Books

Etched in Bone

Etched in Bone

Roc
March 2017 (hardcover)

Cover art: Blake Morrow
Cover design: Adam Auerbach

available as audio bookavailable as ebook


 



EXCERPT

Copyright © 2017 Anne Bishop. Used with permission.
(Suggested reading age: 15 years and older.)


Prologue
End of Sumor


As they gathered in the wild country between Tala and Etu, two of the Great Lakes, their footsteps filled the land with a terrible silence.

They were Elders, primal forms of terra indigene who guarded the wild, pristine parts of the world. To the smaller forms of earth natives—shifters like the Wolf and Bear and Panther—they were known as Namid’s teeth and claws.

Humans—those invasive, two-legged predators—had made war against the terra indigene, killing the smaller shifters in the wild country that bordered Cel-Romano, a place that was on the other side of Ocean’s domain. And here, in Thaisia, so many of the Wolfgard were killed that parts of the land were empty of their song.

As the humans in Thaisia and Cel-Romano celebrated their victory over the smaller forms of terra indigene, the Elementals and Namid’s teeth and claws answered the call to war. They destroyed the invaders, then began the work of isolating and thinning the human herds in those two pieces of the world.

But now they faced a problem.

<Some of us will have to watch the humans,> said the oldest male who had made the journey to this place. <Some of us will be poisoned by even that much contact.> A beat of silence as they considered taking over the task the smaller shifters had performed for many years. Then the question: <How much human will we keep?>

<Kill them all!> snarled another male. <That is what humans would do.>

<You would kill the sweet blood not-Wolf?> a female asked, shocked.

A heavy silence as they considered that question.

The sweet blood, the howling not-Wolf, had changed things in the Lakeside Courtyard—had even changed some of the terra indigene living in that Courtyard. She was not like the human enemies. She was not prey. She and her kind were Namid’s creation, wondrous and terrible.

No, they could not kill the sweet blood not-Wolf, the one called Broomstick Girl in the stories that winged their way into the wild country and amused even the most dangerous forms of Elders.

Having agreed that killing all the humans in Thaisia wasn’t the answer, they considered the problem as the sun set and the moon rose.

<If we allow some humans to remain, then what kind of human should we keep?> the eldest male finally asked.

A different question. A caught-in-thorny-vines, stuck-in-the-mud kind of question. Many of the smaller shifters who had survived the human attacks had withdrawn from human-occupied places, leaving the humans who lived there to the Elders’ sharp mercy. Some returned to the wild country, retreating from any trace of humans, while others chose to resettle in towns that had been reclaimed—places that had buildings and human things but no longer had people.

But the Elders who guarded the wild country usually kept their distance from human places unless they came to those places as Namid’s teeth and claws. They didn’t study humans the way the smaller shifters did. The teaching stories told them there were different kinds of humans, but what made one human respectful of the land and the boundaries that had been set while another killed and left the meat, or tried to take away the homes of the feathered and furred? The HFL humans had made war on the terra indigene. Were there other kinds of humans who were enemies—kinds the Elders did not yet recognize?

If humans migrated to the reclaimed towns, would they fight with the shifters who were turning those places into homes for terra indigene who didn’t want to completely abandon the human form? But earth natives didn’t absorb just the form of another predator; they also absorbed aspects of that predator, traits that became woven into the shape. Were there human traits the terra indigene should not absorb? Where could they go to study humans closely enough to learn what could not be allowed to take root in the reclaimed towns?

As one, the Elders turned north and east, looking in the direction of Lakeside.

<That Courtyard was not abandoned, and it has a human pack,> the eldest male said.

It also had the Wolf and howling not-Wolf who intrigued so many of the Elders. Witnessing the stories that would flow into the wild country was worth the risk of human contamination.

All of them were curious, but only two Elders—a male and a female—were chosen to spend time in a small piece of land surrounded by humans. They had been in Lakeside before, when, as Namid’s teeth and claws, they had roamed the fog-filled streets, hunting human prey.

Satisfied with their decision, most of the Elders returned to their pieces of the wild country, while the two selected for the task of studying the human pack began the journey to Lakeside.


Chapter 1

Windsday, Messis 1

Eager to join his friends for an early morning run, Simon Wolfgard, leader of the Lakeside Courtyard, hurried toward the terra indigene Wolves who were using trees and shrubs for camouflage as they watched the paved road that looped the Courtyard. Actually, they were watching the man who was riding on the road at an easy pace.

<It’s Kowalski,> Blair growled. It was a soft growl, but the human suddenly scanned the area as if his little ears had caught the sound.

<On a bicycle,> Nathan added.

<We gave him permission to ride on the paved roads,> Simon said, a little concerned about their focused attention on a human they knew fairly well.

Karl Kowalski was one of the human police officers who worked directly with the terra indigene to minimize conflicts between humans and Others. Because of that, he had been labeled a Wolf lover and had had his share of conflicts with other humans. The latest incident had happened last week when a car “accidentally” swerved and almost hit Kowalski while he was taking a bicycle ride before work. Because the terra indigene viewed that as a threat to a member of their human pack, Simon, Vladimir Sanguinati, and Henry Beargard—members of the Courtyard’s Business Association—decided to allow the human pack to ride on the Courtyard’s paved roads.

Simon had thought all the Wolves had been told about the Business Association’s decision—especially Nathan, who was the watch Wolf at the Liaison’s Office, and Blair, who was the Courtyard’s dominant enforcer—but this was the first time any of the humans had ventured to ride on a road that still had Trespassers Will Be Eaten signs posted as a warning.

<Bicycle, Simon.> Blair’s growl wasn’t as soft this time.

Must have been loud enough for human ears, because Kowalski started to pedal a little faster.

Oh. Bicycle. Now Simon understood the real focus of the Wolves’ attention, the reason for their excitement. Humans had ridden bicycles up to the Green Complex as well as a few other places in the Courtyard, and the Wolves had been intrigued by the two-wheeled vehicles. But those instances had been about transportation to or from a task. This could be something else.

<A game of chase?> Jane, the Wolfgard bodywalker, asked hopefully.

<Kowalski could be play-prey,> Nathan said.

<Does he know how to play chase?> Blair asked.

<He’s a police officer,> Nathan replied. <He chases other humans all the time.>

<Doesn’t mean he understands our game.> Simon thought Nathan’s opinion of police work was skewed more toward hopeful than accurate. Still, they could offer to play. If Kowalski didn’t accept, they would just enjoy a run. But . . . bicycle. Simon really wanted to chase one. <Let’s find out.>

The Wolves charged up the road, Simon and Blair in the lead as they swiftly closed the distance between the pack and their play-prey. But would they have a game?

Kowalski looked back. His eyes widened—and he pedaled faster.

Yes!

<We don’t catch, only chase,> Simon said.

<He’s fast!> Jane surged ahead of the males, pulling up alongside the bicycle’s back wheel in seconds.

<Don’t grab the wheels,> Nathan said. <If you catch a tooth in the spokes you could break your jaw or worse.>

<I was listening when Officer Karl told the puppies about the dangers of biting wheels,> Jane snapped, clearly offended by Nathan’s unwanted warning. She moved up a little more, now in position to play-bite Kowalski’s calf.

Kowalski glanced at Jane and pedaled faster. Instead of going over the bridge that would take them into the Hawkgard section—and commit the human to the big loop within the Courtyard’s three hundred acres—Kowalski turned onto the road that ran alongside the Elementals’ lake, heading back toward the Green Complex.

The Wolves ran, maintaining their distance even when Kowalski slowed down while going up a rise. They took turns pacing the bicycle and pushing their prey to run and run. Or pedal and pedal. As they reached the intersection with the Courtyard’s main road, Kowalski swung left toward the Green Complex instead of turning right toward the Market Square.

Most of the pack, having slowed to a trot as their prey tired, circled back toward the Wolfgard Complex. Nathan headed for the Market Square and the Liaison’s Office, where he would keep track of the deliverymen and guard Meg Corbyn, the Courtyard’s Human Liaison. Simon and Blair followed Kowalski until they reached the Green Complex. Then Blair continued on to the Utilities Complex while Simon dashed for the water trough in the common area that formed the open center of the Courtyard’s only multispecies complex. He lapped water, then shifted to his human form and dunked his head, flinging water as he stood up and tossed his dark hair away from his face. He splashed his arms and chest, then grinned when Kowalski parked the bicycle and approached the trough warily.

“That was a great game of chase!” Simon said happily. “You understand how to be play-prey.”

“I do?”

“Yes.” Simon cocked his head, puzzled by the human’s wariness. Hadn’t they just played, had fun? “Want some water?”

“Thanks.” Kowalski splashed water on his face and neck, then on his arms. But he didn’t drink.

Simon pondered the not drinking for a moment. Humans were clever, invasive predators who had recently shown the terra indigene once again why they could never be fully trusted—not even by each other. But physically they were so much weaker than other kinds of predators. This not drinking, for example. Nothing wrong with the water in the trough. Someone had already drained yesterday’s water, using it on the potted tree and other plants in the open area, and refilled the trough with fresh water for drinking and splashing. Humans would drink water pumped from the well if it was in a glass or a bucket or some other small container but couldn’t drink the same water from a shared outdoor container?

It made him wonder how they had survived as a species long enough to become such a problem.

“So who doesn’t understand about play-prey?” Kowalski asked, rubbing a hand over his face.

“The female pack. Every time we invited them to play, they stopped riding their bicycles and asked if they could help.” Simon spread his arms in a “what’s that all about?” gesture. Then he pointed at Kowalski. “But you invited us to play, and we all had a good run.”

Kowalski snorted a soft laugh. “Well, I sure had a good run.”

“Since the females can’t pedal as far or as fast as you, maybe they could play chase with the puppies.” The pups would learn how to run as a pack without the risk of being kicked by real prey.

Simon studied Kowalski, who studied him in turn.

“I’ll talk to Ruthie,” Kowalski finally said.

They both heard the clink of glassware and looked toward the screened summer room below Meg Corbyn’s apartment.

“Must be later than I realized,” Kowalski said. “I’d better go home and get cleaned up for work.”

Simon watched the man walk toward the bicycle—and the summer room. For a moment, it looked like Kowalski was going to go in and talk to Meg, and Simon felt his teeth lengthen to Wolf size as his lips pulled back in a silent snarl. But Kowalski just raised a hand in greeting, said, “Morning, Meg,” and rode away.

Simon walked around the trough, then stopped suddenly when he realized he was naked in his human form. It had never mattered until Meg came to live in the Courtyard. But humans reacted in various ways to seeing one another without clothing, even when clothing wasn’t needed for protection or warmth. Meg had adjusted pretty well to friends shifting to human form to give her a message or answer a question before shifting back to their preferred furred or feathered form, but it was different with him—maybe because their friendship was different from any other she had with humans or terra indigene.

Most nights, he slept with her in his Wolf form. They had their own apartments, but those places were connected by the summer room and a back upstairs hallway, and more and more it was becoming one den instead of two. But they weren’t mates in the same way Kowalski and Ruthie were mates. Then again, terra indigene Wolves mated only once a year when females came into season. Meg did the bleeding typical of human females, but she hadn’t shown any physical interest in having a mate. Except . . .

She’d asked him to go skinny-dipping with her a couple of weeks ago. Both of them naked, in human form. She’d been nervous about being in the water with him, and she seemed scared after he’d kissed the scar along the right side of her jaw—a scar made by the cut that had saved the Wolfgard in Lakeside as well as many other Wolves throughout the Northeast Region and even beyond.

He’d kissed her before—on the forehead once or twice. But when he’d kissed that scar, he’d felt a flutter of change inside him, and in the days that followed he began to understand on some instinctive level that he wasn’t quite the same as the rest of the Lakeside Wolfgard. Not anymore.

Maybe it wasn’t just for Meg’s sake that, after the kiss, he’d invited her to play a Wolf game despite their both looking human. Then she wasn’t afraid anymore. And since then . . . Well, it wasn’t lost on him that, in summer weather like this, human males wore next to nothing in and around their own dens and no one thought anything of it.

“It’s hot upstairs,” Meg said, not raising her voice because she didn’t need to. His ears might look human, but he was still a Wolf and could hear her just fine. “I brought some food down here for breakfast.”

“I’ll take a quick shower and join you.”

He hurried inside and up the stairs to the bathroom in his apartment. Washing his hair and body didn’t take long, but he stood under the shower, enjoying the cool water falling over him as he thought about the complication that was Meg Corbyn.

He had brought her into the Courtyard, offering her the job of Human Liaison before discovering that she was a blood prophet, a cassandra sangue—a breed of human females who saw visions of the future when their skin was cut. She had escaped from the man who had owned her and used her, and Simon and the rest of the terra indigene in Lakeside had taken her in.

That sounded simple but it wasn’t. Nothing about Meg was simple. She was the pebble dropped in a pond that was the Lakeside Courtyard, and the ripples of her presence had changed so many things, including the terra indigene who had befriended her. Because of Meg, the Courtyard’s residents interacted with humans in ways that were unprecedented—or, at least, hadn’t been considered in centuries. Because of Meg, the terra indigene throughout Thaisia had tried to save the rest of the blood prophets who had been tossed out like unwanted puppies by the humans who had owned them. Because of Meg, the Lakeside Courtyard had a human pack who provided an additional learning experience for terra indigene who had a human-centric education and needed to practice those skills with humans who wouldn’t take advantage of mistakes.

Because of Meg, he had the uncomfortable feeling that a little bit of being human had become attached and inseparable from his Wolf form.

Plenty of human females over the years had wanted to take a lusty walk on the wild side and have sex with one of the terra indigene. And plenty of terra indigene had been equally curious about having sex in their human form. But that was about pleasing the body for a night and walking away. Or, for the Sanguinati, it was about using lust as a lure in order to feed off the blood of their preferred prey.

Sex was different from becoming someone’s mate. Mating was serious business. It was about pack and family. Some forms of terra indigene mated for life; some did not. Even among the forms that usually mated for life, the bonds didn’t always hold. Simon’s sire, Elliot, never talked about why his mate had left him. And Daphne, Simon’s sister, had told them nothing about her mate or why she had shown up in Lakeside alone just days before her pup was born.

No, the mating bond didn’t always last, and most of the time, the repercussions were small. A pack might break apart if the dominant pair split. Some might leave for other packs, even other parts of the continent. But ordinarily, a species wouldn’t become extinct if a mating bond broke—and that could happen if his bond of friendship with Meg became something more but couldn’t survive being something more, couldn’t survive a physical mating. He knew it. Tess and Vlad and Henry knew it. Maybe some of the humans knew it. But he didn’t think Meg knew it, wasn’t sure she would be strong enough to carry that weight on top of what she had been asked to do already.

She had been hurt by the humans who had caged her and used her. Hurt in ways that made her fearful of the human male form. While he occasionally wondered if having sex with a human would feel different if the human was Meg, he wasn’t willing to risk their friendship, wasn’t willing to break the bond they already had. So he needed to be extra careful now for her sake, for his sake, for everyone’s sake. How much human would the terra indigene keep? The Elders had asked that question without specifying if they meant human population, human inventions, or the intangible aspects of a form that were absorbed along with the physical shape if you lived too long in a particular skin.

Simon shut off the water and dried himself before pulling on a pair of denim cutoffs.

When the Elders had first asked that question, he thought they expected an answer in words. But after the recent war that had broken the Cel-Romano Alliance of Nations on the other side of the Atlantik, and the Elders’ decision to thin, and isolate, the human herds in Thaisia, Simon understood that the answer would be shaped by what the Elders learned from the things that happened in and around the Lakeside Courtyard.

Meg fussed with the dishes on the small table in the summer room, but her mind was still replaying the image of Simon and Karl Kowalski standing by the water trough, talking. Simon had looked happy. Karl had had his back to the summer room, so she hadn’t seen his face, but he’d seemed tense. She wondered why Karl would feel tense about something that pleased Simon so much. Then again, a Wolf and a human didn’t often see things the same way.

But looking at them, their bodies communicating opposing emotions, she noticed the similarities. Unlike Henry Beargard, who was big and muscled even in human form, Simon and Karl had the strength and lean muscles of hunters who chased their prey—although she didn’t think Karl usually had to run after the people he arrested. They both had dark hair, but Karl’s was cut shorter than Simon’s. The real difference, at first glance anyway, was the eyes. Karl’s were brown, while Simon’s were amber whether he was in human or Wolf form.

And when Karl left, she noticed the parts of Simon that weren’t usually seen. She noticed—but she wasn’t sure how she felt. Scared, yes, but also a little curious. She and Simon were friends, and she adored his nephew Sam. But more than that, they’d become partners who were committed to keeping the Courtyard—and the city of Lakeside—intact. And they were partners who were committed to helping the cassandra sangue survive in a world that was too full of sensation.

In the stories she’d read, people who were drawn to each other seemed to fight a lot or have misunderstandings or had sex and then broke up before eventually getting together. But those were humans, not a blood prophet and a Wolf. There were things that had been done to her in the compound that her body remembered but were veiled from her mind—things that made it much easier for her to be around Simon when he was in Wolf form. She knew in her heart that Simon would never do bad things to her like the men in the compound had done, but the furry Wolf still felt like a safer companion, despite the teeth and claws.

And yet, this time, seeing Simon without clothes . . . Scary, yes, but thinking about it made something flutter inside her, something that made her wonder what it would be like if they . . .

“You’re upset.”

Startled, Meg almost knocked over a glass of water. She hadn’t heard Simon enter the summer room.

“No, I’m not.” But looking at him, she was distracted by the male body that displayed everything but the scary bits, which were hidden by denim cutoffs. Then she remembered that she wasn’t wearing anything except a thin cotton shift and panties. That hadn’t seemed important when she’d put them on after her shower.

She was asking for it. Meg couldn’t remember if she had read that phrase in a story or if it was part of a rememory—an image from an old prophecy. But she knew it was the excuse a man used in order to blame a girl when he forced her to have sex with him.

She hadn’t given a thought to how little she was wearing, but if she was noticing Simon’s body, was he also noticing hers? And if he was . . .

She was asking for it.

No! A human male might think that way, but Simon wouldn’t, not even when he was in human form. Her brain knew that; it would make things easier for everyone if she could convince her body.

“Yes, you are.” Simon stepped closer, and his amber eyes narrowed—but not before Meg saw the flickers of red that indicated anger. “You smell upset—and a little lusty. But mostly you smell upset.” He snarled, showing fangs that definitely weren’t human. “Did Kowalski upset you?”

“No.” Her insides were feeling shaky, but her reply was firm and definite. The last thing she wanted was for Simon to be angry with any of her human friends. “I was thinking of something that made me unhappy.”

He stopped snarling and cocked his head, looking more baffled than angry. “Why would you do that?”

She stared at him. She didn’t want to tell him what she’d been thinking about, which would be his next question, so she shrugged and changed the subject to one she knew would interest him: food. “I couldn’t decide what to eat, so I brought a lot of stuff, including this.” She picked up a container and a spoon, then hesitated.

“What is it?”

“Yogurt.” She swallowed a spoonful and wondered why Merri Lee and Ruth said it was yummy. Was this an acquired taste? “Try some.” She filled the spoon and held it out to Simon, wondering what he would do.

He leaned toward the spoon and sniffed. Then he ate the offering.

Meg held her breath, not sure if he would spit out the yogurt or swallow it.

He swallowed. Then he looked at the other food she’d brought down. “Why would you eat that when you could eat slices of bison?”

Since she couldn’t honestly say she liked the taste of bison, she didn’t see much difference. “Merri Lee and Ruth said yogurt is good for a person’s innards, especially a girl’s innards.”

“Glad I’m not a girl,” he muttered as put a couple of bison slices on a plate before considering the rest of the available food.

Meg took another spoonful of yogurt before closing the container. There. She’d taken care of her innards for the day. She ate half the berries, then pushed the bowl toward Simon. She half hoped he’d refuse the offer, saying he had plenty of bison to eat, but he happily accepted his share of the berries without a word, leaving her to nibble on a slice of sharp cheese.

“You’re not eating,” Simon said a few minutes later.

“I’ve had enough for now.” Which was true since she intended to dash over to A Little Bite before work and see what Nadine Fallacaro and Tess had available at the Courtyard’s coffee shop.

They took the remaining food up to her apartment and washed the dishes before Simon went to his apartment to get dressed for work.

Meg stared at the clothes in her closet and considered what might be appropriate office wear for the person who was the Human Liaison and what was a practical way to dress on a hot, muggy day. She chose a pair of darkgreen shorts, a short-sleeve, rosypeach blouse, and a pair of sandals that looked nice and felt great.

After checking that the book she was currently reading was in her carry sack, Meg locked the front door of her apartment and went down the outside stairs to wait for Simon.

Lieutenant Crispin James Montgomery turned his head to look at Investigative Task Force Agent Greg O’Sullivan, who was sitting in the backseat of the patrol car. When O’Sullivan looked pointedly at the third man in the car, Monty turned his attention to his partner, Officer Karl Kowalski, who was driving them to a meeting with the new acting mayor and commissioner of police.

Kowalski was a vigorous man in his late twenties. A dedicated police officer, he believed that the best way to help the humans in Lakeside was to have a good working relationship with the terra indigene—a belief that had caused some personal problems with a landlord as well as creating a rift between Karl and his parents and brother.

But after the slaughter of humans in some Midwest and Northwest towns in retaliation for the slaughter of the Wolfgard in those same areas; after the storms that raged across the continent of Thaisia and slammed into Lakeside; after the humans saw the briefest terrifying glimpse of the terra indigene who lived in, and guarded, the wild country, Monty wondered if Kowalski still believed there was any hope of humans’ surviving the force and fury of the Elementals and the terra indigene who were known as Namid’s teeth and claws.

And he wondered what he would do if Kowalski and Michael Debany, the other officer on his team, wanted to work on another team or even transfer to another police station in Lakeside.

“Are you all right?” Monty asked. Was it pointless to ask with O’Sullivan in the car? The agent was doing his best to create a dialogue with Simon Wolfgard and the other members of the Courtyard’s Business Association, but no one knew him well enough yet to consider him a personal friend.

Kowalski stopped behind a bus that was taking on passengers instead of changing lanes to go around. If they stayed behind the bus and waited at every stop, they would be late for the meeting.

Out of the corner of his eye, Monty saw O’Sullivan cover the watch on his left wrist, a silent message: we can be late for the meeting.

In looks, Monty and O’Sullivan were opposites. Greg O’Sullivan was in his early thirties. He had green eyes that were always filled with sharp intelligence, and his short dark hair was starting to thin at the top. On the job, he had a burning intensity and a face that made Monty think of a warrior who had chosen an austere life.

Monty, on the other hand, was the oldest of the three men, even though he wasn’t forty yet. He had dark skin, brown eyes, and short, curly black hair already showing some gray—and not all the lines on his face came from laughter. Not anymore.

“I took a bike ride in the Courtyard this morning and ended up playing a game of chase with some of the Wolves,” Kowalski said. “I was the designated prey.”

O’Sullivan leaned forward. “Are you all right?”

Kowalski glanced in the rearview mirror, then swung around the bus when it signaled at the next stop. “More of a workout than I’d intended to take with it being so muggy. The Wolves didn’t hurt me, if that’s what you’re asking. Didn’t even try.”

Monty and O’Sullivan waited.

“It was a game to them, and somehow I had signaled my willingness to play. But, gods, seeing them around the Market Square . . . It’s not that you forget how big they are, but I didn’t really translate what their size means when they’re hunting. When I saw them racing toward me, my instincts kicked in and I tried to outrun them. Couldn’t, of course.”

“Do you know what you did to join the game?” Monty asked quietly.

Kowalski focused on the traffic for a minute. “Simon said the girls stop and ask if they can help instead of accepting the invitation to play, so it could be as simple as me speeding up instead of stopping.”

“Predator’s instinct,” O’Sullivan said. “If something runs, a predator will chase it.”

“But they’ve never chased any of us before, and we ride bicycles up to the kitchen garden at the Green Complex all the time.” The traffic light turned yellow. Kowalski braked instead of speeding up to slip through the intersection before the light turned red. “At first I thought the Wolves chasing me hadn’t heard that we’re allowed to ride on the paved roads. But I recognized Nathan and thought I recognized Simon. The roads are posted with Trespassers Will Be Eaten signs, and when I first saw them coming at me . . .” He blew out a breath and pressed the accelerator when the light turned green. “Just a game. Simon thought we’d had great fun. Bet the other Wolves did too.”

“And you?” Monty asked.

“We look at the same things, but we don’t see the same things. It made me realize how easy it can be to screw this up and send the wrong signal.”

Monty looked out the window and wondered what sort of signal the new mayor and police commissioner were going to send.

Meg opened the Liaison’s Office, then glanced at the clock. Nathan was late, but Jake Crowgard was at his spot on the shoulder-high brick wall that separated the delivery area from the yard behind Henry’s studio.

Just as well she had the office to herself for another minute or so.

Her arms tingled. It wasn’t the pins-and-needles feeling that warned of the need to cut and speak prophecy. This was milder, more like a memo than a screeching alarm.

Opening a drawer, she lifted the lid of the wooden box Henry had made for her and looked at the backs of several decks of fortune-telling cards that she was learning to use to reveal prophecy instead of cutting her skin with the silver razor. Maybe today she would finally take all the cards out of the box and start discarding what wouldn’t be needed to create the Trailblazer deck of prophecy cards.

She stirred the cards in a vague effort to shuffle them. Not that it mattered. When a question was asked, her hands would prickle, and the cards were chosen based on the severity of that feeling.

Meg closed her eyes so that she wouldn’t influence her choice by recognizing the back of a particular deck. Placing her fingertips on the cards, she whispered, “What will the appointment of the new mayor mean to Lakeside?”

Nothing. Nothing. Her fingers brushed the cards while even the tingling faded away to nothing. Then a buzzing in the fingertips of her right hand. She brushed away the top cards until she reached the one that created the buzz. She picked up the card and opened her eyes—and knew the answer before she turned the card to see the image. The card had come from a children’s game and had been mixed in with her prophecy cards. But the images from the game had proved useful, even if the answers they provided were usually unwelcome.

What will the new mayor mean to Lakeside? A big question mark. Future undecided. Lakeside’s future had been undecided ever since the terra indigene here realized the Elders’ response to the Humans First and Last movement’s actions was going to be very, very bad.

But she’d hoped for a different answer today.

She’d put the card back and started to close the box when she thought of another question. Lakeside was a human-controlled city, but the Courtyard belonged to the terra indigene. Any outbreak of hostility between humans and the Others could have terrible consequences in the wake of the recent conflicts.

Meg closed her eyes and placed her fingers on the cards again. When she’d first begun working with the decks, she had decided that a three-card draw would represent subject, action, and the result. She didn’t know if that was the way other people used fortune-telling cards, but it seemed to be working for her.

“What is going to happen to my friends in the Courtyard?” She repeated the question over and over while she searched for the images that would provide the answer. When she selected the three that had produced the severest prickling, she took them to the big wooden sorting table and turned them over in the order she’d chosen them.

The first card had three images: train, bus, car. The second image was an explosion. The third card . . . the question mark. Future undecided.

That was not good.

She took a notebook out of a drawer, turned to a fresh page, then wrote down her questions and the cards she’d drawn as the answers.

She felt reluctant to put the cards away before she called someone to look at them and felt equally reluctant to tell anyone from the Business Association about this particular answer. Maybe one of her human friends? Ruth Stuart lived across the street in the two-family house on Crowfield Avenue, and Merri Lee was moving into an apartment in one of the adjacent stone buildings the Courtyard had recently purchased to provide a place for their employees to live if they were turned away from human-owned rentals.

A knock on the doorway between the sorting room and the back room made her gasp. Then she relaxed when she saw Twyla Montgomery waiting to be acknowledged. The sorting room was usually out of bounds to humans except for a special few, and with so many new people visiting the Market Square, that boundary was being reinforced with snarls and sharp teeth.

“Good morning, Miss Twyla,” Meg said.

She heard a scrambling in the front room and realized Nathan must have come in while she was using the cards.

“Good morning, Miss Meg.” Twyla crossed the room and set a travel mug and container on the sorting table. “And good morning to you, Mr. Nathan. It’s going to be a sticky day, and I don’t envy you having to wear a fur coat no matter how fine it looks.”

Silence. Then Nathan acknowledged the words with a soft arroo and went back to the Wolf bed under one of the big windows in the front room.

Meg smiled. Twyla Montgomery was Lieutenant Montgomery’s mother. A thin woman with dark skin that was beginning to sag with age, brown eyes that usually looked kind, and short, curly hair that was more tarnished silver than black. But Twyla also had a no-nonsense attitude and didn’t take sass from anyone—a trait that made the Wolves keenly interested in observing her from a safe distance.

“Mr.Simon came into A Little Bite grumbling about yogurt and girl innards and how you don’t like bison,” Twyla said. “I thought he might have some kind of brain fever and was talking nonsense, but Miss Tess said you must not have eaten enough for breakfast, so she made an egg salad sandwich and a bit more for you.” A pause. “You skimping on food, girl?”

“No, ma’am. I didn’t eat much at home because I planned to pick up something when I got to work.” When Twyla stared at her, Meg added, “I really don’t like the taste of bison.”

“I tried a slice the other day and can’t say it appealed to me either. But I suspect if it was a choice between eating bison and going hungry, I’d like it just fine—and so would you.”

Meg nodded. “If that was the choice, Simon might learn to like yogurt.”

Twyla laughed. “You think so?”

Meg imagined being given a plate of rolled bison slices dipped in yogurt. Shuddering, she wondered if you could make a salad out of grass.

Twyla tapped a finger just above the three cards on the table. “What’s this about? Or can’t you say?”

“These are fortune-telling cards, but I call them prophecy cards. I’m trying to see if some of the cassandra sangue can use them to reveal prophecy instead of making a cut.” A thousand cuts. It was said that was all a blood prophet had before the cut that killed her or drove her insane. Since most prophets didn’t survive past their thirty-fifth birthday, Meg, at twenty-four, felt highly motivated to find an alternative to the razor.

“What do these tell you?” Twyla asked.

“I’m not sure. I asked what was going to happen to my friends in the Courtyard. These cards were the answer.” Meg waited until the older woman came around to her side of the table. She pointed to each card. “Subject, action, result.”

Twyla frowned at the train/bus/car card. “Does that mean travel or the transportation itself?”

“Could mean either. It was drawn as the subject, so that should mean the thing itself, but it could mean that one of these forms of transportation is bringing someone or something to Lakeside. The explosion, being the action card, could mean a call-the-bomb-squad kind of explosion or an emotionally explosive conflict between groups of people. So maybe a group of people traveling to Lakeside are going to cause some kind of trouble for the Courtyard. I’m getting pretty good at finding the cards that answer the question, but Merri Lee and I are still working on correctly interpreting them.”

As she watched Twyla study the cards, the skin between her shoulder blades began to prickle.

“What does the question mark mean?” Twyla asked, sounding troubled.

“Future undecided. That was the same answer I drew when I asked about the city of Lakeside this morning.” Meg studied the older woman. “You know what the cards mean, don’t you?”

“I have a thought, but nothing I’d want to share. Not just yet.” Twyla walked toward the back room.

“Thanks for bringing the food,” Meg said.

Twyla turned to look at her. “You’re welcome. Don’t you be skimping on food. There’s no need for that.”

Meg listened to the back door of the office close. Then she reached over her shoulder and scratched at her back. She liked Twyla Montgomery, and even the Others offered the older woman a trust they rarely gave someone they’d known for such a short time. That was the reason Meg felt uneasy now.

She just hoped Miss Twyla decided to share her thoughts about the cards before something bad happened.


Marked in FleshMarked in Flesh, in paperback February 2017