BLUE ROWAN COVEN
I pulled out Big Bertha, one of my most treasured tools, a hefty two-foot adjustable wrench of hardened steel. The shaft was painted in red enamel, chipped and scratched from loving use. I gave her a twirl, enjoying the feel as Bertha swung around and slapped back into my palm. Her weight was a comfort against the calluses of my palm and silent reassurance that I would defeat the enemy before me. I ducked under the counter and tightened the offending joint on the main line. I’d picked up some new parts for the coven and thanks to my handy skills, the witches would have running water in their market basin again.
Laila clapped her hands when I turned the faucet smoothly. “Thanks, Roxy!”
“Any time.” And I meant it. Because right now the Blue Rowan Coven was my best paying customer. It was amazing how much repair work these witches needed to keep their marketplace going. Bonus work was that the more senior members also maintained their personal workshops for exclusive clientele. The witches charged a lot but paid well so I couldn’t complain.
I’d had other offers for work but I’d turned them all down. I kept saying yes to the work the Blue Rowan Coven requested because I liked being able to eat and pay rent, and because their work didn’t make me feel like I was doing something that would take me too far away from my Slayer vows.
Not that my Slayer vows mattered much right now.
I wiped down Big Bertha and put her away in my toolbox. I didn’t carry Thor and Loki anymore but I did carry an ordinary hammer in the toolbox. It wasn’t the same.
Loud cooing came from above us and we looked up. A carrier pigeon with an orange band hopped at the edge of the open skylight. A message from Slayers.
Laila pointed. “Are you going to keep ignoring it?”
I’d been avoiding my uncle’s pigeons all week. There didn’t seem any point to opening the messages. What could they possibly say? For my entire life, Samuel had been a distant figure on the other side of the Veil while I’d been scraping by in Boston. But that had all changed after my dad died.
Samuel had sent us funds that helped pay for my mom’s medical treatments. He’d encouraged me to cross the Veil and go through the Slayers Trials. I’d told myself that I had done all that to fulfill a promise to my dad and for the promise of a cure for my mom. But the last few months had given me more clarity on that and I could finally admit to myself that I had done it for myself.
To prove that I had been as good as my dad. That I had what it took to be a Slayer. The money had been nice too. Slayers paid a lot of silver and it helped make my mom more comfortable. Bought us all some time.
Getting on the Slayers roster had also given me a lot of things I hadn’t known I’d needed and one of them was Samuel’s approval. Much like my dad, Samuel’s approval had been rare and I’d found myself seeking it out at every turn.
If I trained harder at the Dojo, it was because I hoped Samuel would see that I was good. That I was worthy. And also so that Kotori wouldn’t rub my face into the mat so often. When Samuel had given me a blade he’d crafted himself, his Maker magic wrought on the fine workmanship of the karambit, I’d taken it as a sign at last that he thought I would be a good Slayer.
But then he’d almost let Aislinn and Kotori kick me out of the Trials after a bad mission. I’d rescued Tyee from a peril of rogues and the Night Queen had sent the Slayers a chest of Tarim crystal as thanks. I hadn’t gotten any thanks though. Samuel had almost booted me out then and would have if Kotori hadn’t relented.
When I’d finally gotten through the Trials, my relationship with Samuel had finally warmed and I thought the uncertainty was behind us. That my uncle was starting to care for me and take an interest in my training. I’d even gotten a Slayer tattoo that matched my dad’s. It was all coming together, and I was one step away from filling my dad’s boots and standing beside my uncle.
And then it all went sideways.
Yes, I had disobeyed a senior member but Samuel hadn’t given me the benefit of the doubt. What was I supposed to do, let O’Malley’s vampires tear Mrs. Chu apart? If I could do it all over, I’d do it again. Samuel hadn’t seen it my way, and he’d kicked me off the Slayers. Now months later, he kept sending pigeons.
I would keep ignoring them.
“Yes. I don’t need to hear it.”
Laila squinted up at the pigeon. “I don’t know, Roxy. You should at least read it. I mean, it’s not like you have to respond.”
She was being reasonable and I didn’t feel reasonable. Which made me a little mad. I wasn’t over the hurt and shame I’d felt, kneeling on the floor of the Dojo while they all condemned me. Samuel hadn’t said the right things then. Now it was too late.
But maybe the Slayers wanted me back. Or would give me a chance to redeem myself. A small flame of hope that had never truly extinguished flared up and I found myself wondering if it was even possible. Could I live with myself if I didn’t take the chance?
The carrier pigeon dove at us and Laila ducked. “Roxy! Do something!”
I raised my forearm and the pigeon swooped over Laila to perch gently on my wrist. I opened the little canister and pulled out the small scroll. There was one line of text in tight, precise letters.
“Roxy, we need to talk. Noodle Cat 4 bells. ~Samuel”
That told me nothing. And we had nothing to talk about. His conduct had spoken louder than his words. But the niggling ember of hope in my chest just would not die. Maybe Samuel was being monitored, and this was the only way he could reach out. That would explain why he wanted to meet at a neutral location. Certainly, no one else from the Slayers’ leadership had tried to contact me, not even Tanner, who had taken an inordinate interest in me, just prior to my expulsion.
Laila waved her hand in front of my eyes, disrupting my navel-gazing. “Hello? Is it good news or bad news?”
“It’s not news. But my uncle wants to see me.”
“So are you going to go?”
As much as I wanted to stew in my anger, I had to admit that it wasn’t productive. If there was any chance I could get back in the Slayers’ good graces, I had to take it. All the silver in the world was only going to buy my mom a little more time. I had to find a way to get some Cure across the Veil to her. Not for the first time, the image of Aunt Bev’s farm going up in flames raced across my mind, and the treasure trove of O’Malley’s drugs going up with it. I didn’t really know if O’Malley really had a cure for my mom, but just the possibility still stung like a fresh cut. For my mom’s sake, I had to swallow my pride and see what my uncle wanted.
“Yeah. I guess it’s been long enough.”
I dug out a stub of a pencil from my pocket and scribbled, “Yes” before rolling the paper back into the canister. The pigeon waited gamely until the canister was secured before taking wing from my forearm.
Noodle Cat was a luxury that I could no longer justify. Kotori had taken me there after patrol and I’d become a fan of the nabeyaki udon. Just thinking about the dense chewy noodles and the rich broth was enough to make me salivate.
The shop was small and crowded as usual. A fat white cat waved at me from the cash register. The unctuous aroma of hearty broth and roasted pork enveloped me like a hug as I entered. If I managed to get back into the Slayers, this place was definitely going back on my rotation. I looked around and didn’t see any other Slayers. Then a big hand pushed aside the indigo noren panels at the back of the restaurant and Samuel poked his head out, gesturing for me to step into the back room.
My uncle was built tall, like me, but broad across the chest and shoulders, unlike me. I was used to seeing him in armor that broadened his already wide shoulders, along with a katana that added even more menace to his imposing frame.
What I wasn’t used to seeing was him dressed in a formal tangzhuang, with a snug collar and intricate embroidery along the right side of his chest. A row of frog closures held the jacket closed. I suddenly felt very underdressed, my shirt and pants still grubby from working on Laila’s plumbing.
I edged my way between the tightly set tables, my emotions a distasteful mix of confusion and disappointment. Even the steaming bowls of noodles looked dull and lifeless now. I didn’t know why my uncle had asked to see me, but dressed the way he was, I assumed it wasn’t for anything related to the Slayers.
The whole situation only got more confusing as I neared the rear of the restaurant, as I noted my uncle’s eyes darting back and forth, and sweat beading across his forehead. My uncle, one of the famed Seven Freaks of Seattle, was as nervous as a trainee heading out for his first exsanguination run.
When I stopped at the noren panels, his shoulders relaxed a touch. “Roxy. Thank you for coming.”
My uncle’s tension put me completely off my game and I forgot to be mad at him for a moment. “What’s going on?”
Samuel paused for a moment and looked over his shoulder quickly as if for help. He turned back to me and actually wrung his hands as he spoke. “I know we haven’t talked in a while, and things haven’t gone smoothly at the Dojo. I’m…sorry I haven’t been able to help you.”
Someone in the room behind him cleared their throat. Loudly.
Samuel flinched. “I’m…sorry I haven’t been here for you. As your uncle.”
This was getting weird. Who was behind him?
I pitched my voice low, only for Samuel’s ears. “Are you being threatened?”
My uncle coughed and I jumped forward, thinking he was choking, only to realize he was actually laughing. I stepped back, irritated that I was apparently not in on the joke. When Samuel got control of himself he wiped a tear from his eye.
I had to admit, it was nice to see my normally stoic uncle laughing.
He straightened up and cleared his throat. “I’m not doing this well. Maybe you should just come in.” He stepped back and invited me into the back room.
The private room was cozy, a small space that held only one low table laid out with three place settings. The table had been set with a pristine white table cloth and to the side of the table lay a wrapped bouquet of red roses.
Paper lanterns set in the four walls filled the room with warm light and the place felt intimate, totally unlike the busy restaurant on the other side of the curtain.
A petite woman sat in one of the chairs.
Wait, was that Aanya?
I was used to seeing Aanya at the Dojo, or on duty at the Market, with her talwar at her side. Today she wore her usual sari, this one in a vivid coral, and her long, black hair was pulled back into a coiled braid. Her deep-set eyes twinkled with amusement and she stood to hug me. She smelled of botanicals and roses. I leaned in and hugged her back reflexively but I remained confused. I mean, she could have asked me to eat noodles with her anytime. Also, why was my uncle so dressed up?
Then a weird thought hit me. Were they on a date?
If so, why was I here?
I must have been staring because Aanya said my name, as if she were repeating herself.
“Uh, hi Aanya. Really nice to see you.”
Wow, this was awkward.
“Your uncle and I wanted to see you outside of work.”
“We have something to tell you, don’t we, Samuel.”
I turned to look at my uncle. He ran a finger over the high collar of his jacket. “Roxy, we wanted to invite you to the wedding. Aanya and I are getting married.”
I stared at him, stunned.
He stepped over to Aanya and put his arm around her shoulders. “You’re my closest family and it would mean a lot to me if you were there.”
Aanya put a hand over his. “It would mean a lot to both of us.”
My gaze went back and forth between them, to the way they leaned in to each other, my behemoth of an uncle against Aanya’s dainty frame. It looked strange and right at the same time. A rush of emotion tightened my throat. Suddenly I was glad to be here and to have them telling me they wanted me at their wedding.
My uncle and I had never so much as had a pot of tea together and to leapfrog to this family event was a lot to take in. And I realized I wanted it more than anything. To be included in something. Even if it had no affiliation with the Slayers. Or maybe especially because it was not related to Slayers. Where the only reason Samuel was asking me to do something was because we were family.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”