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When Susan woke up, on the first day she felt clearheaded enough to know she was waking up, she had a large baby on her. He was heavy, and hot, and as soon as she shifted to get into a more comfortable position, he woke up. He was a chubby little mouth-breather with a line of spittle dribbling down his chin, and when he smiled at her, she fell instantly in love.
“Aren’t you the cutest little thing,” she said, snuggling him closer.
She’d been leaning against what appeared to be the feathered skin of a bird, stuffed with gravel. She was in the infirmary, where she’d been for many, many days now, another cinderblock room, this one lit by a half inch seam in the wall at one end. A translator lay sleeping on the other side of the room, the back of a gray-haired head the only part of him or her uncovered by a feathered blanket.
Susan’s breath plumed out, and she had gooseflesh where she wasn’t touching the baby. She found a feathered blanket that she must have thrown off in her sleep, and pulled it back over her. It appeared to be the skin of several birds that had been sewn together. She flipped it around. Skin-to-skin was less itchy, than skin-to-feathers, as some of the feathers had been cut short and they pricked her.
It was cold, colder than November ought to be. Maybe it wasn’t November anymore. This part of Arizona didn’t really have autumn. October was still hot enough to need the air conditioner, then a couple weeks of grace, and then it was suddenly winter, with no changing of the leaves to warn you it was coming.
She wondered how long she’d been here. Time didn’t have as much meaning here, especially when you were sick and fevered. She stroked her abdomen, where the finger-thick cat scratch was pink and finally healing. Her hair was longer, coming down to below her collarbones. She ran her fingers through it, expecting to find a tangled mat. Instead, her hair had been knotted into tiny ropes. This she remembered. The children had done it, said that she looked naked without strands in her hair. She’d been too sick to laugh, but had found it funny even then. Looked naked, they said. Nobody here wore clothes, even her.
The baby had been sucking on her wrist, then thumb, and now that he discovered her breast, he was clenching it with pudgy fingers and trying to put her nipple in his mouth. She pulled him away from her, and he began to cry.
“Let’s find your momma, okay?”
His momma was Viiene, Tuusit’s sister’s widowed daughter, and she hustled into the room a moment later, arms outstretched for her son. Susan handed him over. Viiene popped her nipple in the baby’s mouth and sat down to nurse him.
“Fever broke?” she asked, using her free hand to pull a blanket around her shoulders.
“That was a nasty infection you got. We weren’t sure you were going to make it,” she said. She smiled slyly. “Tuusit was especially worried about you.”
“I doubt that. He doesn’t like me.”
“Oh, I think he likes you very much,” Viiene said. “I’m glad you’re finally clearheaded. We’ve all been so curious about you, but he didn’t tell us much. Are you married?”
“Oh. How recently were you widowed?” she asked.
“I’ve never been married,” Susan said.
“Why not?” Viiene asked, as if it weren’t a rude question. “You look like you’ve been adult for several years, and you’re not deformed or mentally broken.”
“I have questions too.” Susan really didn’t like this conversation topic. “I’ve heard other people call you translators. What do you call yourself?”
“Tuusit’s family,” Viiene said.
“I mean, as a whole. Everyone this size, I mean, the small people.”
“We call ourselves the people. We call your people the huge-mans, or humans for short.” She pulled the baby off her breast and burped him against her shoulder. “It’s true what the stories say. You look like us, except for the size. Do you think you’ll pick a husband from our family and stay with us?”
“I don’t know.” She really wasn’t comfortable talking about this.
“Tuusit is back from his trip,” Viiene said, with another sly smile. Tuusit had been gone for a very long time on an errand that no one gave her the details of. “I heard he got back late last night.”
Susan stood up. “I need to find him.” She had to ask him about the trial. She needed to get home. Zoë and Darius were probably worried about her.
“Try there first, two blocks ahead and one up,” she said, pointing down the passageway. After the baby burped, he started fussing, so she clucked at him and put him on the other breast.
Susan was still weak, but she’d been able to walk to the latrine pit even when she was fevered (because the alternative, a diaper, was humiliating). Walking was easier when you were this size. She could only jump half as high as she could when she was human, but half as high was two or three times her current height. Even with a deep cough still lingering (from the cold she’d gotten while knocked out by the infection) she could climb up and down cinderblock passages without getting winded.
She didn’t find Tuusit, but she did find the missing men. They were sitting outside. She heard them before she saw them. Normally, entrances in the wall they lived in were either so small and round you had to climb on your belly, or so narrow that pregnant women couldn’t use them. This was so large that she hardly even had to duck. Curiosity made her lift the bark strip that was leaning in front of the hole in the wall. It led to a cleared patch of earth underneath a cholla bush.
Cholla was her least favorite type of cactus. It had spines that appeared to be two inches long, but were actually longer because there was a thinner, sharper part at the ends that you couldn’t see. She used them in any spell that was meant to keep people away, as cholla was nature’s “piss off!” sign. You’d think you were clear of them, and the next thing you knew, you had several pads stuck to your shoes and socks.
They were less dangerous when you were small, in that it was easier to see them, but more dangerous in that getting stuck with one was more than just a nuisance. Luckily, cholla was impervious to just about everything, so with the branching thorny pads surrounding the wall on all sides, this was a safe and secluded private garden, as long as you kept it clear of cactus.
There were six men and one young woman on the packed earth, tying knots in skeins of rope. They were chatting, telling what sounded like a funny story. When she stepped through the door, they stopped talking and looked at her. A moment later, they resumed talking, this time in English. It was obviously for her benefit, and she felt quite touched.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Writing,” one of the men said. He was the one closest to her. He was about her age, lean and muscular in a way that made Susan remember how long it had been since she’d gotten laid. He held up a fringe of knotted rope.
“This is how you write?” she picked up a thin rope off the floor. There was nothing marked on it.
“With knots,” the woman said. She was young, a teenager, with small breasts, a narrow waist, and not a scrap of cellulite. “We read the knots with our fingers.”
“It more … long time and not break than your huge-mans paper,” said one man. He was the oldest man in the cholla garden, perhaps in his late thirties, and he was heavily scarred. One of his feet was missing the three smallest toes. “Also, we read in dark.”
The young woman had come closer. She reached out.” May I read your hair?”
“Um, okay,” said Susan.
She reached into Susan’s hair and pulled her fingers down the little dreadlocks the children had put in there. She did it twice more, tugging gently as the knots in Susan’s hair slipped through her fingers. “It says you are a human mage and you got your first scars from the same cat that killed Garaant. The wound got infected and Tuusit’s family cared for you. Nothing before that. No history before you came here.”
“It says that?” Susan touched it, wishing she could read it herself to verify.
The girl stroked her hair again, gently. “The scars aren’t very bad. You’re still beautiful.”
“Um, thanks.” She moved away. She was uncomfortable with how close the girl was to her. “Why have I never seen any of you before?”
The men chuckled.
“None of us are married,” the hot young guy said. “My brother didn’t want us to fall in love with a huge-man woman.”
“Or Tuusit want love himself,” said the guy with the scarred foot.
They laughed again. She blushed. She was going to protest that was ridiculous, but any protest would just convince them they were right. “I need to go find him. Do you know where he is?”
“He’s out hunting,” the young woman said. She was looking at Susan in a very direct way. “He’s sure to find you as soon as he comes back.”
“Find you soon. You came to here. He not like,” said the man with the scarred foot.
They all laughed at this, as though he’d made a very funny, dirty joke. Susan blushed again and murmured a goodbye as she left. She paused outside the door to listen, but as soon as the bark door dropped shut, they switched back to their own language.
She found where the water was kept and helped herself to a cup of it. The cup was made from an aloe’s seedpod, waxed to retain water, but the water storage tank was of human make, a metal can with enamel on the inside as though it had contained tomatoes. It had a flat stone on top to keep insects out, and more stones around it, perhaps to keep the water cool, or perhaps to hide that they had cheated and used human trash.
After she’d drunk her fill, she took another cup of water with her back to the infirmary where Tuusit’s sister, Reela, had a smooth dense grinding stone that she used to make poultices. Susan poured the water into the depression and carried it over to the shaft of sunlight streaking through the dust in the corner of the room. When she angled it right, the light bounced off the surface of the water. She wasn’t great at scrying, especially not without a silver bowl or the aid of a manceogenic ointment, but she was desperate to find out what was going on at home. With mage-craft, unlike with love, desperation helped.
After perhaps three minutes of staring at the shimmering water and breathing slowly, a vision came into focus.
Sphinx was sleeping on her bed. The rest of her stuff had been cleared out of her room, which may have meant that Zoë was going to redo the floor soon.
She shifted the image. Some guy had moved in next door. His walls had been painted a dark, rich color, which meant that Zoë had bullied him into her taste in wall paint. She wondered who the guy was, and if he was cool or not. She wished the new house had only three rooms so they didn’t have to live with another roommate. It was hard enough to keep from getting on each others’ nerves when it was just the three of them. She tried to shift the image to show whether Brian had hired someone to replace her, but just then Tuusit came into the room and she lost her concentration.
When she was with the other translators, she could almost forget that she was naked, but when Tuusit came in the room, she just wanted to cover herself. She picked up the feathered blanket she’d been using earlier and draped it over her shoulders, even though it was now mid-morning and the sun shining on the cinderblock wall had warmed the room up.
“I’m glad you have sense enough to come back here and rest. All Reela’s efforts to heal you will be wasted if you go and get yourself sick again.” Tuusit didn’t look like he was attracted to her, not with the way he glared.
“When can I go home?”
“Can’t I at least visit and tell Darius and Zoë that I’m okay?” When he didn’t reply, she continued, “I’ll be quick, just run up, leave a note, then run away again. We can go to the front door.”
“It’s not safe for a woman outside.”
His scowl got deeper, which she didn’t think was possible. “She had a man to protect her.”
Susan stepped closer and balled her fists. A woman didn’t need to be all that much of a feminist for a comment like that to irritate her. “I don’t need a man to protect me. The women in my family have always done everything without men to ‘protect us’, and we’ve managed just fine.”
“No men at all?” he said, scowling. “I had heard you were not married, but I assumed you lived with your brother or father’s family.”
“No. My brother is dead, and my father couldn’t pick me out of a lineup. He’d like to pretend I don’t exist.”
“Who is the head of your family?”
She’d never been asked that before, and had never really thought about it, but she knew the answer quickly. “I am.”
“You?” he said.
“Yes, me. I have been for years, since I was a child.”
“A child,” he scoffed. “A girl child.”
“Yeah, that’s right. Me. I’m the one who made sure that everyone ate, that the bills got paid, everything. And that’s bullshit about it not being safe for a woman by herself. If it’s not safe for a woman, it’s not safe for a man either.” And besides, she wanted to add, a gun doesn’t care which gender wields it, though of course having a gun didn’t do her any good when she was so tiny.
“Since you have no man to protect you, I will have to teach you to protect yourself until you get married.” He stroked his chin as if concentrating, as if her fate were automatically his responsibility.
It made her furious. She wanted to kick him, or bite him, or maybe just scream a lot. While she was trying to make up her mind what kind of angry she wanted, he turned back to her. She started to shout something about his previous comment, but when she drew in her breath, it made her cough. The cough turned into a fit.
He handed her the rest of the cup of water to drink. She meant to refuse it, but she needed it too much.
She swallowed, and got her voice back. “Why is it so hard for you to believe that women can be independent?”
“A woman shouldn’t be alone. A woman without a man is like …” he waved his hand in small circles as he fumbled for an analogy. “Like a man without a woman.”
“And you said you were a liberal?” Susan scoffed. “You have a lot of nerve talking to me that way. It’s none of your business if I’m married or not. I swear, you’re worse than Ruby.”
“You should have a husband,” he said.
“Well, it’s not like I’ve had a lot of proposals.”
“Human men don’t know a good mate when they see one, then. If you were of my people, you would have had many proposals, and mine would have been the first.” He looked at her directly. “If you were of my people I would have asked you to be my wife. I need someone strong, someone young and healthy enough that even an infected scratch couldn’t kill her. If I had a woman running my home again then Reela would be able to leave and find another husband.”
Susan just gaped at him. Men didn’t talk like this. They didn’t just talk about marriage and family, especially not before they’d slept with you. Sometimes they didn’t even talk like this when you had your first broken condom or late period.
“But you are not of my people,” he said.
She swallowed, uncomfortable. She needed a subject change, and fast. “Do you have any news about my case? Do you know when the trial is?”
“On the night you were attacked by your beast, you did some sort of offensive spell. What was it?”
“You did something like this?” He flicked his fingers towards her eyes.
She nodded, and flicked her fingers to demonstrate.
Tuusit blinked, then resumed his scowl. That particular scowl seemed to be a scowl of grudging approval. “Yes. That one. Why did you not do it on the day that Felia and Hastuur took you into custody?”
She shrugged. “I guess I didn’t think of it.”
“Didn’t think of it. Hmph. Are there any other spells you haven’t thought of? Something you can use to fight?”
“I have a gun,” she said. “And you still didn’t answer my question.”
“What kind of a mage are you, that you can’t defend yourself from a cat?”
“I’m a good mage, that’s what I am. I don’t need spells to defend me from cats.”
“What kind of things can you do? Can you fly?”
“No, of course not,” she said. “Where are you going with this?”
“Can you shapeshift?”
“Look, it doesn’t matter what kind of mage-craft I can do, because I can’t do it when I’m small. And I can hardly do anything without consulting my notes, except easy stuff like scrying and the finger flick.”
“You’re dependent on us, then,” he said.
She looked at his face, trying to figure out what he was thinking. Despite his scowl, he wasn’t good at hiding his emotions. He was worried, pitying and resentful, as though she were an orphan child who had suddenly become his responsibility. “Dependent on you?”
“Because you can not make yourself big, and you can’t do spell work when you are small.”
“I’m not going to be small forever,” she said. She had a sudden, horrible thought. What if he hadn’t really been on a hunting trip for the past couple of weeks? What if he had been at her trial? What if they’d already come to a decision? “They haven’t had the trial yet, have they?”
He didn’t answer. He stared at the shaft of light inching across the infirmary wall, as if he too were scrying. He sat on one of the bird-skin hassocks, and gestured to the other one. Uh. Oh. A sitting-down conversation.
“Have they?” she demanded.
“It’s being appealed.” By the expression on his face, releasing that information was as enjoyable as losing a permanent tooth.
“They found me guilty?”
“The judicial committee decided that the owner of the cat is responsible for Garaant’s death,” he said, gesturing again to the other hassock. “I have been trying to convince them that you are not the owner.”
“Tell them I am.” She folded her arms and stood in front of him. “Or better yet, take me to the trial, and I’ll tell them myself.”
“But you are not.” He looked up at her. “You don’t know what their sentence will be.”
She flinched. “I don’t care. As far as this judicial committee is concerned, the cat is mine, and Zoë has nothing to do with it. I’ll take the fall. Tell them the cat’s mine.”
“That’s not justice.”
“I already lost Jess and Christopher. I’m not losing anyone else.”
Tuusit took a deep breath, and as he exhaled, he nodded. “My wife was like that. She was a strong woman.” He stood and walked out of the infirmary, pausing only long enough to duck under the door at the far end.