Copyright © 2015 Anne Bishop. Used with permission.
(Suggested reading age: 15 years and older.)
Thaisday, Maius 10
Meg Corbyn entered the bathroom in the Human Liaison’s Office and laid out the items she’d labeled the tools of prophecy: antiseptic ointment, bandages, and the silver folding razor decorated with pretty leaves and flowers on one side of the handle. On the other side of the handle, engraved in plain lettering, was the designation cs759. For twenty-four years, that designation had been the closest thing she’d had to a name.
She had a name now and a real apartment instead of a sterile cell. In the compound where she had been raised and trained . . . and used . . . she’d had one friend: Jean, the girl who wouldn’t allow anyone to forget that she’d once had a home and a family outside the compound—the girl who had helped Meg escape.
Now Meg had many friends, and it didn’t matter to her that most of them weren’t human. The terra indigene had given her a chance to have a life, were helping her find ways to live with the addiction that would eventually kill her. But Simon Wolfgard, leader of the Lakeside Courtyard, insisted he’d seen someone like her who had survived long enough to become an old woman.
She wanted to believe that was possible. She hoped this morning’s experiment might provide a clue to how it was possible.
After checking to make sure she hadn’t forgotten anything they would need, Meg sat on the closed toilet seat and waited for Merri Lee, the human friend who was learning to work as her listener and interpreter.
The cassandra sangue saw prophecies when their skin was cut. They were trained to describe the visions and images. But the girls weren’t taught how to interpret what they saw. That would have been pointless. The moment a girl began to speak, a euphoria filled her, veiling her mind and protecting her from what those images revealed. In fact, the only way a blood prophet could remember what she saw was to keep silent. If she didn’t say the words out loud, she remembered what she saw.
It took a particular kind of determination—or desperation—to endure the agony that filled a girl when she didn’t speak after her skin was cut. And experiencing the euphoria that was almost orgasmic was the whole reason cassandra sangue became addicted to the cutting in the first place
It took a particular kind of courage to acknowledge that she couldn’t completely escape the addiction after so many years of being cut on a regular schedule for someone else’s profit. The prophecies inside her would not be denied. Whether she wanted to or not, Meg needed to cut.
That was the reason today’s appointment with the razor was so important. She wasn’t experiencing the pins-and-needles feeling that indicated something was going to happen. Nothing pushed at her, and that made this morning the perfect time to discover what happened when she made a controlled cut.
The back door of the office opened. A moment later, Merri Lee stood in the bathroom doorway holding a small pad of paper and a pen.
They were both petite women around the same age, and both had fair skin. But Merri Lee had dark eyes and dark, layered hair that fell below her shoulders while Meg had clear gray eyes and short black hair that was still mostly a weird orangey red from her efforts to disguise herself when she ran away from the man known as the Controller.
“Are you sure about this?” Merri Lee asked. “Maybe we should wait until Simon and Henry get back from Great Island.”
Meg shook her head. “We should do this now, before the office opens and there’s additional . . . input . . . that might change what I see. Vlad is working at Howling Good Reads today. We can tell him about the prophecy—and he’s close enough if we need help.”
“All right.” Merri Lee pulled over a chair from the little dining area, set it just outside the bathroom doorway, and sat down. “What should I ask you?”
Meg had thought about this. When clients had come to the Controller’s compound, they had a specific question. She wasn’t looking for anything that defined, but she needed some kind of boundary. “This is what you should ask: What should the residents of the Lakeside Courtyard watch for during the next fortnight?”
“That’s pretty vague,” Merri Lee said. “And . . . fortnight?”
“If I ask about a specific thing in the Courtyard, something else might be overlooked—and that might be the important thing the Others should know about,” Meg replied. “Two weeks is enough time. As for ‘fortnight,’ I just learned that word and like the sound of it. I think it fits in with prophecies better than saying ‘two weeks.’”
“But if this doesn’t work, if we don’t get anything useful, then you’ve made the cut for nothing,” Merri Lee argued.
“Not for nothing,” Meg said. The euphoria was reason enough to cut. That wasn’t something she would say to her friend, so she offered a different truth. “If I can stretch out the time between cuts because one cut will supply the warnings we need for two weeks and quiet the pins-and-needles feeling that pushes me to cut, I’ll have more years to live. And I do want to live—especially now that I have a real life.”
A beat of silence. Then Merri Lee said, “Ready?”
“Yes.” Opening the silver razor, Meg laid the blade flat against her skin, its one-quarter-inch width providing the perfect distance between cuts—the distance that kept prophecies separated without wasting valuable skin. She lined up the back of the blade with the last scar on her left forearm. Then she turned her hand and cut just deeply enough for blood to flow freely and, equally important, for the cut to leave a scar.
Agony filled her, the prelude to prophecy. Hearing someone crying—someone no one else could hear—Meg gritted her teeth, set the razor aside, and positioned her arm to rest in the bathroom sink. Then she gave Merri Lee a sharp nod.
“What should the residents of the Lakeside Courtyard watch for during the next fortnight?” Merri Lee said. “Speak, prophet, and I will listen.”
She spoke, revealing everything she saw. The images faded with the sound of the words as waves of euphoria produced a delicious tingle in her breasts and a rhythmic tug between her legs, replacing the pain.
She didn’t know how long she floated on the pleasure produced by the euphoria. Sometimes it seemed to fade within moments of identifying the last image, while at other times she drifted for a while in a haze of physical pleasure. When she became aware of her surroundings again, Meg realized enough time had passed that Merri Lee had bandaged the cut, cleaned the razor, and washed the sink.
The blood of the cassandra sangue was dangerous to humans and Others alike. It had been used to make gone over wolf and feel-good, two drugs that had caused so much trouble throughout Thaisia in the past few months. That was the reason why, when they made plans for this cut, she and Merri Lee agreed that all the blood would be washed away, and the bandages would be collected later and taken to the Courtyard’s Utilities Complex for incineration.
“Did it work?” Meg asked. “Did I speak prophecy? Did I see anything useful?” Her voice sounded rough, and her throat hurt. She wanted to ask Merri Lee for a glass of water or maybe some juice, but she couldn’t rouse herself enough to say anything more.
“Meg, do you trust me?”
That sounded like an ominous way to answer her own questions. “Yes, I trust you.”
Merri Lee nodded, as if coming to a decision. “Yes, it worked. Better than we could have hoped. I need a little time to sort the images into some kind of order.”
Not a lie, exactly, but not the truth either.
Meg studied her friend. “You don’t want to tell me what I said, what I saw.”
“No, I don’t. I really don’t.”
“Meg.” Merri Lee closed her eyes for a moment. “No one in the Courtyard is in immediate danger, but you said a couple of things that were . . . disturbing, things I’m not sure how to interpret. I want to do a preliminary shuffling of images, like we did the last time when we drew the images on index cards and kept arranging them until they told us a story. Then I’ll go to Howling Good Reads and talk to Vlad.”
“I didn’t see anything bad happening to Sam? Or Simon? Or . . . anyone here?” In human form, Sam Wolfgard looked to be around eight or nine years old now, but he was still a puppy. And Simon was her friend. Just the thought of something happening to either of them made her chest hurt.
Merri Lee shook her head. “You didn’t say anything that would indicate someone here was going to be in trouble.” She touched Meg’s hand. “We’re both learning how to do this, and I want someone else’s feedback before you and I talk about what you saw. Okay?”
No immediate danger. None of her friends at risk. “Okay.”
“It’s almost nine o’clock. You should eat something before you open the office.”
Meg followed Merri Lee out of the bathroom, feeling a little lightheaded. Yes, she needed to eat, needed a little quiet time. Needed to figure out what to say to whichever Wolf had guard duty today. Even if she tried to avoid him, the Wolf would smell the blood and ointment. She was pretty sure she could talk John into not sounding an alarm, and if it was Skippy’s turn as watch Wolf, a couple of cookies would distract him. On the other hand, if Blair, the Courtyard’s primary enforcer, showed up with Skippy, as he usually did . . .
Maybe Merri Lee was right about telling Vlad before someone started howling about the cut and brought everyone running to demand answers.
“Merri?” Meg said as Merri Lee opened the office’s back door. “I didn’t see anything else about the Others?”
Merri Lee shook her head. Then she frowned. “Well, you did see paws digging.”
“Digging?” Now Meg frowned. “Why would that be important enough to see in a vision?”
“Don’t know. Maybe Vlad or the Wolves will be able to figure it out.” Merri Lee hesitated. “Will you be all right? You’re not dizzy or anything?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“Remember to eat.”
As soon as Merri Lee closed the back door, Meg looked in the under-the-counter fridge. In the compound, the Walking Names who looked after the girls never gave them a choice about what to eat after a cut. They were fed well, but they were never given a choice. About anything.
Unable to decide, Meg warmed a small piece of quiche and half a beef sandwich in the wave-cooker. She poured a glass of orange juice, then took her meal into the sorting room.
She could select one of the CDs she’d borrowed from Music and Movies and listen to music while she ate. Or she could look at one of the magazines she was using to provide herself with images for the prophecies.
But she didn’t want new sounds or new images right now. She wanted to know what she had seen. She wanted to help figure out what the images meant.
And even though her friend had tried to be reassuring, Meg wanted to know what she’d seen that Merri Lee didn’t want to talk about.
Vladimir Sanguinati, co-manager of Howling Good Reads, settled behind the desk in the bookstore’s office. Turning on the computer, he ignored the scant stack of paperwork and wrote a quick e-mail to Stavros Sanguinati, who lived in Toland, the big East Coast city where the largest book publishers were located.
Human book publishers, that is. Since the shakeup in the Midwest Region a couple of weeks ago, shipments of all kinds of material had slowed down, whether those materials came from the Midwest or not. So it was possible that the human publishers really were out of so many of the books he’d ordered for the store and were waiting for the next shipment of paper in order to print copies of backlist books and new titles. Or they could foolishly be out of stock only for orders sent in by the terra indigene.
Stavros would find out. Like Grandfather Erebus, he enjoyed old movies and often played at being a caricature of his own kind, the country vampire wearing blue jeans, a plaid shirt, and work boots who said things like, “Ve vant a six-pack of blood.” But when he was on official business for the Toland Courtyard, Stavros followed the Sanguinati tradition of wearing black, and there was nothing countrified about him when he arrived in a limousine, dressed in a suit of the finest material.
Stavros was euphemistically called the Toland Courtyard’s problem solver. Knowing how the other vampire solved problems, Vlad could almost pity any human who received an official visit. So Stavros would encourage businesses to put stores like Howling Good Reads first when they were filling backorders, and Vlad would be able to fill the requests coming in from the terra indigene settlements that received goods from the Lakeside Courtyard. The goods manufactured by humans were the only reason the terra indigene on the continent of Thaisia tolerated the continued existence of those invasive monkeys. If goods were no longer supplied, humans had value as only one thing: meat.
As Vlad sent the e-mail, he heard someone coming up the stairs. Hesitant footsteps but not furtive ones. Could be someone in the human pack wanting to use the computer in the Business Association’s room, which took up the other half of HGR’s second floor. They were supposed to ask permission before going into that room, and the newer employees were still getting used to working for, and dealing directly with, the Others. That could explain the hesitation.
When Merri Lee stopped in the doorway and he saw the look on her face, Vlad understood that the hesitation he’d heard was because she knew he wasn’t going to like whatever she had come to tell him. He closed the e-mail program and waited to see what the exploding fluffball wanted.
When Howling Good Reads had been open to human customers, he’d heard human females refer to him as “eye candy,” which meant his dark hair and eyes, his olive skin, and his handsome face easily attracted his prey. For him, feeding was often combined with foreplay.
But Merri Lee had never shown any sexual interest in him, which proved she was more sensible than other human females, and since she was dating a police officer, he didn’t think she was about to throw herself at him now.
Which meant he really wasn’t going to like her reason for coming up here to find him.
“Is there something I can do for you, Ms. Lee?” he finally asked when she continued to hover in the doorway.
She rushed in and sat in the visitor’s chair.
She’s shaking, he thought, suddenly wary. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Yet,” Merri Lee replied. “You need to tell the watch Wolf not to get upset and stir everyone up.”
It occurred to him that he didn’t know who was supposed to be on duty today. Nathan Wolfgard, one of the Courtyard’s best enforcers, was usually the Wolf on guard when Meg was working in the Human Liaison’s Office. But Nathan was on leave for a couple more weeks, running with the Wolves in the Addirondak Mountains, free to shed his responsibilities along with the human skin. The Sanguinati were more at home in human cities since smoke, their other form, made them ideal predators in an urban environment. But shifters like the Wolves, Bears, and various feline gards found life in a Courtyard a constant strain.
Working in a Courtyard was a sacrifice some terra indigene made for the benefit of the rest of their kind. They kept watch over the two-legged predators who had come to Thaisia from other parts of the world. They made it possible for humans to exist on this continent. Vlad wondered if any humans realized that—or realized what happened to the places granted to humans when a “civilized” place like a Courtyard disappeared.
But those thoughts weren’t important right now, not with this female staring at him from the other side of the desk.
“What will upset the Wolf?” he asked, having an uneasy feeling that he already knew the answer.
“Meg made a cut.”
Vlad’s hands closed into fists, but he stayed seated.
“We planned it for this morning,” Merri Lee said hurriedly. “A kind of experiment.”
Let her talk.“Something upset Meg?”
“No. See, that was the whole point. Making a controlled cut when nothing was pushing her.”
A thousand cuts. Supposedly that’s all a cassandra sangue could make before the cut that would kill her or drive her insane. And it wasn’t just the cuts made with a razor. Any injury that broke skin counted as part of that number. Most of those girls wouldn’t see their thirty-fifth birthday, and here was Meg cutting without a reason.
Addiction was its own reason. That would explain why Meg had chosen a time when Simon Wolfgard and Henry Beargard were away from the Courtyard. But that didn’t explain Merri Lee coming to see him.
He needed to sound calm, reasonable. Merri Lee was a member of Meg’s human pack, and the two girls had shown an ability to work together to interpret prophecy. “Was the experiment successful?”
Merri Lee nodded. “It was different from the last time I assisted. After the initial . . . discomfort . . . Meg began speaking. Lots of images. I think she heard some things too, but the sounds were part of the images. I wrote them down.” She handed him a sheet of paper.
Vlad studied the long list. “What does that mean?” He pointed to a P in parentheses after some of the words.
“It’s a pause,” Merri Lee said. “That was different from the last time. This time Meg paused, like a rest in music, so I thought each group of words made up a picture.” She handed him index cards.
He took them reluctantly. “What was the question you asked?”
“We asked what the residents of the Lakeside Courtyard should watch for during the next fortnight.”
“Residents? Not just the terra indigene?”
She hesitated. “No. We said residents, not just the Others. So what Meg saw applies to everyone who lives in the Courtyard.”
Which meant everyone included Meg and Merri Lee.
Vlad looked at the “stories” on the index cards and felt chilled.
Help Wanted: NWLNA
Trail Fire (blaze/inferno?). Path Compass/Compass Path?
Pregnant girl on dirt road. Silver razor. Blood. “Don’t! It’s not too late!”
Girl crying. Silver razor. Broken deer beside highway (roadkill).
Brown bear eating jewels.
Vegetable garden. Paws digging, hands planting.
for sale signs.
Some of the “stories” meant nothing to him. But if he was interpreting others correctly, all of the terra indigene would need to act swiftly.
Vlad studied Merri Lee. Some of the “stories” meant nothing to him, but they did mean something to her.
“Which ones do you understand?” He placed the index cards on the edge of the desk where she could reach them.
She hesitated, then pointed to Help Wanted: NWLNA. “Above the door of the Liaison’s Office are the letters HLDNA, which stand for ‘Human Law Does Not Apply.’ NWLNA stands for ‘No Wolf Lover Need Apply.’” She swallowed hard and wouldn’t meet his eyes. “In the past week, quite a few employment ads in the Lakeside News have those letters at the end, and I’ve seen a couple of those signs in shop windows.”
“I see.” And he did see. Label anyone who wanted to keep peace between humans and the terra indigene as a Wolf lover, especially if that person directly interacted with the Others in any capacity, and force those people to choose between having a job and feeding their families, and opposing the fools who would provoke a fight that would end with many, many humans dead or driven out of the city.
Thinking about the humans who worked in the Courtyard and two basic things everyone needed—food and shelter—he asked, “Are these letters applied only to jobs or also to housing?”
Merri Lee didn’t answer him, and that was answer enough.
“What else?” Vlad asked.
“It . . . It’s not for me to say.”
He leaned forward. She flinched.
“Say it anyway,” he suggested.
“Ruth Stuart and Karl Kowalski. Everyone is being encouraged to make some kind of garden this summer and grow a few vegetables to supplement what you can find in the market. Well, Ruth and Karl bought the material and built the raised vegetable bed for their apartment building with the understanding that they would be able to use half the bed and the other tenants in the building, including the landlord, would share the other half. But once the work was done, the landlord gave them notice, said they’re unacceptable tenants. He wants them out by the end of Maius because he’s already got acceptable people moving in on the first of Juin. That gives Ruth and Karl three weeks to find another place and move. They signed a lease for a year, and they’ve barely had time to get settled in their new place. That man says he isn’t going to reimburse them for the materials they bought or return their security deposit or the last month’s rent, which they paid when they signed the lease. If they were acceptable before they did all the work, why are they unacceptable now? And if this guy gets away with it, what’s to stop the next landlord from pulling the same thing?”
What was to stop this landlord from pulling the same trick on the next tenant? Sounded like it could be a human-versus-human problem. Humans cheated one another all the time.
But Karl Kowalski was one of the police officers who worked directly with the leaders of the Courtyard to keep any minor collisions between humans and Others from escalating into a major fight. If Kowalski was being branded a Wolf lover and was being driven out of his home because of it, the Others needed to pay more attention to things that on the surface seemed strictly the business of humans.
On the other hand, if Ruthie was the unacceptable tenant because she actually worked for the Lakeside Courtyard now, then the trouble with this particular landlord was no longer strictly human business, was it?
Something to discuss with Grandfather Erebus.
At least Merri Lee, all fired up now in defense of her friends, was acting more like her usual self rather than a flinching bunny. She was telling him about Ruthie and Kowalski, but she was also revealing what she and Michael Debany were facing. Debany was another police officer who dealt with the Others, and Merri Lee worked for the Courtyard. Right now, she lived in one of the efficiency apartments above the seamstress/tailor’s shop, but sooner or later, she and Debany would want to live together as a mated pair and would face the same hostility.
“Anything else?” he asked. She’d already given him plenty to think about, but he sensed the girl wasn’t finished.
Merri Lee pointed to the warning about something not being too late. “I don’t think that was part of the vision. I think Meg shouted that in an attempt to warn the girl she saw in the vision.” She blew out a breath. “Both ‘stories’ about girls included a silver razor. The blood prophets are in trouble, aren’t they?”
“Trouble” might be a small word for what could be happening to those girls.
“Thank you, Ms. Lee,” Vlad said, ignoring her question. “You and Meg have given me a lot to consider. But now it’s time we all started the workday. You’re filling out orders in the bookstore today, aren’t you?”
“Yes. What orders I can fill, anyway.” Merri Lee stood up, but she didn’t make a move toward the door. “Ruth wasn’t going to tell you about the vegetable bed or the other part.”
“Then I’m glad you told me.”
Vlad listened to Merri Lee go down the stairs before pushing away from the desk and walking over to the windows that overlooked Crowfield Avenue.
Damn monkeys kept chattering about the Humans First and Last movement on the radio and in the newspaper. Humans were an upstart species compared to the terra indigene, who, in one form or another, had been walking in the world long before the dinosaurs. But humans thought they should control the world, and the speeches made by members of the HFL movement encouraged that kind of thinking.
Didn’t humans realize the terra indigene had heard such words before? Didn’t humans understand that such words were a warning that a fight for territory was building under the surface?
Didn’t they wonder what had happened to cities, and civilizations, the previous times humans had made such claims?
Fine, Vlad thought. Let it come. You monkeys have no idea what’s out there in the wild country. But you’ll find out. If you start a fight with the Others in Thaisia, you will find out.
As he idly watched the traffic moving along Crowfield Avenue, he saw a car pull up across the street. Two men got out, gathered some material from the trunk, and began pounding a sign into the yard of one of the large stone apartment buildings across the street from the Courtyard. Then they went across the yard of a two-story wood house and pounded another sign into the lawn of the other large stone apartment building.
Vlad looked over his shoulder at the index cards sitting on the desk. He studied the for sale signs that had just been put up across the street.
Can’t wait to discuss this with Simon, he thought as he returned to the desk and sent a quick e-mail to all the Sanguinati living in Thaisia. What Meg saw is already in motion, which means the blood prophets, the sweet blood, are already in danger.
He closed the e-mail program and left Howling Good Reads, not even stopping long enough to tell Merri Lee he was leaving. Shifting to his smoke form, Vlad raced to the Chambers to report to Grandfather Erebus.