Illustration from Les Fleurs Animees by J.J. Grandville, 1847
Squeaking wheels give him away. "You know you can get arrested by the Columbine guards for associating with a Cloak," Burnish informs me.
Cloaks are still around? I thought they were outlaws from the past, like a blight no one's worried about anymore. Of course, I pretend to know exactly what I'm getting into. "You asked me for the same thing this afternoon. What's the difference?"
"The difference, Fuchsia, is that some of us work for a living all day long. But since we're friends now, I won't tell your secret if you can keep mine."
"You mean like who sent you in the middle of the night?" Messengers can't visit someone unpromised like me without being asked, and business hours are strictly during daylight so the guards can keep tabs on the promise bets.
"Del sent me." He waits for my reaction.
I'm so full of the day's drama my heart doesn't flip the way it should. Instead I yawn from the late hour, and that prompts Burnish to continue. "Since we won't know if Lemon will make it yet, and Del needs to seal a promise ASAP or lose the family biz, he asks that you be her underkiss."
"You're kidding, right?" Although it's exactly what I expected, an underkiss is a huge ego bust.
"Del saw you were willing to help Lemon this afternoon and he wants you to know how much he appreciates that. He promises if you agree to his terms and she doesn't survive, he will give you his kiss."
"And what if she pulls through?"
"Then he will seal her promise for next season."
"So I'm the consolation prize, even though I was with him first?"
"I know, it's not fair. The whole system is warped - but these are the terms."
He studies my face to know I mean it. "Good for you, Fuchsia. You deserve better. Cord perhaps?"
He buzzes off into the tired air as his not-so-subtle hint hovers over the water.
I pull my hair by the roots and kick at the soggy moss beneath me but it only makes a frustrating thug. I glance down at the bare earth where the moss clump that has now rolled down into the stream used to be.
In the exposed dirt, a strong stem is making its way into the world. It has whorls of needle-like leaves and even in the dark I know it's the pattern we are all taught to recognize as children. Toadflax.
The enemy is here.
In the groggy haze of dawn, I count a repeat pattern of offenders pocketed in the moss around our home. Water, they want our water. That's why they chose this site. I'm supposed to report this to the Columbine guards and they will rip up every weed from its roots, turning our home into a bloodbath. I've seen it before.
I bend down to peek at the one nearest me. So little and cute, it's hard to imagine this baby growing into the alien monster that will choke out our nutrients and sunlight.
Dr. Weber, who carries knowledge on her back like food, teaches us in primary that Toadflax offspring are late summer bloomers. This one's a little early, but our stream water must be speeding things up. No one's on high alert yet.
"Moma?" a tiny voice calls on the wind.
I reach for some shreds of the moss I kicked and stuff them quickly around the baby, muffling its voice so no one can hear.
In one night I've helped a Cloak, refused a Larkspur and witnessed a Toadflax without reporting it. What a rebel I've become.
A/N: What creature do you think Dr. Weber, who carries knowledge on her back like food, could be?
a. a mosquito
b. a fly
c. an ant
Dedicated to: Rosiejo211 who is obsessed with wolves. Learn everything about these amazing creatures in her WOLF FACTS. I might just have to add a wolf character to this story in her honor!
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