Blog | Author's Blog | Published 22 April 2021
What Would Caesar Do?
Like much of Maidu, the lands in and around the great city of Kumeyaay were big on dusty chaparral and wide open bleached-blue sky but sparse on tall leafy green trees or conveniently dense shrubbery. Meaning there was precious little out there to screen a huge be-horned winged tiger and giant raven-man hybrid from any curious eyes as we fled the tidy little house we’d briefly borrowed and hopped the short fence hemming in the small backyard.
That was alright. I had no need for any such hiding places. That was what glamor was for and I quickly threw up a veil of invisibility around Bran and myself as we hurried away from the sounds of two people returning home. I flashed back to the fresh claw marks I’d accidentally left in their hardwood floors and cringed inwardly.
The house we’d chosen was just outside the city proper, butting up against a Commons. These large swaths of land were nature preserves, left untouched by human interference except for the paths and trails studded with the occasional cluster of picnic tables and benches. Most of Vineland’s cities set these areas aside for their populace to enjoy the land’s beauty while remaining safe from Nature’s more aggressive and hostile Wild children and we quickly made for the paths and trails that would take us deeper into the public grounds.
There weren’t all that many people about yet. The south end of the Commons, where we were, was lined with wealthy private residences, set away from the noisy commercial northern end where the public outdoor amphitheater and fairgrounds were. The north end of the Commons was also where the circus made its winter home with the city’s permission, and that was where we were heading.
I kept us hidden under the cover of glamor until we got closer to our destination. As soon as we came into sight of the outdoor amphitheater we paused at a bend in the path where squat scrub oak trees and manzanita bushes. Making sure no one would watch us suddenly appear out of empty air, I took a deep breath to brace myself. On the exhale, I dropped our invisibility.
As we stepped out from the shelter of the oaks into the open, I shivered suddenly with nerves.
This was it.
I was really doing this.
I was out in public, alone except for Bran.
A lifetime of knowing I would be snapped up and sold to the highest bidder if I ever left the safety of my family warred with more than fifteen years spent wishing I could experience the world as other people did. To be free to walk a city’s streets openly without fear of capture and slavery. I mean, yes, I’d been free for a month now, but always under a glamor of invisibility. Even such common animals like my fox and owl forms were too conspicuous for our safety because of their shy, nocturnal nature and my coloring.
For the first time in my life, I was walking in a public park in broad daylight. Strangers surrounded me in a strange city, in a foreign province. I tried to act as though I didn’t have anything to worry about, as if I had a right to go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted, but it was harder than I had expected. As we continued down the path towards the more heavily populated sections of the Commons and began to encounter people, anxiety fluttered in my stomach, making me hyper-aware of all the eyes we attracted.
Lord and Lady, it was almost too much!
‘Anxiety’ didn’t cover the nauseating churn of emotion inside me that set my fur on end in spiky hackles down my spine and my tail lashing from side to side. Every noise made my ears twitch and I had to fight not to mantle my wings with a growl as one man elbowed the guy next to him to point me out with a hushed expletive.
“Danny, calm down. We don’t want anyone calling in the local Watch. That isn’t the kind of attention we need,” Bran said to me. There was no such thing as muttering or whispering in thought speech, but in the tone of his music, I heard an undercurrent of wariness creep in under his natural calm confidence.
“Sorry,” I told him. “I just keep waiting for someone to shout ‘Look! A Conduit! Grab her!’”
“Nobody would ever guess that you’re a Conduit, but they very well might decide you’re a hair away from tearing out their throats. Remember, to most people, a frightened wild animal looks much like an aggressive wild animal. That’s not the first impression we want to make here.”
I bit back the first sharp reply that sprang to my tongue—that I didn’t need a lecture, that I’d been the one to grow up in the kennels and stables while he’d buried himself in dusty old books—and instead worked at appearing less tense. As irritating as it was to admit it, he was right and I could do better. From the time I was eight, I’d been putting on a show to fool people into seeing in me only what I wanted them to and not what I really was. This was simply more of the same. I was just playing a new role. That was all.
What I needed was a role model, someone with the right attitude who I could mimic when being myself was less than helpful. We were coming up on a small pond next to a playground as I wracked my brain for the right person to emulate.
I noted in some distraction that there were a number of young children chasing each other with shrieks of glee in some kind of game while parents sat on benches chatting, enjoying the cool clear day. The weather here on the west coast was so different from what I was used to. Back home, early March meant we would be constantly battling snowdrifts and cocooning ourselves in layers of thick woolen sweaters and heavy coats lined with fleece. Here, on Maidu’s southern coast, kids ran about in little more than a light jacket. It hardly felt like winter at all.
Amidst these idle musings, I heard a child shout out, “Mommy, mommy! Look at the kitty!”
I whipped my head around to see a little girl running at me, her face pink-cheeked, her dark eyes lit with excitement and her black pigtail braids streaming behind her. She couldn’t be older than five or six, still awkward and ungainly as a six-month old puppy.
On the other side of the play area, a woman shot off a bench, her book tumbling to the ground at her feet, calling, “Riley, wait!”
Riley continued her charge towards me, heedless of her mother’s frantic commends to come back. Around us, people stopped what they were doing to stare at me, the disparate melodies of their personal music falling into harmony as alarm wound their songs tight with high tremolo notes of fear. In the corners of my vision, I saw motion as a few people began to cautiously approach, trying to intercept the girl without appearing to rush at me.
For my part, I held perfectly still. The last thing I wanted to do was frighten the adults further, any one of whom may have had a talent for evocation and decide to hurl a hex at me. As Riley came to a panting halt, I slowly sank down to lie sphynx-style in front of her, trying to make myself less threatening. Beside me, Bran held motionless as well.
“Oooo, you’re prettier than I thought you’d be,” Riley cooed, reaching out with her tiny hands to pet my head.
The girl was fearless. And so careless! Had no one ever taught her not to run at any random animal she came across? If I’d accosted a strange dog like this growing up, my Aunt Moira would have tanned my hide. And if the dog bit my face off, she would have told me I’d deserved it.
An object lesson in the proper way to approach strange animals would have to wait though. I couldn’t afford to so much as reprimand the girl for fear the people slowly creeping up around us would take it amiss and fry me. I was too imposing for them to risk handling any other way. Even lying down, I was nearly looking the girl in the eyes. The difference in our sizes would have been comical except for the absolute terror I could hear in her mother’s shrill music. I could fit her daughter’s entire head in my mouth and crack her skull with a flexing of my jaws. Not that I would ever do such a thing, but the poor woman couldn’t know that.
I tried to be reassuring by using my glamor to speak. People tended to be less scared of courteous talking animals. Not always very wise of them, but useful to me in that moment.
“Why thank you,” I said, ignoring the qualifier because I wasn’t sure what I made of it. “You’re a pretty little girl.” I tried to sound like a tiger would if it could talk; a little bit of lazy, a lot of arrogant, with a rough burr around the edges like a self-satisfied purr. Tigers couldn’t purr, but most of the people around me probably didn’t know that. They would hear that mild rumble, think of nice happy house cats, and be less worried.
Riley was running her hands over my horns now, the trumpet and chimes of her music filled with wonder. “You’re really big,” she said. “And you have horns. And wings. What kind of tiger are you? Are you like a tiger griffin?”
“Maybe a little like a griffin, but I’m much rarer. You could say I’m one of a kind.”
She made an ‘Oh’ shape with her mouth, then said, “My name’s Riley. What’s yours?”
I almost told her, but then caught myself. ‘Danny’ didn’t seem like a name that fit a beastie like me, and besides, did I want to go around using my name like that? Bran had said our names were common enough not to arouse any suspicions should our family catch wind of them. Still, it occurred to me that it might be better to pick an alias. A stage name, if nothing else. So, I said the first thing that popped into my head.
“You may call me She Who Shines Brightly. And this is my friend Huginn.”
Next to me, Bran gave a soft croaking caw but otherwise stifled his startlement at the name I’d chosen for him, inclining his raven’s head to the girl after only a moment’s hesitation.
Riley looked up at him for the first time and her big brown eyes got even rounder. “What are you?” she asked. “Are you a maledictus?”
Bran and I both stared at her. A maledictus was a person caught by a curse or who had suffered permanent warping from a misaligned spell. But she was barely six years old if she was a day… How? “Well… yes, in a way,” I said answering for Bran. “But how do you know what a maledictus is?”
“We live in the circus over there,” she told me and pointed off further down the path where a large building made of black stone rose in blocky tiers above a small clump of scrubby bushes and towering palm trees. It looked like a baby ziggurat pyramid and stood out like a goose among ducks. “There’s a whole tent full of people like him. We call it The Side Show. I like to go there sometimes. They’re really nice. They’re not scary when you talk to them.”
“How convenient. We were just heading that way, my friend and I. We were going to apply for jobs. Do you think we will fit in?”
Her tan face lit up like a sunrise and she practically wriggled with joy. “Yes!” Riley crowed jumping up and down. “Yes, yes, yes! I’ll take you. We’ll go right now!”
And then that fearless, careless, audacious girl had the temerity to grab hold of my left horn with one small hand, a fistful of my scruff with the other, and pull herself up onto my back, scooting down until she’d wedged herself between my wings, her skinny little legs swinging from where the wings met my shoulders. “Come on, let’s go!” she called and made a clicking noise, then kicked me lightly in the ribs as though I were an overgrown carnivorous pony.
I lay frozen, staring at the ring of horrified adults surrounding me. I couldn’t believe the nerve of this child. Had she been dropped on her head as a babe? She couldn’t be old enough to have a death wish. At this point, I doubted she even knew what death was. Her mother stood with her hands clapped over her mouth, her face chalky pale beneath her bronze skin.
When I didn’t immediately rise and start walking, Riley kicked me again, abruptly rocking forward to give me a nudge with her hips. She’d obviously had a few riding lessons under her belt. “Come on! It’s right up there,” she urged, making more clicking noises.
I turned my head as far around as I could and eyed the child over my shoulder. “I’ll thank you not to kick me anymore,” I told her, putting a bit of warning in the rumbling of my glamored tiger’s voice and she wilted a fraction. I had to draw a line somewhere or this kid was going to roll over me like a runaway boulder.
Riley’s mother took an urgent step forward, her hands outstretched, but then made herself stop. “Please, I’m so, so sorry. Here, let me get her down—”
“No, it’s alright,” I told her and carefully stood up, coming to a sudden decision as to which character I’d play in my new role.
Conscious of Riley wobbling a little but holding tight with her knees, as no doubt her riding instructor had drilled into her, I began to slowly walk forward down the path, Bran on my right and Riley’s mom on my left. She kept catching herself reaching out to touch her daughter only to wring her hands as she kept a nervous distance between us. Still, she was slowly figuring out I wasn’t likely to hurt the girl and was beginning to calm down.
As we passed the other kids in the play yard being held back by their anxious parents, I heard not a few of them ask when they would have a turn riding the tiger. It made me smile a little inside but I made myself walk with a certain regal saunter, holding up my head as though my goat horns were a crown.
I’d decided to play the part of Caesar, a big notch-eared, bandy legged, scruffy orange tabby. He’d ruled the barns back when I was about Riley’s age. Everyone knew he was The Boss. The other cats, the horses, even the wolfhounds we’d bred knew Caesar was in charge and not to be messed with. That went for us lowly humans as well. If we wanted to stay unbloodied and the contents of our barns cat-piss free we minded our manners.
All hail Caesar!
But even though he could be a fickle tyrannical little shit, he’d had a weird tolerance for stable brats like me. I remember dragging him around like he was a rag doll and he’d never seemed to mind. In fact, I think he rather enjoyed all the attention and fussing when I’d sit and comb out all the burrs and mats from his fur. So, that’s what I’d be. A big cat who knew she ruled the world but who had a soft spot for clueless cheeky children.
“So, what is it you do for the circus?” I asked Riley’s mother. I was hoping that if I got her talking, she would mellow out more. I understood her fear, but the high agitated notes in her music were beginning to grate on my sense of her magic. The clarinet kept hitting a particularly painful pitch and it was making my eyes water.
She jumped a little. Startled, I think, to be directly addressed by me. “Oh, um… I’m the volunteer coordinator. And I’m Nita by the way. I’m sorry I didn’t say so earlier, but well…” She swallowed and gave me a timid smile, letting out a flustered little laugh. Then she seemed to gather her courage and ploughed on. “Anyway, whenever someone can’t pay the entrance fee or needs to build up some credit for spending inside the circus, they can volunteer to work some hours. It’s often the only way a lot of Nulls are able to attend.”
Better and better, I thought to myself. From the corner of my eye, I saw Bran take interest too. I’d be willing to let Riley crawl all over me if it meant I could make nice with this woman. She seemed a very handy person to have in our trick bag if we wanted to have an easier time moving Nulls around in the circus.
“That sounds like an interesting job,” I said. “I would ask if you needed an assistant, but I suppose neither of us would be well suited to the post. However, both Huginn and I are capable magic users. Do you know if the circus is hiring any enchanters?”
Nita’s eyes flicked from me to Bran then back and she gave me a wavering smile with a shrug. “I’m not really sure, to tell you the truth. I’m not part of the upper management. But I do know there’s always an opening in the Side Show and Menagerie.”
Bran cawed, his feathers ruffling up, as he said “No.” He said it aloud because it was only my magic that allowed me to pick up on his thought-speech.
His raven’s voice was surprisingly smooth and clear—almost disturbingly recognizable as his. You would think a talking raven would still sound like a bird, much like a parrot still sounded like a parrot. But no. Ravens could imitate a human’s voice almost perfectly, down to the pitch and regional dialect of the person who taught them the phrase they repeated.
They did look bloody odd, though, when they spoke. Their beaks gape open, the ruff of feathers around their throats fluff out, and their heads jerk a bit as they worked at making the right noises.
So it was with Bran, and I had to stifle a laugh. He knew he looked ridiculous, so he spoke aloud as little as possible, keeping his responses brief and to the point.
Nita jumped and in her music the harp twanged with her startlement. Astride me, I felt Riley’s weight shift as she twisted to look up at Bran.
“What my friend means is that we are not looking to be merely exhibited. That would be a tremendous waste of our talents. For my part, I have no desire to be locked up in a cage for people to gawk at. I’ve spent enough time in cages to last several lifetimes and I won’t allow it again.”
“Ooooo, maybe you could join The Colosseum,” Riley offered, tilting to one side to better see my face. “They have races there. Sometimes they race pegasi. I had a dream about you and me flying and we were going really, really fast! We went through some clouds and I got all wet and the wind was blowing so hard I couldn’t keep my eyes open all the time. I think I should get goggles like the pegasi racers got.”
“Honey, that was just a dream,” said Nita, the clarinet hitting that eye-watering high note again. “You shouldn’t invite yourself to… to ride someone you just met just because you had a silly dream.”
“But mom it was one of the really real dreams,” Riley said.
In her voice, I heard a familiar note. It was the same pleading tone I’d had as a child every time I’d tried to convince the adults in my life that the music I heard all around me was real.
Perhaps it was out of sympathy from a history of being dismissed myself that made me say what I said next. “It is never wise to ignore dreams. Especially from a prodigious Seer.”
The shrill trembling notes in Nita’s music subsided as bewilderment clouded her expression. “A Seer? Riley? She’s too young to be able to say whether she’s Gifted. We won’t know until she’s closer to twelve or thirteen when any magic she might have would manifest. Maybe you’re not aware of how magic works in humans.”
That made me laugh, which as a tiger meant I made a low chuffing sound. I was feeling much better about my disguise. Bran was right. No one looked at me and questioned what they saw; a winged tiger being ridden by a little girl like a pony, effectively making me seem much safer. Safe enough to walk around in public without causing a panic at least.
“I am aware,” I said. “But I know these things. Your daughter will be Gifted, I assure you. And given that she is already having prescient dreams I would say she will have the Sight very strongly.”
On my back, Riley bounced around in glee. “Ha! I told you mom! I have real dreams. When do we get to go flying?” This last was directed at the back of my head.
“Oh, honey, um…” her mother began again but trailed off as a whole stew of feelings fought to be first on her mind.
Before Nita could get herself worked up again, I said, “Well, now that would depend on whether Huginn and I can come to an arrangement with your employers.”
Riley’s weight briefly sagged more heavily against me in disappointment, but then she perked back up. “That’s ok. We’re here! We can ask them right now.”
We had come at last to the front doors of the main house, which, as it turned out, wasn’t inside the pyramid but within the hacienda sprawled out next to it. The main house was smaller than my family’s manor back in Wabanaki Province and not nearly as eccentric looking. Where my ancestral home gave the impression of being a narrative told by many people, the Mediterranean-inspired hacienda had a polished cohesion to it, like an epic poem recited by a master Bard.
The hacienda was a sprawling complex of buildings connected by covered walkways and anchored with a round tower here and there. The walls were thick honey-and-cream adobe with window shutters and external doors made of oiled hardwoods adding dark accents. The low roofs, with their deep eves, flattened inclines and red clay tiles, shaded the buildings like the jaunty Cordobán hats worn by Hispanian bullfighters. The lines of the great house were clean, with smooth rounded corners, and there were arches and Grecian columns galore. The tall double doors of the front entrance towering over us as we approached were a deep, deep brown and banded with black wrought iron.
Pure, cold iron.
Great. More of it. Lord and Lady, where are they getting all of this shit? I thought to myself irritably as my steps slowed with reluctance to draw any closer. I’d already had one run in with it on the circus grounds, but I’d thought it had been an anomaly. Iron wasn’t a common building material here in Ten A.
The iron gave me pause, not least because the vile substance caused me all sorts of pain, but also because it had been enchanted. Which should have been simply impossible. Iron was antithetical to magic, repelling it and blocking its flow. That was why iron and its many alloys were so rarely used in our societies, which relied heavily on magic. Iron was, in fact, considered a dangerous and potentially toxic substance that had to be handled sparingly and with great caution. Yet here it was, used for fixtures and fanciful filigree not just on the doors but the shutters and railings along the many balconies and patios.
At least this time I was ready. Remembering the horrible shock of running into it unprepared the first time forced me to suppress a shudder.
In addition to the memory of scorching pain, the impossible enchantments sounded more than a little disconcerting and alien to my sense of magic. Everything from the cadence of the melody to the sound quality itself jangled against my sense of it, setting the fur up and down my spine on end.
I slowed to a stop before those big doors and stood motionless, taking a moment to really listen this time. It didn’t help much. I was just as confounded as I was weeks ago when I first encountered it, only now I realized with a shiver that the foreign nature was not only because it was magic worked into iron ore, but because the magic itself was out of place.
More accurately, it was out of this world, meaning it was magic from outside Ten A. I’d encountered otherworldly magic before. It had come from series One, home of the Tuatha de Danann. On further Listening, though, I thought the iron’s magic sounded like a closer kin to our native magic than that, more like magic from our own series only severely warped.
I didn’t like it. Not at all. It made my teeth ache and my skin twitch.
And it dredged up older memories.
Of chains and shackles and dark holes buried deep…
Of the Silence, with its jagged teeth that gnawed on my bones and ate me hollow…
I hadn’t realized people were trying to talk to me until I felt a gentle tapping on the top of my head between my new horns. It startled me so badly, I sprang several inches into the air, coming down with claws extended and wings snapping partly open. On top of me, Riley let loose a whoop, clamping her legs around the front of my chest and clenching two fistfuls of my scruff to keep her seat. Nita hadn’t been so lucky, having been swept from her feet by one of my wings.
Bran quickly stepped to her side and reached down with one of his long malformed forefingers to help her up. “Are you okay?” he asked as she hesitantly accepted his aid in climbing back to her feet.
“Y-yes. I’m fine,” she said as she dusted herself off, but her music was back to sounding strained and eye-wateringly high-pitched.
“My deepest apologies,” I told her, ducking my head and infusing my glamored voice with all the chagrin and apology I felt. I tried my best to mask the panic once again fluttering in my guts.
Conduits like me were prone to being easily distracted by our extraordinary sense of the world and it made us appear both scatterbrained as well as distinctly peculiar to the people around us. It’s the reason Conduits enjoyed a reputation for being crazy and dimwitted. My strange behavior just then would have normally been a dead giveaway as to my nature if I’d been wearing my human skin. I waited on tenterhooks to see if Nita would connect the dots or if she’d put my oddness down to a wild animal’s skittishness.
Bran stepped closer and bent his head to look at me. “Okay?” he asked aloud again. He probably didn’t want to add anymore to the oddness of the moment by communicating with me in a way our guides couldn’t follow.
“I’m alright. I was unsettled by the enchantments on the iron banding the doors.”
Bran let out a caw, all of the feathers on his head fluffing out. “Truly?” He didn’t wait for my reply but marched up to look more closely at the fancy iron scrollwork. He hadn’t had a chance to study the last bit of enchanted iron we’d encountered. We’d been in a bit of a hurry that time. Now that he could get a good up-close look at the glyphs, professional curiosity overrode any concern for me.
I rolled my eyes and sighed. Typical Bran.
Nita looked from my cousin to me, wiping her hands clear. “Oh, yes, um, there’s a lot of spelled iron around here and in the circus. August prefers it for security purposes. And for some of the performances. He gets it for a bargain through his connections with the Travelers’ Guild. Plus, his last stint as a Traveler before he was given the Kumeyaay stewardship was in Ten B, where the ferromancy’s done.”
I fought down the urge to curl my lip and to maintain my Caesar-esque look of inscrutability. So, there was going to be a ton of bleeding iron scattered around me all the time now.
Shiny. Juuust shiny.
That was fine, I told myself. I’d survived a great deal worse. And if I was being objective and stretched my imagination, I could probably understand how enchanted iron would be useful as security. But how would it be used in the circus’s performances? I would have asked that, but I didn’t get the chance.
One half of the double doors was yanked open—the one Bran had been studying so avidly—to reveal a woman who seemed to be the epitome of a stern matron. Her wheat blonde hair was strained back in a tight bun at the back of her head, her blue eyes glinted like chips of ice in the sun, and her handsome face would have been appealing if it hadn’t been drawn down into an epic scowl.
As her chill gaze settled on me, she made me think of a Valkyrie surveying a battlefield. It was not a nice feeling and I decided right there that I didn’t like her or the blaring war horns in her music.
“Is there a reason you are standing out here on the threshold? Or do you enjoy incessantly ringing the bell just to irritate me?” Her voice was deep for a woman, matching her tall stature and muscular arms she crossed over a chest that was broader than you usually saw in the female of the species.
Now that the door was open, the repetitive chiming bouncing around the tile and plaster of the spacious foyer became louder. Between listening to the music of the door’s chiming and basic observation, I took it to mean that it was a system to let those inside know they had visitors.
“Oh, no Greta, of course not. We were… well, I was only telling them about the enchantments on the iron,” Nita said gesturing at Bran.
Greta eyed Bran and me. I thought on how we must look to her and fought back the dueling urges to either laugh or squirm nervously under her dour scrutiny.
Caesar—I was playing Caesar and he would do neither. He would return the woman’s grim stare, not particularly caring what she was thinking. Perhaps he’d flick the end of his tail periodically. So that was what I did, though pulling off haughty feline dignity was a challenge when there was a small child sitting on top of me.
Greta gave up our staring match with an air of disdain and turned her attention back to Nita. “As ever, you are to address me as Mistress Krüger. And who have you brought to darken our doorstep now?”
“This is She Who Shines Brightly and Huginn. They, um, wish to speak to August about joining the circus.”
Greta’s music developed a tone of suppressed disapproval and her mouth became a thin hard line.
“Master Romanov is currently in a Stewards’ conference,” Greta informed us, placing an impressive amount of emphasis on the formal address. Lord and Lady, did this woman have a spear crammed up her ass to make her so stiff and sour? “I will leave a message with his assistant that you are here. You may wait for him in the Small Receiving Room.”
She pivoted on one sensible heel to lead us into the house, but Nita brought us up short. “If you, uh, don’t mind, Riley and I will leave you here.” She cast a furtive glance at the older Germanian woman and lowered her voice to a murmur. “Greta doesn’t care for Circus Folk. She thinks the circus is a distraction from August’s other duties with the Travelers’ Guild and his Stewardship.”
Riley had slid from my back without any complaint. She leaned in to whisper in my ear. “Yeah, and she doesn’t like kids either. She’s mean.”
“Come along” Greta demanded from deeper inside the house to hasten us along, but I made it a point to give Bran’s and my thanks to Nita and Riley for their time first. Then we turned to follow Mistress Krüger into the grand foyer and from there, into the room where Bran and I would plead our case to the man we hoped would give us a new home.
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