[Word count: 3062]
Wind plucked at Marret’s clothing, harness pinching her waist as she carefully picked her way up the cliff face. A ledge crossed the rock above her, sharp coastal grasses crowding the narrow strip. Somewhere among the thin blades hid her quarry, a Vanabera Agamid.
Alert to the attacks of sea birds swooping from above, the small lizards were far less wary of Humans creeping on them from below.
Moving as smoothly as she could Marret approached the lip of the grassy ledge, eyes on the lizard tail peeking over the edge. Testing her footholds she grabbed for it with one hand, snatching the thin reptile from the base of a grass clump. Keeping her fingers clear of the thrashing head and jaws she pulled it free and dropped it into a pouch on her belt. Lizard secured, Marret climbed to the cliff top.
Extricating herself from the harness she crossed the strip of low scrub that bordered the cliffs and entered the shelter of the tree line. There, protected from the constant coastal winds, was her day camp.
A sheet of angled canvas formed a lean-to over her folding work table, where boxes, scales, and her notebooks waited for her. Weighing and measuring the lizard took mere moments despite its continued ferocity, the quick check of its reproductive organs doing little to improve its mood.
“Nearly done little buddy,” she murmured as she inserted its front left limb into an Anere Tal’s Field Monitor.
The metal box was topped with a magnifying glass, the edges of the small pane etched with glyphs. Pressing a finger against the sensor on one side Marret activated the device.
One of the lizard’s claws began to glow, as several of the glyphs lit up, telling her that this lizard had not been caught before. Assigning it a unique spell signature she removed it from the tagging device.
“Not so bad, hey buddy?” she said.
Releasing the lizard moments later she watched as it launched itself from the cliff, limbs extending to draw a membrane taut as it descended to the restless waves.
“You worked through last year’s Panimana as well,” Barok said behind her, approaching through the scrub, “And the last autumn festival.”
“I’d no idea you were paying attention to anything other than the lizards,” she said.
His own study focused on the Vanabera, supervision of her project a natural consequence.
“I usually get the lab to myself on festival weekends,” he said as he followed her back to camp, “But then I’m a grouchy old shit. Should I be worried that you’re picking up my habits?”
Marret smiled as she packed away her equipment. “In the eight years I’ve been in town I’ve missed maybe three years worth of festivals, and only one Dragon appearance,” she said, “I don’t think you need to concern yourself.”
“Good,” he grunted, helping her to fold away the canvas.
Rain pattered against the striped awning, splashing into puddles on the stones below. A fresh scrap of night air crept through the barely cracked window to tug at the pages of Marret’s book. Smoothing a hand over the dancing paper she glanced at the window.
If she closed it the small coffee house would be stifling.
Hushed murmuring came from the counter behind her as another customer ordered a fresh drink, but she re-focused on her paragraph. The dry textbook required her full attention.
A hand on her shoulder made her jump.
“I thought I’d find you here,” her house mate, Nale, said as she took the seat across from Marret, “How’re the lizards?”
“Good,” Marret said, collecting her scattered thoughts, “Good, how’s the, uh,” she fumbled for the name of the play her friend was performing in.
“The Orchard Grower’s Tale,” Nale supplied, “Dress rehearsal went great, we’re all ready to open tomorrow.”
“Are you performing all three nights?”
“Not the last,” Nale said with a delicate wrinkle of her nose, “Everyone goes to the river to watch the Dragon do the fire-lighting, we’d have no audience.”
“Coffee pot,” the witch who ran the shop said as she placed a fresh coffee press on the table between them, along with a cup for Nale.
Thanking her Nale poured herself a drink, but paused over Marret’s cup.
“When was the last time you ate?” she asked with a frown.
“This afternoon sometime,” Marret tried to wave away the question, “But I’m fine, not hungry,” she called after her friend as Nale stood and walked to the counter, returning moments later with a cheesy pastry.
“Eat,” Nale said as she took the still-open book from Marret’s hands.
A light rain showered the city before dawn, the clouds breaking into wisps and scattering as the morning breezes blew off the sea. By the time Marret left her house the puddles had mostly dried but the streets still held their crisp feel.
People in fluorescent work vests laboured on every corner, climbing ladders to attach strings of flowers to the light-poles, criss-crossing the street with their colourful and fragrant ceiling.
Beneath their work street vendors pushed handcarts, dodging around their fellows who’d been in place for days catering to the set up crew. The density of vendors had grown throughout the week and the newest arrivals were finding spots down lanes and back streets.
A woman, shrunken and wrinkled with age, perched on a stool beside a red and purple gilded cart, watching the workers and pedestrians with sharp brown eyes. Jewel bright fruit filled the baskets in her cart.
With a sleepy smile Marret greeted the old woman, selecting berries and stone-fruit for a light breakfast.
Continuing on her way toward her closest tram station she passed an illusionist practising on a wide sunny stoop. His long fingers drew shapes in the air, transparent colours trailing in the wake of thin digits, swirling together and gathering form. Finishing the picture with a flourish of his wrist the illusionist sat back to watch the palm-sized Dragons dance through the air, small sparkles twinkling around their insubstantial footsteps. Marret walked on.
At one end of the tram platform two young musicians prepared for their day. One of them plucked and tuned a large multi-stringed instrument while the other arranged a series of small hand drums in a semi-circle around themself.
They’d just begun tapping out a cheerful rhythm when the rattling of the tram approached to carry Marret up the hill. A cool breeze whipped through the open sides of the motorised cart, tousling the loose brown waves of her hair. The high wall that separated the University grounds soon came into view, red stone peeking over the tops of the city trees.
Leaving the tram at the gates Marret walked the remaining distance to the cluster of main buildings along the tree-lined avenue, passing the few scholars milling about the main court as she headed for the library.
What remained of the pre-dawn clouds moved in thin ribbons overhead, promising a clear afternoon for lizard hunting. For now however she left the bright morning behind, ensconcing herself amongst the books and shelves.
Few others lurked among the tomes, the place near deserted as most people celebrated the first day of the festival with a sleep in. An elderly Tulan occupied one table, yellowed and stained papers spread before them within easy riffling reach. Antlers, large with their years, seemed to tower over the scene like the branches of a sheltering tree.
As Marret passed she could hear them mumbling to themself as they took notes, the few snippets in a tongue unintelligible to her. Finding herself a seat by a window she spread her own work before her, letting it absorb her focus.
Marret woke with a start. Morning sun spilled across her bedspread and for a moment she blinkingly searched for what had woken her so suddenly.
Voices drifted from the living room, one of them rising steadily until, at the point of shouting, they were cut off with a barrage of shooshing.
Getting up and opening the door Marret peeked at the source before heading to the toilet. Two of Nale’s theatre friends were there with her, one of them pacing before the couch where the others sat.
The shouting escalated again while Marret was in the bathroom, but by the time she walked back past the group they were all seated in silence, the pacer in an armchair with their head in their hands. She went to the kitchen for coffee.
“Our only option is to look entirely unprofessional,” the same voice that had been shouting said in the living room.
“We’ll look like a small group, which is what we are,” another unfamiliar voice responded, gentle as it lilted placatingly.
“There must be someone else we can ask,” Nale mused as Marret’s kettle started to boil.
Tuning out the conversation she focused on the hot water and trying to find milk in a fridge over stuffed with half-full take away boxes. She briefly considered their contents for breakfast but was forced to admit that they were destined for the compost.
Collecting her coffee she turned to find Nale standing in the doorway with a polite smile, which Marret was too sleepy to recognise as ominous.
“Are you busy tonight?” Nale asked.
“Shouldn’t be,” Marret said, pausing to think, “Not if I get my lab work done today, why?”
“We could really use your help with the show, you wouldn’t have to act,” she added quickly, “You’d basically be part of the scenery.”
“Are you going to dress me up as a boulder?”
“Not exactly, but close,” Nale hedged, “See, the person who usually does it broke her arm last night, not at the show mind you, but after she left.”
“And she can’t be a boulder with a broken arm?”
“She can’t fall out of a fake ceiling with a broken arm.”
Marret took a moment to sip at her coffee in the hope that it would help her brain to wake up. Surely she was hearing things.
“We need you to be a stunt double,” Nale said, “It’s only for one scene and the stunt is simple, we just don’t have anyone else to ask, or not anyone who looks remotely like the actor, but you wont be in any danger, plus I’ll owe you big, and I’ll make pancakes for a week.”
“If it’s not dangerous why doesn’t the actor do it?” Marret asked after another moment’s silent thought.
“She has a bone disorder that would make it dangerous for her, but not for anyone without it.”
“So you’ll do it?” Nale asked, “I wouldn’t rush you but if you say no we have to find an alternative and even if you say yes I’ll have to take your measurements for the tech and get to things ready-”
“Okay, yes, I’ll do it,” Marret cut her off, “Just calm down, it’s too early.”
“Thank you, thank you,” Nale said, clapping her hands, “I’ll get the scales and tape measure.”
Wiping down her work bench Marret turned her head to yawn into her shoulder, quelling the desire to rub her tired eyes. She’d been studying lizard scat all morning, along with the stomach contents of a recently deceased Vanabera. The samples would be compared with records taken three and six months ago, to ascertain seasonality of diet.
With the breeding season approaching she was finding more fish and even shellfish remains throughout her samples.
“Going north again today?” Barok asked without looking up from the pile of petite bones that he was slowly sorting with tweezers.
“I was going to have a quiet night in,” Marret said, “But I got ambushed with plans before my morning coffee.”
“That house mate of yours,” he said with a chuckle, “What does she have you doing this time?”
“I’m, uh, going to be in a play.”
“Nope, I’m going to be a stunt person,” she said with a twist to her mouth.
Nale knew she was impressionable before coffee.
“What play? What’s the stunt?” Barok asked, eyes still wide but with humour shaking his voice.
“I don’t know,” Marret said.
“Either. Both,” she admitted, removing her gloves at last, “I’ve been told the name but don’t remember.”
“And the stunt?”
“I hadn’t had coffee yet,” she said as he began to laugh.
It wasn’t so bad. She only had to fall a couple of metres onto boards that had a thin cushion of magically charged air layered over them, to help catch her.
Even so an elderly man, the only other stunt person with the group, had drilled her several times on how to fall correctly. Only once he was satisfied that she could land with little injury did he send her to the dress up experts.
While a young woman daubed her face with fake blood another elder of the trade gently ran their fingers through locks of her hair, leaving behind ringlet curls like those of the actor she was to mimic.
“The spell will fade when you sleep,” the elder said, tugging the curls around her face into a more natural position before darting away to tend to someone else.
The woman with the bottle of fake blood took a little while longer to be satisfied with the level of gore she’d achieved, but she too finally nodded.
“Try not to touch your face,” she said, walking away as Marret’s cheeks immediately began to itch.
Left to her own devices until her scene Marret lingered in the shadows to the side of the stage, watching as Nale and her colleagues brought the story to life. The tale was an old one, which Marret recognised at last from her childhood folklore books.
She would step in for her actor during the climactic scene, when their character died tragically.
As the play built toward her moment Marret tried to convince herself to relax, breathing steadily through her nose and occasionally shaking out her limbs.
A touch on her elbow got her attention, a stage hand at her side beckoning for her to follow them through the maze of the backstage. With a reassuring grin and a firm grip on her shoulder they left her at the base of a ladder leading up behind the backdrop.
Scaling the thin rungs she wiggled head first into the narrow gap left for her within the fake ceiling half-way up. Muffled by the wood and padding over her came the sounds and shouts of the climactic confrontation. A flash, bright enough to seep through the gaps in the boards around her, signalled the finale.
A scream, as her character died.
With a thud the actor toppled gently into the padded recess over Marret’s nook, releasing the mechanism holding the base together. It clicked open, dropping her onto the stage.
Her afternoon’s falling lessons ran through her mind, and she even remembered to hold back her own shout as she toppled downwards.
The thud rattled her head despite their attempts at safety, but she felt no other pains developing as she waited for the show to end. As the other actors wailed over her broken corpse she resolutely ignored her nose and ears, which had begun to itch again now that she had to lay still.
Darkness fell, the signal for applause as Marret sat up and rubbed her hands over her face, remembering too late the fake blood that she’d now smeared into her hair.
The lights clicked back on as the actors ran back onto the stage, her double helping Marret to her feet to take a wobbly bow.
Squinting past the lights she found a familiar face in the crowd, the cheering and applauding form of Barok. Chuckling to herself she waved to him, glad that her tumbling act had at least drawn him out of his lab for a night.
“This wasn’t what I had in mind to repay you,” Nale called as she crawled on hands and knees through the cliff top scrub. “Is this one?” she asked, holding up a scat nugget with gloved fingers.
“Looks right from here,” Marret said from several metres away where she was tightening her harness, “I’ll check whatever you collect when I get back,” she added before climbing over the lip of the cliff.
The persistent breeze tugged at her hair and clothes while clouds chased each other across the sky. Marret lost track of the time as she carefully made her way down and across the cliff face, eyes alert for anything remotely reptilian.
The first lizard that she saw had already seen her, and after a brief second of eye contact the creature leapt from the rocks to glide safely away.
The next one wasn’t so lucky. Sunning itself on a small outcropping it wasn’t prepared for her grabbing hand, and she quickly secured it.
Returning to the cliff top she almost put her hand on a third Vanabera before she spotted it.
On reflex she nabbed the young lizard from its nook in the stone, wobbling slightly with only one hand holding the cliff. Fumbling with the pouch ties she bagged it separately before finishing her ascent.
At the lean-to she found Nale reclining in a folding camp chair, field guide propped on her knees and open to a page with scat identification keys.
“I had no idea poop was so important,” Nale said as Marret began weighing lizards.
“Don’t ever let a nurse hear you say that,” she advised.
The Field Monitor told her that the larger of the two lizards had contributed to her study before, and she flipped back through her notebook to add a short codified reference.
“Do you have plans this evening?” Nale asked, setting aside the book and rising to peer over her shoulder.
“I thought you said you weren’t performing tonight?” Marret said with a frown.
“We aren’t,” she said, “But some of us are going to the river, we’ve got a boat and we’re going to picnic on the water to watch the fire-lighting.”
“I haven’t done that since my first year in town.”
“You should come, I’m sure the poop can wait overnight,” Nale said.
Marret chuckled as she closed her notebooks, both lizards catalogued and ready for release. “Why not,” she said, “I’d like a night off that doesn’t involve bruising.”