This Tale Wants to be a Rock Ballad So Bad
Even though it was very early March and spring had started to settle on the Himalayas, Tomas felt like he'd been set on fire as he angrily stamped around Tingri.
Sifu Halsey had banished him for the afternoon to the village after he and Kuai Liang had gotten into a fist fight over a trick he'd played on his best friend. Sifu Dimitri had been particularly hard on the young Cryomancer in recent months – Lord only knew why – so the night before, Tomas, just to tease him, had asked him if he was ready for the test the next day. Naturally, Kuai Liang wasn't prepared, and spent the whole night cramming for his non-existent exam. That morning, however, he was so sleepy that he passed out in Sifu Dimitri's history class, and was subsequently forced to lay rigidly on his back with his head and feet exactly six inches off the floor. While the other boys laughed and chided Kuai Liang for it, Sifu Dimitri placed three large bricks on his straightened legs, forcing him to keep them in the air for five minutes, and if he rested his legs just once, he would be sent to his father for a beating. The Cryomancer fulfilled his punishment, but his rubbery legs could scarcely hold him up after that, and when he figured out that the whole thing was the product of one of Tomas' tricks, he tackled his friend. The boys punched, bit, and kicked at each other until Sifu Halsey yanked them apart by their ears and sent Tomas to the town to keep them separated for the afternoon.
So now, during the Tibetan festival of Losar, the Tibetan New Year, Tomas wove his way through the throngs of villagers celebrating in the streets, wondering when Kuai Liang would learn not to get angry about pranks, but to get even. His entire face felt hot from fury, and it was made worse by the sun shining brilliantly on him.
I could use something to drink, he thought to himself as two very jolly fat men pressed their backs on him, flattening him like a pancake.
Tomas squeezed through somehow and searched for something to drink. Sure, there were plenty of beverages to be had – water, several flavors of tea, grain alcohols, and Tibetan beer – as the people of Tingri reveled in their party. The problem was that none of the people would share with him because he was Lin Kuei, and they didn't give anything to the forest ghosts unless they were forced to. And Xiao-Ping, the shopkeeper who was the benevolent exception to the rule, wasn't at his store. So Tomas was going to have to steal a drink.
Then he realized he wasn't just thirsty. He was starving. The Czech boy always liked to eat, and whenever he could, he gorged himself on more food than was necessary. In fact, if he didn't get so much exercise training in the Lin Kuei, he probably would've gotten fat and sluggish.
Soon, he spotted the answer to all his problems. At a little corner out of the way of the adults, a small group of children of varying ages sat in a circle eating khapse biscuits that were akin to funnel cakes and drinking large cups of yak milk. Oblivious to the grown-ups, they seemed more interested in laughing and telling jokes than eating their snacks.
But a new problem presented itself. How was he supposed to get the food from the kids without them raising a fuss and getting the adults involved? Tomas cringed at the thought of an angry mob hauling him to the Temple where Grandmaster Oniro would undoubtedly whip him with the cat o' nine tails for his stupidity. He could make himself invisible, and maybe snatch up two or three of the twisted biscuits before the children noticed, but he was too hungry to be satiated by just two or three of the pastries. And then it occurred to him what he could do.
"Hello," he greeted them in Tibetan as he approached. "My name is Jiao-Long." He inwardly smirked at his pseudonym.
"What do you want, forest ghost?" the largest and oldest boy said. He was almost an adult and about twice as big as Jiao-Long. Twice as round too.
"I have a very important job to do," the Czech boy lied as he knelt between two girls. "If I don't do it well, my Grandmaster will beat me so hard that he'll rip chunks of meat from my body. So I was really hoping that you could help me, little brother." The boy looked at him with a puzzled eyebrow arched, but Tomas only smiled thinly at his ironic quip before he glanced around at all the kids. "I was hoping that everyone here could help, in fact. I am supposed to do a very special dance called the Shut-Eye Dance to entertain my Grandmaster tonight, but I'm not allowed to ask my fellow Clan members to help me practice. So, I would be very honored if you helped me, my brothers and sisters."
The children, who were suspicious and slightly afraid of Tomas at first, immediately forgot their distrust as their dark eyes began to sparkle in excitement. They were never asked to take part in anything important because they were children, and children were stupid. At least according to the adults. Usually, the adults ignored them or ridiculed them because they didn't seem very smart. So when a member of the feared Lin Kuei respected them enough to ask them for their help, it was easy to agree.
"What do you want us to do, Jiao-Long?" a young girl with long, braided pig-tails asked.
"You've got to listen very carefully to my instructions," he said. "First, you've got to stay sitting in this circle just like you are. Then comes the really important part." He looked at a boy roughly his age that sat beside a little drum and pointed to him. "Brother, on my cue, would you bang on your drum to a steady beat?" The boy was pleased and nodded his head eagerly. Tomas grinned. "Good. Now, if you don't do exactly as I say, my dance will be ruined and I'll have to go find other children to help me practice because I don't want to get beaten by my Grandmaster. You don't want me to get beaten by my Grandmaster, do you?" Quickly, the kids shook their heads no. "Thank you. Okay, so when he starts beating his drum, everyone has to close their eyes tightly and begin singing as loudly as they can." He got to his feet and stood in the middle of the circle. "While you're singing, I'm going to shut my eyes and practice dancing in the middle of you. If I touch one of you on accident, I'll know I messed up and we'll have to start again. Now, if anyone opens their eyes, I won't let you help me practice, and you'll bring shame on your family for being deceitful."
"We won't let you down," another little girl declared.
"I appreciate it," Tomas replied with a warm smile.
With that, he pointed to the boy with the drum, and the boy began to beat it slowly. The children all closed their eyes while Tomas started stepping around loudly like he was dancing. Gradually, the boy beat the drum louder and faster, and as he did, the children matched him. Soon, there was so much noise from the singing that they could hardly hear the drum, let alone the Czech boy's fake dancing.
When they were sufficiently distracted, Tomas faded into invisibility and grabbed a cup of milk, promptly slurping it down. His parched throat felt relieved. Then he grabbed a piece of khapse. And then he grabbed another. And another, and another. Before long, he had an armful of tasty treasure in his arms. But naturally, by the time he had gone nearly all the way around the circle, a little girl opened her eyes.
"He took our stuff!" she squealed in a high, almost infantile voice. "Jiao-Long is a thief!"
But Tomas had already made a break for it. Still invisible, he reached the forest in record time, and he sat on the ground with his treasure. Beneath a tall pine tree that had been split and charred by lightning, he reappeared and then hungrily devoured a piece of khapse. It tasted okay, but it would've been better if it had been fresh out of the oil and hot. Still, beggars couldn't be choosers and he was thankful that it alleviated the sharp ache in his tummy.
Tomas leaned back against the tree and prepared to eat more, but a sweet voice touched his ears. "Hello," he heard a feminine voice say in English. "Do you mind if I sit with you for a while?"
The Czech boy turned to face the soft-spoken person. Nobody outside the Lin Kuei could sneak up on him like that. The voice's owner was a girl roughly his age, judging by her height, but he could hardly see her features because the sun's vibrant glow wrapped her up snugly in its warm rays, setting an aura of pale golden light around her.
And then she stepped further into the shadow of the tree and Tomas got a good look at her. Her mousy brown hair was swept back into a messy ponytail and there was a spattering of light freckles over her nose. Arms crossed. Eyes twinkling in…amusement? Completely confident and not at all afraid. All of her features came together in an impish way, and for a split second he imagined she was some ornery sprite or karma fairy come to tease him to get even on Kuai Liang's behalf.
But then she stepped forward and he now noticed her western attire: North Face hiking pants, jacket, and boots, and a pair of polarizing sunglasses resting lazily on the top of her head. A tourist.
"Who are you?" he asked, protectively holding his khapse to his chest.
"My name's Gabby," she answered. She spoke in English, but her words were heavily colored with some sort of regional accent. He thought he recognized the American Northeast in her voice. "What's yours?"
"Tomas," he replied, forgetting his pseudonym altogether.
"You have a funny accent," she said bluntly, walking towards him.
"So do you," he shot back, feeling mildly defensive.
If she noticed his abrasive tone, she ignored it and began to chatter on. "I'm from Baltimore, Maryland, in the United States. My mama and daddy like to climb mountains, and they wanted to climb Mt. Everest. Usually, they leave me at home with my nana, but this time, they knew they'd be gone too long so they brought me with them. I'm supposed to be with my babysitter, but she drank too much of that Tibetan moonshine these people have, and she passed out. So, I decided to go for a hike. I like to hike."
"You like to talk, too," he said.
She smiled sweetly at him. "Well, my name's not Gabby for nothing." She laughed. "I like your name," she said a moment later. "It's different, but in a good way."
Tomas knew he should invite Gabby to share his treats with him. It would've been the polite thing to do. But he wasn't very happy about it because he thought there was barely enough for himself.
He noticed that as she walked, she walked with a limp. That gave him an idea. "You want to have a race around that lake? The exercise will be good for us, and it'll help us work up an appetite. Then we can come back and eat this khapse."
"But I twisted my ankle when I jumped off a log and it hurts to walk," she replied. "You'll beat me easily."
"Well, I can make it more fair," he countered. "I'll tie this branch to my leg to slow me down, and I'll give you a head start." As he spoke, he tied a branch to his leg with a rope he retrieved from a pouch on his utility belt. He planned to wait until Gabby was out of sight, untie the branch, and then take a shorter path around the lake. He'd get back first, and then he'd have plenty of time to wolf down the khapse before she returned.
"Okay," she reluctantly agreed before she limped off into the woods towards the lake. Unbeknownst to Tomas, however, as soon as she was out of sight, she crept slowly back to the edge of the clearing and hid behind a very large pine tree. She saw Tomas stop on his path, untie the branch, and start running as fast as he could.
When he'd disappeared into the trees, Gabby walked back into the clearing, not limping at all, and gathered the khapse into her arms, eating every piece of them as quickly as she could. Then she licked the sweet sugar from her lips and hid once more, waiting for Tomas to finish his race.
When he ran into the clearing a few minutes later, he was gasping for breath, having clearly sprinted the whole way. "Well, if I wasn't hungry before, I am now," he softly said to himself.
He reached for the khapse that he'd stacked in a pile on the ground, but saw nothing. A surprised look crossed his face. He frantically searched for some sign of his tasty treats, but came up empty.
And then Gabby stepped into view with a smirk. She smacked her lips and rubbed her belly. "You know, Tomas, some of the stuff you guys eat here is pretty weird, but those little donut-thingies were de-lic-ious!"
The Czech boy now scowled, angry. "You tricked me!" he yelled. "You could've at least left some for me! You're greedy and selfish!"
"I'm not the one who pulled a fast one on a bunch of little kids," she chided. "Yeah, I saw what you did, and I followed you here, you little thief."
"I'm gonna get you!" he cried as he lunged at her, but she leapt out of his reach.
"Catch me if you can!" she teased him. "Oh, but my ankle is all better now! It's a miracle!" She laughed in delight as she took off running and he took off after her.
Gabby led him back to the village, and just as he was about to grab the hood of her North Face jacket, someone tripped him and he tumbled through the air uncontrollably. A second or two later, he rolled to a stop, lying spread-eagle on the ground.
Tomas grumbled in annoyance, thinking that Gabby was the responsible culprit, but his eyes widened in surprise when his friend, Taja, Xiao-Ping's thirteen-year-old daughter, stepped into view. Her messy braid hung over her shoulder, and she stood with her hands planted on her hips.
"You've done it now, dummy," she began.
"Nice to see you too, Taja," he replied, groaning as he got to his feet. "What do you want?"
"I came to tell you that Norbu's after you," she said.
"Great. Who's Norbu?"
"You know those kids you ripped off earlier?" she answered. "He's the big, angry one who looks like a Sumo wrestler."
"Oh, yeah," Tomas said with a soft chuckle.
"It's not funny," Taja growled. "He means to pound you into dust for your little trick on him and his brothers and sisters. Me and my brothers heard he was going to thrash you. Of course, he called you 'Jiao-Long,' but the way he described you could only be you. I've heard people say that he's so tough, he once flattened a thunderbolt so that it looked like a kefir-kimchi pancake. They say he carries it in his pocket. I'm really worried about you, Tomas. You are the luckiest fox I know, but even the fox's luck runs out eventually."
"It's no problem, Taja," he said, nonchalantly waving her off as he started to head towards the mountains. "I'll just go back to the Temple. He can't touch me there."
"You have to come back to Tingri sooner or later," she countered.
Tomas thought about it, and started to get worried. She was right. He couldn't just hide out in the Temple, hoping the Lin Kuei Elites would protect him from harm for the rest of his life. But if what Taja said of this Norbu was true, he stood a snowball's chance in hell of surviving the fight. Ha! Snowballs! Kuai Liang would help- No, the Czech boy realized. His best friend was too angry at him at the moment to even splat him in the face with a snowball, let alone help him defeat a big troll of a kid with one.
"What do I do, Taja?" he asked in something tantamount to panic.
"Quit blubbering like a baby, for one," Gabby, who'd listened to the whole thing from around a shop corner, declared as she stepped out. "Listen, you big baby, I have an idea. You need to do exactly what I tell you, and don't argue with me, for crying out loud. Quickly! We have no time to waste."
Tomas looked at her warily. Her impish looks had faded into seriousness, and he almost believed she meant to help him. But she had tricked him not fifteen minutes prior, and he hardly trusted her.
Gabby saw him hesitate, and she crossed her arms defensively. "Look here, dingbat. I'm trying to help you. Go find two of the whitest and roundest river rocks you can. Take your friend here, to help you."
Tomas sighed, but finally glanced at Taja. "Come on," he told her. "Let's go find some rocks."
While he did that, Gabby found a vendor selling various cheeses. She bought three round balls of white yak cheese, paying for them with renminbi her parents left her for emergencies. The cheese balls were so fresh that milk and water seeped from them still. After she left the cheese artisan, she found a vendor selling pastries, and she bought four small cakes drizzled with some kind of brown sugar icing. By the time she returned to the storefront with the food, Tomas and Taja had returned with the rocks.
"What are you doing?" Tomas asked in puzzlement as he watched his new American ally carefully plunge one of the rocks into one of the cakes.
"Making you look stronger than you really are," she cryptically replied, winking at him as she worked.
"You better work faster," Taja muttered. "Here comes Norbu!"
Sure enough, at the end of the street, Norbu trampled into view like a gigantic bull or a lumbering grizzly bear. He spotted Tomas immediately, and stampeded towards him through the milling crowd.
"There you are!" Norbu roared as he approached. "I'm going to give you a thrashing you'll never forget, Jiao-Long!"
"Now, now," Gabby said, her voice very sweet, her Tibetan nearly flawless. She held up her arms and stood in his path. "Just wait a minute. It's better to thrash someone when you're cool and collect, not angry and out-of-sorts."
"Who are you?" he demanded to know.
"My name is Mile-Long, and I'm Jiao-Long's sister," she explained. "And I'm sure my brother deserves to get his butt whupped for whatever he's done, but I'm dead serious. It's much better to attack someone when you're calm. So, won't you join us in a game?"
Tomas raised an eyebrow but said nothing, though he desperately hoped she had something pretty clever in mind. He and Taja cautiously stepped towards Gabby, never taking their eyes of the gigantic Norbu. He was much bigger standing than he was sitting on the ground. Nervously, the Czech boy cleared his throat.
"You look like you're a strong dude," Gabby complimented Norbu with a broad smile.
Norbu was certainly strong, and he clearly felt flattered that the girl had noticed. With a proud grin that made Tomas roll his eyes, he rolled up the sleeves of his shirt and patted a meaty bicep. "I'm definitely strong."
"I believe it," she praised, batting her eyelashes at him. Now Tomas wanted to barf. But then Gabby said, "We hardly ever let anyone play this game with us because they're just not strong enough. We each like to take a rock and squeeze it so hard that water comes out. Seeing as how you're a strong guy, maybe you'd like to play with us."
"Oh, I'll show you how it's done," Norbu boasted.
Gabby smiled again in amusement. "Here you go," she said as she threw one of the river rocks into Norbu's hands. Then she threw two of the cheese balls at Tomas and Taja, keeping the third for herself. "Okay, so we do this one at a time. All you have to do is squeeze. Since you're the newcomer, you get first turn."
Wordlessly, Norbu squeezed the rock in his hands. Nothing happened. So he squeezed again, even harder, and then again and again. He squeezed the rock so hard that his face turned red and wrenched in an expression like he was trying to poo.
"This is hard!" he complained. "I can't believe you forest ghosts play this game."
"Well, we do," she said. With that, she squeezed it hard so that the water seeped out. Then Taja followed suit. Tomas squeezed his ball last, and then he bit down on it and pulled out a chunk with his teeth. He chewed it up like it was nothing and then swallowed it in one big gulp.
The fearful expression that crossed Norbu's face was unmistakable. And to tell the truth, he started to feel a little worried. If Jiao-Long was so strong that he could squeeze the water out of a rock and then eat the rock, he was no match for him. Maybe hunting down the Lin Kuei brat wasn't such a good idea. The Lin Kuei didn't choose just anyone to be forest ghosts after all.
"I'm sure you must be very hungry after my brother stole your food and then forced you to run around town looking for him," Gabby continued politely. "I just bought some cakes for us to share, and I have an extra one. Would you like to have it?"
Norbu was pretty hungry, so when Mile-Long offered him a delectable-looking round cake drizzled in brown sugar icing, he didn't refuse her. To be polite, he waited until she'd passed two of the remaining three to the others, and then kept one for herself. When everyone had been served, he quickly took a large bite of his cake. CRUNCH! Pain surged through his jaw as he felt one of his back molars crumble, now broken. Norbu said nothing, but he looked over at the other kids, who were chewing their cakes without trouble.
Not wanting to insult Mile-Long by telling her that the cake was so hard it broke his tooth, he took another bite. CRUNCH!
Another tooth broke. The others, especially Tomas, kept munching. Now Norbu became really worried. These kids even had stronger teeth than he did. Maybe it'd be better not to try to thrash the forest ghost.
"Thank you very much for the food and the game," he said. "But it's getting late. I should be getting home before dark." With that, he took off, his rapid pace soon changing into a fast sprint.
When he was out of view, Tomas, Gabby, and Taja started laughing. "I'd say we're even now," Tomas told Gabby.
"Even for what?" she demanded to know, giving him a cross expression.
"You stole my treats!" he accused.
"After you stole them from some kids who have the common sense God gave a fence post," she countered. "And after you tried to trick me into a race just so you didn't have to share. So in my opinion, you owe me, 'Jiao-Long'." She threw up finger quotes.
"You know, Gabby, anyone who told you to be yourself couldn't have given you worse advice," he said. "What's your opinion of that?"
She rolled her eyes. "I'd rather not say," she answered. "One intelligent remark could blow your whole statement."
With that, Tomas chased after her, this time laughing as she laughed, but she ran very fast and soon disappeared into the throngs of people. Tiredly, he gave up and walked towards the lake, stripping half-naked, wading into the cold water, and gulping down big swallows. He was thirsty, as thirsty as he'd ever been, and sad too. As he waded into the water, the ducks and geese saw him and, trumpeting in alarm, flew off over the trees.
"Yeah, just run off and leave me alone too!" he cried, shaking his fist at them, thinking of Gabby. At least she knew the golden rule: don't get mad, get even. And she was better-looking than Kuai Liang too. He missed his new friend already.
Tomas sighed as he floated on his back on the water and gazed at the sky.