Murder of Crows Page 31

“You sure you feel all right to do this today?” He opened her carry bag, took out a couple of containers of food, and put them in the under-the-counter fridge.

“I’ll be fine,” Meg replied, sounding testy.

If she would let him sniff her properly, he’d know if she was all right without having to keep asking.

She turned on the lights and picked up the key to the front door as she went through the sorting room. When she returned, he stood on one side of the sorting table while she stood on the other.

Simon took the silver folding razor out of his pocket and set it on the table. But he kept his hand over it. “This is yours.” She didn’t insist that he give the razor back before he left with Henry last night. Maybe she’d been as frightened by what had happened yesterday as the rest of them. Maybe that was why he felt he had to return it. “Meg …” What was he supposed to say?

“Until I was punished, I never understood how much the euphoria shielded blood prophets,” Meg said, touching her left arm at the crosshatch of scars. “Maybe the cutting started as a defense against what we saw—a kind of pressure release—and over generations it became something else, something more.”

He listened, saying nothing—an attentive silence.

“I can’t stop cutting, Simon. I’m not sure any of us can.” Meg pointed at herself to indicate she meant the cassandra sangue.

“I know. But … not all of you die young, Meg. Even if a thousand cuts is really the limit …” Simon shifted his feet and whined softly. “The first time I saw one of your kind, I was fifteen. I could hold the human form well enough to pass for human most of the time, so I was with a group of young terra indigene having an outing in the human world. It was actually a human settlement on the edge of one of ours, so it hardly counted, but it was a first attempt at buying food from an open stall or some small bit of merchandise from a shop.

“There was this old woman with her arms brown and bare to the sun, the scars showing white. She wore a straw hat and sat at this little table, offering to read her cards and tell our fortunes.

“There was a group of humans at the settlement about the same age as my group. Don’t know what they were doing there. Maybe a field trip similar to ours. They walked past her table and laughed at her, called her names because of the scars. So did some of the Others as a way of imitating the humans. But when she looked at me, I stopped. She took out a razor, the silver dazzling in the sun, and cut her cheek. And she told me what I could be.”

Simon blinked. He lifted his hand off the razor and took a step back.

They said nothing, just stared at each other.

“Do you know how she managed it?” Meg finally asked. “Do you think anyone would remember her who could tell you how she managed to survive the cutting long enough to grow old?”

“I don’t know. I don’t even know if there is still a settlement there, but I can try to find out if you want.”

“Yes. I’d like to know.” Meg pressed her hands on the table. She didn’t reach for the razor. “Buying a cut on my skin was expensive. That’s why I have so few scars compared to the other girls in the compound.”

“You’re only twenty-four,” he said. “You have plenty of scars for someone your age.” Too many scars. Most of the girls didn’t live to see thirty-five years. “We’ll find an answer. We’ll find a way for you to live long enough to grow old.”

Her eyes filled with tears. She blinked them away. “Until then, Mr. Wolfgard, I have work to do and so do you.”

He heard teasing in her voice—and also a reminder of territory. This building was hers.

“Don’t forget your appointment with Dr. Lorenzo,” he said over his shoulder as he walked toward the back room.

“I won’t forget.”

“And don’t forget to eat,” he called as he opened the back door.

“I won’t! Go to work, Simon!”

Grinning, he stepped outside. She sounded all right.

Wishing he could shift to Wolf and run for a few minutes, he settled for a brisk walk around the Market Square. With everything that had been going on lately, he hadn’t paid attention to the stores in the Others’ business district and didn’t know if they’d received deliveries from any merchants. For that matter, he didn’t know if the bookstore had received any shipments in the past few days. He’d have to ask Vlad.

As he entered the Market Square, he spotted a human who, while familiar, shouldn’t have been there at this time of day.

“Arrroooo!” The sound didn’t have the same quality coming from a human throat, but the female stopped and waited for him.

Ruthie Stuart. Officer Kowalski’s mate. Usually a sensible female, she should have known the Courtyard was still closed to all humans except employees. Then again, she was part of Meg’s human pack, and she could have been visiting Merri Lee, or even going to fetch something for the other woman.

But that didn’t explain why she was here at this time of day.

He slowed down when he saw her face. She looked wounded and angry. In his experience, a wounded, angry female was a dangerous female.

“Why are you here?” he asked, watching for a sign she might attack him.

“I needed a couple of things from the grocery store. I know the Courtyard is closed, but since I have a pass, I didn’t think anyone would mind.”

Not a lie, but not the whole truth. “This is morning. You work in the mornings. Why are you here now?”

The answer was the cause of both wound and anger.

“I’ve been given an unpaid leave of absence,” Ruthie said.

Simon cocked his head. “Why?” Then he considered the trouble in Talulah Falls, the trouble at Lakeside University, and the men beating up Merri Lee. And he knew. “They don’t want you because you come to the Courtyard?”

“Yes.”

“Then why do you come?”

“Because I think those people are shortsighted,” she replied with some bite. “Being human doesn’t entitle us to grab what doesn’t belong to us. And I’ve read some of your histories and compared them with ours.”

Really? Maybe he should have paid more attention to what Ruthie was special ordering from HGR. Or taking out on loan from the Market Square Library? She could have done that too.

“From what I can see, if a human shows you a product or some invention that benefits the terra indigene as much as it does humans, you’ll agree among yourselves to release the resources needed to make the product or build the invention. Since you value the world more than you value products or profit, you’re never going to release as much raw materials as humans want, and they’re always going to resent you for it. But I don’t have to blame you for human shortcomings.”

Her own kind had driven her out in the same way humans had driven the Intuits into making pacts with the terra indigene. How could he use this to benefit the Courtyard as well as Ruthie?

“What did you do?” he asked.

“I am … was … a teacher. Younger children.”

“What did you teach?”

“The usual things. Arithmetic, spelling, printing and cursive writing, history, literature, the basics of using a computer.”

“We already have teachers for those things,” he said, more to himself than to her. Okay, they didn’t have someone who could teach computer stuff to the juveniles.

“Right now I’m just looking for a job to help pay the bills,” Ruthie said quickly. “It doesn’t have to be a teaching job.”

Would anyone in the human world hire her? Simon wondered, studying her with more interest. Not likely. Not right now. But he might have a use for a human who understood the human world and could be trusted not to deceive inexperienced terra indigene.

“I’ll think about what you can do here,” he said. He started to turn away, then paused. “For today, check with Heather. See if she needs any help filling orders or stocking shelves.”

“Thank you, Mr. Wolfgard.”

He walked back to HGR, thinking about last night’s meeting and the possibilities that hiring Ruthie might provide.

The terra indigene who lived in Courtyards usually stayed for a few years before going back to the wild country and letting a fresh group come in to deal with the humans. Last night the Others who had abandoned the Talulah Falls Courtyard announced that they weren’t going back. They were done with the double-dealing, lying monkeys. They were done with human government that didn’t keep its promises and allowed the residents of the town to do the same. This strike against the humans should have come sooner—and left fewer survivors.

Even the Crows, who were usually enthusiastic about living in and around human places, didn’t want to stay in Talulah Falls. They were all heading into the wild country. Most likely none of them would brush against anything more human than an Intuit settlement for the rest of their lives.

Too much animosity toward humans. Too much resentment. And, yes, the Others in Talulah Falls had felt some envy toward the earth natives living on Great Island. They weren’t fighting with humans all the time for a share of the harvest or meat. They weren’t being shorted when humans delivered the merchandise the Others were entitled to receive.

Simon had listened to the frustration that had been held in for too long. Hadn’t he felt those things too when he’d arrived at Lakeside to be the leader of that Courtyard? How many humans had the Courtyard’s Business Association hired—and fired—in the past few years? How many quit once they realized that not knowing about some human things didn’t make the terra indigene stupid or gullible or easy to cheat?

Then the new leaders of the Talulah Falls Courtyard joined the meeting. Some of the leaders could pass for human and would be the ones who talked to human government. Most of them had been chosen for their ability, and willingness, to savage the monkeys the moment rules or agreements were broken.

Many of the terra indigene coming in with them had little or no experience with living in a Courtyard. Many had little, if any, training in dealing with humans on a day-to-day basis. The leaders had attended a terra indigene college to acquire an understanding of business and the basics of human government. But that wasn’t the same as feeling confident that you could do simple things in the human world.

Some of the Others who lived around Lakes Etu and Tahki had visited the Lakeside Courtyard recently to see a marketplace and make a purchase without the tension that usually soured the experience. The humans they had encountered were polite and helpful, and they wanted to visit again and learn more. Would Simon be willing to let the Lakeside marketplace be used as a training ground?

Simon was willing, and as he and Henry left the meeting to return home, they both promised to talk to the Business Association about this idea of using the Lakeside Courtyard to help other terra indigene learn how to interact with humans.

Maybe it’s just as well the human customers have stopped coming to HGR and A Little Bite, Simon thought as he opened the back door of HGR. With the help of Meg and her human pack, the Lakeside Courtyard could become a training center for the Others—safe, trusted humans teaching earth native youngsters. Isn’t that how the bargains between us began in the first place?

He found Heather in the front of the store and told her to find something for Ruthie to do if she came looking for work. Then he went up to the office and locked the door. Vlad could get in under the door or through the keyhole. Simon wasn’t worried about being overheard by the Sanguinati since Vlad already knew why these phone calls had to be made.

Taking his seat behind the desk, Simon closed his eyes for a moment. A big risk, especially when he’d told the leaders in the Midwest about the source of the drugs that had created so much trouble in their part of Thaisia. But he’d balance the Midwest participants of this meeting with some of the Others who lived in the High Northeast. The terra indigene there hadn’t been touched by the drugs yet.

No matter what happened, no matter who else would be lost, he wouldn’t let the terra indigene kill Meg.

The fog lifted on the Talulah River. The ferry and barge that linked the two halves of Ferryman’s Landing resumed their schedule, with the crew keeping a wary eye on the weather. They transported residents who had been stuck on the wrong side of the river as well as all the supplies, packages, and mail that had stacked up.

Hawks and Eagles soared overhead, and Crows perched here and there on the vessels, a black-feathered pledge of safety for passengers and crew. But the fishing boats stayed docked, and not even the residents of Ferryman’s Landing dared go out on the water. Every time a boat from Talulah Falls made a dash to escape, a whirlpool appeared on the river and pulled the boat down. Every evening as the sun went down, a storm rose—sleet, heavy snow, battering winds. For two days the storm arrived at sundown and left at sunrise, and the clear blue skies of daylight were a painful reminder of what else humans could lose if they tried to take what didn’t belong to them.

On Earthday morning, James Gardner found a spotted gray pony outside his barn, expecting to be fed. So James fed the animal and opened the door of an empty stall. The pony settled in as if he’d always lived there, coming and going as he pleased, following Lorna Gardner around whenever she went outside. Finally she cut up an apple and let her children feed a few chunks to the pony, and he seemed content with the treat.

The next morning, James paid a few calls to other Simple Life folks, asking if anyone had lost a gray pony. When he passed Ming Beargard on the road, he asked the same question. Beargard said, “Fog isn’t lost; he’s waiting.”

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