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Susan became increasingly agitated, waiting for Tuusit to return from his visit to the judicial council. She even thought about trying to escape again. Then she remembered Sphinx, and rubbed her stomach where the scratches had been. She wasn’t afraid of the cat; she was just concerned about what would happen to Tuusit’s family if she left. They’d probably forfeit a bond or something. It wasn’t that she was scared of a kitty.
Tuusit and Reela’s sister Aiine was coming for a visit, and the whole family was in high spirits. The women had spent the day cooking, and Reela had kicked the young men out, telling them not to come back until they’d found feast-food. They returned an hour later, each carrying oranges balanced on their shoulders. Reela clicked her tongue and said it was a good start, in a way that left it clear she expected more.
The men left again, and returned just after dark, carrying a pigeon. The children were set to plucking it under one of the shrubs (with the men napping nearby, holding a spear in case a cat showed up). They made quick work of it, all working together, and then they played with the pinion feathers, flapping around with them as if trying to fly. Some of them even got off the ground.
Viiene came out with lengths of yucca-twine, and told the children they had to gather the feathers up. The children whined that their game was cut short, but they obeyed, and sorted the feathers by size. Susan was going to offer to help, but Reela pulled her away, explaining that plucking birds was considered children’s work. The women’s work (eviscerating and sorting the organs by method of preservation) made her sick to her stomach. She tried anyway, but she had no idea what she was doing, and soon made a botch of it.
Viiene handed Susan her baby son and told her to rock him to keep him from crying. Susan gratefully took the baby (who wasn’t crying at all) and went inside to keep Reela company.
Reela was kind and competent. A few years older than Tuusit, she’d already buried two husbands. The first had died in the fever that took their baby. The second had given her two daughters. The previous summer, he’d drowned in the flash flood caused by a monsoon. The drainage in the city was good, more than sufficient for the three hundred days a year when it wasn’t raining, but when the summer thundershowers hit with full force, the streets rushed with water, occasionally a foot or more deep in places. A foot of water wasn’t enough to drown a human (at least, not a sober adult) but as she was learning, life in the suburbs was more precarious when you were small.
The women cut the pigeon meat up into small chunks, slicing meat off the bones with shards of obsidian. Since the meat would spoil quickly, they worked nonstop, well into the night, using candles to light the kitchen. They chopped meat, ground up fire-hot peppers, and stuffed the mixture into the entrails to make sausage. The breast meat (which in a pigeon is dark) got sliced paper-thin and hung over lines like sheets to dry. Susan wasn’t very good with a knife, but she helped spread the peppery masala over everything. It made her hands burn and her eyes water, but Reela swore it would keep the meat from spoiling. By the time they’d finished, the children had dropped off, the women were yawning, and the dusty floor of the kitchen block was muddy with blood.
Susan staggered to where the children were. There were so many children sleeping that the unheated cinderblock had become close and warm from all the people, and they’d kicked off their blankets. She carefully picked her way to the open spot on the floor, and fell asleep as soon as she lay down.
In the morning, she awoke ravenous to the smell of spicy sausages smoking over mesquite fires. From outside the wall, in one of the cholla-protected gardens, came the sound of stone against stone as someone ground up mesquite pods to make sweet flour. The children who had slept too long (and hadn’t run out to play fast enough to escape their mothers) were using agave leaves to rake the muddy blood off the kitchen floor. The men took the piles of mud-blood far away, where the smell wouldn’t attract cats, they explained to her. Susan thought that was a little pointless, since the whole cinderblock warren they lived in smelled like a barbecue cookout. Probably what they cared more about was not being around while the women were cleaning. Anyone still inside the cinderblock was likely to have a damp rag thrust into his hands and be ordered to clean.
By the time they were done, it was noon and Aiine and her husband and children had arrived. Susan heard the shouts of joy and excitement, and hoped that Tuusit was among them, but he hadn’t come back yet.
Susan picked up an orange and helped carry it to the picnic, hoisting it overhead so she could see where she was going. It was so large in comparison to her own body that it reminded her of carrying yoga balls back when she still had a membership at the fitness center.
The place they’d chosen for the welcome party was at the far end of the cinderblock warren, and they had to carry the food and supplies over unexposed ground (translators hated to be out in the open) but it was the only place large enough to host everyone. The set up the picnic under the sheltering branches of a giant prickly pear cactus. Prickly pears tended to sprawl, especially when they got a little water, and their thorns were just as nasty as cholla in their own way. Someone had hacked a clear tunnel through the pads, burning the fibrous spines off wherever a careless child might accidentally brush against it. Scars showed where they’d hacked other tunnels before, but prickly pear grew so well that the joke was that after you stuck a pad in the ground, you had to stand back.
She had to carry the orange in front of her to get through the tunnel, and it was awkward, but not as heavy as it should have felt. She felt, ironically, stronger now that she was small. She could carry things that weighed almost as much as she did, like a large piece of fruit.
When the tunnel ended, she looked up and gasped. Spiny prickly pear pads arched overhead, with red fruit overripe and wrinkling outlined against a perfectly clear sky. The wide stump of a palm tree protruded a few inches above the dirt, and on this fibrous stage they were piling enormous amounts of food.
Reela stood on the stump and shouted to get the children to quiet enough so she could be heard. Then she spoke briefly, while the children fidgeted and the women gossiped a little quieter. Finally she gestured to the food and said something that was probably “let’s eat” by the way they all cheered.
The food was delicious. The pigeon sausages were smoky and salty and spicy all at once, and they’d made a pomegranate chutney that complemented them perfectly. They had plenty of oranges (though it was a little early for lemons and grapefruits) and the mesquite-pod flatbread, and sauteed mustard greens that were so fresh the cooks’ hands were still green. She and the adults stuffed themselves, though the children held out until they served slices of prickly-pear fruit preserved in honey. She’d actually never eaten prickly-pear fruit before, except once as jam in a tourist shop, and she quite liked it. The children ate so much that their hands were sticky to the elbow, and their faces were pink and glistening except around the mouth where they’d licked their lips clean.
After all the food had been eaten, Susan helped Viiene and the girl from the men’s group move an earthenware cup filled with water to the top of the fire. There were no dishes to clean, as they’d eaten off of leaves, but when the water grew warm, they lined the children up and wiped them off as best as they could. Then they used the dirty water to extinguish the fire and sat with the other adults, drinking something fruity and fermented. They gossiped and told stories and sang, sometimes remembering to use English for her sake but mostly forgetting.
There were few things Susan liked as much as a big party with lots of food outside when the weather was cool and sunny and the sky was a rare pollution-free blue. If she hadn’t been a prisoner, worried sick about what was going to happen to her when Tuusit got back from the court (assuming that’s where he was) she would have counted it among one of the most pleasant days of her life.
“Susan, this is my sister Aiine and her husband Yuun,” Reela said.
Aiine was between Reela and Tuusit in age, though her husband was much older. He even had gray hair, which Susan hadn’t seen among any of the translators.
“So you’re the human our brother is trying to save,” Aiine said. She looked at Susan’s breast, then stomach. “I hope he’s not foolish enough to marry you. I’d wager you’re barren. It’s suspicious that you’re so old and haven’t been pregnant.”
“How do you know I haven’t?”
Aiine pointed at Susan’s stomach.
Susan glanced at Aiine’s own stomach, which was was covered in smooth stripes, stretch marks like brocade. She sniffed. “I don’t think that’s any of your business.”
Reela’s smile faltered, and she looked uncomfortable. Yuun patted his wife’s shoulder, leaning away, like he wanted to support her but didn’t want a fight and couldn’t quite make up his mind how to reconcile these.
Reela cleared her throat. “Susan. I’m glad to see you enjoyed the food. It’s good to see you eating more. You lost a lot of weight when you were recovering from the cat scratches.”
“Cat scratches?” Yuun asked. “I haven’t heard about that.”
Reela smiled at her brother-in-law, like she’d passed him a ball and he’d been clever enough to catch it. Susan turned towards him, like she was going to have a polite conversation even if Aiine was determined to find something to insult her about. Barren. What kind of person said that to a woman?
“Yes,” Reela continued. “The scratches got infected, and we worried that she wasn’t going to make it. But you’re feeling better now, aren’t you, Susan?”
“She does look wan and sickly,” Aiine said. “She might still die.”
“No, she looks plump enough to me,” Yuun said. He even patted her belly. “Like a healthy baby. Nice and chubby.”
He said it cheerfully, like it was a compliment, but it hit Susan in exactly the wrong way. Her defenses crumbled, as all the repressed anxiety she had from worrying about how she was going to get home again bubbled to the surface. She felt tears prick her eyes.
By the time she’d run through the cactus tunnel and back to the cinderblock warren, she was crying so hard she could barely see, and her sobs had started her coughing again.
Tuusit came back that evening. She’d been lying on top of the cinderblock wall, staring at the contrails in the sky, thinking about flying in a plane and other human things. The wall had grown warm during the day, but now that the sun had set and twilight was darkening the sky, it chilled off in a hurry. She shivered, but she didn’t move, because she didn’t really want to talk to anyone.
She knew the moment Tuusit came back, because conversations filtered up through the wall to her ear. It wasn’t that she could understand their language, but their intonation made sense to her now, and she could pick out certain phrases, like the phrase they used when someone had been gone away from the cinderblock warren for more than a day. He asked about her, she heard her name, and the answer he got was hesitant. She imagined that someone knew where she was; you couldn’t keep secrets in a house like this. Everyone lived on top of one another, and they all knew one another’s business. Most of the time she liked it. It made her happy to always have people around.
But she was realizing how much she missed her privacy.
Tuusit got on top of the wall the same way she did, by scaling the outside. Translators weighed so little that it was as easy for them to climb as it was for a lizard. She heard him hoist himself over the top, and felt warmth near her feet as he sat down on the wall next to her. She didn’t greet him, or sit up even, just kept staring at the sky. A jet soared overhead, close enough that she could make out the lighted oval windows. Maybe if she ever got back she could fly someplace, go on a trip. Visit her little sister maybe. She hadn’t seen Julie in a year. She missed her. How was that for homesick? She even missed Julie.
Tuusit cleared his throat. “The judicial council reached its conclusion.”
“You should have taken me with you,” she said. “I have the right to be at my own trial.”
“That is not our way,” he said. “You must trust that I had your best interests in mind.”
She didn’t say anything. She was pissed off, but not in the mood to argue.
“The council decreed that the cat is the real murderer. Any cat is dangerous. A cat that can see the fey, and can also appear out of nowhere is especially deadly,” he said. “You must help us disable your beast so that it can’t hunt us again.”
She propped herself up so she could see him. He was sitting crosslegged, with his hands laid across his knees like a sage. There was an unhappiness about him.
“Is there more?”
“You must be part of the party that confronts it.”
“Yeah, of course.” She frowned, confused by his expression. “You don’t seem happy with that.”
“I admire your bravery, but I don’t want the beast to kill you.”
“Sphinx won’t kill me.” She started making a plan. She’d have to get into the house again, but that’s what she wanted to do anyway. If they let her go, moreover, if they helped her, she was sure she could do it.
They’d have to get into her room and boot up her computer, assuming that the room was still more or less intact. She could shut the door and keep the cat out long enough to read the spell. It would take at least a few hours to tinker with it, unless for some reason Ruby stepped in, which she doubted. Ruby wasn’t an on-call kind of goddess.
“You are strong, Susan, but you are not a warrior.”
She glanced at Tuusit. There was more he wasn’t saying.
“After we disable the cat, the judicial council will make me big again, right?”
He didn’t answer her question, which was as good as confirming her suspicions. They couldn’t, or wouldn’t, make her big again. He wouldn’t look at her, which probably meant that he felt ashamed that he had to break his promise. Well, no matter. Between her and Maggie, they could figure it out.
“You did say disable, right?”
“We can use javelins to wound it. Killing it outright is too difficult.”
“I have a better idea. How about we just avoid her long enough to get into the house, and then I’ll look up a spell that will make it so that Sphinx can no longer see the fey.”
“You want to spare its life?”
“Zoë loves that cat,” she said. “And it would be safer, wouldn’t it?”
Tuusit grunted in grudging agreement. “I’m unwilling to lose any more friends to that beast. Garaant was a good warrior.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” he said, gently, then continued in a more resentful voice. “It wasn’t the first time one of our people has been killed working for the Sunwards.”
“You work for them?”
“We must,” he said, like that was obvious. “We have a treaty.”
“We translate for them, and in return, they don’t kill us.” He shifted his seat so that his legs were dangling over the side of the wall, and stared off across the dark parking lot, as though he were staring meditatively into the ocean.
“That’s not a treaty, that’s extortion.”
“It keeps us alive.”
She moved closer to him, using his body as a windbreak, and dangled her legs over the side. It was chilly, and the air was crisply dry.
“I was dating one of the Sunwards.”
“You were dating an owl?” Tuusit asked, aghast. The cold didn’t seem to bother him.
“No!” she spluttered. “He’s a guy. A human guy.”
“He’s the one who came to visit.” Her teeth started chattering, but she’d rather freeze than go inside. This was the first truly private conversation she’d had since she came here. “You knew he was a Sunward?”
“We know everything about the Sunwards. We translate for them, so we know their secrets, and they have power over us, so it behooves us to know what is happening in their society.” He picked her up and set her in front of him so that his chest was against her back. She would have been impressed by how easily he was able to lift her, except that she was proportionally strong too. He crossed his arms in front of her and rested his chin against her head. She felt instantly warmer. “We know more about the Sunwards than they do about each other, because owls do not gossip. It’s only by the grace of their goddess that they have any society at all. True owls are solitary creatures.”
“Paul doesn’t like owls.”
“None of the human Sunwards like the owls.”
“There are others?” she asked, half turning to see his face. “Paul didn’t mention any.”
“He likely doesn’t know. We might tell him someday, if he has something we need to bargain for.” Tuusit held her tighter. “Susan, don’t marry him. You can’t trust Sunwards.”
“I just dated him a few times. We’re nowhere near the talking about marriage point. And it’s—”
“None of my business what you do with your private life. I know,” he said. “But I care for you, and I don’t want you to get hurt.”
She felt his warm chest against her back, and was reminded again that they were both naked. The translators were pretty touchy-feely, but not often across gender lines. She’d seen women hug and hold hands, but men didn’t flirt with women or vice versa. If Tuusit had been touching anything other than her arms, she would have figured this hug was a warm-up to sex. But he didn’t touch anything other than her arms, and he didn’t kiss her. He didn’t even have an erection, which was either a relief or an insult, (she couldn’t decide which). As far as she could tell, he was as uninterested in her naked body as her bath towel was.
“Why were the Sunwards investigating me? Why do they care about the rumblers? Are they big on animal rights? Rumblers are cute and all, but surely they’re not worth killing a person over.”
“No, of course not. They don’t value human life, or any life except their own. They eat the rumblers. They’re guarding their territory so others don’t take the food.”
“Are there Sunwards all over?”
“Their lady shines everywhere but the deepest caves and darkest oceans. The owls are her eyes in the darkness. She knows all.”
“Maybe that’s the real reason that mages don’t make wands. Maybe it’s not that it’s impossible, but that any time someone figures it out, the Sunwards take them down.”
“They like to kill.”
“You sound like you hate them.”
“We fear them,” he said.
“Have they killed you guys before? I mean, since you guys made your arrangement with them?”
“Yes. Once one of us, not related to me, but one of our people who live north of the river, said that he didn’t like the treaty. He was known as “Chain” because he wore a length of human-made chain around his neck. He was quite famous, as he was something of a traveler and storyteller. He said that his brother had been injured when an owl dropped him, and that he renounced the treaty we have with the Sunwards. He openly refused to translate anymore. He was even brave enough to tell the owls this.”
“And what happened?” Susan asked, though she had a sick sense that she knew.
“His family found an owl pellet near the entrance to their home. They took it apart, and inside they found a skull, bones, and part of a chain.”
“They will kill humans too. They’ve already killed one mage this year.”
“They have?” Susan asked. She looked up, as though there might be an owl circling overhead.
“I didn’t mean to frighten you.” He kissed the top of her head, then stood up and stretched. “Come inside, where it’s warmer and safer.”
“I’d never heard of the Sunwards before I met Paul. I didn’t know they could kill mages.” Her back felt chilly where she’d been touching him, and she started shivering again. “I have to warn my mother and the other mages I know.”
“If they haven’t made wands before now, why would they be likely to start? The cat is enough to worry about.” He swung his body over the side of the wall and climbed down to where only his head peeked above the edge. “Come get some sleep.”
“Sure,” Susan said. He was probably right. Maggie didn’t even know that making wands was possible, and even if she did make one, she wasn’t likely to start killing rumblers wholesale.