Chapter 4"What...what's the meaning of this?" Owzer asks, looking between them and taking a step back.
"You've been hunting an innocent people, Owzer," Jinari says, stepping forward. "You've been killing them and stripping their bodies for fur and ivory, and why? Just because it suits you? Just because you can make some money from killing them? It's wrong, and it has to stop."
Owzer laughs nervously and protests, "Th-this is ridiculous! I've done no such thing!"
"Five of your own men went after Ikiiri a few weeks ago. It's pure luck that she's still alive." He walks forward again, pressing close to Owzer, who backs away and moves behind a table. "She's the proof of what you're doing, Owzer!"
Owzer looks at each of them in turn, then scowls and flies into a small, animated outburst. "This is preposterous! You can't seriously expect me to believe that this, this...animal is any kind of person to kill! I admit, they're not quite what I expected..."
He pauses to look her over, studying her familiar stripes and tail patterns and recognizing them as belonging to the species that Manny hunts. "But they're still not people!"
"I'm not an animal!" She protests angrily.
Owzer steps back, taking his hands off of a chair. He almost blanches, but catches himself and regains his composure.
"Can an animal talk?" Jinari asks him.
Looking defensive, Owzer scowls and points at him. "This is a trick! You trained this beast to speak our language so you could make a mockery out of me."
"He didn't train me to do anything," She replies in a flat, chilly voice; then she looks at Jinari and her face softens. "We taught each other."
Owzer steps back, laughing and waving his hands. "You're going to have to do a lot better than this if you're going to convince me. I mean, look at you...you stand there, talking to me, dressed in his clothes, but you aren't a woman. You're not human, you're..."
He seems to fumble for words, scrunching his mouth up a little and gesturing at her with his hand. "Something else. You have no civilization, no culture, nothing without him...or if you do, it'd be the first time I've heard of it."
He looks at Jinari and gives him a hard look. "Take your pet somewhere else. I'm not buying your bull."
Jinari's about to say something when she shoots a look at him and holds her hand up, begging him to stay quiet. He looks at her for a moment and relents, stepping back with a nod, nearly literally biting his tongue. She looks back at Owzer and steps toward him, a tear rolling down her face. "My people...do nothing to you. We just want to live in the forest, in peace...all we have is our family. You come and kill us...kill our family, kill our friends...you hunt us and take our skin, our...our..."
She runs the fingers of one of her hands over her ivory, unable to find a translation for them. "Just so you can show us off like -- trophies."
She walks closer to him, finally looking up into his face. "...Please don't kill any more. Please."
He shakes his head, fighting back tears and whispering, "But you aren't human."
"That doesn't make it right," She whispers.
A tear rolls down his cheek and his breath quivers. "It...it...doesn't matter...you..."
He speaks the words, but he doesn't believe in them anymore. He's realized that they are beings that have emotions and intelligence, people that can think and feel and live. The reality of his situation falls on him like the walls of Vector tumbling down, a weight of depression and anguish and cold, hard facts burying him in a single, sudden realization...
He's an accessory to murder. "Are not...like..."
He slumps down heavily into a chair and stares blankly at the table in front of him, letting tears flow freely from his eyes. "Manny told me...told us..."
They watch him for a moment, keeping silent. Finally she starts to move closer to him, but Jinari holds his hand out and shakes his head. For several painfully long seconds the only sound heard is Owzer's muffled sniffling and breathing...then he breaks the silence with a whisper. "Oh, Goddesses! How could I...? What have I done...?"
She steps towards him and says softly, "No. The question is...what are you going to do?"
He looks up into her eyes, his face sad but tears no longer flowing. "I have to end it. Yes, that's it...I have to put a stop to this."
Owzer then rises to his feet and looks at Jinari. "I have to stop it, yes...no, I have to do more...the people! They have to know!"
Jinari nods and repeats, "The people."
"Yes! I have to tell them about you...but how? ...I'll write an article! Yes! That's it! I'll write a letter, and give it to the city council, and let them deal with Ma--"
Jinari cuts him off. "No. That's not good enough."
"Everyone has to know," She adds. "Speak to everyone."
"Everyone?" He asks. He gets two nods back at him. "But...how?"
"Outside," She answers. "In the streets. Call everyone together."
Owzer swallows hard and thinks...then stands tall and proclaims, "All right. I'll call the town together, in the plaza."
"And tell them what you did," She adds.
He looks at her for a second, shaking his head. "No, see, you don't understand...I wasn't the one who came up with the idea in the first place, it was Manny."
"Manny?" Jinari asks.
"Manny, one of our best hunters. He came to me one day with furs from your people and offered to hunt them if I could process them. They were very fine samples -- uh, no offense," He says. She nods and so he goes on, "And I saw that there might be a market for them...so, I agreed."
"Manny's the guy behind all this?" Jinari asks skeptically.
"Yes. I'm just a dealer and processor, he does all the real work." Owzer moves out from behind his table and walks around to them. "He's the one you have to worry about, not me. Even if I stop, he might not. We have to expose him, too."
She and Jinari look at each other and nod, and she says, "Okay."
Owzer looks at her for a moment...especially her eyes. He then walks close to her and puts his hands on her shoulders, looking into her eyes sadly. "I'm so sorry. I wish I'd known."
She looks up -- way up -- into his face and his eyes, then drops her head and hangs it, unsure of what to do or say. Seeing her apparently reject his apology, his heart almost breaks and he feels a rush of cold wash over his skin, but she looks back up at him and nods, telling him in a soft voice, "It's okay. It wasn't all your fault."
Slowly a smile spreads across his face and his whispers back, "Thank you."
He then steps back and looks between them. "Right! Now, we should hurry. Frederick! Frederick! We need to get a message to the city council, immediately!"
He runs off up the stairs to fetch his butler, leaving Jinari and Ikiiri downstairs for the moment.
Manny folds his arms and taps a foot impatiently. He glances around at all the people gathered here, in the city plaza just below Owzer's mansion; all those people...and he hates being around people. He never could figure out just what it is about them that makes him angsty, but he always guessed it was probably because of some inborn aggression towards them. Whatever the case, he just doesn't like them; he always preferred the solitude of the forests...and that's exactly why he became a hunter.
He leans towards one of his men and remarks under his breath, "This had better be good."
The man nods, looking around himself at everyone. "Yeah...I wonder why the city council called everyone out here?"
"Must be important if they want the whole city to hear," Manny speculates.
Inside Owzer's mansion, Owzer himself rushes about, conferring with various council members and people. He zips from one side of the room to the next, chatting with this man and that woman, before spinning back around and making an offhand comment to another man here. He ends up looking like a whirlwind, jetting off from one person to the next and back again, as if he's running some twisted version of a baton race. Amidst all the fuss, Jinari stands off to a side with Ikiiri, trying to soothe her and give her support.
"Just breathe and relax. Let the words flow," He says.
"Okay...breathe, relax...breathe, relax..." She repeats, rubbing her hands together nervously.
He looks down at her hands, then takes them gently and holds them in his. "Ikiiri...this is it. When you go out there and tell them everything, everyone's going to know the truth, and you'll put a stop to all this. Everything'll be all right."
She nods once and dips her head, looking at the floor. "I know," She starts, then glances back up at him. "What about Manny? What will he do?"
"Don't worry about him. I won't let him try anything," He assures her.
She looks into his eyes for a moment, reading the sincerity in them. It makes her feel safer and more confident, but another thought comes to her mind. "...What will happen to him?"
Jinari sighs and glances away. "I don't know...probably end up in jail or something...or he'll at least have to answer to someone for what he's done."
He looks back at her and studies her eyes, then holds her hands up higher and moves in closer to her. He sees determination and uncertainty in them , but in no way does she look like the frightened girl he found back in the forest. "Ikiiri...you be strong."
She smiles at him slowly. "I am strong."
He starts smiling back at her, but Owzer picks just this moment to come by. "All right, most everyone's gathered together outside."
Owzer looks between the two of them and stops on Ikiiri. "It's time."
She nods and glances back at Jinari, who nods at her and puts one hand on her shoulder, leading her towards the door. As she walks forward, everyone else files into a line behind her; Jinari to her left and Owzer to her right, with the rest of them following behind. Once she reaches the door, however, several of the council members rush ahead and open the doors, forming a sort of leading entourage in front of her and calling to the crowd for silence and attention.
Below them, Manny tightens his arms closer together and looks up at them, scowling; they're wasting his time out here when he could be out doing something else. One of the council members steps ahead of the rest and holds his arms out wide, addressing them all. "Hear me! Hear me, citizens of Jidoor! It has come to our attention that a great injustice has been wrought upon an innocent people, residents of the forest. We have learned that for years, these people have been persecuted for no other reason than for profit and because of ignorance. Citizens, hear now what their representative has to say about this atrocity, and heed her words!"
He turns around and gestures for Ikiiri to come forward, while the council members stand aside and open a path for her to walk through. She looks through the gap nervously and turns back to Jinari, exclaiming quietly, "There's so many!"
"Yes, and they're all waiting for you," He assures her in a low voice. "Go."
He gestures softly through the gap and nods his head, to which she swallows a gulp and nods also, then turns back and walks slowly through the people towards the front. The man there stands aside when she gets near and walks backwards, giving her the point at front. Jinari comes up behind her and stands slightly behind and to her right, staying back about two meters...just in case she needs some support. She stands still for a moment, then reaches up, revealing two fur-covered hands grasping at her hood. She throws said hood back smoothly and lowers her hands, her robes opening up slightly and her tail unrolling from underneath, then standing up to full height, again looking like a squirrel's.
She looks around at the crowd slowly, watching and listening to most of them gasp and murmur amongst themselves.
"She's not human!" They say. "What is she? What's she going to tell us?"
Most of them...except for Manny. He's uncrossed his arms -- which have fallen to his sides -- and stands with his jaw agape, scowling. His mouth slowly closes and his teeth grind together, along with his fists clenching up. 'It's her!'
He begins pushing and shoving his way through the crowd while she addresses her audience, after swallowing a lump in her throat. "I am Ikiiri. I live in the forest, with my people. My parents would tell me about men who would come for us at day, and our people who would disappear. I never knew their stories were true until weeks ago, when they came for me. They found me and hunted me--"
A loud voice then bellows over hers, cutting her off mid-sentence at 'me'. "This is outrageous! You can't expect us to believe that this animal has anything to say!"
Manny finally shoves past the people at the front and climbs the steps up to her, his men pushing their way through close behind him. Startled at first, Ikiiri looks down at him and takes a step back, but when she recognizes his face she breaks into a cold sweat and grits her teeth, her heart pounding fast and hard. But this isn't a rush of fear...it's anger. She takes a few steps forward and growls low through gritted teeth, "Yyyou!"
Jinari rushes forward and places a hand on her shoulder. "No, wait, Ikiiri!"
She glances at him and then back at Manny, while he marches up the last few steps and stops in front of her. Again he bellows, "What are you afraid of? This animal couldn't harm me on my worst day."
"I'm not an animal!" She protests.
Manny scoffs. "You can teach this thing to speak and dress, but it still don't change the fact that you're just a trophy."
She tries to lunge forward again, but Jinari again holds her back. Manny smirks savagely and goes on. "You're game to me. You don't think like me or talk like me. You're nothing, just an animal that has something I want! Something we all want!"
He faces back to the crowd and shouts his last line out, putting emphasis on his point, then comes back around and looks at her, chuckling. "Just like all of your friends. Oh, you should've seen them beg like dogs before I killed them."
Ikiiri snarls and shoves Jinari back, then lunges hard at Manny, baring her claws. "YOU SON OF A--"
A sudden rush of everyone nearby, including Owzer, drowns out her swearing, while Jinari recovers in time and grabs her around her waist, pulling her back. Everything becomes chaos for a moment as people shout and plea and lash out at each other. Manny himself pushes through the small mob back towards her, shouting insults and swearing at her, while Jinari tells her under the din, "He's not worth it, Ikiiri!"
Finally things cool off and Ikiiri calms down and just glares at Manny murderously. Jinari lets go of her and instead wraps an arm about her waist, also glaring at him. Manny shouts, "This thing's not a person! She's an animal, no better than a dog! People can think and dream...this thing can't."
Jinari lowers his head at him and almost growls, "She's more alive than you'll ever be, Manny."
Manny scoffs, then chuckles after staring at them for a moment. During all this, a lone man walks through the crowd. At first, people don't seem to notice him, but upon realizing who he is they stand aside and form a small corridor for him to walk through. His personal guards and aides follow closely, dressed in red and green sashes and armor. Finally reaching the front, King Edgar of Figaro climbs the steps to them slowly, taking everything in without diverting his eyes.
"Talk all you want; it doesn't change anything. I've been hunting these things for a long time, and I've gotten a good bunch of 'em. And I'll tell ya...it's always a pleasure bringing one down," Manny says, looking right at her. "They can run all they want, but I always get 'em. And then..."
He runs his hand across his throat, making a guttural slicing sound. "Y'know it takes hours to properly clean one of their hides?"
Jinari finally snaps and lunges at him, a furious, murderous look in his eyes. "YOU SON OF A--"
Again the crowd rushes forward, drowning him out and holding the two sides back. Ikiiri herself immediately grabs him around his waist and holds tight, pulling him back and telling him under the din, in his ear, "Don't! He's not worth it, Jinari!"
Finally things settle down a bit and Owzer again addresses the turbulent crowd. "Please, calm--oh, King Edgar."
He steps back and bows. "I forgot you'd be here today, your majesty."
"That's all right," Edgar says, moving to the side.
Manny spits at Ikiiri's feet and shouts loud enough for all to hear, "So what are you going to do about it? You can't do anything to me for hunting these animals!"
"I'm not an animal!" She protests again, loud enough for everyone to hear.
"Well, let's see what they think," He says, then turns back to the crowd and paces to one side. "Who're you gonna believe, me or her?!"
A light murmur falls over the crowd as people confer, but a vocal few give their answer immediately. "Ikiiri...Ikiiri...Ikiiri...Ikiiri!"
The chant soon picks up support and after ten repeats, the entire crowd chants her name. Manny looks at all of them, dumbfounded, and starts pacing back and forth like a caged animal. "How can you say that?! Look at her...just look at her! This thing's not like us! She's game, not a person! Her and her whole race!"
Ikiiri steps forward boldly and tells him, "My name is Ikiiri."
He spins back around and marches towards her, Jinari moving to her side. He gets within five meters when Edgar stops him, grabbing him by his wrist. Manny shoots a glare up at Edgar, who tells him flatly, "It's over."
Owzer steps up next to them and starts speaking, which makes Manny snap his head over and scowl at him, too. "The council's trying you for murder, Manny. You and your men."
People rush over and grab Manny's men, restraining them to pleas of, "No, I didn't do anything! It was all his idea!"
And, "But I'm innocent! I didn't know! I didn't knowww!"
They pull them back and escort them to city hall, while several more men walk up to Manny to do the same. "You used Figaran weapons to do this," Edgar tells him, confiscating his bow with his free hand, a Figaran design. "But I won't stand for anything like what you've done."
Manny glances between everyone closing in on him, frantically glaring about as he feels his world crashing down. All of his long-held beliefs and values are being turned on their ears and there's nothing he can do to stop it. His heart skips a beat and his skin gets clammy. 'Her...' He thinks. 'It's all her fault!'
Across from him, Jinari takes Ikiiri and hugs her, whispering in her ear. "You did it, Ikiiri...you did it."
She smiles and holds him closer, burying her head in his shoulder. "I did."
They break their embrace and step apart, looking happily back at each other. In that one brief moment, everything is right in the world.
But Manny draws his knife and throws his arms out, flinging everyone around him off; Edgar, Owzer, and the men...they all fly backwards from his raw power, some stumbling and falling. Seeing the knife in his hand, they rush to their feet and try to grab him, but it's too late. He flings his arm at Ikiiri, sending the knife hurtling through the air towards her back. "Nnnnnnnnnnnnnoooooooooo!"
Jinari sees him and stiffens, planting his feet. Adrenaline pumps and his pupils dilate as he lunges towards Ikiiri and tackles her to the ground. "Ikiiri, watch out!"
His knife comes within centimeters of her, and time seems to slow for a split second. All that matters is the knife and her, as it comes closer and closer to its target, nearer to ending this person's life and struggle...
...And misses, by just a hair. It flies cleanly over Jinari's back and lodges itself neatly into a wooden lamp post, and harmlessly. Jinari scrambles to his feet quickly, offering his hand to and helping her back up.
Manny struggles against his captors and babbles incoherently over Edgar's, Owzer's, and the men's shouting. They finally manage to drag him away, kicking and screaming, and Owzer and Edgar both shake themselves off by tossing their shoulders and flicking their arms ahead of them. Owzer straightens his collar and walks over to Ikiiri and Jinari. "Well, that was fun."
He looks at Ikiiri and adds, "I just want to thank you...for opening my eyes."
She looks at him, then at Jinari and back again. She moves closer to him and says, "And I thank you for helping me."
He smiles slightly, but it doesn't hide the sadness that takes over his face. He might've been able to save her, but there's still the countless others that he wasn't able to do as much for. He drops his head and looks at the ground, then finds the courage to lift his face to hers again. "I'm not done yet. I'll stand trial with Manny. I have to pay for my crimes, too."
She also starts to look saddened, but feels touched at the same time. That he can do this, knowing what might happen to him, is a very brave thing. She places her palm on his cheek and tells him softly, "You are brave. Thank you, again."
He smiles genuinely now, fighting back tears; then steps back, letting Edgar step in now and address her. "You needn't worry about your people now, Ikiiri. I'll work with the people of Jidoor to solve this problem," He says, then glances at Owzer. "And with Owzer."
Owzer smiles back at him, then hangs his head again. Jinari glances around at all three, then wraps an arm over her shoulders and whispers, "Come on. Let's go home."
She smiles and places her hand on his, nodding. "Lia."
They walk down the steps like so, the crowd below them clearing a corridor as with Edgar...and cheering for them. They both smile and walk on in silence, tuning out everything else but each other. She leans her head to the side, resting it on his shoulder...and so they walk on in peace and silence, feeling nothing but bliss and calm.
She sips from her glass of tea -- grown from his own private stock -- holding it in both of her hands and enjoying the taste and warmth. She throws her head back slightly and swallows, then sets her cup down and sits back, looking out the window. Outside, he speaks with a man and nods, then turns back and comes back inside while the other man walks away. He closes the door behind him and sits down next to her, taking his own cup in his hands. "They've convicted Manny today. He's getting life imprisonment at Figaro Castle. Owzer's trial's still going, but King Edgar's confident he'll get just a short term and a large fine."
She smiles and says, "Good."
He takes a sip and sets his cup down, smiling at first. Then something that's been weighing heavily on their minds for a few days sets in, and he has to face the cold reality of it. He lowers his head and his smile fades, replaced with sadness. "So...I guess there's nothing left for you but to...to...go home."
Her eyes also darken and her ears droop low, her face becoming flatly sad. "Yeah...back home."
He looks up at her and scoots his chair closer. "You'll be back with your family again...and you'll be safe."
She smiles and nods her head, then lowers her head, looking into her cup of tea. She turns it around a few times, watching the low liquid splash inside peacefully. In a way, she feels that her tea represents her own emotions; swirling around in turmoil, and yet...somehow still tranquil. She hears his chair move across the floor and looks up at him standing. He extends a hand and says quietly, "You should go now."
She takes his hand and rises to her feet slowly, waiting until the last moment to let go of her cup. He takes her into his arm, wrapping it over her shoulder and then leading her outside. He looks out over the trees and then up at the sky, then down at her. They look into each other's eyes, both feeling a knot so thick in their throats that they can hardly breathe. Finally he swallows hard and moves his other arm to embrace her.
She falls into his arms softly and wraps her arms around his back, holding him close and placing her head on his shoulder, cuddling his head. He does the same, holding her back and nudging his head against hers. They fight back tears and hold each other for a long time, just standing and refusing to let go.
She whispers into his ear, "I'll miss you."
"I'll miss you, too," He whispers back, almost inaudibly.
She pulls herself from him gently and backs away, taking his hands into hers. They hold each other for a moment as she backs away, two hands becoming just one hand held. They hold that one hand for a long moment before she finally steps once more and turns around, letting his hand slip softly from hers and waiting until the final moment to look away. He watches her walk away into the forest and pass by the closest tree, then turn around and glance back at him. He holds up a hand and waves to her weakly, and she holds one hand up and waves as well.
After a moment she turns back around and jogs off into the forest, robe and clothes fluttering with a gentle breeze. He stands there for a very long time, finally letting a tear roll down his cheek, for he's just watched his best friend leave him and return to her true home...and he doesn't know if he'll ever see her again.
And somewhere far away, deep in the forest, Ikiiri runs on...but this time, she runs not from fear or danger, but she runs free and wild again, going back to her home and family. Though her heart is nearly broken that she might have lost the best friend she's ever had, it still beats strong and gives her the energy to run...and run free and fast, shooting through the forest and over logs, across streams and gullies and puddles...back home. Running to the beat of a tribal drum, and her steady heart. Just running.