Mira and Bee
Dindo - the "i" in the name is pronounced like the one in "Mira"--i.e. a long "i"
Ando - is pronounced "ahn-DO" ("a" as in "father")
Cardo - is just a contracted form of "Ricardo"
Tatay - (TAH-tay) means father
saya - (sah-yah) a long skirt
The sun was a red-gold disk sinking into the rooftops by the time Mira decided to pack up and head for home. Today had been a good day. She'd managed to sell most of her fans, including the netting-and-goose-feathers one that Dindo had dismissed as unbearably tacky and impractical. Although Mira had silently agreed with him about the fan, she warned him not to underestimate the human proclivity for tacky and impractical. After all, she'd said, tacky and impractical were what high fashion was all about. She supposed she ought to take her own advice and stop being surprised that someone had actually bought the silly-looking fan. The lady had gushed that the fan was the perfect accessory for an outfit of hers, and Mira was not one to argue with a customer.
In the end, one person's pretension was another person's profit, and the purse Mira hung around her neck underneath her plain linen camisa jingled pleasantly with coin. She hummed a little tune as she packed the remaining fans into a chest of woven reeds that doubled as a display case. She made a mental note to drop by her suppliers first thing in the morning. At this rate, she would have to make twice the usual number of fans to keep up with the demand. It was a thought that warmed the heart of any honest businessperson.
"See?" she whispered when she was certain nobody was paying her any attention. "I told you this visit of the Grand Archbishop was good news. People have been standing around in the heat just talking about it, so our sales have doubled. And to think, he hasn't even arrived yet!"
"I still don't like it," a voice grumbled from somewhere inside her /tubao/, which she wore tied around her head to keep her hair off her face. "Why's he suddenly coming here and making us feel as if we were important? I bet it's got something to do with Saridia's attack on Ithuar. This all stinks of politics. Nothing good'll come out of it, you mark my words."
She stood up, her reed-chest gripped under one arm. "Oh, who cares about some stupid war waged far, far away? All I'm here for is a bit of coin. In fact, I think praying to Deos or whoever is Corondal's god might bring good luck after all. I'm almost afraid to walk home with all this money on me."
"See, that's another thing we need to talk about," the voice said quickly, as if reminded of a previous argument that had been put on hold. "Can't you project a bodyguard or a protector? Do you know what happens to young girls who walk around these streets after dark all alone?"
Mira waved at a karitela driver who was waiting for passengers, pausing to give the horse's warm flank a pat. "Those girls didn't grow up in Musang, Bee," she pointed out as soon as the driver was out of hearing range. "I've got a few tricks of my own. Why do you think I wear these Failahim pants, anyway?" she added, pinching the loose, well-worn gray pants she wore.
The voice called Bee snorted. "I'd say it's because you like being difficult. You know how Aling Celia feels about your not wearing a saya. She thinks Fe is more ladylike than you."
"Fe is more ladylike, and that's fine with me. She's the pretty one, so she ought to be more ladylike. If she weren't, I'd nag her about it myself. Oh!"
She stopped in front of a boutique whose name was painted upon the window in curly script. In the window stood a mannequin garbed in a gown with a sequin-encrusted bodice, high butterfly sleeves and yards and yards of scarlet satin. The mannequin also wore a sequined headdress that matched the gown. Mira pressed her nose longingly against the glass. Her tubao shifted to allow a pair of large, round eyes to peer out at whatever had caught her attention. It took one look at the vision in scarlet and shuddered. "Hmph! It looks like something Miss Marietta and the girls would wear to work on a bad day. It's hideous."
"It is not," Mira protested. "It's dazzling and sophisticated and--"
"--gaudy and cheap, no matter what it costs." Bee made another fizzing sound of disgust. "Sometimes you worry me, Mira. You think anything that glitters is worth something, no matter how tasteless it is."
Mira rolled her eyes. "I can dream, can't I? Can you just picture me going to the Flower Fiesta dressed in this?"
"No, and I don't want to. Let's go before somebody sends the guardia after us."
"Wait!" she hissed as an elegant carriage stopped at the curb. The driver jumped off and helped a richly-dressed matron down. The matron, with purse under one arm and nose firmly in the air, minced straight through the shop's doors. Mira narrowed her eyes and pressed her lips together in a way that made Bee groan. "I'm going to ask how much this gown costs," she announced, heading through the doors.
Three seconds later, she was hustled back out, and when she turned to yell her indignation, the doors slammed shut, a "Closed" sign swinging above it. "/Leche/," Mira swore, glaring at the doors. "I didn't even get to ask the lady if she wanted to buy a fan. What rudeness! That's it. When I'm filthy rich and have my own string of shops, I am not buying any gowns from this place."
She tossed her head high and flounced off into the street, although her dignified escape was ruined somewhat when she had to jump aside to keep from getting run over by a speeding cart. She continued on her way, feeling a bit glum now about the scarlet gown. Out of habit, she tuned out Bee's commentary about how much dirtier and more crowded the city had become and how every person they laid eyes on either looked like a criminal or was one. In fact, she was so caught up in a lovely daydream about walking into that shop as a wealthy doÃ±a and slapping the offensive salesmen with a purse full of gold coins that she nearly missed what Bee said next.
"--need is a steady income. You could try looking for a job over there."
"Huh?" She turned in the direction Bee had indicated. Across the street, a structure was being erected in what had been a vacant lot that occasionally sprouted a flea market. The lot had been fenced in and a poster had been hung, upon which was written, in big, bold letters:
The Star Apple Magic Theater
Breathtaking Tales of Romance and Adventure!
Soon to Open! Watch for it!
It took Mira some time to read the poster as she painstakingly formed the words with her lips. "So it's a new theater," she said, shrugging. "There're plenty of those being built lately. What was your point again?"
"Just read, all right?" Bee said. "Look at the bottom part."
She squinted. Sure enough, printed at the bottom of the poster, in smaller letters, was:
At Least Level 2, Willing to Work Odd Hours
Bring license and guild papers
"See? See?" Bee said. "Level two, it says. You must be at least level /four/, the old geezer said so. You could earn twice as much by working here and selling fans during the off-hours."
"It also says I need a license and guild papers," Mira said, turning away. "I can't pull those things out of thin air, Bee."
"You could, you know," Bee began carefully, "if you joined a training guild--"
Mira laughed. "Are you mad? Do you know what they'd do to me if they found out what exactly my magic does? They'd slap me with binding spells and throw me in jail, that's what."
The streets grew narrower and rougher as Mira and Bee neared Musang. Stone and brick buildings gave way to ancient wooden structures with creaking foundations and broken windows, and clusters of huts that leaned this way and that, like drunken men keeping one another upright. People filled the streets as the night-market unfolded all over the place, with row upon row of vegetable, meat and fish carts rendering it impossible for carts and karitelas to pass. The glow from hundreds of gas lamps and candles gave the district an almost festive air. The krik-krok of Mira's wooden clogs against the cobbled street grew muffled as she soon found herself walking over a layer of rotting fruits and vegetables, and the smell welcomed her by rising up and attempting to choke her. Mira grinned even as she shifted her hold on her reed-chest so that until she was clutching it protectively against her. Ah yes, the sights and sounds of home.
"You can come out now," she told her companion. "We're here."
"Finally!" Bee cried as he burst out of his confines in a flurry of wings and yellow and red-orange stripes. He flew around her head, buzzing happily at his restored freedom, while Mira picked her way through the maze of carts and called out greetings to familiar faces. After a while he came to rest upon her shoulder, and it was a testament to how much the residents of Musang had gotten used to her that the sight of Bee did not earn so much as a second glance. Then again, Musang prided itself on being a place where low-level sorcerers could practice their craft in peach, away from the vigilant eyes of the guilds and the government. One or two carts had pixie-like projections flitting about to keep the flies off, looking like wraiths spun out of smoke and candlelight. A few stalls hung hand-painted signs announcing 'Powerful Charms and Amulets Made Here--Guaranteed to Work!' or 'Divine Your Future, With Free Shoe Shine!' Here in Musang, people were too busy surviving to bother about extraneous details such as whether or not what you were doing was strictly legal or, in Mira's case, even normal.
Mira paused at the corner where Mang Noy and his son were putting on their usual performance. Impulsively, she reached into her camisa for her purse, pulled out two copper coins and handed them to Bee, who flew over to the cloth sack in front of Mang Noy and dropped them in. Mang Noy grinned his thanks, and his son, who was currently a large brown dog, wagged his tail in greeting. As she turned to leave, an arm fell across her shoulders, dislodging Bee and causing her to stumble. "See that? That's what good and proper magic looks like," said the owner of the arm in a tone of mock-seriousness. "You should have been a shape-shifter, /Ate/. Just think of all the shows we could've put up. Why'd you have to be this crackpot conjurer who can't summon anything except freaks and weird-looking insects?"
"Freak? Weird-looking?" Bee fumed while Mira shrugged off the arm and gave the newcomer a weary look. Really, if she had a peso for every time she heard a comment like that... "And how do you propose I go back in time and get myself born with shape-shifting abilities, oh wise one?"
Her brother Dindo grinned unrepentantly. "Well, we could break into the College and steal one of those new-fangled machines of theirs. Or we could just send you to a head doctor and get you cured."
"I'm not ill, you brainless twit," she said, glaring at him. It did her temper little good to notice that she didn't have to tilt her head down to do so anymore. Sometimes it seemed as if Dindo had decided to cram a year's worth of growing up into one day, turning overnight into a gangly figure with wild brown hair and more joints than he knew what to do with. He was going to tower over her some day, but she still had an edge over him, namely, the one year difference in their ages. That is, if he actually decided to give her the respect due her as the eldest in the family.
/Yes/, she thought, /and pigs would fly/. She shook her head and decided to switch topics. "So what did you do in school today?"
"We learned how to make a bookshelf."
"Oh. That's nice."
Her brother rolled his eyes. "No, it's not. I hate school. It's useless and boring and a waste of time. Why can't I just quit and work full time at Mang Ando's?"
"That's true." Bee nodded sagely from his place on Mira's shoulder. "School must be tough when the only way the teacher can get you to learn anything is to tie you to a chair and hit you over the head repeatedly with a ruler."
"Go fly up a horse's crack, freak."
"Make me, Bucktooth."
"/Ate!/ Get rid of that weird projection already. He's pissing me off!"
"Shut up, both of you," Mira snapped. "And you will not quit school, Dindo. You will stay and you will learn a trade and make for yourself a decent life."
"But you haven't finished paying off the school fees yet."
"You leave the fees to me," she said, narrowing her eyes at her brother. "Your business is to stay in school, and the same goes for your brother and sisters. Understood?"
Dindo kicked sullenly at a rock but muttered his agreement, and Mira felt the muscles in her neck and back relax. She hadn't forgotten about the school fees. Nor had she forgotten about the rent or the money Tatay borrowed from Mang Cardo or her siblings' need for clothes that fit. Sometimes she wished she could forget.
Ah, but the Grand Archbishop of Corondal was coming, she reminded herself, and business was definitely picking up. Her fortune was about to change in the coming days, she could feel it.