I was ten years old before I learned that my absent, nameless father had given me anything more than dark-red eyes and fur.
I learned it the afternoon Marikha’s insufferable twins dared me up the highest, narrowest trail I knew. I outranked them. And I’d convinced them to follow me, or be shamed.
Our left shoulders brushed the cliff. The drop below was fifty feet to the nearest ledge, another three hundred into the purple-shadowed canyon. Stepped cliffs rose to the uplifted plateau of the Red Hills, five thousand feet closer to the clouds. If we followed the twisting trail to a ridgeline only a few dozen feet higher, I thought we might glimpse the flat turquoise grasslands to the south.
Fuzzy white seed-puffs drifted between red sandstone and lavender-blue sky. One puff got too close to my nose. I sneezed.
“Tel’s sick,” said one twin.
“Tel’s always sick,” said the other.
I angled the second sneeze back at them. “You’ll catch it, too!”
I was small enough to turn on the trail, taunting the bigger twins with sneeze after sneeze, only some of them real.
One twin lunged forward to nip me. I hopped back, drew a deep breath to yell a happy insult. A seed-puff lodged in my throat. My eyes watered. As I felt a real coughing-fit approach, I wedged my body against the cliff wall. Amid my sneezing and hacking, one of my weak forepaws skidded off the edge. I lost my balance, and dropped headfirst.