Why is it always horses? Billions of planets, and yet the major mode of transportation always seems to be split between a horse or some alien beastie that may as well be a horse. Kudos to Shauna Roberts for thinking outside the box. — ed, N.E. Lilly

Staring vacantly across the barn, Buddy chewed his cud as Kella tugged gingerly on his lead. She knew from experience that if she pulled too hard, Buddy would collapse in a heap and refuse to budge. But she needed to get him moving. All the other students had already led their eager llamas from the barn to the show ring. Only Buddy seemed immune to the mood of excitement.

“You are the poorest excuse for a llama I’ve ever seen,” Kella said with a sigh. Although it was clear to her experienced eye that he came from ride llama stock—his thickset body and broad face attested to that—he was barely larger than a pack llama. His skin was sensitive even for a llama’s and was prone to sores and rashes. He was hard of hearing. Even in his heyday, his bay appaloosa coloring would have given him a clownish look. Now, with his body gone to fat and his coat patchy from skin ailments, he had no dignity whatsoever.

“You’re dumb, and you’re silly looking,” Kella continued. “The only thing you do well is eat. And stink.” As if to affirm this assessment, Buddy let loose a loud burst of flatulence and jumped, startled, at the sound.

Kella leaned her forehead against the cool stone wall of the stall. It wasn’t all Buddy’s fault that they were still in the barn. She dreaded facing her parents after all the letters full of lies she had sent home.

She had yearned to be a llama express rider as long as she could remember. At first she coveted only the riders’ gleaming scarlet shirts and the respect they received. Riders and the mail they carried were the glue that held together the far-flung settlements on this mountainous planet. But as she grew older and her duties on her parents’ llama farm grew heavier, her sole pleasure became her evening ride to see the ever-shifting tints and shadows of jagged peaks lit by the setting sun. She grew to love the sway of a llama’s gait and admire the delicate manner in which the llamas surefootedly climbed those peaks, guided by an inborn mountain intelligence (enhanced, like their size, through generations of genetic manipulation and old-fashioned selective breeding) that could discern a route over the stoniest, steepest hill. She could think of no better way to spend her life than in the saddle, and the only way to do that was in the llama express service.

She had applied to the llama express training program and was accepted. On the first day of classes, she and the nine other students had demonstrated their skills. She did every task superbly. It was clear the other students were not of her caliber. She was confident she would be the best student in every class and be chosen for Pierpont Station or one of the other top post assignments. Her future was assured.

But after the demonstration, when the students were paired with their ride llamas, the stablehand led Buddy to her. Buddy chewed his cud with ancient yellowed teeth as Kella forced a smile to hide her shock and dismay. Buddy’s opinion of her was harder to discern; his left eye may have looked at her, but the right wandered from llama to llama. Suddenly, Buddy eructated. As the cloud of methane gas enveloped the students on either side of her, they ran, hands over their noses and mouths. The other students doubled over in laughter.

The following months held more humiliations. She struggled to teach Buddy rudimentary skills that the other llamas learned with ease. Meanwhile, she spent hours caring for his rashes and trying different diets to see if they would help his digestion.

She told her parents none of this. In her letters, she was the training program’s top student. Buddy was a handsome roan llama with a fluffy coat who moved with grace and dignity and learned everything faster than the other llamas.

Unfortunately, she had not realized that the graduation ceremony would include a show for the parents.

“Kella, it’s time. We’re all waiting for you,” Teacher Barrina said softly behind her.

“We’re coming.” Kella didn’t move.

“I’m sure Buddy will do well.”

If so, only because he’s done this so many times, she thought. After graduation, students had the option of permanent assignment with the llama they trained with. Most students happily accepted. But no one had ever chosen Buddy. Kella sighed and scratched Buddy behind his ears. She adjusted the wide blue ribbon tied around Buddy’s neck, then knelt to tighten the bows around his ankles. He looked even more the clown than usual, but the ribbons hid most of the places his fur had fallen out. “Come on, Buddy. Just a few hours and this will all be over.” She pulled his lead again, a little harder this time, and to her relief he followed behind her.

Her stomach tightened as she thought about what lay at the end of those few hours. The winners of the competition would receive prizes. The loser would receive a bright red currycomb and have to groom all the llamas. Kella knew which she was more likely to get.

The first event was showmanship. The students and llamas already stood shoulder to shoulder across the ring. Kella and Buddy took their place at the end. The judges—experienced riders from the llama express service—were already examining the first llama. It was Marla’s Kippie, a handsome, intelligent roan who had served as the model for the fictitious Buddy. Marla had brushed Kippie’s coat into a fuzzy reddish-brown cloud of dandelion fluff, and she herself wore a shirt and pants that matched his coat exactly. With her black hair and his black face, they made a beautiful pair. Kippie stood still and calm as the judges looked at his feet and in his mouth. The judges were smiling.

Kella tried to swallow. Her mouth was dry as a desert peak. She looked at Buddy. He hummed and gnashed his cud with nervous exaggeration.

The judges moved to the second horse. Windrick wore his usual smirk as the judges looked over Rusty, a bay female. She was a placid, good-tempered animal, a good match for Windrick, whose arrogant manner would make a more high-strung llama balk. Windrick lost his smirk when a judge smacked Rusty’s hindquarters and loosed a cloud of dust. Still, Rusty made a good showing, Kella thought.

Kella looked at Buddy. He was shifting from foot to foot and chewing even harder. Her stomach was full of butterflies. She resolved not to look at the other llamas, not to look at Buddy, and certainly not to look into the audience where directors from several express stations sat gauging them all as candidate riders.

She determinedly fixed her gaze on a high peak as the judges evaluated Talara and Bright Eye, Brinn and Cloud, Tika and Swifty, Dumi and Jocko, Rees and White Ear, and Leeter and Big Foot. Finally, the judges reached the end of the line.

Kella put on her brightest smile and turned toward the judges. Buddy should do acceptably in this event, at least. She had washed and brushed him thoroughly, but gently, so as not to further irritate his skin. The judges looked at Buddy, then at each other. “A well-seasoned animal,” one said. Kella reddened.

As they moved closer, Buddy began chewing with loud smacks of his lips and clacking his teeth. A judge reached for Buddy’s mouth; Buddy jerked back. The judge took firm hold and opened Buddy’s mouth. Blue saliva ran down the judge’s arm. The woman flung her hand outward, sending gobbets of blue llama slobber toward the audience. Kella looked at Buddy and gasped. Blue ribbon was interwoven in his teeth, and the ends were mashed into blue shreds in his cud. Kella looked down. The ribbon from Buddy’s right ankle was gone, exposing one of poor Buddy’s hairless rashes. Out of the corner of her eye, Kella could see heads turning toward her. She heard a few stifled snickers. The judges walked away, their pens scritching on their score sheets.

Kella’s butterflies disappeared. There was nothing to be uncertain about anymore; she knew that they had gotten the worst possible score. She turned to Buddy and began gently extricating the ribbon. His anxious chewing eased as she freed his mouth. She sighed in relief, then took him to his stall. Perhaps the rest would do him good. With that hope, she petted him goodbye and went out for the pack llama demonstrations.

In front of the stands stood ten pack llamas and ten piles of letters, boxes, and bags. When Teacher Barrina blew her whistle, each student was to load his or her assigned llama. The other students frantically stuffed letters and boxes in bags. Kella took a moment to assess her llama. It was a small animal and somewhat skittish. She talked to it gently as she loaded it and stopped as soon as it looked alarmed. Then she looked around. Three llamas were sitting, having been overloaded. Those three students were out of the competition. As the other students finished, she saw that she had left the largest pile of letters and boxes still on the ground.

The judges checked the seven standing llamas. Two were disqualified for unbalanced loads. The judges went to each of the remaining five llamas in turn and carefully added letters and boxes to its load until it rebelled at the weight and sat. Again, Kella and her llama were at the end. She watched as the first two llamas readily accepted large piles of “mail.” But the next two llamas each sat after only six letters were added. The audience clapped loudly.

Kella held her breath. Now for her llama. A judge picked up a handful of mail, picked a postcard off the top, and placed it on the load. Kella’s llama abruptly sat and spat at them. The crowd cheered. For the first time, Kella dared to seek out her family in the stands. They were clapping and waving. Little Trivvy was jumping up and down on the bench, to the obvious annoyance of the elderly couple getting jolted next to him.

Kella went back to the barn to retrieve Buddy for the obedience event. The students paraded in a circle beside their llamas. At least, it was supposed to be a circle, but no llama or student wanted to be behind the flatulence-prone Buddy. The circle degenerated into a curved line with her and Buddy at the end. “Stop!” Teacher Barrina called. The students whistled once; the llamas stopped. “Sit!” The students clicked their tongues against the roofs of their mouths; the llamas sat. “Walk!” The students whistled twice. The llamas got up and walked—except Buddy. He yawned and nibbled at a few stalwart strands of grass that had survived the weeks of practice in the ring.

Kella tried to whistle close to his ear. Nothing came out of her dry mouth. Buddy looked around. His eye fell on Jocko, his favorite playmate of the other llamas. Buddy lurched to his feet, ambled over to Jocko, and nipped his neck. Jocko shook his head, but Dumi stroked him and Jocko regained his composure. Blushing, Kella snapped her fingers, the signal to come. Instead, Buddy bit Jocko again. Kella stalked over to Buddy and snapped her fingers. Buddy sank to the ground, then took advantage of his position to grab hold of the seat of her pants. Instinctively, she jerked away. Buddy held tight. Her pants slid down and her feet flew out from underneath her. She landed face down.

When she caught her breath again, she stood up, brushing off dust and twigs and speckles of something she fervently hoped wasn’t llama dung. The other students were politely looking away, except for Windrick, who openly stared at her naked legs and laughed. Kella yanked up her pants and grabbed a fistful of Buddy’s neck fur. Digging her heels into the dirt, she tugged him back to his place in line. As she passed Marla, the girl gave her a glance of sympathy that made her feel worse than if she had joined in Windrick’s laughter.

The students and llamas circled the ring a few times more. Buddy obeyed all her commands. Kella thought the worst must be behind them.

Brrrp! Bababababa! Pause. Bwaaaaaah! Wheeeeeeeeeeee! Buddy turned and looked at his hindquarters with interest. The audience tittered. Kella covered her face with her hands.

“Mommy?” Little Trivvy’s high voice pierced through the lower-pitched noise of the show. “Did Kella do that, or the llama?” The audience erupted into howls of laughter. The organized line of students and llamas disintegrated as the laughing students lost their concentration.

Kella’s first thought was to run; her second, to cry. Instead, she forced some saliva into her mouth. She whistled twice and, head high, led Buddy in a circle around the ring. She would come in last in this competition too, but at least she would lose with dignity.

They broke for lunch and for the llamas to be taken by the stablehands to the llama express station two miles away. The final event would be a race through the mountains back to the training center. Unlike the other events, the race didn’t demonstrate a skill that express riders would routinely use on the job. But both spectators and riders enjoyed it, and it finished the competition on a high note.

The students scurried to the station after lunch, talking excitedly. “Kippie looked so beautiful during showmanship, and the two of you did well during obedience, too,” Kella said to Marla, trying to keep the envy from her voice. “You’re certain to win.”

Marla smiled shyly. “Thanks. But I’m not so sure. I lost points in the pack llama segment. But Kella, you were astonishing!”

“That’s for sure,” Dumi said. “A school record!”

“Probably two school records,” Tika said snidely. “It would be almost impossible to do worse in the obedience event.”

“Showing off her underwear is probably a first, too,” Windrick said.

Kella took a deep breath. “You and Swifty did well,” Kella said to Tika. “I was impressed how you kept him calm during the . . . uproar.” Tika had the grace to look away in embarrassment. “And you, Windrick—you lived up to every expectation I had of you.”

Windrick puffed out his chest and looked exceedingly pleased with himself. “You know,” he said with the air of someone doing an inferior a large favor, “You could have a nice-looking rear if you gained some weight.”

When they reached the llama express station, the ride llamas were saddled and lined up. The students mounted and waited for Teacher Barrina’s whistle. She looked at each of them in turn with a smile and wished them luck, then brought the whistle to her lips. The riders leaned forward; the llamas tensed. The whistle blew. Llamas shot forward. Kella tightened her grip on Buddy’s coat, then realized she wasn’t moving. She looked down. Buddy’s eyes were closed and his head tipped to one side.

“Buddy!” She poked him with her knee. “Buddy!” Finally, she leaned over and shouted in his ear. “Food, Buddy! Food!” Buddy had never shown any sign that he knew his name, but Kella had discovered he clearly understood one word: food.

Buddy’s head jerked up. “Food!” Kella shouted. Buddy bolted. Kella grabbed tightly to his fur as he lurched erratically down the path. Then Buddy spied the llamas far ahead. Apparently worried that the others would eat his share, Buddy settled into an even, distance-devouring gait.

Soon Kella could see the tails on the llamas ahead. Then she could tell which was which. And before she thought possible, Buddy had reached the end of the pack. He snorted at the rearmost animal. Cloud slowed to look back, and Buddy surged ahead of her. White Ear fell prey to the same trick.

Soon Buddy passed Big Foot. His excitement roused the others to greater exertion. They tore pell-mell down the twisting narrow path, each trying to edge the other aside. Kella’s awareness narrowed to a few sensations. Jolting. Buddy’s warmth. A cool breeze. The piney scent of the forest. The soft thud of llama footpads on dirt. Branches whipping her face.

Jocko and Swifty, running shoulder to shoulder, ran Rusty off the path. As Rusty stumbled into a ravine, Windrick flew over Rusty’s head. He somersaulted twice before landing in a patch of nettles.

Kella had no time to gloat. She grabbed Buddy’s fur tighter as he surged forward. Buddy snorted at Jocko and Swifty. They snorted back. Buddy screamed. Llamas leaped left and right, their riders sliding off in emergency dismounts.

Clear path lay ahead. The trees thinned and the path straightened as they approached the training center. The barn came into view. Buddy, puffing and grunting, broke into full gallop.

Buddy flew past the finish line. Kella whistled. Buddy turned sharply toward the barn, nearly tipping over but not slowing. Kella hung on with all her might and whistled again. It was no use. Buddy had hay on the mind. He finally came to a halt in front of the freshly filled hay bin sprinkled with carrots on top. Kella slid from his back. She staggered rubberlegged over to a bench and sprawled on her side. She had barely caught her breath before her parents and brothers came in.

“Your poor face!” Mother said. Her callused fingers stroked Kella’s cheek. It stung. Kella reached up and discovered her face was covered with welts.

“I’ll be okay,” Kella said. She took a deep breath and sat up to face her family. “I’m so terribly sorry I embarrassed you.”

“Sweetie, we understand. It must have been hard to switch to a different llama,” Mother said. “I’m amazed you did so well. That was the dumbest llama I’ve ever seen.”

Kella hung her head. “I lied to you about Buddy. The scruffy, short, dumb llama I rode? That’s him. I lied so you would be proud of me and not know how unhappy I was.”

Her father frowned. “Unhappy? After all the money we paid to send you here? We don’t get your tuition back if you change your mind about being an express rider. I can’t be throwing money away apprenticing you here and there. I’ve got your brothers’ futures to think about.” Mother elbowed him. Guiltily, Kella realized she had not spared a thought for what her parents had sacrificed for her training.

“I still want to be a llama express rider, more than anything. But I doubt they’ll have me now,” Kella said, her eyes downcast. Trivvy wrapped his arms around her knees and hugged her legs. She put her hand on his head and looked her father straight in the eye. “But don’t worry about an apprenticeship for me, Father. I’m going to reapply to the llama expressing training program for next year, and I’ll earn the tuition myself.”

The awards ceremony started with the customary introductions of the faculty and blather about the bright futures that lay ahead for the students. Not for her, Kella thought with regret. She would go back to the farm in disgrace, hire herself out to neighboring farms, and resume the dull daily rounds of rigorous chores she had sought to escape.

The preliminaries over, the students and their llamas processed to the stage. “I am very pleased to announce that first ribbon and a posting at Pierpont Station go to,” Teacher Barrina paused for effect, holding the ribbon high. “Marla Patas and Kippie!” Marla threw her arms around Kippie’s neck. Then, blushing and with her head dipped, she walked over to receive her ribbon. The audience and other students—except Windrick—clapped.

She’ll do well as a rider, Kella thought, with a pang of jealousy. She had good skills, and her congenial disposition would make her welcome in every hamlet and win the loyalty of her mounts.

“Second ribbon and a posting at Brenden Station go to . . . Talara Sans and Bright Eye!” The knot in Kella’s stomach grew as she applauded with the rest. “And third ribbon and a posting at Brenden Station go to Tika Crons and Swifty!” Kella clutched Buddy’s fur. The currycomb booby prize was next. The other students were stealing glances at her.

Teacher Barrina cleared her throat. “We pride ourselves here on turning out the best post riders. But every so often we get a student whose skills we can’t improve. Kella Farin is one such student.” Kella felt her face flare. This was going to be the worst humiliation of all. She had arrived with such an elevated opinion of herself and high expectations. She had assumed they had paired her with the diminutive Buddy only because she was the smallest and skinniest. Instead, they must not have wanted to waste a good llama on an unpromising student.

Teacher Barrina continued. “We saw from the beginning Kella was a natural llama express rider. She kept her seat in every situation, she had no fear of speed or heights, she could read a llama and know exactly how to deal with it. She already had all the technical skills she would need. But she was overconfident and lacked patience and discipline. So we paired her with Buddy.” Teacher Barrina walked over and placed a hand affectionately on Buddy’s neck. “Buddy is possibly the least intelligent ride llama on the planet. He’s mostly deaf. He is also subject, as you may have noticed, to digestive disturbances, skin problems, and lapses in concentration.” The audience laughed. Kella trembled as an intense wave of anger, embarrassment, pride, and confusion all mixed together swept over her. She’d been tricked! The whole dismal, frustrating year had been a test.

“Kella may think she learned nothing here and is a failure. Nothing could be further from the truth. With Buddy’s help, she has learned to deal with criticism and ridicule, not to look down on those less talented than herself, not to hold herself to impossible standards of perfection, to admit when she is wrong, to not give up.” Teacher Barrina turned toward Kella and smiled. Kella couldn’t smile back.

“Kella, I am pleased to tell you that Pierpont Station wants you for a rider. And I would like to offer you a job here as one of the junior teachers.”

Kella gasped. Could this be another trick? But no—Teacher Barrina, the audience, and all the students except Windrick were applauding. This was real. She had her dignity back. Her anger softened. She had won both her dream job and a prestigious position at the academy. Which should she choose?

The crowd quieted and looked at her expectantly. She had to say something, she realized. She forced her feet forward. “Thank you.”

That apparently wasn’t enough. She was still the focus of all eyes. She tried again. “I’m very grateful for the honors I’ve been offered. Choosing between going to Pierpont Station and staying here at the academy is really hard. But I’ve made my choice: I will—”

The rest of her sentence was drowned out in a loud percussive burst of flatulence from Buddy.

For the first time in her partnership with Buddy, she laughed along with everyone else.

Shauna Roberts is a multi-award-winning medical writer and editor who specializes in diabetes and related subjects. She also writes fantasy and science fiction stories and novels and is a recent transplant to Southern California. Learn more about her fiction at ShaunaRoberts.com; her blog about writing and editing resides at shaunaroberts.blogspot.com.

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