When the walkway stones sang to announce Tamiisi’s return, lanterns flaring to brighten the path ahead of her paws, the mansion’s door barely had time to lift out of the way before Hanai marched onto the porch. The relief visible in her eyes yielded quickly to annoyance. “Tamiisi! Do you—”
“I’m sorry I’m late, Miss Hanai. The checkpoints are running slow tonight. Something must have happened.” Even though the small sled she pulled floated frictionlessly behind her, her breath came quickly, shallow with nerves.
The coyote woman frowned, leaning down to lift the rabbit’s right paw, to check the glowing strap encircling her wrist. In Hanai’s presence, it pulsed a familiar warm color sequence. “This didn’t let you right through?”
“Not tonight, ma’am. I’m very sorry.”
She let go, straightening to her full, imposing height. “Nothing to apologize for on your part, and nothing to be done for it either way.” She shook her head, motioning the maid to follow back inside. “Yes. Something’s happened.”
Nudging the sled along the walk, the rabbit circled the tall thorn-tree in the center of the yard, then made her way up into the house, guiding her floating payload away from the fragile vases decorating Hanai’s foyer. “Do you know what?”
“Yes.” She sounded tired. “And so do you.”
“More Collapse? But it’s not anywhere near here, is it? And it’s not as if double- and triple-checking…” She trailed off as the coyote’s ears went back.
“As if it helps?” Hanai kept her voice level.
“I mean no offense, ma’am. But I just don’t see how it does.”
“It’s checking the magic, Tamiisi. And the Collapse is very near here. Just three blocks east.”
“The Cultivation is—” She took a deep breath. “It’s holding. But I’ve never heard of Collapse like this. Do you remember Toljee? His estate’s across the park from the market with the beautiful fish you found just this summer. It’s all…gone. Just gone.”
She’d seen the guards closing the roads she used to travel down, but nothing beyond them. “What happened to Mister Toljee?”
“His son took him in. But he’s lost everything.”
“What about his servants?”
Hanai looked nonplussed, then disquietingly lost. “I don’t know,” she said softly.
Tamiisi nodded, biting her lip. “Have you…have you seen it? The Wild?”
“Only from as far away as possible.” The coyote cocked her head, eyes narrowing as she looked down at the rabbit. “Have you had dreams?”
Tamiisi’s voice didn’t hide her puzzlement. “Dreams?”
“Of the Wild. Nightmares of the Horned.”
“I…” She looked away, out the window. “Not since I was very young, ma’am.”
“I have, little one. I have.” She set her jaw, then lowered her voice to a confessional whisper. “I’m worried we’re failing.”
“Coyote magic is strong.”
Hanai sighed, a thin hissing noise. “I wish I could be as sanguine as that. But yes. It is.” She lifted an arm and brushed her paw through the air, claw tips leaving a trail of shimmering golden butterflies, then smiled, reassured. “Put the groceries away and start on dinner.”
Coyote magic is strong, coyote magic is strong. Hanai said it so often. Others said it so often. Even Tamiisi had said it, never struck before now by the sheen of desperate reassurance. But tonight, the words were just the butterflies that followed her into the kitchen: incongruous bright spots against plain stone and wood. Here, like her room in the servants’ quarters, lanterns lit only when someone struck a match to a gas-soaked wick. (She was Hanai’s sole servant now. When she tried to talk to the mistress about the butler who had vanished in the first nights of Collapse, she was nearly dismissed. Being left not just homeless but, given Hanai’s connections, unemployable, terrified her as much as the Wild did. She suspected, though, that Hanai would never let her go: the coyote, widowed and childless, had her own terror: that of being truly alone.) Batting in irritation at a butterfly that hadn’t yet dissipated, she maneuvered the sled toward the pantry and set to work.
She’d done this enough, prepared this very meal enough, that the motions had become automatic. But tonight, worry gnawed at her, tripping her paws, forcing her to pay closer attention. For tonight, Tamiisi had lied.
Each of the last three nights, she’d had nightmares. She had dreamt of monsters. The monsters, the Horned Ones. The creatures the coyotes had wrested part of the Wild from, keeping them at bay, casting light over darkness, wonder over fear. Hanai’s people had given the timid rabbits safety, and homes, and purpose. They were under no illusion it was an equal bargain, but they had always believed—well, she had always believed—it was a fair one.
So why the dreams? Why now? When she awoke, she could barely remember the shape of the monsters, the shape of the wilderness. Tall beings with tall antlers, neither deer nor elk. Even taller cacti, proud and spiked, standing watch over the high desert. Uncultivated, yes—but dangerous? Wild? She couldn’t remember. Had there been fire? Music? Dance? All she knew for sure was that she was just as unsettled as the coyote. You should have told her, she chided herself. But sharing the dreams with Hanai would only make her worried, or angry, or both.
After she had rubbed the spices deep into the tenderloin, spread the vegetables and meat across the comal, slid it into the earthen oven over the smoldering charcoal, Tamiisi washed her paws repeatedly. She used more soap than Hanai would approve of, too, but the mistress never noticed, and the cedar scent covered most of the meat-stink left in her fur.
As she rinsed off, she saw the wrist strap had stopped glowing.
No rabbit knew what the straps were made of, and no coyote would tell; Tamiisi doubted most of them knew, either. In lieu of the truth, rabbits shared whimsical, cynical theories amongst themselves: they were pure light, or enchanted water, or cold liquid glass—or coyote teeth that would bite off their paws if they misbehaved.
But now, for the first time, she saw a strap, her strap, without that beautiful, softly shifting glow. Now, it was just a strand of twine. Dirty, frayed twine, not even tied off very neatly.
She ran a finger across it. Before, it had been pliable, stretching over her paw to snug against her wrist when she let it go, soft yet unbreakable. Now it felt like twine, too. Frowning, she tugged at it gently. It wouldn’t go back over her wrist without untying it.
Panic began to rise in her chest. Instead of the strap the employed rabbits always wore, she just had a worthless, dirty string. This wasn’t her fault! The enchantment, the magic, it had just—
Her breath caught. Not here. Yes, Hanai had said a mere three blocks away, but that was—that was downhill. That wasn’t this neighborhood. No, no, it had to come back! She shook her wrist, flinging the ragged string about. “Glow,” she whispered at it furiously. “Damn you, glow!”
Nothing happened. Squeezing her eyes shut, clenching her paws into fists, she shrieked. “Glow!” The shriek threatened to end in a sob, and she stood still, cradling her wrist, breath coming in gulps.
She jumped back, eyes flying open at Hanai’s voice.
The coyote stood in the kitchen entrance, hands on her hips, expression balanced between irritation and concern. “Did you just scream? Are you all right?”
“I—I—” She looked down at the strap, and her eyes widened. It had returned to shimmering life, colors slipping and melting along its once again mysterious material. “I b-burned myself, ma’am. It’s nothing serious, though. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Burned?” The coyote stepped forward, reaching out with a large paw. “Let me see if it needs a quick heal—”
“No, no, I think it’s fine. I mean it will be. It j-just startled me. Thank you, ma’am.”
Hanai frowned. “All right,” she said shortly. “Do be careful.”
The rabbit shifted on her paws uncomfortably. “I will, ma’am.”
After Hanai had left, Tamiisi breathed out a long, silent sigh, then hesitantly touched a finger to the strap once more. It felt the way it should, but now she could see it no longer looked the same. The colors had shifted. It showed far more purple than before, almost the same shade as the rabbit’s eyes. It was her favorite color, but she doubted it would get her through the right checkpoints. She’d have to work up the courage to ask the mistress to fix it.
But how? She couldn’t tell her what had just happened. Not only would it worry her, if not enrage her, Tamiisi didn’t know what had just happened. If it had been the first glimmer of Collapse reaching here, of the Wild threatening to overwhelm this sanctuary, it wouldn’t have reverted to normal—yes, all right, close to normal—so quickly.
She remembered her earlier moment of doubt in coyote magic, and paused again. No, that wasn’t merely foolish, it was absurd. She wasn’t a pipe the magic flowed through, a valve she could shut off like gas to a lantern. Even if coyote magic wasn’t as strong as coyotes told themselves, a rabbit’s bitter passing thought would hardly…
Her nose wiggled. The meat was done, maybe even a touch past the point Hanai liked it. Thankful for the distraction, Tamiisi hurried to finish preparing dinner.
After setting the mistress’s customary place, filling her wine glass and bringing both steaming plates to the table, Tamiisi rang the summoning bell and started back to the kitchen to prepare leftover vegetables for her own meal.
However, when the coyote entered, she threw things into disarray once more just by speaking her name. “Tamiisi.”
“Stay with me a moment.”
Hiding a nervous swallow, the rabbit nodded, moving to stand by the table as the coyote dropped into her chair. Seated, Hanai’s ear tips just reached Tamiisi’s eye level. “Can I help you with something else, ma’am?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps.” Hanai looked across the dining room, out through the glass wall. “Has anything…changed?”
Tamiisi stepped toward the wall. The neighborhood lanterns were first to meet her eyes, fixed lamps glittering from lawns and porches and thorn-trees, floating lamps trailing behind or in front of unseen travelers. As her eyes adjusted, she could trace the lines of sidewalks and carriageways, see the pennants atop the highest tents of the Great Market. Sky-fish flitted through the air, over and under the stone bridges, leaping to touch the rare flying sled. If she remained perfectly still, listened ever so closely, she could hear the clockwork birds twittering in faint harmonies as they returned to the park to roost for the night.
At length, she turned and shook her head. “It looks the same as ever.”
The coyote stared past her searchingly for long seconds, then shook her own head, sighing. “Never mind.” She waved her hand dismissively, then looked down at her plate, speaking more softly. “Go get your own meal.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
As she walked past the table, Hanai caught her wrist.
Tamiisi looked back in surprise, then caught her breath. The coyote’s gaze had locked onto the wrist band. “The colors.”
“They’re wrong. The colors are wrong!” She looked up, horror in her eyes. “When did this happen?”
At once she was on her paws, towering over the rabbit. “When?”
“I don’t know!” Tamiisi squeaked. “I-I-It must have changed in the kitchen!”
Hanai turned back to the window, gaze darting among the lanterns, then whirled down on the rabbit. “Why didn’t you tell me? You know you have to tell me!”
“I didn’t see, ma’am! I didn’t know something was wrong with the magic!”
Hanai snarled, yanking her hand away hard enough to knock the rabbit off balance. “Nothing is wrong with the magic!”
“I’m sorry!” Tamiisi stumbled back, covering her head with her paws, hiding the horrid purple blotches across the strap. “I didn’t mean—I know coyote—”
For a sharp, quick, dizzying moment the world spun around her. It spun into her dream, the figures and shapes now as clear as a cold full moon. As the vision faded, the words froze in her throat.
Hanai had her paws to her head. “The Controllers’ Office. That’s who to call. They’ll know what to do. They can fix this.” She thrust a finger at the rabbit. “Stay right here. Don’t twitch a whisker.” She stepped back and waved her other hand, calling a shimmering window into being in midair.
In a few seconds, a coyote at the Controllers’ Office would appear, and then—what? What would “fix” this? The strap wasn’t broken. She was! She had to run—she had to—had to—
“No!” Tamiisi leapt up and pulled at the window, scrabbling with both hands. It tipped like a bowl set too close to the edge of a shelf, then fell to the ground, shattering into shards of foggy glass.
Hanai’s muzzle dropped open. She shrank back a step, then another.
“I’m sorry!” The rabbit brought her hands up in front of her face. “I’m sorry, Miss Hanai—I—” Then she lowered her hands again slowly, staring at the wrist strap once more. It glowed solid purple. Her purple.
She touched it, thinking of a blue sky. The color changed to match. Another touch, and it returned to a shifting rainbow. Then she thought of the dream, of the horned figures dancing, holding out their paws, calling her to join. It shifted back to purple, brilliant as a lantern flame.
“It’s not coyote magic, is it?” Tamiisi whispered, looking up at the older woman’s frightened eyes. “It never was.”
“Stop being a fool.” The coyote gathered herself up, pointing outside at the glittering panorama, leaning forward to loom over the rabbit. “It’s all that protects you from what’s out there!”
“No. What’s out there is…us.”
Hanai stiffened, dropping her arm, then opened her mouth to protest. “Before we—”
“No!” Suddenly Tamiisi felt rage boiling over, felt dizzy with anger, light-headed with pain. “No more stories! You’re all so very good at stories.”
The coyote’s voice rose again, cracking in fear. “For all the stars’ sake, Tamiisi, they aren’t just stories!”
“Yes, Miss Hanai. They are.” Tamiisi stared accusingly, then sagged, hit with one last realization she hadn’t wanted. “You…don’t know, do you? You’ve heard the stories so long that you believe them, too. But the stories are to protect you. Not us. You know the truth in your heart. The truth in the dreams.”
Tamiisi didn’t answer. She turned to look outside.
Hanai turned, too, trembling. The lanterns had faded; the faint mechanical music had fallen silent. The light outside had become only the stars and moon. She let out a low whimper. “What are you doing, Tamiisi? Please. Stop.”
“We are,” she said softly.
The whimper became a frenzied snarl, and she leapt for the rabbit, claws forward, teeth bared and glittering. Tamiisi spun about just before Hanai slammed into her—
—and the coyote’s eyes widened in abrupt, pained shock. She stared down at the sharp antlers impaling her shoulders, her side.
Tamiisi jerked back, her points pulling free, eyes as wide as the coyote’s as she watched her mistress sink to the ground, gasping in pain, eyes squeezing shut against the gathering violet light.
When the coyote felt the smaller—was she still smaller?—woman’s hand on her uninjured shoulder, she curled into a ball, barely hearing the last gently spoken words. “Find another story, Hanai. Find your story. This one has always been ours.”
Hanai didn’t uncurl until she felt an unfamiliar breeze through her fur. She lifted her head warily.
The shards from the broken window were gone. Her carved wooden furniture, her exquisite lanterns, her lovely intricate tiled floor, her colorful woven wall-hangings, all gone. Nothing remained to her but dirt and dry twigs and pebbles—and a strand of dirty twine.
Crawling forward, she moved toward the brightest light she saw, toward the wind, toward the distant sound of plaintive howls. She pulled herself out of the hole, a mere den scrabbled from the earth, then fell back against its side with a soft moan.
The landscape she’d known all her life remained, but nothing else did. No lanterns, only starlight. The shimmering, singing stone walkways had become only sandy paths. Where dazzling homes had sprawled, pathetic little piles of rock mounded in front of other sad dens. Where the magnificent, imposing thorn-trees had stood now rose dark, foreboding saguaros.
She put her hand to her shoulder, to the fur matted with blood. “Tamiisi,” she called, barely above a whisper. Then, more loudly: “Tamiisi. Please.”
Only the wind answered.
Hanai lifted up her hand, stretching out her arm. She spread her fingers apart, brushing them shakily through the air, again and again. Surely, the butterflies would come.
© 2018 Watts Martin · License: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0