Jan 28

Mulberry Wands – Chapter Nineteen


Want to start at the beginning? Go here.

Chapter Nineteen



The party that escorted Susan back to her house consisted of four adult warriors, Shaluun, Noruu, Runook and Tuusit, and a young man whom they identified as “Scout”. She was surprised that they didn’t insist on a female chaperone, seeing as how old-fashioned they were about women, but Tuusit said that Shaluun was a man who “saw men as more than brothers” and that he was chaperone enough. They all agreed that walking into cat-territory was far too dangerous for a woman.

In the morning, they packed provisions, water, and weapons. Susan had gotten up at dawn with the rest of them, but she still hadn’t learned where everything was kept, and how to tie all the knots they liked to use for packing, so she quickly blew through all the work she was deemed capable of doing. They at least let her carry a pack, though hers (being the one that carried emergency medical supplies) was the lightest.

It was at most, a mile to the house from where Tuusit’s family lived to where Susan’s new house was. If she had been big, she could have walked it in twenty minutes. They didn’t leave until mid-morning, and they didn’t take the direct route, going far out of their way in order to stay under cover as much as possible. They also avoided human houses, cars, anywhere anyone had seen a cat or a stray dog, and a whole block that Tuusit said had “bad spirits”. Their path was like the dotted line that that little kid always took in that boring circle comic in the newspaper.

Just after noon, they came across a cinderblock wall that had a small hole halfway up. The warriors got into an argument (Scout looked away, as though he were acknowledging he was too young to have a say in it) the outcome of which was that Noruu scaled the wall and climbed in the hole. A few minutes later, he came out again and beckoned them all inside.

Inside, two women chattered excitedly and hugged Noruu, then beckoned the whole party down the wall, out a hole on the other side, and behind some weeds to the warren they’d dug under the foundation of an abandoned gas station. Susan stayed back to read the posted sign on the chain link fence which said that the property had just been purchased by a drugstore chain, and that shoppers could look forward to the fourth drugstore of that chain in a square mile radius.

“What are we stopping for?” Susan whispered to Tuusit, when she ran to catch up with him.

“It would be rude to pass by this way without stopping, and Noruu’s sister is married to the head of this family. His other sister lives here too.”

Tuusit ducked under the cement slab into the dark tunnel. He must have stopped to let his eyes adjust to the darkness, because she accidentally ran into him, bashing her nose against his back.

“Do they know that this gas station is going to be torn up and replaced with another building?” Susan asked.

“What?” he said.

“It’s on the sign,” she said.

“We don’t usually learn to read your language, only speak it,” he told her. “We read with our fingers.”

“Oh, right.” She ran her fingers through her hair, feeling the knots in there which they said told her story.

Tuusit reached back and touched her hair, gently stroking her scalp before pulling his hand away as though ashamed of how forward he’d been. He cleared his throat. “We should tie the tale of this journey into your hair tonight.”

“Tonight? How long is this journey going to take?”

He cut her off with a gesture, and she didn’t even tell him not to be rude, because she wanted to hear the same thing he did. Music. Someone was playing a drum, and a reeded flute of some sort. Music. She hadn’t heard it in so long, it fulfilled her like she was satisfying a vitamin deficiency. She missed her trumpet.

They followed the sound of music deeper into the tunnels, and came to a chamber full of light. Susan looked up and saw that the roof was made of windows whose aluminum frames had been stripped. The light was greenish, and the packed earth floor was slightly greasy except where they’d laid fabric carpets to protect their feet. She wanted to argue about the safety of living near all this petroleum, but decided it would be rude. Besides, they’d have to move soon, whether they liked it or not.

She figured they’d just stay long enough to have a meal and listen to a few songs, but as soon as they brought out the provisions they’d packed, Noruu’s sisters shouted with scorn and started barking orders at the older children. Within an hour, the chamber had a feast in it. Noruu’s sister apologized frequently that the meat was dried, not fresh, but they had plenty of insects (which apparently, like fish, didn’t count as meat to some people).

As much as Susan loved exotic food (and, to be honest, food in general) she was anxious to be on their way. She met Runook’s eyes and thought he agreed with her. Tuusit and Shaluun were old enough to conceal their feelings under politeness, if they were irritated, and Scout ran off with a couple of other young men whom he called his cousins.

They ate their fill, and napped, and had a second snack, and saw a gloriously pollution-reddened sunset, and then finally set off. It was moonlessly dark, a fact Noruu’s sister pointed out when she tried to get them to stay, but Tuusit said it was safer to travel after darkness. There were more cats and owls, he explained, but fewer dogs and humans. It surprised Susan that he categorized people as dangerous. It also pleased her that Tuusit been deliberately waiting for sunset and hadn’t just been wasting time. It had seemed like he was stalling.

After dark, they were able to travel more directly. She heard the Catholic church chime seven by the time they reached the mouth of the alley behind her new house.

Scout saw something ahead, and froze, then the rest of them froze in turn, like a chemical reaction.

A moment later she saw the reason he’d been wary. A pack of kittens came by, close enough that with a couple leaps she could have reached out and pet one. She remained frozen. They weren’t at the clumsy cute stage, they were weaned and adolescent, just athletic enough to hunt. They looked hungry and lean, with ribs poking out through their fur, goop in the corner of their eyes, and the occasional frantic flicking of an ear, as though they had mites.

The last of the pack was an older cat, grey and white with sagging teats who must have been their mother. Part of her tail was gone, like it had been cut off. The first kitten, an orange tom with a wide head and big feet, turned in their direction and slowed down, as though he smelled them, but when his littermates passed him, he, too, loped to catch up.

When the cats were out of sight, Scout gave the all clear.

“You’re frowning,” Scout said. “I thought humans liked cats.”

“I get pissed off when irresponsible pet owners don’t spay and neuter their cats.”

“If they were really responsible, they’d kill the cats.” Noruu glared into the darkness. “Kill every one on the earth.”

“Someday,” Runook promised him. “Someday.”

“Why do you hate them so much?” Susan asked. She’d never heard someone with such an intense loathing of felines, even in Texas, where it was joked the men who didn’t hate cats had to pay an infidel tax.

“A cat murdered his wife,” Tuusit explained.

“Oh.” She had to allow that was a pretty good reason.

“Psst!” Scout said.

They all froze again, as the big orange kitten came back. He sniffed around the wall, then towards them. The cat couldn’t see them. He was inches from his prey, and all he could do was sniff and blunder about. Susan had the horrible urge to giggle. It was like playing Blind Man’s Bluff, except that this blind man had dozens of claws, sharp fangs, and a belly she could hear gurgling from here.

Eventually, the cat gave up, and walked off, pausing only long enough to take a dump in a pile of grass clippings.

“Tuusit,” Runook said, “I’d feel safer on the wall.”

Tuusit nodded and gestured to the others to scale the wall. Susan glanced at him. She hadn’t realized until then that they recognized him as their leader.

The pinkish cinderblock was studded with tiny crevices, merely a rough texture to human hands, but as climbable as chain link when you were small. She scampered up the wall with the rest of them, reaching the top before anyone could insult her by offering her a hand up. Five feet up, she had a clear view of the next three houses, as well as the alley to her left. It wasn’t a perfect path, as they’d have to get off the wall to go around in the places where branches overhung, or where a gate or a section of wooden fence interrupted.

Susan managed to get in line behind Tuusit, so she could talk to him. “Can’t they get us up here too?”

Tuusit nodded.

“We were invisible back there, weren’t we? Is that why I’d never seen your people before? Are you invisible all the time?”

He shook his head, but didn’t turn around. “We must hold still in order to become invisible.”

“I thought gnosti were all invisible except to mages.”

He shook his head again, but kept his eyes on the wall. “It’s not that simple. The less a part of this world, the less visible. For some, the barrier between this world and the Elsewhere is thin. For others, it is impermeable. We can traverse it enough to hide. We have wise men and women who are able to slip into the Elsewhere completely, through fasting and meditation. When they do this, they disappear even to our eyes. We also have some poor folk who are never able to hide themselves from predators. We pity them, as they usually get eaten young, but it is better that they die than for them to have children and weaken our people.”

“How do you know if you’re one of those people who can’t turn invisible?” Susan asked. What would she have done if she hadn’t been able to turn invisible, she thought but didn’t ask.

“You don’t,” Tuusit said. This time he did turn around, just long enough to glance at her. “Until a cat eats you. This is why we hide from all predators, whether they have the sight or not.”

“Is that why I’d never seen one of you before? Because you hide from us?”

“They say before we were made small, we were as bold as huge-mans, but now, a prudent warrior fights only when he cannot hide.” Tuusit had to stop, as a thick branch overhanging the wall prevented him from going any farther. He swung his legs over the side and began to climb down.

She climbed down as well, and inched along the side of the wall, like she was bouldering. It was three feet to the ground, less height than what she climbed when she was bouldering at the gym without a harness. Would she get badly hurt if she fell from this height? She was smaller now, but she also weighed less. Better not fall, just in case.

“When you talk about the ones that can go to the elsewhere, I guess you mean ones like flamesprays, graebnors, hexelmoths, and bramblemaes,” she said. “Those are the fey I see most often.”

“They don’t hide. They can vanish so quickly that they’re nearly impossible to catch. That’s why hexelmoth meat is such a delicacy.”

It suddenly struck her that she was going to be big again soon, and she wouldn’t ever get to eat that again.

They bouldered underneath the hanging branch, then climbed back up to the top of the wall again so they could walk. One of the warriors gave a shout, and Tuusit gestured for Susan to hide. Runook and Shaluun were close enough to the branches to nestle in among the leaves. Tuusit just pressed himself flat against the wall, and Susan did the same.

Scout stood on top of the wall, looking up at the sky.

“Scout!” Susan whispered, but he ignored her, and Tuusit gave her the palm to shush her.

Scout kept looking up. The shadow of an owl passed overhead. They waited a few heartbeats, and then Scout relaxed. Tuusit gave the all-clear, and they scaled the wall again.

“What was that all about?” Susan asked Tuusit, hoping he wasn’t tired of her questions.

“Sunwards hate it when you hide from them, but if they took one of the warriors, we wouldn’t have enough to fight the cat, so Runook’s son stayed above.

“It’s cause I’m so good with languages,” Scout said, winking. When they re-formed their line, he ended up being just behind Susan.

“How many languages do you speak?” She didn’t want to turn back to speak with him, because a breeze had picked up and she needed to concentrate on staying on the wall.

“English, Spanish, ASL, Navajo, Hopi, Mandarin, Dog, Western Songbird, and of course Owl.”

“Not cat?” she joked.

“Cats don’t listen, so there’s no point in learning to speak to them.”

Shaluun had ended up in front of her. “There are those among them who know cat, because some Sunwards are cats. Not many, but some. If they have reason to learn it, they will. Our people are skilled with languages.”

“No doubt,” she said.

“How many languages do you know?” Shaluun asked.

“English, high school French, and just enough Spanish to sing along with Sublime songs and order my favorite burrito,” Susan replied.

“We’re here,” Tuusit said.

Sure enough, they were.

The motion-sensing spotlight had fallen down, but the neighbors on either side had put up Christmas lights, and she was able to see the yard in flashes of green and red. Christmas. That’s right, it was already mid-December. She’d been ill for a month, and spent the past two weeks waiting for the results from her trial. She smelled woodsmoke, and wondered if it was coming from their chimney.

Zoë had already dug up the flower beds, and re-planted them with potted nursery pansies. The dead shrubs had been cut down and put into a pile in the center of the yard, as though awaiting a bonfire. Shaluun pointed at it, and the other warriors nodded in understanding, then climbed down from the wall and made a beeline towards the pile. Scout was right after them, followed by Susan.

The dead branches protected them from the breeze, though once she stopped moving she started to shiver. She also felt like she had to pee. Why did that always happen when you got cold? It must have been in the low forties, she estimated.

“If this cat has the sight, she may have other powers not obvious, like psychic ability,” Shaluun said. “I heard from Garaant’s partner that the beast appeared out of nowhere, like a graebnor.”

“No,” Susan said. “Sphinx is just a cat. The only thing unusual about her is that she’s part Siamese and part black.”

“Many cats are part gnosti. I have studied these beasts,” Shaluun said. “It is obvious that this cat, or one of her line, has been altered. She’s either been crossbred with a cat-shaped gnosti, or a mage tinkered with her granddam’s genes to make her a killing machine. My grandfather said that mages keep them to prevent our people from coming unto their lands. Except the beasts don’t stop at the border of the mages’ lands. We found one a few years earlier and managed to kill it, but we lost five strong warriors in the process.”

“We just found Sphinx. I didn’t make her. I certainly didn’t alter her to kill translators. Before I saw Garaant, I had no idea your people existed,” Susan said. She was trying to peer out of the branches to see what Runook and Scout were looking at, but she couldn’t see over their shoulders. “You make it sound like human mages are all evil. I’m not like that.”

“Tuusit speaks highly of your character,” Shaluun admitted. “And I heard that you healed Felia, though she was a stranger, but in my experience, most huge-man mages are not as kind as you.”

“She’s also more … elsuulat,” Noruu said, using one of their words. He seemed to be directing the comment at Tuusit. Everyone laughed except Tuusit, who scowled.

Then they fell silent, and Tuusit moved aside so she could see. Susan crept forward, grateful that the branches didn’t have thorns. She peered out into the darkness. In the flashing red and green light, a cat slunk by. It was the adolescent tom from before, its marmalade coat turned gray in the dim light. His tuxedoed sister followed, trying to stalk, but distracted by a dead leaf that fluttered in the breeze. After her came another black and white cat, then their mother.

“We don’t have enough spears to subdue them all,” Tuusit said.

“We don’t have to subdue them, just get past them long enough to get in the house,” Susan said.

“In the house?” whispered Scout. He sounded horrified, as though going into a human house was even more frightening than trying to stab three kittens and their mother. “You want to go in there?”

“How do you plan on getting in?” Shaluun asked.

“The cat door was locked last time, probably because of the strays getting in. We can climb and reach the doorbell, but it’s painted wood and might be hard to climb.”

“I don’t like that idea,” Noruu said. “Keep the humans out of it.”

“They’re my friends,” Susan said. “They’re not going to hurt us.”

“How about up there?” Scout pointed to the second story, where Darius’ window had been left open a crack. He swallowed and cleared his throat, like his mouth had gone dry, but he continued with forced enthusiasm, “I could climb it and cut through the screen.”

“Take your packs off, except for a knife. You’ll move quicker,” Tuusit said.

Susan shucked off her pack, loosening the straps that had held it to her back and upper thighs. Noruu asked something quietly in their language, and Shaluun answered. It sounded like they were talking about whether it was safe enough for Susan to go. Tuusit apparently had doubts too, because he grabbed her forearm. She turned back, but he didn’t say anything, just met her eyes and squeezed gently before letting her go.

Susan and Scout slipped out of the branches and dashed across the dry grass to the drain spout. They flung their arms around it and shimmied up, like those Polynesians did to get coconuts out of the top of a palm tree. It used muscles she wasn’t used to using, and by the time she got to the top of the porch roof she felt bruised and aching. Her arms were numb from the cold metal, and covered with a fine layer of dust.

The top of the porch roof was shingled with fiberglass-coated asphalt, which wasn’t any fun to walk on, or touch. She and Scout rested in the leaf-filled bottom of the gutter for a few moments, but neither one of them felt safe exposed like that.

“Ready?” he asked.

Susan nodded, and they dashed across the porch roof to the wall. They began to climb. The paint was chipped and peeling, coming off in long strips when she tried to grab it, so she had to cling to the edges of the facing boards, once again shimmying up using her own strength and friction. The inside of her legs and arms got splinters, but she had to keep going. By the time she got to the top, and was able to sit on the dirty aluminum frame, she was shaking from exhaustion.

If Scout was just as tired, he didn’t show it. When he reached the top, he pulled out his knife (a flake of obsidian with cured lizard skin providing the handle) and sliced a hole in the screen big enough for them to slip through.

Darius was sitting at his desk, surfing and listening to music. He had his headphones on and his back to them, so he couldn’t see them. She’d missed him so badly that it was all she could do not to rush over to him, but Scout pulled Susan away, as though Darius were as dangerous as a cat.

“It’s not safe here,” he whispered.

She reluctantly nodded and led him down the hall to her room. The carpet had been ripped out, and the air smelled of sawdust and new paint. New floorboards peeked out from under the bedrooms at the end of the hall, one of them hers. Even with the new maple flooring, there was still enough space under the door for her and Scout to slip into the room.

Zoë had redone her bedroom. The walls were a beautiful vibrant blue, the exact same shade as in the old house, and even with the same sponging texturing on two walls. The floor was finished, and the baseboards had been put up and caulked, and she had new curtains in a lacy, shabby-chic white. Everything else was exactly as she left it, down to the angle of the bed and the stack of books on the nightstand. It was perfect. Zoë must have photographed it and used it as a reference. She was so touched that she almost cried.

Scout muttered a translator curse word. He plucked at her arm and pointed.

Sphinx was on her bed.

Scout froze, panting shallowly. She wasn’t as afraid of the cat as Scout was, even though she’d been attacked, because frankly, Sphinx was cute. Her eyes were closed, and she was half curled on her side, purring as though she were dreaming of something pleasant.

“Think we can slip in there and not wake her?” she whispered, but it was clear the answer was no.

Susan slipped back under the door and went to Darius’ room.

She walked under the desk and pulled his leg hairs. She had to jump, because Darius reflexively slapped at his ankle. She pulled them again. This time, Darius leaned under the desk, muttering. He didn’t appear to see her. Was she partly invisible? Maybe Darius’ second sight wasn’t as good as he let on.

She climbed his clothes and took a seat on his math textbook. He still ignored her. She sat on his spacebar.

“What the hell?” he muttered. He stopped, his eyes unfocused. They focused on her.

“Susan!” he shouted, really loudly.

She put her hands on her ears.

“Susan! No way! It’s you!” Darius took his headphones off and set them down. Music blared out of them. He ran to the door and flung it wide open. “Hey Zoë!”

He ran back, still shouting. “What happened? Why are you small? Where have you been? What’s going on?”

Zoë came into the room. Sphinx followed her, tail up curiously, and she meowed once as though asking what all the fuss was.

“Get the cat!” Susan shouted. “She’ll eat me!”

“What?” Darius asked. He looked like he’d grown even taller in the past six weeks, and he had the faintest line of a mustache. Still as oblivious as ever.

Zoë was a little quicker. She picked Sphinx up and rubbed her behind the ears. Another guy came down the hallway, the new roommate she had seen in the scrying. He was kinda cute, muscular, but short, with a black hoodie and a piebald rat on his shoulder.

“Susan? Is that you?” Zoë asked. She came closer, which was unfortunate as she was still holding the cat. “Why are you small?”

“Why are you naked?” Darius asked.

She’d been naked for six weeks, but now she suddenly really felt it, because she was the only person in the room without clothes on. Darius handed her a tissue and she wrapped herself in it.

She thought it would be hard to explain what had happened, but they all sat and listened carefully. They didn’t even disbelieve her. Not that she’d expected them too, seeing as how many strange things had happened to her since she first came to this magical reality, but in the hundred times she’d replayed this scene in her mind, that was one of the things that had happened the most often.

She’d also practiced what she was going to tell Zoë about the sentencing. It was awkward to explain that she was only back long enough to figure out a way to disable Zoë’s pet. Zoë clenched Sphinx tighter, like a child clutching a toy, but when Susan reiterated that she wasn’t going to have to kill the cat, she relaxed.

“I’m just going to figure out a way of making her not hurt them any more,” Susan promised.

Zoë nodded and rubbed Sphinx’s neck. “I guess I can make her wear a bell. I didn’t know she was killing people.”

“So I guess you want to look at your computer?” Darius said. He reached out his hand for her. “I’ll take you there.”

“I can walk.” Susan climbed down off the bed and walked down the hallway. Sphinx watched her intently, but Susan ignored the cat. Zoë wouldn’t let her get eaten.

Like most things, doing work on the computer was harder when you were small. She had to use both hands on the mouse wheel, and she didn’t have as much control pushing it around with her whole body as she did moving it with her hand. She tried to flip it over and just use her hand, but that didn’t work as well on the light-sensing mice as well as it did over the mouse ball.

Darius pestered her with more questions about where she’d been and what she’d been doing, and he tried to help her look for things on her computer, but even if you’re small it’s easier to do it yourself than to direct someone else to do it. Her files were organized in a way that didn’t make sense to anyone but herself. After fifteen minutes or so, with Susan trying not to act as frustrated as she felt, Darius gave up.

“Guess I’d better go finish my homework if I don’t want the teacher giving me shit tomorrow. I’m glad you’re back, Sue. Don’t ever freak us out like that again.”

“I won’t,” she said. As soon as she finished the spell, they were going to make her big again and she’d come home for good. “It’s good to see you too, Darius. I missed you guys.”

She found a spell to make someone blind, with directions so that you could make the blindness last a few seconds or a few days or up to a week. She’d have to work to adapt it so that it was permanent, but so that it was only the second sight that got blinded. Hmm. That might be difficult, and if it failed, the cat would be permanently blind, which wasn’t nice at all.

She found a lot of spells, some of which she should have been using all along (the offensive pain spell that Tuusit had implied she should know) and some of which she couldn’t remember why she’d developed (a spell to make strawberry soda taste like tonic water). This was what made her a powerful mage, the variety. A junkyard with only one car wasn’t much use at all.

Okay, there was that weird spell that would make a cat uninterested in sex, the feline saltpeter. Why had Susie ever developed that spell? Was someone too poor to get their cat spayed? Like most spells, it wasn’t permanent, though this one would last several years with re-applications. Susan had to continually refresh the spells she wanted to keep intact, mostly wards, though she hadn’t lived in the new house long enough to put any in.

She looked around the room again. Her room. It didn’t smell like home, but it looked like home. And best of all, her friends were here. Living with the translators was interesting, and they were all nice to her (and the food was great) but she wanted to sleep in a real bed and take hot showers again. She sighed, rotated her neck to get the kinks out, and went back to her computer. The sooner she could get this done, the sooner she could get big and come home for good.

Scout slipped under the door and ran across the room. He climbed up the bed and from there jumped to the desk.

“Are you almost finished?” Scout glanced around as though he expected a cat to appear out of nowhere. “I don’t feel safe here. Have you gotten the spell yet?”

“It doesn’t work that way. I’ve never done a spell to make a cat lose her second sight permanently. I’ll have to take a spell that’s similar and adapt it, and that takes time. Okay, how about an obedience spell? Obedience spells are very easy, and can be permanent. I’ve never done one, as they’re completely and totally illegal, but I doubt the MIB will notice if I do it on a cat. The only trouble is that I don’t speak cat.”

“We could make her obey us?” Scout sounded awed, as though he just unwrapped a death-ray under the Christmas tree. “To think what we could do if we had this hell-beast at our command.”

Susan wasn’t sure she wanted to be responsible for war among the translators. “Um, let me keep looking.”

Scout didn’t get as bored as Darius did, which is good, because by the time she figured out what she was going to do, assembled the ingredients, made the ointment, and figured out a way of carrying it, it was quite late. As she and Scout slipped back outside, she heard the newspaper boy throwing papers against doors, the faint shushing of sprinklers, and a few early-risers warming their cars up before going to work.

They dashed across the lawn and climbed back inside the pile of branches.

“You were gone so long we considered coming in after you,” Shaluun said from the darkness.

“Yeah, it took me a while to figure out what I was going to do,” Susan said. She held up the old film canister that held the ointment in it. (She hadn’t wanted to sacrifice it, as she didn’t get any more now that she had switched to digital, but film canisters sealed well and didn’t weigh much.) After her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she looked around. Two more warriors had arrived, people she didn’t know. “Where’s Tuusit?”

“He didn’t want to be here for this,” Noruu said.

“What are you talking about?” Susan knew something bad was going to happen, but she also knew she was outnumbered. “I have the ointment here that will disable Sphinx. I just have to get it into her. Just dip your spears into it, and then when you see her again, stick her with it.”

“You are trying to trick us,” one of the strangers said. He sat cross-legged nearer the center of the pile. He had long hair streaked with gray, and one of his eyes was scarred. “We are not like Tuusit, to believe huge-man lies.”

“I don’t know who you are, asshole, but I’m not a liar,” Susan said. She knew it was a bad idea to call armed men “asshole” but she was cranky and tired and she just wanted to go home. She jerked her thumb at him. “Who is this guy?”

“He’s Yoonu. He’s the, um,” Scout looked up, as though searching for the right term. “He’s the prosecuting attorney, and he’s here to see that the sentence is carried out.”

“What sentence?”

Noruu, Shaluun, and the other stranger were pounding a long wooden spike into the ground. Attached to one end were several long pieces of sinew, so tightly wound that it looked like it had been wetted and allowed to shrink.

“Tuusit didn’t tell you?” Runook said. “The council determined that the cat’s owner would be responsible for Garaant’s murder.”

“No, he said that I’d have to help subdue it, that we were going to figure out how to keep Sphinx from killing anyone else. What the hell do you think I went in there for?” Susan said, using the film canister to point up at the house. “I’ve got it right here. This will work. I know what I’m doing.”

“I hope, for Tuusit’s sake, that you do,” Runook said. “He’s fallen in love with you. If you survive, he plans to wed you.”

“She will not survive,” Yoonu said.

Wed her? Then he knew all along that they never intended to reverse the spell. “So that thing about making me big again was just a lie?”

“Make you big again?” Runook laughed, not happily, just a short scoff of mirth at her gullibility. “We have no magic. You can’t get big again, not unless you negotiate with the Encanto mage yourself to reverse the spell.”

“If she survives. But first, she must disable the beast,” Shaluun said.

He grabbed one of her arms. She tried to struggle, but Runook grabbed her other arm and one of the strange men grabbed her legs and lifted her. She knew she couldn’t get away, but she kicked him anyway, because he was a jerk and he deserved to get kicked. She kept kicking.

They tied the sinews around her ankles, quite snugly, and coated them with something that looked like sap. In the early dawn light she could see the sap turn opaque, as though it were drying hard. Oh, great, how was she going to untie that?

Scout set the film canister of ointment next to her.

“How the hell am I supposed to get the ointment into her if I don’t have your help?”

“I’ll get you something,” Scout said. He ran back to the branch pile, broke off a twig from the branches and used his knife to whittle a point on one end. It was half the length of a toothpick, and not much thicker. Yoonu protested, but Scout handed to her anyway. “She should be able to defend herself.”

“Garaant didn’t have a chance to defend himself.” Yoonu pulled it out of her hands.

“She’s just a woman,” Shaluun pointed out, softly. He was looking towards the house, like he expected the cat to appear any moment and didn’t want to be there when it did. “Give it to her and let’s go.”

The asshole prosecutor frowned, then handed her the stick. “You will not survive,” he whispered to her.

“Wanna bet?” Susan said.

“Perhaps the cat will not eat you. I grant you that possibility.” He clenched his spear and bared his teeth, a fierce and angry grin. “Nevertheless, I swore that I would avenge Garaant. You will not survive.”

The warriors melted into the pile of branches as the pink rays of dawn illuminated the frost-touched grass. Susan tugged at the stake, as they no doubt knew she would. She thought about digging with the twig, but one look at the stick and it was obvious that it would snap off with very little pressure.

She tugged again at the sinews, but they weren’t budging. She tried chewing them, and made some progress, but it would take her hours to chew through all of the strands. They’d have to be cut.

Why did she have to be so trusting? She had a spell of negation, she was fairly sure she could get it to reverse the Encanto mage’s spell. Or she could pawn her emergency ten dollar gold coins and buy a reversal from the mage herself. But noooo, she had to go and do the right thing, the goody-goody thing.

She tugged again at the sinews, feeling tears prick her eyes at the injustice of it all. None of this was her fault. None of it. She bit at the sinew again, more out of frustration than from any hope that it would do any good. No good deed goes unpunished. Even with Jess and Christopher gone, their ashes in Tupperware in Maggie’s trailer, she was still paying for the mistakes of others.

Tugging didn’t break them at all, it just hurt her hands. She let the sinews fall.

Darius would probably let Sphinx outside on his way to school. She might not have much time.

She opened the canister and scooped out a handful of ointment. She put some on her hair, on the stick, and on her body, just in case Sphinx ate her. She was pretty sure it had to get into the cat’s bloodstream directly, otherwise she would have just put it on her food. If she had known they were going to betray her, she could have just made Zoë or Darius hold the cat down while she poked her with coated sewing pins. Not that Zoë would have liked that, but it would have been better than this.

Or she could have just worked on a reversal, and made herself big, and then what were they going to do to her?

Well, they’d kill her in her sleep, probably.

Susan yawned. The cat wasn’t here yet. What if Zoë kept the cat in her room? If she had to wait too long before the cat got let out, the asshole prosecutor might get tired of waiting and hurry justice along a little. Of course then Sphinx wouldn’t be bespelled, but maybe he cared more about avenging his friend than in preventing more deaths.

Just a woman. Jeez, what a bunch of pricks. Well, she’d show them what ‘just a woman’ could do.


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