Written in Red Page 35

“You can tell the story any way you like,” Vlad said, pushing off from the doorway. “That’s not going to change what is.”

“Bite me.”

“You’re too sour today. I’d rather . . .”

Simon shot to his feet.

Vlad stared at Simon, then held up his hands. “I’m going over there at her request to answer her questions—nothing more. You have my word on that, Wolfgard.”

It was foolish to fight with a friend when he knew Vlad was pulling his tail because of his behavior yesterday, and it was worse than foolish to fight with one of the Sanguinati. But it took more effort than it should have to accept Vlad’s word.

Forcing himself to shift all the way back to human, Simon sat down and picked up a pen as if everything was settled. “If you have to sample someone, do us all a favor and bite Asia Crane.”

Vlad laughed. “Now you’re just being mean.”

* * *

Based on the pictures she had studied as part of her identification training, Vlad would have been labeled the tall, dark stranger, the dangerous thrill.

He scared her. His movements were more sinuous than the other earth natives she’d seen. They practically shouted they were predators. With Vlad, she didn’t think humans realized the danger until it was too late.

And yet he was courteous and didn’t crowd her while he checked the labels on the boxes she had set aside, and agreed that they should go on the trucks delivering supplies to other terra indigene.

He called Jester and asked for a pony and sled to transport the packages, explaining while they waited that the drivers would know better which packages should go in which truck.

Jester arrived with a pony named Twister, and he and Vlad loaded the packages into the small sled. Then Twister pulled the sled to the area where the trucks were parked.

“If there is nothing else, I must get back to the store,” Vlad said with a smile. “Simon is doing paperwork today, so it’s better for the customers if someone else deals with them.” As he walked away, he added, “But I expect the Wolfgard will be ready for a break and some fresh air around lunchtime.”

Which meant the Wolf might poke his nose around the office and find something else she had done wrong—at least according to the whims of Simon Wolfgard.

“What are you going to do with these packages?” Jester asked, looking at the ones still on the handcart. “Do you want me to send Twister back for them?”

“No,” Meg said quickly. “I thought I would take out the BOW and deliver these in person. You did say I could do that as part of my duties.”

“Yes, I did.” The laughter in his eyes told her plainly enough he knew why she didn’t want to be around during the lunch break. “Have you unhooked the BOW from its energy cord yet?”

She shook her head. That was just one of the things she hadn’t tried to do yet.

“Then I’ll do that and bring it around for you this time.”

“Would it be all right if I take the map with me until I learn my way around?”

No laughter now. “It’s not something you want to misplace.”

Or give to anyone else. “I’ll be careful with it.”

A different kind of laughter filled his eyes now. Sharp, almost predatory. “Why don’t I get another copy for you at the Three Ps? It’s just across the way. Lorne is a human, but he’s dependable despite that.” Jester’s smile told Meg plainly enough that not all humans who had worked for the Others had been dependable. “Three Ps stands for Postage, Printing, and Paper. Lorne sells different kinds of stationery, as well as the stamps needed to mail things outside the Courtyard. And he prints the Courtyard’s weekly newsletter.”

“You have a newsletter?” Surprise made her blurt out the words.

“Of course we have a newsletter. How else would we know which movies are being shown at the social room in each residential complex? How else would everyone know about the new books that arrived and are available in our library?” Jester pressed one hand to his chest. “How else would we learn from Ms. Know-It-All’s column, ‘Others Etiquette’?”

“An advice column?” Meg stared at him. “You’re kidding.”

“We don’t kid about Ms. Know-It-All,” he replied. Then he snatched up the map and left.

Meg stood where she was, trying to sort out the words and the change in Jester’s attitude when she asked if she could take the map. He’d brought her the map in the first place and warned her to be careful. Now he was telling her where to make copies and that she could buy stamps to mail letters to people outside the Courtyard. Was he trying to get her into trouble?

A test, she thought. Maybe lots of other people had seen the map. Maybe it wasn’t as big a secret as she had been led to believe. Maybe this was a way for the Others to decide if they could trust a human. And maybe any human who fails this test is never seen again. I’m going to die in this Courtyard. I know that. Is it because of the map or because I fail some other kind of test?

A couple minutes later, she heard the beep beep of the BOW’s horn. Pushing aside all thoughts of tests, she put her coat on, opened the sorting room’s delivery door, and began loading the back of the vehicle.

The BOW really was a box on wheels. It had two seats in the front. The rest of it—what there was of it—was a cargo area.

Plenty of room for a Wolf in the back, Jester told her after he dropped the copy of the map on the passenger’s seat and returned the original to the sorting room. Like she wanted a Wolf breathing down her neck while she was driving—or doing anything else.

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