Authors: Leah Cutter
Tags: #Contemporary Fantasy, #The Raven and the Dancing Tiger, #Leah Cutter, #Fantasy, #The Guardian Hound, #Book View Cafe, #Seattle, #War Among the Crocodiles
Book One of the Shadow Wars
Copyright 2012 Leah Cutter
This version published by Knotted Road Press, by arrangement with Book View CafÃ©.
Cover by Joe J Calkins
Last year, I wrote a short story called, "The Third Raven." When I was about halfway through the story, I realized I had an entire world in my head, and that I could easily write a longer piece set there.
This year, I attended a workshop where one of the assignments was to write a short story about a first date, set in modern day. I couldn't figure out what to write for the longest time, and finally chose to tell a story about a modern day raven warrior trying to get a date. Almost all of the first chapter of this novel was written as that short story, with a scene at the end that wrapped everything up.
The other workshop participants kindly informed me that it wasn't actually a short story.
So I went ahead and wrote this novel. I hope you enjoy it.
Special thanks goes to Melissa and Darla for bravely reading an early version, to the Oregon Writer's Network for providing good business advice, and to the Character Voice and Setting workshop participants, who wanted to see more of this.
Peter held his cell phone at arm's length, staring at it, afraid to bring it closer, afraid it might turn into a snake and swallow him whole. Early spring sunshine dappled the rough, red-wool blanket covering the futon-couch he sat on, not enough to warm it, but the light was still welcome.
He'd just made reservations at Poppy's.
Holy Wings of Wynne. He'd always wanted to eat there, especially since he'd seen the head chef on
Top Chef Masters
. Their menu this week included
carrot soup with cinnamon and star anise,
and lavender-rubbed duck breasts.
But now came the hard part. He had to tell Tamara. Invite her along. Take her on their first date there.
He told himself that it shouldn't be that difficult. They'd met at a dance class. He knew they moved well together. They looked good, too, and he liked the contrast between his darker color and her pale Irish skin.
She warmed his raven soul as well.
Cai gave a soft
. When Peter thought of Tamara, Cai often replied with the image of the bowl of glass marbles Peter kept next to the bed to keep Cai entertained. Peter assumed that meant Cai thought Tamara was shiny.
Now all Peter had to do was call her.
Peter stretched out his legs, resting his hand on his jeans. His raven soul stirred restlessly as he thought about dinner with Tamara.
Of course, Peter would never tell Tamara about Cai. At Raven's Hall he'd learned his recitations too well to ever break them.
Don't tell, don't even hint. Fit in. Fly when you must, but walk. Stay human.
Maybe Peter should go out. He looked toward Cal Anderson Park. The trees outside his apartment windows were just starting to bud so he still had a clear view of the park. The rain had finally stopped, and after two days of sunshine the ground had dried out and it looked like the grass had grown two inches. There might be a pickup game of Frisbee he could join. Or maybeâ
Cai's not-so-gentle caw brought Peter back.
Peter swiped his phone on, unlocking it and tapping in Tamara's number before he could have any more second thoughts.
Maybe it would go to voice mail and he could justâ
"Hi, Tamara. This is Peter."
"I, um, just made reservations at Poppy's. Next Friday night. Would you like to go?"
"I'd love to! What time?"
"That sounds great."
"Um. Okay. See you there?"
Peter knew if he could see Tamara right now, she'd be laughing at him. Then again, Tamara was always laughing.
Peter looked at his phone again. Had that just happened? He'd called a girl and asked her out. He
done it before. But this time feltâdifferent.
With a loud
, Peter dropped his phone on the end table and jumped to his feet. He did a two-step, then broke into some Tacky Annie steps, shimmying his shoulders forward and back before jumping up and snapping his fingers.
He knew he was annoying his downstairs neighbors with his loud thumpsâthe building was old and they could always hear him, no matter how quietly he tried to land.
He didn't care.
Tamara had said
Spinning on his heels like a break-dancer, Peter grew aware that feathers pricked the tops of his shoulders. He collapsed to the ground, automatically falling into lotus position. He took a deep breath, then another. His racing heart slowed as he consciously relaxed his neck. He sure as hell didn't want to lose another vintage T-shirt to Cai's sharp beak and talons.
, he thought, seeing the endless miles of open air in front of them when they flew.
Then he added the image of the glass marbles, and how the sunlight would splinter and bounce off the walls as they rolled through it.
Finally calm again, Peter drew his knees up and rested his forehead against them. He had more control than this generally, at least since his early teenage years when anything would set off the change.
He sent a brief prayer to Wynne, the goddess of the ravens, asking for understanding and restraint.
He just wanted this one date.
He wondered if he should send a prayer to
instead, the god of lost causes.
* * *
Peter looked in the bathroom mirror one last time. He was tempted to dunk his head under the faucet, wash his hair, and try setting it again, but he didn't have time. Instead, he used both hands, scrunching the hair on the top of his head, then drawing it out as he let go.
The result just made him sigh. It should look artfully messy, not like he'd just rolled out of bed.
Cai was no help. The mirror was bright and reflected all the shiny things in the bathroom.
"I swear you're part magpie," Peter muttered.
In reply, Cai suddenly surged forward.
Peter's gray, nearly colorless eyes turned black.
"Stop that," Peter said, his voice coming out in a birdlike croak. He ruthlessly pushed back at his raven soul.
Cai shifted uncomfortably, his wings brushing against Peter.
"I'm sorry," Peter told Cai out loud as the color in his eyes faded. "It's justâshe's special."
The raven shivered and settled down, a warm familiar weight at the back of Peter's mind.
He took one last look in the mirror and decided it had to be good enough. Besides, Tamara had seen him at the end of a night when he'd been dancing hard, all sweaty and wrung out.
Though the walk up Broadway to the restaurant didn't take long, Peter was still glad of his heavy leather jacket. Cai never liked to be cold. Peter turned the spinning prayer wheel outside the incense and mystic shop, while sending his own prayer to Wynne. Cai approved.
The heavy, rusted iron door to the restaurant resisted Peter's initial tug. Warm conversation and the smell of freshly baked bread spilled over him when he succeeded after a second pull.
Peter decided he liked the style of the restaurant; liked its sleek modern feel with the blond wood tables, concrete floor, and bright splashes of orange along the back wall and the menu stands. He looked around the restaurant eagerly, but he didn't see Tamara's familiar red fuzzy hair.
The waitress led Peter to a table next to the window in the main dining room. Peter looked over the entire menu without actually reading a word.
Where was Tamara? Had she decided to not show?
She would have called him, though, right?
Peter scowled at his phone. No missed calls or texts.
A large party of diners followed the waitress from the bar area to the long table set up next to Peter's. They all laughed and talked while Peter still sat alone. He checked his phone again as his nerves built.
Cai poked at him, trying to get his attention.
Peter choked down the
that tried to force its way out of his throat. He felt the sudden pricking of feathers.
This was bad. Peter had never been this close to changing in public. He knew he had to calm down.
Peter reached into his pocket and drew out one of the brand-new golden dollar coins he always carried. He flipped the coin over his knuckles one at a time, the action smooth and practiced. The shiny coin disappearing and reappearing between his fingers soothed Cai, and the habitual motion made Peter relax as well.
"That's really cool," Tamara said.
Peter startled and dropped the coin. It rolled after it struck the concrete floor. Peter dove after it.
"Excuse me," he told one of the women at the loud table. She gave him an amused look and shifted her shoe so he could pick it up.
Mortified, Peter stood and turned back to Tamara.
He held out his hand while she opened her arms for a hug.
Even more embarrassed, Peter leaned forward without moving his feet for an awkward embrace.
"So. We're here," he said, showing her the table with two hands.
"I see," Tamara said, grinning at him.
Peter sat when Tamara did, kicking himself for not pulling out her chair first. He could hear Prefect Aaron scolding him.
"What were you doing when I got here?" Tamara asked.
Peter handed her the coin. "See, the one side, that's Sacagawea. The otherâ"
"Shows two hands holding a peace pipe. Very cool. Where did you get it?"
Tamara looked at Peter and he shrugged again. He knew he couldn't tell her the real reason why he liked it so much: because it was shiny.
"Have you ever been here before?" he asked, pleased that he'd managed a full sentence.
"No, never. But I always wanted to."
In the background, a jazzy saxophone started playing.
"Zoot Sims!" Peter said at the same time as Tamara. He grinned. "Have you ever tried to Lindy Hop to this?"
Tamara nodded. "The chorus changes a bit. I ended up doing more shuffle than hop. How about you?"
"Yeah. I switched to a swing. Da-
"That's a great idea. What's your favorite song to dance to?"
Peter suddenly felt as though he could take a deep breath.
The gods were smiling down at him. At last.
* * *
When Tamara went to the restroom, Peter picked up the coin again. Cai had been mostly settled through dinner but was growing restless again. They'd taken a long flight that morning, so Peter didn't know what his problem was.
, Peter promised Cai.
Cai chanted back.
Peter glanced at the night outside.
, he said.
Cai's feathers stayed ruffled. Peter smoothly moved the coin from one knuckle to the next, but Cai refused to settle down.
Peter stood when Tamara came back. He helped her on with her coat and held the door for her while they left. Then he shoved his hands into his pockets so he wouldn't be tempted to reach out and take Tamara's.
It was too early, far too early for that, no matter how well dinner went. No matter how much Peter wanted this to work.
"I didn't know you were such a gentleman," Tamara commented.
"My parents were very old fashioned. Victorian, even. They sent me to a boarding school for a few years." That was the best explanation for the time he'd spent at Ravens' Hall, when he'd learned how to live with Cai in a modern world.
"It was my aunts and great aunts who taught me everything important," Tamara told him.
Peter nodded. She'd already explained that she'd come from a huge family, the oldest daughter among seven kids, mostly girls.
When they reached the first set of golden footsteps embedded in the sidewalk, a dance lesson in still life, Peter pointed to them, then held up his arms. Tamara laughed and flowed into them.
Peter took a deep breath, trying to catch and hold Tamara's scent, warm and more musky than most girls.
Cai puffed up more, cawing softly.
Peter turned Tamara only one time before spinning her out and letting her go. He grinned at Tamara, although he was unsettled.
What was bothering Cai so much?