebrow at Don. “Try for something besides my wrist?”
“N-No!” Don said. “I just stumbled, is all.”
She focused on Alvar. “You done skinning him, boss? I’ve spotted thirsty patrons.”
Alvar scratched a wart on his chin with a yellow fingernail. “Yes. And show the other girls how to alter their dresses so they accentuate their curves better.” He swiveled around on his chair without waiting for a response.
Don waited while she put glasses on a tray. “I’d… um… you’re working, but, want to get out of here?” He ached to touch her again but restrained himself.
She shook her head. “No, I want to finish my shift and get paid. But I might be willing to meet you tomorrow.”
“Ok. I’m new to the Pyramid Lands, but name a place and I’ll buy you a meal.”
She laughed. “Might be nice for a guy to pay… Okay, meet me at Peytron’s Gourmet Eatery at onedoh and two. It’s not far from here, so don’t leave the District.”
He smiled and held out a hand. “Peytron’s Gourmet Eatery. Shake on it?”
“Okay.” She gripped his hand tightly for a moment then let it go. “See you tomorrow.”
“Count on it.”
The celebration faded from view to reveal Don sitting cross-legged on a stool. He had his elbows on his knees, his chin rested on his fists. He blinked and straightened, as though noticing the audience for the first time. “Do you know the worst part about having twodoh and two hours in the day?”
“Waiting!” they called back.
Don threw his hands up. “I know, right?” He hopped off the stool and walked to the right. “I tried sleeping. Never can for more than five hours.” He turned around. “Light exercise, food, a nap,” He stopped pacing and looked up at the ceiling. “I even sealed small contracts with three new clients. And I still had three hours before lunch with the woman I couldn’t Sense.” He froze. “Oh, did I tell you that?”
“Well, when she brushed my fingers, I felt nothing. When she shook my hand, nothing. Do you have any idea what it’s like to Sense people automatically and then meet someone you can’t Sense at all?” He grinned a silly grin. “There are so many nuances to Sensing I’ll never be able to explain. Some people project their feelings so loudly that I don’t have to touch them. Others project nothing but hide an inner tempest. Even if a person is skilled in dampening their projection, I can still pick up hints of what’s there.”
Don sighed dreamily. “Don’t you see? I finally met someone whose inner heart I had to discover!”
Smoke-like vapor roiled around him before firming into tall buildings and filling with color. Don paced underneath a sign displaying, “Peytron’s Gourmet Eatery.” The outside of the restaurant was clean white stone and tall, clear windows. Don’s clothes were the same as the night before, a self-cleaning light blue suit and glossy black shoes. He paced for six minutes before the door to the restaurant opened and there she was, wearing a white top and denim pants. “Are you coming in, Don? And why are you still dressed up?”
Don kept from gaping and made himself climb the stairs to the front door. “Yes. I thought I was early.” He frowned. “I’ve only the single set of clothes with me since I’m traveling.”
“Just one?” She lifted a long, thin eyebrow and sniffed as he walked by. “Weird. Well, you smell clean. And you’re not late; I just prefer to travel by conjoined door.” She gestured at the doorway immediately to the left of where he’d entered the building. The door closed and a series of lights blinked above it before it opened again, revealing a young couple. Behind them, a room bustled with people standing in lines for other doors. The door swung shut behind the arriving couple and the lights went out.
Don looked at her. “A portal in a simple doorway?”
“That’s the sales pitch. From door to door in the blink of an eye!’” She laughed and hooked his arm. “You’re cute when you’re confused. Come on!”
Don reddened and let her lead him into the restaurant. Then he shook his head. “It would never work in the Wild Lands.”
“Oh? Why not?” She held up two fingers to the hostess standing behind a black podium.
“Doors don’t last for very long. And most Chronospells attract dangerous attention.”
She shook her head and tiny bells tinkled from the earrings she wore. “But it’s only active for the few seconds it takes to establish and then close the connection. A dozen at most.”
The hostess nodded to them as Don replied, “Wouldn’t matter. Have you ever been to the floating city of Vanunnder?”
Her earrings tinkled again. “No, but it sounds interesting. Tell me about it.”
They followed the hostess into a broad, open dining area. The back wall was all glass, showing a large body of water. Docks and buildings clustered on the left and what could be mountains rose far in the distance on the right. Don stared. “Wait, isn’t that the Wellspring Flow?”
She barely glanced at it. “Yes, it’s a view from the top of this building. It will probably shift to something more pleasing in a few minutes.”
They sat at a table near the window. Don said, “I thought it was a river. I can’t see the other side.”
She laughed. “There are very few places where you can see all the way across the Wellspring Flow. It’s practically a flowing sea.” She leaned forward over the table. “Tell me about Vanunnder.”
Don settled back against his chair. “Okay. Well, it floats under the surface of the ocean off of that frozen peninsula they call the Water Nation. It’s a series of spheres that… no. I have a better idea!”
She leaned forward and placed a hand on his arm. “But you were doing so well! Don’t stop!”
Don waved and a waiter walked over. He whispered to the man, who smiled and said, “Of course, sir! I will pass along your request. Would you care for some drinks?”
Don handed him a small glass bead before they ordered. After the man left, Don gazed into her eyes. “I’d like to ask a personal question, if you don’t mind.”
She leaned back. “Maybe. I still want to hear more about the underwater city.”
“All in good time. You don’t have to answer, I’m just curious. You see, I’ve a Talent for Sensing people’s feelings, and for Projecting mine. Only I don’t get anything from you. Do you know why?”
The drinks arrived and she picked hers up, smiling coyly. “Well, my mother used to say that no man could ever truly know a woman’s heart until they were married.”
Don coughed mid-sip but managed to turn his head so he sprayed his drink on the glass wall. It promptly rose from the surface and deposited itself back in his cup as he wiped his suit unnecessarily with a napkin. “Well! That’s a bit forward for a first date, don’t you think?”
“It wasn’t a proposal, just something momma used to say.” She grinned as she took another sip.
The scene behind Don went dark and then became a blurred mix of dark colors. When the image came into focus, sunlight reflected off a churning surface far overhead as yellow sun-beams illuminated a vast series of translucent bubbles. Schools of fish swam around and through the floating structures and, as the scene transitioned closer to one, small green blurs resolved into rolling fields. Yet others revealed towns and even smaller bubbles that encircled single-family homes.
Don sipped from his glass and enjoyed her open-mouthed stare. “Watch that over there,” he said, pointing to the upper right corner of the window. “You’ll see what made me think of this.”
A shark swam along, gliding lazily through the water. It jerked and changed course, accelerating toward a large fish that swam alone, trailing a thin line of blood. The shark bit it in half, and the ocean filled with a pink cloud.
Don’s date gasped and he said, “Keep watching.”
A small yellow fish with sharp teeth pelted through the red mist to bury itself in the massive predator’s side. Then the school was on it. The water around the shark became a frenzy of swirling bubbles, blood, and yellow fish until nothing of the shark remained
“At the wrong time and place,” Don said, “A Chronospell has the same effect in the Wild Lands.”
She gazed at him with wide eyes. “Really? How do Chronomancers keep from becoming that shark?”
“I’ve no idea, I just know that it’s a good comparison to what’s happened a couple of times that I know of. Ready to order food?”
He waved for the waiter again and they ordered. “You still have me at a disadvantage, miss. You know my name but I don’t know yours.”
She smiled, revealing even, white teeth. “I haven’t decided on a name for today. Want to help me?”
If Don had worn earrings with bells in them, they’d clang madly as he jerked with surprise. “You have a different name every day?”
She nodded. “Oh yes. It’s a family custom. One should never tie themselves down to being a single thing.”
Don shivered, and leaned in close, studying her face. High cheekbones, thin eyebrows, symmetrical features, and sardonic smile lines. “How about… Merijara?”
“Maybe… what’s it mean?”
He sat up straight and said, “Ocean jewel.”
She beamed. “I like it, at least for now. Let’s go with that.”
The scene faded and Don sighed. “We had many names for each other in the following days and I was smitten. I visited her every chance I got and we were married an orbit later.” He grinned impishly. “And if you’ve heard my story about the Sanguimancer, you know my marriage ended in the arms of five strangers.” Don frowned and Projected a mixture of sadness and elation. “It turns out that she didn’t care what people called her, so long as it was pleasurable.”
He stood. “But that’s hardly a fitting way to end this tale, is it?”
“No!” The audience called back.
“So I’ll leave you with an idea to ponder. I’d met women who filled me with joy, and others that I could save from despair. Even one that I couldn’t Sense at all. And you might ask, ‘If a guy who can sense a person’s feelings can’t find love, then how can I?’” He tapped his chin as though thinking. A grin lit his face. “Stop worrying!
“If my story shows anything, it’s that love isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. I got no joy from comparing the next bend in the road to those already traveled, nor from worrying about what lurked in the shadows. I was happiest when I trusted whatever I could Sense as it happened.” Don held a hand over his heart and bowed his head. “I learned to Sense the love on my face, and ensure that it matches the love I actually feel.” His perfectly average face filled the space above the stage.
But his expression wasn’t average.
It was kind and gentle, loving and unique.
It was an expression that belonged to Don, and Don alone, shared openly with all.
It projected without Projecting.
The crowd cheered and the curtain fell one last time.