The Regent promised to take me there tomorrow. After all, I had to get the nodes back from Dean before I did anything else; this was going to be a one and done breach of their sacred places.
In the meantime, I sampled the various cuisines that were just starting to pop up in the city. Fried foods, sticky sweets, and jerkies that were popping into place.
I recognized a few familiar tracks over the radio as I walked through the city, playing out of repurposed radios. Rock music here and there, the occasional twang of neo-country, human vocal tracks on occasion.
It made sense. We’d left our histories and culture everywhere. Why wouldn’t the Crows have picked up on that? They’d had coms for centuries at the very least, and Omoi nodules for a bit less than that. They’d had time to cherry pick through the remnants of human civilization for whatever they wanted, as long as they avoided USEC location.
Was that a cultural adaptation, a religion adaptation, or simply the combined lessons of watching many Crows not come back at all from visiting USEC? The majority of bases were probably not safe places, even thousands of years removed.
The world was under an anomaly, after all.
Boss showed back up later that day, lugging in a full bull. It dragged behind her, leaving a trail of blood, lolling out of a broken neck and pulverised face. She dropped it in front of a butcher.
I stared at her. “That’s where you’ve been?”
“There was an option to sign up hunting,” Boss said. “I was growing bored of waiting for whatever fire storm you start up, Jess.”
I clicked my teeth together and sighed. “I’m hoping that I don’t start one this time.”
“You can hope all you want,” Boss said. “But you’ll always be causing one.”
“Rude,” Jay decided, sliding in. “Is that a full cow?”
“It is!” Boss yipped happily. “They’re going to carve it up into the fancy steaks, and we’re going to cook it in fancy little pots!”
“You seem happy,” Tane said, squinting at her. “Have you… have you wanted to do that before?”
“Of course,” Boss said. She attempted to sit down so she didn’t quite tower over everyone else. “Do you know how hard it is to get the cooking just right over a fire?”
“You cook?” I asked.
“I can eat things raw,” Boss defended, huffing. “But one of the few benefits of society is good cooking.”
The Crow manning the small restaurant was somewhat taken aback by his varied guests, but he swiftly moved in to set up bits of cooking equipment for guest usage.
“I haven’t had to do this since the King,” The chef said, laughing. “He used to demand he cook his own meals, so that everyone would eat at least a bit of it.”
“Did it work?” I asked.
The chef shrugged. “Most Crows have figured out enough to stay alive off of raw meat alone, but I’ve been experimenting since then. You should try something on the secret menu one of these days.”
Boss nimly sat a small cooking unit between her massive legs, then clutched it against her shins, her massive tail twitching behind her. Seizing a fork, she stuck a piece of meat (marbled in the way that only wild animals could manage) took a plate of sauce, and began cooking to her preferences.
I took a much smaller pieces and let it sit on a grill. I could hear the whir of electricity underneath of it, and as I watched Boss (she looked ridiculous, if happy) the meat started to sizzle.
“Were the Wardens big meat lovers?” Jay asked, poking at his own grill. The chef sat next to us, watching Boss’s technique closely. How many times had he even got the chance to observe a beast from the north?
“I don’t really want to talk about that,” I said. “But yes.”
I flipped the meat, and saw a golden brown crust on the back. A bit of sauce glazed over top of it, Boss’s hand clutching the end of the spoon. She quirked a grin, daring me to complain. I went back to cooking the meat, smelling it caramelize. “I remember that there was a place here that sold the best barbecue…” I trailed off, eyes closing. If I tried, I could pretend the world was intact enough to navigate, but with the urban forest in the way, and a total lack of an old world map, it wasn’t that much use.
“Of course they were,” Boss laughed. “Those wild herds of Cows are all from the Wardens!” She gestured with a fork, and the chef ducked out of the way of oozing meat, cawing in alarm. “The chickens, too, they were all brought over.”
“How’d you learn that?” I asked.
“Know your enemy,” Boss grinned, showing off rows upon rows of teeth.
“I’m not your enemy yet,” I pointed out.
“Do you really think that you’re the first time I’ve thought about hunting Warden,” Boss teased. “Just because you’re the first one I’ve met doesn’t mean it isn’t the dream of Beast-Kind. Or at least, the dream of my beast-kind,” Boss looked out of the narrow building.
Most of the chairs had been taken up by our party. Tane was making sure every inch of her steak was seared a golden brown, and garlic and onion rose up from powder and paste smeared by the chef.
While I looked, Boss and the Chef got into a heated discussion about the best way to render fat into meat, and whether or not it was worth it to chase after delicate reverse sears with complicated equipment, and other questions.
“At the great feasts,” Boss said. “Everyone brings their own foods, and cooks the best dishes, and brings their best tales of the hunt!”
“She’s rather animated,” Tane laughed. “I was expecting her to be more bored.”
“I’m glad she has hobbies,” Jay said, slicing open a steak far too early. The juices slid across the plate, and he frowned, looking at the most pink interior, before cutting it into pieces more manageable for his beak. He looked up at me. “What were your hobbies?”
My cheeks flushed slightly. “Ah… I mostly watched crime dramas and bad movies,” I laughed, leaning into my chair. “There were so many good films and stuff that I couldn’t keep track of it all.”
“What a problem to have,” Tane teased. “I think a few Crows are talking about setting up a cinema. We don’t typically don forms other than our own,” She gestured at her avianoid form. “But it’s not unheard of us to adopt other forms.”
I nodded. “I figured it was a marker of your identity,” I said.
Jay looked slightly uncomfortable. “Shifting like that was nice when I had it,” He shrugged. “I miss it a little.”
Tane looked up from her activities, a small plume of smoke spiralling up into the ceiling fan of the restaurant. “What do you miss the most?”
Jay took what remained of his meal off of the grill and set it to the side. “Flying, mostly.”
Boss and the chef were still talking about spices and what to do with them. I looked over at them, then back at Jay, ignoring Boss’s steadily louder and louder descriptions of something about marrow being the superior food stuff.
Tane was taken aback, and looked down at her plate. I twirled the last of the skirt steak off of the grill, admired the grill marks instead of replying, and plopped it to the side. A bit of salt on top.
“I never really thought of that,” Tane admitted.
“Quen can’t make heads or tails of me,” Jay said, changing the subject abruptly. “I think he’s settled on a resigned acceptance. That, or he’s planning on killing me.”
“He better now,” I warned, rather severe.
He laughed. “That was mostly a joke, Jess. It’s not like I’m going to let him just kill me.”
I raised an eyebrow at him. I was still uncomfortably clear on how close he’d been to dying to the traitor mayor of Forge-Nest. “Not easily at least,” He corrected.
“You could probably take him,” Tane said. “One on one, right?”
“It’d be close,” Jay shrugged. “And it’s not like I’m going to get a chance. Not any time soon at least.”
The meat had set, and I cut into it and was rewarded with the juices staying in the meat instead of spilling onto the table. I cut in with a Crow made knife, carved off a few pieces, and dug in. Jay watched me, an amused glint in his black eyes.
I chomped down. Almost damned perfect.
Tane snorted, and leaned in to dab at a stream of red down the corner of my lips. “You look like a mad creature,” She teased.
“She looks like she’s enjoying herself,” Boss said, cutting inside. “You’re in luck, the Chef’s going to try some marrow recipes.”
The chef looked slightly frazzled at that declaration, but didn’t bother challenging the wolf on her grounds. “And?”
“And I guess I can try a nice stew as well,” Boss groused. “It’ll give me something to do with the more useless bones.”
“So what’s everyone up to?”
“Hunting and cooking,” Boss said. “Waiting for something to kill and eat.”
The chef blinked. “Do you need help with recipes for those?”
“It depends, do you have an aversion to eating the Fey?” Boss grinned.
The chef thought that over.
“I’m still guarding the Elder,” Jay said. “Tane and Quen are taking up your guard duties.”
Tane leaned back. “My people are scouting out the reaches of the city. I know you mentioned the Fey aren’t going to try a breach any time soon, but it’s best to be prepared in case they change their mind.”
I breathed and sank back into the chair. Decent food. Everyone had something to do.
I just had to make sure I didn’t ruin this brief moment of peace.
I closed my eyes and prayed to whatever deity still cared. Lord Inquiry? Kind Lord?
Certainly not the Watcher. Never him.