Raptor and Chalice (Spiderwork, Chapter 3)
Cripes, it was cold this morning. Jake’s settlement in the New Central Pacific Zone was always cold compared to Corcovado. Char moved out of the wind, onto the side path to the citadel’s basement kitchens. Leaning against the wall, she pulled a lumpy snood from her bag.
The crocheted hat, a horrific blend of green, red, and blue hemp, was larger on one side than the other and had no brim. Jordana had made it especially for Char to hide her hair in, never mind the fact that Jordana didn’t know how to crochet.
Char watched the common yard for Jake. He had stopped to pick up weapons from the armory for their trip outside the wall. Another search for Tesla. After eight years, Sky must be dead, but they still searched for the vault and the technology it contained.
And Char had to know. She had to see the body. What if Sky was alive? There were a million what ifs.
What if everybody in the vault had died except Sky, leaving enough food and water for one person to survive? What if, being scientists, they had extended the life support systems? What if a shibbing miracle happened? What else were the gods good for, now that they were back?
Char fingered her half-heart pendant. The other half of the heart might well dangle from a dead body, but until Char saw that body, the what ifs would never go away.
In the common yard, the cagers worked in the open. Crazy cagers. With hand axes, two cagers stripped birch trunks and branches into poles and cross-beams. Wiry but well-muscled, the two bantered with some other cagers who might be women, but they were so angular and lean it was hard to tell. A nice change from Corcovado, where sexuality permeated everything down to the molecules of the rocks.
Right. Who was she kidding? Since she arrived last week, she had had Jake in her bed every night. She couldn’t get enough of him. These last few years, anything would put her in the mood. Watching cagers make boxes put her in the mood.
The women cagers bound the wood into a rectangular box, complete but for a roof. It wasn’t big enough to hold a raptor. In Jake’s design, the cages were meant to keep birds out. The men walked around in this one and aimed imaginary weapons at imaginary raptors while the women laughed and admired their pantomimed prowess.
A few feet away, a lone woman knotted rope into a lattice-like net. The cage’s roof. She was eerily thin, skeletal compared to the cagers. Her bald head was uncovered, but she didn’t seem to mind the cold weather any more than she minded the cagers’ cold indifference. As if she and the net were all that existed.
She was a ghost who’d come in from the wild.
By some counts, roughly one-fifth of the world’s population had survived Samael’s fire, and among the survivors were some ghosts. Because they rarely ate, the ghosts who did escape the fire easily made it through the post-cataclysm famine. Jake had recently discovered that ghosting’s apathy could be fought. The woman making the net was coming back to a communal life one knot at a time. A herculean labor, harder than taking on a raptor with nothing but a longbow.
Cripes! A wagon loaded with produce narrowly missed the ghost woman and headed toward Char. She backed up toward the citadel. It swerved and lurched to a halt, losing the carrots that were piled on the potatoes.
The driver scrambled to the ground, frantic to unhitch the horse. “Don’t you see them?”
Fear rippled through her, and she scanned the clouds in the east. Nothing there, but he could only mean raptors.
The driver dragged the horse by its bridle toward Char. “Get up against the wall!” He checked his anger when he noticed her fine clothes. Then he saw her face, and his eyes widened with full recognition—though her odd cap seemed to befuddle him.
She put a hand to the cap. It was in place, but a strand of hair had escaped. Shib. When people in the world saw her hair they inevitably bombarded her with questions. Have you actually seen the goddess? What is Durga really like? Is it true she can [insert preposterous superpower here]?
And the one Char hated the most: Why didn’t Asherah make you a chalice?
“A blessing, my lady!” The man seemed torn between flattening himself against the wall and prostrating himself at Char’s feet.
Cripes, cripes, cripes. She glanced at the common. The cagers had disappeared. One of the women was just ducking through a perimeter wall door. The ghost woman still sat on the ground working her net, oblivious to the danger.
“Please, my lady. The favor of a blessing. My wife and I are expecting. Could I be so bold as to touch your hair?”
“Be quiet, citizen.”
Shibad. The world had gone from believing in nothing to believing in everything. One touch of “Asherah’s hair” could cure a fever, prevent an Empani from reading your mind, and ensure a healthy bagger. Char had heard of countless other fancies.
The first scream echoed over the common, and the driver forgot about the hair. Eagles. Not the worst—that would be peregrines. At least with eagles, you knew they were coming. The sky was still clear, but Char’s heart about pounded out of her chest with fear.
Every part of her wanted to stay with the driver flat against the wall, but she couldn’t let the ghost woman be taken. She’d seen a raptor feed its young the warm intestines of its still-living prey.
“Do you have a bow?”
The driver was lost to her. His eyes were jammed shut, and he was moving his lips—the kind of prayer Asherah especially despised. At least he tried to save his horse.
Char forced her legs to move. Another scream sent adrenaline coursing through her body and gave her some speed. There was more than one bird, and they were close.
“Char, catch!” Thank Asherah! Jake was in the common. He tossed a crossbow that hit the ground ahead of her, and she scooped it up on the run. It was loaded. Another scream, an angry one. Jake had hit a bird.
Char raised the crossbow and fired. The quarrel would be poisoned. If she could paralyze a leg, it wouldn’t be able to grab.
Years of training with chalices at Corcovado kicked in. She bent down, slipped her arm around the ghost woman’s waist, lifted her off the ground, and kept running for the closest door in the perimeter wall. Now that she was reasonably sure she wasn’t going to die, it was all a bit thrilling.
The tower bells erupted in a furious clang, clang, clang. Char put the woman down and said stay. Jake was halfway up the stairs. She followed him up into the cages bolted to the top of the wall and loaded another quarrel.
An eagle hit by a shot from the cage guard let out an enraged cry and let go of its prey, which landed on slate tiles in the common with a thud and crack of snapping bones.
Aiming through the cage’s net roof, Char sent the quarrel flying. It struck the bird’s throat, and the quick-acting poison did its work on the raptor’s nervous system. Wings spanning some forty feet twisted and jerked in unnatural spasms. The raptor hit the ground outside the perimeter wall.
Jake lifted his weapon over Char’s head, his arms and shoulders hovering over her as he took aim at the other eagle. It was hardly appropriate, but she couldn’t help thinking how sexy he was in his lord-of-the-manor apocapunk brown-black leathers. It took everything she had to keep from reaching up and pressing her palm to his chest.
But then she was always weak for Jake right after they escaped death together.
“Shib.” He checked his aim and lowered the crossbow. The bird had moved out of range, and quarrels weren’t exactly plentiful.
From this vantage the land outside the perimeter wall was in full view. There were the beginnings of a forest to the east and foothills beyond that. Flat wasteland lay to the south. The escaping raptor flew north, past a peninsula that curved westward to shelter the bay. Farther west was the Pacific Ocean.
The guard moved to call the all-clear but stopped when he saw Jake.
“You’re in charge, Gordon,” Jake said. “Be in charge.”
The man squared his shoulders and yelled, “All clear!” His unit repeated all clear along the wall. Two clangs signaled from the bell tower.
“We lost no one,” Gordon said, “and Lady Char took out a raptor.”
“It took both our hits to bring that monster down.”
Gordon nodded, acknowledging the compliment. “The birds are learning to stay away, my lord. Attacks are down by half since the cages were installed.”
“That’s the plan,” Jake said. “Soon I want to walk to the hospital and hydroponics without need for a weapon.”
The cagers dashed through the gate to retrieve the dead eagle. There was no nice word for how raptors tasted, but protein was protein. The kitchen would marinade and spice the meat and dry it into semi-bearable jerky. Char had some of the execrable stuff packed in her bag for today’s outing.
She always brought goodies from Corcovado, and she always meant to eat them. But it was just too tacky to hide treats from people who survived on textured protein and raptor carcasses with the occasional carrot. The strawberries and chocolates and coffee and real beef jerky usually became gifts for the servants within an hour of her arrival.
“Lord Ardri!” In the center of the common the wagon driver stood over the real treasure, the gorgeous black-tailed doe the raptor had dropped. “Will you have this deer cut into steaks for tomorrow’s feast?”
If looks were poison quarrels, the driver would be a dead man. A mason slammed his hammer against a stone, but the driver seemed unaware of the distress he had caused. There was a ban on hunting endangered deer, but this doe was a gift from the gods.
Jake got that twinkle in his eye. “That’s fine of you to care, Hamish.” He walked out of the cage onto the open perimeter wall. “You’ll be attending that feast, I believe?”
“That I will, my lord.” Hamish beamed with pleasure at being recognized and ignored the grumbles all around.
“And as chief of hydroponics, you know all these hard-working people have so graciously given up their share of this week’s crop in order to impress the poobahs coming in for that feast.”
The pleasure left Hamish’s face.
“Haul that animal down to the kitchen,” Jake said. “I want a good venison stew made for all the workers in the common, masons and cagers alike.”
“To Lord Ardri!” One of the cagers cried.
“Rah!” The masons and cagers responded in unison. They broke into laughter at the driver’s tragic expression.
“Yes, my lord?”
“You will personally see that the ghost woman who makes the cage nets eats a cup of the stew. I don’t care if it takes her a day.”
Char wrapped her arms around Jake’s waist and leaned her head against his chest. “No wonder your people love you.”
“It’s my secret to successful lording. People like to eat.” He kissed her forehead and tweaked her cap. “Jordana’s work gets more interesting all the time.” His gaze traveled from her cap to her lips, and then his mouth was on hers, and for a moment the world went away. There was only Jake’s kiss, his arms, his aching murmur of desire, and her body’s responding heat.
“To Lady Char!” The approval of the kiss was answered by a group Rah!
Jake grinned and gave the cagers and masons a thumbs-up. “It’s good to be alive, Meadowlark.”
The sane part of Char’s brain knew that Jake loved her. But a perversity in her couldn’t let go of one small problem. He was having children with someone else. It was kind of driving her crazy, even though it was her own fault.
Char had helped Durga and Magda convince him to do it. Jake could be lord sheriff of the settlement without heirs; but city status required a king, and a king must have two natural born children. It was all about establishing dynastic rule and stability. This was Asherah’s law.
The chalice Faina had already delivered a girl, and she was five months pregnant with a boy. Everything was going according to plan. Char just hadn’t expected to feel so jealous and insecure about it. Jake swore he didn’t compare Char to Faina, but how could he not? Char compared herself to Faina, and always came out wanting.
Beautiful, sweet, fertile Faina. Truly nice Faina, always a pleasure to be with.
“There they are.” Jake nodded toward the gate where a handler held the reins of two horses, saddled and packed for a daytrip. “Let’s get out of here.”