Ever since King Garrick made Samael the province’s official god, Sundays in the saloon were busy. For hours the line had spilled outside onto the porch. Mal could barely clear a table’s dirty dishes and wipe it clean before more settlers sat down. With this last group the tables were all still taken, but the line finally had an end to it.
Mal didn’t mind the hard work. It was being so close to the food that drove her crazy. The last of today’s protein supplement was already gone. The daily allotment hadn’t been enough since she turned thirteen. Except on days when she and Pala caught something outside the wall, she’d gone to bed famished every night the last few months.
Especially since the bleeding started.
Across the room a settler yelled at the waitress for another round of settlement gin with his table’s textured stew and water allotment.
“Praise Samael!” another settler said. Everyone laughed.
The joke was on the Samaeli priest sitting at the bar. When the Samaelii took over, they’d demanded all Garrickers set aside one full day a week for the official Samaeli day of rest. Their mistake. According to settlement gossip, King Garrick had raged at the priests. Told them nobody makes demands on Garrick. Then he gave them what they wanted—with a sting on the end of it.
King Garrick declared the full day of rest for citizens. Noncitizen Garrickers got a half day. Settlement workers got no day off of any duration—that would be ridiculous; crops don’t take days off—but…and here was the sting…King Garrick proclaimed a four-hour shift bonus for them—for settlers!—to be paid out of Samaeli credits every Sunday morning.
Which the shibs were happy to spend on textured stew and settlement gin at Ma’s saloon, and pay extra if Mal and Pala caught a rabbit to throw in the pot.
Ma ran the saloon at Crop Settlement 20. She was always behind the bar, like now, grousing. Mal was general laborer, bus girl, and hostess. Palama was the waitress, and her husband Palada was the cook. Pala, their sixteen-year-old son and Mal’s friend, kept the peace and hauled supplies in from the back.
They took their time off on Mondays. The settlement priest didn’t like it. Ma was a citizen and should set the example, he said. Take Sunday off. Ma just laughed in his face at the thought of walking away from so much business.
The priest didn’t mind the free meal Ma was required to give him on Sundays though. He was on his second bowl now, again wheedling her to remove the carved wooden Asherah the old priest had given her.
“When will you take down that abomination?” He held his cup out for more gin as Mal came by with the bus tray. She put down the tray and took the cup behind the bar to pour him a refill.
The Asherah was displayed prominently in a nook shrine inset behind the bar. It wasn’t very good. Palada could have made a much better one. Ma kept it for the sheer joy of perturbing the Samaeli priest.
When it was busy like this she was in her glory, dispensing water and settlement gin from behind the bar. In a nod to Samael—or to the Samaeli credits the settlers brought in—she did try on Sundays to look presentable. She’d washed her face and twisted her coarse gray hair into a tight bun at the nape of her neck.
“I know which god is on my side.” She was old and ugly but tough as a rock. Her tiny black eyes gleamed as she baited the priest. “I know who’ll smite me if I abandon her. What did Samael ever do for me?”
“That’s not how it works. We mere humans don’t get to judge the gods.”
Ma shook her head and clucked. “I know what I know.” Her unmoving serenity surprised even Mal.
She rested her hand on Mal’s shoulder, and for once her fingers didn’t dig into the flesh. Ma didn’t hit, but she did like to pinch and claw. It was best just to stay out of her range, even on Sundays. The priest let Ma’s blasphemy go, but when Mal gave him his gin he grumbled abomination into the cup.
Ma gave Mal a good-natured shove. “Put some speed into it, girl.”
Mal picked up the bus tray again and lugged it into the kitchen. She wiped the sweat off her forehead and went back to the saloon and another dirty table, new customers already there waiting for her to clean it. She might only be thirteen, but she still got tired, and she hadn’t had a break in hours.
The door swung open with yet another customer. Mal glanced around the room for a table as the settler shuffled in behind her, but she knew there weren’t any available.
It wasn’t a settler. It was a Ptery, and not four feet away. The old crone shuffled forward. Mal instinctively took a step back. White gauze-like film covered the Ptery’s eye sockets, the orbs jerking from object to object. They fixed on Mal, so creepy she dropped the tray. The dishes clattered on the floor.
As Mal picked up plates and bowls, the Ptery’s eyes widened and a broad grin spread over her face. She reached toward Mal’s hair with a youthful hand. Its smooth pink skin didn’t match her withered sallow face. Mal scrambled backwards as Palama stepped in front of her, shielding her from the Ptery.
“You’ll find no business here, old woman.” Palama’s voice was melodic and kind as always, but her tone was laced with urgency, even a touch of fear. Palama was never afraid. Mal peered around her thin frame.
“Let me seek your soul, young one,” the Ptery said. “I’ll wager it’s in there.”
“Get out, witch!” Ma shrieked from the bar. “Charlatan! Get out!”
Mal hadn’t noticed until now, but except for Ma and Palama the saloon had gone stone silent. No one wanted a Ptery in there, looking for souls. Palada had come out from the kitchen and stood with Pala. Together they gave the Ptery their you-can-go-now look—that stare they fixed on settlers who drank too much settlement gin.
The Ptery hesitated. Mal could feel her evaluating her position. Unlike most settlers, Pala and Palada were as well-nourished as aristocrats, taller than the usual worker. Pala was already an inch taller than his da. Their muscles bulged under their dark brown skin. They wore their hair in thin braids decorated with objects Palada had carved from wood and stone. This alone was a mark of self-respect unheard of in settlers.
Palada was the calmest, most peaceful human being Mal knew, but the Ptery couldn’t know that. She seemed to understand well enough that she couldn’t intimidate him.
“The priest is here, witch!” Ma said. “He’ll take you in, he will!”
There used to be a sheriff at the settlement. Now the Samaeli priest had the sheriff’s duties. But Ma was bluffing. He never took anybody in.
Ma wasn’t afraid of the old crone per se, but of the trouble the Ptery could cause with Garrick. A good number of the settlers worked illegally. Some sitting in the saloon at this moment hadn’t gone through the liminal gauntlet to get their souls. If the Ptery found them out, she could blackmail them and their supervisors too.
It would be bad for business.
Palama pulled a packet of textured protein from her apron and handed it to the Ptery. “You should go.” Her voice had gone back to its usual lovely, sing-song cadence. Sometimes Mal didn’t hear what Palama said because the music in her voice was better than any meaning in her words.
The Ptery again looked at Palada and Pala—at least her eyes jerked in their direction—then at Mal. There was something strange in the gaze, as if the Ptery were boring into her. Invading her.
“I said you should go now.” All Palama’s gentleness was gone. She took the Ptery by the arm and moved her toward the door. The invasive feeling stopped. A few of the settlers were out of their seats, ready to do their own convincing now that Palama had done the work.
The Ptery’s eyes jerked one more time at the tall dark and muscular men. She snatched the protein from Palama’s hand and backed out of the saloon. People gradually relaxed and fell back into their previous conversations.
Mal finished picking up the dishes and headed to the kitchen. Everything was normal again, but her heart was pounding. She’d seen a Ptery!
A settler at the bar raised his glass of settlement gin. “To King Garrick!”
The others lifted their glasses to the picture of the king a settler had brought in when the first Sunday bonus came. Ma had put it on the wall to encourage gin sales. And it worked.
“King Garrick!” The settlers drank deep and ordered more.
“To the long life of our natural born king and prince!” The second toast didn’t go over so well. Now the settler was grandstanding.
“Garrick.” The less enthusiastic reply.
“What does that actually mean, natural born?” Mal asked. She’d heard the term so often, she never thought about the reality of it. Not until recently. Not until it might apply to her.
Ma laughed. “You’re about to find out for yourself and make me rich.”
Mal blushed. Then she got mad at herself for blushing and blushed even more. She was tired and embarrassed and hungry, and the Ptery had made her feel odd, shaky. She put down the tray and stepped out of Ma’s range. “I’m taking a break.”
She went outside, careful to keep to the covered walk along the saloon wall. The day had cooled. The late afternoon sun sent shadows from the wall’s raptor cages across the square, unnaturally elongated shapes looming over the common. The Ptery shuffled along out in the open, headed for the gate.
Ma’s words echoed in Mal’s mind. You’re about to find out for yourself and make me rich.
She meant the bleeding. All girls bled at puberty. One time, for a day. Two times, tops. They went to Garrick, had their eggs harvested and stored at the hospital, and life went on. But when Mal had bled two months ago, Ma didn’t take her to Garrick. Why bother? Ma had said. Garrick will never give you a license for children.
Ma didn’t explain why Mal wouldn’t be allowed to have children when she grew up, but it must have to do with her father. Ma never talked about him, and as far as Mal could tell no one in the settlement knew anything about him. He left them right after Mal came out of the hospital. She was sure there was something horribly wrong with her, and Ma hadn’t figured out how to tell her.
Last month the bleeding came a second time. Ma had looked at her differently and pinched her less often. She didn’t complain so much when Mal and Pala went outside the wall to look for rabbits and berries. She just said be careful and keep the sun out your eyes.
A few days ago the bleeding came again, and Ma turned into a crazy person. She laughed all the time for no reason. Smiled at Mal without malice. Asked her how she was feeling.
Mal was a bleeder.
Ma sent word to Red City. In a few weeks they would come to collect Mal. In the last few days, she’d been bombarded by marvelous stories from the settlers about life in Red City. In Red City, there was always plenty of food to eat. The nights were never too cold and the days never too hot. The air was always clean – it was too far from Garrick for the winds to carry the smell of refinery waste.
There were no raptors in Red City.
“Mallory, are you all right?” Palama had followed her outside, more of a mother than Ma ever was. “Don’t let that old crone bother you.”
“The Ptery? That was weird. But she didn’t scare me.” Not quite true, and they both knew it.
“I think maybe you’re worried about going to Red City.”
“A little bit.” It felt good to laugh, to blow off some of the tension she felt about the whole thing. “It just seems strange, the idea of growing children inside my body. I don’t see how I can do it.”
“It’s nothing you have to actually do, once it gets started.”
Palama knew everything. Mal had never thought about it before, but the Palas were too fine for the settlement. They should be citizens, except they almost seemed too fine for that. What a strange thought! It must be the bleeding.
“I’m going to tell you something, Mallory. It’s a secret, but I trust you. Pala is my natural-born son.”
Mal gasped. Palama never lied, but this was unbelievable. “Then why don’t you live in Red City?” If half the stories were true, anybody who wasn’t crazy would want to live there—especially when the alternative was Settlement 20. Mal knew that much.
Palama stopped and looked at the sky like she was searching for the answer.
“I could never leave my love.”
My love. A subtle click sounded in Mal’s mind. My love. Not mere words. A mystery and a promise. I could never leave my love. Her stomach went queasy with a kind of eagerness. Would she ever feel that way about someone?
Palama frowned and squinted at the sky. “Look out!” She pushed Mal against the wall and dashed out into the open, running after the Ptery still yards from the gate. “Get down, old woman!”
A peregrine with a twenty-foot wingspan glided over the wall just as Palama pushed the Ptery to the ground. The raptor clamped a claw down on Palama’s head and snapped her neck.
“Help!” Mal screamed. The raptor flew off with Palama’s limp body dangling from its grasp. Were the cage guards off work today too? “Someone help!”
A second raptor appeared out of nowhere and grabbed the Ptery. The old woman wasn’t so lucky as Palama. Her screams filled the sky long after the bird disappeared over the wall.