Feb 22 2013 11:30am
Written in Red (Excerpt)
Check out Anne Bishop's new series, starting with Written in Red, out on March 5 from Roc Books:
In a thrilling new fantasy series, enter a world inhabited by the Others, unearthly entities—vampires and shape-shifters among them—who rule the Earth and whose prey are humans.
As a cassandra sangue, or blood prophet, Meg Corbyn can see the future when her skin is cut—a gift that feels more like a curse. Meg’s Controller keeps her enslaved so he can have full access to her visions. But when she escapes, the only safe place Meg can hide is at the Lakeside Courtyard—a business district operated by the Others.
Shape-shifter Simon Wolfgard is reluctant to hire the stranger who inquires about the Human Liaison job. First, he senses she’s keeping a secret, and second, she doesn’t smell like human prey. Yet a stronger instinct propels him to give Meg the job. And when he learns the truth about Meg and that she’s wanted by the government, he’ll have to decide if she’s worth the fight between humans and the Others that will surely follow.
Half blinded by the storm, she stumbled into the open area between two buildings. Hoping to hide from whomever was hunting for her as well as get some relief from the snow and wind, she followed an angled wall and ducked around the corner. Her socks and sneakers were soaked, and her feet were so cold she couldn’t feel them. She knew that wasn’t good, wasn’t safe, but she had taken the clothing available just as she had taken the opportunity to run.
No sound of footsteps that would confirm she was being followed, but that didn’t mean anything. Blocked by the wall, even the sounds of the slow-moving traffic were muted.
She had to find shelter. It was too cold to be out here tonight. As part of her training, she’d been shown pictures of people who had frozen to death, so she knew she couldn’t stay out here much longer. But the city shelters that provided a place for the homeless would be the first places the hunters would look for her.
Was she going to die tonight? Was this the storm that was the beginning of the end? No. She wouldn’t consider that possibility. She hadn’t done this much and come this far for it all to end before she had a chance to begin. Besides, she hadn’t seen other parts of the prophecy yet. She hadn’t seen the dark-haired man wearing a green pullover sweater. She didn’t have to worry about dying until she saw him.
That didn’t mean she could afford to be stupid.
The building at the back of the open area drew her attention, mostly because it provided the only light. Peeking around the corner to reassure herself that she was still alone, she hurried toward it. Maybe she could figure out an excuse to stay inside for a few minutes—just long enough for her feet to thaw.
But the light, which had seemed so bright and hopeful a moment before, was merely the overnight lighting. The place was closed. Still, there was enough light for her to see the sign above the glass door—a sign that would have chilled her more than the snow and wind if she hadn’t felt so desperate.
Human Law Does Not Apply. She was standing on land that belonged to the Others. She might be momentarily safe from human predators, but if she was caught here, she was at the mercy of beings that only looked human, and even someone who had lived a confined life knew what happened to humans who were imprudent in their encounters with the terra indigene.
A second sign was taped to the inside of the door. She stared at it for a long time, despite her numb feet and the freezing temperature.
Apply at Howling Good Reads
(around the corner)
A job. A way to earn money for food and lodging. A place where she could hide for a while. A place where, even if she was found, the hunters couldn’t take her back because human law did not apply.
Howling Good Reads. It sounded like a name for an Others store.
She could die here. Most people who tangled with the Others died, one way or another. But based on what she had seen in the prophecy, she was going to die anyway, so for once in her life, what happened to her would be on her terms.
That much decided, she tromped back to the sidewalk and hurried to the corner. When she turned right on Crowfield Avenue, she saw two people walk out of a store. Lights and life. She headed toward both.
Taking his place behind the checkout counter, Simon Wolfgard glanced at the clock on the wall, then said, <Now.>
The howl from the back of the bookstore produced the expected female squeals and more manly grunts of surprise.
Raising his voice to be heard by the humans within sight, he said, “Ten minutes to closing.”
Not that they didn’t know that. The howl was the ten-minute warning—just as the Wolf who took up a position at the door was the bookstore’s own brand of security. A would-be shoplifter having his hand bitten off instilled a strong sense of honesty in the rest of the humans who came to Howling Good Reads. Having to walk over the blood—and walk past the Wolf who was still crunching on a couple of fingers—left a lasting impression, not to mention a few nightmares.
Didn’t stop the monkeys from coming back the next day to stare at the bloodstains and whisper to one another as they browsed the contents of the store. The thrill of rounding a shelving unit and coming face-to-face with one of the Others in its animal form—and the more chilling thrill of sometimes seeing swift and terrible violence—tended to increase the sale of horror and thriller novels and helped the bookstore maintain an acceptable profit.
Not that any store in the Courtyard needed a profit to stay in business. The stores were run for the convenience of the terra indigene who lived in the Courtyard and provided a way for the rest of the Others to receive the human-made goods they wanted. It was more his own desire to understand the way businesses were run—and test the honesty of the human companies he dealt with—that gave Simon the push to keep his store in the black every month.
But Howling Good Reads didn’t follow human retail practices when it came to hours of operation. HGR closed promptly at nine p.m. on the evenings it was open to humans, and some of the staff didn’t hesitate to shift shapes and nip lingering customers who thought the store’s listed closing was a suggestion rather than a firm time.
He rang up a few sales, more than he’d expected on a night when the sensible would have been tucked in at home to avoid subzero wind chills and wind-whipped snow that had as much bite as any Wolf. Of course, some of the monkeys lived nearby and used the bookstore and adjoining coffee shop, A Little Bite, as their social gathering places when they didn’t want to spend an evening drinking at the taverns on Main Street.
Humans, Simon reminded himself. He adjusted the wire-rimmed glasses that he didn’t need for vision but thought made him look a little gawky and more approachable. Call them humans when you’re in the store. That way you’re less likely to use the slur when talking to an employee. It’s hard enough to find help we can tolerate. No sense driving away the ones we have by insulting them.
The word had traveled across the ocean from Afrikah, where the Liongard referred to humans as hairless, gibbering monkeys. After the terra indigene in Thaisia saw pictures of monkeys, they adopted the word because it fit so many of the humans they encountered. But he was a member of the Business Association that ran the integrated stores and Courtyard shops, as well as being the leader of the Lakeside Courtyard, so he tried not to be insulting—at least not out loud.
He turned toward the voice that sounded like warm syrup as the woman shrugged into a hooded parka. The movement lifted the bottom of her short sweater, revealing a couple of inches of toned belly that still looked softly bitable.
Plenty of human females came sniffing around the store, hoping to be invited for a walk on the wild side, but there was something about this one that made him want to sink his fangs into her throat instead of nibble on her belly.
“Asia.” He tipped his head, a gesture that was both greeting and dismissal.
She didn’t take the hint. She never did. Asia Crane had set her sights on him from the first day she walked into Howling Good Reads. That was part of the reason he didn’t like her. The harder she pushed to get close to him, the more he felt like a challenge to be conquered and the less he wanted her around. But she never pushed so hard that he could justify attacking her for being in his store.
A couple more people were shrugging into winter coats and scarves, but there was no one else by the register.
Giving him a Bite me, I like it smile, she said, “Come on, Simon. It’s been over a week, and you promised to think about it.”
“I didn’t promise anything,” he said as he straightened up the counter space around the register.
She had blond hair and brown eyes, and he’d been told by a couple of human males who worked in the Courtyard that she was beautiful. But there were things about Asia that bothered him. He couldn’t point a paw at any particular thing, besides her pursuing him when he’d made it clear he wasn’t interested, but that feeling was the reason he’d refused to give her a job at HGR when she’d first come around. It was also the reason he wouldn’t let her rent one of the four efficiency apartments that the Courtyard sometimes made available to human employees. Now she wanted to be the Human Liaison, a job that would give her access to the Courtyard itself. He’d eat her before he gave her that job. And Vladimir Sanguinati, who was the store’s other manager, had offered to help more than once if Simon looked at Asia some night and felt peckish. A fair arrangement, since Vlad preferred the blood while Simon liked ripping off chunks of fresh meat.
“We’re closed, Asia. Go home,” he said.
She let out a theatrical sigh. “I’d really like the job, Simon. The one I’ve got barely pays the rent and it’s boring.”
Now he didn’t even try to sound friendly. “We’re closed.”
Another sigh, followed by a pouty look as she zipped up her parka, pulled on gloves, and finally left.
John, another member of the Wolfgard, left his spot by the door to do a check for any stragglers. So Simon was alone in the front of the store when the door opened again, letting in a blast of cold air that he found refreshing after all the scents humans used.
“We’re—” He glanced toward the door and swallowed the word closed.
The woman looked half frozen. She wore sneakers—sneakers, for pity’s sake—and her jeans were soaked up to the knees. The denim jacket was a light covering suitable for a summer night, and she was wearing a T-shirt under it.
She looked so painfully cold he didn’t have the automatic consideration of whether she’d be edible.
“Is there something I can do for you?” he asked.
She stared at him as if she’d seen him before, and whatever had happened made her afraid. Problem was, he didn’t recognize her. Not by sight or smell.
Then she took a couple of steps toward the counter. He suspected that was to get farther into the store, where it was warmer, than to get closer to him.
“I s-saw the sign,” she stammered. “A-about the job.”
Not a stutter, he decided. Her teeth were beginning to chatter. How long had she been out in that weather? It was a natural storm, coming off the lake. The first one of the new year. Being a natural storm didn’t mean it wasn’t a bitch.
“H-human Liaison,” she chattered. “The sign said to apply here.”
Moments ticked by. She lowered her eyes. Probably not brazen enough to meet his stare now that she’d said what she wanted.
Something about her troubled him, but it wasn’t the same feeling he had when he was around Asia Crane. Until he figured out what that something was, he didn’t want to kick her back out in the snow. And except for Asia, this was the first human to ask about the job. That was reason enough to give her a few minutes of his time.
Movement at the edge of his peripheral vision. John, now in human form and dressed in a sweater and jeans, tipped his head by way of asking, What now?
Simon tipped his head slightly in turn and looked at the cash register.
“Want me to close up?” John asked, giving the shivering woman a smile as he approached.
“Yes.” He looked at the woman. “Let’s go next door and have a cup of coffee while we discuss the job.”
She turned toward the outer door and hesitated.
“No, this way.” He took a couple of steps past the counter and pointed to an opening in the wall.
The archway between had a lattice door that could be latched when one store was closed and the other was still open to customers. On the wall beside the door was a sign that read, PAY FOR THE BOOKS BEFORE ENTERING A LITTLE BITE, OR WE’LL TAKE A BITE OUT OF YOU.
The sign on the other side of the door said, SURE, YOU CAN TAKE THAT MUG. WE’LL JUST KEEP YOUR HAND IN EXCHANGE.
He didn’t think the woman’s brain was thawed enough to take in the words. After the first jolt of seeing him, he didn’t think she had taken in anything.
Tess was wiping down the glass display case when he walked in. The friendly smile she started to give him shifted to guarded when she noticed his companion.
“Could we have some coffee?” he asked as he took a seat at a table closest to the counter—and away from the door and the pocket of cold that seemed to settle around the tables close to the windows.
“There’s still some left in the pot,” she replied, giving the woman a sharper look now.
Simon leaned back in his chair, resting one ankle over his other knee. “I’m Simon Wolfgard. What’s your name?”
He heard the breath of hesitation that told him it wasn’t a name she was used to. Which meant it wasn’t a name she’d had for long. He didn’t like liars. Humans who lied about small things tended to lie about a lot of other things as well.
And a name wasn’t all that small a thing when all was said and done.
But when Tess brought the mugs of coffee to the table and he saw the way Meg cupped the mug to warm her hands, he let it go.
He thanked Tess, then turned his attention back to Meg Corbyn. “You know what being a Human Liaison entails?”
“No,” she said.
“So you don’t have any experience with a job like this?”
“No. But I can learn. I want to learn.”
He didn’t doubt the sincerity of her words, but he did wonder if she wouldn’t die of pneumonia or something else before she had a chance to learn anything.
Suddenly he remembered the scarred old woman sitting in the sun, offering to read her cards and tell people their fortunes. But she didn’t use her cards that day, not for him. What she had done was the reason her words had whispered through his thoughts for the past twenty years. And now her words rang in his memory as clear as if he’d heard them yesterday.
Be a leader for your people. Be the voice that decides who lives and who dies within your Courtyard. The day will come when a life you save will, in turn, save someone dear to you.
His being the leader of the Lakeside Courtyard hadn’t saved his sister, Daphne, two years ago. But thinking about the old woman when this shivering young woman was waiting for his decision made him uneasy.
Tess set one of her earthenware soup bowls on the table, along with some crackers.
“Last bowl in the pot,” Tess said.
“Thank you, but I can’t pay for it.” Meg’s voice was barely above a whisper—and full of longing as she stared at the food.
Giving Simon a hostile look, Tess said, “On the house.”
“Eat it,” Simon said when Tess resumed her cleanup. “It’s hearty and will warm you up.”
He turned his head and drank his coffee while he watched Tess go through her closing routine, giving Meg a little time to concentrate on the food in front of her.
Tess was a worry. Tess was always a worry, because there was too fine a line between her being amused by humans and being unwilling to tolerate their existence. He didn’t know what she was, only that she was terra indigene—and she was so dangerous even other species of terra indigene feared her. But when she arrived at the Lakeside Courtyard a few years ago, there was something in her eyes that made him certain that if she didn’t get some kind of companionship, she would become an enemy of everything that lived.
Inviting her to stay had been his first official decision as the new leader of the Lakeside Courtyard. Watching her change from a brittle loner to an individual capable of running a public business, he’d never regretted that decision.
That didn’t mean he always trusted her.
“What does a Human Liaison do?” Meg asked.
Simon glanced at the bowl. Half gone. He wasn’t sure if her question meant she couldn’t eat anymore or just needed to pause.
“By the agreements established between humans and the terra indigene, every city in Thaisia has a Courtyard, a tract of land where the Others reside. These Courtyards are also places where products manufactured by humans can be acquired. But humans don’t trust the Others, and we don’t trust humans. A lot of the products are delivered by humans, and there were enough incidents early on to convince the human government and our leaders that it was prudent to have someone receiving the mail and packages who was not inclined to eat the messenger. So a receiving area was built at each Courtyard and is manned by someone who acts as the liaison between the humans and the Others. Each Courtyard’s Business Association decides on the pay and perks. By the agreements, the human government is required to penalize any delivery service that refuses to deliver merchandise to a Courtyard. On the other hand, there is a limited window of time when the position of Human Liaison can be unoccupied before companies can refuse to enter our land without penalty. Those kinds of interruptions tend to fray the tolerance each side has for the other—and when tolerance frays, people tend to die. Sometimes a lot of people die.”
Meg ate another spoonful of soup. “Is that why you allow humans to shop in your store? To build up the tolerance between humans and the Others?”
Smart woman. Her conclusion wasn’t accurate—most terra indigene weren’t interested in being tolerant of humans—but it did indicate an understanding of why a Liaison was needed. “The Lakeside Courtyard is a kind of experiment. While the shops in our Market Square are exclusively for our own people and our human employees, the businesses facing Crowfield Avenue have hours when they’re open to humans in general. The bookstore and coffee shop are two of those businesses. There is also a fitness center that has a few memberships available to humans, the seamstress/tailor shop, and a gallery on Main Street, which is open to anyone when it’s open at all.”
“But human law doesn’t apply in those stores?”
“That’s right.” Simon studied her. He didn’t trust Asia Crane. His reaction to Meg wasn’t that simple. Because of that, he decided to hire her. It wouldn’t hurt the Courtyard to have her around for a few days, especially if someone kept an eye on what she was doing, and it would give him time to figure out why she made him uneasy. But before he told Meg, he needed to say one more thing. “Human law does not apply. Do you understand what that means?”
She nodded. He didn’t believe her, but he let it go.
“If you want the job, it’s yours.”
She looked at him with eyes that were the clear gray of a Wolf, except she wasn’t a Wolf. The pale skin blushed with a hint of rose on the cheeks. And now that it was drying, he realized her hair was a weird shade of red—and it stank.
They would have to do something about that.
“I can have the job?” Meg asked, her voice lifted by something he would have called hope.
He nodded. “It’s a basic hourly wage—and you’re responsible for keeping a log of your hours. You also get the use of one of the efficiency apartments above the seamstress/tailor shop, and you can purchase items at any store in the Market Square.”
Tess returned and dropped a ring of keys on the table. “I’ll fetch a few basics from our stores while you show Meg the apartment. Leave the dishes on the table. I’ll take care of them later.” She left as quickly as she arrived.
Meg ate one more spoonful of soup and drained the coffee mug. “Is she angry with me?”
“You? No.” With him? Sometimes it was hard to tell with Tess. Other times it was all too easy to see the warning signs.
He held up the keys. “We have rules, Meg, and we enforce them. Access to the Courtyard is restricted. You don’t bring guests to your apartment without us knowing about it first. If we smell a stranger, we’ll kill him. We aren’t interested in excuses, and we don’t give second chances. The storefront on the corner is the place where humans and Others can socialize without needing a leader’s permission. You can bring guests there. Is that understood?”
She bobbed her head.
“All right. Come on. We’ll go out through the bookstore.”
He led her back through HGR, picking up his winter coat, which John had left on the counter for him. Shrugging into it, he pushed open the door, holding it against the wind until Meg slipped out. Then he locked the door, took a grip on her arm to keep her from slipping, and walked her past A Little Bite to a glass door in the seamstress/tailor’s building.
“First key is for the street door.” He pulled out the ring of keys and slipped the first key into the lock. He opened the door, nudged her into the small entry, then locked the door behind him. Remembering that humans didn’t have the same night vision as Wolves, he flipped on the light switch, revealing the stairs that went up to the second floor.
She went up the stairs, then stopped on the landing to wait for him.
He went ahead of her, checked the apartment number on the key, and made an almost soundless grunt of surprise. Tess had given him the key for the front apartment that was farthest from the Crowfield Avenue door—and closer to the stairway that led into the Courtyard.
He opened the apartment door and flicked the switch for the overhead light, automatically toeing off his wet boots and leaving them in the hallway. While he waited for Meg to wrestle her feet out of the wet sneakers, he looked around. Clean and basic. Bathroom and closet at one end. A kitchen area that held a half fridge, a wave-cooker, a small counter and sink, and minimal cupboards for storage. A single bed and a dresser. A small rectangular table and two straight back chairs. A stuffed chair and hassock and a reading lamp next to an empty bookcase.
“There should be a set of towels in the bathroom,” he said. “You look like you need a hot shower.”
“Thank you,” Meg whispered.
“Bathroom’s over there.” Simon pointed.
She was shivering so hard, he wondered if she’d be able to get out of those wet clothes. But he had no intention of helping her.
The bathroom door closed. Couldn’t hide much from animal-sharp hearing, but he ignored the sounds. While he located the extra blankets in the dresser’s bottom drawer, the toilet flushed. A moment later, the shower turned on.
He was staring out the window, watching the still-falling snow, when Tess walked in carrying two big zippered bags.
“I put it all on your account,” she said. Her hair, usually brown and straight, now curled wildly and had green streaks—a sign that Tess wasn’t feeling calm. At least the streaks weren’t red, the indication that she was angry.
When her hair turned black, people died.
“Put what on my account?” he asked.
“Two sets of clothes, sleepwear, toiletries, a winter coat and boots, and some food.”
The coat was a bright red, which was a color that attracted a lot of the Courtyard’s residents because it usually signified downed prey. Since that was the most likely reason no one had bought it, he wondered why Tess would bring it for Meg.
“I thought we could offer the midday meal as part of her pay,” he said.
“You might want to discuss this with the rest of the Business Association before you make so many decisions, especially since you just hired a new Liaison without talking to the rest of us,” Tess replied with a bite in her voice.
“You brought me the apartment keys before I asked for them, so you must have made a decision too,” Simon countered.
She didn’t respond. She just set one of the bags on the bed, then took the other into the kitchen area. After putting the food away, she joined him by the window. “You’re not in the habit of taking in strays, Simon. Especially not stray monkeys.”
“Couldn’t leave her out in the cold.”
“Yes, you could. You’ve left other humans to fend for themselves. Why is this one different?”
He shrugged, not wanting to talk about the scarred old woman whose words had shaped so many of his choices.
“We need a Liaison, Tess.”
“A fool’s idea, if you ask me. The only humans that want the job are thieves who think they can steal from us or ones hiding from their own law. The last one you threw out for being a lazy bag of shit, and the one before that . . . the Wolves ate the one before that.”
“We weren’t the only ones who ate him,” Simon muttered.
But he had to admit that Tess had a point. Liaisons barely had time to learn the job—if they even bothered to learn the job—before a replacement needed to be found for one reason or another. Humans always had a reason for wanting the job that had nothing to do with the job. Wasn’t that one of the reasons he wouldn’t give it to Asia? Wanting the Liaison job was just her next attempt to make him notice her. He didn’t need her sniffing around him more than she already was.
“What is Meg Corbyn running from?” Tess asked. “She didn’t start out around here. Not with the clothes she was wearing.”
He didn’t respond because he didn’t disagree. Meg might as well have runaway stamped on her forehead.
The green streaks faded from Tess’s hair. She sighed. “Maybe she’ll stay long enough to clear out some of the backlog of mail and packages.”
“Maybe,” he said. He didn’t think Meg Corbyn, or whoever she really was, would stay beyond receiving her first paycheck. But she had said she wanted to learn, and none of the other humans had said that. Not even Asia.
An awkward silence.
“You should go,” Tess said. “Naked girl in the shower. Strange man. I read these kinds of stories in books the humans write.”
Simon hesitated, but Tess was right. “Tell Meg I’ll meet her at the Liaison’s Office at eight thirty tomorrow morning. That will give me time to go over a few things with her before deliveries start at nine.”
“You’re the boss.”
Setting the keys on the table, he left the apartment—and wondered if, by leaving Meg alone with Tess, he’d just murdered the girl.
Written in Red © Anne Bishop 2013