Nana flinched and sheltered her eyes from the bright morning sun as they cleared the hill. Ahead of them, at last, the walls of the town were in view. Bright flags fluttered in the wind, and winding towards the gates was a wide and well made road. A handful of trade carts were making their way towards the gates, but by and large the road was empty. She looked at the road longingly, then began to pick her way down the hill. The grass was long and beneath it was a generous layer of mud, courtesy of the spring rain.
She almost lost her footing when a black blur whizzed past her with a loud whoop, sending her hair flying into her eyes. She heard Husky yelling as he chased after Cooro, and it was long experience that made her start running after them before she could even see clearly again.
Cooro was already half way down the hill and several feet in the air before Nana and Husky caught up with him. Catching Husky's eye, Nana gave a nod and they lunged forward, grabbing a leg each. Cooro's momentum carried them forward and, as her feet left the ground, Nana couldn't help thinking that they were far too well practised at this. She even knew just when to close her eyes and brace for the crash.
'Ehh!' Cooro cried out startled, but didn't have time for more as their combined weight pulled him down. They landed in a heap on the ground. He twisted round as best he could from beneath the two of them. 'What was that for?'
'W-what do you think?' Husky panted as he pulled himself from the tangle and bent over, hands on knees, trying to catch his breath. 'What if someone had spotted you? We have no idea how this city reacts to +anima.' Nana nodded and pulled herself to her feet just as Senri caught up with them. He was carrying the bags they'd abandoned at the top of the hill.
'Really, you're not usually this careless.'
'But I'm hungry. There'll be food there right?' Cooro said, grinning up at them from the ground. Beside her, Nana heard Husky groan and mutter about Cooro's bottomless pit of a stomach. Cooro ignored him and turned to Senri as he handed him his pack. 'Senri's hungry too, right?'
Senri blinked at him and tilted his head to one side thoughtfully. He crouched down and rummaged in his bag. Cooro tried to peer over his shoulder, only to recoil when Senri turned and thrust a dried lizard towards his face. 'To eat'. Cooro looked apprehensive as he took it. More so when the head snapped off in his hands.
'Err, thanks Senri.' When Senri turned and began to pick the grass from Nana's hair he took the opportunity to throw it away. 'Come on, let's go!' He cried as he set off down the hill, fortunately on foot this time, waving the others after him.
'He never grows up, does he?' Nana said, sighing as they followed him. 'I mean, he gets taller but he's still...'
'An idiot.' Husky finished. Two men and a donkey eyed them suspiciously as they ran past, eyes lingering on the grass stains on their clothing. 'Come on, before he gets us into more trouble.'
Nana nodded and concentrated on breathing, silently cursing Cooro's longer legs and recent growth spurt.
The owner of the the market stall was already beginning to look annoyed when Husky finally found Cooro. Staring at apple pie, of course. 'Come on, let's go.' He tried to pull Cooro away.'I don't have any money to pay for that if it gets your dribble all over it.'
'But I'm hungry,' Cooro whined, pulling back to get one last sniff. The stall owner looked irritated, and it occurred to Husky that mentioning their lack of money was probably not the best idea. 'Besides, you were the one who said we should come to the market here, Husky. That's just mean if you're not going to let me eat anything!'
'To find work! Work! Because we need money remember?' Husky answered. The shop keeper looked like he was about to say something and Husky pulled harder on Cooro's arm. It was just as Cooro gave in. The two of them stumbled back and into the stall behind. Paper showered down around them and Husky could hear the apple pie stall owner yelling. The owner of the stall they had fallen into glared at them and began to push awkwardly through the gap between his stall and the next. The crowd backed away from them. He scrambled hastily to his feet.
Beside him Cooro was still sitting on the ground and staring intently at one of the pieces of paper. Husky kicked him gently, and when that got no response tried to haul him to his feet. The stall keeper had gotten stuck in the narrow gap, knocking over a pot on the neighbouring stall.
'Ne, Husky. Look at this.' Cooro turned suddenly in his grip and handed the paper up to Husky. Warily, Husky turned away from the advancing merchant to look at it. It was a landscape picture, done in pencil and watercolour. 'Does this look familiar to you.'
'This, isn't it the Maggie Colosseum?' Husky answered, staring at it. 'I think. It's been a few years.' His train of thought was cut short when a shadow fell over the paper. Husky looked up to find the owner of the stall they had crashed into looming over them. We used to get away with this when we were younger. Cooro would just smile and...
Husky turned to grab Cooro and try and drag him away, only to miss as Cooro scrambled to his feet and stepped towards the stall owner. With a growing sense of dread he caught sight of the look on Cooro's face. Cooro was giving the stall owner his biggest grin.
'Ah, I'm really sorry. I haven't eaten for a while so I got dizzy and fell over.' The shop keeper looked a little startled at Cooro's cheerful response to his glaring. 'And Husky gets grumpy when he hasn't eaten so we were arguing a lot.'
'What, why am I the bad guy?' Husky spluttered. Cooro patted him on the head.
'See?' Before the stall owner had a chance to recover, Cooro pushed the picture into his hands. 'Did you draw this? It's really pretty.'
'N-no, I bought it this morning from a trader,' the man answered, scratching his head, his anger slowly turning to confusion.
Husky sighed and bent down to pick up more of the the pictures they had scattered. He was just about to hand them to the bewildered stall owner when Cooro grabbed him by the back of the collar and he was forced to run or be dragged backwards down the street. The pictures went flying again as the stall owner shouted after them in surprise.
After he got his feet under him, Husky turned to Cooro. 'We did eat this morning.' Cooro just grinned back at him. Husky tried to keep the angry look on his face, but soon failed. Instead he focused on weaving through the crowds. 'You really don't change, do you, you liar.'
Nana glared at the two of them.
'Now how are we supposed to find work? No one's going to trust us.' Husky glared right back and Cooro backed up slightly, pulling Senri along with him.
'Oh, and I suppose you managed to do better?' Nana crossed her arms over her chest and smirked.
'Of course! We managed to sell the trade goods we brought from the last town, so there's enough money for an inn.' She held up the purse and shook it so that the coins inside jingled. But as she put it away, her face fell. 'We couldn't find work though.' Senri growled slightly and she lay a hand on his arm to calm him. 'We did find an inn that was advertising, but when we tried they turned us down.'
'Huh, why?' Cooro asked, eyes moving between her pout and Senri's scowl.
'They said that they didn't want travellers working there. It was really strange, I mean, we've found places where they didn't want travellers because we'd leave soon. But this was different.' She sighed. 'And they said they were really busy too, there seemed to be a party every night. It would have been an interesting place to work.'
'You just wanted to look at pretty dresses,' Husky said, rolling his eyes.
'And what's wrong with that? I mean, look at this... It's not even that old.' Nana pulled on the skirt she was wearing. It had been worn anyway, but their tumble down the hill hadn't helped. She sighed when Husky snorted in disgust. 'Don't make that face, especially with the rate you and Cooro keep growing out of things. In fact...' She looked around the street they were on. It was lined with shops selling fabric and dresses, or jewellery and headdresses.
She weighed up the purse and estimated how much they could spare. It was spring now, and the lighter fabrics would be cheaper than letting them wear through their winter clothes. In front of her, Husky scowled.
'Well, are we going or are we standing here all day?'
'Hmm.' She eyed him carefully, then let her gaze drift to a nearby shop front, a plan forming in her mind. She waited until he had turned and got several steps ahead before rushing to the window and peering intently through the glass.
'Oh! Look at that necklace!' Out of the corner of her eye she saw Husky twitch and come to a stop. 'Wow, is that a real sapphire?' It worked, Husky couldn't resist looking. He peered through the window at the necklace she was pointing at.
'That's topaz, you idiot,' he scolded, but his voice lacked its usual edge as his eyes scanned over the rest of the items in the window. Behind her she heard Cooro begin to laugh and spun to clamp a hand over his mouth before he could spoil things.
'Shh,' she urged, shooing him away. Turning back to Husky she saw he was so engrossed that his nose was almost pressed against the glass. She nudged him towards the door. 'Why don't you take a quick look around? I have to pick up some things.' As the door swung shut behind him, she winked at Cooro. 'Don't let him buy anything, OK!' she called, before stepping into the shop next door.
The man at the counter smiled as he wrapped up her purchase. 'Are you making a ball dress?'
'B-ball dress? Oh no, it's just for everyday clothes. It's not like I've been invited to any, anyway,' Nana said, turning red and nervously looking out the window.
'That's a shame,' he replied, looking disappointed. 'I'm sure you'd look lovely dancing in this fabric.' Nana felt her heart skip a beat. Could it be? She turned back to him with her nicest smile.
The merchant was gazing dreamily at the bolt of fabric she'd chosen. His hand ran down the raw edge of the fabric, removing a few stray threads. 'This fabric flares out wonderfully when dancing, and it catches the ballroom lights just right. It's a lot lighter than it seems. Did you know it came all the way from Sailand...' And with that he tailed off into a detailed description of the fabric's history. Nana stared at him, her face cooling as he went on enthusiastically. After several minutes he stopped short, realising that she was watching him.
'Ah, sorry. I guess I got carried away. Err, yes. Um, oh!' He held out his hands, gesturing for her to stay as if she were some kind of excitable dog as he backed towards the window. 'Just wait a moment'. Turning, he began to pull down the posters there, peering at them one by one before dropping them to the ground. Nana picked one up. It was an announcement of a grand ball. Before she could finish reading it it was plucked from her hands.
'Ah, no no. You don't want to go to that one. No one's going to that one. Here.' Another was thrust towards her. 'That's the one to be seen at. It's an open invitation, provided you meet the dress code of course.'
Nana gaped at the piece of paper in her hands. When she looked up the merchant was watching her thoughtfully. 'Hmm, I haven't seen you around. Are you a traveller?' Nana nodded nervously, remembering the earlier responses. But the merchant only beamed. 'Excellent! There's been so few travellers recently. This town is renowned for its parties, but it's been getting so dull with just the same old faces.' He plucked the poster from her hand and put it into the bag with the fabric. He held the bag out to her.
'Err, thank you.' I think, Nana added under her breath. She took hold of the bag.
She nearly dropped it again at the shopkeeper's exclamation.
'But be careful, especially when you're heading home. There's been some trouble recently. Several people have been robbed on the way back so make sure someone walks you home.'
Nana thanked him and then left the shop, sighing. All that fuss. I did tell him I wasn't going to a ball.
Outside, she found the others clustered around Senri. As she walked over Senri turned to look at her carefully. He frowned and looked down at the piece of paper in his hands, then nodded.
'Nana got bigger.' Cooro took the piece of paper from Senri and handed it to her. There was a picture of her from several years ago, though the paint still seemed slightly damp. It was a little smudged in places.
'Husky stole it from the market place!' Cooro announced, beaming at her from behind the apple he was eating.
'I did not! I didn't even know I had it.'
'When we bashed into the stall we knocked a bunch of these all over the place. Husky must have sat on this one, because when he bent over one of the cases in the store I saw it stuck to his...' Husky's stick hit Cooro on the head and the apple fell from his grasp. He looked after it longingly. 'Husky. That was a present. The girl on the fruit stall gave it to me.'
Husky turned bright red. 'Because you were flirting with her!'
'I wasn't, I just smiled.'
'That's the same thing!'
'But I smile at you all the time.'
'She doesn't count!' Husky's blood ran cold as he felt an ominous aura rise up behind him. Nana's eyes burned with fury in her dark face.
'What. Did. You. Say?'
Husky rubbed his ears, trying to stop them ringing. Ahead of them, Nana was marching along as quickly as she could, her chin in the air and arms folded. Senri was trying to keep his distance from her and Cooro looked nervously between the two of them.
'Ne, Husky. I think you should say sorry,' Cooro said, 'Nana looks pretty upset.' Ahead of them, Nana twitched and Husky cursed her sharp hearing. She turned to glare at him over her shoulder.
'I don't care if he apologises or not. I don't want to hear it. In fact...' She was cut short as she walked into someone half hidden in the shadows. He and the group he was with turned slowly towards her. Husky and the others hurried to catch up.
It was hard to make out the figures. They wore dull clothing and blended into the shadows easily, sticking close to the wall. It was only then that Husky realised, startled, that the part of town they were in was run down. The high buildings blocked most of the light and rubbish stood in piles against barred doors.
They stood in tense silence for a few seconds. Then the largest of the group, most likely the leader, slid towards them. The others moved as if they were going to surround them. In the dim light, Husky could just tell that the leader was looking at him. His hand went to his earrings automatically, and the shift in the shadows on the leader's face told him he'd guessed right. He heard a rustle as Nana hid the bag she was carrying behind her back. The noise attracted the leader's attention and he turned sharply to face her.
The sudden movement was too much for Senri, who lunged forwards growling. His clawed hand swiped towards the leader, just missing when he jumped back. The rest of the group pulled closer to where the leader had landed. For a moment, Husky thought they would lunge as one group towards them. But, when Senri growled again and tensed, they turned as one and ran off down one of the alleyways.
Husky breathed a sigh of relief and moved beside Senri, ready to stop him if he ran after them. Nana did the same on the other side, and after a while Senri stood up, his claws turning back into a normal hand.
'Gone,' was all he said, shaking his head.
'That was scary.' Nana's voice was a little shaky, and rang out too high. Husky took a breath to steady his so it wouldn't do the same.
'Yeah, let's get back to one of the main roads.' Nana nodded and moved to stand between him and Senri, her earlier anger forgotten. Behind them Cooro was still in the same spot looking towards the alley the group had disappeared down. 'Cooro?' Husky called, and he turned to look towards them.
'Those people, they were +anima.' He needn't have said it. Husky could tell by the look on his face.
The innkeeper was glaring at them before they had even reached the desk.
'We don't put travellers up here!' Husky stared at him incredulously.
'But you're an inn!' The only two other people there turned to look at the commotion, then, disinterested, turned back to their game of cards. Apart from them the room was deserted.
'We only serve merchants, and I somehow doubt you have a licence,' he said, eyeing the grass stains that still covered their clothing.
'But we won't cause any trouble. Really,' Cooro said, stepping forwards and fixing the innkeeper with his best innocent expression. The innkeeper was thoroughly unimpressed.
'We've had enough trouble with travellers lately. Robbing honest townspeople.'
'Do you mean the attacks?' Nana asked. 'The ones on people heading home from the parties?' The innkeeper nodded.
'That's right. Interesting that you already know about them, isn't it?' He advanced round the front of the desk and began backing them towards the door. Nana stood her ground as best she could.
'But how do you even know that it's travellers doing it? It could be anyone.' The innkeeper was a large man, but Nana put her hands on her hips and planted her feet. 'Do you have any evidence at all?' He stared down at her.
'They came with that bloody circus. Here.' He scrambled around on the sideboard by the door for a moment, then threw a crumpled piece of paper at her. 'Now get out.' And with that he shoved them through the door and slammed it after them.
Nana sighed, and looked down at the crumpled piece of paper. It was an old circus flier, inviting people to the opening night. I really wish people would stop throwing pieces of paper at me today. She passed the paper over to Cooro.
Rubbing her arms against the evening chill she looked around. Down the street was another inn. It seemed a little more lively than this one, music and voices coming from inside. She was about to suggest they try there, when Senri suddenly tensed, and pushed the three of them behind him, urging them back out of the road and into the shadows.
His gaze was fixed on a couple walking down the street some way off. As they turned the corner, Nana saw several figures slink after them. As they moved, the shapes of the figures changed.
'Dog +anima! They're a dog pack,' Husky whispered into the silence. Cooro pushed past Senri and leapt into the air, wings spreading. 'Cooro, what are you doing?' Husky hissed.
'We can't just leave them to go after those people. Besides, the townspeople are treating travellers really badly because of those guys. What will happen if they find out they're also +anima? Will they start treating +anima that way too?'
'It's too dangerous, Cooro. You can't.' Nana reached out and caught hold of his shoe. She tried to pull him back down, but only succeeded in pulling it off his foot.
'It'll be fine. I'll just shout warning.' And with that he took off after them, Senri following close behind. Resigned, Nana and Husky chased after them.
They had just turned the corner when Cooro shouted out his warning to the couple. The pair turned around and the dog pack scattered into the shadows. However the couple seemed more concerned with the dark figure flying towards them. With a shout they bolted towards one of the nearby houses. Banging on the door until someone opened it, they disappeared inside.
Releasing her ears and wings, Nana listened for any sound from the dog pack. The shadows they had vanished into were silent. However, there were voices being raised inside the house. Nana dragged the others back round the corner and out of sight, just before the door opened and a small but angry crowd of people spilled out. Hurriedly they headed back the way they'd come. They stopped, panting for breath beside the inn they'd been kicked out of earlier.
Cooro recovered first.
'Nana, could you tell which way they went?' Nana looked at him in disbelief.
'You can't seriously be considering going after them! Cooro, it's too dangerous. We don't even have somewhere safe to head back to yet.'
'But if we don't go now we'll lose them!'
'Hmm, I wouldn't do that now, it's getting fairly late. Besides, if you want to go after those guys you'll need to be prepared. They know this town much better than you.'
Nana turned in surprise at the new voice. A figure stood silhouetted in an open doorway and waved at them. 'I saw you get kicked out of that inn, need a place to stay?' Nana's eyes finally adjusted to the light enough for her to make out who was stood there.
The inside of the house was one large room, the walls plastered with pictures. As they entered Pinion peered up from the table and blinked at them. Rose smiled at him.
'Look what I found!'
'Senri!' he cried, running forward and wrapping his arms around Senri's waist. Senri looked confused and began to root around in his bag as best he could with Pinion firmly attached. He pulled his book out. Over the years the number of items pressed between its pages had grown, preventing it from closing properly. At first, as he flicked through it, leaves and petals drifted out. Nearer the front, however, he became more careful until he found what he was looking for. For a moment his fingers ran over Rose's old hair clip before he gently closed the book and put it away. Rose patted his hair.
'Did you get even taller? All of you in fact.' She turned to the others. 'I take it you're still travelling together?'
'We are,' Cooro piped up, before throwing himself into a large chair in the corner. 'What about you? Do you live here now?'. Rose shook her head.
'I'm just renting this place. The business is good here so I decided to stop for a while.' Behind her, Husky was scanning the walls.
'These are Pinion's, right. He paints as well now?' When Rose nodded, he handed her the smudged picture of Nana. 'What about this one?'
'Yep, that's one of them. We only sold this one this morning, actually.' She turned to look towards the corner of the room where Cooro had made himself at home. A curtain had been hung up to cover the wall behind the chair, and a small table held a careful arrangement of fruit. 'It's one of the reasons we decided to stop here. With all the balls and events that seem to go on here, there's a lot of people who want pictures of themselves in their latest gown or suit.' She winked. 'And when they come here to pose, I get to sell them the accessories I've made. Now, you find somewhere to sit and I'll get something to drink. Then I have a favour to ask.'
Pinion stepped back from Senri enough to grab his hand, then pulled him over to the fireplace. 'Sit there,' he urged. Senri did as he was told, sitting cross legged on the floor. Pinion looked him over critically. Then, shaking his head, began to rearrange him.
Nana took the opportunity to look at the pictures around the room. The range of places depicted, she guessed that Rose and Pinion had been travelling widely since they last met. There were several places she recognised. I wonder how many times we just missed each other. Nearer where Cooro was sitting the pictures became portraits of women and men in fine clothing. As she studied them, Cooro lent over the arm of the chair towards her.
'You like them?'
'Yeah, though,' She stood back a little and looked at the wall, 'there sure are a lot of them. Rose, have you been here long?' Rose turned from the pot of tea to look over her shoulder.
'For a few months now. We didn't originally intend to stay that long, but since it was winter and business was good it seemed like a good time to take a break from travelling.'
'When the innkeeper turned us away, he mentioned something about a group of travellers who caused trouble.' Across the room, Husky's head jerked up from where he'd been resting it on his hands. Even Cooro sat up straighter in the chair. Rose paused for a moment then, seeming to come to a decision, turned to face them. She leant back against the mantelpiece and stared up at the ceiling.
'Yes, we'd already been here a few weeks then. If we hadn't I don't think they would have let us stay. It was a travelling circus, they came to town quite suddenly. Everyone was excited, and so on the opening night it was really crowded.
'However, the next day quite a few people found things missing. Money from their wallets, or a brooch they had been wearing. That sort of thing. Worse than that, several people swore they'd seen someone being dragged off into a tent.
'The village police made a big fuss and searched the place. They didn't find anything, but the ring master got really angry. They packed up immediately and left.' Behind her, the water began to boil. She turned back and started measuring out the tea leaves.
'After that, a lot less travellers came from the direction the circus left in. And those who came from the other direction were chased off by the townspeople.' As she picked up the tea, she was nearly knocked off her feet by Pinion as he darted past and back to the table. She put a cup of tea besides him, but he was already engrossed in drawing.
Husky thanked her as he took the tea, but just sat there staring at it and looking grim. Across the room Cooro was watching him closely. Nana had the feeling that she was missing something.
Rose held out a cup to Senri, however he remained perfectly still, his gaze fixed on the back of the unlit fireplace. 'Senri?' she queried, frowning at the uncomfortable look on his face. 'Are you alright?' Senri didn't answer, but Husky set down his untouched tea and pulled a piece of paper from his pocket. Nana recognised it as the one the inn keeper had thrown at her. He held it towards Rose.
'Is this the circus?' Rose took the paper and looked down at it.
'Yes, this is the one.' Husky seemed to grow even tenser. 'Do you know them?'
'Mmm, Husky used to work for them.' Husky walked over, and sat on the arm of Cooro's chair. Cooro put and hand on his shoulder. 'Well, work for isn't really the right word. It was more like he was a prisoner.'
'I see.' Rose folded the piece of paper carefully and handed it back. 'Is that why Senri's so upset?'
'Huh, Senri? No. I don't think he'd remember, even if we had told him before.'
'Then what's wrong with him?' From the table Pinion sat back slowly and studied the picture he'd just finished. Rose glanced at it, then did a double take. Her face changing from concerned to amused. 'Senri, you can move now.'
Beside the fireplace, Senri fell back into a relieved heap on the floor. Rose handed him the tea he'd ignored earlier.
'The truth is, since that happened things have gotten tougher for the people here. A lot of people made their living off people who came for the parties. I was thinking that it was time to move on, but before that... Nana, I have a favour to ask.'
Husky scowled, and slouched further down on the bench behind the market stall.
'Isn't she done yet? How long does it take to make a dress?'
'Nana said she should finish it today.' Cooro shuffled a bit closer. 'Are you still worried about the circus? We'll be able to track them down as soon as we're done here. It's just one night longer and besides, we owe it to Rose for letting us stay. And for giving us dinner, and that pie.' Cooro trailed off and for a moment Husky though he was actually thinking. 'And you know, it was really good pie.'
'Perhaps, but it's alright for Nana, she got to spend the day indoors. We're here minding Rose's market stall.' Above them, the rain dripped on the canvas. Husky shivered. 'It's not like there's anyone buying things in this weather.'
'Yeah, but we have to try. And Pinion can't work drawing people today because they're too busy preparing. Besides, Senri's stuck cooking for the party all day. Though it was good Rose was able to find him a job.' Cooro shuffled through the pictures on the stall in front of them. 'She said that she felt bad that Pinion had to sell his pictures, and that he had to draw the same thing most of the time. All those portraits. That's why she wants to make it up to him.'
'"I want Pinion to see and do lots of different things, so that he always has something interesting to draw," wasn't it?' Husky quoted, sighing. 'But I still don't see why that means that Nana has to take him to a ball. I mean, I understand it's an interesting thing to see, but why Nana? Why doesn't Rose just take him?'
'It's simple!' Rose's voice rang out from behind them. She squeezed in between them on the bench. 'It would be a sad start, wouldn't it? Going to a ball with your sister on your arm.' Husky pulled a face at that. But Cooro looked confused.
'Start to what?'
'To growing up. He's about the same age you were when we first met,' Rose answered. She looked between the two of them. Noting Husky's blush and Cooro's confusion. 'Well, I guess you'll figure it out in your own time. It must be hard, just the four of you travelling together. I suppose you don't stay anywhere that long. Not long enough to meet people.' Cooro shook his head.
'No, we meet lots of people. You saw what Senri's book is like now.'
'I also saw how much he let fall out of the more recent pages. It's hard to imagine Senri being so careless with his memories of you.' She paused, and began to slowly gather up the things on the stall.
'Perhaps what I mean to say is, you meet a lot of people. But, you don't really get to know any of them. You move on before you do that.' Husky hunched his shoulders. He had a horrible feeling he knew what she was trying to say. He wondered if Cooro knew too, deep down, because it was clear that this topic of conversation was worrying him.
'But we have each other! And travelling together is so much fun.'
'I know, and I'm not saying it's a bad thing. It's not, it's wonderful. I love travelling too, and taking Pinion to see new things. But I worry too. That he might become unhappy never getting to know anyone but me. Or that, even if he doesn't, he might never learn how to get along with other people.
'Stopping here has been good. But I want to find somewhere smaller eventually. With a school maybe, and other people his age.' She looked at Cooro's unhappy face and ruffled his hair until he looked up. 'I'm not saying you have to stop travelling. That might be fine for you. Just remember that it's not for everyone.' Husky looked away.
'You mean Nana, right?'
'Mostly, yes.' Rose stood, and packed away the last of the things from the stall. 'Come on, let's get back. No one's going to come in this rain. Oh!' Cooro and Husky lunged forward and caught her as she slipped on the wet road. 'Thanks.'
Nana backed closer to the wall, trying to stay out of the way of all the people dancing. The hall was huge and the light from the chandelier made all the dresses shimmer. It was beautiful, like everything she had ever dreamt of. Just bigger, and a lot more overwhelming.
Pinion had been recognised as soon as they entered by several of his customers. Delighted to see him they had begged him away from her, one after the other, for a dance. Sighing, she began to look around for somewhere to sit.
Suddenly, she felt a hand groping the back of her skirt. Turning red with anger she span round lashing out with her fist.
'What the hell do you think you're doing!' Her fist connected with someone's cheek. Stopping cold, she looked down at the merchant from earlier who was sprawled on the ground. Around her, the crowd was completely silent. Nana stood frozen, her face going even redder.
'A-ah! I'm sorry I, was, just.' She trailed off. Then one of the girls nearby, a pretty brunette in a red dress, began to laugh.
'That was brilliant.' She smiled at Nana, clapping. 'He never learns. Last time it was my blue dress. He grabbed the frills on the front without warning and got my drink on his head. Oh, and last year Ellie,' She gestured to a small woman who was nearly in a heap from laughing. 'Embroidered the straps of hers. He tugged at them so hard he pulled one of them right off her shoulder. She caught him with her umbrella and gave him a black eye.' Around them, the crowd returned to what they had been doing, most of them still smiling.
The girl in the red dress, Ellie, and several of their friends gathered closer to Nana. Ellie finally regained her composure. 'Don't worry too much. He does it every time someone shows up wearing a dress made from fabric he sold them.' She pointed towards the merchant. He was still sitting on the floor, rubbing his chin thoughtfully as he inspected the hem of Nana's dress. 'Though, I can see why. That dress is amazing. Who made it?'
'It must have been you, right?' The merchant looked up at her. 'There wasn't any time to hire someone else to do it, and none of them sew in this style anyway.' The girl in the red dress looked impressed.
'You made it yourself?' Nana nodded and the girl beamed. Nana was beginning to suspect she spent a lot of the time doing that. 'You'll have to give me some pointers. You came with Pinion, right? Are you a friend of his?'
Before Nana could answer, another girl ran up to the group of them and began talking excitedly.
'It really is very well made,' the merchant said, standing and dusting himself off. 'I'm glad that fabric works so well. I hope you'll grant me a dance later. I'd love to see it then.'
Nana burst out laughing. 'I can't believe it, you're so alike.'
'Huh, who?' he asked, looking confused. It was almost the same expression and Nana laughed even harder.
'You and Cooro, a friend of mine. You're both so single minded about the things you like. Him and food, you and fabric.'
'What, I pride myself on knowing my trade!' But he was smiling. Nana took a few deep breaths and managed to stop laughing. 'Actually, I was wondering. Did you make the clothes you were wearing when you came into my shop that day?'
'Hmm, yes, why?'
'Well, in a town like this there's quite a demand for skill like that. I've been looking for someone, a business partner, for a while.' Nana's heart skipped a beat. 'Ellie's straps were good, and so were the frills on Hanna's blue dress. But they weren't quite what I was looking for. But your hem was incredible. And the detail on your sleeves when you brought the fabric. I, well look,' he paused, seeing the shell shocked expression on her face, 'you don't have to answer right now. Just, please, think about it. Oh, and I meant it about that dance.'
He bowed slightly, a little awkwardly, and when he stood and headed off into the crowd Nana saw that he was blushing somewhat. The girl in the red dress, Hanna, appeared beside her.
'He's a little strange, but he's not a bad guy. And I certainly wouldn't mind having a dress made by you sometime. Now, come on, or we'll miss all the fun.' For the rest of the night she was dragged from one part of the party to another. All the while her head was swimming.
Eventually, things began to wind down. She waved as the others headed home and went to find Pinion. He was asleep at one of the tables, head pillowed on the jacket he'd been wearing earlier. She was surprised to find Senri asleep next to him. He woke when she shook his shoulder.
'Senri, what are you doing here?' He pointed towards a door at the back of the room.
'So this is where you were working.' He nodded and she looked down at Pinion. 'I suppose we should get him home.'
Carefully she helped Senri hoist him up, onto his back. Pinion stirred slightly, but only enough to bury his face into Senri's shoulder. Nana stroked his hair gently as they made their way towards the door. 'Senri, do you think this is a good town?' Senri shook his head, causing Pinion to mutter in his sleep.
'They were rude.'
'Perhaps, but it sounds like there's a reason for that. And tonight, everyone's been really nice.' Senri paused, and Nana was surprised when he wobbled slightly. She lent towards him and sniffed. 'Senri, have you been drinking.'
'The cook was nice.' Senri answered her earlier question. It took several moments for him to realise she'd asked another one. 'Wine. We celebrated... cook said the chicken was good.'
'You really are drunk.' But Senri wasn't paying attention any more. He was looking at the person who had just laid a hand on her shoulder.
The merchant smiled at her and gestured to the dance floor. It was less crowded now, but there were still people dancing. 'May I?' Nana looked back at Senri, but it was clear he wasn't going anywhere. She held out her hand and he led her towards the dance floor.
As they danced, she found she was smiling, but there was a lump in her throat when she spoke. 'I thought about what you said. I think I'd like that. At least I'd like to try and see how it goes, if that's OK?' The merchant smiled back at her.
'Of course! I'm glad, and I really hope it works out. But if you're unhappy, it's not like you're stuck here.'
It felt like a huge weight had been lifted off her chest. I was thinking that, if I stopped here that was it. I wouldn't be able to leave even if I didn't like it. But it's not like that any more. The lump in her throat melted away.
And then kept melting.
For a moment she felt so light headed that she thought she might fall over. Then, suddenly, it was gone. On instinct she reached inside herself to the place where her +anima had always rested. It was like climbing stairs in the dark and expecting one last step that wasn't there. The only thing remaining was the itch on her back.
They were standing still at the edge of the dance floor. The merchant gaped at her.
'What was? No, sorry. It must have been a trick of the light. Are you all right?'
Nana pushed away from him and ran for the door. She passed Senri without stopping on the way. Even when the cold air hit her skin she continued running.
Husky shivered in the light rain that was still coming down. 'I can't believe they got Senri drunk. He was supposed to be walking them home.'
'But it seems he had a good time. And they sent someone to tell us. I'm glad the people of this town aren't all bad.' Husky scowled, and was about to answer when he heard footsteps running towards them.
Nana ran past, dodging between the people on the streets without even looking at them. She kept going even when Husky called after her. A few seconds later, Senri skidded to an unsteady stop beside them, Pinion on his back.
Down the road Nana turned a corner and disappeared from sight. Cooro leapt into the air and headed after her, swooping over the heads of the people on the street.
Husky looked back the way Nana and Senri had come. He could see the hall the party had been held at. He pointed towards it. 'Senri, go back and wait there,' he commanded, before running off after Cooro.
The road was still slick with rain and he skidded around the corner. He could see Cooro and Nana in the distance. Between him and them, several shadows detached from the wall of the alley and gave chase. Still running, he struggled to release his staff from where it was strapped to his back. It stuck for a moment and he nearly stumbled, crying out as he tried to keep his balance.
Ahead Cooro turned and spotted the pack chasing him and Nana. Diving towards them, he forced several to stop and leap out of the way. He looped round for another run, however he plunged down too steeply, nearly landing on one of them. Husky watched in horror as Cooro tried to regain his balance, but skidded on the slick street and crashed into the wall.
'Cooro!' He rushed over and tried to pull him to his feet. But Cooro just groaned, dazed. Behind him, Husky heard the clicking of claws on stone as one of the pack charged towards him.
He swung his staff upward, catching the dog +anima under the chin and sending it rolling off to the side. Its whimpering attracted more of the pack. As they backed him towards the wall he looked for Cooro. He was still lying on the ground, hands around his head and groaning.
One of the pack broke off and headed towards him. Husky leapt over the dog in the way and jammed his staff just behind the leg of the one advancing toward Cooro. It backed off limping. Husky settled into a fighting stance in front of Cooro. He tightened his grip on the staff, trying to stop his hands shaking.
Around him, the pack circled as if they were unsure what to do. Then, one of them dived towards him. Husky thrust the staff forward towards its chest, but as it jumped the +anima shifted back to its human form and the attack missed.
She was younger than he had expected, but the power of her leap carried her towards him with enough force to knock him over. She landed on his chest. With one hand she knocked the staff from his grip. The other went around his neck. Her grip wasn't that tight, but suddenly he found himself struggling for breath. The air seemed far too thick and cold, like he was choking on it.
He was sure she was saying something, but all he could catch was 'Don't struggle, I don't want...' and that made it worse. He felt her free hand scrabble at his ear and tried to lash out with his hand. But her weight on his chest combined with the weight of his memories was crushing the air from him and all he could do was tear uselessly at her sleeve.
Suddenly she ducked down towards him. Husky could see the whites of her eyes as they rolled back in her head.
She landed heavily on top of him. Then a moment later her weight was dragged off. Husky caught a glimpse of Nana, his staff in her hand as she pulled the unconscious girl away. He tried to push himself up, still struggling to breathe. Clutching at his neck, he felt the ridges of his gills beneath his fingers. Between gulps of air he forced himself back to his human form. It left him feeling oddly dizzy and cold.
'Husky, are you OK?' Cooro's arm was around his shoulder. There was a trickle of blood down the side of Cooro's face, but other than that he seemed unharmed. Shaking, he leant into Cooro's shoulder, and before long Cooro's other arm was wrapped around him. 'It's all right. It's over,' Cooro assured him, but his words only seemed to make the shaking worse. For some time all Husky could do was clutch onto his shirt, his neck burning.
He must have fallen asleep after, because the next thing he knew Rose was shaking him awake. There was a blanket around his shoulders. Cooro smiled at him. 'Are you OK now?' He nodded and stood up, feeling a little light headed.
A group of children sat, huddled against one wall. Nana, still with his staff, a young man and several other girls around Nana's age stood around them. Off to one side Rose was taking to several of the townspeople.
'Rose says go home,' Senri said as he walked up, still carrying Pinion on his back. The rain was still drizzling down and Husky was only too happy to do so.
The next day the weather was as miserable as the last. Outside the window of the room she had slept in the rain pattered against the roofs of the houses. Nana stretched and got dressed quickly before heading downstairs.
The hall was still a mess from the night before. Decorations from the party hung in partial disarray. One corner had been swept clear, though. In it, wrapped in whatever blankets they had been able to find, the members of the pack were still fast asleep. Looking over them, Nana doubted any of them were older than thirteen, and the youngest looked about ten.
Ellie was sat in a chair beside them reading. She waved as Nana walked over. 'It seems they were pretty tired. They didn't make a peep all night.'
'They didn't try and get away?' Nana asked. Ellie shook her head. One of the blankets stirred and the oldest pack member sat up. He watched her warily. She was certain he was the one she had taken for the leader of the pack when they had first met. There was a large bruise under his chin. 'What about the girl from last night. Is she alright? I hit her pretty hard.'
Ellie put down her book and patted Nana on the shoulder. 'She's fine. She'll have a bump for a while, but that's it.' Nana sighed in relief.
The door to the kitchen opened and the fabric merchant entered, along with several of the waiters from last night. They were carrying plates of leftovers from the party. At the smell of food, the rest of the pack began to stir. They seemed more interested in the food than trying to escape.
The food was nearly gone when Rose, Cooro, Husky and Senri arrived. Cooro had a bandage wrapped around his head, and Husky looked a little pale still, but Nana was glad to see they were up and about. Rose looked over the pack.
'I spoke with some of the townspeople last night. It turns out they're not travellers at all. They're just local kids from the poorer areas. Most don't have parents, and the ones that do don't want to go back to them. They used to do odd jobs around town, no one knows why they started attacking people.' She looked toward the pack, who were watching her intently. 'Perhaps you'd like to tell us?'
There was murmuring within the group, and eventually the oldest stepped forward. He stood there awkwardly for a moment, before balling up his fists. He glared at Ellie. 'It's because of the parties!' He shouted eventually. 'It's really hard, if you live in the poorer areas. You have to work all day and save as much money as possible. But in this part of town, everyone just spends money on parties all the time. They don't care what happens to us.'
'So that's why you decided to rob people?' Nana asked.
'We were originally only planning to do it once, when that big circus came to town. It was at the start of winter. We thought that, if we could just get a bit extra, it'd make it easier to get through. It should have been really easy as well. After all, who would notice a few more dogs running around.' He closed his eyes, and for a moment Nana though he would cry. 'But it went wrong. There used to be another guy, a bit older than me. He was our leader, he looked after us. That night, he went missing.'
'You haven't seen him since?' Ellie asked. He shook his head.
'Then after that, there was a big fuss in town. Amongst all the things we stole going missing, searching for him got overlooked. And then the circus left and travellers stopped coming.
'Without them, it's been even harder. We used to help with bags and directions. But as things got worse, we had to start stealing to get by.' He looked at Husky. 'We didn't really want to hurt anyone. We normally just scare people. Most simply hand over whatever they have.'
'Rose,' Husky said, looking towards her. 'You said that some people thought they saw someone being dragged into a tent, right? But that the tents were searched and no one was found.' Rose nodded. Husky turned to address the pack. 'All of you are dog +anima right, the type who change completely? Was that true of your leader as well?' There was general nodding from the group.
'I see!' Cooro piped up. 'If they were looking for a person, then they would miss a dog. The circus would have lots of animals anyway.'
'Yeah, and if you put him in a cage that's too small when he's human, or knock him out while in his +anima form, or threaten him...' Husky trailed off. Cooro slung an arm round his shoulder.
'He wouldn't be able to turn back.' He finished. 'I guess we'd better go and get him back, right! Rose, what about you?'
'Well, I'll need a while to pack, but Pinion and I'll come too. Nana, do you want the house I was renting? I'm sure the landlord won't mind.'
Nana gulped. She watching as Cooro froze, one arm still round Husky's neck. His eyes were wide, fixed on her. Beside him Husky's expression was carefully blank. She smiled as best she could.
'Cooro, Husky, Senri. Thank you for travelling with me all these years. I've been offered a job here. It's something I think I'd be good at, so I've decided to give it a try.' It was the right thing to do, she knew that. But standing there and telling them was one of the hardest things she'd ever done. 'I, I'm not a +anima any more, but even more than that, I want to try doing something new. If I stayed with you, I'd be happy, but I don't think I'd ever be anything more than I am now. I need to stop for a while, so that I can find my own way forward.' There were tears in her eyes and they were mirrored in Cooro's. Even Husky turned away and sniffed, and that felt like a victory somehow.
Cooro smiled at her. It wasn't shaky, or fake, it was just a big Cooro grin.
'We're going to find the circus. We have to find the person they took away. But we also have to stop whatever they're saying that's keeping people from visiting here. Because if it keeps up, it'll be bad for this town. And this is Nana's home now, so we have to look after it.'
'Even when you're not there, we'll be running around for you. That's just like a girl,' Husky said, but he was smiling as she said it. 'I guess we're not going to get a chance to forget you any time soon.'
That was too much, really. Nana flung herself forward, fists flailing. She had intended to bash Husky on the head. Instead she ended up with her arms wrapped around the pair of them, bawling her eyes out. They stood like that, arms tangled around one another, until their sobs died down.
Only Senri stood to the side, looking confused.
They parted the next morning. The weather still hadn't cleared up, but Nana had found them cloaks at the market place that would keep the rain off. She wished she could have made them herself, but there hadn't been time.
'Take care, ok?' she said, handing a pack of food to Husky. 'And keep an eye on Cooro.'
'Right,' Husky answered, looking up at the black speck in the cloudy sky. It swung from side to side in the air as Cooro tried to get a good look at the path ahead through the rain. Nana reached out and touched the tip of the staff strapped to his back.
'That night, when I saw the girl attacking you, I panicked. I tried to screech at her and knock her out, even though I knew I didn't have my +anima any more. I felt so helpless then.' Husky looked at her, surprised. 'But then I shook some sense into my head, grabbed your staff and hit her. And even if your staff hadn't been there I could have dragged her off you quite easily. I'm a lot bigger than her and I've had practice dragging Cooro around. And even if that hadn't worked, there were other people too. Rose, Senri and all the people from the party who followed when I ran off.
'And then, that night I thought about it. What if I had used my +anima? I would have knocked you and Cooro out too. And then, if there hadn't been people behind me, I would have been all alone with the rest of the pack.' She looked up as Cooro swooped towards them. 'I guess there's more to solving problems than just relying on a +anima.' Besides her, Husky drew his cloak a little further up his neck and refused to meet her eyes. Nana left him to think it over.
'It's raining for quite a way, but I can see blue sky in the distance,' Cooro announced as he landed. In one swift move Senri swept forward and pulled several feathers from his wing. 'Oww! Senri, what was that for?' Cooro asked rubbing his wing. Senri paid no attention, instead crouching on the ground with his back to them. Nana sighed and looked guiltily towards Rose.
'Good luck. Try and keep them out of trouble, OK?'
'I will, when I'm not joining in that is!' Rose laughed. Pinion tugged at her arm, and handed her something. She smiled at it, then handed it to Nana. 'Here, this is for you. Make sure no one sits on this one.' Husky blushed.
It was a watercolour of the four of them sitting at the table in Rose's, now her, house. It must have been a scene from just after dinner one night. The dress she had made hung half finished over the back of her chair. Nana smiled and thanked Rose and Pinion. Something tugged gently at her hair. She held still until Senri had finished, then raised her hand gently. She could feel feathers and beads fastened to what felt like a wooden flower. Oh, like my necklace! Senri stood looking down at her.
'Nana, remember us?' Nana suspected that Rose had stayed up late last night, explaining what was happening to him.
'Of course I will. Besides, you have to come and visit!'
'We will!' Cooro said, waving as they picked up their bags. 'We'll visit so much you get sick of us!'
'Make sure you do,' she called after them as they set off. She was glad they had done all their crying the day before.
Once they were nearly out of sight, the fabric merchant stepped from where he'd been waiting discreetly behind a tree.
'They seem like good friends.'
'They are. Don't worry. I'm sure you'll get to know them well. They'll be back when they get hungry, or cold, or tear something. It's goodbye, but that doesn't mean it's forever.'
'And it could be useful, knowing people who travel. You never know what interesting fabric they'll find.'
'You really do have a one track mind.' She sighed. 'But I suppose I'd better get used to it now. We're business partners, after all.'
They stood in silence, watching as the specks in the distance vanished from sight.
'Um,' Nana asked after a while, 'What is your name?'