Dec 10

Mulberry Wands Chapter Twelve

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Want to start at the beginning? Go here.

Chapter Twelve

 

 

Paul called Susan again on Saturday, but, as with the past three weeks since she had given her drugged-psychic message to Fox, she didn’t answer. He was worried that the owls had gotten her, but she hadn’t said anything about the owls, which meant that the parliament may have decided that she was innocent of whatever crime they wanted her for.

What if it was something else? Sometimes women got mad for the strangest reasons, and you had to play the guessing game to figure out what it was.

It was rude to call every hour, especially if the person was mad at you, but maybe that’s what she wanted. Sometimes when a woman ran away, she wanted you to chase her. Sometimes when she said “leave me alone” she wanted you to tap on her door and beg to talk to her. You couldn’t really tell which time it was until you tried.

He really wanted to see her again. He’d just gotten paid, and he’d found a new restaurant in downtown Hayden’s Ferry where they served raw fish, on rice, and it sounded weird but it was actually really delicious. He wanted to invite her. And if she wasn’t really angry at him, maybe he’d get lucky and she’d stay the night.

Paul sat on his tiny balcony, watching the bats catch moths fluttering around the streetlight. An owl was coming to see him. He touched the scratches on his cheeks, remembering the last time. He still hated himself for his cowardice. He thought about pretending he wasn’t there, but they could probably sense him the same way he could sense them.

It was Fallon, in her own owl shape. She held a translator in one claw, and set him down on the metal bistro table. The translator looked young, barely more than a boy. His hair stuck up in a cowlick on the back of his head.

“Hello, Fallon. Good to see you.”

“Good to see me?” Fallon asked, through the translator. The translator’s voice hadn’t changed yet. “I know you aren’t happy to see me. Humans are supposed to be better at lying than that.”

Paul didn’t say anything. He was still angry. It wasn’t Fallon who had clawed him, but still, she was an owl.

“No glib remarks? Perhaps our sister cowed you properly,” Fallon said. The translator didn’t duplicate Fallon’s fluting accent, since he didn’t have the same trouble with vowels that she had. He did get her smug confidence down.

“What are you here for?”

“I bring you good news,” Fallon said. “The mage no longer concerns us,” she said, ruffling her feathers. “She has been taken care of.”

“What have you done with Susan?” Paul asked.

“Nothing,” Fallon said. “We determined that she isn’t the one killing our prey. Your work in the darkness is done. The parliament has no further need of you at this time.”

“What? You can’t be serious.”

“Did the translator translate poorly?” the translator said, cringing as Fallon lifted a claw at him. She didn’t touch him with it, but he didn’t speak again until she gripped the metal railing. “I said that the parliament has decreed that you may return to the light. I will continue this investigation.”

“I fell back into society!” he yelled. “I called in a favor, because the parliament said it was important, and now they are saying it doesn’t matter?”

“Yes,” the translator said, showing an emotion Fallon did not. “We don’t need you anymore.”

“Well what the hell was I doing then, anyway? No one even told me!”

“The mage is unharmed. I thought you would be pleased.” Fallon ruffled her feathers again, and held out a claw for the translator to climb into. “I can see there’s no pleasing a human.”

She flew off, the translator clinging desperately to her leg and talons.

“Damn owls,” he muttered.

At least Susan was safe. That did please him. He touched his wounded face. He was glad he hadn’t lost his eye for nothing, but he didn’t regret standing up to the owl. They had to figure out they couldn’t push him around like that.

He heard a raspy bark from below, and looked down to see his friend the kit fox in the ivy underneath his balcony. “Let me into your den,” she asked. She had something in her mouth, but foxes don’t speak with their mouths, so he understood her just fine.

He opened the door for her without saying anything. His jaw was tense and aching, and he had to concentrate to keep from grinding his teeth.

The kit fox took a moment to pee in the ivy bed beside the door, then slipped inside. The thing in her mouth turned out to be the corpses of two garden fey. She dropped them onto the marble floor of his tiny foyer, then pushed them aside with her nose as though she’d deal with them later. She sat on her haunches and regarded him.

“What?” he said. He was too furious to be friendly.

“You want to bite the parliament.”

“Damn right I do! They treat me like a stupid chick, just because I’m not an owl.” He paced in the foyer, swinging his arms to keep himself from punching the wall. “And that’s not the worst of it. They’ve done something to Susan and they won’t even tell me what.”

“You’re fond of her.”

“They told me to investigate her, so I did. I got to know her and you know what? She’s really nice. She never did anything to us. She doesn’t even know about the parliament, and she’d never heard of Sunwards before I told her. I didn’t even have to lie to her. She would have told us anything we needed to know, except they never told me what that was.”

“And they made you betray her.”

“I hate the way they jerk me around. They claw me, threaten me, boss me around, and then tell me nothing I do matters,” Paul said. He was still pacing, still furious enough to punch something. “I don’t want to even be a Sunward, if this is what it means.”

“The parliament is not the lady,” Fox said. “The paws don’t always know what the tail is doing.”

“I don’t even know what I’m doing here.” Paul paced into the living room and plopped down on the couch. He sighed and ran his hand over his face. “I should never have left the light in the first place. The parliament can only bully me if I’m solid in the dark. I should just step into the headlights of a car and be done with it. I don’t ever have to come back. There’s nothing here for me.”

“There is now. You have fallen into society already.” Fox leapt onto the arm of the couch. She looked pointedly at the ceiling of his apartment. “If you stay in the light, I can’t see you, and neither can your human friends. Being a Sunward means not staying in the darkness, nor staying in the light, but in going from one to the other.”

“Why are you doing this?”

She licked him, gently, across the scabs on his stubbly cheek.

“You told me the same thing, when I needed to hear it. Maybe you don’t remember that, but I do. You’re my senpai, and yet you don’t treat me like prey the way the owls do. I thought about going back in the light forever when years had passed and all my littermates had died, when I hadn’t gotten the power I was promised.”

“Why didn’t you?” he said, though he was glad she hadn’t. Among Sunwards, she was his best friend. Actually, except for Carlos and Susan, she was his only friend.

“The parliament is full of selfish owls. But the parliament is not the lady. The lady chose us so we could tell her what happened in the darkness. So find out. What happened in the darkness? Every member of the parliament belongs to her, but the parliament is not hers. Report on them. Avenge your would-be mate with the truth. Maybe that is why not all Sunwards are owls. She needs another opinion.”

“I don’t think the parliament hurt Susan. They just said that they didn’t need to investigate her anymore. They could be lying, but owls don’t lie as well as foxes can.”

The fox grinned at the compliment. “They can’t lie, but they obscure the truth. That’s why we have to hunt it down on our own. Come, see what I’ve brought.”

She leapt gracefully off the couch and padded back to the foyer to where she had dropped the dead garden fey. Paul followed her.

Most of the time, Paul had difficulty seeing gnosti clearly, but when they were dead they came into perfect view. He crouched down to get a good look.

The two garden fey were larger than mice but smaller than rats, with short tails, spines, and faces that looked like a Muppet version of a dog. Bite marks on their undersides (and spines sticking out of the fox’s whiskers) showed how they had died.

“What’s this?” He reached up and pulled one of the spines out of her face fur.

“I was thinking about what your mage friend said, about the hexelmoths giving her strength in mage-craft,” the fox said. “So I followed an owl around for a few days, trying to figure out what they eat that I do not. She was our kouhai, newer to the light than us, but she changed into a bat. I saw her.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Haven’t we been practicing shapeshifting for years with no success? What if it’s something we’re eating that makes us unable to do what the owls can do? What if it has nothing to do with how long we’ve been in the light, or how loyal to the parliament we are, but with our diet?”

“So you’re saying that owls eat garden fey?”

“I eat everything else an owl eats. I would have eaten these too, as they’re slow and easy to catch, but I don’t like spines in my mouth.”

“You brought them here so I could take the spines off?”

“If you would, please.”

Paul got a paper towel so he could pick them up without touching them. He took them to the kitchen and set them down on the counter. He didn’t have a cutting board, but he had one knife. It was dull and serrated, a steak knife that had been left behind from the last tenant. (A blender, four coffee cups, and a package of plastic spoons were the only other kitchen utensils.) It didn’t cut very well, but Paul didn’t cook very well either, so they suited each other.

He stared at the dead gnosti. He had never been hunting, and didn’t know how to field strip an animal. He touched it gingerly. It was slightly warm, either because it was freshly dead or because it had been in Fox’s mouth. “Am I supposed to get rid of the guts?”

“No, the guts are the best part. Just get rid of the spines.”

He pinched the creature’s forehead, where the spines had shortened to coarse fur. When the skin puckered up, he stuck the knife in and started cutting. It made a disgusting sound, and sticky blood oozed through the cut. He wrinkled his lip and kept cutting, roughly hacking off the skin on the back that had the spines attached.

He set the gooey pelt on the counter. He almost rubbed his nose with his hand, but caught himself just in time. His hands were covered in blood and hair. “I can’t cut the skin off the legs, so I’m just going to hack off the spines as best I can.”

“Good enough. I’ll eat around the rest.”

He handed it to her, and she gulped it down in three bites.

“And?”

“Delicious,” she said, licking blood off her jowl. “Tastes like mouse.”

He turned back to the other dead garden fey. This one went easier, since he knew what he was doing, but it was still disgusting and messy. By the time he was done, the counter was covered with blood, hair, and scraps of skin with spines attached.

He handed her the second corpse. He didn’t bother wrapping it in paper towel this time, as his hands were covered in gore anyway.

She glanced at it, then back up at him. “No, that one’s for you.”

“Me?”

“That’s why I caught two of them. One for me, one for you. You want to shapeshift, don’t you?”

He looked at the bloody corpse in his hand. It looked gruesome, like the skinned pet that a serial killer left at his victim’s door as a warning. “You want me to eat this?”

“We can shapeshift together. It will be fun. You know how, right? I mean, I’ve practiced a hundred times, I figured you had too.”

“I’ve practiced, but it’s never worked.”

“Hence, the garden fey. Eat it, and we’ll shapeshift together.”

Eat it? He looked at the bloody little animal. He actually thought about it, bringing the corpse up closer to his mouth, but as soon as he visualized taking a bite, his gorge rose up and he nearly vomited. “I can’t eat this.”

“I’m pretty sure this is what we need to do,” Fox said. Her ears were drooped a little, which meant he’d hurt her feelings.

“Humans don’t eat these.”

“Neither do foxes,” she said. “Just close your eyes and pretend it’s a mouse.”

“We don’t eat mice either.” He tried not to look at it. It was making him feel ill.

“You don’t?” Her ears perked up again. “Not eat mice? I’ve never heard anything so crazy. Mice are delicious.”

“I can’t.” He handed it to her. “Thank you, but I can’t.”

“Well, I’m not going to waste it.” She nipped the garden fey out of his hand. There was a faint crunching sound as she crushed the tiny bones, and then she swallowed it. She licked the blood off her nose. “Let me out now. I’m gonna see how it works.”

“Thanks for stopping by.” He opened the door for her.

“See you around, senpai,” she said, flicking her tail as she vanished into the night.

Paul got his second visitor of the night just a half an hour later. Luckily, he had cleaned up the blood and gore off the counters and out of the sink, because no landlord wants to know that his tenants are dismembering things in the kitchen.

“You leave the door unlocked?” Carlos asked, as soon as Paul let him in.

“Sure. Why not?”

“Nobody does that anymore.” Carlos used his elbows to shut the door, because both hands held six-packs of beer. “I brought you a housewarming gift. Sorry I haven’t been over earlier. I’ve been pretty busy.”

Paul happily relieved him of one of the six-packs. It was ice cold. He grinned. “You always did work too hard.”

Carlos looked around. “Hey, you fixed the drywall.”

“I said I would.”

“Yeah, you did.” He set the six pack on the coffee table and pulled one of the cans off. With his free hand, he pushed some of the clutter off the sofa and sat down. “People don’t always keep their word though.”

“You know me, man.”

“I guess I do.” Carlos opened his can of beer and raised it. “To your return to the world.”

Paul opened a can of beer and joined him in the toast.

“What’s that on your face?” Carlos asked. “You get hurt or something?”

Paul touched the scratches. He hadn’t been able to shave while they were healing, and they itched terribly. “Got in a fight with a girl.”

“Man, she must have had a hell of a manicure,” he said. Carlos kept looking at the claw marks as he took a long drink of beer, but he didn’t ask any more questions about it, which is good, because Paul wouldn’t have answered. “How do you like living here?”

“The apartment? It’s great.” He gestured at the new furniture. “I found this coffee table in the alley. Perfectly good, and someone just threw it out.”

The table was oak, with a glass top. The glass was chipped in one corner, but the strip of brass holding it onto the wood was still intact.

Carlos pushed down on the corner, and the table wobbled, causing the beers to list like they were on the deck of a ship. He let it go and the table righted itself. Carlos chuckled. “Can’t imagine why someone would throw it out.”

“Hmm, magazine must have come loose.” Paul kicked the magazine back under the table to right it. “See? Perfectly fine. It’s a nice table. Very stylish.”

“Stylish.” Carlos laughed. “Yeah, in 1980 it was. I’ll let you know next time Stephanie wants to remodel. Every year or so she gets a bug up her butt and wants to change the whole house around. Paints all the walls some crazy color and gives everything to charity.”

“Everything?”

“I put my foot down the last time. Now I get to keep the den. That’s it. Next time I’ll make her let you take some of it.”

“Really? She gets rid of all the furniture?”

“It’s crazy. There’s just no understanding women.” Carlos shook his head.

Paul smiled. “A wife. I can’t believe you’re married.”

“Twice.” Carlos drank the rest of his beer. He was forty years older, and a good fifty pounds heavier, with a job, responsibilities, a wife, and clothes you probably had to dry-clean, but when he drank his beer and laughed, he could have been twenty again. “I never thought I’d get married again, after the shit Angela put me through, but Stephanie’s great. She’s good to me. Perfect body too, though you can’t tell her that. She’s always on a diet.”

“Women seem bigger now than they used to be,” Paul said. “You ask me, that’s the best thing about coming back. I love a well-filled pair of jeans.”

“You ought to tell Stephanie. She won’t listen to me. I keep buying her favorite chocolates for her birthday and Valentine’s day and any time we fight, because I don’t want her to lose her figure. She always yells at me that she’s on a diet, but lucky for me she still eats them.” Carlos shook his head again, with that amused bafflement guys get when they’re talking about the girls they’re crazy about. “Since when are women mad when you give them chocolate? I don’t get why girls are always dieting.”

Paul worried for a moment, wondering if Susan was dieting too. He thought about their dinner at the steakhouse. No, he assured himself. She ate like a real woman.

“How bout you? You seeing anyone?”

“Yeah, girl named Susan.” Paul smiled thinking about her. The owls hadn’t gotten her, which meant she was safe. He have to call her again. “She’s pretty, nice ass.”

“Yeah, I think that’s the girl who called me. I talked you up,” Carlos said. “She’s nice?”

“Yeah. Little older than me, but she knows about my history and she’s okay with it.”

Carlos smiled and opened another beer. “If I knew you were okay with cougars, I could have set you up with some of the women I know from work. All divorced and man-hungry, I tell you. Skinny young guy like you, they’d eat you up. How old is she?”

Paul didn’t know exactly what a cougar was, but he wasn’t interested in anyone described as “man-hungry”. Owls were bad enough. “She’s twenty-two or twenty-three, I think.”

“Twenty-three!” Carlos laughed. “Paul, you dog, you’re over sixty.”

“Hang on,” Paul said. “The beer went through me. I gotta use the can.”

While he was in the bathroom, there was a knock at the door, a scratching pawing knock, like a dog asking to be let in.

“You want I should get that?” Carlos asked through the door.

“Sure,” Paul said. He didn’t know who would come by so late. Management? If it was management, it was better to have Carlos answer the door anyway.

He heard the door open and close while he was shaking himself dry, but he didn’t hear anyone speaking. Maybe it wasn’t someone from the apartment complex. But who else would come by this late at night, especially on a weekend? Paul rinsed his hands and zipped himself up.

Carlos was standing in front of the door, head pulled back and turned away like he was embarrassed. Standing in front of him was a tiny woman with brown skin and short blond hair. She was almost as small as a child, though she had a woman’s shape. She was completely naked, which is why Paul couldn’t help checking out her narrow hips and high breasts before he looked at her face (average-pretty with cupid-bow lips and a somewhat pointed nose) and realized he had no idea who she was.

She knew him though. She looked right at him and smiled. A smug smile, like she had a fabulous new pair of shoes and she was waiting for him to comment on them.

“So, uh,” Carlos rubbed the back of his head. He coughed. “I guess I’ll, uh, see you a little later. Give me a call sometime. Mama still wants to have you over for dinner.”

“Um, right,” Paul said, still staring at the naked woman in front of him.

Carlos let himself out.

The woman rocked on her heels and toes, holding her hands behind her. She looked incredibly amused.

“Do I, um, know you?” he asked.

She let out an awkward, unrestrained guffaw, like a deaf girl who had never heard herself laugh before. Then she nodded.

“Fox!” he shouted. “Hot damn, it’s you!”

He was so excited that he picked her up and swung her around, hugging her. Then his penis realized that he was hugging a naked woman, and he had to put her down quickly.

“You’re gonna have to, uh, put some clothes on. So you, uh, you know, pass for human.”

She nodded.

“Can you talk?”

She made strange expressions, trying to use her ears and facial muscles to communicate, like she had when she was in her normal shape. Then she shook her head.

“I can teach you,” he said. He looked her up and down again. Her color was a little off. She’d kept the hair color the same as her fur color. It was pretty, but he’d never seen a blonde woman who looked that tan before. Not that she wasn’t hot. She’d given herself six toes too, and he was going to point out that wasn’t right either, but for a first try at shapeshifting it was a fantastic job.

“You look great,” he said. “Better than an owl.”

She grinned. Then she held out a dead rumbler, and raised her eyebrows, as if asking if he wanted to give it a try now.

“Hell yeah, I wanna try!”

Paul wanted to stuff the corpse in his mouth right there, but he couldn’t swallow the bones whole like she could. He took it to the kitchen and cut the spines off. Now what? Chop it up finer? The knife wasn’t strong enough to cut through bones. He opened the cupboards, looking for a utensil he had missed. Then he spied the blender.

Fox went into his bedroom and started opening drawers.

Paul hacked up the dead rumbler as best he could, then put it in the blender with a little water. He pressed puree and it actually worked, grinding for a moment then whirring free in a flurry of crimson and fur. He used one of the plastic spoons to get it free of the blades at the bottom, trying not to look as the glop slid into the juice glass. Most of the solid bits immediately settled to the bottom, with pinkish water floating on the top.

His stomach roiled. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t eat this.

Fox came out of his room, wearing a gray army t-shirt and some plaid flannel boxer shorts. She looked totally human.

He held his nose and chugged it like a milkshake. A protein shake, he thought, nearly gagging as the blood, bones, and viscera slid down his throat. He had to take a drink of water and a few deep breaths to keep it from coming back up again.

He waited ten minutes, so that his body could start to digest the rumbler. It didn’t sit well in his stomach. His gut gurgled. It was doing something. After ten minutes or so, his brain began to feel tipsy.

Twenty-two individual steps to transformation.

He’d practiced all of them, memorizing their order and the method. Fox had practiced them too, both of them doing the spell over and over again, fruitlessly, sometimes as practice, sometimes as meditation, and sometimes in the desperation of a prayer they knew wouldn’t be answered.

Whatever magic-enhancing drug was in the rumbler meat hit him hard, disconnecting his brain so fully from reality that by the time he’d gotten to the nineteenth step, he felt like he was two feet behind and above his shoulders. The last three steps were sculpting steps. He made himself a barn owl, a big one, with a pure white face and huge eyes. His talons were sharp, and an anklet of feathers covered the top of his scaly legs. His wings were wide and soft, silent.

He slipped into the owl-shape he had made. The world exchanged color for light. Why’d he have so many lights on?

Turn the light out! He tried to shout, but his beak just clacked and hooted.

Fox smiled again, and clicked the light off. Then she frowned and turned another one on. It was still too bright for him, but he understood that human eyes couldn’t see in the dark very well.

Fox dug in his junk drawer until she found a pen and an envelope, and then practiced writing. She also played with the spoons, picking them up and dropping them as though her hands were the most marvelous toys she’d ever encountered. After that, she turned the television on and off, playing with the remote (and accidentally turning the volume up so high that both of their ears hurt, until Paul hit the mute with his beak and saved them.)

What Paul wanted to do was fly.

They played with their new forms for several hours. Fox watched television until she learned to say “Hello” and “No” and “Yes” (she already understood English, so it was easier for her.) Paul figured out how to perch, and flapped around until he could go from the mezzanine back to the arm of the couch perfectly. He thought with a few weeks’ of practice, he’d be good enough of a flyer to hunt.

Fox put Paul’s flip-flops on. They were ridiculously large on her feet, but she made fists with her toes and managed to keep them from flying off. She held out her right arm and looked at him, then gestured to the door handle.

Paul tried to gracefully land on her shoulder, but he ended up smacking her in the head instead. She laughed, and with her free hand, put him back on there. He had to clench his talons to steady himself, and she cried out.

Paul hopped off, flapping onto the floor. He wanted to ask if he had hurt her, though he couldn’t speak in owl form.

Fox put her finger through the hole in the t-shirt and pulled it out, revealing a spot of blood.

Paul hooted an apology. He flapped over to the couch, where his leather jacket lay draped over the far arm. He perched on it and hooted again.

Fox figured it out right away. She even cleverly put an extra pair of socks under the shoulder for padding. With the two of them working together, they managed to get him on her shoulder and the two of them out the door.

Out on the town in their new forms. Paul couldn’t help hooting in excitement, and Fox made a canine bark come out of her human throat.

He hadn’t felt this kind of a thrill since the day when he and Carlos were fourteen and borrowed the car keys from Carlos’ sleeping cousin so they could go joyriding.

Paul really loved being an owl. He and Fox walked around for several hours, she wearing his clothes, and him perched on her shoulder. Fox didn’t understand money, and couldn’t speak to people, so Paul flew off and looked for a translator to help them out. He flew along the alleys, since Fallon had once said you could find translators more quickly near walls. Paul had keen night vision and found one quickly, a small boy who blinked as though he’d been asleep. He swooped down next to the boy and landed.

The boy peed against the wall, apparently not realizing there was an owl behind him.

Paul flicked a stone with his talon to get the boy’s attention. The boy turned around, saw him, and froze.

Can you translate? Paul thought. He still didn’t know how the owls communicated with the translators, but he thought it was something like psychic messages.

The boy kept staring at him as though Paul were, well, a predator.

Can. You. Translate? Paul tried to push the thought at the boy. He leaned closer, and the boy screamed.

A translator woman rushed out of the darkness, holding a stick not much bigger than a toothpick. She jumped in front of the boy and pushed him behind her.

“Don’t hurt him! He’s just a child, he can’t hear you.” She said something to the boy in another language, and the boy scampered towards the wall. “Take me instead. I’ll go.”

You can hear me? Paul thought.

“Of course I can,” she said. “New to the light are you?”

He was insulted, briefly, before he realized that the question meant she thought he was really an owl, which pleased him.

Paul held out his left leg. The translator woman took a breath, swallowed and clung to his leg, sitting on his talons like a skier being lifted up a hill. He flew back to where he’d left Fox, and found her sitting on the edge of the wall surrounding the patio bar where he’d met Susan the first time. A man was talking to her, apparently trying to pick her up. Paul aimed for her right shoulder, where the balled up t-shirt protected her flesh from his talons. His leather jacket was getting ruined from where he’d been landing on it.

Sorry, he thought at both of them.

“Whoa, is that your owl?” he asked her. The man tried to reach forward and touch Paul’s head, but Paul snapped at him and the man pulled away.

Let’s go for a walk, Paul thought. The translator woman whispered into Fox’s ear.

Fox nodded and stood up. She turned away from the man who had been talking to her. Paul swiveled his head to look at him. The man raised an arm as if to call Fox back, then let it drop.

Fox walked down Fifth Avenue, with Paul perched on her shoulder and the translator still gripping Paul’s leg. Paul was concentrating on not falling off. He could feel Fox pull her head back to peer at the translator out of the corner of her eye.

“Your friend says she wants to taste human food, but they won’t let her go inside because they want her to show them a card, and she’s not sure how to get one.”

Fox came up to a bench, and she leaned over to smell the seat of it.

I don’t know how she can get one either, Paul said, flapping his wings to keep from falling. But she has my money in the jacket, she can buy food elsewhere.

“You’re not an owl,” she said, full of wonder. “You are a Sunward, aren’t you?”

Fox stood up and nodded.

“Oh, she says you both are,” the translator continued, looking back and forth at them. Paul had a hard time seeing her face, until he realized he could swivel his head almost upside down.

Paul tried to nod, but an owl’s head was so mobile that nods didn’t feel quite right. The translator seemed to understand him anyway. Fox stopped again, this time at a tree. She leaned over to sniff down the trunk. Paul was getting used to the rhythm of her stride, but every time she stopped he had to flap his wings to stay upright. He could see frayed strips of blue t-shirt poking through the leather.

Someone had parked on the street and left their dog inside the car. It was a yappy thing, small and angry. Fox barked at it, then tapped at the window, scratching on the glass like she was trying to get inside. She even imitated a mouse, then a cat. Paul flapped off of Fox’s shoulder to the hood of the car. The dog whined at him, tilting its head to one side as though it weren’t sure what to make of an owl on its master’s car, then it resumed barking, getting louder and louder until it sounded like it was about to explode.

Paul was looking around, marveling at how much different things looked when you were an owl. It felt too bright, and he couldn’t see color very well, but the details were fantastic. He could see pigeons roosting in a window at the top of the mosque. He turned and saw bats fluttering in the light above the bookstore, catching moths and other insects. He could hear the rustling of lizards in the dead leaves under a hedge, even over the conversation and clink of glasses from the diners on the patio. It made him want to hunt. He was a killing machine.

Fox was trying to talk to the translator, who had unclenched her death grip on Paul’s leg and was now on the hood of the car. Fox pointed at a pizzeria down the block, where a line of people snaked outside.

“You want to go there?” the translator said, sounding as unhappy as the barking dog. “With all the humans?”

Fox nodded and flared her nostrils.

“I know you want to smell them, but it’s not a good place for me.”

Fox narrowed her eyes.

“Who is it that you wish to talk to?” the translator asked. She swallowed. The creases of her eyes were tight, as though she were in the waiting room at a dentist’s office and was torn between wanting to get it over with and just wanting to leave.

We wanted to go out, have a few drinks, but Fox can’t speak, Paul thought. We want you to hang out with us and talk to the people. Also, explain the money to her.

“You want me to help you get into the human guest-places?” the translator seemed horrified by the idea. “And stay with you for several hours?”

“Yes,” the translator said, repeating Fox’s question. “I do know human languages, we all do, but we usually translate with humans who already know of our existence, mages and scholars and wise women, people who can already see gnosti. I can speak for you, but if I’m speaking to someone who can’t see me, they’ll think you’re a talking owl. If you’ve been in the light long enough to shapeshift, why is it you don’t know this?”

The translator looked at Fox’s face. Fox was so expressive that Paul could tell she was communicating, though he wouldn’t have understood her without the translator.

“She’s a fox, and you’re a …” The translator turned to Paul. “You’re a human?”

Paul nodded.

“Don’t ask me to do this. Just take me home. I don’t want to go in human places. Please?”

Fox growled. This, for some reason, made the dog inside the car gulp down its last bark and be silent. Ah, blessed silence, Paul thought. Maybe the translator was right. He didn’t know if he really wanted to listen to much more noise.

“Yes, it’s true that I wouldn’t dare refuse if you were both owls.” She backed up towards Paul again and gripped the shaft of Paul’s leg, as though she were a child tugging at her dad’s pant.

Fox growled again, and by her face, Paul could tell she was trying to say something, but the translator didn’t translate. Fox bared her teeth and snapped. Fox leaned forward, using her hands to prop herself up, as though she’d forgotten she was in human form. The translator flinched, and ducked under Paul’s abdomen. Her head brushed up against his feathers, tickling him, and he shifted from foot to foot.

If Paul could sigh, he would have. This wasn’t going anywhere good.

Tell her I’ll meet her at my apartment, after I’ve taken you back home, Paul thought.

The translator must have told Fox his message, because Fox made a confused whimper.

Hold on, he thought at the translator, and launched into the air. He didn’t fly as well as he thought he could. They say owls can fly silently, but that only applies to competent owls. He ran into things, and hooted rather more often than an owl normally would. He also got lost trying to remember where the translator had come from.

“Down there,” she said. “On the left.”

He banked sharply, overshot, and had to flutter to correct his trajectory. By then he was too high, so he had to loop around a second time before he could approach the wall. Paul actually made a very good landing on the top of the wall, and he was about to flap down to the ground, but the translator leapt off his leg and landed on the brick.

“Here’s fine,” she insisted. She was clutching the top of the wall like someone afraid of heights who just got off a Ferris wheel. “Really.”

What did Fox say to you?

“She said she has to take enough disrespect from owls, she’s not going to take it from prey as well,” the translator peered up at him, still clutching the wall. “Thank you for being understanding.”

I wouldn’t say I’m understanding, Paul thought. I just didn’t want her to eat you. She’ll get in trouble.

“I’d rather be eaten by a fox than …” she trailed off, with a thoughtful expression. “Are you Paul?”

Paul hooted, forgetting again that he was in an owl body. He had to get out of the habit of doing that, but when he was surprised, he wanted to speak.

“We’ve heard of you,” she said. “There aren’t that many human Sunwards, and fewer males.”

Paul was silent. He thought maybe he was supposed to say something to that, but now that he had soft feathers, silence came easier.

The truth was, he felt like a chump. If he had been a real owl, the translator would have done her job, and Fox could be chatting with someone over her first beer. But because he was human, they figured he was a softy, and he was afraid they were right. He lacked those killer instincts. He just didn’t have what it took to make people listen to him.

“You won’t tell the parliament, will you? That I didn’t do what you said?” She was still clutching the wall. If even this height frightened her, she must have been terrified to hold on to his leg while he flew.

They’ll eat you if I tell them that you didn’t stick to our treaty, that you refused to translate.

“Yes.”

“Why’d you refuse us then?”

“We avoid human places, human things,” she said. “The fewer humans know about us, the safer my people are. Owls are cruel, but they at least know how to keep quiet.”

I’m human, Paul thought. He was still pretty angry that even the translators had a double standard for non-owls. And I don’t like when people disrespect me.

“I mean no disrespect.” She shook her head enthusiastically. “Your people have a story about a mouse and a lion, don’t they? About a lion that spared a mouse’s life?”

He knew that story too. It was one of Aesop’s tales. The lion spared the mouse’s life, and in return the mouse gnawed the lion free when a hunter trapped it in a net. The moral was that you never knew who might be useful to you in the long run.

What could you possibly do for me? The only thing I needed from you was translation.

“I know things. Interesting things.”

Like what?

“I know about a mage named Susan.”

Tell me.

“She’s here with us. Not with my family, but with our people. She’s awaiting trial.”

Trial?

“They say she killed one of our warriors.”

Can you bring her here to meet me?

She murmured, like she was going through the possibilities in her mind. Paul flexed his talons, enjoying the way his sharp claws ticked along the cinderblock wall.

“It will be hard, but I think so. Maybe. Yes.”

When?

She looked up at the sky. “Come here when the moon is full.”

He nodded, and watched her climb down the wall, to see which direction she went.

Paul flew back home, where Fox had already arrived and was in the process of shapeshifting back into her own form. He was better at it than her, as he was able to fly in the door, shapeshift back, and close the door with human hands by the time she had blonde fur again.

“Did you eat her?” Fox asked, when she could finally speak with her own body again.

“No. I let her go.”

“You should have eaten her. She was rude.”

“She was terrified. You heard her,” Paul said. He didn’t really want to discuss it. The incident with the translator had turned what was supposed to be a fun and exciting night into something that had left a bad taste in his mouth. “And she had small children at home. I saw one of them.”

“Well, I can understand wanting to be with unweaned kits,” Fox said. “But how am I going to learn to impersonate a human if I don’t have a translator?”

“I’ll stay human when you want to practice. I can teach you to talk,” Paul said. “I’ll get some clothes for you too. Seeing you naked makes me want to mate with you.”

Fox laughed, her bark sounding more natural now that she had her own throat again. “Dog foxes are always in heat too. I’ll bite you if you try it. Mating with someone not your species is unnatural.”

Paul stepped into the clothes she’d left on the floor. They were still warm from her body, and they had a faint musky smell, almost like a woman but not quite. He straightened and buttoned his shirt.

Fox was waiting at the door. “I’m hungry. I want to go hunt before light.”

“Sure,” Paul said. He turned the handle. “I have some human food here, if you’re interested.”

“My prey has two legs and a need to be taught a lesson.”

“No, don’t.” He shut the door.

Fox laid her ears back. “The treaty says we can eat them if they refuse to translate.”

“She can help us.”

Fox sat on her haunches, looking as cynical as a fox could. “Yeah? How?”

“She knew my name. If she knows my name, she knows other gossip about Sunwards.”

“And?”

“And if we get in good with them, they can tell us what’s going on with the owls. Who knows how many secrets the parliament is keeping from us?”

“They won’t spill se—” Fox stopped, wagged her tail. Her ears perked up. “The treaty doesn’t say that they can’t spill secrets, only that they can’t refuse to translate. We have a hold over this one now. She can’t refuse to talk with us.”

“They probably don’t like owls any more than we do,” Paul said. “Who knows what else she might tell us?”

Fox grinned, tongue lolling out imitating a dog, what she called her happy/stupid face. “See, I knew you were good for something other than opening doors.”

He opened the door for her. “Happy hunting.”

Fox slunk out the door.

 

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