Murder of Crows Page 42

As he watched them absorb the words, he understood some things about his employees. Heather was definitely a bunny, and while she was a good worker, he didn’t think she’d be staying much longer. Theral was so new he couldn’t decide whether her uneasiness came from trying to understand the Courtyard as a whole or this assignment. But Merri Lee and Ruthie? He saw a bit of Wolf in them, just like he saw in Meg at times. They understood that the Controller wouldn’t live a day after the terra indigene found him.

Maybe Merri Lee wasn’t having as much trouble accepting Phineas Jones’s death as he thought.

Before he could explain the actual assignment, Merri Lee looked at him and said, “Pictures. Meg needs photographs, drawings, maps, names of towns—images that she’ll remember seeing on the journey to Lakeside.” She turned to Ruthie. “She doesn’t always see in a direct way. Sometimes the answer is by association.”

Ruthie nodded. “So we want to start broad and then keep narrowing the focus.”

The next thing Simon knew, Merri Lee and Ruthie were dividing up the tasks and scribbling notes about who was going to do what—including handing out assignments to the Others.

<Aren’t you supposed to be in charge?> Vlad asked, amused.

<Shut up,> Simon growled.

The terra indigene were assigned land—plants, animals, water, distinctive features of each region—while the girls would check the human locations.

“What can we use for reference?” Ruthie asked.

“Any of the books in the store or in the library,” Simon replied. “Just indicate in some way the books from the store if we need to reshelve them later. You can use the big tables in the library and work with Meg at the sorting room table in the Liaison’s Office.”

“I’ll get a Lakeside map and talk to Meg,” Merri Lee said.

“Can I use the computer in the library?” Ruthie asked. She continued without waiting for Simon’s agreement. “I’ll check the train and bus schedules and see what might have been coming into Lakeside and from where. But first I’ll ask Meg if she remembers any town names.”

“There can be more than one town with the same name,” Theral said.

“Yes,” Ruthie agreed. “But not all of those towns would have a bus or train link to Lakeside. Not directly, anyway.”

The girls looked toward the rack of maps that stood opposite the checkout counter. It was usually within easy sight of whoever was at the counter. Today there was a crowd of earth natives standing in the way of anyone who wanted to reach the maps.

Smoke flowed along the ceiling, then drifted down toward the rack. An arm and hand took shape, along with enough of the face for Simon to identify Stavros when the Sanguinati selected several maps and handed them to Alan Wolfgard, who gave them to Charlie Crowgard, who passed them on to Simon, who gave them to Ruthie.

After murmuring their thanks, Merri Lee and Ruthie headed for the back of the store, followed by Theral. Heather looked over her shoulder at all of them before hurrying to catch up to the other girls.

The other humans.

<She won’t be staying,> Vlad said, sounding regretful.

<I know,> Simon replied. <When the time comes, we’ll do it the human way. We’ll flip a coin to see who has to fill out the paperwork.>

He collected one copy of every magazine the store stocked, which wasn’t many since the terra indigene didn’t find magazines all that interesting and the human customers didn’t like paying the nonrecycling fee he tacked onto the price. Now, though, he would consider whether magazines would provide a useful reference for Meg. He’d have to talk to her about that.

Should he pick up a notebook at Three Ps so he could write such things down? Why did he need to write them when he could remember them?

Damn humans. He was second-guessing himself, wondering if he’d really passed for human as well as he’d thought all these years.

Wondering why it mattered now.

After he handed out the magazines, most of the Courtyard’s guests took their assignments into A Little Bite, where they could use the tables and get a drink.

Alan wandered over to the shelves of children’s books and selected several before he joined Joe and Jackson at A Little Bite. Vlad went upstairs to deal with paperwork. Henry and Bobbie headed for the Market Square shops to see what might be helpful.

That left Simon alone with Charlie.

Going behind the counter, Simon reached for the stack of orders from the terra indigene settlements. If Heather was going to quit, he needed to get a start on these.

“Whispers from across the water,” Charlie said quietly.

Simon began separating the orders into stacks that would go on the same earth native delivery truck. “Whispers of what?”

“War.”

He looked up, giving Charlie his full attention. “War” was a serious word because war reshaped the world. “You think the humans over there are that foolish?”

“Enough of them are.”

“If it does start over there, do you think war will come here?”

“It will touch us. But not, I hope, with the ferocity that will touch the Cel-Romano part of the world.”

“How did you hear about this?”

Charlie smiled. “The Crowgard live in many parts of the world, not just Thaisia. We share what we know. But the Crows can’t tell if the humans will fight to steal territory from each other, as they sometimes do, or if they are looking to take what is ours.”

“I guess the terra indigene over there will find out soon enough and deal with it,” Simon said, frowning as he read the titles being requested from the settlements supplied by the Lakeside Courtyard. It looked like everyone had finished reading the survive-the-blizzard-and-the-evil-human thrillers and had made the seasonal change to stories about surviving other kinds of storms. The evil humans didn’t vary even that much.

Charlie leaned his forearms on the counter. “Simon. This Controller is your enemy, and the Midwest leaders especially are not averse to helping you with this hunt. But that human might not be the only one making the drugs. He might not be the one responsible for the bad meat.”

“He might not be,” Simon agreed. “So that’s one of the things we’ll ask Meg.”

“Meg?” Ruthie asked while Merri Lee opened up the Lakeside and Northeast Region maps on the sorting table. “May I ask you something?”

“Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do today?” Meg replied, setting aside the Lakeside News. “Ask questions in order to find answers?”

Ruthie raised her notebook. “Why would the terra indigene be angry about us taking notes for this assignment? If they’re worried about security or something, we can leave the notebooks here.”

“And everyone in the Courtyard’s Business Association knows Ruthie and Karl are living together and will be getting married this summer and that Michael and I are dating,” Merri Lee said. “At the very least, Simon and Vlad have to figure the police will be aware that something is going on since Ruthie and I were called in to work on Earthday.”

“So why would they be upset about the notebooks?” Ruthie asked. “Because all four of us saw it. The Others in HGR were seriously ticked off, but they didn’t say anything. I know it made Heather and Theral uneasy.”

Meg closed her eyes and recalled training images of notebooks. Appointment books? No, she was pretty sure Simon and Vlad used that kind of notebook to make the work schedule for the store, and Elliot must use one for his meetings with the mayor and such. Journals? No. The Others wouldn’t be upset about such things. Besides, Ruthie and the other girls wouldn’t have brought a journal to a meeting. So what would matter to the terra indigene?

Girls and boys carrying books, going to school, sitting at desks and writing, taking notes while a teacher pointed to something on the blackboard. Then she considered what she knew about the little school here in the Courtyard, about what puppies like Sam were learning and what the juveniles were learning before going off to schools that would give them the technical training or education that was supposed to match what was available to humans. According to the agreements made with the terra indigene in Thaisia, humans could not be taught anything that wasn’t also available to the Others if they wanted to learn.

But what if there were less blatant ways to discourage the Others from insisting that those agreements were met to the full?

She opened her eyes and looked at her friends. “How old were you when you learned to take notes?”

“How old?” Merri Lee frowned. “Before high school. Certainly before going to the university.”

Ruthie nodded. “Not the first few years of school, but definitely before high school. And I’ve always liked keeping track of a project, making notes for myself when I think of something or listing the things I need to do for the assignment, so I started carrying a notebook around since I learned how to write and spell. It’s my way of thinking aloud. And I keep them for reference.”

More images. Boy in the back of the classroom, books closed, sneering at the teacher. Or looking resentful. Or hiding confusion by looking bored? “And if someone doesn’t take notes during class? What would the teacher think?” Meg asked.

“Not interested in the lesson,” Merri Lee replied. “Figures the student thinks the subject is beneath him. Or her.”

“What if no one ever explained to you about taking notes?” Meg asked softly, thinking of how Simon and the other terra indigene she considered friends treated the notebook she used as something private. Which it was. The notebook was her way to build a life, to bridge the gaps between the images she had absorbed during lessons at the compound and the full experience of living. They were curious about why she needed to write things down, but they’d assumed it was part of her being a blood prophet—until this morning when four humans pulled out notebooks and pens and showed the Others that this writing things down wasn’t exclusive to the cassandra sangue. “What if you didn’t learn about taking notes when you were young, so that when you attended classes in a human school, the teacher thought you didn’t care and were wasting his time? What if you wanted to learn but thought the teacher …”

Fetching the copy of the Lakeside News, Meg opened it to the comics and pointed to one strip.

“That strip has been around for years,” Merri Lee said. “When I was young, I thought it was funny, but it doesn’t seem funny anymore.”

One group of characters in the strip always wore elaborate hats, symbols of authority. But the other group, dressed in business suits, were always pulling tricks on the primitives who “couldn’t understand civilization.”

“The Others never learned about taking notes to help them remember what they heard in classes?” Ruthie said. She pressed her lips in a thin line. “Then the instructors would think they’re taking up space in classrooms because they’re entitled to be there but they don’t really care about learning. So the instructors don’t make an effort to find out why the terra indigene aren’t doing the things that would help them get the most out of the class. And the Others realize they aren’t getting what was promised even if they aren’t sure what’s missing, and they resent the humans they still see as intruders even though we’ve been living on this continent with them for centuries.”

“And they express their resentment by tightening the resources we need for the way we live and the things we make, because why should they give up bits of the world that belong to them in order to make things convenient for us?” Merri Lee added. “We all feel a lack, and resentment keeps building. And when the humans go that one step too far …”

“I picked up an old book at an estate sale,” Ruthie said. “Inside was a folded sheet of paper with a list of cities that don’t exist anymore. I didn’t realize at first that’s what it was. It was just a list of city names and dates. When I looked up the cities … or tried to … that’s when I realized they had been destroyed, reclaimed by the wild country.” She looked sad. “How many of those cities vanished because someone couldn’t be bothered to explain something as simple as taking notes?”

Meg watched Ruthie turn to a clean page in her notebook. “What are you doing?”

“Mr. Wolfgard hired me to teach the Others about human things, and that’s what I’m going to do. And not just how to order from a menu or what utensil to use when in a restaurant or how to make a purchase in a store. Karl thinks we have an opportunity to interact with the Others in ways that might make a difference for all of us, and I think so too. So I’m going to teach the terra indigene in the Courtyard about social skills and what to do when they attend a school that employs human instructors. I’m just going to take a minute to make a note about this.”

Merri Lee nodded. “While you do that, Meg and I will start working with the Lakeside map to figure out how she got here.”

It sounded simple. It wasn’t. Meg hadn’t realized how little of the journey she had absorbed. Or, more to the point, she wasn’t sure what had been real and what had been training images. She had focused on following the images that had guided her escape and somehow managed not to see anything that might have created confusion or doubt—the very things that would have helped them now to follow her journey.

There had been a train. She remembered being too scared to sleep and too tired to stay awake. Caught in that mental vagueness, the images that guided her were sharp but had no context. She’d bought a ticket for the last train leaving that night, but she couldn’t remember how she’d reached the station. There must have been a vehicle that had left the compound, but … She remembered riding on the train a long time and seeing something that triggered the decision to get off before the stop listed on her ticket. Which city? She didn’t know. And there had been buses, the kind that provided transportation between cities. And another ticket for another train? But, again, she had followed the visions, and most of what she’d seen had faded too much to recall.

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