An unusual child - she had the look of smoking embers. Red highlights smoldered like sullenly glowing coals amid the brown hair that blossomed thickly on her head. Ash-pale eyes stared feverishly through stray wisps of her disordered thatch, with the furtive, desperate look of a small animal peering through the weeds at a hunting cat.
She started violently when a hand closed roughly over her arm, looked up at the angry face of the man who had appeared beside her. "Be still" he hissed, his whisper freighted with rage. He began pulling her back toward the glass doors of the store, froze suddenly. His grip loosened slightly, the marks of his fingers showing white where they had pressed into her sun-darkened flesh.
Following his gaze, she saw that the small man had followed them into the mall. He looked hot and uncomfortable in his iron-gray suit and tie, twin rivulets of sweat trickling through identical fringes of hair on each side of his balding head. He blinked rapidly as he looked about, his sweat-stung eyes not yet adjusted to the dimmer light. Impatiently he swept his filmy glasses from his flushed face, wiping them on the lapel of his suit jacket.
Her companion muttered an oath and swung about, his loosened grip sliding on her arm. With barely a conscious thought, she twisted her arm free and ducked under a nearby clothes rack. The man lunged after her, was brought up short by untamed metal branches, fabric bushes and vines of hanger-wire intertwining in a fierce forest tangle. He looked about self-consciously, uncomfortably aware of the attention he had begun to draw, and met the foggy-lensed stare of his pursuer.
She gaped in awe at the immensity of the cool, airy space about her. High overhead dark heavy beams, roughly carved and painted with bold, bright colors, spanned an expanse of cream-colored plaster. Slanting rays of filtered sunlight spun down from the tinted skylights, past the balconies and all the way down the lower level. In an open court just ahead, tall palms bowed over a penny-laden fountain beneath a vault of glass.
To all sides stores of every imaginable size and nature huddled in sheltering nooks along the walls. There were wooden carts containing jewelry, toys, novelties, refreshments and more dotting the space between the stores. Over it all hung an invisible curtain of sound: people walking, chatting, laughing; the screech of children and the splash of the fountain, and threading it all, barely audible, the sanitized strains of what passes for music in such places.
For a few breathless moments the child forgot herself in this paradise of color and movement, as children will when they see pretty, useless toys and huge colorful lollipops palatable only to them. She gazed longingly at a small carousel and with horrified fascination at a young man getting his right ear pierced. Then she looked aside and down, between the slender metal bannisters of the balcony railing, and saw a familiar, angry figure pushing through the crowd on the lower level. She stumbled back from the railing, catching herself against the curb of the fountain. She sat down on the smooth stone, staring into the cool, unquiet water, wrestling with her misery.
"Why you cry, human child?" the strange boy repeated. "Fountain got 'nuff water, que no?"
"I was crying because I was sad," she replied, with as much dignity as she could muster.
The boy tilted his head, one eyebrow squirming down low, the other arching high. "Aha! Understand now! But why so sad, human child?"
"My name is Rayn," she said, evading the question. "Who are you?"
"I? Koko, I am called." He lifted the flute to his lips suddenly, and blew a wild, skirling melody. His eyes closed to slits, and his brows jumped and writhed as his fingers flew over the stops. He stopped short, opened his eyes, and glanced sidelong at Rayn. "You like my music?"
"Yes, very much," Rayn answered politely.
Koko grinned, pleased with himself. "Yes, I very good! Best music of all chee-folk," he boasted. He sprang nimbly to his feet, which Rayn could now see were bare. He began playing again, leaping and capering in his odd hunched posture along the edge of the fountain. Despite all, Rayn could not suppress a grin at the vain, silly boy.
"Koko is a boastful little creature," said a soft voice beside Rayn. She looked around, saw a slender girl close to her own height standing next to her. Like the flute-player her eyes were large and cat-pupiled, and her ears were pointed, but the resemblance ended there. Her eyes shone a clear, delicate lavender, and her hair was a feathery blue ruff that clung like fur to her scalp. Her ears were small, her features delicate. "He's not very smart, but he's a very good musician." The girl looked down at Rayn and smiled. "Hi. I'm Sovi."
"I'm Rayn," she said, standing.
"I know...I heard you tell Koko," said Sovi. She cocked her head questioningly. "Are you here to see the game?"
"I...what game?" said Rayn, confused.
"What game?" Sovi echoed. "Why, talasivayal, of course! The Game of Water and Pollen! We've all come to play." Sovi gestured about the court, and Rayn noticed among the hurrying crowd several small, strange children converging on the fountain. Many looked somewhat like Sovi and Koko, but others were utterly strange.
"That's Honaw," said Sovi, pointing out a bear-like figure covered with yellow fur shambling through the press, beside an otherwise ordinary looking child with the head of a deer. "And that's Chuvi, next to him. Over there are the twins Mosi and Muya," she indicated a pair of tiny, flame-haired sprites with dragonfly wings, zipping around the fountain jet, "and there's Pava." This was a frog-bodied figure half loping, half hopping across the tiled floor. "And here's Hotay and Twig." Sovi pointed out a boy with the paws and tail of a cougar, and a stick thin girl with outsized hands and feet, her blue-black hair caught in bundles at the side of her narrow head. "Twig's the best player of all!" She pointed out others of the group, one after another, so that Rayn became lost in the whirl of strange names. Curiously, none of the ordinary folk moving along the concourse seemed to notice these odd children. They avoided the area around the fountain with an absent-minded care that puzzled Rayn. She turned back to Sovi.
"I didn't know about the game," Rayn said, selecting her words carefully, "and I've never seen people like you before."
Sovi looked at her curiously. "Huh. Since you can see us, I thought you came for the game."
Rayn shook her head somberly. "I came because my father brought me."
Sovi shrugged disinterestedly. "We are the chee-folk," She explained. That's 'cause we live in the Chee - the Place of Sand and Stone. We come here in the spring, to play the game."
"Hey, human child called Rayn," Koko stood beside her on the fountain surround, the extra height enabling him to look her in the eyes. "You play with us? You play the game?"
"Don't be silly, Koko," said Sovi scornfully. "She's a human. She can't play the game!"
The little flute-player turned his huge green gaze on Sovi. "She play," he said positively. "I think she play good!" Sovi stared at him for a few moments, then turned her face aside, scowling.
Rayn stirred uncomfortably. "I don't know how to play your game, Koko."
The flute-player looked at her, and at this moment his expression did not look silly to Rayn. His youthful, mobile features seemed suddenly very wise, and inexpressibly old. "You watch," he said. "You watch, and later you play. You see." He turned away, played a flourish of notes on his flute, and cried to the others: "The Game! The Game! Talasivayal!" and the assembled creatures chorused: "The Game of Water and Pollen!"
Sovi and Honaw stepped back, while Mosi and Muya flew close over the fountain, strewing white desert primrose blossoms that floated softly down to the water. These seemed to float gently just above the iridescent surface, spinning slowly. As Koko's piping became more insistent the blossoms slowly expanded: two...three...four-fold! They began to circle the fountain widdershins in rising and falling spirals, so that the air above the water was filled with giant flowers, the white petals shifting hue: rose, violet, lavender, amber, and a dozen others.
Nine of the chee-folk sprang forward, each leaping up onto one of the spinning blossoms, skipping from one to the next, carried about the fountain by their own motion and by the slow spiraling of the flowers. Rayn marveled at their agility, gasped at some of the daredevil antics displayed. She noticed that some of the unoccupied blossoms tipped upside down from time to time. A blossom abruptly tipped beneath unready feet, its unfortunate rider shrieking her outrage as she splashed into the water. The watching chee-folk laughed and giggled, clapping their hands with delight. Two pulled the dripping girl from the water, while another stepped up onto the edge of the fountain, and jumped onto a passing bloom.
Rayn began to understand the object of the game. It was sort of like musical chairs, that she had played at a school-friend's birthday party once. The idea was to avoid being on a flower that was ready to tip. But how, she wondered, did they know when it was going to happen? Soon she realized that the color shifts provided a clue. The players could tell from these shifts which of the blossoms were about to turn, jump to the safe platforms, while maneuvering so as to block other players from finding a ready haven.
By this time, many of the players had been dunked, including Sovi. Twig, the thin girl Sovi had pointed out to her as the best player, had been among the first to enter the field, and was still playing. She moved with blurring speed, zipping across three blossoms about to tip, to find safe haven beyond. Quick as she was, however, Rayn wondered how she had avoided falling. The color shifts gave some warning, but not very much, and whole groups of them would sometimes tip at once. Yet Twig always managed to be elsewhere when this happened. Rayn concentrated on Twig's movements. They seemed both random and choreographed, carefully reckless, chaotically ordered. Presently an awareness dawned that Koko's music also provided clues to the movements of the blossoms, but far more subtly. With that realization, understanding flooded her mind, and the beauty of the pattern unfolded before her.
The fountain was now surrounded by a well-soaked group of wildly cheering chee-folk. Another splash, and now there were only eight players left, with no one left to fill the empty position. Koko turned, still playing his flute, and stared directly at Rayn. She hesitated a moment, then threw herself forward and up onto an empty blossom. To her mild astonishment it bore her easily. She found herself adjacent to Honaw, who seemed slow, but who moved with a sure-footed deliberation few of the others could match.
Rayn hopped to another blossom, then another, saw that she was about to be trapped, and skipped aside barely in time. Two more splashes, and now there were seven players left. Several of the blossoms suddenly dropped out of their orbits, settled to the surface of the water, then sank to the bottom of the pool. Apparently, Rayn thought, when the number of players fell below nine, the number of available blossoms was also reduced.
Rayn watched the colors, listened to the music. A whole line of blossoms in her area were about to tip; she dashed along the line and skipped to safety. Behind her were more splashes as three more players, Honaw among them, fell into the water. Without thinking Rayn skipped suddenly across a flower about to tip, pushing off just before it did so, and onto a blossom beyond. A half dozen more of the spiraling flowers dropped and sank beneath the water, including the one she had just quitted. Now she remained in the field with three others, including Twig, Hotay, and a silver haired boy called Rohona.
Rayn saw an opportunity suddenly, skipped across to another blossom, cornering Hotay and blocking his escape. He squalled and spit as he fell, thrashing the air with his tail. A moment later Rohona splashed into the fountain as the blossom supporting him gave way and sank. Now Rayn and Twig darted among the six flowers that were left in an intricate, twirling pattern. The chee-folk had left off cheering, and were singing to Koko's music. Rayn had no attention to spare for the words. She saw a trap, evaded it, and fell into another she did not see until it was too late.
Splash! She felt the cool water close above her, floundered sputtering to the surface. The chee-folk were cheering as hands helped her across the rim of the fountain. She looked up to see Twig capering a victory jig on the one blossom still afloat.
Twig leapt from the blossom to the edge of the fountain, dropped to the floor and put her wiry arms around Rayn. "Thank you!" she cried, as she hugged Rayn. "Best I ever do! Best!" And she leaned over to whisper in Rayn's ear, "Maybe you think you beat me next year, ah? We dance whole game together from start!" Then she released Rayn as the others crowded around to congratulate her.
Koko snorted. "You come with us now, human child. Come with us to the Place of Sand and Stone!"
Rayn was stunned. "You want me to come with you? Me?"
A large furry arm encircled her shoulders, and Honaw rumbled, "Fine idea. Excellent idea."
"But...why!" Rayn wailed. "Why? I'm no good for anything!"
Honaw blinked. Sovi frowned, shrugged. Koko's eyebrows squirmed this way and that. "Because we want you, human child," he said softly.
Rayn stared, bewildered, then lost all expression, her eyes focused beyond Koko. The others turned and looked. Down along the concourse two men argued heatedly. A pair of mall security guards stood behind one of the men, holding him by his arms.
"My father," she said, tonelessly.
"Look like he catch trouble," said Koko.
"Yes," she said. "He stole me from my mother. The sweaty man's my uncle. He's a lawyer. He helped my mother with her divorce."
"Is he a problem? We could kill him," said Sovi, speculatively.
Rayn started. "What?"
Koko nodded. "Push him over railing. Smack him on the floor!"
And Honaw rumbled, "I would make sure his neck was broken. Snap it like this!" He made a quick, sharp motion with his hands.
Rayn stared in shock, then shook herself. "No," she cried. "I don't want you to do that!"
Rayn looked back toward her father, who was now being escorted away by the security guards, followed by her uncle. After a while she spoke pensively, as if to herself. "When my mother and father were still together, we used to live by the seashore. One day my father took me down to the beach, and showed me how to dig clams. We dug up a whole bunch, and then we gathered driftwood and made a fire to bake the clams. My mother came down to the beach, and so did some of their friends. We ate the clams and watched the sea and the stars, and my father held his arm around me the whole time."
Rayn stopped speaking. After a time, when it was plain she would say no more, Koko looked at Sovi, and Sovi shrugged. Koko came close to Rayn. Standing before her in his hunched posture, he barely reached her chest. He put up his arm and touched her face lightly with his fingers.
"We go now," Koko said. "Through there." He pointed to a hole in the floor, through which a soft blue light was shining. Each of the chee-folk in turn went to the edge and dropped through. "I hope you come. If not, goodbye, human child called Rayn." He went to the hole and dropped through, followed by Honaw and Sovi.
Rayn stared toward where she had last seen her father. She thought about the casual way the chee-folk had offered to kill him. She thought about the way they had reacted to her story of that night on the beach. She thought about her mother, and how one night, while her mother sat and talked with her friends, she had lain curled in her lap, half-asleep, her head against her mother's breast, listening to the soft vibration in her chest as she talked, hearing her heartbeat. She knew the chee-folk would not understand that either, if she told them.
These were the only two times she could remember in her whole young life that she had felt safe, and loved, and protected. She didn't know what the chee-folk were, but she knew they weren't human. They wanted her, but they couldn't understand love.
Rayn turned and looked sadly at the glowing portal. Only two times, she thought, and stepped into the cool blue light.