Liat sat precariously between two intersecting branches, playing with the sticky, feathery nest she'd found. She mashed the delicate eggshell into a paste and watched the ghosts crowd around the base of the tree. There were six of them, which wasn’t particularly impressive; you rarely saw groups of three or less.
Liat ran her hand down one thin branch, pulling all the leaves off at once and dropped them, along with the remains of the nest, onto the shimmering pillars below. None of the ghosts moved out of the way, of course. Everyone knew you couldn’t actually hurt a ghost.
Liat could remember what it was like before the ghosts came—she’d only had school two days a week instead of four, and there wasn’t as much food at home. Things changed after the Watcher Accords six years ago. Liat had only been four years old, but she remembered it. The Watchers had presented their world with an ultimatum: either agree to become subjects of study, or be colonized. After the Accords, there was suddenly more food and you could use the heater more often in the winter; and the ghosts had showed up. They followed people in the streets and hung around their homes. You weren’t supposed to be able to tell they were there, but you could—when she was little, Liat had quickly learned to recognize the subtle shimmer in the air that meant you were being watched.
She also knew what they liked to watch.
Once, when her little brother Mati had been fussing in his highchair, Liat had lost her temper and reached over to pinch his chubby arm. Mati had started howling, and suddenly the room was full of ghosts, gliding silently around the siblings. Liat had pinched Mati twice more before their mother had appeared to yell at her, wavering like a heat mirage through all the ghosts surrounding.
Everyone hated the Watchers.
Sometimes, everyone hated Liat, too.
Liat was angrily pruning more branches when she heard an obnoxious, familiar sound. She craned her neck around the tree and saw the round little form of Mika Gidon skipping down the path from the schoolhouse to the village. She was humming loudly, her braids bouncing and glasses glinting in the sunlight.
Mika was in Liat’s class, but she was younger and smaller than Liat, and somehow she always knew the answers to Mr. Hahmon’s stupid, pointless questions.
Liat scurried down the tree, not even caring when the small rip on the knee of her pants caught on a branch and became a big rip. She stepped into Mika’s path, and the smaller girl jumped, her eyes going big behind her glasses.
“Why weren’t you in school, Liaty?" Mr. Hahmon said. "You’re gonna get in trouble.”
Liat didn’t say anything, and instead stepped up to Mika, grabbing her glasses off her face.
“Hey!” Mika squeaked, as the air shimmered around them. There were lots more than six ghosts now.
Liat threw Mika’s glasses to the other side of the tree, and when Mika started towards them, Liat tripped her. Mika started crying, and Liat stepped around her, counting ghosts under her breath—almost fifty.
She could do better than that.
Liat started kicking Mika, who curled into a ball, hands over her face. There were so many ghosts surrounding them now that the village down the hill looked like oil on water. There were figures moving, running towards the large audience of Watchers that crowded the two girls.
Liat knew that when the grownups reached them she’d be in big trouble. Again. But it didn’t matter. She could feel the invisible eyes of the ghosts on the back of her neck.
She was giving them something to watch.