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As the group prepared for the day and Henry went off into the woods to give Emilia’s body a respectful burial, Bezzi-ibbi felt guilty. His whiskers drooped and he could feel his tail dragging. He knew Yanno-ibbi and Rark-han both felt the same way. They’d all been on guard shifts and none of them had noticed the smell of blood until Emilia was found dead.
If they’d been paying attention, she might still be alive.
Bezzi-ibbi knew he could make excuses for himself. He had been focused on scanning for monsters, exterior dangers. He was patrolling the perimeter. He had been tired. But he also knew that he could have noticed something was wrong too. His sense of smell wasn’t at the same level of an animal’s, but it was better than a Terran’s. He should have caught the smell of blood.
Bezzi-ibbi’s tutors hadn’t always had an easy time with him in the past. He had preferred running through the alleys of Mirana, learning to play musical instruments and singing; studying was not his favorite activity. However, when he did sit down to study, he tried to take it seriously. One lesson that stuck with him was how to objectively frame a situation, how to see the truth of a matter, even if was unpleasant.
Bezzi-ibbi had failed the group. Nobody knew when Emilia committed suicide, and Henry wouldn’t tell them how long she’d been dead for, a fact he could determine from his EMT experience. However, the fact was Bezzi-ibbi had the last watch. Even if she’d already taken her own life, he should have at least noticed.
He felt ashamed. He hadn’t liked Emilia. She had acted hysterical and didn’t adapt to her situation. She was weak. Bezzi-ibbi knew and respected Terrans like Jason, and Henry, and Mareen. They were tough and smart. They didn’t show the back of their neck to any situation. In comparison, Emilia had been so scared she couldn’t talk, couldn’t function.
Bezzi-ibbi’s first reaction when he’d heard Emilia was dead was of relief. He tried to convince himself he was happy that she found peace, but the reality was he was just glad he wouldn’t have to hear her wailing anymore.
This attitude was unacceptable; logical, but unacceptable. For Bezzi-ibbi to be a good Clan chief, much less a Jaguar Troubadour, he needed to understand and empathize with others. He could still be firm, he didn’t have to agree with everyone else, he could even disagree with a blade, but to feel so little about the death of an innocent person bothered him.
Was he really becoming so callous? He knew he was a little unbalanced from Thirsty Zha Zha being around too, but that was even less of an excuse for so deeply failing at his duty.
Bezzi-ibbi felt the Great Creator had a plan for him. He had a good idea what it was too, and letting his heart harden was spitting on the gift he’d been given. It made him want to hide his eyes from the sun. No more, though. He was going to correct the situation. What better way to soften his heart than to sincerely get to know someone who made him uncomfortable? Just like Henna-ibbi always said, the best way to grow stronger was to face the whip directly and cover your fangs.
Bezzi-ibbi walked through the camp as everyone else prepared to leave for the day. With Henry gone, Mareen was doing the majority of the heavy lifting. She could carry their thick tents with little effort. Aodh helped her break down the equipment.
Rark-han and Yanno-ibbi worked to hide any trace that the camp had existed. Towards that end, before they left, Henry would cover the camp’s slit trench too. It only took him a minute to do using his magic.
Gonzo and Vitaliya had accompanied Uluula to the nearby river to fill their purifying, chilling water containers. Henry called them, “water zappers.” Bezzi-ibbi didn’t know how the containers worked, just what they did. After being filled with water, if a magic stone was pressed to the power-point for 10 seconds, they’d create clean, cool water for the day.
Bezzi-ibbi had no idea where Keeja was. She still hadn’t shown up yet for the day. However, Thirsty Zha Zha went down to the river earlier. Bezzi-ibbi’s sharp ears caught her saying something about, “taking her face off.” He had no idea what it meant. He began heading to the river and noticed Jason ahead of him.
Bezzi-ibbi jogged forward to catch up to his friend. He said, “River?”
Jason replied, “Yeah. I want to check on Thirsty. I think she’d rather talk to Henry but he’s… busy.” Jason’s eyes looked haunted. Bezzi-ibbi knew the whole camp was sad, but Jason seemed to be taking Emilia’s death hardest. After Gonzo found her corpse, Jason had walked off to be by himself for a while. Bezzi-ibbi had to remind himself that Terrans from their home world had strange morals about protecting women.
He thought it was odd; females didn’t need protection; not least of which because they were largely expendable. In fact, most often on Ludus, males of any importance were kept secure and protected. Women were most often police, soldiers, even adventurers.
Bezzi-ibbi wondered what would transpire in the future if someone tried to put Henry and Jason in civilized captivity, tried to keep them protected. He grinned, the thought banishing some of his sadness from earlier.
His brothers were like forces of nature. He wasn’t sure it would be possible to cage them. At the moment, his brother Jason-ibbi wasn’t looking very sure of himself, though.
When they got near the river, Gonzo, Vitaliya, and Uluula immediately came into view. Jason headed that direction and Bezzi-ibbi followed. Uluula kept working as they arrived. The two Berban spies looked bored.
“Does anyone know where Thirsty went?” asked Jason. “Is anyone keeping an eye on her?”
Uluula smiled at him and said, “I am busy and have not been scanning my surrounding.” True to her words, Uluula kept filling water containers, purifying the water, and stacking the water zappers neatly on the river bank for the group to pick up with the Battlewagon before leaving the area.
Vitaliya didn’t say anything, just kept asking as a guard. However, Gonzo relied, “How should I know? Does it matter?”
Jason paused for a moment before asking, “Do you have a problem?”
Gonzo rolled his eyes and said, “I’ve heard about how Earth is now. I know what the US is like. Gay is cool now, that’s fine, I don’t care. But look, I’m Catholic and I just had to deal with the corpse of a nice, normal girl who was sent to a strange world against her will and dumped into a situation with monsters, animal people, and mages running around.
“If you are asking if I’d rather the freak was dead instead of her, yes.”
Bezzi-ibbi needed to pause a moment in order to remember what, “Catholic” meant. He recalled that it was a subset of Christianity on Terra, one of the major religions. Religion never interested Bezzi-ibbi, much. The Great Creator created the universe and was the universe. The night was Her gift of rest, the day was His blessing to all thinking people. One should try to be kind and avoid or destroy evil. These things were not complicated. The other races made everything far too complex.
Jason said, “That’s harsh.”
Gonzo cross his arms. “Yes, it is. And yes, I know that it’s not very Christian of me. I know that Jesus traveled with undesirables and whores. But I have no reason to avoid the issue and I am not a very nice person, Jason Booth. I have done many things on Ludus that have left me soiled. I am a spy. I’ve had to murder in cold blood. Judging some silly man for wearing a dress is the least of my sins.
“If this were any other kind of mission, I’d tell you what I thought you wanted to hear, or what my cover persona would be thinking… but this is a very unique situation. You are basically my peer. You’ve been drafted into my organization. I am just accompanying you to Berber, so I can speak my mind. I thought long and hard about this, and I think it’d be better for our future working relationship if I’m straightforward with you, both good and bad.
“I don’t hate Thirsty or anything, but I can really give a shit less what Mr. Diva is doing right now.”
“I see,” said Jason. “There’s obviously no point in arguing about it. So do you know where Thirsty went or not?”
“He, she, it, whatever, they went that way.” Gonzo gestured upriver and pointedly turned the other direction.
Without another word, Jason began walking upriver. Bezzi-ibbi followed and decided it was a good time to practice his English. He asked, “Can you explain what that was about?”
Jason sighed and said, “It’s really difficult to explain because it’s a cultural thing. Well, actually you know how some races look down on Mo’hali, and you know how apparently the whole universe looks down on gay, or homosexual men. Basically, in my culture, where I come from, fairly recently a lot of people have recognized that it’s wrong to treat people badly or hate them for being different.
“This is really hard to explain and I know I’m being vague, but some people still don’t like others for their differences, even though they believe it’s morally wrong to feel that way. I think Gonzo is like this. I think he knows he’s wrong, but he’s not willing to change his mind.”
Bezzi-ibbi thought about it and replied, “But Areva and other races send away homosexual men because they compete for resources, males. Most don’t hate homosexual men, they just make them uncomfortable and fear they’ll sway men to being homosexual. Do Terrans hate homosexual men?”
“Well, I’d be lying if I said everyone doesn’t. However, people can be very complex. Some people dislike groups but are often friends of individuals from that group. I mean, either way, Gonzo is acting homophobic.”
Bezzi-ibbi screwed up his nose, the gesture let him feel the point of one of his fangs. He asked, “Phobia means fear, yes? So the word means to be afraid of something? Gonzo doesn’t seem afraid to me.”
Jason eyed him for a moment and said, “You know, you’re really too smart for your own good sometimes. You’re making this even more difficult for me to explain. On Earth, whenever there are two sides to any opinion, there are different degrees of agreeing or disagreeing. This goes for pretty much everything.
“Homosexuals have been fighting for civil rights for a long time now. I don’t know exactly when, but in the past, people who were anti-gay were called homophobic, the idea being that they were just afraid of gay people or weren’t used to them and that was why they were against homosexuality. Of course, this wasn’t always true, but the word stuck and now people use it as a general term to mean anti-gay, at least I apparently do.”
Bezzi-ibbi asked, “Again, gay means homosexual right?” Jason nodded and Bezzi-ibbi asked, “So are all Catholics anti-gay?”
Jason sighed, “No, not even close. Well, some are. The thought is that since the Bible says stuff against gay people, if Christians support gay people they’re supporting sin. It’s kind of complex and more than I can go over in just one conversation. But Catholicism is a major religion. Any large religion has many different schools of thought, and even within smaller sects there can be individuals with differing beliefs.”
“Then why did Gonzo say he was Catholic before?”
“You know, Bezz-ibbi, I’ve never had to explain this before, it’s a difficult subject,” said Jason, his frustration bleeding into his voice. “Maybe you should talk to someone else who knows more about it, like maybe Henry.
“You know, speaking of that, if I hadn’t just soloed a crazy dungeon with a demigod yesterday, or just visited with my non-human wife while she was using magic to clean water a few minutes ago, I’d say that fantasy-football-player-Henry knowing about drag culture was too weird to be real.”
Jason coughed into his hand and said, “Anyway, to answer your question, a lot of humans either feel a certain way about a group either because of religion, or they use religion as an excuse to feel that way. A person’s religious beliefs are very real to them. Most people in the world, in my opinion, are trying to be decent people and do what’s right. Unfortunately, belonging to a group, for Humans , can make us dislike other groups and even act violently towards them.
“In fact, there are still some countries on Earth where gay people can legally be killed, beaten to death. It even still happens to Christians in some places. In other words, you can be killed for being the wrong religion. Hell, wars have been fought over religion. It’s not the most fun subject to talk about, especially since I consider myself a Christian; Assembly of God, actually.”
“So Christians hate “gay” people?” The word seemed strange to Bezzi-ibbi. He thought gay meant happy. Why would Terrans call a group of people “happy” just to hate them? It made no sense.
Jason’s expression looked pained. “Not necessarily. I sure don’t, although I’d be lying if I said Thirsty doesn’t confuse me. The actual teachings of Christianity are to love everyone, that only God has the right to judge any other person. You know, Catholics are a sect of Christianity, that is why Gonzo said some of the things he said earlier. Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, these are all huge religions. Each religion has a large spread of beliefs and even differing morality. Different sects can interpret their holy books in different ways. Wars have been fought over this too.
In fact, in some of the same countries that gay people can be killed for no reason other than being gay, Christians can be too.”
“Catholicism is a sect of Christianity and has its own sects… with people who may disagree with the sect they’re in?” Bezzi-ibbi was baffled. Terrans were truly insane. “So if both groups of people, gays and Christians or other religious people can be bullied, even bullied together by some other group, why do they dislike each other? Or are people mistreated all over your world depending on where they are and what group they’re in?”
Jason pressed his palms into his eyes before answering, “This is a very depressing conversation. Probably the latter. Some places on my world are bad to be a certain race. Some countries or areas discriminate on skin color, religion, family, wealth, sexual orientation, age, or even gender.”
Bezzi-ibbi’s eyes grew wide. “Gender? You mean men are even mistreated for being men?”
“Well, some might agree with you, but I was actually talking about women. Throughout human history, females haven’t always been treated very well.”
After hearing what Jason said, Bezzi-ibbi’s first reaction was disbelief. His second was to scoff and feel superior. He’d heard stories of Terrans his whole life, how they were brutal, and primitive. Jason’s words seemed to reinforce that.
However, the Jaguar Clan heir took a mental step back and thought critically. If he was brutally honest with himself, Mo’hali weren’t that different. There was definitely a hierarchy of sorts. When the Jaguar Clan had applicants to try becoming an indentured Hero, putting their life on the line for a job, knowing they would probably die in the process, it was never a Jaguar Clan member doing so.
It was usually a lesser race Mo’hali from a poor family, sometimes even idril, adrift, Clan-less.
Bezzi-ibbi though about how to say what was on his mind in English. Then he slowly said, “On Ludus, mouse Mo’hali are usually lower than other Clans. Jaguar Clan is higher ranked than Rabbit Clan.”
“Ah, so you’re the same, then,” said Jason.
“No, because most Mo’hali Clans on Ludus are new, Clans by decision.” Bezzi-ibbi paused again to remember some of his lesser-used English vocabulary. “What is the word? Planet. Before Ludus, most Mo’hali stayed on their own planet. The Jaguar race had many clans. So few of us are on Ludus and our power is so weak, we organized Clans by ancestry.”
“And some Clans are looked down on or considered more worthy than others?” Jason’s eyes widened and he said, “Yet you probably grew up loving and respecting your mother, Kinwe-na-ibbi. I bet you’ve had confrontations with other Mo’hali.”
“Yes,” said Bezzi-ibbi. He felt uncomfortable. The topic hadn’t really ever come up before, he hadn’t had to explain it. Mo’hali just knew the politics on Ludus. “Feline Mo’hali races and canine races are above most other races. Which Clans are at the top changes a lot, but the Tiger Clan and Leopard Clan are strongest right now. The Tiger Clan deals in mercenaries and weapons. Leapard Clan is known for magic vehicles and tools.
“These are high Mo’hali. Low Mo’hali are lower. Dog Clan, Mouse Clan, and Fox clans are lower.”
Jason looked confused, “High, low, what do you mean?”
Bezzi-izzi was exasperated. How could he explain such a thing to a Terran? “Breeding is important. Long ago, to survive on Ludus, more civilized, smarter Mo’holi had ownership of the main branch Clans. The shaggy Mo’hali, people closer to the ancestor animals, they geo their own Clans too and they are below the main Clans.”
Jason said, “So Mo’hali have their own issues too, huh? So what about the Heroes that volunteer to work for the larger Clans like yours. Are they all from poor families or less affluent Mo’hali Clans?”
Bezzi-ibbi was dreading that question, but he’d known it was probably coming. He opened his mouth to respond, but then they rounded a bend in the river, went over a hill, and saw Thirsty.
Almost immediately, Bezzi-ibbi saw text scroll over his left eye:
Dashawn David Givens, Terran, Canadian
Dolos Orb, Enchanting, Elemental Focus
Jason obviously saw it too. He muttered, “Now that is interesting.”
Jason marveled at how much Thirsty Zha Zha’s appearance had changed. Before she’d been a drag queen with long hair, distinct makeup, and glamorous fashion. Now she was a tall, dark skinned man with short hair and big, calm eyes. The long hair had apparently been a wig.
Thirsty wore dark skinny jeans, yellow sneakers, a yellow handkerchief around his neck, and a cream color t-shirt. The t-shirt had a recognizable half-white, half-red ball and the text, “Balling” underneath. He wasn’t in drag anymore, but Jason thought Thirsty might still wearing light makeup, maybe mascara.
Jason didn’t know what to say, and he felt awkward as Bezzi-ibbi stared at Thirty and Thirsty stared right back at the Jaguar Clan heir. Neither the tall man nor the boy seemed upset, but Jason felt like they were playing a game to see which of them could make Jason more uncomfortable… and they were both winning.
He felt like he had to fill the silence somehow or he was going to just teleport away on nerves. He said, “So you had another outfit, huh?”
Thirsty answered, “Yes, I always keep a change of clothes in case I end up crashing somewhere after a show. It’s a lucky thing too, since I sure and hell wouldn’t wanna be walking around a freaky wilderness in heels. I am really not enjoying this new change in my life. I think I liked puberty more than this.
“I’m used to being the freakiest thing around, honey. This is not my scene.”
Jason wasn’t sure how to respond to that. The little group started heading back to camp. After a brief silence, Jason asked, “So your name is Dashawn, right?”
Thirsty abruptly stopped and Jason came to a halt too. After a few breaths, Thirsty began walking again and said, “Look, I know you’re all elves or wizards or whatever the fuck, and I’ve accepted that. However, I am not cool with you reading my mind. Get out of my head. Stop that shit. Bzzzz!”
“Wait, what?” Jason stammered. “No, I am… I didn’t…”
“Also, you do know that there’s a little cat-looking boy here with us, right? I’m not just imagining him, am I? Every time I think he’s real, I notice again how well dressed he is and how adorable he looks. There is no way any kid human or otherwise can exist on this ratchet-ass world and still have fashion sense this good.
“I’ll admit, I’ve done acid before exactly once in my life, and to be honest, the last 24 hours has that experience beat for weirdness hands down. Still, I gotta admit that I wanna ask my hallucination right now who his tailor is.”
Bezzi-ibbi rolled his eyes and said, “Everyone can see your name. You are orb-Bonded.”
Thirsty missed a step. “The little animal boy just talked. Did you see him talk? Do you think he’d tell me where he got that vest? Also, is his hand covered in metal? It’s very Michael of him; you should tell him that if he’s real.”
Bezzi-ibbi sighed and said, “Terrans.” Then he gave a sidelong wink at Jason before smiling broadly at Thirsty, his grin putting his entire mouth full of sharp teeth and prominent fangs on display. Thirsty gulped, and Bezzi-ibbi chuckled. He said, “We will talk again soon.” The boy grinned again, less widely this time, and jogged ahead.
As Bezzi-ibbi rapidly left them behind, Jason had no idea what just happened. Mo’hali sure can be strange, he thought.
Jason cleared his throat and said, “Look, I think you have the wrong idea. First off, what should I call you, Dashawn or Thirsty?”
The tall, dark man looked off into the distance for a moment. “Call me Thirsty. I usually don’t go by my stage name unless I’m performing, but now that I think about it, most of my friends call me Thirsty. I think I’m happier when I’m in drag or people are talking to me like I’m in drag. If I’m gonna be in a wacked out situation like this, I may as well do some experimenting to see what makes me most happy. There’s no time like the present to reinvent myself again.”
“That’s a strange thing to say,” said Jason. “I mean, I’m kind of surprised you’re taking everything so calmly.”
“Well, did you freak the fuck out when you got here?” Jason shook his head and Thirsty said, “Well, then why should I? Just because I can wear a dress and look fishy as hell doesn’t mean I break down at the drop of a hat. Trust me honey, getting a tuck done right can be scarier than any crazy ass monsters or whatever.”
“Have you actually seen a monster yet?” asked Jason.
“Touche. Anyway we all saw what happened with the pretty Latina girl this morning. Losing my mind or flipping out won’t help me or anyone else at all. I haven’t had the best life so far, but it’s made me tough. I don’t plan to give up, I’m too fabulous for that.”
Jason nodded thoughtfully and said, “On that note, I should probably tell you about the planet we’re on. It’s called Ludus. I also need to tell you about a dickhead named Dolos. In fact, I should probably fill you in on Mo’hali, magic, everything.”
“Magic… real magic huh? I woke up today knowing I had powers. So I wasn’t having delusions? I’ve thought some pretty crazy shit after a bender. Once I thought I was a love child of Adele and Beyonce’. It was the best night of my life until the hangover and reality both beat the shit out of me.”
“Nope, no delusion,” Jason chuckled softly. “You’re orb-Bonded, which means you’re going to live a very, very long time and you have magic powers. However, people are going to want to kill you now, though.”
“Like I said, I have a lot to tell you. We’re going to have to decide what to do about weapons and armor for you too.”
“Look honey, I’m a lover, not a fighter.”
Jason grimly said, “That’s what I used to think about myself too. Trust me, this world will change you.”
The next few minutes as they walked back to camp, Jason gave Thirsty a quick rundown of Ludus just like George had done for him and Henry. Thinking of George made Jason sad.
It felt like years ago that he arrived on Ludus with Henry, but he knew it hadn’t even been a single year yet. In fact, his first Ludan Winter seemed to be creeping up quickly. Sometimes Jason forgot it was currently Fall since so many of the broad leaf trees on Ludus didn’t shed their leaves.
Winter was coming. Times would probably get tougher. Their journey to Berber had really just begun. There was a lot to do and a lot to think about, but Jason was sure of his moral obligation to help keep Thirsty survive.
Emilia was dead, and probably untold others from Earth that had been transported to Ludus over the years. Thirsty was here, he was alive, and he was someone they could actually help.
The fact he was gay and liked to cross dress or whatever was largely irrelevant. He was from earth, he was a human being, and he needed help, just like Jason and Henry had in the past.
In that moment Jason decided that Thirsty was going to survive. Period. He wouldn’t tolerate any more preventable deaths, and everyone else just needed to get with the program.
After they got back to camp, Jason knew the first thing he was going to do. He was going to make Thirsty the second to last tincture to hide his orb-Bonded alert. He refused to call the alert an LEDF. He sincerely hoped Henry wasn’t able to convert anyone else in the group to use any more of his ridiculous acronyms.