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Paul had already dressed and unlocked the door, even though it was eleven a.m. and in the middle of his sleep cycle. Anything that was serious enough to bring an owl to see him mid-morning was serious enough to get dressed for. He opened the door to see that she had taken human form. She wasn’t large, less than five feet tall, with brown Central American features. Her black eyes had plenty of crow’s feet around them, and her long black hair held streaks of grey.
“You’re—” the owl who had taught Fallon how to shapeshift, Fallon and many others. She was one of the oldest Sunwards, old enough that they said she met the very first Sunward when she was still a chick. Paul swallowed, feeling a little star-struck. “You are welcome here, senpai.”
“I’ve shapeshifted enough that I’ve found it necessary to take a human name. You may call me Xochitl.” She had a soft voice, quiet, and with very little inflection. She didn’t have as much of an accent as Fallon did, but she still didn’t sound quite human.
“I thought you lived, um, elsewhere.” Paul had always heard she was a snowy owl.
Of course, he had also heard she could fade into starlight, that she could take the form of a dog convincingly enough to fool its master, and that she could bend the light of the lady enough to make an enemy’s lands fall into shadow so that the plants died and the prey fled. She had been named Raylight so often that she no longer cast a shadow.
“I do live elsewhere,” she said. Xochitl stepped over the threshold and shut the door. “I come here for the rumblers. Everyone knows the prey in this valley are excellent for shapeshifters. Some can’t shapeshift with any other prey. This is why it is so important that we protect them.”
“Right,” Paul said.
“You must find and kill the mage who’s making wands. She lives sun, and sunrise from here.” She tilted her head. “I mean south and southeast, that is. She and the dead mage have already taken so many that the population will not recover for years. Stop her as soon as possible. Trick her into leaving her wards, then strike her down.”
“Which mage is it?” He had a sick feeling it was Susan’s mom. He was almost certain of it. He didn’t want to murder anyone, especially not the mom of the girl he was sweet on. He was pretty sure that killing a girl’s mom completely ruined your chances with her.
“She is … I shall discover.” Xochitl stepped closer to the window. She reached out and let her hands soak in the sunlight pouring in the window. She was connecting with the lady, to learn what she could from other Sunwards who were in the light. He couldn’t do that very well yet. She turned back to him. “She is the mother of the mage you were investigating.”
“You know her.” Xochitl made it halfway between a question and a statement.
“I can find her address,” Paul said. “But I’m not going to kill her, not if there’s another way.”
“You will not betray the lady.”
“I’ll get her to stop killing our prey.”
“She’s a mage,” Xochitl said, sounding exasperated, the first emotion she’d shown. “You cannot control mages, and sometimes you cannot even intimidate them. You can only kill them. Do not cross her wards, or you will die as well.”
“As well? What haven’t you told me?”
“She has a twinge trap that has felled many of our sisters. Beware, kouhai,” she said, using the polite term for a Sunward of younger rank. He rarely heard such a polite term. Usually they called him ‘chick’.
“I can save them too.”
“It is not possible. They are lost.”
Xochitl stepped into the sunlight and let herself vanish.
Paul grabbed his keys and wallet and started walking, using his umbrella to keep in shade enough so he didn’t fade. It was a beautiful day, clear, breezy and cool enough that he was glad of his jacket, though it was warm in the sun. He passed a few other pedestrians on the way, some of whom said hello, even though he was a stranger. At a strip mall, he saw an inflated Santa and realized with a start that Christmas was just a few days away. Christmas. Was Susan going to ask him to spend it with her? He hadn’t spent a holiday with other people in decades. It took him about forty minutes to walk to Maggie’s trailer park.
He saw his first petrified owl lying underneath a bush just outside Maggie’s trailer park. She was breathing, just barely, but he couldn’t do first aid on an owl and he couldn’t talk to her, so he just left her there. He found the next one in the bed of a pickup truck. She was also stiff and flat, wings splayed out at a strange angle as though she’d fallen dead out of the sky. She was alive, but she was also fully in the sun and hadn’t vanished yet. She was a member of the parliament, not one that he knew well, but she had some sway. This must have been a big deal for them if she was willing to come herself.
Wait a minute. If he was where the fallen owls were, that meant he was also within the ward. Paul froze, still staring into the bed of the truck. Why wasn’t he affected? Maybe it only attacked flying creatures? Was that why Xochitl had survived while the others hadn’t? Maybe she had sent him because he was expendable.
No, don’t be so cynical, he told himself. She said she sent him so he could trick Maggie into leaving her wards. Yeah, fat chance of that. He kept staring at the owl. She wasn’t moving. She was barely even breathing.
A man jangled keys and walked towards him. He had a beer gut and a mesh ball cap, with a metal chain that went from his front belt loop to what was probably a wallet in his back pocket. “Can I help you?” he said, though by the way he said it he really meant “What the hell are you doing looking into my truck?”
Paul picked the owl up. She didn’t weigh much, and when he lifted her by the leg, the rest of her didn’t move, as though she’d been frozen in ice.
The man’s hostility faded. “Shit. How’d that get in there?”
“Don’t know. I just saw her. I’m going to take her to the vet,” Paul said.
“You think it’s bird flu?” The man asked, slowing down.
“Yeah, could be,” Paul agreed, trying not to smirk. Bird flu. Who’d ever heard of bird flu? Sounded like brain fever or some other bullshit disease.
“Keep it away from me then,” the man said. He got into his truck and turned the engine on, narrowly missing Paul as he drove off.
Paul smelled pot and patchouli. He turned and saw the woman who must have been Maggie Stillwater. She had the same thick bushy curls as Susan had, though her hair was darker. She was wearing a loose purple caftan and Birkenstocks, and as she leaned into her trailer to adjust the stereo, her ankle lifted the hem of her dress, showing a thick leg with a slim macramé ankle bracelet.
Music began, the Beatles’ “All My Loving.” The music, and the smell of pot and patchouli took him back to when he was just out of high school, working with Carlos at a farm in what was now Chandler. A group of hippies had gotten a job picking melons to tide them over while they hitchhiked their way to San Francisco. There had been one girl, who went by “Sunshine”, who braided macramé jewelry for everyone. Normally the Mexicans shunned the hippies and vice versa, but Sunshine had managed to get everyone to love her, even the old caballeros (as Paul called them) because she was so sweet and kind. She could kiss a bull and make it stop charging, they said. She had an ankle bracelet just like that.
By the time the melon season was over and the hippies had gotten enough money to fix their van, she’d slept with every man who’d asked her. She was good at macramé, but she was even better in the sack. She’d given Paul an ankle bracelet like that too, and he’d worn it for a year before the hemp wore through. Good times.
“I love this album,” he said, with feeling.
Maggie turned. She didn’t look like a flower child, she looked like a bad stretch of road. She had some of Susan’s features. Paul cringed, freaked out, as though he’d just seen his mom wearing his girlfriend’s clothes.
“Do I know you?” she asked, giving him time to recover.
“You must be Maggie. I’m Paul,” he said, stifling his grimace. “Came to talk to you about the owls. How many did they send?”
“About thirty, I guess.”
“Wow. You really pissed them off.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “Lucky for me I had enough warning to make this twinge trap. You shoulda seen it, stiff owls dropping like rain. Some news crew came to see it, did a story like it was one of those whale beachings or something. They asked if I knew what caused it, but of course I pretended I had no idea.”
“Twinge trap, huh?” he said. “Looks pretty strong. I guess you have a ward too, since you haven’t invited me to sit.”
She set a plastic chair on the asphalt and then kicked it over. “Ward ends right there. Have a seat.”
He yawned around his thanks, and moved the chair back so he could sit. He would have liked to sit in the shade, but it was almost noon and there wasn’t much. He set the owl under the seat. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to unpetrify them?”
“Not on your life, bub. Those birds are trying to kill me.” Maggie took a drag, eyes narrowing. She breathed out the smoke, hissing it through her teeth. “You with them?”
Paul looked down. He had become translucent. If he hadn’t been so tired, he might have remembered his umbrella. “Yeah. They want you to stop making wands.”
“The wands? That’s why they’re after me?”
“Is that why no one else makes wands? Because you people kill them?”
“I came to ask you to stop.” He was too sleepy to come up with another answer. He hadn’t gotten home from work until seven thirty that morning, hadn’t fallen asleep until almost nine. He needed some coffee or sleep if he was going to have to think clearly.
“Why would I do that? I’m making good money off them.”
She laughed. “Now that’s rich. First you try to kill me, then you ask nicely. You got that in the wrong order.”
“You don’t get to make demands. Let them go or—”
“Or what? You’ll send owls to try to kill me?” she glared at him, which made her look even more like Susan. “Tell that goddess you work for that only if she shows up personally, apologizes, and assures me that we’re all kosher will I consider undoing the twinge trap.”
Only a Raylight could speak for the lady, and he didn’t know if he could convince Xochitl to bargain. The owls were not hip to the idea of forgiveness. But Maggie had the upper hand here. There was no way he was going to be able to get her to leave her ward.
“I only saw two owls. Where are the other ones?”
“The wildlife rehabilitationists and the news crew got most of them,” she said. “There might be one or two more around here. Take ‘em if you want. I don’t care. They’re all gonna die anyway.”
He leaned under the chair and put his hand on the owl. She was still breathing, but he could feel she was very thirsty. Hungry too. She was also angry, but more scared than angry. He had to get her unpetrified. Then she could talk to the parliament and see if someone could petition to become Raylight so she could speak for the lady. He was only a human. They’d never grant him that authority.
“I’ll be back,” he said, picking up the owl. He gathered the one in the bushes too, then set off to find a translator. He needed to find the Encanto mage.
Four cups of coffee and a cab ride later, Paul pulled up in front of the house of the best mage in Phoenix. Andrea V., also known as the Encanto mage, lived in a tiny little stucco house in the Encanto park area of Phoenix. The house was beige with blue trim, a bed of cannas in the front, and decorative iron bars covering the window. It had a tiny parking lot in the back and credit card stickers on the window as if she operated a business out of her home, but he wasn’t sure what kind of business it was because when she opened the door he didn’t see any wares. Mage-craft maybe.
Andrea was almost six feet tall. She had a mass of curly black hair, and her eyebrows had been plucked almost entirely off and drawn back in with a pencil, thin and high. She had thick eyeliner, and any blemishes on her tan skin had been covered by make up. Her lips were painted, outlined in reddish brown, and her manicured nails had tiny jewels at the ends of them.
“Are you my one thirty appointment?” she asked.
“I called about the owls,” he said, holding up the box that contained three parliament members.
It was the biggest box he could find, but it was still hard to fit them all in there on account of their odd positions. Most of a speckled wing stuck out of the top of the box, and a claw had torn a hole in the lower corner.
She waved him in to what looked like a waiting room. “I don’t have much time, but I’ll see what I can do.”
Low suede couches surrounded a large coffee table, and a television hung in the corner of the room. He set the box on the table, not bothering to push the magazines off first. Andrea pulled the shade cord, and stripes of sunlight fell across the owls. They didn’t vanish.
“A twinge trap.”
“I know,” she said.
“Can you undo it?”
“I can, but it would take me longer than they have.”
“Will this kill them?”
“No, but not eating or drinking will. They’re thirsty. You have to get some water into them.” She stood, gracefully, and went down the hall. When she came back, she was carrying a paper cone of water. She held the largest bird and poured a trickle of water down her beak. “I don’t know how long they can go without food, but most creatures can’t live very long without water. Who did this?”
“Maggie Stillwater.” Paul looked at Andrea’s face, trying to figure out what it was about her that didn’t sit right. She was very tall for a Hispanic woman. Maybe that was it.
Andrea nodded. She was still cradling the owl like a baby, trying to pour water in her mouth. She had very large hands; they dwarfed the paper cup. “I’ve heard of her. The Stillwaters are an old mage family. No wonder this twinge trap is so strong.”
“They’d probably be okay if they could fade, but when I put them in sunlight nothing happened.”
Andrea looked at him as though she didn’t understand.
“These aren’t normal owls,” he said. “These are Sunwards. I thought I mentioned that.”
“I see.” She set the owl back in the box and took a seat opposite the table from him. She folded her hands in her lap and pressed her knees together.
“I was told you had a relationship with the Sunwards,” he said. “You owed them a favor.”
“At one point,” she said primly.
“You going to tell me more about it?”
“The Sunwards have long lives, but not long memories, and the circumstances that led me to an alliance with the parliament are none of your concern, and if they are, the parliament can tell you.”
“The parliament is close with information, even to other Sunwards.” The parliament was comprised of one hundred owls, usually the oldest, though sometimes they made exceptions for owls of great talent. Non-owls need not apply. He knew that even if he lived to be a thousand, he would never be offered a perch in the parliament. He also knew that if he didn’t act fast, there would be thirty vacant perches in the parliament.
“The best thing you can do with these owls is keep giving them water until you can negotiate with the mage who did this. Try offering her money.” Andrea kept her hands very still in her lap. There was something about her hands that didn’t quite fit either, and he wasn’t sure what it was.
“I haven’t got much money.” He stared at Andrea’s face. Something about her jawline, or her neck. What was it?
“Well, then the parliament will have to offer something in exchange for releasing the owls. But it won’t matter anyway.”
“So you can’t do it?”
“Not quickly enough.” She shook her head. Her throat had a strange shape; that was it. “It will take me two weeks to fully negate this. Maggie could undo her own spell in moments, because she knew how the energies are layered, but for another mage it takes days to puzzle it out.”
“I see. I don’t know what I’m going to do then, because I don’t have the authority to negotiate with her.”
“What exactly is your relationship with the Sunwards?” she asked.
“I’m—” He stopped, as he suddenly figured out what was bothering him about her. Andrea was a man. She, he, was a man, dressed as a woman. “You’re, um …” he swallowed. He didn’t know what to say. He backed towards the window. “I uh, lost my train of thought. What did you ask me?”
“Why are you working for the Sunwards?” she said, slower, as though he were stupid.
“I, uh, that is, I’m uh …” He was still staring at her face. His face. Her face. Andrea was a man, passing as a woman. Now that he figured it out, it was obvious. Whoa. She was a he.
The warm sunlight hitting his arm made him turn translucent.
“You’re a Sunward?” Andrea said, thin eyebrows raising. “I’m impressed. I thought you were both human and male, you had me completely convinced.”
“Ah, thank you,” he said. Her hands were large. He should have noticed that. But she had breasts, and a waist. She was kind of a doll, actually. Did that make him gay? Paul cleared his throat and picked up the box of owls. “I’d better go see if I can get Maggie to release this. Thanks for your time.”
“You’re welcome,” she said.
“Wait,” he stopped before he pushed open the door. “I have one more question. There’s a human woman living with the translators.”
“The translators bargained with you for a spell to make the woman small. Did they bargain for the spell to make her big again?”
She laughed quickly, but there wasn’t much mirth in it. “No, but I won’t charge her much to undo it. If the mage living with them doesn’t become big again, it might be because she prefers life among the translators to life among the humans. It’s happened before.”
Paul felt the sick worm of jealousy turn within him. He changed the subject to avoid thinking about it. “Can you make wands that anyone can use?”
“That’s the holy grail of all mages trying to make a living as a mage. I can do it, but that sort of magic involves taking the life of an animal, so I’ve lost the taste for it.”
“Does the animal have to die?”
“If you take its magic, whatever that is that makes it useful for spells, it doesn’t quite have all it needs to survive. It’s like pulling the wings off a beetle.” She tilted her head, but kept her hands folded on her lap. “It’s just a shame for the garden fey that they, like elephants with their tusks, have something that another species wants.”
“And besides,” she said, “the spells don’t last very long when they’re bound into a wand. Even mine didn’t.”
“Did the parliament get on your case about that? About you taking rumblers? Is that why they got you to work for us?”
She didn’t answer, but by the way she looked away, Paul figured he’d hit upon it.
“I’ll let you out.” She stood up to get the door for him. As he walked out, holding the box of owls, she tucked a business card into the top owl’s wing.
“My day job. Even the best mage in Phoenix can’t make a living as a mage, at least, not a comfortable living.”
He glanced at the card. It said “acupuncture.” He didn’t know what that was. Something medical, maybe, because it had a caudex on it, but he couldn’t imagine what.
Fox was waiting for him when he got home, curled up asleep in the ivy bed beside the door. She was mostly hidden, just a tiny patch of fur and an ear showing through the leaves, like a little blonde cat taking a nap, but he could sense other Sunwards well enough to know she was there as soon as he crossed the parking lot.
“Everyone is upset about the mage and the twinge trap,” Fox said, sliding out from under the ivy to peer into the box. “These some of the ones that got hit? Oh, all parliament members. Well, well.”
“Don’t bite them, that would be rude.” Paul unlocked the door.
“I won’t,” Fox licked one, as though it were a cub, to prove that she had sympathy no matter what she said. “They’re terrified. Put them in the sunlight.”
“They can’t fade,” Paul said, picking up the box again.
“I know, but I don’t think they like being apart from the lady.” Fox had pity on her vulpine face. Pity for owls. Paul didn’t think it possible of her. She gently picked them up with her mouth and set them in the shaft of sunlight pouring through the window. “Let them die in the light.”
“I hope they won’t die at all. I’m going to negotiate with Maggie to un-petrify them.”
“Negotiate? You think the parliament will let you do that? They’d rather let the owls die than let a human Sunward have a perch in the parliament.”
“I wasn’t going to ask the parliament. The parliament barely tolerates me. But I’m on good terms with the Prime Minister. Love her, in fact. She chose me for a reason. Maybe this was it.” His own arrogance frightened him. Did he dare ask? Surely she’d refuse.
“You’re going to—” Fox paused. “Oh. Well. I’d like to see that happen.”
Paul picked up his phone and called his boss to ask for the day off. He thought he’d have to fake an illness, but his boss just told him to take a ‘personal day’ which he’d never heard before.
He stood near the window, not quite letting the rays of sunlight touch him. He took a deep breath, then another. He could do this. She wouldn’t punish him. His reasons were valid. Shit. Okay, one more breath, then he’d do it.
Fox shook her head, a gesture she’d used more now that she’d worn a human form. “You got balls, my friend.”
“Yeah, but she chose me anyway.”
He thought about what kind of argument he could frame, then realized it was pointless. She would know everything he knew as soon as he faded into her. He squeezed his eyes shut, took another breath, and exhaled sharply. If she didn’t agree with him, the parliament would probably maim him for his insolence.
He glanced at the owls, lying petrified on the floor. If he didn’t succeed, they would die. He disliked them, hated them sometimes, but they were Sunwards. They were his sisters.
Paul stepped into the light before he could think too much about it.
He faded, melting into the sunbeam.
He had never been able to explain what it felt like to go into the light. He was everywhere and nowhere at once, a part of the lady, no longer having any sense of himself.
Everything he had been and done in the darkness she learned, assimilated, kept.
She knew what he asked.
She granted it.
He wanted to stay, as always. Once you faded into the light, it was hard to leave her warmth and return to the darkness. He felt the other Sunwards, learned what they learned. Time lost its urgency. This is how a few moments became a few years, and you found yourself returning to a society that had passed you by.
But not this time. This time he had a job to do.
He stepped back into his apartment, and he brought the lady’s mantle with him. Her light was heavy. He thought he would burst with it.
“You’re glowing,” Fox said, looking awed. “She allowed it.”
“Yeah.” He was breathing shallowly. He felt as though he was already holding as much as he could.
“The parliament is going to be pissed.”
“Yeah.” They would know right away, as soon as they went into the light. Some had already found out. They weren’t happy, none of the parliament was. Parliaments hate viziers.
“There’s never been a human Raylight before,” Fox said.
“Might never be again.” Paul’s voice came out as a squeak.
Fox tilted her head to one side. “Is it hard to hold in?”
“Guess we’d better talk to the mage then.”
“Of course I’m going with you,” she said, trotting towards the door. “I have more fun when I’m with you.”
She snorted. “It’s not a compliment; it means that you’re a magnet for trouble.” But she grinned, tongue lolling against her teeth. It was a compliment. Fox loved trouble.
“Maggie!” Paul called, since he still couldn’t cross the ward to knock on her door.
Fox twined around his feet, alternately fading and coming back into focus. She was frightened to be around so many people during the day, but she was too curious to leave entirely. Paul could feel her, could feel everything the light touched, including two Sunwards who had been missed by both him and the wildlife rehabilitationists.
“Maggie!” He called again.
He was having trouble holding the light in. He was glowing so brightly that some of the neighbors had come out of their trailers and pointed. Some of the other ones just shut their curtains.
“What?” Maggie said, coming out of her trailer with a bottle of Jack Daniels in one hand and a can of Coke in the other. “Oh, it’s you.”
“I have authority to negotiate.”
“I called Susan’s house. Six weeks she’s been gone. Her boss said she disappeared in early November. Your people killed her.”
“We didn’t.” He was still breathing shallowly, trying to find a comfortable way to hold the light. As far as he could tell, there wasn’t one. “She was kidnapped by someone else and she should be home soon.”
“Bullshit. You’re lying.”
He felt the light, felt what the parliament wanted, what the lady agreed to. “If you release the owls, we can give you amnesty for killing our prey, as long as you don’t do it again.”
“Not good enough. I want Susan back.” She took a swig of the Coke and poured some Jack Daniels in the can.
He consulted the light. “We can’t give you that. Amnesty is the best we can offer.”
“Then don’t waste my time.” She turned to go back into her trailer.
“I can get you Susan. I know where she is.” He didn’t, but unlike owls, he knew how to bluff. Most of the owls he could feel were pissed off that he’d been named Raylight, but they couldn’t do anything but respect the lady’s opinion. She gave him authority. She trusted his judgment.
“You can?” Fox asked.
She poured a little more whiskey into the Coke can and swirled it around, then drank it. Paul wouldn’t have minded a sip too. A drink of anything. It may have been December, but it felt pretty hot when you were standing in the sun holding a goddess of light within your body.
“Get me Susan, and swear that you guys are gonna leave me alone, and I’ll let the owls go.”
“Let the owls go and swear not to use any more rumblers.”
“Yeah, yeah. Only I gotta have Susan here.” Maggie glared at him. “Alive and well.”
He couldn’t hold the Raylight mantle any longer. He let go, and faded.