I came into this world fully grown, ready to use my fists and my knife and my magic, intended for nothing else. When the war was over, I was one of the lucky ones. I was left standing on the cold hillside, mud and blood up to my elbows and knees, tingling with the last of my battle spells, and I was led away with my cohort, those who survived. The soldiers who had conjured our people as weapons had to figure out what to do with us once we’d helped them win. A major who had never had to deal with us directly now discovered that all his lieutenants had been killed, and he leaned down to me and said, “You, Sergeant, you understand me speech? You talkee good?”
“Sarge, is there something wrong with the big white officer? Why does he talk that way?” said one of my corporals, and the major burst out laughing at himself. When we saw he was all right, so did we. We had not been much for laughter before that. We hadn’t had time to be much for anything but fighting.
I was allowed to keep some of my cohort under me—they liked to do that, liked to keep the habit of command in us—when they remembered that knife skills were useful for something other than live fellow human beings.
That was when we met Calliver.
She was an elderly human woman, only a head taller than Long-Leg, the tallest of my corporals. For a human, she was shrunken and shriveled, which meant she fit right in with us. She had had daughters and sons, but the war had taken them all. Calliver peered at me and I at her.
“Well, Sergeant,” she said. “Are you ready to become a cook?”
“We are ready for anything,” I said. “It is our motto.” She smiled. We had not known kindness except for the small considerations we could show each other. But then there was Calliver.
For my corporals and the young soldiers, there were all the small tasks that run a university dining hall, the chopping and peeling, the carrying of wood and water. She taught Pinchnose to clean out the ovens and renamed Terrible into Tarragon. She made Long-Nose and Missile my sous-chefs. But for me, there was companionship, and the lessons were a great deal more intensive, for Calliver hoped that I would take her place when she was gone, and I was the one who knew magic to begin with, so I was the one who could learn the magic of the kitchens.
She taught me to hold plants back from ripeness with magic until the other vegetables they harmonized with were ready, to coordinate the ebb and flow of work with the back of my mind and senses others did not have. I showed her how to pull the bones from a beast where it stood, how to make sure every bit of blood had drained from a carcass without touching it. We surprised each other. We surprised ourselves. And when my people started using the squash blossom as a symbol of our own wrinkled yellow selves and our triumph in the war, Calliver embraced it wholeheartedly and joined in when we wanted to make dozens of dishes with it for the first Armistice Day.
When the first inspector came, she made me hide in the potato bin.
“And they give you no trouble?” I heard the inspector say.
“None whatever,” said Calliver. “They’re good workers. Fast learners.”
“Oh, I’ve heard that,” said the inspector, her voice dark with implication. “Came into this world with not a thought in their minds but what we gave them, and within a year they think they’ve a right to call themselves civilized and tell us how they like to do things and make up traditions just from scratch and then ask us to accept them. Well, don’t blame me if they turn on you.”
“Do they do that?” asked Calliver. I caught my breath sharply from my place in the potato bin, wondering if my friend was going to turn on me, but she gave a long patient look to the crack in the lid, and I knew she was having me watch and learn.
“Oh, you wouldn’t believe. They came into this world as killing devils, and that’s what they really are deep down.”
“Meek as lambs around my kitchen.”
“That’s just to draw you in, so you don’t expect it. And then—” The inspector jumped at Calliver, making a truly appalling noise.
Calliver clucked her tongue. “I’d never have thought.”
“Well, no, you never would. I’ll check in on you, shall I?”
“Oh, do,” said Calliver comfortably. But when the inspector had gone and Calliver pulled me out of the potato bin, she said, “Right, there’s one to turn in. You heard it, you’ll speak to it.”
“I can’t serve as a witness!”
“You can and will.”
“Calliver, you heard what they think of my kind. They’ll never trust that I’m not—that I’m not just—”
“With me behind you they will,” said Calliver. “Everyone in these parts knows that if they want the kitchen running smoothly, they’d best ask me. And now if they want me, they’d best ask you.”
With Calliver’s support, we settled in, a bit like a unit and a bit like a family, and did the same tasks, day to day and year to year. Some others of our kind found our places with humans like Calliver to back us. Some didn’t.
Calliver died quietly one night, after making sure the bread for the next morning was rising, and I took over her spot. I think by then the university staff had forgotten that they’d ever had human servants. And after that the days and years remained the same. That included Armistice Day.
The university kitchens would stay open for Armistice Day, but the menu would be special, so I was always up early, three hours before dawn, chopping and sorting, setting one thing to rise and another to simmer. In addition to my people’s Armistice Day food, there were humans, even at the university, who would balk at eating anything out of the ordinary, anything with squash blossom in it or a hint of saffron or turmeric. That meant twice as much work for me and my line cooks. That was the way of things now, and there wasn’t anything I could do with a muffin or a salad to change it.
But my own people would want their Armistice Day feast, and that, at least, I could give them.
In the first few years after the end of the war, wearing the squash blossom on Armistice Day was commonplace. Everyone was a patriot in those days, breathless to commemorate our glorious victory. And some of them needed our hands to make their farms go, needed willing workers to replace their missing sons, but our long golden ears and floppy feet could never make their hearts catch, never make them think it was Young Jack home again. It was easy to think that more of them would be like Calliver.
Things got worse when they started to have their flush of post-war babies and wanted us back out again, back where we belonged, and we had to tell them there was no “back”—they had conjured us from the blue sky, from nowhere, from their own minds, to win their great war. And things got worse again when our own first crop of babies started to be born.
And here it was Armistice Day, fifteen years later and Calliver gone, and the squash blossom had come to mean something very special indeed, and you hardly saw it under a tan or brown or white face. There were a few here at the university who remembered, but they were the same ones who called my human assistants by name instead of “you girl.” The radicals.
There in the pre-dawn light of the bread ovens, the radicals didn’t mean a lot to me and mine.
They don’t want to put the words on their fear, but here they are: we slaughtered their enemies for them, and they are afraid we will lose track of who the enemy is and do it again. Slaughter is not too harsh a word. Sometimes they try to say decimate. That means one in ten. I learned so many things, here at the university, and we: we slaughtered. The enemy, the Hurnish, had been on the verge of victory, an ordinary victory with treaties and wounded soldiers returning home.
We changed all that.
The Hurnish nation still exists. But not as it did before, not whole and with some semblance of pride. Everything in a Hurnish uniform, the stretcher-bearers, the journalists, the boys who carried the bags of potatoes. We killed them all. What did we know of newspapers or bags of potatoes? What did we know of stretchers? This is what happens when you pull an entire people out of the ether using only your will to kill, your determination not to lose, never to lose. We are what they made, and that is what frightens them, that is what makes them want to be rid of us.
That is what made Calliver embrace us. And Calliver is dead and gone, and when the inspectors come, there are few to stand beside me if they sneer and find fault.
This particular Armistice Day, after the students and most of the faculty and the staff, all the tall human colors and my own little squashed mustardy yellow people, had eaten their fill, two of the professors remained. I knew one of them. Professor Alden, one of the considerate ones. One of the radicals who spoke for our kind—gave speeches for our kind, even. I didn’t know why until that day. The other one, I didn’t know his name until Alden said it. Derzan. He was in a lather, though he was keeping it very quiet. You don’t survive fifteen years as one of our kind without learning how to spot a human in a quiet lather.
In fact, a lot of our kind didn’t survive at all, for that very reason.
I washed the table beyond theirs more diligently than it really needed. Long-Leg worked at my shoulder, cleaning the chair seats. Even the radical professors never really notice if the kitchen staff lingers over the washing. They have no idea how long it takes to wash up properly.
“I think I know how to send them back where they belong,” said Professor Derzan. “We’ve been working on reversing the spell, and I think we’ve almost got it.”
Professor Alden frowned. He had the remains of a squash blossom crepe on his plate, which didn’t mean everything but reminded me that he had been kind and spoken to some of us in passing, including me. “Ontologically that won’t work,” he said. “The Federal Mages created them from nihility.”
“What’s that?” whispered Long-Leg in my ear.
“Nothing,” I whispered back.
“No, but tell me.”
I gave him the stink-eye, and comprehension dawned in his dim orange eyes.
We kept washing and listening.
“The Federal Mages differ considerably on what feat they achieved,” said Derzan. “Those who even remain to discuss the matter. Some feel that they personally could not have created an entire race—”
“Not personally,” said Alden. “Collectively. With the will of the entire nation behind them.”
Derzan waved a hand dismissively. “The will of the nation is a pretty dream. The spell that brought us our diminutive helpers is a reality. Was a reality. And we can reverse that spell, and that too will be reality. That is what matters, not the metaphysics of—”
“Metaphysics always matters,” said Alden dryly. He cut himself a slice from the loaf of bread between them, spreading it slowly with the butter my troops had so painstakingly churned for them. He made Derzan wait for his thoughts. Everyone could wait for his thoughts, it seemed. “It makes for the difference between an execution—a genocide—and a homecoming. It is all the difference in the world.”
“But is it? Think of the—” Derzan looked around, but seeing no others of his kind, he did not think to lower his voice very much but went on. “Think of the Hurnish diplomatic requests. Think of the killings in Jenova. Think of all we must now do to accommodate our little yellow friends. A father has the right to chastise his son.”
“To chastise, but not to murder,” said Alden. “And fifteen years on, many of our comrades in arms are parents themselves. To treat them collectively as errant children when they do no wrong but indeed contribute a great deal to us—this is to put ourselves in the place of wanting chastisement. No, it makes a great deal of difference indeed. If our comrades in arms had come from somewhere, they would have brought with them what other immigrants bring: festivals, foods, garments, something.”
“They have the squash blossoms you have been gorging yourself upon,” said Derzan.
Alden smiled sadly. “That we have given them, as a symbol of how they look to us. That is all.”
I was not concerned with the squash blossoms. I already knew of those. I was thinking of the killings in Jenova.
We didn’t know of them as killings. We knew of them as disappearances.
But of course a part of us already knew.
This happened to us over and over again. There would be a theft or a break-in or even an assault, some small crime possibly even committed by one of us—for we have clever hands, and we are wise to the ways of violence, when it is direct and forthright. And then a dozen of us or a score would disappear, and there would not even be a mound to say where we had gone, our bodies made so much smaller than the graves they were used to digging that we disappeared so easily. And that without the fancy spells Professor Derzan had in his mind.
It was not a kind world they had brought us into. But it was the only one we had.
I had never been a child. But the part of me that was like a human child wanted Calliver back to be another human amongst them and speak to them in human ways. And yet I knew that she was a cook, she was like me, learned but not scholarly. That Alden might listen, but Derzan would not. We would have to think of something on our own now.
Long-Leg was breathing hard behind me, listening, watching.
“I don’t think you understand,” said Alden. “My family—all my family, my brothers and my sister, they were all in the army. I was the only one who was away here at the university. Did you know that?”
“I—no. I didn’t.”
“They died,” said Alden dreamily. “All of them. All but one. I had one brother left. Reudal. The Hurnish were about to strike, on that ridge when the Federal Mages called up our new allies. And they struck little orange bodies instead of my brother.”
“You must love your brother very much,” said Derzan.
Alden started out of his reverie. “What? Oh, I can’t stand the man. He’s a bloody-minded little tyrant. He’d plunge us all back into the chaos ages if he could. Every winter solstice we spend together is agony for us both.”
Derzan took in a deep breath through his nose and let it out slowly. Humans do this to my kind when they are announcing their patience yet truly have none. “I’m afraid I do not see what you are trying to tell me.”
“He is my brother, Derzan,” said Alden patiently. “I would have no family in the world, were it not for our little orange friends. I would be a man alone, but for them. The Federal Mages—”
“We can’t wait on the Federal Mages,” said Derzan, and I knew that he was going to do it. He would do it to us without warning, without reason. I would have to use all the spells I had used against the Hurnish to stop him.
“We must,” said Alden. “They will tell you. It was their own spells.”
“They are new Federal Mages now, not the same ones. Perhaps I will be elected to their number, after I—solve this.”
Alden raised his hand, and I thought he would stop Derzan, but he only rubbed his eyes wearily. “They are from nihility, and you cannot send them back to it.”
The professors could argue all they liked about nihility or whatever other fancy term they cared to use. I knew what I knew, and I knew what it was to stand on that cold hillside wondering at my first sunrise and my first battle. And I knew that there was no “before.” There was no homeland, no prior times, no childhood for us as there would be for our children. What we had was what we’d built with our own minds and hands, we ourselves and the very few humans who would help us. It was ours now.
Anyone sending us “back” would either be sending us bare-handed to a strange new world with who-knew-what people and features—or else, more likely, back into nothing.
I had not spent fifteen years at the university for that, not even in its cafeteria. Professors talked, as these talked, and I was born—made—however I came into the world, it was for fighting.
Nor was I the only one.
I was almost ready to release my disruption into Derzan’s spell—hoping that Alden would help my people as he had in so many small ways before—when Long-Leg darted in behind Derzan, grabbed the bread knife from the table, and slit his throat.
I would like to say that our soldier instincts kicked in and did something useful, but in fact we stood there and watched him choke and cough and bleed until he went still and quiet, not just Professor Alden but Long-Leg and myself.
“Long-Leg,” I said.
“He was going to—all our people—”
“I could have disrupted the spell,” I said. “I would have. I was in the middle. You know the Sergeants have magic, Long-Leg!”
“I don’t know about your magic, Sarge,” said Long-Leg miserably. “I just won’t—let him—we couldn’t let him. There are babies now. We couldn’t let him.”
I turned to Alden. I expected him to be screaming, sobbing, but there was no noise. “Were you a soldier after all?” I said. “Like your brother?”
“A professor only.” He folded his colleague’s hands across his breast, getting blood all over his own. “He’s gone now.”
I stared at him. First my own Long-Leg, not trusting his sergeant, taking it into his own hands like so many others had done, and what could I do to protect him? And now this second surprise, the calm of this man of books. “They will come,” I said. “Long-Leg will have to—they will come. Professor, will you—will you speak for us? You know the reprisals. You know the way of things. Tell them what Professor Derzan was going to do. Tell them what Long-Leg had to stop. Please. So that it’s only Long-Leg and not our whole staff.”
Alden looked at us both. “Won’t you try to run? To hide him?”
Long-Leg and I both laughed, the snuffling laughter of our kind when we are not actually amused. “That will only mean a few dozen more of our people die. If not all of them.”
I cannot credit what happened them. I have never seen its like. “Sergeant,” he said to me, not calling me Cook or Girly as the rest of the humans had started to do. “Sergeant, call the campus guards. Tell them I have had a fight with this other professor and killed him. Tell them it was over metaphysics. Or tell them—tell them it was for my brother’s honor. Yes. That will do. It was for the honor of my soldier brother. That is even true.”
I stared at him. We were not on our own without Calliver after all. Or—more, for I was not sure even she would have done this.
“And you... Long-Leg?”
“Yes,” said Long-Leg, not daring to look up.
“Go clean your hands. Don’t let anyone see you but your own people.”
Long-Leg moved faster than I did. Perhaps he believed Professor Alden faster. Perhaps he didn’t care, thinking that a few more hours before death would be a gift regardless of how he got it. But he ran off, his feet slapping against the wood of the floor. “Go, Sergeant,” said Alden softly.
“They will hang you.”
“I have friends,” said Alden. “My brother will speak for me, though we hate each other. Likely I will only be locked up for all my days.”
I shook my head and shuffled off to get the guards. When we came back, I half believed that Alden would be gone and the guards standing there would take me for Derzan’s killing. But no, he went with them as gentle as a lamb, an animal I have only seen trussed in my kitchens, which is as gentle as an animal gets.
Back in the kitchen, the staff was lined up in their rows.
“What did he do?” said Pinchnose. “Why? Why?”
“He believes in the Armistice,” I said. “Get back to work on those pots. If you finish early we have spell drill to do.”
Pinchnose looked up at me. “Spell drill, Sarge?”
“You’re going to need to know some things to get on in this world,” I said. “I don’t know who’s going to teach you but me. Maybe we’ll find one or two more. The professor might be able to give us a word of who, if we can—if we can get word from the prison. But for now we’ll start with me.”
“Yes, Sarge,” said Pinchnose, wide-eyed.
“And—keep an ear on those professors,” I said. “Watch for the ones who are kind. Share the word, let me know. We—we aren’t alone. We cannot go on thinking that we are, with all that is ahead.”
“The fight to come?” said Long-Leg.
“No, you fool,” I said. “No more of that. What we have ahead is work, and hard work at that. Haven’t we already got an armistice?”
“If we can get them to keep it,” said Long-Leg.