The Others freed the blood prophets to protect them from exploitation, but their actions had dire consequences. Now the fragile seers are in greater danger than ever before. In desperate need of answers, Simon Wolfgard, a shape-shifter leader among the Others, has no choice but to enlist blood prophet Meg Corbyn’s help, regardless of the risks she faces by aiding him.
Meg knows each slice of her blade tempts death. But Others and humans alike need answers, and her visions may be Simon’s only hope of ending the conflict.
For the shadows of war are deepening across the Atlantik, and the battle is threatening to break right on Meg and Simon’s doorstep...
About the Author
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BOOKS BY ANNE BISHOP
Cel-Romano/Cel-Romano Alliance of Nations
Great Lakes—Superior, Tala, Honon, Etu, and Tahki
Other lakes—Feather Lakes/Finger Lakes
Cities and villages—Ferryman’s Landing, Hubb NE (aka Hubbney), Jerzy, Lakeside, Podunk, Shikago, Sparkletown, Sweetwater, Talulah Falls, Toland, Walnut Grove, Wheatfield
Days of the Week
Long ago, Namid gave birth to all kinds of life, including the beings known as humans. She gave the humans fertile pieces of herself, and she gave them good water. Understanding their nature and the nature of her other offspring, she also gave them enough isolation that they would have a chance to survive and grow. And they did.
They learned to build fires and shelters. They learned to farm and build cities. They built boats and fished in the Mediterran and Black seas. They bred and spread throughout their pieces of the world until they pushed into the wild places. That’s when they discovered that Namid’s other offspring already claimed the rest of the world.
The Others looked at humans and did not see conquerors. They saw a new kind of meat.
Wars were fought to possess the wild places. Sometimes the humans won and spread their seed a little farther. More often, pieces of civilization disappeared, and fearful survivors tried not to shiver when a howl went up in the night or a man, wandering too far from the safety of stout doors and light, was found the next morning drained of blood.
Centuries passed, and the humans built larger ships and sailed across the Atlantik Ocean. When they found virgin land, they built a settlement near the shore. Then they discovered that this land was also claimed by the terra indigene, the earth natives. The Others.
The terra indigene who ruled the continent called Thaisia became angry when the humans cut down trees and put a plow to land that was not theirs. So the Others ate the settlers and learned the shape of this particular meat, just as they had done many times in the past.
The second wave of explorers and settlers found the abandoned settlement and, once more, tried to claim the land as their own.
The Others ate them too.
The third wave of settlers had a leader who was smarter than his predecessors. He offered the Others warm blankets and lengths of cloth for clothes and interesting bits of shiny in exchange for being allowed to live in the settlement and have enough land to grow crops. The Others thought this was a fair exchange and walked off the boundaries of the land that the humans could use. More gifts were exchanged for hunting and fishing privileges. This arrangement satisfied both sides, even if one side regarded its new neighbors with snarling tolerance and the other side swallowed fear and made sure its people were safely inside the settlement’s walls before nightfall.
Years passed and more settlers arrived. Many died, but enough humans prospered. Settlements grew into villages, which grew into towns, which grew into cities. Little by little, humans moved across Thaisia, spreading out as much as they could on the land they were allowed to use.
Centuries passed. Humans were smart. So were the Others. Humans invented electricity and plumbing. The Others controlled all the rivers that could power the generators and all the lakes that supplied fresh drinking water. Humans invented steam engines and central heating. The Others controlled all the fuel needed to run the engines and heat the buildings. Humans invented and manufactured products. The Others controlled all the natural resources, thereby deciding what would and wouldn’t be made in their part of the world.
There were collisions, of course, and some places became dark memorials for the dead. Those memorials finally made it clear to human government that the terra indigene ruled Thaisia, and nothing short of the end of the world would change that.
So it comes to this current age. Small human villages exist within vast tracts of land that belong to the Others. And in larger human cities, there are fenced parks called Courtyards that are inhabited by the Others who have the task of keeping watch over the city’s residents and enforcing the agreements the humans made with the terra indigene.
There is still sharp-toothed tolerance on one side and fear of what walks in the dark on the other. But if they are careful, the humans survive.
Most of the time, they survive.
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’d run 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 light-headed. 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, comanager 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 back orders, 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.
To: All Sanguinati in Thaisia
Read the want ads in human newspapers. Look for the letters NWLNA. They stand for ‘No Wolf Lover Need Apply’ and are a strike against humans who are not enemies of the terra indigene. Make a list of the businesses that placed those ads. Also, check for those letters in rental ads for apartments or houses. Gather information but do nothing else. The real prey are two-legged predators from a pack called Humans First and Last. They hide among the rest of the humans, and seeing NWLNA is a sign of their presence in your territory.
The Sanguinati will call these humans Venom Speakers because they poison other humans with their words.
Keep watch and report. Let the Venom Speakers come out into the open. Then they will be easier to kill.
—Vladimir Sanguinati on behalf of Erebus Sanguinati
Thaisday, Maius 10
Simon Wolfgard parked the minivan in the lot designated for passengers taking the ferry to Great Island. He started to open his door, then turned to his companion, Henry Beargard. “What did Vlad want when he called?”
“He wants the Business Association to meet as soon as we get back to the Courtyard,” Henry replied. “He says we should set up meetings with Lieutenant Montgomery and Dr. Lorenzo as soon as possible. Maybe Captain Burke as well.”
“What happened?” Simon growled, feeling his canines lengthen to Wolf size.
“Nothing of immediate concern, but many things have to be talked about and dealt with. Meg is fine,” Henry added. “Vlad went over to the Liaison’s Office and checked before he called.”
He knew how to interpret those words. “She cut herself and saw prophecy.”
Henry nodded. “Meg is concerned because Merri Lee didn’t want to tell her what was seen, but Vlad says both girls are fine. The cut was carefully made and well tended. In fact, despite being concerned about the prophecy, Meg sounded cheerful and relaxed and said something about a symbol for a new beginning but waved off Vlad’s attempt to find out what that meant by saying it was a girl thing.”
Simon didn’t want to poke his nose into a “girl thing.” Potentially dangerous territory, that. But the words did indicate the cut physically wasn’t a cause for concern.
If there was something wrong with Meg, Vlad wouldn’t be dismissive, especially when Grandfather Erebus, the leader of the Sanguinati in Lakeside—and perhaps the leader of the Sanguinati throughout the Northeast Region, or even the whole of Thaisia—took a personal interest in the girl he called the sweet blood.
Not technically a girl, Simon thought as he and Henry locked the minivan and walked to the booth that sold tickets for the ferry. Meg was twenty-four years old. An adult female. But cassandra sangue retained the sweetness of a child’s heart, which was one reason they were considered not prey.
The other reason was that blood prophets were Namid’s creation, both wondrous and terrible, and far more dangerous than anyone had realized. That had been the reason the Others had demanded what humans called full disclosure—reveal anyplace that housed blood prophets or face extermination of the entire town that conspired to keep the girls a secret.
The whole continent had been shaken by the terra indigene hunting down a man known as the Controller. The Others in the Midwest Region, where the compound was located, had not only destroyed the man and those who worked for him; they had shown human authorities what the laws allowing “benevolent ownership” meant to the cassandra sangue who were kept in compounds like that.
Meg had come from that Midwest compound. Simon had found her cell while looking for her friend Jean, and just the memory of Meg’s scent in that place filled him with rage.
The man in the ticket booth waved them away. “No charge for you today. Best get down to the water. They’re holding the ferry for you.”
<Not a usual occurrence,> Henry said, switching to the terra indigene’s form of communication as they walked to the ferry.
<No. But when Steve Ferryman called and asked for this meeting, he sounded scared.>
Simon wasn’t sure how the Intuits saw themselves—as a race separate from other humans or as a group of people who had been persecuted because of their particular ability to sense what was around them in ways other humans couldn’t. Whatever that ability was called—intuition or second sight—the Intuits didn’t see visions, but they would get a feeling about something, good or bad. Driven out of human settlements generations ago, they had made their own bargains with the terra indigene and now had their own villages hidden in the wild country, out of reach of their persecutors.
But they hadn’t always been out of reach. When they had lived among other humans, sometimes they had sired girl children who were more sensitive than the rest of the Intuits, girls who could see visions. Out of the Intuits had come the first cassandra sangue, the girls who saw warnings of things to come whenever their skin was cut.
In a way, they were all coming full circle. The Intuits, who had given up those offspring, thinking they were saving the girls as well as their other children, were now volunteering to be the caretakers of the girls who wanted to leave the compounds where they had been considered, and treated as, property.
Meg was not property. Not anymore. She was his friend—and she should have waited for him to return before using the silver razor.
As soon as he got home, he’d growl at Meg for being sneaky about this cutting. And he’d growl at Merri Lee too. That might make more of an impression.
When Howling Good Reads had been open to human customers, the females who came sniffing around were there to see a terra indigene wearing fur or feathers or they were looking to take a walk on the wild side, viewing sex with a male who wasn’t human as some kind of trophy. That behavior was easy to understand and ignore. But the Courtyard’s human pack! Nothing simple about those females.
<Stop growling,> Henry said. <You’re scaring the humans.>
He hadn’t realized he’d been growling. A quick check of tongue over teeth warned him that he needed to shift his canines back to something closer to human before he smiled at the twitchy humans who were watching him.
“Good morning,” the human male said as Simon and Henry stepped onto the ferry. “I’m Will Ferryman, Steve’s brother. And this is our aunt, Lucinda Fish. We’ll take you over to the island. Steve has a room reserved at the government building. You know where that is?”
“We do,” Henry said.
“Do you mind if we stay outside?” Simon asked. The ferry wasn’t a big craft, and he really didn’t want to spend the time closed up in the cabin with a bunch of nervous passengers.
Nervous humans smelled more like prey, making it easier to react as a Wolf on the hunt—and making it much harder to back away once the scent of blood filled the air.
“Not a problem. Just don’t lean over the rail too far,” Will said. “Even a good swimmer can get in serious trouble in this current.”
<Does he think we’re that stupid?> Simon asked Henry as they made their way to the bow.
<No, but I think he’s dealt with humans who were that stupid,> Henry replied.
Will and his aunt cast off the lines, and the ferry began its journey across the Talulah River.
Ferryman’s Landing was an Intuit village divided by the river. Half the village was on the mainland, while the other half was on Great Island. Unlike Lakeside, which was a human-controlled city built on land leased from the Others, Ferryman’s Landing had always been a human settlement controlled by the terra indigene. That meant the earth natives had the final say in everything humans did, whether it was putting up a new building or allowing someone to become a village resident, and they had no qualms about eliminating humans who tried to cause trouble.
That was a hard truth the residents of Talulah Falls were still learning, now that the town was no longer under human control.
“Looks like Steve Ferryman didn’t want to wait for us to go up to the government building,” Henry said when they were in sight of the ferry’s dock and saw the two males who were watching them. “Or else Ming Beargard also has a reason to meet us.”
The Black Bear claimed he was just a part-time peacekeeper on the island. But Ming was one of the few terra indigene on the island who actually ventured into the village itself, so saying Ming was just a peacekeeper was like saying Henry was just a sculptor. Lakeside’s Grizzly was a member of the Business Association as well as the Courtyard’s spirit guide. As such, Henry’s opinion carried weight.
So did the paw that could, and would, wallop sense into a person.
<Steve asks that you remain on the ferry,> Ming told them. <The meeting place has been changed.>
A mantle of fur sprang up around Simon’s shoulders. As a human, he was an adequate swimmer. As a Wolf, he was excellent. But he wouldn’t want to test his strength and stamina against the Talulah River. He didn’t like feeling suspicious that Steve Ferryman would bring them to the island and then not want them there, but he had no reason to distrust the village’s mayor. Yet.
As soon as the ferry docked, Steve and Ming boarded. While Steve went up to the wheelhouse to talk to Will, Ming and Lucinda Fish encouraged the human passengers to disembark with alacrity.
The passengers looked at Henry and Simon and didn’t need to be asked twice.
Still standing at the bow, Simon watched Roger Czerneda, the village’s official police officer, and Flash Foxgard, another part-time peacekeeper, set up sawhorses, closing off access to the ferry. “Something’s happening,” he said quietly to Henry.
<Steve wants us to sit in the cabin and talk,> Ming said when the last passenger hurried up the dock and eased between the sawhorses.
<Is there a reason he doesn’t want us on the island?> Simon asked.
<Too many humans want to talk instead of letting Steve be their voice,> Ming replied. <Many gathered in front of the government building in anticipation of your arrival. Steve slipped out the back door of the building in order to meet you here.>
<Do the Intuits have a feeling about this meeting?>
<Too many emotions, I think, but no feelings that guide.>
<That’s not good,> Henry said. He walked into the cabin, leaving Simon to follow.
Steve Ferryman was a vigorous, healthy human male, lean muscled like a Wolf rather than bulky like a Bear. His dark hair was clean, and his brown eyes usually held a bright intelligence.
Today the man looked a bit . . . chewed. No, humans wouldn’t say “chewed.” Frazzled. Was that the human equivalent?
“Thanks for meeting me,” Steve said. “Sorry to change the venue without warning, but it was the only way we could talk quietly. And if it becomes necessary, Will is ready to cast off and keep us in the middle of the river in order to avoid uninvited participation.” He blew out a breath. “We have some baked goods from Eamer’s Bakery, and Aunt Lu says the urn has fresh coffee, if you’d like some.”
“What we’d like is the reason you called us here,” Simon said.
Steve rubbed his hands over his face. “The whole village is scared. We are piss-in-the-pants scared, and we need help.”
Simon stopped himself from ducking under the table and taking a sniff, but the aborted motion made Steve smile.
“It’s an expression,” Steve said. “It means we’re very scared.”
Humans had invented some useful swearwords and expressions, but that expression wasn’t something Simon would be using anytime soon.
“This fear is because of the terra indigene now ruling Talulah Falls?” Henry asked.
“That’s part of it,” Steve agreed. He glanced at Ming.
“The Others in control of Talulah Falls feel a deep anger and distrust of all humans,” Ming said. “And many earth natives around the Great Lakes think that the anger and distrust is deserved, that the human population in Talulah Falls needs to be winnowed down to only those who are necessary to run the machines and businesses humans previously claimed were vital. They look for excuses to kill humans and respond violently to any kind of trouble. Even humans making requested deliveries are at risk.”
“That kind of anger comes from experience,” Henry rumbled.
“I know. But that kind of anger is like fire—it will either burn out or spread.”
“The Talulah Falls and Great Island Crowgard had a gathering, which is how we learned some of what is going on,” Steve said. “The Falls Crows said the terra indigene brought in an enforcer who makes them uneasy. He’s been given free rein in dealing with humans who cause any kind of trouble. They said his hair is long and fixed in many little braids with small bones woven into the ends—bones that sometimes clatter together and sound like angry snakes even when he is standing still. And the hair changes color. They saw some humans arguing with terra indigene like they were going to fight. The Crows looked away from the enforcer when the bones rattled and his hair started to change to black—but they saw the humans fall down dead.”
“Do you know this form of terra indigene?” Ming asked.
Silence. Then Henry said, “The braids and bones are not familiar, but we know of this form. It is dangerous even to speak of it. If you must go to Talulah Falls, be very careful—and do not look at the enforcer if his hair starts to turn black.”
A Harvester, Simon thought. The terra indigene had brought in a Harvester to deal with troublesome humans. Did Tess know there was another of her kind in the area? Was there any safe way to ask her? Probably not.
Simon focused his attention on Steve again. “What else is making you uneasy?”
“What’s really shaking up our whole community is the five cassandra sangue girls you brought out of the Midwest,” Steve said. “We thought they were adjusting to living here. At least, they seemed to be doing all right during the first few days. But now one or more of them is having some kind of emotional breakdown every day or falls into a catatonic state that lasts anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. We don’t know why this is happening. We don’t know how to help them. We do know we need to move them out of the bed-and-breakfast and make other living arrangements for them, but what kind? And where? We tried to take them to our medical center for a basic checkup. Three of them messed themselves, and the other two ran away in a blind panic and came close to being hit by vehicles. Remember I told you about Jerry Sledgeman’s family, how his niece had started cutting herself, then jumped into the river and drowned? You can imagine what seeing five young girls breaking down like this is doing to his whole family.”
“You want us to take the girls away?” Henry asked.
Steve shook his head, a vehement movement. “The Intuits gave someone else the care of girls like these once before, and it’s a shameful part of our history. We won’t willingly do that again. But it’s not just our community. Every Intuit village who took in some of the girls from that compound is having problems. I’m getting e-mails every day from village leaders begging for any information that might help. We don’t want these girls to die, and we’re all afraid they’re going to.”
“What about Jean?” Simon asked. “What does she say?”
Steve sighed. “Jean is . . . haunted . . . and barely able to function. She keeps saying Meg knows, Meg can help.”
When Simon had rescued Jean, she had told him Meg was the Pathfinder, the Trailblazer. At the time, he’d liked the sound of those words. Now they sounded like big stones someone wanted to tie around Meg’s neck before throwing her in the river to see if she could survive. But the girls he, along with Lieutenant Montgomery and Dr. Lorenzo, had brought out of the Controller’s compound were between eight and eleven years old. Still puppies who depended on the adults in the pack for their survival. And Jean, who was an adult and very damaged from what had been done to her, was Meg’s friend.
“I’ll talk to Meg,” Simon said, not happy about making that choice but pretty sure Meg would be more unhappy if some of the other blood prophets got hurt.
“Something that will help now,” Henry said. “Your bodywalkers—doctors—should not wear the white coats around the girls. Their captors wore white uniforms and white coats. Meg is disturbed by those things. It is likely the other girls are disturbed by them too.”
“That’s something,” Steve said. “I’ll give everyone that information. Thanks.”
“The terra indigene are willing to extend the village’s land to build a new den for these girls,” Ming said. “But first we need to know what to build.”
Quite a concession, Simon thought. But it brought something else to mind. “That abandoned industrial complex and cluster of houses just off River Road. I know the land lease wasn’t renewed because the businesses put too much badness in the land and water, but I wondered if there are any humans still living in those houses and which group of terra indigene controls the land now.”
“The girls would be vulnerable there,” Steve said immediately. “Access to the island is controlled; that’s why they’re here.”
“Not for the girls,” Simon agreed. “But I don’t want any humans who manage to escape from Talulah Falls denning in those houses. I don’t want a potential pack of enemies staking a claim on land between Lakeside and Great Island.”
Steve looked at Ming before he said, “There were people still living in a couple of the houses a few months ago, but this past winter convinced them that they didn’t want to be living out there alone when the weather closes in.”
“The Hawkgard reported that the last humans packed up and left as soon as the road was passable,” Ming said. “I have not heard of any terra indigene reclaiming that land as wild country. Do you want to claim it?”
“Not on our own,” Simon replied.
“In that case, we would be willing to share responsibility for that land with the Lakeside Courtyard.” Ming looked at Steve, who nodded.
“You have people who can check the buildings?” Simon asked Steve.
“Sure,” Steve replied. “We have plumbers, carpenters, and all the rest. I’ll put a team together to inspect each building and make a list of what each would need to be habitable again. And we’ll check out the availability of water and electricity in the buildings.” He hesitated. “I take it you’re thinking of this as an invitation-only community?”
Simon nodded. He wasn’t sure who should live in that community, but he was certain the land and buildings needed to remain under the Others’ control.
Then he stood, feeling crowded in body and mind. “Enough.”
Steve stood too, then tapped the box from Eamer’s Bakery. “Take those with you for your coffee shop.” He walked out of the cabin with Ming.
Outside, the sawhorses were moved and passengers boarded for the trip to the mainland side of the village. But no one entered the cabin.
Henry opened the bakery box, made a sound of approval, and took a fruit-filled pastry. “Good,” he said after swallowing the first bite. “So. Are you wishing you’d gone to the Addirondak Mountains with Nathan?”
“No. But I do want to check with Vlad. If everything is still quiet in the Courtyard, I want to take a look at those houses since they’re on our way home.”
Right now he really wanted to shift out of this skin and be Wolf instead of having to think about human problems, but he didn’t regret passing up the opportunity to spend time away from the Courtyard. He didn’t regret staying in order to be with Meg. His human friend.
He just wished he knew why Meg, the Pathfinder, had decided to make a cut while he was away.
Thaisday, Maius 10
Simon and Henry found a handful of young Sanguinati squatting in one of the abandoned houses in what Simon decided to call the River Road Community. They had come to Talulah Falls from terra indigene settlements around the Great Lakes, drawn by stories of a glut of easy human prey. But the terra indigene sent to deal with those surviving humans weren’t interested in teaching youngsters how to live in a human town, and the Sanguinati had been scared off by the Falls’ primary enforcer, with his braids and clattering bones.
After getting the youngsters’ promise not to hunt in Ferryman’s Landing, and promising in turn to tell Erebus about their current situation, Simon and Henry left, satisfied that they had a minimal guard on their new land acquisition.
As they turned into the Lakeside Courtyard’s Main Street entrance and drove up the access way, they heard Skippy Wolfgard’s mournful arroooo.
Putting the minivan in park, Simon studied the juvenile Wolf sitting at the back door of the Human Liaison’s Office.
“Arroooo! Arroooo! Arooeeooeeoo!” <Meg won’t let me in!>
Glancing at the clock on the dashboard, Simon huffed out a breath and rolled down his window. “Skippy. Skippy!”
“Arroooo!” <Meg won’t let me in!>
Skippy had a brain that didn’t always work right and often skipped over bits of information. In the wild country, that typically ended with the youngster making a fatal mistake. It was inconvenient in a Courtyard, but any youngster who survived to maturity usually grew out of the skippiness.
Skippy had been sent to Lakeside a few weeks ago. Most days he spent at least some time in the office with Meg, with enough Wolves working in the nearby buildings to prevent him from doing something too stupid—not to mention Nathan’s usually being present as the official watch Wolf.
But understanding that the office wasn’t always open was a bit of information Skippy’s brain had trouble holding on to. Since Meg was probably still on her midday break, the youngster would howl himself hoarse and never realize she wasn’t letting him in because she wasn’t there.
Or else she was there and preferred having some barrier between her ears and that yodeling arroo—a sound Simon sincerely hoped Skippy would outgrow.
Simon looked in the side mirror and saw Elliot Wolfgard, the Courtyard’s consul and Simon’s sire, standing outside the consulate. <Do something about that idiot Wolf. I’m on a call with Mayor Rogers and can barely hear the man.>
Seeing Vlad step out of the back entrance of Howling Good Reads, Simon got out of the minivan and told Elliot, <I’ll deal with it.>
<Why won’t Meg let him in?> Vlad asked as he strode toward the Liaison’s Office, using the terra indigene form of communication instead of trying to shout over the howling.
<It’s not time for her to open for the afternoon hours,> Henry said, joining Simon and Vlad.
Skippy, still howling at the closed door, didn’t notice them.
<But she did come back to the office,> Vlad said, sounding grim. <I was coming over to check on her because Crystal Crowgard just called me to ask if Meg was still upset.>
<Upset about what?>
Simon stepped up to the door, startling Skippy, who leaped away with a yelp of surprise and banged his head on Vlad’s knee. The vampire swore and grabbed for the Wolf, who proved he wasn’t ready to join a hunt for anything that had hooves or horns when he tried to escape by running between Vlad’s legs.
Henry caught Skippy, gently dumped the struggling Wolf in the enclosed yard next to the Liaison’s Office, then shut the wooden gate. Since Skippy couldn’t shift to another form and couldn’t keep his brain focused long enough to learn how to open doors, he’d stay where Henry put him.
And hopefully he’d quickly forget where he’d been a minute ago and why he’d been howling.
Of course, Skippy tended to remember things at the most inconvenient times. Like now, when, sitting behind the gate, he resumed his howl about Meg not letting him in.
Shaking his head, Simon tried to open the office’s back door.
That door wasn’t supposed to be locked when Meg was in the office, in case she needed help in a hurry. Like when she used the razor.
Growling, he fished his keys out of his jeans pocket, opened the back door, and hurried inside.
“Meg!” Simon turned toward a sound coming from the bathroom. “Meg, what . . .” He stopped. Stared.
That was new.
He took a cautious step toward her. Then, intrigued, he took another step. “Meg?”
<Simon?> Vlad asked. <What is it?>
<Stay outside,> he replied.
Even after Meg came to the Courtyard, he hadn’t paid much attention to the physical appearance of the humans who worked for them. They did their work, and he didn’t eat them. That was sufficient. But they’d never had a blood prophet living in the Courtyard before, so maybe this was a normal seasonal change?
No, not normal. Meg looked upset, so this must be a new thing for her too.
“You shed your old hair,” he said. Well, she’d done something with it. He had a feeling this was one of those times when a male should express positive enthusiasm regardless of what he really thought—especially when he didn’t really know what was going on.
Fortunately, he did feel positive—and curious.
Meg’s weird orange hair was gone, and her head was covered by a coat that was glossy black and thick and so short it stuck straight up. He reached out, wanting to see if the hair felt as soft as it looked. “This looks like puppy fuzz.”
Before he could give her a scritch behind the ear, she jerked away from his hand and wailed, “I don’t wanna look like puppy fuzz!”
“Why not? Puppies are cute.”
Her breathing started to hitch, and her eyes had a panicked, glassy look that reminded him of a young bison he’d seen once when he was a juvenile Wolf living in the Northwest Region. The youngster had challenged an older bull and took a blow to the skull that had hurt its brain. He and the other Wolves had watched it stagger around and around, unable to change direction or even stop. It eventually recovered and followed the rest of the herd.
If the pack hadn’t already made a kill earlier in the day, that young bull would have been easy prey.
If you forced blood prophet puppies to see too many new images, their brains froze as if they’d taken a hard hit, just like the young bison. The girls he’d brought back from the compound had done that several times during the train ride back to Lakeside.
But this was the first time he’d seen that panicked look in Meg’s eyes.
“Meg!” he said fiercely. What could he do? How could he help her?
Same way he’d helped the girls during the train ride. Hide the strange. New things frightened.
Simon rushed into the sorting room and yanked open the drawers under the counter, growling as he pawed through the contents and thought of the nastiest human swearwords he knew. He found the floppy fleece hat stuffed in the back of a drawer. Grabbing it, he ran into the back room, plopped the hat on Meg’s head, then dragged her into the bathroom and positioned her in front of the mirror above the sink.
“Look!” he demanded, closing his hands around her upper arms and giving her a little shake. “This is Meg, wearing the floppy hat we bought to keep her head warm after she came home from the hospital. This is Meg, the Human Liaison for the Lakeside Courtyard. This is Meg, who is my friend, Sam’s friend, Vlad’s friend, Tess’s friend, Henry’s friend, Jenni’s friend. Look!”
He watched the panic in her eyes fade, watched her absorb the image of their reflections in the mirror. With the hair hidden, she looked the same as she had yesterday, except for the bandage on her left forearm.
Now confusion, and a touch of fear, filled her gray eyes. “Simon . . .”
Upset with her and for her, but gentler now that she sounded like Meg again, he led her into the sorting room.
<Simon?> Henry called.
<I want Merri Lee here now,> Simon said. <Once I find out what’s going on with Meg, the Business Association will meet.>
<Elliot too,> Henry said. <He has things to tell us about his talk with the mayor.>
<I’m going to deal with Meg first.>
<Is she all right?>
<She’s not hurt, but . . . I don’t know. I think this is a girl thing.> Wasn’t that what Meg had told Vlad? That she was going to do a girl thing as a symbol for a new beginning?
Simon studied Meg as she leaned against the sorting table, looking exhausted. He hoped he hadn’t bruised her arms when he dragged her into the bathroom, but if he had, he wouldn’t be surprised when Henry swatted him—hopefully with a human hand and not a clawed Grizzly paw.
Merri Lee rushed into the sorting room. “Meg . . . ?” She jerked to a stop. “Mr. Wolfgard?”
“Take off the hat, Meg,” Simon said. Merri Lee would look at Meg’s new coat, make a casual remark, and then . . .
“Wow! That’s radical.”
Meg’s breathing hitched. Simon turned on Merri Lee and snarled, “You are not being helpful!”
“Well, I’m sorry, but it is radical,” Merri Lee stammered. “I can understand why Meg needs time to adjust to how she looks with hair that short.”
“Not helpful,” he warned, showing his teeth.
But Merri Lee wasn’t paying attention to him. She was studying Meg. “You weren’t prepared for how it would look, were you?”
Meg shook her head.
“Your hair was short when you first arrived at the Courtyard. Not this short, but short, so it must have been trimmed on a regular basis.” Merri Lee continued to study Meg. “But not at a salon?”
“I don’t remember my hair being cut,” Meg said. “But sometimes I had odd dreams of things being done. The Walking Names took each of us to a room for a maintenance sleep. When I’d wake up, nothing seemed different.”
Simon watched the two girls and shifted his weight. Merri Lee looked like she wanted to bite someone, so he wasn’t sure if he needed to leap forward to protect Meg or leap away to protect himself.
“Did you watch the stylist cut your hair this time?”
“No. I could feel her using the comb and scissors, but I couldn’t see her.”
“Ah.” Merri Lee nodded. “The stylist had the chair turned away so that when she was done she could spin the chair to face the mirror and surprise you with the new you?”
Meg nodded. “I think she knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t stay, couldn’t talk. . . . It wasn’t me anymore.”
Merri Lee sighed. “When I was eleven, my mother decided she didn’t like my long hair and took me to her stylist to get it cut. I loved having long hair, and I didn’t want my hair cut, but I wasn’t given a choice. They had already decided between them that it was going to be short because that’s what my mother wanted. So the stylist kept the chair turned away from the mirror while she cut my hair. Then she spun the chair around and told me it was such a cute haircut, and my mother smiled. . . .” She paused, then shook her head. “The point is, I didn’t recognize the girl in the mirror. I saw a stranger and felt . . . disconnected.”
“Yes,” Meg whispered.
Simon stared at them. “Yes? Yes? You look the same, you smell the same. How can you not know you’re you? Meg, you turned your hair orange and you didn’t get upset. Not like this!” He growled as a thought occurred to him. “Did you get upset like this but kept it hidden from us?”
When she hesitated, his growl deepened. He couldn’t have her staggering around and around like a brain-damaged bison. Not now. Not ever. Not his friend.
“You.” He pointed at Merri Lee. “Starting today, you’re working two hours less at the bookstore and coffee shop.”
Merri Lee paled. “But I need those hours.”
“That’s not fair,” Meg said, making an effort to stand on her own instead of leaning on the table. “Just because you don’t like what she said—”
“I didn’t say she’ll be working less hours,” Simon snapped. “But she’ll be working here with you because you two are going to figure out exactly why this happened, exactly why Meg panicked, and what to do so it doesn’t happen again.”
“Simon, I’ll be fine,” Meg began.
“This isn’t just about you,” he said. “The girls we brought back from the compound are breaking down like you did just now, only it’s happening to one or more of them every day. The Intuits don’t know how to help them. The humans who know the most about blood prophets aren’t going to help us give their property a way to live outside the safe cages. You know they won’t. Jean called you the Pathfinder, the Trailblazer.”
Merri Lee jolted. “What did you say?”
Simon eyed her. “Pathfinder. Trailblazer.”
Merri Lee swallowed hard and looked at Meg. “Those were two of the things you said during the prophecy. Path and compass. Trail and fire. Those were things the terra indigene were supposed to watch for.”
“You two are going to figure out what the cassandra sangue need—and what humans and Others need to do to help them stay alive,” Simon said.
“What do you expect us to do?” Meg shouted. “Write The Dimwit’s Guide to Blood Prophets?”
“Yes! That’s exactly what I want you to do.” Looking at their stunned expressions, he wondered if he’d been a little too honest. “Figure it out and write it up so we can pass on the information to everyone who is trying to help these girls.”
“I’m not a writer,” Merri Lee protested. “I can make notes, sure, but I can’t write up something like that!”
“Ruthie will help you write it.” There. Problem solved. Ruthie was a teacher. She wrote sentences all the time.
“Have . . . have you talked to Vlad?” Merri Lee asked. “Has he told you about this morning’s prophecy?”
“Not yet.” He looked at the girls and softened his voice. “Figure this out, Meg. Jean said you’re the one who can do it.”
Simon walked out of the office, closed the back door, and stopped. Just stopped. He couldn’t call the other Wolves in the Courtyard to help him drive away this danger to his friend. This danger lived inside her, was part of her—like the blood swimming with visions and prophecies, like her fragile skin.
How was he supposed to protect Meg from Meg?
Tess stepped out of the back door of A Little Bite. It would have been easier for her to use the inside doorway between the two stores to reach the upstairs meeting room, so she must have come outside to check on him.
<You going to the meeting?> she asked, pointing to HGR’s second floor.
<Yes.> He crossed the paved area behind the buildings, and they went up to the meeting together.
He didn’t regret staying in the Courtyard in order to stay with Meg, but right now he wished he could shed all the human problems along with the human skin.
* * *
Meg and Merri Lee stared at each other.
“Before we deal with the other stuff . . .” Merri Lee waved a hand to indicate Meg’s hair. “Why so short?”
“I got tired of the way deliverymen looked at my hair. I got tired of the way the Others looked at my hair. It wasn’t supposed to be orange!” Meg huffed. “I went to the haircutters in the Market Square. I hadn’t met the Crow who was working there. She said she could cut my hair to remove the orange part. But I thought there would be more left!”
Merri touched her dark, layered hair. “It took me years to find a stylist that I trust, so I never went to the salon in the Market Square. But I think the two women who worked there part-time were being paid to teach some of the Others to cut hair as well as provide haircuts. I wonder if the Crow had been learning to cut hair before the women quit, or if she simply volunteered to provide the service and doesn’t know what she’s doing.”
“So now there’s a semitrained Crow cutting everyone’s hair?” Meg’s voice rose. She pictured a cartoon drawing of a Crow cutting someone’s hair, wildly waving the scissors while snips of hair flew everywhere. The image looked ridiculous enough to make her feel calmer.
“It wasn’t careless,” she said. “I couldn’t see what was happening, but the movements felt deliberate, even thoughtful.” The slight tug of hair being lifted, the sound of the scissors. Had the Crow become so absorbed in the movement, in the way the shiny scissors opened and closed, that she hadn’t wanted the experience to end?
“Well,” Merri Lee said after a moment. “Your hair is a solid black now. Not even a stray orange tip anywhere. And on the bright side, your hair will be easy to care for this summer.”
Meg hesitantly brushed a hand over her head. Different. Everything would feel different; all her routines would need to be adjusted.
“What?” Merri Lee asked. “You’ve got a look on your face like you just realized something.”
“I’m not sure. I need to use the bathroom.”
“Do you have a spare pad of paper? I’ll pick up a notebook at the Three Ps later that we’ll keep in here for our notes.”
“That drawer.” Meg pointed. “I have an extra pad that fits the clipboard I use for deliveries.”
She went into the bathroom, keeping her eyes focused below the level of the mirror. She studied her hands, the familiar shape. The familiar scars. Then she rested her fingers against her face and looked in the mirror. Fair skin with a hint of rose in the cheeks. Gray eyes. Black hair, eyebrows, eyelashes.
Today this is my face. This is the face Simon recognizes as Meg.
She lowered her hands. No panic this time.
She couldn’t recall any training images of a person being surprised by having a haircut. Now she had the image of her own face in the mirror, shocked and unprepared for the physical alteration. And she had Merri Lee’s story of a similar action that had shaken a person’s sense of herself.
As Meg left the bathroom, she glanced at the under-the-counter fridge and realized she hadn’t had lunch yet. If Merri Lee hadn’t eaten either, maybe they could call Hot Crust and have a pizza delivered. Pizza was comfort food, wasn’t it?
She crossed the threshold, glanced around, and froze. “No.” She rushed to the CD player on the counter, knocking Merri Lee aside, and moved the stack of CDs from the left side of the player to the right.
Merri Lee took a step back. “Gods above and below, Meg! What’s wrong with you?”
Meg pressed her hands on the stack of CDs. “You can’t move these.”
“I was just making a little room on the counter!”
“You can’t change the constant things!” Meg screamed.
Merri Lee stared for a long moment. Then she stepped forward and placed her hand over Meg’s. “Calm down. The CDs are back where they belong. Breathe, Meg. Just breathe.”
Breathe. She could breathe. Simple. Routine.
“Will you be okay if I go into the back room and get us some water?” Merri Lee asked.
Merri Lee hurried out of the room, then hurried back in carrying a bottle of water and two glasses. After pouring the water, she handed a glass to Meg. They drank, avoiding eye contact, staying silent.
“Okay,” Merri Lee said. “I guess it’s time to ask some questions. You’ve been here four and a half months. Things change in this office every day, and you haven’t freaked out until now. Was the haircut the trigger? The one thing too many? If you can’t tolerate things changing, how have you survived? How do you survive? We need to figure this out.”
“It’s just a bad day,” Meg protested weakly.
“Yeah, a bad day and the shock of the haircut. Emotional overload. I understand that, Meg. I do. Just like I understand experiencing information overload, when you just can’t take in anything else. I even understand being a bit obsessive-compulsive about your things. But you pushed me aside and screamed at me. Which I guess is better than breaking down, because at least you’re still interacting with me. And that’s the point. You’ve done so much, and so much has happened to you in the past few months, and today—today—you reached your limit. But Simon said those other girls are breaking down every day, and they’ve been out of the compound less than a month. What about other girls who want to leave, who want to live outside and are faced with trying to cope?”
“I don’t know how to help them.” Tears stung Meg’s eyes.
“Yes, you do, but what you did to help yourself you did instinctively. Now Meg, the Trailblazer, has to figure out what she did so that we can tell the other girls.”
Brushing away the tears, Meg took another sip of water.
“The constant things can’t change,” Merri Lee prompted. “What makes something a constant thing?” She studied the stack of CDs. “Always five? But not the same five? And always to the right side of the player?”
“Yes.” Meg looked around the room. “I expect things to change in the sorting room because that’s what happens here. That is the function of the room. Things go in and out, but the room stays the same. The table is always in the same place. So is the telephone and the CD player. The pigeonholes in the back wall don’t move.”
“What about when you’re at home?”
“I have a routine. I follow the routine, just like I follow the roads in the Courtyard when I’m making deliveries.”
“And when the routine is disrupted? Like the times when our Quiet Mind class was canceled?”
“I feel . . . uneasy . . . until I decide what to do instead.”
“Constant versus change. A limited tolerance for change within the constants. And feeling stressed when routines are disrupted.”
Meg recalled images of expressions and decided fear was closest to what she saw on Merri’s face. “You know something.”
“I don’t know anything yet. We need to get Mr. Wolfgard’s permission to do a few experiments before I’ll feel easy about telling someone else what I’m thinking. But if I’m right about why the blood prophets on Great Island are having breakdowns, all the cassandra sangue who left captivity are in serious trouble.”
Thaisday, Maius 10
Taking a seat at the low table in the Business Association’s room, Simon studied the index cards Merri Lee had created from the visions Meg had seen, then handed them to Elliot, the only other person in the meeting who hadn’t already seen them.
Girls and silver razors and roadkill. Why were the girls on the roads alone?
All right, Meg had traveled alone from the Midwest all the way to Lakeside, but she’d traveled by train and bus. She hadn’t been walking beside a road where she might get hit by a car and be left to die like a raccoon or deer.
But she had walked the streets in Lakeside part of the time. At night. In a snowstorm. By herself.
Even puppies weren’t that dumb or that foolishly brave.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Anne Bishop, winner of the RT Book Reviews 2013 Career Achievement Award in Sci-Fi/Fantasy, and the Novels of the Others
“Anne Bishop is so good at writing character development…I love this series and I NEED MORE!”—USA Today
“Amazing....A compelling story set in a seamlessly crafted universe.”—Fresh Fiction
“Near perfect…Written in Red isn’t just the best urban fantasy of the year, it may be one of the best ever.”—All Things Urban Fantasy