Iona tried to make himself look as small and as inconspicuous as possible. It helped that he was small to begin with. Not only was he still young, but gremlins were naturally small. The tallest members of his species generally only reached the height of a human adolescent. If he wrapped himself in a plain cloak and put up a hood to hide his turquoise hair and large ears, he might even be able to pass as a human child.
He didn’t smell like a human, but that wasn’t a problem. According to some of the others, humans didn’t have a very good sense of smell anyway. He still kept his distance from any of the humans around.
They weren’t supposed to leave the camp.
He didn’t know what would happen if he was found out, but he couldn’t help himself.
The others told stories of human cities. Buildings as tall as mountains. People filling every available space. Human magic performed constantly…
The reality of it was a bit of a disappointment. The buildings were tall, yes. Mountain size? He wasn’t so sure about that. Maybe one or two of them. But not all. Fezzik was taller than half the buildings around. As for magic, he hadn’t seen a single spell. Not one. It really made him wonder if the humans really were the magically advanced species that he had heard stories about. The people who were supposed to be second only to dragons in terms of the variety of magic that they could use. He had sneaked into the city, over a section of the wall that hadn’t been guarded, expecting dazzling light shows, levitating objects, people flashing about, and maybe a few spells that he might have been able to learn how to use. Instead, people just meandered about, doing what he assumed was normal for them.
People meandering about was just about the only part of the tales he had been told that actually seemed true. There were so many humans. More than he had ever seen in his life. More humans than he had seen monsters in his life. Of course, he was only seventeen—two months until he turned twenty!—so he hadn’t been around that long to see as many things as some of the others. Still, it was quite staggering just to see so many other living beings around.
He suspected that he wandered into the middle of some kind of market, mostly because there were roughly two kinds of humans about. Ones standing about trying to get people to ‘buy’ their goods and a much larger collection of humans either buying the goods or passing by to a specific good vendor that they wanted to buy from.
It was a strange ritual that they took part in. He had heard about money before, but actually seeing the concept in action was a strange sight. The latter group of buyers would happily hand off little bits of metal to the sellers, who would happily accept the metal and hand over whatever they had. Metal could be traded for just about anything it seemed. One human traded metal for apples. One traded for fox pelts. Still another received what appeared to be the wheel to a wagon for a fairly large handful of the metal pieces.
At the farm, things didn’t work like that. Everyone worked to help each other out. Fezzik and Rokien kept watch, looking out for threats. Most everyone worked to tend to food, whether that be taking care of the fields, raising the livestock, or preparing meals. Hunters would hunt. Tanners would tan. Carpenters would carpenter. At the end of the day, people would take what they needed from a public stockpile. People didn’t take more than they needed simply because they would wind up kicked out of the community.
There generally wasn’t much to spare besides. Farms and open communities had to be kept small and secret to avoid drawing unwanted attention. Iona had never seen a whole orchard’s worth of apples sitting in one spot before. In fact, he had only eaten an apple twice before. Their farm had a single apple tree and it didn’t always produce much.
Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like he would be getting an apple today despite how many were sitting around in the seller’s cart. From what Iona could tell, the seller was haggling down for every single scrap of metal that he could get, being so stingy as to cheat some poor buyer out of one of his rightfully purchased apples by snatching one out of the buyer’s bag as he walked away. With the human acting like that, he was sure to deny an apple to a poor child with no way to pay. And Iona didn’t have anything but his cloak that he might be able to trade for some of those bits of metal.
And if he traded his cloak, everyone would know that he had left the camp.
Maybe if he talked to one of those draken riders, he could find a way to acquire some metal bits. But for now, he was going to continue exploring the city.
Just as Iona started to turn away, he noticed something. Two young humans, neither much taller than he was, were pushing their way through the crowd of bigger humans. There were lots of children around, but a something about them made these children stand out more. They were clearly moving with purpose. Some children, especially older ones, clearly had tasks. Maybe their parents ordered them to go purchase apples or maybe they were just browsing for food. But this pair was rushing through the crowd of humans as if they had been given a mission.
Another thing that made them stand out was their attire. It was, much like Iona’s own clothes, somewhat concealing. Not enough so that people would find them suspicious. At least, Iona hoped he wasn’t coming across as suspicious, but he really didn’t know much about human culture. No one had stopped and bothered him so far at least and he had been inside the city since early morning, so it stood to reason that he was doing something right. It helped that a bit of a chilly wind had started up over the past few days, forcing most people to bundle up a bit more than they otherwise would.
Humans didn’t have fur to help keep them warm.
The human children were headed right toward the apple shop that Iona had been eying earlier. Just before they reached it, they split apart. The smaller of the two broke into a run…
And crashed right into a buyer, knocking goods to the ground.
Both the apple seller and the buyer yelled at him a bit as he tried to pick up the dropped goods. Both adults watched him like a harpy.
But they didn’t watch the other human child, who went up right behind the apple seller and started slipping apples into a small pouch. By the time the first child had gathered up everything that had dropped and started bowing to the adults, the other child ran off with at least five apples, completely unnoticed.
Iona hopped off a leather stand’s roof where he had been watching the market and started making his way through the crowd. He couldn’t quite explain why he was doing what he was doing, but he headed toward where the two boys were meeting up on the far side of the market from the apple vendor.
“What about a pie?” he heard one of them whispering to the other. “I haven’t had meat in forever!”
“We got caught last time. He’ll remember us and be on the lookout.”
“If Maurice were here, he would do it. He’d come up with a plan to slip a pie out from under the old man’s nose.”
“Well, Maurice isn’t here now, is he?”
“And just whose fault do you think that is? If you hadn’t—”
The boys were meeting just outside the main market area, right around a corner where there weren’t to many other humans. Iona, walking around the corner, had not expected there to be nobody around except the boys. It made his presence extremely notable. When the first boy stopped talking, the second quickly turned, clutching the bag of apples to his chest.
Their startled demeanor diminished as they realized that Iona was not some adult chasing after them. Their spooked posture shifted to clear aggression.
“Who are you?”
“Get out of here!”
“This is our alley, kid.”
The slight fear that he had been caught vanished when they said ‘kid’. As far as Iona knew, only humans and goats called their young kids. His disguise was working perfectly.
Though they did seem upset with his presence.
Not really knowing why he had approached them, Iona hung his head and turned to walk away.
“Hey, wait…” one of them said.
“Wait for what? Get him out of here, what if he saw something? He’d rat us out.”
“If he was going to, he would have gone to Hopperhock. And I haven’t seen him before. Maybe he could help us get some pies.”
“Just because Maurice—”
“This isn’t about Maurice. This is about pies.”
“What’s a pie?”
Both boys stared at Iona. His mouth snapped shut, hoping that he hadn’t just revealed his identity by asking about something that all humans knew about. From what they said earlier, it was some kind of meat food. Maybe an animal he hadn’t heard of before?
“Oh, now we have to get some.” At a strange glance from the slightly taller boy, the littler one shrugged. “What? He’s never had one of Dario’s pies before! That’s more of a crime than what we’re doing. You’ll help, right?” he said as he looked to Iona.
The taller boy pressed a hand to his face, sighing. “Alright. Fine. If we’re doing this, here’s what you need to know…”
Without a word of introduction, the boys started explaining exactly what Iona needed to do. They were quite clear and answered any questions in very simple terms. The way they talked was one of experience. They had done this before many times. Not just acquiring food, but the act of explaining how to acquire it to others as well.
“Won’t the pie seller be upset if he doesn’t get the little metal bits in exchange for his sellings?”
The taller boy shrugged again. “Gotta eat somehow. Unless you’ve got a better way of getting food?”
There was food back at the camp. Not a lot, but enough for everyone to avoid starving. There was surely enough for the two boys… but that would mean taking them back there, they would find out that Iona was a monster and, even worse, the rest of the monsters would find out that Iona had been up in the city on his own. They probably wouldn’t kick him out to the wilds, not knowing that there might still be those other humans chasing after them, but they might hand him over to this city’s humans. Not knowing what might happen with them, the thought was almost as frightening.
So Iona simply shook his head.
“Great. Then just do what I said and we’ll all be eating like the Pharaoh by nightfall. And don’t forget, if the guy looks suspicious, just start running.”
“Right.” That was something Iona could do. Over the past few weeks, he had gotten a lot of experience in walking and even running. In fact, it sounded like an easier job than what he was supposed to be doing before running.
As for what he was supposed to be doing…
It didn’t take long to spot the pie seller. The seller was in a completely different section of the markets than the apple seller. His stand was much bigger than the apple seller’s too. It was practically a whole building on its own. In fact, looking closer, Iona was pretty sure that the building behind the stand actually was part of the stand. A young girl, human of course, kept coming out with steaming hot rolls of bread which the seller then rapidly sold off to a large crowd standing out front.
Despite only seeing bread rolls, there was a definite scent of meat in the air. The scent was mouthwatering. It was easy to see why the two human children were interested in getting some of these ‘pies’. Iona would be lying if he said that he wasn’t also looking forward to it. He didn’t want to think ill of the kind humans who had offered food to the monsters who had appeared at their city walls, but he was pretty sure that most of the food was little more than scraps. Bits tossed aside that the humans didn’t want… or at least placed a lesser value on.
Although he had been happy with it, just glad to have something to eat after days of going without, he might trade it all away if it meant eating just one of these. And he might end up doing just that if he wound up caught.
Glancing over his shoulder, Iona got a thumbs-up from the smaller of the two boys. A slightly ominous gesture. Maybe it meant something different to the humans, but he had heard about the gladiatorial rings where monsters were often sent to fight to the death. He hadn’t actually seen such things for himself, but knew well that the angle of the thumb often determined the fate of the combatant.
But the thumbs up generally meant survival, so… that was good?
Shaking his head, Iona focused.
He walked right up to the stand, pushing through the crowds. He was a lot closer to any humans than he really should be, but the smell of meat and bread was so overpowering that there was no way the humans with their poor noses would be able to smell any difference in his scent.
The seller had just finished handing off a large pie to a portly human in exchange for a small handful of those bits of metal. Looking straight over the top of Iona, he immediately started selling to someone else. He was busy at the moment. So Iona moved around the side to where another younger human—this one a girl with red hair done up in a little bandanna—was bringing out a whole tray of fist-sized rolls of bread.
Iona got right in her way and promptly tapped the tips of his fingers together.
“Uhm… how much for a small one?”
The girl tried to step aside, but Iona moved to keep her blocked.
Behind her back, the two boys stole into the shop where the girl had just come from, slipping right through the front door with no one the wiser.
Now he just had to keep the girl distracted for a few moments.
But she was trying to step around him again.
“Just a small one? Maybe half of one?”
Sighing, she gave him a flat glare. “Three prav for the smallest. But you’ll have to talk with my father. I just cook.”
“You cook?” Iona blinked in genuine surprise. “How old are you?”
“I’m in my sixteenth year,” she said, managing to slip around Iona in his momentary shock. She quickly slid the tray of fresh meat pies onto the counter from where her father sold them and took an empty tray back.
“You’re so young,” Iona said, getting back in her way again. She was facing the door now, but he couldn’t really get her to turn away now. She would just slip past him again. “I always thought humans were—”
Iona clapped a hand over his mouth hard enough to make a noise. It drew some attention from the closest customers, but they quickly turned back to buying their pies from the seller who hadn’t even noticed his daughter placing the tray on the counter in the first place. But it did make the cook stop moving and look at him strangely.
“Are you alright?”
“Fine,” Iona squeaked. But the girl was stopped now, so he had to press forward and keep distracting her. The others said it would only take a moment, but… they were still in there. He could see the door out of the corner of his eye. “I just… bit my tongue. I thought cooks needed years of practice to get good, but those smell so tasty…”
Hopefully that covered up his little slip from earlier. Humans were supposed to be entirely useless for the first dozen or so years of their lives, requiring far more care from their parents than any monster that he was aware of. So having cooking skills while being not much older than that seemed like quite the impressive feat. Of course, everything he had heard came from other monsters and some of those other monsters had been known in the past to exaggerate about some things…
“How long have you been cooking these?”
“Ever since I can remember.”
“Amazing. I can’t even remember that long.”
“Uh huh. Look, I’ve got to get back to work. My dad is going to want the next tray in only a few minutes. Mealtimes are high traffic for us and I don’t have time to talk. If you want to buy something, ask my dad.”
“Oh, but… Uhm…” Just as Iona started looking around for a new topic to distract the human with, the door to their cookery opened just a crack. It was only a quick shadow of movement, but both boys managed to rush out. “I guess I’ll let you go then?”
Looking back to her, her eyes were thin points, glaring daggers right at him.
Had she noticed? Had he been caught?
He took a step back, then another. Turning completely, he bolted.
The two human children he was helping had described a meeting spot. Not being familiar with the human city, it took a bit to find. Past the fountain, turn right at the tailor, down the narrow path behind the cobbler’s shop, and down a set of stairs.
But when he got there, there was no one around. No human children, anyway. A small dog ran off as Iona slowed to a stop.
Had he arrived first? They had left the shop before him, but maybe they were taking a long way around. They had run off in the opposite direction, after all. That was just the way the door opened.
Iona settled down to wait for them. There was only the one entrance to the small alley alcove, back up the stairs toward the main market area. As such, there wasn’t much need to watch for the others like a harpy.
And yet, neither of the boys showed up. Iona waited and waited, it was even nearing nightfall and he saw neither tail nor hair of either of the humans. Humans didn’t have tails, but that was beside the point. Iona let out a long sigh as he brought his knees up to his chest.
He really didn’t have anyone to blame but himself. Everyone said that humans were untrustworthy, but…
“They come up with some sob story to get you to help them?”
Jolting, Iona just about threw off his hood as he turned to find the young human cook from earlier. The bandanna in her hair was missing now, letting much more hair than Iona would have thought possible hang down around her shoulders.
“It’s usually only younger kids who fall for their schemes,” she said, leaning up against the building that Iona had taken watch against. “Stupider kids. You’re lucky that my dad doesn’t notice whether a tray has ten pies on it or eight… Or seven.” As she spoke, she pulled out a small rock.
Or not a rock, Iona quickly discovered, but something wrapped up in crinkled paper. It had the distinct scent of meat coming from it. He had thought the smell was coming from her because of all the time she spent cooking, but it was definitely coming from the paper.
She shoved it in his hands. The paper came partially off with the movement, revealing some bread that was leaking a bit of meaty juice.
Her eyes were locked on Iona’s face, unwavering. “Well? Are you going to eat it or not?”
“Is it alright? I… I’m sorry, for earlier.”
“It’s fine,” she snapped. “I wouldn’t have given it to you if it wasn’t.”
“Oh. Okay then…” Slowly, conscious of being watched, Iona opened his mouth wide. The moment his teeth came down around the slightly steaming bread, flavor exploded in his mouth. It was so unexpectedly juicy that he couldn’t quite contain it all. A bit of it dribbled down his chin. But he couldn’t stop himself from taking a second bite.
“You have really big eyes, you know. Green too. Greener than I’ve ever seen.”
Mouth full of food, Iona couldn’t form a response.
“Your hood moves on its own, especially right at the top. I thought you were hiding an animal in there, but you aren’t, are you?”
Feeling a chill go down his back, Iona started glancing around. The girl was blocking the only escape from the small alley. Her eyes were more like those of a harpy than any harpy he had seen.
“And your teeth are rather sharp. I’ve never seen someone with such pointed teeth.”
Swallowing what might be his last meal, Iona racked his mind for an excuse. “I, uhm…”
“You’re one of them, aren’t you? My father sent food with the guards but the first thing you do is try to steal more from him?” Her hand flashed out, crossing his cheek before he could react.
The motion made his hood fall back, revealing his inhuman hair and large ears. He immediately pulled the hood down again, but it was beyond too late.
“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t drag you to the guards.”
“I… I’m sorry. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”
“Make it up to me?” she crossed her arms. “You didn’t even have three prav to pay for a lousy pie. How could you possibly make up for stealing our livelihood?”
“Monsters?” she said, cocking an eyebrow up to the brim of the white handkerchief she wore.
“Humans value parts of monsters, don’t they? I can give you some hair or… blood? I don’t know what it might be worth, but—”
“Gross.” Her expression fit her disgusted tone. “I don’t want your blood.”
“Maybe scales? I don’t have any, but some—”
“Stop. I don’t want bits of your bodies.”
“Then what can I give you?”
“Can you work? Can you cook?”
“I’ve put things over a fire before, but…” Iona trailed off as he looked down at the dripping half of a pie still clutched in his hand. “Nothing like what you’ve done.”
“Tomorrow morning. Show up by daybreak. I’ll teach you. And when you’re good enough, you’re going to take over for me whenever I want, got it?” She stomped a foot down, leaning a shoulder into Iona as he tried to back away—but there was nowhere for him to go. “I want to run around the market sometimes too, but I’m stuck cooking for papa all day long. Of course, I won’t cause trouble like those hooligans.”
“Tomorrow morning? But we’re not supposed to leave the camp…”
“Then I suppose I’ll have to go to the guards…”
“I meant that I would be there right on time!” Iona quickly said.
“Good,” she turned and started stalking out of the alley, only to pause and look over her shoulder. “You can call me Susan.”
“Iona… I’m Iona.”
“Don’t be late little beast boy, or your name might slip to the guards.”
“But I’m not a beast…”
She was already gone, stalking off out the alley and around the corner without paying attention to his words.
“I’m a gremlin,” he said to the empty alley.