There were too many types of trees to identify them. They were all dark, however. Brown and green and gray. Not a single flash of the cream the boy was looking for.
“Brenam,” she whispered. “Do you see her?”
The boy was breathing hard. His eyes darted here and there among the trees and low brush. There were too many leaves. He did not see the jinko they were chasing anywhere. But the jinkos were wild people, very good at hiding.
They had strayed too far north. He had never even heard of this place. It was too close to the Malswamp, where evil things lived. They could be attacked by Gressians, or whites, or lions.
“Well? See anything?”
He didn’t want to disappoint Kismet. She was the one who taught him how to fish when he was fifteen. He loved fish. He had caught his first shark with her in the boat, on the far side of Haunted Island. It was a little shark, but he was proud of it and it tasted great.
“I don’t,” Brenam hissed. “I’m looking!”
“Shit,” Kismet whispered. “She’s cream-colored. How can we not see her in all this green?”
Brenam shrugged. “She’s a jinko. They’re very good at hiding.”
The two of them peered into the woods for a while, not speaking. Beyond the dark vertical trunks, the brown-green underbrush, the dark green leaves. The far meadow shone bright yellow in the midday sun. There was no sign of the jinko.
“If we catch her,” Kismet said, “she has to give us a wish.”
Brenam scratched his head, hoping he didn’t have lice again. “What would you wish?”
“Shhh,” Kismet said.
“I would wish for a kiss,” Brenam muttered.
“Eww,” Kismet said. “You’d kiss a jinko?”
“Come on,” Brenam said. He knew Kismet’s games. She was playing with him. She wanted to kiss the jinko, too. When they had first seen her, the jinko was scooping water from a pool with her clawed hands, ears wide in relaxation, tail twitching in the pleasure of drinking. Her furred hips and bare breasts were alluringly round. Brenam knew that Kismet shared his observations.
Kismet shoved him gently with her shoulder. “I’d kiss that jinko. Then, I’d demand my wish.”
He forced his chuckle into a whisper, staring more intently into the distance. “What’s your wish?”
Kismet echoed his stare into the meadow beyond the trees. There was a huge black and gray form sliding through the high grass. It looked like an overturned bowl, like a gigantic turtle with lumps and bands on its surface. The midday sun glinted off its curves and edges. There was a gentle groaning sound in the air.
Brenam felt the muscles in his arms and legs grow hot. He didn’t want to believe it was what he thought it was.
“It’s a hill bug!” Kismet whispered. She sounded afraid the thing would hear them.
His lungs felt dry. “Should we go back to the Fort?”
“No,” Kismet said. “Let’s go look first.”
She put her hand on Brenam’s shoulder and took a step forward. He frowned, but felt compelled to follow her. As they stepped out from behind their bush, a cream-colored form dropped from a tree and fled into the woods to their right. The jinko had a reddish patch at the end of her tail. Her hips turned to-and-fro as she ran, her breasts bouncing in her stride. She glanced back at them with a frightened, beautiful face and a whip of her bushy tail.
Kismet gripped his shoulder. “The Telmyr told us to watch for hill bugs.” Brenam felt a pang of loss as the jinko disappeared into the trees.
As they made their way through the woods, another hill bug appeared in the high grass, approaching the first. They looked like the same species, the same size, the same materials, the same pattern of lumps and bands. They were each about twelve meters high and twenty-four meters long. As they moved toward each other, the high meadow grasses folded to the ground in front of them.
Kismet and Brenam reached the edge of the woods and stared as the two hill bugs slowly approached each other, their black-and-gray lumps against the bright green of the far woods. Kismet patted Brenam on his waist.
“Hlaym a’ chii,” she slipped into slang, pointing at a nearby hornbeam tree.
The sinewy trunk and limbs looked dangerous. Brenam shook his head. “Hyu frs!”
“Hyu frey?” she teased him. “Or you just trying to get me to go first so you can look at my butt?”
He grimaced. “I know you don’t like that. I’m just not a good climber.”
She patted his cheek twice and walked up to the tree. By hand and shoe, she made her way up into its limbs. Brenam followed her, even beyond his courage, to prove he wasn’t frey of climbing.
She finally stopped at a limb eight meters above the ground. Brenam’s muscles were shivering. He could feel the tree swaying in the wind and with their weight. He took a place beside Kismet and wrapped his right arm around the sinewy trunk of the hornbeam.
As the hill bugs came together, gray tentacles extended from their shells and caressed each other’s shells. As each tentacle found a socket, they sunk in with a metallic click. The noses of the hill bugs touched and they stopped moving.
“They’re mating,” Brenam whispered.
“No, not yet,” Kismet said. “Telmyr Green says they just sing to each other first, about whether they’re sick. They check each other out, the way the doctors check people out. If either of them find a problem that the other one didn’t see, they call in a third hill bug for a quorum.”
Brenam took a deep breath and nodded. The gray caresses of the hill bugs were captivating. “A quorum?”
Kismet put a hand around his waist, to steady him. “They vote on if there’s a problem. Two votes beat one. Then they heal each other if they can.”
Brenam nodded. “What if they don’t find a problem?”
“Then they mate,” Kismet said. “They exchange the stuff they’ve collected for recycling.”
The hill bug tentacles were all connected. The meadow was still as the great beasts exchanged information, high grasses waving in the breeze. Brenam glanced to his right, scanning the forest for the lost jinko. Kismet sensed his distraction and tugged at his waist. He gripped the tree tighter and looked back to the hill bugs in the yellow grass of the meadow, but they were still not moving.
“When will the Telmyr teach me?”
Kismet tugged at his waist again. “Maybe soon. Maybe never. Depends on if you are quiet. Quiet breeds trust.”
They watched the hill bugs for a while, even though they were not moving. Finally, the tentacles unplugged themselves with metallic clunks, and the hill bugs extended mouths from their noses to exchange materials.
“Now,” Kismet said, “they’re mating.”
There was a low, groaning sound. Brenam knew from stories that this meant the hill bugs were moving things they had gathered back and forth. Hill bugs rolled from place to place, recycling dangerous resources from before the Revolution, isolating toxins, repairing themselves, sharing resources as needed. They had cleaned the world after it had been set on fire. But after the toxins were all gone, they were constantly seeking new resources, scouring towns and cities that weren’t protected by the Telmyrs. Many people were forced to move as the hill bugs moved into their towns to recycle.
Only the colored markers of the Telmyrs could force the hill bugs to turn back. The markers told the hill bugs that what was beyond was Reserved. Only towns with Telmyrs could defend themselves against the relentless metal mouths of the hill bugs.
“You stay and see what happens,” Kismet said. “I’m going to chase the jinko.”
Brenam looked into her eyes. They were dark and serious. She wanted to kiss that jinko. He felt left out. What if the jinko wanted to kiss a boy and not a girl?
“I don’t want to stay. What if I can’t get down.”
She patted his waist twice.
“I’ll come back for you. Whatever you see, you tell me and I’ll tell the Telmyr.” She kissed his cheek. “If you do good, it might get you in.”
He wanted to be in. He loved Telmyr Green. She was old and wise and beautiful. Pale skin, curly red hair, calming green eyes. Only the most important people of the Fort were allowed to talk to her. Kismet got to hear her lectures. Kismet was Reserved, one of the trusted. Brenam wanted to hear those lectures.
“Ask for more goats,” Brenam said, “if you get a wish.”
Kismet chuckled as she clambered behind Brenam. He felt her body brush against his back.
“You like goat cheese.”
“Yeah,” he said over his shoulder.
“Tell us what they do after they finish mating,” Kismet said. “And, don’t be afraid of climbing down! Just repeat what you did when you climbed up.”
“You said you’d come back!”
“I will!” She rolled her eyes. “But, if you’re already on the ground, I’ll be impressed.” She punched his shoulder.
He watched her scale down the hornbeam, jump to the ground, and jog off to the south. He crossed his fingers and swallowed his jealousy, hoping Kismet caught the jinko.
Brenam stared at the hill bugs. The groaning sound stopped. They slid apart, the shell on his right turning and rolling off to the south. The remaining hill bug sat still for a moment, until the other had moved maybe a hundred meters away. Then it spun slowly and began rolling toward the north.
The gigantic black and gray shell shoved yellow grasses to the ground as it advanced. Brenam could hear a low hum from its movement.
The hill bug stopped with a clank. A gray tentacle reached from its nose to brush through the meadow ahead of it. The clawed tip of the tentacle scraped at the high grasses.
Brenam saw a blue placard hidden among the yellow grass. A Telmyr marker, two posts with a rectangle spread between them. The rectangle looked stiff as the gray tentacle caressed it. It was plastic, which meant it was very old.
There was a Reserved area in that meadow. An ancient Reserved area, at least three hundred years old. Maybe older than Telmyr Green.
Brenam was breathing hard again. He glanced to the south, but he couldn’t see Kismet anywhere. He wanted to call out to her. That might alert the hill bug, which could follow them back to the Fort. It was protected by Telmyr markers, but they were cloth and the hill bugs had been known to ignore cloth markers. Once they started gathering, it was impossible to stop them.
He swallowed. The hill bug grumbled and spun its enormous mass toward the north. Brenam stared down the trunk of the hornbeam. He was so high.
He took three deep breaths and started climbing daw da chii. His fingers dug into the sinews of the hornbeam.
“Kismet,” he whispered.
If she were honest with herself, she was terrified. She didn’t like to show fear around Brenam. He was still a teenager, still figuring himself out. She had seen twenty summers, and had been in the Telmyr’s inner circle for five of them. She knew the bounds of order and chaos.
They had chased the jinko north well beyond where even the Fort’s bravest hunters ranged. Far too close to the Malswamp, where ancient Reserved buildings stood against the hill bugs even without Telmyr banners, burned into their memories as sacred places not to be recycled. Haunted by pre-Revolutionary spirits. The ruined city of the wicked enemies of the Gressians.
Kismet rushed through the woods, eyes darting here and there looking for the beautiful jinko, but also watching for dogs and lions and tigers. And scouts, either whites or Gressians, who might enslave her into their breeding pools. She absolutely did not want to be bred. She only wanted to see the jinko again, steal a kiss, demand a wish.
She saw the jinko’s trail, a disrupted path of leaves kicked up by her running feet. Kismet suddenly realized she could also be ambushed by a band of jinkos, either the agile furred species of the cream-colored girl she was chasing or one of the other wild species. The reptilians or the creepy, feathered jinkos with their weird faces.
She glanced over her shoulder. Brenam and his tree were long gone. She could barely see the light of the meadow, where the hill bugs were probably still mating.
Her shoulder slammed against a tree trunk, forcing her to stop. She took deep breaths, scanning the woods ahead of her. The jinko was heading down into a valley, upstream from where they had first seen her. She must have been scouting. If she had been gathering, she wouldn’t have been naked. She would have had a sack to dump berries and mushrooms into.
She was a brave jinko. Kismet bit her bottom lip and raced forward, following the trail of upturned leaves.
She came to a low ridge in the woods overlooking a steep drop into a valley mottled by boulders and underbrush. She stopped and let her eyes follow the trail down the incline. The noise of her chase would have been obscured by the harsh angle of the descent.
There was a flash of cream, fifty meters below. Her eyes focused. The jinko was at the base of a large oak, digging something from the hollow of its roots. Arms reached behind her back. She was putting on a shirt, covering her bare breasts. Kismet squinted and eased down the slope.
The jinko pulled a pack from the base of the tree and slung it over her back. Kismet had crept within thirty meters now. She felt a branch snap under her foot and stopped, grimacing.
The jinko’s eyes flashed up the slope. They were amber and large and beautiful. Kismet held out an open hand.
“No harm!” she said. “I’m alone.”
The jinko glanced over her shoulders, back and forth.
“No harm!” Kismet repeated. “I just wanna talk.”
“Talk?” the jinko said. Her face was anxious, untrusting.
“You are beautiful,” Kismet said. “We only wanted to see you closer. Then let you go free.”
The jinko’s head rose on her neck, shoulders dropping. Her ears were flat, though. Nervous.
Kismet raised her other hand. “Yes, just me now. My friend stayed behind.”
The jinko brushed a clawed hand through the cream-colored hair on her head. She stood erect. Her ears raised in curiosity.
Kismet took the cues and started walking down the slope, her hands still held open before her.
“You pretty, too,” the jinko said.
“My name is Kismet.”
The jinko glanced at the ground, then looked back up into Kismet’s eyes.
“My name is Pinta.”
Kismet was only twenty meters away. The jinko’s breasts pressed against the brown cloth of her top. Her red-tipped tail was dancing behind her.
“You have a village nearby? I am from the Fort. Mostly humans.”
Pinta’s eyes scanned the woods. “You have us there, too?”
Kismet nodded. “One wife, one husband. Tamed, not wild.”
Pinta’s face scrunched. “We not wild. We free.”
Kismet was only ten meters away. “And I want you free. I just want to look at you. And be friends.”
Pinta scanned Kismet, head to toe. Her tongue wetted jinko lips.
“Maybe we trade?”
Kismet frowned. “I don’t have much to trade.”
Pinta huffed in disappointment.
“But,” Kismet said, “I could bring something next time. Bread or meat.”
“Knives?” Pinta asked.
Kismet was only five meters away. The jinko was flusteringly attractive, wet and amber eyes, soft cream fur, delicious curves.
“I could bring knives,” Kismet said. “If I can get a kiss on the promise.”
Pinta grinned at that. “And cheese?”
Kismet stopped two meters away. She imagined she could feel the heat of the jinko’s body, but she knew this had to be pure fantasy.
“Cow cheese. We don’t have many goats.”
Pinta considered it, nodding. Her soft, amber eyes blinked slowly. A cat’s blink.
“We have plenty goats.”
Kismet could feel herself so close to that kiss. “Could you bring one goat?”
The jinko smirked and nodded. “One goat, and one kiss, for three knives and a bag of cow cheese. Three days. Same place.”
Kismet bit her bottom lip. “Not here. At the pool where we first met.”
Pinta nodded with a smile. “We seal friendship with water.”
The jinko lifted a hand and gestured Kismet forward with a clawed finger.
Kismet’s heart jumped in her chest. Her hands still held out, she closed the distance. Pinta was grinning in mischief. Kismet’s hands found their way around the jinko’s waist. She swallowed hard.
Lips came together, then came apart. The jinko’s mouth tasted of burned meat and spices. They kissed again, mouths open in trust. Kismet felt the clawed hands sliding up her back to her shoulders. Her own hands reached down to the jinko’s behind. She grabbed the tail with her right hand and slipped her grip down its length, feeling the cream fur grow thicker. She felt the jinko’s breasts pressing against her own. The tip of Pinta’s tongue tickled her throat.
Suddenly, they parted. They were taking short, desperate breaths. Pinta was licking her lips. Kismet’s teeth were digging into her lower lips. They smiled and chuckled at each other.
“Friends?” the jinko asked.
“Friends,” Kismet said.