A child raised his gun and took aim at me from the balcony across the street. I turned, hurrying to the door. Too late! A wet splat hit my back and I looked back.
The child grinned at me, toothless and full of glee at having caught the foreigner so.
I scowled and marched inside. I would have to change. Again. This was the third time today.
Liquid blue blate dripped down the back of my shirt. The precious mineral the natives of this crazy planet considered good luck. Everyone splattered everyone with it today, the first official day of spring. It was supposed to bring a good harvest. I didn’t understand the how or why, but I didn’t need to.
All I knew was that I need a ton of pure, unadulterated blate if I was going to pay off the banks. The natives mixed it with water, with clay, with smoke and sold it on the streets for games. And for some reason they refused to sell it off-world. Why they should refuse those profits, I didn’t understand.
My brother eyed from the couch, laughing. “Leave it on,” he advised me.
I stared at him.
“They’ll take it as a challenge if you don’t,” he said.
Maybe. I still didn’t like the feel of my shirt, plastered to my skin and wet.
“Also, we don’t have time for you to change again. We leave in five minutes.”
My brother was a tech specialist on this benighted world. He had come here a decade ago and somehow survived. Most foreigners didn’t. Today, I was grateful.
“The dealer is an hour outside the city.”
He meant smuggler, but whatever word he liked. I wasn’t picky.
The trip out of the city was long and boring. Nothing but the same stone-and-wood buildings everywhere. Nothing but the same cobblestone roads, now liberally splashed with blate. They were colorful. Pretty, if you could overlook the weeds sprouting from between the stones.
The smuggler lived on a farm. White flowers grew in the fields. My brother led me to a barn. It was white and red. The roof sloped in that odd design most roofs here shared.
It was dark inside. The only light came from windows up high, near the roofline. The smuggler lounged on top of a wooden crate. I eyed it. Maybe it had the blate I needed. More crates lined the left wall, some open, some empty, some spilling over with the same white flowers growing in the fields.
He hopped down as I approached. “Greg. Good to see you. This your sister?”
“Yes. I told you what she needed.”
“Yes. Pure blate.” He studied me speculatively.
“I can pay,” I told him.
“Sure you can. But. Before I give what you need, you need to do something.”
He spoke my tongue very well. Better than I expected from a blate smuggler. “What?”
He retrieved a dull metal plate from behind him. It held five pewter bowls, each filled with a different color substance. Red powder, blue liquid, yellow paste, green balls, beige grains.
“It’s a ritual,” my brother murmured behind me. “Harmless. Spread them on your face. Eyelids, nose, mouth, cheek, forehead. Right to left. Go on.”
I dipped my fingers in the cold, slimy mixture and did as my brother said.
But then the smuggler began to change. His skin looked like lizard scales. Pointy white teeth. Floppy ears.
I whirled to face my brother and gasped when he looked the same. “What did you give me?”
The smuggler moved to stand next to my brother. I saw now that a thick gnarled white rope wound around my brother’s throat and disappeared into the smuggler’s chest. “Blate, darling, exactly what you wanted.”
The room turned bright, light shining down from above where there was no light source. “You betrayed me,” I whispered.
“I had no choice, sister. I can’t . . . won’t let you take any blate off-world.”
There was so much light now I could hardly see anything, couldn’t even make out his face. “Bastard.”
“The most loyal man I’ve ever had,” the smuggler corrected. “Perhaps one day you’ll be like him. Close your eyes now, darling. Rest.”