(Note: this is a bonus scene for Pirate Festival. While it is included in the newly releasing Swag Stories boxed set compiling all of the current Swag Stories into one volume, I am also making it available here for free so readers who already own them individually do not need to buy the set. Look for Nayla’s story to continue in Healer Heart, releasing in 2021.)
The last Festival of Life Nayla attended was on Ardon, one of the pirate colonies. It was a huge, jubilant affair filled with games, thrill rides, competitions, craft stalls selling artisan wares, and punctuated by colorful holo displays over the water of Lake Barron. She’d gone in a large group, including her family. It had been a magical night filled with laughter and love, especially for Nayla, who had few such memories in her life.
Would the Festival on Khait be so different? She had no idea what to expect from a society of people predisposed to show — and even feel — no emotion.
Nervous, she got ready as she normally would, choosing one of her favorite dresses, a simple blue pattern with tiny white flowers made from soft bamboo fabric. It hugged her shape through the bodice, flaring to a flirty skirt that hit her mid-thigh, boasting pockets, and a belt with a silver crest that had been a gift from Sanah. It was a stylized tree, branches blowing in the wind, each leaf carved in startling detail. She clipped her dark hair back and used light cosmetics. Niall had never allowed them, of course, but even once she’d gained the freedom to do as she wished, Nayla found she preferred a natural look.
Dressing up was something she rarely had time for. The Festival felt like a good reason to make herself feel pretty.
She smoothed her hands over the skirt as a soft knock sounded on her door.
“Nayla, the transport is here.” Doc’s voice was muffled, but it still made her smile. She was so glad that he’d stayed long enough to attend the Festival with her. It felt like a little piece of home, having him here.
“I’ll be right out.”
Her heart ached as her gaze dropped to the holo sitting on her counter. She’d received it just this morning from Tamari, her niece’s tiny face bright with laughter as she waved to her from Sanah’s arms. At four, Tamari had grown too big to be carried for long, but Sanah cuddled her daughter close.
“Hi Auntie,” Tama said. “We miss you. We love you. Happy Festival Day!”
“Happy Festival Day,” Nayla murmured wistfully, before flicking the holo off. It would be a long time before she saw them again in person.
Slipping on the low boots that matched the blue of her dress, Nayla grabbed one last thing — a small bag that fit over her shoulders — to carry her emergency kit. The Festival would have a lot of Killers in one place. You never knew what might happen.
Doc looked as he always did when she stepped out into the hall. Well, he wasn’t wearing a lab coat or the symbol of the medical corp, but otherwise his clothes were the same — a simple dark tunic and trousers, perfectly tailored and showing not even the slightest wrinkle. His dark hair was carefully trimmed and combed, with only a few strands of silver catching the light as he turned to look at her.
The hard lines of his face softened. “You look beautiful, musume.”
She flushed and resisted the urge to fidget, unused to compliments on her appearance. “Thank you.”
In addition to being given her own apartment for the length of her stay on Khait, the elders were also providing Nayla with private transport and had, at her request, removed the constant guard they’d placed on her since the day of her arrival.
Actually, she suspected the guards simply stayed out of sight and out of her limited telepathic range. She very much doubted that no one was keeping watch, especially since at least one faction here had ample reason to want her gone. Still, it helped ease her own tension that she could at least pretend no one was constantly keeping track of her. That kind of thing was too reminiscent of her brother keeping her prisoner for years. Sometimes, she still woke in the night, drenched in sweat and convinced a plasma field shuttered her windows. Niall had always said it was for her own protection, but it did a fine job of holding her hostage.
The city flashed by through the windows of the transport, but Nayla barely noticed. She kept fiddling with her pendant.
“Why so nervous?” Doc asked from where he was seated across from her. “Even exams don’t cause you this much stress.”
“I’m not sure.” Nayla let the pendant drop, lowering her hand to her lap.
“Are you worried about an attack?” he asked with a frown. The last few days had been tumultuous, that was certain.
“No. Not really. I just—I really want to help these people. In order to do that, they need to be willing to accept my help.” She struggled to put her fears into words. “I’m afraid that no matter what I do, no matter how long I stay, that will never happen.”
Doc waved a hand through the air. “Pssh. You don’t see it, do you?”
“In the short time you have been here, you’ve helped people already. You tended to their injured. You uncovered a plot that has caused a rift in their society. Some, surely, resent this. But others do not.” He leaned forward, looking her in the eye. “If they did not accept your presence here, you would not be invited to the Festival. This is a time of vulnerability for them.” He crossed his arms, turning to look out the window as his voice lowered. “Which means they are at their most dangerous.”
The transport slowed and came to a stop. “Is this why you stayed?” Nayla asked. “Because you’re worried about what might happen at the Festival?”
He favored her with one of his rare smiles. “Only in part. I also wanted to spend it with you.”
Doc stepped out of the vehicle and offered her his hand as she moved to follow. The ride through the city had been cool and climate controlled, but as soon as she stepped into the full sun, she was glad she’d chosen to wear the dress, the fabric light and cool. It was uncomfortably warm, the turquoise skies clear, and the perfect day for an outdoor festival.
The city had decorated its largest park for the occasion, bordering a wide river. Mist stations were set up all along the banks, throwing a fine mist of water into the air and cooling the nearby temperature by a few degrees. Colors floated through the water spray, rainbows that played in the light of the sun.
The park itself was decorated vibrantly, and nothing at all like what she’d expected of the stoic inhabitants of the planet. Flower garlands hung from every stall, their perfume scenting the breeze. Cool drinks and shaved ice were being served, as well as roasted meats and light pastries. Distantly, Nayla could hear the sounds of children at play, the buzz of voices in conversation. She saw Kesia at one of the stalls standing with a group. While the Killer wasn’t smiling, she did look more relaxed than Nayla had ever seen her.
Doc grunted beside her. “People are people. Killers have a more difficult time bearing children than even the rest of the pirates. It is no surprise that they would place so much importance on celebrating the Mother.”
“I guess I just thought their celebration would look different.”
“It does.” Doc gestured to one end of the park, where a huge and terrifying looking obstacle course had been erected. Nayla sucked in a breath as she watched someone leap from one tall spire to another, the space between them impossibly wide. Below was an ominous energy field that hummed with power. Another figure followed close behind, though each spire barely had room for one. It was a race, and a moment’s pause would see one or both of them fall. “Every year there are grave injuries.” His disapproval was obvious. “And yet, every year, they insist on having these tests of skill.”
She thought of her shoulder pack, and was glad she’d brought it.
“Shall we?” Doc said, and together they headed into the park, passing below an archway covered in flowers. A smiling holo figure stood at the entrance, clearly an AI.
“Happy Festival Day. Enjoy the festivities.” The robotic figure repeated the phrase every few seconds, smiling and bowing as people moved inside.
Nayla hid a smile. Most festivals had children who took turns as greeters, and often adults would pass small gifts to them. Things like extra coin to spend on games or treats, toys, stuffed animals, candy. This was somehow supposed to emulate the atmosphere created by that tradition, but instead came off as odd and stilted.
A bit like the Killers themselves.
They started at one end and worked their way to the other, pausing at a booth featuring pastries to purchase small, handheld pies stuffed with warm berries and a sugary cream filling. Nayla finished hers in three bites and regretted not buying two.
Around them, people shopped, sipped drinks, and traded garlands of flowers. Doc caught her watching as a woman gifted a wreath of vibrant blue blooms to a man.
“Did you think they wouldn’t follow the custom here?” he asked.
“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “Maybe. It seems…romantic, for their way of life.”
“Perhaps. But children are a matter of survival. And nights like these are vital for a culture that has no basis for intimate relationships.”
Nayla frowned. “So the garlands are about procreation, not romance.” It was customary for couples to exchange flowers on Festival Day. Bouquets, garlands, and wreaths were all common expressions of love and commitment. Single flowers were often given to someone to express a romantic interest. Or so Nayla had always been told.
Doc lifted a shoulder. “I think they’ve made the custom their own. Many of these pairings you see will last for a night, perhaps a few days, and then they will part ways and move on. Some of them will surely result in a child, which is the hope, of course. But that is the hope of many on Festival Day.”
A blur of motion ran past, and Nayla nearly tripped over a boy chasing behind it. He sidestepped neatly as she attempted not to stumble into him, and spun to face her in a graceful, easy movement she could never have emulated, bowing his head.
“Healer,” the boy said respectfully. She recognized him.
“Rory.” It was the boy with the pup, the one she’d healed only a few days ago. “How is Allegra?”
He looked up with a grin, the expression so easy it startled her. “Doing well, Healer. She doesn’t even know she was injured.” He gestured, and she followed his hand to see the dog running back toward them, a bright green ball in her mouth.
“I see we’ve interrupted your game,” she said, amused.
“Oh no, Healer. Allegra and I are glad to have crossed your path.” Rory’s smile was gone, a serious look more adult than his years settling over him. “Thank you for her life. We are both very grateful to you. Should you ever need a favor, you have only to ask.”
“Oh, that’s very kind of you.” He was so grave, she kept her answer serious as well, afraid of offending him.
Allegra dropped the ball by Rory, then trotted over the Nayla and lifted her head in a doggie grin, plopping into a perfect sit at her feet. Nayla couldn’t resist. “May I?” she asked.
“Of course,” Rory said with a nod, and Nayla bent down to pet the dog. She did a quick, light scan as she did so, but everything was functioning fine. The pup appeared to suffer no complications from her grievous injuries or the healing she’d received.
“She’s doing very well,” Nayla said with a soft smile.
“Yes, Healer.” Rory’s gaze slid to the side, and Nayla saw a woman approaching. She held a wreath of flowers in her hands. “Allegra.” The boy snapped his fingers, and with a nod to her, both he and the dog were off, the green ball flashing through the air ahead of them in a show of telekinesis.
The woman stopped in front of Doc, her cold gaze passing briefly over Nayla before settling on him. She was perhaps forty, and moved like a soldier. She held the wreath out to him.
“Oh.” Doc seemed surprised. “Thank you for the honor,” he said, bowing slightly. “But I am not participating in the Festival this year.”
The woman’s blue eyes didn’t flicker. Her face did not change expression. She merely nodded. “How unfortunate,” she said, and wandered away, wreath in hand.
Oh dear. Nayla watched her go, frowning. “I don’t mean to keep you from the festivities,” she said, hesitant because she wasn’t sure of Doc’s feelings on the subject.
He made a noise in his throat, waving a dismissive hand. “I have no interest in that aspect of the Festival.”
This was a subject they had never talked about. Nayla couldn’t remember ever seeing Doc with anyone in a romantic sense. Not even a flirtation. She knew he’d loved his wife very much, but it struck her suddenly how lonely he might be, especially now that she was leaving.
“You should consider it,” she said impulsively. Then a flush rose to her face as he turned to her with a raised eyebrow. “I mean, not here, necessarily. But eventually you might think about…dating.” She hid a wince. Awkward, Nayla.
But Doc merely favored her with a small, amused smile. “You don’t need to worry about me,” he said. “I’m content, musume.”
Maybe. But as Nayla was learning, there was a big jump between contentment and fulfillment. She’d been content with her situation on Nemesis. Happier than she could remember, close to her sister and Doc, working in the field she’d always dreamt of. But part of her had still wanted something more.
She didn’t want to live out her life in an infirmary, she wanted to make a real difference. Anyone could get the education to be a doctor, but biokinesis was so rare, and hers was so strong she felt an obligation to do something special with it. To make an impact only someone with her Talent could do. Otherwise, wasn’t she wasting what she’d been given?
And if she was being honest, she wanted more than anything to be loved. Not for her Talent. For herself.
She was. Her sister, Doc, Tamari, Haggerty — so many people cared for her now, were part of her family, when before she’d had no one. It meant everything. But she longed for someone to look at her the way Dem looked at Sanah; to be that essential person to someone else, and to feel that way about them. She didn’t want contentment; she wanted joy.
She realized Doc was watching her with a pensive look.
“Are you well?”
She gave him a quick smile. “Fine. Just thinking deep thoughts.”
“Ah.” His expression eased and he waved a hand. “Save these deep thoughts for another time. For today, just enjoy the Festival. What would you like to do next?”
They bought slushy drinks with alcohol in them, strolled past stalls filled with flower wreaths, right beside others that held racks of guns and armor, another with vibroblades that gleamed in the sunlight.
Nayla supposed that arts and crafts on this world tended more towards creative lethality.
They walked past a group of children playing some kind of game with telekinesis, wielding sticks shaped like paddles, and hitting two balls across the green grass with such force Nayla’s heart pounded, waiting for one to strike a child.
“Best not to worry over it,” Doc advised. “These games have been played for hundreds of years, and serve more than one purpose. Children need to play, but these must also master strategy, coordination, and control of their Talent.” Nayla allowed Doc to gently guide her on, resolving to find out just how common injuries were. She also wanted to meet their doctors. Clinical detachment was useful in the medical profession, to a point. But empathy for one’s patient was not to be underestimated.
Doc stopped by a stall of children’s toys. Many of them were puzzles that could only be solved with telekinesis.
“Do you think Tamari would like this?” he asked, picking up one that looked like a cat once it was finished. The holopic even looked vaguely like Rasa, Tamari’s kith companion, though it was the wrong color.
“I think she would love it,” Nayla said with a smile. Tama was a frequent visitor to the infirmary. Doc acted all gruff, like she shouldn’t be popping in whenever she wanted, but everyone knew if he didn’t want the precious four-year-old to visit him, she wouldn’t.
With a satisfied nod, he set about negotiating with the stall vendor.
Nayla’s attention wandered to the display of vibroblades, and she wandered over to the stall, her attention caught by one so small it was almost a scalpel. While lasers were more precise and available in any decent medical facility, something like this would be perfect for her portable kit. She picked it up, testing the way the handle felt in her hand.
“That could be a very effective weapon,” said a familiar voice her elbow. “Small, easily concealed. You could open an artery before anyone knew you had it.”
Nayla rolled her eyes, replacing the blade in the display. “I wasn’t looking at it as a weapon, Ari,” she said. She turned, peering up at him with a critical eye.
He looked healthy, his dark hair tied back and his skin a robust tan color, rather than the pale waxy look he’d had in his coma. His eyes were the same distinctive blue of any of his kind, just now the color deep and intense. It let her know that he wasn’t actively using his Talent.
It also made her shift uncomfortably beneath his stare. There was something in the way Ari watched her that was more. In another man, she’d call it interest, but she wasn’t sure she trusted her feelings in that regard.
Doc thought he’d make her a suitable partner, and ever since he’d said it, Nayla couldn’t stop thinking about it. She had a lot of concerns.
One, he was a former patient. Doctors were discouraged from forming personal attachments with those they treated. Two, he was a Killer, unused to emotions and attachments, and Nayla wanted someone who would love her with his whole heart. Yes, her sister had found that with Dem, who was also one of the Talented assassins, but Nayla was no empath to coax emotion from someone trained not to feel it.
A relationship with Ari would be fraught with difficulties.
Ari’s eyes narrowed. You think deep thoughts, healer.
Her face heated as her skin flushed. Had he read what she was thinking about? How mortifying.
Ari cocked his head, studying her. No. Your thoughts are your own. But I could sense your distraction. You would make easy prey.
And that shouldn’t have made her skin heat with more than embarrassment. Not at all. Ari was talking about how easy she would be to kill, not…whatever her stupid body wanted him to mean.
“I…uh…” Nayla looked around desperately for Doc, but her adoptive father seemed to have chosen now as a fine time to wander away to a stall far down on the end of the row. She could see him, but he was definitely outside of easy signaling range. And calling for him telepathically felt like overkill. Just because she wanted the ground to open up and swallow her was no reason to call in the big guns.
“So, how are you enjoying the Festival?” she asked, the words practically tripping over each other in her haste for something inane to say.
If Haggerty were here, he would be laughing so hard at her. She could practically hear his voice. Have you forgotten how to flirt?
She wasn’t flirting, though.
Keep telling yourself that.
Ari lifted a shoulder, glancing around at the stalls indifferently. “It’s a good day.” His gaze lingered briefly on the obstacle course.
“Have you competed yet?” she asked, latching on to the subject like a lifeline. She started walking in Doc’s general direction, and Ari fell into step beside her.
“This morning,” he said.
“No one has yet beat my time.”
“Ari, that’s amazing! What do you win?”
“Win?” His mouth tilted down at the corners, almost a frown.
“If no one beats your time, surely you win something.” Festivals always handed out prizes like candy.
His gaze swept the crowd. “Everyone here will know my skill,” he said. “Most will avoid challenging me. Others will view me as desirable genetic material. I have been offered many wreaths already.”
Nayla was glad she wasn’t currently drinking anything, or she might have choked. She ducked her head, wishing she’d worn her hair free so it would hide her face better.
“Have I offended you?” he asked.
“Of course not.”
“Ah. My apologies. I forgot your discomfort with this aspect of the Festival.”
If only the ground would open up and swallow her right now. She could forget this entire conversation ever happened.
“Perhaps you would like to avoid being offered any wreaths,” Ari continued. “I understand elsewhere the customs are different, but here, to accept a wreath is to accept an invitation to spend the night with someone.”
Nayla closed her eyes. It didn’t matter how hard she wished it away. She was still here, and yes, they were still talking about this. She sighed, and accepted that her face would no doubt look feverish for the foreseeable future.
“I…yes. You are correct,” she said. “I would like to avoid that.”
“Here.” Ari stopped and turned to face her. He lifted his hand and she saw that he held a single flower. The petals spiraled out from a white center holding a yellow stamen. The petals began as a light ocean green and darkened to a deep cobalt blue on the outer edges. Its fragrance was similar to a lilac, but lighter, softer. Nayla had never seen anything like it.
“It’s beautiful,” she said truthfully. Up close it was stunning.
“If you accept it, others will stay away. They will see us as…” he paused, clearly searching for the appropriate word. “…courting. You’ll be protected.”
She hesitated, all of her earlier thoughts flooding her mind again.
His hand lowered. “Of course, I don’t wish to make you uncomfortable.”
“No.” She reached out, her fingers touching his arm, the lean muscle warm beneath her fingertips. “That’s not it. I just don’t want any confusion.” She took a deep breath. “Ari, are you offering me this flower to protect me, or because you’d like to…court me?”
His eyes remained steady on her face, his expression giving nothing away. “Both,” he said. “One does not exclude the other.”
Her heart pounded in her chest. Nayla felt as though she was standing on the precipice of an important decision. Beside them, children played a game walking on top of the lake’s waters, using their telekinesis to make the water solid enough to hold them. One fell with a splash amid delighted laughter and crows of triumph, more subdued than children elsewhere, but recognizable.
The children here were not born without emotion, she thought. They were born with the ability to suppress it. And trained to hone that ability to an unnatural degree. She didn’t have to be an empath to help Ari look past that training. He’d already expressed humor and anger and a dozen other emotions in a thousand minor ways.
She could do this. If she wanted him. If she wanted to try.
“I think…” She lifted a hand, holding it out to him. “I would like to accept.”
Ari pressed the flower stem to her fingers, and she closed them around it.