"We might be able to see Ecruteak from the top of this hill," Chris called over his shoulder. He paused to flash a smile at Jane Doe.
Wiping sweat from her brow, she returned the smile, though it was strained. She wore her curls tied back with a scarf and, in spite of Chris's cautioning, she'd also selected a long skirt from the hospital lost and found. To Chris's great surprise, she didn't seem to have trouble with it catching underfoot or snagging on things—the skirt was a natural extension of her body. She also hadn't complained or asked for a break once all morning. All the same, Chris repeatedly checked himself and slowed his pace, and he was going to insist on a break at the top of the hill.
Bringing up the rear was his sandslash, Tikal. Normally she hiked at Chris's side—she was the first pokemon he had caught in the wild—but she had taken up the defensive position without being asked. Occasionally she paused to investigate an ekans burrow or sharpen her claws on a boulder, but Chris watched her immediately return to Jane's heels again and again with maternal vigilance.
"Good girl, Tiki," he said under his breath.
At the top of the rise, Chris unloaded his backpack and stretched while he waited for Jane and Tikal to catch up. He'd guessed right: the Ecruteak City skyline glittered beyond the trees. Bell Tower's tiers were visible even from here. There were few other tall buildings to confuse with it, and even the tallest could hardly be called skyscrapers—Ecruteak was defensive of its traditions. Below them were Lake Mortar and scattered ponds. The water was low from the lack of rain, but they'd still be spending the afternoon with Chris's lapras.
Behind him, Jane crested the hill with a sigh of either relief or appreciation for the natural beauty. Maybe a bit of both. She drank deeply from her water bottle, the only thing she carried.
When she finished, Chris pointed and said, "There it is. See it? We'll be in Ecruteak by dinner time."
Jane frowned. "It looks … strange from here."
"Yeah, I mean … I guess there's a little bit of a heat mirage. But you'll see it up close soon enough."
"Yes, I am eager to be home." She tightened the knot in her scarf. "Shall we?"
"Why don't you sit down for a minute. We should eat something." Chris bent to look through his backpack. "Here—want some jerky?"
Jane took what Chris handed her and smelled it. She watched, frowning, as Chris tore off a piece for himself and stuffed it into his mouth. "What is it?"
"Um …." He chewed. "Stantler, I think. You don't usually see tauros in this part of the country."
She looked aghast. "I cannot eat the flesh of another creature. I know it is disrespectful to reject a gift, but …. What if it were my sister?"
Chris paused mid-chew. "What do you mean?"
"Have you not heard it said that the dead return to us in new forms? To guide us, to protect us?"
"I'm so sorry. I didn't know you … I hope you're not… I have some dried fruit instead?" He took the jerky back from Jane and searched his bag again, red-faced.
Jane lowered her head as she accepted the bag of trail mix from him. "No, no. Thank you for the offer. I do not wish to be a burden."
"You're not! I'm sorry I didn't ask."
"It is no offense. I appreciate you sharing your food."
They lapsed into silence.
Nearby, Tikal cleaned between her scales with her long tongue, paying the two of them no mind.
Chris rubbed a thumb over Hero's pokeball. "It's nice to imagine pokemon as spirits of the dead watching over us. I like that."
"I am surprised you did not know. I thought it was common knowledge."
"Maybe it's a thing in Ecruteak—I wouldn't really know," Chris said with a smile. He met her eyes. "You're an interesting person."
She smiled and looked away. Then she sighed. "I hardly know what
sort of person I am at the moment …."
"Hey, we just learned you're a vegetarian. That's something!"
"I suppose that is true."
"So you're remembering some things. Probably, seeing familiar places will jog more memories, like the doctor said."
"I hope so."
He gazed down at the distant Bell Tower. "There are a few familiar places I wouldn't mind visiting again, actually. Ecruteak is a nice city. I can see why you're in a hurry to be back."
"You have been before?"
"Oh yeah, a few times. It's not far from home. Stayed there for about a month at the beginning of my journey." He turned to flash her a smile. "There was this cafe I used to go to for breakfast. Medialuna Cafe, I think. You know that one?"
She sat up straight, wide-eyed. "That is my name!"
He scrambled to find a name in what he'd said. Finally he tried, "Medialuna
?" He thought of it as the name of a pastry, but—was she somehow associated with the cafe? Wait, no—"Or, Luna?"
"No, Una." A slow smile spread across her face, and he could see her posture relax. "My name is Una."
Oh. That's pretty too
, he thought.
Chris smiled. "Nice to officially meet you, Una."
Chris held up a hand for Una to stop and he pointed. A wild spearow perched in a nearby tree, close enough that they could see the gold of its eyes. It watched them. After a beat, it took off—Una gasped in delight—and disappeared in pursuit of some prey invisible to them.
"They're scruffy and mean," Chris said with a grin, "but they're beautiful sometimes too."
"It is a good omen," she said.
As they continued down the path, the breeze brought them the smells of the lake: wet earth, algae, and leaf mold. The trees thinned until the travelers came to the rocky lakeshore. To the left, the rocky heights of Mount Mortar cut through the lake at an angle. Water ebbed in and out of cavernous rifts in the rock face, and the echoes of water rushing deep within were audible even from the shore. Straight ahead, Ecruteak City stood out in ever brighter detail. Behind, Chris could barely see the snow-capped peaks of the Dragon's Spine in the hazy distance. He squared himself against the Ecruteak skyline.
Chris returned Tikal to her pokeball—"See you in a while, Tiki,"—and with no hesitation over which pokeball was which, he released his lapras into the lake. She hadn't fully materialized before she trumpeted joyfully and dove beneath the water. Moments later, the lapras resurfaced, spraying Chris and Una.
They cried out, and Chris laughed.
"Alright, alright! Hi to you too," he said."Una, meet Kelsey."
With some coaxing, Kelsey flipper-crawled partway onto the shore and lowered her head for a pat between the horns.
Chris removed his hiking boots, strung them from his pack, rolled up his pants, and waded into the shallows. "Come on up," he said extending a hand to Una.
She stared across the water towards Ecruteak, brow furrowed.
Una flashed a smile. "Yes, fine." Then she eyeballed the lapras towering over them, water lapping at its sides. "We are going to ride her? Is that …?"
Chris chuckled. "Kelsey doesn't care. She does it all the time, huh, you big ol' dinosaur."
Kelsey keened and snorted more water at them. Her eyes were beady but sparkled with intelligence.
"Well … how should I …?"
"I'll give you a leg up. Here. Put your foot in my hands. You're not gonna hurt me—go ahead. Okay. On the count of three, push up with this foot and grab onto her shell. One … two … three!"
Una squeaked as Chris boosted her up, but managed to scramble onto Kelsey's back. Once she was settled with a leg on either side of the lapras's muscular neck, Chris found himself some handholds and swung himself up and over to sit sidesaddle between two horns.
"Alright, Kels, let's go!"
Kelsey made a cheerful noise that wasn't heard so much as felt all through their bodies. They lurched and wobbled as the lapras clambered out of the sand and rock. Then they were gliding through open water.
"That wasn't so bad, right? Mostly dry?" Chris leaned back on his pack, letting the sun warm his face. "The very first time I tried to catch a ride on Kelsey, she rolled me. We're on the same page now though."
was how the online articles had recommended Chris handle his newly-caught lapras. But the phrase caught inside him. From their first meeting, he'd noticed the cleverness in her gaze. Shamed though he'd been when she dunked him, he still recognized it as both a challenge and an invitation to play. Those weren't things he had any desire to break. What he offered her instead was quiet, patient companionship, sitting on the bank for hours without saying a word, hair dripping. A love of silence turned out to be the first of many things they shared in common.
Una turned to face him, a little awkwardly, grabbing a horn for stability. "Thank you again for helping me get home. I am so grateful for all of this."
"I'm happy to help. It's been nice to have company. Besides, I couldn't just leave you there."
"I would not have liked to have been there much longer," she agreed. "Everyone was very kind, but … it did not feel right for me. Mahogany Town was much more advanced than I had expected."
The glib comment took him by surprise. What had she expected, he wondered, mud huts and witch doctors? But, seeing the sincerity in Una's face he said instead, "Well, you mostly saw the hospital."
"I suppose so. All the same, I feel much more myself since departing. I am sure everything will make sense again once I am home."
As they floated along they fell into a sleepy daze, lulled by the heat and the lapras's gentle rocking motion. The only sounds were birdsong and the slosh of Kelsey's fins churning the water. Una leaned forward and wrapped her arms around Kelsey's neck, resting her cheek against the scales. Chris sat with one knee tucked to his chest and the other foot trailing in the cool water. He alternated between watching the reflected light rippling on the cliff face and staring up at the clouds. He saw a few that looked like pokemon: a suggestion of a paw, a horn, and—oh, maybe a houndoom.
His dad's houndoom, Oji, had horns that curled back so far they made almost a perfect circle. Chris and his sister used to hook household objects onto Oji's horns—clothes hangers, coffee mugs, colanders—competing to pile on the weirdest and largest items before Dad noticed and made them stop. Oji bore it with astonishing calm, showing his annoyance only with an occasional eye roll.
Chris stole a glance at Una and remembered her horrified expression the day before when faced with a houndoom. He'd seen that sort of reaction before—people who had never met a dark-type in person sometimes had misgivings—but never quite like that.
"Can I ask," Chris finally said to Una, "what was going on with you and that houndoom? Do you remember?"
Una sat up slowly. "A little. I remember a man telling it to attack. It opened its mouth, and I saw all the teeth and the fire in the back of its throat, and …. Then nothing." She shivered.
"Not in Mahogany Town?" Chris's first impression of another trainer had been wrong before, but he struggled to imagine the guy with the houndoom going as far as actually attacking someone. You could lose your license for less.
"I am not certain." Una thought for a moment. "Perhaps not. I remember trees. I must have been in the woods."
Odd, how easily she said it. Even though he'd first encountered among the trees, Chris had a hard time imagining her in the woods. Not on purpose, anyway. He shook his head.
He said, "A different houndoom then."
"Yes, I suppose so."
"Huh. So you don't remember how you got away?"
She shook her head.
"You think that had something to do with how you ended up in the Ice Pass?"
"It is possible."
He felt a chill. "Una … do you think you'll be in danger when you get home?"
"I … I do not know." Without her seeming to notice, her hand flew to the feather that still hung around her neck. "But I hope I will understand more."
Chris wanted to pledge himself to remain in Ecruteak for a few extra days to keep an eye on things, but he held his tongue. That was a promise he couldn't keep if he still wanted to keep the promises he'd already made to himself. Already he'd lost almost three full days of travel. "I hope so too," he said.
"Whatever I find in Ecruteak, it is my home. It is where I need to be." She turned to gaze at the skyline, growing closer by the moment. "I have the feeling that there is something important I was meant to be doing there, but I cannot remember what it was …."
"Don't push yourself. I bet you'll remember with time."
She smiled, but it was a distant smile. "You are most likely correct." And she turned away to lean against Kelsey's neck again.
Chris's heart sank. He had been talking to her all day, but he knew scarcely more about her now than when he first saw her in the snow. After today he would likely never see her again, and her mysteries would only be her own-if she even got answers herself. Knowing he had done the right thing would have to be enough.
They passed the remainder of the journey saying little. Chris didn't want to bother her with more questions, and he was accustomed to solitude and silence anyway. For her part, Una seemed content to be left to her thoughts. Several times they dismounted from Kelsey, recalled her, hiked a little way, and then clambered onto her shell again to cross another pond. The path was rocky but not steep, and they reached Ecruteak's eastern gate without incident.
Una beamed and made an oh
of longing at the sight of it.
The gate was a simple wooden archway painted a faded orange with two crosspieces. Beyond the archway, a few houses in the traditional style were visible along the tree-lined path. The gate was flanked on either side by fruiting shrubs and a stone statue of a bird, the details blurred and made unrecognizable by centuries of weather and wars. "These are in poor condition …. Strange," Una said. Then, "Oh no. Where is the sage?"
"Of course," she said, impatience creeping into her voice. "There should be a basket of sage smudges and striking flints hanging from the crossbar so we may purify ourselves before we enter the city."
"I don't remember seeing anything like that any of the times I came through here." Chris bit his lip.
"Well, we cannot simply …." Una looked from side to side, fidgeting with her hands.
"I don't have sage, but …." Chris set down his backpack to procure a pack of matches. "Better than nothing, right?"
She looked at the matches, frowning. "I …."
"Right, I guess a lot of folks don't use matches anymore. Here." He took back the pack, struck a match, and carefully passed it back to her.
Una frowned. "I suppose this will do." She blew out the match and made an X over each of their heads in smoke—"North, south, east, west. Cleanse me with fire. North, south, east, west. Cleanse him with fire."
The hair on the back of Chris's neck stood on end.
She folded her hands together over the extinguished match and closed her eyes.
He waited a long moment and then said, "You ready to head in?"
She looked up and forced a smile. "Yes. Yes, I suppose we should."
They crossed the threshold and followed the path among the houses. Una squinted at the mailboxes and gardens they passed.
"Anything looking familiar?"
She bit her lip and shook her head. "Not yet …."
"Why don't we cut through the park? That should bring us closer to the dance hall and the main downtown areas. That should help, right?"
"Yes, that is a good idea," she said, not looking sure.
He led the way as they cut towards a park on the left. They crossed a stone footbridge over a creek. Small lanterns hung from the trees, but they hadn't been lit yet. They passed an old woman seated on a bench with an eevee beside her. She laughed at something on her tablet screen, and the gibbering of young children chimed from the speakers. Chris dipped his head to her in greeting, and she returned the gesture.
Una lagged behind, staring and frowning deeply.
Chris paused for Una to catch up. "Is something wrong?"
"I am … uncertain."
"What do you want to do? Do you want to keep going?"
After a moment, Una stood straighter and said, "I wish to see the center square."
"Okay." Chris looked into Una's face for a long moment before turning and continuing on.
She trailed after.
They passed a picnicking family, people taking pet pokemon for walks, and a band of teenagers on bicycles—Una squeaked as they flew past. "Do you hear that?" she said.
He stopped and cocked his head. "I think it's just traffic."
Glimpses of concrete and buildings began to show between the trees. The dirt path disappeared, replaced by sidewalk. Chris led them to the edge of the park where it met a narrow street buzzing with cars and bikes. Across the way, lights glittered from the shingled awnings above shops and vending machines. From here the elaborately carved roof of the dance theater was visible, but it was many blocks ahead. Turning one way, Chris caught the scent of meat on a charcoal grill. Turning the other, he smelled gardenias and the chlorine in the sprinkler system. He turned to ask Una which way she wanted to go, but he stopped when he saw the look on her face.
"This is all wrong," she said, hugging herself. She flinched as a car passed. "This is not Ecruteak."
Chris laughed nervously. "Yes, it is. Look, you can see Bell Tower from here." He pointed northwest to the distant pagoda tiers.
Una furrowed her brow and shook her head. Then her eyes suddenly went wide. "What happened to the other one?"
She shot him an earnest, pained look. "Chris, something terrible must have happened. Where is Brass Tower?"
Goosebumps broke out along Chris's arms. "There is no other tower. Or I guess there was
, but it burned down hundreds of years ago. More than once, I think."
"Burned down?" She started to pace and wring her hands. "How could it have burned down? That makes no sense!"
Passersby shot them odd looks as her voice grew louder. "Maybe we should sit down?" He steered her to a stone bench under the shade of a tree. He said softly, "I think maybe your memory is still mixed up."
Her eyes blazed. "No. I know
I remember two towers." She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. "I helped polish the floors. It was always warm inside, even in winter … I know I remember it. We have to go there and find out what happened."
Chris bit his cheek. "There's a historical marker and a museum where the tower used to be …. Do you want to see that?"
She snapped to attention. "Yes. Please, let us go there."
"It's kind of far from here. We'd have to take a bus."
Stomach knotted with dread, Chris used his Bitflex to navigate to the nearest bus stop, coaxing Una along. She clamped onto his backpack with a white-knuckled grip, gawking at the cars and lights. A fire engine screamed past and Una froze in the middle of the crosswalk to cover her ears until Chris pulled her forward.
At last, he herded her onto the bus—she covered her nose and mouth at the diesel smell—and swiped his OneCard for the both of them.
Once seated, she squeezed her eyes shut, one hand to the feather around her neck and chanted under her breath, "As the sun rises in the east, as the sun sets in the sea. As the sun rises in the east, as the sun sets in the sea …." Both hands flew out to brace her each time the bus braked or made a sudden turn.
Chris watched the streets whiz past as they made their way to the northeast corner of the city. His shirt was damp with sweat. He didn't know what the next step should be—he wasn't good at this kind of thing. Bringing her here by himself was a mistake.
When they finally disembarked, she staggered to a nearby wall and sighed as she leaned into it.
"Was that your first time riding a bus?"
She nodded miserably.
"Well … we're almost there."
This part of town was quieter: less foot traffic, fewer shops, no cars. Flowering trees lined the cobblestone streets. Chris chewed at the inside of his cheek and glanced nervously at Una as they crossed the few blocks in between and approached the ruins site.
Ahead was the Ecruteak History Museum, minimalist and gray. Beyond that were the ruins. Four pillars stood alone beside a man-made pond studded with lotuses. The water's surface reflected the roofs and windows of the houses that looked down from the surrounding hills. Between the pillars, a block of tempered glass was set into the earth, displaying an arrangement of blackened tiles.
Una froze and stared for a moment before rushing ahead. She knelt and put her hands to the glass. "No, no, no, no …."
Chris hung back. He shrugged off his backpack beside a plaque and bent to look closer. There was a labeled illustration of the original tower design paired against a black and white photo of the half-crumbling, fire damaged tower.
The Brass Tower was built during the Itun period (1300 A.D.) to honor a mythical bird pokemon. It burned down mysteriously in 1519, possibly due to a lightning strike. The tower was later reconstructed but burned down a second time during the Third Wave Tohjo wars (1589-1599). In 1950, the tower was set on fire for a third time by an unknown arsonist, and it was never rebuilt. The ruins were demolished in 1983 during the development of the Grand Hyatt Ecruteak Hotel. Remaining tiles and replicas of the original pillars were relocated to this historic monument site in 1985.
He glanced up to see Una circling one of the pillars, tracing the carvings. When she caught his gaze, he shuddered involuntarily. He moved to join her, hands in his pockets.
"I do not understand," she said with mournful eyes. "This is
Brass Tower, but … I was here mere days ago. I was given robes in this room."
"What if …." Chris tried to swallow but his mouth was dry. He spoke in a voice barely above a whisper. "Una, do you think it's possible that you lived here … five hundred years ago?"
It sounded impossible. But it felt true.
She clutched the feather around her neck. "How could that be?"
"I don't know. It sounds crazy, but maybe it's not. I mean, that would be more than just teleportation. Then again, pokemon can do lots of things we barely understand …."
"Five hundred years …." She put a hand on the pillar to steady herself. Her voice trembled. "But that would mean … my parents. The priests. My friends… Everyone is gone."
Chris bit his lip.
Una closed her eyes and was silent for a long moment. "This is entirely wrong."
She covered her face with one hand. "Give me a moment. Please."
Chris cleared his throat. "Sure." He turned to gather up his backpack and glanced over his shoulder. Una leaned against the pillar, face buried in the crook of her arm, shoulders shaking soundlessly. He walked quickly around the corner.
A few blocks away, he found a QuickMart. He passed the displays of key chains and postcards and found the self-serve coffee station. He started for a small cup but changed his mind and opted for a large one. He gathered up a few more snacks—no jerky—before slowly making his way back to the burned tower memorial site.
He found Una sitting on a bench facing away from the site, knees drawn to her chest. Her face was splotchy red. "The gods have gone," she said. "They could not possibly linger in this place. This is not my home."
Chris hesitated a moment and then sat beside her, offering her the styrofoam cup.
She shook her head.
They sat without speaking. Chris alternated between sipping coffee and breaking off pieces of the wooden stirring stick until he was left with a handful of splinters.
Finally Una said, "Where will you go now?"
Chris let the splinters fall to the grass. "I was on my way to Blackthorn City," he said, staring into the distance. He couldn't see the mountains from here. "Then, if I can get there in time, I'll go to the Indigo Plateau in Kanto. I'm not sure if I'll be able to make it, but I gotta try."
"Can I come with you?"
He snapped his head around to look at her and made several sounds that were not words. After a moment he managed to choke out, "It's dangerous where I'm going!"
She said nothing.
"For one thing, you'd have to buy all new gear. A good coat alone is gonna be—gods—at least one fifty, probably more. A backpack is probably—what am I saying. There's no point. It's not possible." He sighed and raked a hand through his hair. "Maybe … you could stay and work with the museum? Or maybe the dance hall? I bet I could get you a place to stay with one of them …."
He looked down to avoid her gaze.
"Please, I cannot bear to stay here. Everything here is so loud and strange. I do not know where to go or how to navigate these streets. And I cannot suffer another …bus
. Let me come with you, at least until I can sort out—" Her breath caught. "Until I can sort out …."
Chris grimaced but still said nothing.
"I will find a way to be helpful to you."
"Listen, I'm sorry, but the bottom line is I can't afford to take you with me. I'm out of time, and neither of us has the money it would take to prepare you for this kind of journey. I wish I could—really—but I don't have more help to offer you. I'm sorry."
She was quiet for a moment. "What if we had more money?"
"I dunno, Una. It would take a lot more than I have. I don't even know where we could find that type of money in a short amount of time. And I'm already behind schedule."
"Where are my robes?"
Chris had bundled them up in his pack for her. He handed her the roll of fabric.
"How could I have forgotten?" She unrolled the cloth and spread it across her lap, running a finger along the embroidered patterns. She spoke slowly, as if remembering as she went. "This was to be my bridal gown, so to speak. My family could not afford a traditional dowry, especially after Suki fell ill with fever. So my father planned to apprentice a village boy, and I was to serve under the priests and be a bride to the gods instead."
Chris could only listen, dumbfounded.
"You see—here is the tower surrounded by trees in bloom. And here, on the other side, is Tin Tower. Two towers, two gods. One for sunrise, one for sunset. One for sun, one for rain. One to nurture all that gives us life and one to destroy our enemies. All the rest represents their gifts to us.
"I was meant to offer my own gifts to them …. Of all the colors in the rainbow, the priests said they saw blue in me. Blue for water, blue for peaceful skies." She smiled wryly. "Perhaps blue because I cry so easily.
"I went to the woods—my bridal chamber—to fast, pray, and wait for a sign that I was ready for the vocation. But then I was attacked, and …." She sighed. "I cannot remember what happened next. But I know all this to be true." She looked up and searched his face like a drowning girl looking for a hand to grab onto.
There was no mistaking the conviction in her voice, growing stronger with each word—she wasn't inventing things, and she didn't sound crazy. Even though it absolutely was
"I believe you," said Chris.
"This is some of the finest embroidery Sister Talia has done." She closed her eyes. "If what you say is true and these robes are from another time … from five hundred years ago … then perhaps they will be valuable to someone else now."
Chris stammered, "Are you sure? Don't you want to keep it?"
She frowned and squeezed the fabric in her hands. "The gods have gone from here," she said again. Una folded the robe and cloak into a neat stack. "If this is what must be done, then so be it. But I cannot stay here."
"I wouldn't even know where to begin to try to sell something like this." His gaze slid to the long, concrete building ahead of them. "I guess we could see if someone at the museum has ideas …. There's no guarantee we'll find anything helpful, though. It might not be worth anything."
"We have to try."
Chris didn't have any other ideas, so he shouldered his bag, poured out the rest of the coffee, and then they headed into the museum. Inside was all sharp lines and soft light. Chris was immediately aware of the dirt on his boots. Even as he approached the admissions kiosk, he felt his face redden.
For her part, the greeter either genuinely was not bothered by his appearance or did a good job hiding it. "Good afternoon and welcome to the Ecruteak History Museum. Is this your first visit with us?"
"It is …."
"Wonderful. So will that be two tickets?"
"Uh actually …. I'm sorry, I know this is a weird request, but I was actually hoping I might be able to show these items to someone. If it's convenient. They're, um, antique."
The receptionist squinted. "I can see if Dr. Lamia is available. What kind of items did you want her to look at?"
"It's an embroidered robe. A bridal gown. Possibly."
He saw the doubt in her face. "Let me go find out." She rose and went to a wall phone. Chris watched her but couldn't hear what was said from where he stood. Moments later she returned and said, "You're in luck. Normally our curators don't take drop-ins, but she has a free moment. She'll be right out if you wanted to take a seat while you wait."
They settled into a corner near the entrance.
Shortly after, they were approached by a woman wearing a cardigan and latex gloves. She pulled one off to shake their hands. "I'm Dr. Ann Lamia. You have a costume—a garment— you wanted to show me? Let's see it."
Una's head hung down as she passed the folded stack of cloth to Chris, quiet as a ghost.
He unrolled the robe, careful not to let it touch the floor.
Dr. Lamia sucked in a breath. She pulled a small black light from a pocket and swept it over the robe as she fingered the decorations, turning a sleeve over in her gloved hand. "The details in this piece are definitely intriguing."
Chris felt a swelling in his heart in spite of himself. That was a better reaction than he'd dare to hope for.
"This is a good replica. Looks like there are some grass stains …. Is there a story behind how this robe came to you?"
Una spoke up then. "Replica?"
"Uh …." Chris shot a warning look at Una, who gave him a stern look in return. "Una found it … in her family's attic. Family heirloom."
Una's mouth was a hard, flat line.
"Was there another piece?"
Chris opened the cloak, and they repeated the process.
After a few moments of fussing and humming in fascination, Dr. Lamia stood straighter. She looked like she was resisting a smile. "The robe is definitely an interesting piece. I'd love to take some photos and have you leave your contact information with Marybeth in case we decide your garments fit into our board's acquisition plan."
His heart sank. "Oh. Well, you see …. I'm a trainer, and I …." He stole another glance at Una, heart deflating further. "We were hoping to leave for Blackthorn City tonight. Or, I guess, maybe tomorrow."
Dr. Lamia frowned. "That's too bad …. This isn't official yet, but—" a conspiratorial smile crept across her face and she leaned forward to speak in low tones, "—we're planning for an exhibit on folk religion, and these pieces could pair well with a few costumes from our permanent collection that we're considering …. Darn it." She laced her fingers together and brought them up to her mouth.
"You know what." Dr. Lamia brightened, reaching into her pocket. "I probably shouldn't, but I really like these pieces for the spring exhibit. If you're in a time crunch I've got … two hundred in cash."
Chris couldn't help wincing as he and Una exchanged glances. He opened his mouth to speak, but Una beat him to it.
"That is not much, is it," Una said quietly. She saw the answer in his face and turned to address Dr. Lamia ina low, dangerous voice. "The woman who made this is dead. I wonder if there is anyone left alive who remembers her. Perhaps these few stitches are all that remains of her legacy."
"Una." Chris had the sensation of standing on a narrow ledge over an abyss. He felt powerless to stop her from stepping over the edge of it.
She ignored him. "I should be excommunicated for even considering selling this robe to you—and indeed, I may as well have been! Yet you want to take it for almost nothing."
Dr. Lamia looked alarmed. She looked back and forth between Chris and Una as if seeing them for the first time.
Chris blurted, "I'm sorry, she's—" But there was no way to finish that sentence. He knew she wasn't crazy.
He saw Dr. Lamia's expression shift into something softer, pained, perhaps guessing at what he was going to say.
Beside him, Una's head drooped, all the fire gone out of her at once.
Chris bit his cheek, then started again. "You said you had other pieces. Would it be possible just to check? To, uh, compare it to what you already have?" He felt himself scrabbling. "I'm so sorry to impose. It's just … We thought—we were told it was a valuable item and …." He glanced at Una, the heartbreak so clear in her face. "It has a lot of sentimental value. It would mean a lot to us."
"Ma'am?" The three of them turned to look at the desk attendant. "Do you want me to call …?"
Dr. Lamia took a deep breath. "No, no, it's alright, Marybeth." She put on a smile, and it was full of pity. "I can see that it's important to you. I suppose I …. Well, it's not often I get the chance to show off some of these pieces, right? Do you have a little time to visit the archives with me?"
"Well then. Let's take a look."
She led them past glass cases of arrowheads, painted vases, brush and ink drawings, and a wall of masks. Along one wall was a door marked "Employees Only." Glancing around guiltily, she unlocked it and ushered them through. They found themselves in a dimly lit corridor. As Chris's eyes adjusted he saw shelves stacked with boxes all along the walls on each side. He caught snatches of a few of the labels as they passed: coat (winter, embroidered), coat (farmer), dusting cloths, futon cover (hemp), mosquito netting.
"Here," said Dr. Lamia, pulling a coffin-sized box from the shelf and setting it on a nearby table. She lifted the lid and parted a layer of tissue paper to reveal the faded red bell sleeve of a robe, and in the layer below another in gold.
Una gasped. She reached to touch but caught herself and held back.
Chris was tempted to feel that ancient fabric too. There was no doubt in his mind now, looking at those red and gold robes, each matching the one Una had worn.
Like Una's, both robes in the storage box were decorated in a brocade of diamonds filled with intricate scenes, though the threads on these were frayed and some places had been worn bare. "These remind me of your costume, though yours is in astonishingly good shape, especially the color. Indigo infamously fades over the years. Though the stitch work is
impressive. It's actually very
similar to what we see in pieces from earlier centuries …. Very unusual."
"Inside the left-hand sleeve," said Una.
"Sister Talia's signature. She always stitched a maple leaf inside the left sleeve."
For a moment Dr. Lamia only stared. Then, begrudgingly, she turned out the sleeve of Una's robe. Just as Una said, there was a maple leaf done in perfect blue stitches, invisible from the outside. Chris held his breath as she reached to check the red robe.
The lines were faded and missing stitches … but it was there. Same leaf, same place.
Dr. Lamia was visibly shaken. She looked at Una as if seeing a ghost. With quivering hands, she searched the yellow robes and found the same maple leaf in the left sleeve. "Where did you really get this?" she finally said.
"Does it matter?" Chris cut in, not trusting what Una might say. "That means something, doesn't it?"
"Oh, I wish I hadn't lent Gregory my xatu …." Dr. Lamia patted her waist for a pokeball that wasn't there and let out a moan. "Crates would know for sure …."
Chris looked to Una as Dr. Lamia whispered curses to herself under her breath.
Finally, Dr. Lamia burst out, "Fine, fine. I'll handle the fallout later. Or I'll call it a donation from my personal collection and write it off for tax purposes. Whatever. What do you want for it?
"Oh!" Chris hurriedly calculated: coat, sleeping bag, boots, backpack—"We were hoping for about a thousand. If that seems possible."
He sensed her making calculations of her own. "I can commit to eight hundred if you'll take credit on your OneCard." She cleared her throat and collected herself. "That's the best I can do."
Chris let out a breath. "Okay." Then he turned to Una. Her face was still, but she held the edge of the blue robe, running a thumb over the stitches. He addressed her softly. "Are you sure this is what you want? It's your choice."
She squeezed the fabric … then let go. "Yes."
Later, outside the museum, they returned to the bench.
"So. Is it enough?"
Chris took a deep breath. "Yeah, this could maybe do it, but …. I don't know that you'd like the kind of traveling I'm doing. You could still use this money to get yourself set up in an apartment until you can find a job … something for now, at least? This could be an opportunity to start over."
"I cannot stay here."
Chris nodded. That was the answer he had expected. "It's gonna be hard. It won't be like this morning's hike."
"I am not as unfamiliar with wilderness as you may think." She flashed a small smile, but a smile nevertheless. "I think you will find me capable enough. I will not be a burden."
Chris bit his lip. "This is a huge risk …." Internally, he counted off ways one or both of them could be hurt, ways he could be set back even further. In normal circumstances, she would've started training for the Ice Pass weeks ago.
But he looked into her face, and something in him crumbled. "Alright. Let's go spend some money before I start thinking about what a bad idea this is."