Murder of Crows Page 5

Many kinds of prey had perfected the art of hiding sickness or injury to avoid being singled out when predators were hunting. Terra indigene Wolves had perfected the art of recognizing what prey tried to hide. So Meg wasn’t really surprised when Henry Beargard appeared in the doorway between the back room and the sorting room.

Apparently Nathan had decided to tell Henry about the medicine smell rather than howl about it himself.

“How are you, Meg?” Henry asked in his rumbly voice.

“I’m fine,” she lied. Wolves could smell fear. So could a Grizzly.

As he crossed the room to stand near the sorting table, he ran a big hand through shoulder-length, shaggy brown hair. The brown eyes that studied her were a reminder that Henry was, among other things, the Courtyard’s spirit guide.

He sniffed the air, but he didn’t comment about the scent of medicine. Instead, he said, “I heard you kicked Simon out of bed.”

She sighed. Since she’d sort of told Merri Lee, she couldn’t fault Simon for saying something. But what had felt like a natural friendship a couple of days ago now seemed so complicated. “I had a bad dream. Simon told you about the dream?” She waited for Henry’s nod. “I was kicking at something in the dream but Simon got in the way and fell off the bed. But I didn’t deliberately kick him out of bed. Off the bed. Whatever.” She paused. “He’s mad about it?”

“He’s limping, and everyone asks him why. It’s embarrassing for him because it’s amusing to the rest of us.”

“Well, he shouldn’t poke me with his nose when I’m having a bad dream!”

Henry’s booming laugh rang out. “I think he’s learned that lesson.”

At least Simon isn’t going around calling me Meg Moosekicker, she thought. Not yet anyway.

“Now,” Henry said. “Why do you smell of medicine?”

She turned her head and pointed at her nose. “My skin split. I don’t know why. I didn’t … cut it.”

“Is that why you had the dream?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. It’s all different outside the compound. There are so many images, but I can’t catalog them and then they get jumbled and don’t have labels and sometimes I’ll be working and then I’m not working—five or ten minutes will go by while I’m just standing here not seeing anything.”

She hadn’t meant to say that, hadn’t intended to tell anyone about the way her mind sometimes went blank. The Others—Simon especially—wouldn’t let her drive a BOW or do things on her own if they knew about the blackouts. And now she’d gone and told Henry, who just stood there looking at her as if she was some strange and curious thing.

“Does Simon know about this?” Henry finally asked.

She shook her head. “Do we have to talk about this now?”

A long look. “There is much to think about, so we can put this aside. For now.”

“Thanks.” The discussion was postponed, but it wouldn’t be forgotten. “Did you just come here to ask about Simon?” She knew Henry had used Simon getting kicked as the excuse to come by and find out why she smelled of medicine.

“The human bodywalker was here, looking at the office in the Market Square,” Henry said. “Maybe we should call him back, have him look at your skin.”

“Doctor,” she said quietly. “He’s called a doctor.” She shuddered, unable to hold back the fear held in the memories of her old life. “I don’t need to see him for this.”

“It bothers you to have him here.” Henry’s voice sounded like thunder that warns of an oncoming storm.

Careful, she thought. “No. Dr. Lorenzo doesn’t bother me. He seems like a nice man, and he took good care of me when I was in the hospital.”

Henry waited. Meg suspected that he could, and would, wait for hours.

“You’re letting in another human because of me. That’s why Simon is considering letting Dr. Lorenzo have an office here, isn’t it? To take care of me? But he would have access to the Market Square, could observe all of you.”

Henry smiled. “As much as humans think they learn about us, we always learn more, Meg.”

“Would he treat the other employees?”

“We can discuss that.” A silence. Then, “Why don’t you want him here?”

“The coat,” she blurted out as she tried to scratch her skin through layers of clothing. “The white coat. The Walking Names—the people who took care of the girls at the compound—wore that kind of white coat or white uniforms.”

“Then he will not wear a symbol of fear and pain when he is in the Courtyard. Meg!”

Hearing her name roared by a Grizzly startled her enough to stumble away from the table—and that had Nathan leaping up on the counter in the front room, ready to lunge through the Private doorway if she needed him.

“He will not wear the symbol of your enemy,” Henry said.

“Arroooo!”

Agreement from Nathan. It didn’t matter if he’d been paying attention to their conversation or not. No Wolf was going to argue with a Grizzly—especially when he’d called that Grizzly to help with a human.

“It’s all right.” Something relaxed inside her. Or maybe she was more focused now on saying the right thing so Nathan would get off the counter before he slipped and hurt himself. She looked at Henry, then at the Wolf. “I’m all right.”

Crisis resolved, Nathan leaped off the counter and returned to his bed. Henry left after assuring her that white coats would be forbidden.

Meg stood in the sorting room trying to block the memories of her life in the compound and convince herself that she would never have to go back there. During her midday break, she would go to HGR and find one of the horror books written by a terra indigene. Those stories scared her enough that she slept with the light on, but she also found it comforting to know how terrifying Wolves could be when they savaged a human they saw as an enemy.

Henry walked over to A Little Bite, grabbed Merri Lee, and hauled her into the back of the shop despite Tess’s furious protest.

It took a minute for both females to calm down enough to listen to him, but once they did and Merri Lee understood what he was asking, he felt better and worse. This thing with the skin wasn’t about Meg being a blood prophet; it was about Meg being human. But the Others hadn’t tried to care for a human before, and even humans found caring for someone like Meg challenging.

How could the terra indigene have known that humans had so little instinct left for taking care of themselves?

Although, to be fair, Meg had never been given the chance to care for herself.

Chapped lips. Chapped skin that could split because of cold weather, dry air, and dehydration. Rough cuticles that could split and bleed. Winter was hard on human skin, but there were face and hand creams and body lotions that would help. The brand the Others required their employees to use was available in a few human stores but very expensive, and the lotions and creams weren’t sold in the Market Square shops, where they would be more affordable.

Given a choice, Henry would have hugged a porcupine rather than listen to such enthusiasm about lotions and hand creams. Since he hadn’t been given a choice, and he had asked, he endured Merri Lee’s explanations until Tess stopped the girl.

“I’ll order enough of the products for all of you if you girls promise to explain to Meg about caring for her skin,” Tess said.

“Sure. We can talk after the Quiet Mind class tonight,” Merri Lee replied. “Ruthie and Heather will be there too.”

“There is another thing,” Henry said, looking at Tess. “Our Meg admitted that sometimes she is overwhelmed by images, that her mind goes blank. It frightens her.”

“Information overload,” Merri Lee said instantly. “When there is too much stimulus, the brain needs a rest. Happens to everyone.”

<Doesn’t happen to us,> Tess said.

<We are smarter than humans in many ways,> Henry replied. Then he said to Merri Lee, “That is something else to mention to Meg. It is unknown to her, and the experience has been frightening.”

After receiving Merri Lee’s agreement to tell Meg that overload was a common occurrence among humans, Henry escaped from the coffee shop and headed for the quiet of his studio. As he walked up the path to the studio door, he glanced over the shoulder-high brick wall that separated his yard from the delivery area in front of the Liaison’s Office. Then he stopped. The chatter about lotions and creams had been a bewildering distraction, but now he thought about all the other things he had learned that day.

There were no trucks making deliveries at the moment. That wasn’t so unusual. There were no Crows on the wall, and that was unusual. There had been Crows around the office since Meg started working for the Others. Watchers who announced the arrival of regular deliverymen and warned of the presence of strangers. He didn’t always pay attention to them since they tended to chatter as much as human females, but now he felt their absence.

Too restless to work on the wood sculptures and totems, he made a cup of tea and then called Vladimir Sanguinati, the comanager of Howling Good Reads. “Vlad? No, Meg is fine. But when Simon is feeling a little calmer, tell him that she was greatly disturbed when she spoke of doctors and white coats. It’s something we should all keep in mind.”

And later this evening, he would talk to Simon and Vlad about skin that could split enough to reveal prophecy and yet didn’t bleed.

CHAPTER 4

The Controller walked through the corridors of the compound, nodding to his staff as he made his way to one of the prophecy rooms. Dressed in a tailored three-piece suit, crisp shirt, and subtly patterned tie, he looked like a CEO of one of the top businesses on the continent.

In a sense, he was. His great-grandfather had started the family business as an institution for the preservation of an odd branch of humans who could foresee the future when they were injured. The girls could, anyway. The boys carried the seeds of that ability but not the ability itself. So little by little, the institution became a haven for the girls who would otherwise be shunned at best or, at worst, stoned or burned because of fear of what they knew and would say.

Great-grandfather had been praised as a humanitarian by some and condemned as a profiteer by others. But caring for the girls cost money, so what was wrong with using the knowledge that was gained when they deliberately hurt themselves in order to experience euphoria? Especially when that foreknowledge didn’t harm anyone else?

Of course, businesses had sometimes soared or crashed depending on whether or not Great-grandfather bought into or sold his shares in a particular company. And yet, overall, little changed in the pieces of the world humans had some control over. Yes, there were inventions, innovations, new skills and technologies. But no matter how fancy it all looked or how large the city, humans were still closing the equivalent of stockade doors at night and shivering in fear of what watched them from the woods and fields.

Great-grandfather had been a humanitarian. Grandfather had been a businessman more interested in profit, and he discovered that a few other families who were saddled with these dependents were also looking to shake off their humanitarian roots and acquire some serious wealth—the kind of wealth that could have an impact on the world.

Laws supporting “benevolent ownership” were passed in the regions where these prophet barons resided. People were hired to teach the girls, look after the girls, even breed the girls and sort the offspring. Benevolence turned into a very profitable business, and the compounds changed into an open secret among wealthy, discreet clients as cutting the girls’ skin became a regular, controlled procedure.

But you couldn’t breed out all the undesirable tendencies without losing some of the abilities, and it was unfortunately true that intelligence and a tendency toward defiance were linked with the sensitivity to produce the very best prophecies, and none of the efforts of the breeding program had been able to change that. And sometimes fresh blood was needed to revitalize the stock, which was why young girls were occasionally acquired from parents who were frightened by the girls’ unnerving addiction to cutting themselves. Sometimes parents gave up a girl willingly, sometimes not. But even if they hadn’t been willing, they seldom reported an abduction. After all, if the local government discovered why a girl had been taken, the whole family could be placed under benevolent ownership—for their own good, of course, because that tendency to cut did run in families.

He had expenses and overhead just like any other business. But he no longer had to put down the girls who were difficult to handle and didn’t have enough viable skin left to be worth their upkeep. Those girls were now the source of a different kind of product.

Don’t always sell the best and use the scrap girls for yourself, his grandfather had said. Your future is just as important as your clients.

Sound business advice. Even sound personal advice. That was why twice a month he selected two girls to provide prophecies about his own interests. A year ago, he began hearing the letters HFL in those prophecies. Only in the past few months had those letters made sense as talk about the Humans First and Last movement became included in the background discussions he sometimes had with his more influential clients.

For a man who owned prophets, it wasn’t a fluke that becoming aware of the movement coincided with the discovery that there was more swimming in the blood of the cassandra sangue than prophecies.

The Controller opened the door to a prophecy room and took his seat as the staff strapped the first girl into the chair.

Opening a notebook, he removed a pen from his inside jacket pocket and said, “My new business venture. What is the next step?”

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