I thought since I’ve been cooped up and laid out flat this week with monster tonsillitis that it could be A Nice Thing to share the first chapter of ANY PORT IN A STORM. If you haven’t yet read STORM IN A TEACUP, navigate away and SAVE YOURSELF FROM ANY POSSIBLE SPOILERS. Because I am sick and lazy, here lieth the extent of the intro. ENJOY.
[Thar be language. My books have that. F-bombs and violence abound in Ayala’s world, be warned, matey.]
I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to butts all over my apartment.
They’re all very nice butts — shades get the best of both hellkin and human gene pools — but that’s sort of beside the point. There are butts all over my apartment yet again, and it’s just another Thursday night of me having no idea where to look. The butts are bad enough, never mind the other side.
Even more annoying, it’s a full moon tonight, and shades are too literal to even laugh at my jokes.
I miss Mason.
Maybe worst of all, I miss him the same way I miss Roger, the frog I stashed in my room for three weeks when I was a knobbly-kneed Mediator-in-Training. Roger got found out, then thrown out into the pond.
Is that awful? That I miss Mason like that? He wasn’t a pet; he was a person. And he isn’t really past tense at all — not in general. He’s alive and well and somewhere covered in sand in the Middle East. Probably pissing off the locals and eating whole goats.
But he’s past tense for me.
Looking — carefully — around my living room, my eyes seek out a tattooed shoulder. The tattoo itself is part of that whole “shades are literal” thing. It’s Saturn’s shoulder I’m searching for, and the ink is exactly what you might expect it to be, the rings of the planet rippling over his muscles when he moves.
I see Carrick, my roommate who I guess is pretty enough to kiss but mostly I want to kick. I see Rade and Hanu and Jax.
It’s really sad I know most of these shades by their butts alone. Ugh.
Frowning, I make my way through the crowded room.
Saturn said he had something to discuss with me, and at three in the morning on a work night, I don’t really want to go wandering through Forest Hills to look for him.
He always sticks close to the place he first drew breath, Saturn. I saw him take that first gasp of air.
It’s not as romantic as it sounds. That first breath came because his full-grown body exploded out of a woman half his size. Lena Saturn. Back when I thought she could be saved.
Jax touches my shoulder when I pass, his brown hand as callused as mine. I return the gesture. His mother was a man called Jack, and I think the x is Jax’s way of making himself a possessive.I’ve yet to meet a shade whose name wasn’t in some way traceable to his mother. The shades call all their hosts mothers, whether they were spawned from a male body or female body or anywhere in between. The ones who gave them life at the expense of their own.
Ain’t nobody living through that.
Rade and Hanu touch my shoulders as I pass them as well, followed by the the others, who stop what they’re doing and reach out to me until my shoulders feel kissed by ghosts. I make sure to return each touch, meeting indigo eyes as I walk. My body never brushes their skin as I move among them. Only their fingertips make contact with me, and only mine make contact with them.
Shade culture. They’re creatures of extreme violence. A gentle touch has evolved into how they say you’re safe. That they expect the same in return from me, well. I don’t know if I should be flattered or frightened.
Then again, I am also a creature of extreme violence.
Carrick finishes talking to Miles. Carrick is a white man with long hair the color of walnut wood. He’s naked as a jaybird and looks even paler next to Miles, who is black with shoulder-length, delicate locs that swish when he moves. Where Carrick is a volcano with long periods of dormancy punctuated by explosions, Miles is steady like the Colorado River. Sometimes I think when the world ends, in the quiet moments when every other being is finally dead, Miles will be the only one left standing, a canyon carved away around him.
I walk among titans these days. Lordy. All except the damn one I want.
“Carrick, where’s Saturn?”
I should expect Carrick’s diffident little shrugs right now, but they still make my toes itch to make contact with his shins. Instead, I gesture at him, impatient.
“Is that a shrug you don’t know, or a shrug you don’t care, or a shrug you don’t think it matters?”
“You know me too well,” Carrick says. His English accent still sounds disingenuous coming from the mouth of a shade, its lilt ever-so-slightly off even to someone used to the speech of Londoners.
That’s probably because his speech is held over from the seventeenth century, and no, I’m not used to that thought yet. He looks like he’s in his mid-thirties. He only acts like he’s twelve.
I wait, looking back and forth between Carrick and Miles. Miles, of course, is unmoved. I do see a crinkle at the corner of his eye where he’s hidden away a smile, though, and the sight steels me to keep my deadpan look for Carrick. After a long pause with only the murmurs of the other shades and the clinking of Nana the Bunny in her cage in the background, Carrick scowls at me.
“He’s at home.”
Fuck. I just got home. I don’t want to leave again.
I look at the clock over my TV. Three seventeen. If I leave now, I might catch Saturn in time to get a whopping five hours of sleep. I make a pit stop to give Nana’s head a scratch and feed her a carrot, her rose-dusty fur as soft as down. When I make my way back through my living room, Hanu and Jax give me a nod goodbye. Miles watches me with indigo eyes that almost glow. His gaze falls on my shoulder, then flickers to the back of Carrick’s head. It’s not until I’m out the door that I understand why.
Carrick’s the only one in that room who sleeps under that roof, and he’s the only one who doesn’t touch my shoulder in greeting.
Forest Hills always makes me jumpy. I blame it on the fact that I took down two slummoths and a jeeling here a few months ago. By “took down,” I mean I limped away from that fight with a palm sliced almost clean through, a festering, demon-poisoned bite on my shoulder, pulled muscles, and a heart that only just was still beating on the right side of my ribcage.
By now, I know where to look for Saturn, and I tread carefully through the underbrush, the sycamores and oaks forming a cathedral in the night above, stars shining like stained glass. More important than the scenery though is the soundtrack. Even in early autumn, the crickets play their little songs, their rhythms syncopated and bright in the darkness.
Their sound is safety.
Norms ain’t the only ones who hate hellkin — and fear them.
Saturn sleeps in the trees. He doesn’t seem to mind gnarly bark digging into his nether bits, so I never pester him about it. Most of the other shades have some sort of shelter, but he likes it here. There’s a tall oak across the clearing he tends to occupy, but even though it’s dark and the yellow-orange leaves — dark grey in the night — obscure the trunk enough to hide him, the pit in my gut says he’s not there.
The night is muggy and clammy in the way only southern nights can be, and the prickle that dances along the skin of my forearms has less to do with that and more to do with the way the crickets have quieted.
It’s not that they’ve stopped — it’s like someone’s been gradually turning the volume knob downward until I’m not sure if it’s me or my surroundings that’s changed.
Except I know better.
My shoulder gives a twitch, as if it can remember that demon’s teeth too well.
Slowly, I unsheathe my swords. One long and curved like Saturn’s rings, one short and stabby.
I listen to the now-distant hum of the crickets, the rustle of the trees. A good stealthy person learns to move with the wind, to let the earth disguise her footsteps.
Demons, thankfully, get an F in stealth.
So why am I now surrounded by silence?
It crawls onward through the night, creeping outward, dulling my senses.
A crash of branches would be welcome.
Slowly, I swivel, turning on a full 360 degrees until I’m sure even the dim stars and sliver of setting moon have shown that I’m alone in the clearing.
A single harkast demon scampers out of a bush. Or rather, scampers about well as anything with legs that short can. Stumpy is the best word to describe these things. My blades stop the hellkin beastie before it takes three steps into the clearing, and then it’s dead. A moment later, I hear a chirp of a cricket. No more demons, so why is my spider-sense still going off?
The wind shifts, and I smell them coming before I hear them.
The scent is hot and smells slightly of ash and metal and life. Shade blood. A lot of it.
I’ve been around them long enough, fought beside them enough to recognize it.
A moment later I hear the crash of bushes and a yell, followed by a gurgle.
I keep my sword points low, hoping the blood’s not Saturn’s and that the voices are friendly. My hope is misplaced. Half of it, anyway.
“Put him there!” an unfamiliar, urgent voice barks.
Then I see them, rounding Saturn’s large oak.
It is Saturn. And the blood is definitely his. Mira Gonzales, another Mediator and tentative friend of mine, helps him lay back against the trunk of the tree. I don’t recognize the morph with them. She moves with sharp, precise competence, pressing her hand against the side of Saturn’s neck, which is the source of the blood.
My feet start moving without me, lurching me forward over the mulch-covered ground. The morph lets out a yell of alarm, but Mira sees me and waves the other woman off.
“Wane, chill. It’s Ayala.”
That’s all Wane seems to need, because her attention snaps back to Saturn so fully that it seems she’s forgotten my existence. I drop to my knees at Saturn’s feet, and I finally get a good look at him in the dim clearing.
Someone sliced through almost two inches of his neck. His left side is gushing blood. It pulses out between Wane’s fingers like oozing lava.
“What happened?” I’ve seen a lot of shit, but this makes me feel like someone’s running their fingertips along the inside of my stomach lining.
Mira’s violet eyes are black in the night, her brown skin turned blue grey, her hair like onyx. It’s then I see the way Saturn’s clutching her hand and the quick, shallow rise and fall of his chest.
His eyes are closed, but his lips form my name.
I scoot up beside Mira, feel the coolness of her presence compared with the heat of Saturn’s fear. He burns like a star instead of a planet.
“He got ambushed. He was on his way home. We were supposed to meet him here and heard the fight.” Mira’s voice is dispassionate, but her fingers clasping Saturn’s aren’t.
“Did you see who did this?” I ask.
“Keen blade to the carotid. Would have finished the job if he hadn’t gotten away long enough to make our presence scare them off. Whoever did this cared more about not being seen than they did about finishing the job.” Wane pipes up, her voice brittle.
“Motherfuckers.” Mira says.
I’m about to say something, but the morph keeps going, ignoring Mira’s expletive.
“He’ll live,” she says. “I can feel him healing. I’m trying to help him along.”
I stretch out my hand and touch it to Saturn’s shoulder. His throat convulses.
Help him along. I forget that morphs can transfer energy. By nature their animal transformations are fueled by some sort of primal woo-woo creation magic — they can manipulate that when they see fit. A lot of them are in health care. From Wane’s clinical choice of words, I think she probably is too.
My body relaxes a bit at her prognosis, exhales breath it had locked in my lungs.
“He said he had something to tell me,” I say.
Mira shrugs. “Whatever it is, it’ll have to wait.”
She’s not wrong about that. Saturn’s not able to say anything right now.
The three of us hold watch over Saturn as the sky slowly lightens with the coming dawn. Finally, the blood flow from his neck slows to nothing, and he sleeps between us, blood drying on his naked form.
By nine in the morning, Saturn is healed enough to move him to Mira’s, and I help Wane and her get him to her car and load him in, leaning the passenger seat back as far as it’ll go. She covers her seats like a good little Mediator, but getting him in the car leaves crackling flakes of his dried blood dusting onto her floor mats, the seat backs, and the center console anyway.
I belt him in while Wane climbs into the back seat. I finally get a good look at her. She’s of medium height and wiry, with short hair that’s the color of old quarters. Her face is unlined, with a strong jaw and light brown skin. Her eyes are grey, and after being surrounded by shades and Mediators for months, the sight is welcome and a little unnerving, a reminder of the norm world I’ve lost track of. The reminder is like a drop of cold water falling out of the air onto my scalp. I’ll have to ask Mira about this morph later.
Mira herself meets my gaze, violet to violet. Her face is unreadable for a long moment, then she gives me a cheeky smile.
“I’ll take care of the invalid. Come over after work.” She cranks up the radio — old school Bonnie Raitt — and waves an impatient hand at me to close the door. Before I do, Saturn reaches out and touches my shoulder with his fingertips, and for the tiniest moment, his indigo eyes flutter open and meet mine.
They drive away, and a wave of relief crests in my middle to know he’ll be okay and that he’s in good hands. Too much death and loss this year already. I can’t bring myself to think about what I’d do if I lost him too.
I hike slowly back to my car, taking a detour to where Mira and Wane found Saturn.
It’s not hard to find — his blood is still red and heavy, splashed on the trunk of a cottonwood.
After a few moments of finding exactly nothing helpful, I leave.
Whatever Saturn wanted to tell me, I have a feeling I’m not going to like it.
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