Weregild

Wolf's-own, Book Two

by Carole Cummings

The amorality of gods makes it hard to tell ‘bad’ from ‘good’ and ‘right’ from ‘wrong’. Fen doesn’t care. All Fen cares about is saving his family, and he’ll risk anything and anyone that gets in his way. Including his own soul.

No longer willing to wait for the machinations of the gods’ minions, Fen accepts the trade Malick has offered and together they set out to rescue Fen’s family and kill the man Fen has loved for years. With the Ancestors still screaming in his head, and with the duplicity and manipulations whirling around him, Fen finds it harder and harder to do without the silence Malick can offer him.

Malick has his own reasons to hand over everything Fen wants, and equally compelling reasons to withhold everything Fen needs. Over his head, and timing as bad as ever, Malick must devise a way to do his god’s bidding without breaking his god’s laws—and keep Fen sane and on Malick’s side in the bargain.

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Excerpt:

Storm-month, Year 1322, Cycle of the Wolf

 

HE HADN’T been expecting to see Jacin again so soon. He certainly hadn’t been expecting to see him before the small hours, and yet here he stood, rain-soaked and hollow-eyed, in the doorway of the little hut, blinking about himself like he’d forgotten why he’d come. Joori’s mouth quirked up in an uncertain half smile—right up until he saw the two men who came up to stand behind Jacin in the doorway.

His first instinct—hunters? bandits? was Jacin some kind of hostage?—was to yank Jacin through the door and slam it shut. Too bad his body’s first reaction was to freeze like a rodent beneath the shadow of a hawk’s wings.

Jacin!

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Joori was still gaping like an idiot and didn’t catch Caidi before she made a run at Jacin, so she was rather open prey for the man who stepped forward to intercept her. Jacin didn’t move—Joori couldn’t. Just watched the man swing his little sister up onto his hip with a grin Joori didn’t quite believe—more wolfish than friendly—then cut a narrow glance at Morin and a mocking one at Joori.

“Kamen Malick,” the man said, “you can call me Malick,” then he tipped a nod at Morin and spared a quick smile for Caidi as he tweaked her nose before turning his cool glance back on Joori. “Friends of your brother’s. We’re here to take you somewhere safe.”

The other man, the big one, pursed his mouth in clear disapproval. “You plan on telling everyone you meet your real name?”

You-can-call-me-Malick just grinned. “It’s Fen’s family,” he said, like it was a perfectly reasonable retort.

Handsome. Friendly-seeming enough. The other man was big and blocky, a little bit scary, maybe, but not threatening, though a broadsword hung at his hip. The one who called himself Kamen Malick was armed, as well, but no weapons were drawn, which had to be a good sign—right? With Jacin just standing there, somewhat glassy-eyed, You-can-call-me-Malick smiling, all amiable amusement, and the other waiting in the doorway like an attentive steward, it all seemed absurdly unthreatening for a sudden appearance in the dark of night with a storm rolling steadily. And the statement—safe; could it be possible?—really should have set elation through Joori, not raise his hackles the way it did.

It was the hand on Jacin’s shoulder that made Joori’s eyes narrow. The casual way You-can-call-me-Malick tipped in and spoke something quietly into Jacin’s ear as he set Caidi down and gave her a pat between the shoulder blades, then gently pushed her away from Jacin. The impossible to mistake marks just below Jacin’s ear. And then the way Jacin merely peered at Joori, then at Morin and Caidi, said, “Take what you can carry; the cart’s only big enough for Caidi and a few provisions,” then angled stiffly away from the door and out from under the grip on his shoulder to direct Caidi and Morin with the packing.

Joori had had his suspicions for years about what Asai had wanted with his brother—hell, he’d been pretty sure he knew exactly what Asai was about the night he stepped arrogantly into their dooryard—and Jacin’s reticence and unwillingness to talk in detail about the man at all in the weeks they’d spent in this little hut had drawn conclusions of every sort of abuse and exploitation Joori could fathom. And he’d be damned if he’d see it done again—not in his name, never again.

He pushed past the cocky stranger with the too easy grin, growling a little at the way the man tried to angle himself between Joori and Jacin, like he was trying to keep Joori away—keep Joori away from his brother; how dare the man—and took hold of Jacin’s elbow.

“Jacin, what’s going on? Who are these people?” And then he peered a little closer. “Are you drunk? Or…?” His eyes narrowed, and he wheeled on the grinning stranger. “What’ve you got him on?”

You-can-call-me-Malick’s eyebrows drew down. “What’ve I got him—?”

“I can barely see the color of his eyes for the pupils, and he looks like he’s about to fall over.”

“Joori, not now.” It was snappish and short. Jacin pulled his arm away from Joori’s grip. “They’re who they say they are. This is Malick. And that’s Samin.”

He waved at the man still standing like a block of stone just outside the door. Good thing too, because the hut was only so big, and Caidi was taking up half the floor with the pile of clothes through which she was sorting with Morin’s help. Caidi was chattering excitedly, while Morin kept half a cagey eye on everyone in the room.

“Yori and Shig are keeping watch outside,” Jacin went on. “We’re taking you to a safe place in the city. Get your things.”

“A safe…?” Had he really said “a safe place”? In the city? Was there such a thing? Joori looked around. At Caidi and Morin obediently throwing together all the clothes Jacin had brought. At the man Jacin had called Samin standing out in the rain on the other side of the door, watching everything going on inside while simultaneously scanning the yard. At the other man—this Malick—smiling that self-satisfied smile, eyes far too focused on Jacin, even as he crouched down beside Morin to help shove balled-up clothes into a sack. At Jacin, making his stiff way over to the rickety board and staring down at the piles of food, like he couldn’t decide what to do about them….

“Leave it,” Malick said quietly. “You won’t need to worry about it anymore.”

…at the way Jacin just nodded vaguely, compliant.

Joori gave Malick a bit of a glare as he stepped up behind Jacin, annoyed when Malick simply widened his smirk and shook his head, like Joori’s distrust amused him. “Jacin,” Joori said, leaning in so he could speak softly, for Jacin’s ears only, “are you sure this is real?”

Jacin turned to Joori slowly, gaze a touch murky, but by no means muddled. He was pale, going sallow, with twin spots of color on each cheekbone. “As real as I can manage,” he muttered, dropping his glance guiltily to the floor. Half moons like bruises blotted the thin skin beneath his eyes, and his jaw was clenched so tight Joori would swear he could hear teeth squeak.

“What’s wrong with you?” Joori demanded. “You looked fine last night.” A little shredded around the center, but otherwise all right. No, that wasn’t true, really—he’d looked exhausted, too, and there’d been… something. Something in his eyes.

“Nothing that won’t keep.” Jacin tried to smile a little, but the ghastly thing that crooked at his mouth only knocked up the worry blooming in Joori’s gut. “We don’t have much time,” Jacin said. “I didn’t know… I had no idea….” He paused, dipped his head again, and rubbed at his temple. “Asai… Fuck, Joori, I’m so sorry, I never—”

“I think that’s got it all,” Malick cut in, shouldering past Joori to pull up beside Jacin. That too-possessive grip went once again to Jacin’s arm. Tawny eyes settled far too keenly on Joori as long fingers curled around Jacin’s braid. Smirking. Silent laughter bubbling just beneath it. Like he knew exactly what Joori was thinking, and thought it terribly funny. “We should go, Fen.”

“Yes,” was all Jacin said. He reached out and gave Joori’s shoulder a quick brush as he squeezed around him.

Biddable. Like what this Malick person said mattered.

Joori took hold of Jacin’s elbow and stopped him, leaning in to speak softly into his ear again. Joori kept his narrow gaze locked onto Malick’s smug one. “Jacin,” Joori whispered, “are you sure this is real?”

Jacin turned his head, met Joori’s eyes. “It’s real.” Then why did he look so damned miserable? “It’ll be all right, Joori. I… this wasn’t… I’m sorry.”

“For what?” Joori shot a look at Malick, who was still holding onto Jacin’s braid like some kind of leash. Joori set his jaw and tugged a little until Jacin took a step away. “Why are you sorry, Jacin?” He dropped his voice as low as it could go and still make sound. “What are you paying for this?”

Rising dread turned to unfocused alarm when Jacin whiffed a tired laugh. “No price,” he murmured. He craned his neck around to meet Malick’s even gaze for a long, heavy moment, face unreadable, then straightened and pulled away. Joori was ridiculously relieved when Jacin irritably yanked his braid from Malick’s fingers, and even more so when Malick let go. “We have to leave now.” Jacin turned to face Joori squarely, eyes flicking quickly over Joori’s shoulder at the smirking man who watched a little too closely, then back again to Joori. “Please, Joori.”

Joori looked at Jacin hard then turned his glance once again on Malick, let it narrow at the steady look he got back. “I don’t trust him,” he said, voice deliberately loud enough that Malick could hear. Joori kept his gaze steady, even as Malick shrugged, indifferent.

He never asked you to,” Malick said, then he sauntered on past and made it a point to drop a quick touch to Jacin’s shoulder as he angled around them both and out the door, collecting Samin as he went.

Joori turned back to Jacin, anger receding and worry crowding back in at the weariness and wan cast to Jacin’s face. “Jacin—”

“Brother,” Jacin cut in, closing his eyes for a moment as he sucked in a deep breath, then he leveled his gaze with Joori’s. “Please.”

Joori could only stare, mouth tight and unease roiling up his backbone. He nodded. Because really—what choice did he have?

 

 

FOR all the rush and worry, Yori concluded, this “job” was turning out to be the most boring one she’d ever been on. Not for the first time, as she rolled her neck irritably, mouth pinching tight as rain trickled down between her shoulder blades, she wondered why she’d even been necessary to carry it out. The conclusion she drew was that she wasn’t—neither were Samin or Shig, or even Fen, when it came right down to it. Maybe Shig, now that Yori thought about it, since Malick seemed to keep Shig close while he was using his magic, laying hands on her more than Yori thought entirely necessary, but Shig didn’t mind and Malick was Malick, so Yori didn’t say anything. Still, though, it seemed Malick could have done this job all by himself.

Well… all right, she supposed Fen’s presence had been necessary, or Malick might have had some trouble getting the three refugees to come along as compliantly as they’d done, but other than that….

She didn’t suppose she was too put out. She’d only gotten to see Malick do his trick with the Gates once before—most of their jobs fell inside the city’s walls, and he used his magic so rarely she sometimes forgot he had it at all—and she rather enjoyed the high the aftereffects gave her. Nothing she understood, and nothing she cared to understand, but Malick had half explained it as fazing their corporeal realities while altering the perceptions of any who might cross their paths. Yori had just sort of nodded a, “Yeah, yeah, whatever,” at him, and enjoyed the bit of euphoria.

It didn’t work with Fen, which surprised Yori a little, but wouldn’t have done, had she stopped and thought about it. Magic didn’t work on an Untouchable. Maybe she forgot because she hadn’t thought of Fen that way since after that first night. She’d only noticed the braid anew as something compulsory and not really a part of him when they’d had to wait for him to make his own stealthy way over the Gate. Too bad for him. It was a heady thing while it was happening, Malick’s magic, a little like coming down from poppy afterward, but even that bit of a thrill—and the knowledge that there would be another like it when they returned—wasn’t enough to offset the squishiness in Yori’s boots now, the too-steady rain seeping through her oiled cloak, and the annoyance that was Fen’s little brother. And Yori had thought Fen was hard to get along with. She snorted.

“Why couldn’t they have gotten a cart big enough for all of us?” Morin was snarking at Fen.

Fen mumbled something back at him that Yori couldn’t hear, and though the tone sounded almost mellow to her own ears—or at least as mellow as Fen got—Morin’s mouth still shut up tight and didn’t open again.

Yori shook her head.

The strangest reunion she’d ever seen, though admittedly, she couldn’t recall ever having seen one before. Still, though, she’d sort of expected hugs and shouts of relief; what she’d actually witnessed were intense looks between Fen and his twin, some sort of silent plea that the brother had accepted with clear reservations, and distrust and hostile looks at all of them, but particularly at Malick. The little one, Caidi, seemed to be rather a limpet where Fen was concerned, to which Fen submitted with some softening of his usual stony expression, and stiff embraces when she demanded them, but the other one, that Morin, was a bit of a puzzle. Not hatred in his eyes when he looked at Fen, but… Yori couldn’t tell, really. He was too obviously afraid of both his elder brothers, and Shig engendered harsh distrust from the second he laid eyes on her—the hair was apparently too much for him—which turned to outright anxiety when she spoke. Though, Yori mused, the fact that Shig’s first words had been, “Damn, but you’re an angry little rabbit, aren’t you? Stop thinking so loud, you’re giving me a headache,” probably hadn’t helped. Not the best way to introduce herself to a boy who’d been taught that magic, or even one’s proximity to it, meant painful death. Pretty amusing, though, at least to Yori, but then, lots of inappropriate things amused her.

Samin terrified the boy, with his granite face and hard eyes, though that might have been because Samin had made the mistake of trying to smile at him. Not a pretty thing, Samin’s smile, at least not ’til you got to know him. For whatever reason moved little girls, it had stirred a giggling fit in Caidi, and she’d allowed Samin to lift her and plop her on top of the things they’d packed into the dray, and even obediently complied when he gruffly directed her to fan out her cloak to cover what it would. Yori thought perhaps she better understood the girl’s good humor when she saw Caidi surreptitiously poke her tongue out at Morin as Samin settled her in for the ride.

The boy hovered about their edges now, sticking to a loosely defined middle ground between his two elder brothers. Fen kept his head down, jaw set, silent but for occasional monosyllabic answers to Caidi’s chatter behind him in the cart that he refused to allow anyone else to help him pull, all the while pretending not to limp. The twin, Joori, had engaged Malick for a while in a conversation Yori hadn’t been able to hear above the rain and the squishy grind of the dray’s wheels on the road, but she’d heard Asai’s name spoken sharply twice—first by Joori then later by Malick—before Malick had stopped abruptly. He’d jerked his head at Yori to take point while he pulled the brother to the side to growl something at him, low and intense and strangely cross. Malick’s eyes stayed on Fen the whole while, though Fen hadn’t seemed to notice anything but his own feet and the death grip he had on the dray’s handles since before they’d even gotten to his family. Samin had offered four times now to pull it for him, and four times had been ignored, until Samin had given up and dropped back to slog along beside Shig as rearguard.

“You’re Yori, right?”

Yori shifted a glance sideways and tipped a little nod. “And you’re Joori.” She couldn’t help the silly grin. “Sorta rhymes.”

The chuckle out of the dark sounded more tense than sincere. “So, how long have you known my brother?”

With an irritable swat at some fringe that wouldn’t stay put beneath her hood, Yori blinked rain out of her eyes, squinting at the blob of murk walking beside her that was Fen’s twin brother. “About….” She paused.

Besides whatever had passed between him and Malick, she’d watched this one trying to wring conversation out of Fen since they’d maneuvered the little cart out of the scraggy yard of the hut where they’d been staying, and had been surprised that he’d been just as unsuccessful as she’d ever been. She would’ve thought Fen would be more communicative with his family, at least, considering what he’d apparently gone through to protect them. All things considered, perhaps it wasn’t her place to be blabbing things Fen himself didn’t choose to disclose.

“A little while.” She slanted a look sideways at the sigh that was nearly a growl, and steered the subject in another direction: “Has anyone told you we’ve a hot-spring bath where we’re going? Bet it’ll be nice for you to sink into that, won’t it? I know I can’t wait.” And she hadn’t been living out in the middle of nowhere for weeks and weeks with no apparent bathing facilities but a half-full barrel in the dooryard.

“You’ve come very well armed,” Joori observed, ignoring her comment altogether, his voice just as deep as Fen’s, but with a different nuance she couldn’t quite ken yet. “I take it you don’t have the same magic as that other one, with the hair.”

Yori snickered at the description. She’d have to remember to tell Shig later. “That’s Shig,” she told Joori. “My sister.”

“I figured,” Joori replied. “You look a lot alike.”

“Except for the hair, yeah?” Yori grinned.

“And you’re prettier.”

Yori only just kept from rolling her eyes. Honestly—men were so transparent. “So, you tried wringing answers out of Fen, then arguing them out of Malick, and now you’re down to flattery.” She shook her head. “You’re not even very good at it.”

“Huh,” said Joori. “Strange, because I meant it.” Yori could just make out a shrug in the dark, then frowning features momentarily illuminated by a fleeting streak of lightning. “I won’t say I’m above it,” Joori said over the quiet rumble of thunder, “and I certainly do want answers, but it’s still the truth.”

Yori gave him a slit-eyed stare as he walked along beside her, looking right back, his eyes a mere dull gleam in the night. She had to admit he was attractive. Identical to Fen in respect to facial features, but there was something about Fen—his hardness, maybe; that all-consuming rage too often in his gaze—that had… not repelled her, really, but at least put her off from the start. Unlike some infatuated dimwits, Yori had never had a single carnal thought about their newest duckling. This one, though….

“Fen works with us,” she told Joori.

“And you rescue the families of everyone who works with you?”

“Everyone who works with us is family.”

Joori went quiet for a few moments, taking that in, then he turned his head to look at Yori. “He’s been looking for our mother.”

“I know.”

“And you—?”

“Yes.”

Silence again while Joori pondered whatever he was pondering, turning every now and then to walk backward for a second or two, likely eyeing his brother, before turning back. “He looks like shit,” he told Yori, low and just for her. “What’s going on with him?”

Yori looked back over her shoulder, squinting, but all she could make out was Fen’s hunched figure, stubbornly pulling the dray and trying to keep up with the pace she and Joori were setting. Malick was walking beside him now, and Morin hovered a little closer than he’d done before. Fen had stopped even the quiet, one-word answers he’d been giving his sister, a chore that Malick had seemingly taken to himself, though Caidi didn’t seem to mind. In fact, she seemed charmed, which almost made Yori roll her eyes, but the girl couldn’t be much older than ten, and it was Malick, after all. Samin had moved up to walk behind the cart, leaving Shig to watch their backs, which he wouldn’t ordinarily have done unless Malick had told him to. It appeared Fen’s brother was not the only one waiting for him to collapse, though Yori was putting her koin on Fen—he was too mulish to let his body stop if he wanted it to keep going. In Yori’s observation, when Fen hit a wall, he just rammed until it fell down.

“He got a cut on his leg last night,” Yori said. “Umeia had to sew him up. Probably just needs a painkiller. And to stop insisting on pulling that dray by himself.” Bloody bonehead.

“I saw him last night.” Joori had turned again, cloak billowing around his knees as he pivoted to walk backward. Yori could see more of his face now, though he was still little more than a dim smudge against the foggy black. “I didn’t notice anything wrong with his leg, although….” A shrug. “He was covered in blood.”

It was the accent—that was what was different. Joori had the same voice as Fen, but Fen didn’t have the twangy Jin accent. Huh.

“Yeah?” Yori shrugged too, but didn’t volunteer anything. Like how Fen’s descent from the top of the Gate had been more like a fall, and that he’d landed awkwardly then snarled off any concerned attempts to help. And how she was almost certain she’d heard a strangled wheeze of a scream when he was trying to drag the dray from the culvert where he and Shig had stashed it, and then nearly bitten Malick’s hand off when he bulled his way in to help. Obstinate idiot. She’d have to make sure Umeia knew about it when they got back. Umeia would take care of it, whatever it was. He’d probably gone and gotten the thing infected, and Yori would bet some stitches got pulled when he was wrestling with that cart. What the hell were they supposed to do with all these people if Fen up and died on them? And anyway, what would…?

Wait.

“You saw him last night?” Yori frowned. “How? When?”

“Is he sleeping with that man? That Malick?”

Yori blinked, eyebrows snapping upward. Apparently, flapping from subject to subject was a family trait. She almost barked a laugh, but the question had been posed so… almost angrily, and the tone of it, the suspicion inside it, roused something oddly protective in her. Fen’s brother or not, this Joori wasn’t theirs, at least not yet, and what Malick and Fen got up to wasn’t even her business, let alone his.

“I’m not quite certain that’s your concern,” she told him, her own tone deliberately even and unruffled. “Or mine. Perhaps you’d best ask Fen.”

Joori turned his head from his scrutiny of his brother, stared at Yori for several strides, then waved a hand vaguely over toward Fen, said, “Pardon me for a moment,” and he walked off.

Damn. Yori wished she could warn Fen, and apologize in advance for apparently setting his brother on him, but…. Well, maybe it would make him stop dragging that stupid cart for a little while, at least. Joori was right about that—Fen looked like shit.

Deliberately, Yori looked away, sent a glance ahead and to all points, scanning the shadows, but if anything was going to come at them, she was fairly certain she wasn’t going to see it before it saw them, not tonight. No moons, a low-hanging fog, and trees bloody everywhere. She’d have to rely on Shig and Malick twigging in time. Anyway, they were halfway home, and nothing had happened so far, and she had more magic at the Gates to look forward to.

Biting back a bit of a sigh, Yori ignored the steadily rising sound of Joori’s voice as he chastised his brooding brother, tried to ignore her numbing toes with rather less success, and tucked her hands up under her cloak to warm her fingers. If there was trouble, she’d need them flexible. Although, she mused, trying not to snort as Joori’s voice rose again, and the sound of the dray’s wheels on the road ceased abruptly, perhaps any trouble that might come wouldn’t be from anything lurking out there in the dark.

Then again….

“Yori, look sharp!” Malick snapped as he flew past her, sword drawn and stalking ahead, a hot welter of power like she’d never felt in her life nearly swatting her aside when he brushed her arm. Had that come from Malick?

Body moving before she even told it to, Yori swung her bow around and nocked an arrow, feet planting themselves into an offensive stance, even as she squinted ahead in the direction Malick was striding. Trees and more trees, shadows and more shadows, and she’d been looking right at them only a second ago, but now… well, bloody damn. Now they were moving. And not in any way people moved—at least not people with bones beneath their skin. Vague man-shapes then hunched… somethings. It was fascinating and revolting all at the same time, and she hadn’t even got a good look yet. She wished for a flash of lightning, just so she could see what the hell they were dealing with.

She spared a quick glance behind her, taking in the configurations, so she’d know if things got messy. Fen had shoved all of his siblings behind him. Morin and Caidi both huddled in the cart with Joori between them and his brother. Samin still stood behind the dray, sword drawn, watching Malick, and Shig had turned to face the rear, bright head atilt in the way it did when she let her own magic loose, seeking. Satisfied, Yori turned back, eyes flicking back and forth between the smoky curls of… whatever they were farther up the road and Malick as he stalked up to them, planted himself mere paces away, and drew himself straight. Threatening. Frightening in a way she’d never seen him before. Powerful.

“Three of you?” he taunted, swinging his sword lazily in a figure eight about his shoulders, smirking. “That’s all?”

Rolling hisses gathered from the writhing murk as it wound into three distinct shapes then fanned out again.

“No,” Shig called from behind. “There’s more.”

Yori glanced back again, just long enough to see more of them pooling to either side of the dray, like twisting pieces of the stormy sky, thrashing themselves into shapes she almost recognized but couldn’t quite settle in her head yet.

“Fucking Husao,” Malick muttered, jaw clenched. “Manipulative prick. Whatever you see,” he called, voice deep and resonant, almost eager, like he was looking forward to whatever was coming, “remember that it’s all glamour. They’re only maijin. They bleed and die just like everything else.”

Terrific, Yori thought sourly, good to know, then sucked in a long breath and sighted down.

 

 

IT HAD to be Husao, Malick concluded, or Vonshi, or whatever Husao was calling himself at the moment. Malick watched the shapes take on substance, hunched beasts vaguely wolfen, snarling through slobbering, jag-toothed maws. They were still on Asai’s lands, which made these Asai’s creatures, but Malick had been covering all his people since they stepped foot out the Girou, and Husao and Umeia were the only ones who knew they were coming. Even if Husao hadn’t told Asai directly, that split second when he’d dropped his protections over Fen’s brothers and sister might have been enough for Asai to have twigged. And the wolf-shapes… just too damned obvious. Arrogant fucking prick.

Malick sneered.

He could strip away all their glamours, but he didn’t want to give himself away if he didn’t have to, and it wouldn’t necessarily stop them from attacking, anyway—they weren’t after Malick himself, after all, and they couldn’t touch him even if they were. He could veil his own people and walk right past the threat, except his veil wouldn’t work on Fen, he’d be exposed, and Malick didn’t know for certain to whom these maijin answered. None but Wolf’s-own could touch Wolf’s Untouchable, but if even a single one of them was Wolf’s…. And Asai was smart—he’d have thought of that.

“Shit,” Malick muttered, keeping his eyes on the creatures as he turned his head a little to call over his shoulder, “Fen? Don’t get excited, all right?” then he sent his veil to Joori, Morin, and Caidi, heard Fen cry out a little when they disappeared in front of him, but Samin was rumbling something at him, so Malick had to hope he wouldn’t do anything stupid. “Shig, I need you up here.” Well, he didn’t need her up here, but touch just made it easier, and why expel more power than he had to? Shig didn’t employ her usual ambling, I’ll get there when I get there gait, but was at his side inside three breaths. Malick reached out with his free hand and latched onto her arm, let her magic curl in through his palm, and found Joori. Take them out of the cart, Malick told him, and bring them over here behind me. He felt the alarm, the confusion, the anger, and cut through it: No time for angst and avarice right now. Do as I tell you and your family will live. Stay there and stare, and your brother will throw himself in front of every one of these things to protect you.

“You’re Temshiel,” one of the creatures growled, guttural and garbled through a throat and mouth not meant for speech. Another made a quick dive for the dray, prancing back with a leering grin as Fen’s knives just missed its nose. Teasing. Taunting. Playing with its food, Skel would have said.

“Kamen,” the one in front of Malick rumbled.

Shit. Whoever this was, he or she knew him. Which meant Asai would know before the night was through.

“Uh-huh,” Malick replied easily. He flipped the handle of the sword in his palm and grinned. “And you’re apparently exactly as smart as you look, and don’t choose your allies very well. But don’t worry—you won’t be regretting it for long.”

Something like a graveled growl, thick and wet, and the loose circle of shadowy not-wolves snorted through soggy muzzles. Bodies curled in and tightened the loose ring, long jaws pulling back in feral grins before the one in front of Malick morphed again. Wet fur turned to gleaming scales, multihued beneath a metallic matte as teeth became barbed fangs, paws became rough talons.

“Ooh.” Malick blew out a soft whistle. “D’you breathe fire too?”

“The earth-bound,” it hissed. Like it really did expect Malick to just shrug and hand it what it wanted.

Malick shook his head, still grinning, and slipped his hand once again to Shig’s arm, said, “Sure. But you’ll have to get through his brother first,” and sent, Move your bloody ass—hurry, to Joori at the same time.

Joori was already moving, but the prod quickened his pace. Fen seemed to have taken Malick literally and lunged at the closest of the man-sized pseudo-wolves, knives whirling, and face set in all too familiar rage. Malick did the same. He waded into the thick of the three before him, and watched out the corner of his eye as Joori swept his little sister onto his hip. Joori shoved Morin ahead of him, angling between Fen and Samin as he led them through the small pocket of calm in the middle of the abrupt melee. Just in time too; every one of the creatures that wasn’t already engaged with either Malick or Fen went driving in for the dray, apparently assuming their quarry was still there.

“Keep down!” Malick called to Joori, then he swung his sword around, satisfied when it hacked through rigid scales covering a long neck, before he glanced again to make sure Joori had obeyed. Yori’s bow was twanging, and she wouldn’t be able to see Joori and the others if they got in her way. “Fen, I’ve got them,” Malick called, then, “Yori, shoot high—go for the eyes,” just in case, as Fen’s siblings made their way to a huddled knot behind Malick, as close to the ground as they could get without actually crawling.

Shig liberated a knife from one of Malick’s sheaths, but seemed to be concentrating mostly on pulling apart the glamours, distracting the maijin as they tried to maintain them. Samin and Fen simply engaged. Samin had gone out of practice with the sword, but it seemed all the sparring with Fen had done him some good; he swung the thing in wide, efficient arcs, wounding whatever was in his path with each blow. Fen was doing what Fen did—nothing more than a whirling flash of metal in the dark as he placed himself staunchly between the things and his siblings where they hunched behind Malick.

Malick parried a set of long, black talons with a sweeping drive, then lunged in right up close with a brutal swipe at a scaly thigh. The satisfying sensation of flesh and meat parting beneath his blade wound up through steel and into his palm. Grinning at the creature, Malick waggled his eyebrows, said, “I’ve always wanted to be a dragon slayer,” then flipped the sword up into his palm and drove it down, just so. It sank in just below where a clavicle would have been. Malick kept the plunge shallow, remembering only at the last second that to actually kill any of these creatures would mean his soul. Even as he pulled back, thrashing talons swiped out across his midsection, slicing easily through cloak and shirt, but only striking dull sparks from the mail underneath.

This was why maijin shouldn’t play with glamours. They got too caught up in what they were projecting to remember they weren’t actually as invincible as the things they pretended to be. Malick’s sword sank again through the scales just as easily as it did through flesh. And maijin bled just as red.

A feral, hissing shriek turned to an angry scream as Malick took advantage of the creature’s distraction and stripped its glamour away. He found himself staring down into eyes gone from cat-slitted yellow to just plain hazel. “Aw, shit,” he muttered. “Leu, what the hell were you thinking?”

One of Wolf’s, as he’d suspected, but he hadn’t suspected her. He’d always thought Leu was smarter than this. Shouts and hisses and low, rolling screeches were going on all around him, and all he could do was look at Leu as her mouth moved, blood dribbling out over her chin as she hung in his grip, gaping at him, long, shiny haft-less spikes dropping from her hands and falling to the mud, useless. Malick slid the sword loose from where he’d lodged it in her between her ribs, only watched as she stumbled back, gasping, trying to draw in breath and choking on blood. He must’ve hit a lung. It would hurt like hell for a while and make it hard to breathe, but she’d live. Good thing too, or he might’ve just fucked himself without even thinking.

Enough. He was going to end up accidentally killing one of them and burning for it, or one of his people was going to end up hurt. Malick dragged his eyes away from Leu and narrowed them over at Fen. Fighting side by side with Samin, but none of them were going after Samin. Instead, they were focusing their attacks on Fen, lunging in to swipe and snap, but….

It wasn’t right. Yori had dropped back, bow nocked and cocked, but the creatures were positioning themselves so that she couldn’t shoot without the risk of hitting Fen. They wound themselves in front of Samin so he couldn’t get through them to aid. And yet, they weren’t driving in for the finish—harassing Fen, swiping to wound but not to kill, mauling him, too obviously damaging him, and accepting their subsequent slashes from his knives with angry roars and hisses. They could have had him twice just since Malick had been watching, and they’d foregone both opportunities.

They weren’t all Wolf’s—couldn’t be. They didn’t quite dare kill Wolf’s Catalyst, but it seemed they were willing to risk damaging him. Things could get out of hand very quickly if they got carried away with their glamours.

Malick set his jaw, turned back to Leu, catching her as she tried to make her slow way into the trees and go to shadow. He yanked her around and leveled a swift rabbit punch to the bleeding wound he’d given her, ignoring how she wheezed a thin curse as she went to her knees.

“Call them off, Leu.” Through his teeth, and to make sure she knew he meant it, he drew his fist back again. “Don’t fuck with me—I’m not in the mood.”

“Kamen, I only—”

“I know why you’re here, and you’ve already lost the earth-bound.” He took her by her collar, snapped another blow between her eyes, all knuckles, and waited for a moment while she gasped and tried to writhe away. Malick only reeled her in closer, drew back his fist yet again, and jerked his chin back toward Fen. “Maybe I can’t kill you, but I can hold you down while he does. Call them off.”

She believed him. Without a word, she slumped, head bowed, and shut her eyes. Only a few seconds later, the creatures surrounding Fen widened their circle, fur morphing back to flesh as they withdrew, until Fen, the cart, and Samin were surrounded by eight men and women of varying sizes and ages. All of them held double handfuls of spiked weapons, some obviously limping or clutching at various limbs in suppressed pain. One of them had a white-fletched arrow jutting from her bicep.

“Yori, Shig, stand down,” Malick called, even as Yori snapped her bow up to take aim at now-clear targets. Yori didn’t gripe out loud, but Malick could tell she was doing it silently.

He dragged Leu to her feet. “Just because Asai has claimed Wolf,” he told her, low and even, “does not mean that Wolf has accepted him to the Cycle. You might do well to give that some thought the next time he sends you out after me and mine.” He shook her a little then shoved her away, completely indifferent to her gasp of pain and the way she had to stumble to keep her feet. “Go back and tell Asai that his message has been received. And bring him back one from me.” Malick took a step toward Leu, satisfied when she backed up a pace, though she was clearly trying not to. “Tell him that Kamen sends him greetings from Skel. Tell him if he wants the earth-bound, or the Catalyst, he’ll need to come through me. They’re mine.” He stepped back, dropped the veil from Joori and the others, then yanked Joori to his feet, ignoring Caidi’s little yip of fear and surprise, and locked his furious gaze to Leu’s. “Wanna try and take him from me?”

No!” Fen snarled behind him then cursed and spat, “Let me the fuck go!” likely at Samin, since he was the only one among them who could’ve held Fen back when he was in a fury. Malick didn’t take his eyes off Leu to find out.

Leu held Malick’s gaze for several long seconds then flicked it behind him, narrowed it. She nodded as her eyes went to Joori and then finally settled back on Malick. “We weren’t to kill them,” she said then spat blood and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Her chin jerked to the other maijin, still in a loose circle around them but retreating slowly and steadily, moving a little more quickly now at Leu’s signal, melting into the shadows and scattering.

“No,” Malick snapped at her, “you were only meant to take the earth-bound, if you could, retreat if you couldn’t. Want to know why?”

Leu shook her head, but Malick shot his arm out, took hold of her again and dragged her in.

“I didn’t know it was you, Kamen,” she protested, but otherwise she didn’t resist, keeping her hands out and open at her sides. “I didn’t even know….” She paused, caught her breath. “I heard you’d gone to spirit.”

“You heard wrong.”

“I didn’t know. I would not challenge Wolf’s Temshiel.”

“But you would challenge Temshiel in general?”

No.” Leu’s teeth clenched. She was too obviously having trouble getting a good breath, and a fine mist of blood every now and then sprayed from her mouth. “I didn’t know until you veiled the earth-bound.” Her gaze turned sullen, almost accusing. “I thought you were just another mortal. You were concealing.”

“And apparently with good reason,” Malick snapped. “What the hell are you doing here, Leu?”

She shrugged and looked away. “We were to take the earth-bound and allow the Catalyst to follow. Asai needed one of Wolf’s… needed me to….” Her eyes shot quickly over Malick’s shoulder again before turning to the ground, a hand climbing up to cover the gash. “He needed me to control the Catalyst.”

“Yeah, well, from what I saw, the rest of them didn’t have a problem helping you out with that.” Malick was afraid to even look to see how torn up Fen was. Umeia was going to kill him when he got them all home. Malick had already been waiting for Fen to collapse, though he miraculously kept not doing it.

“They’ll be punished,” Leu wheezed, like that was supposed to make Malick feel better. “They weren’t meant to attack him. They belong to Owl.” As though offering an excuse. Leu caught Malick’s glower, leaned to the side to spit again, then turned back. “We were sent to watch for the Catalyst, and take the earth-bound while he watched. Asai said the Catalyst would fight us and that he would follow—I was to let him. That’s all I know. I don’t want to know anything else. I don’t want anything to do with this. Nothing he offered could be worth…. Just let me walk away.”

Teeth clenched, Malick growled then shoved her back. “Yeah, walk away, Leu. And if you’ve got a brain in your head, you’ll keep bloody walking. You don’t want to find yourself on the wrong side of me in this.”

Leu backed away, gaze wary, hazel eyes never leaving Malick as she drifted backward toward the trees. “No,” she said, “I don’t,” and then she was gone, a lazy whirl of shadows covering her as she vanished into mist and rain.

Silence fell for a brief moment, the transitory brilliance of distant lightning marking the still figures of Malick’s little band like bright-lit sentinels. The rain was steady but light now, its constant patter a soft contradiction to the sporadic blat of thunder rolling overhead. Then, low but nearly vicious: “Who the fuck was that?”

Malick turned to Fen, still held tight against Samin’s chest, a wide burst of sheet lightning making his eyes glint and glitter as they bored into Malick’s. “That,” Malick sighed as he wiped the rain from his face then raked his hand through his hair as he turned to survey the surrounding trees, “was apparently Asai’s first sally.” And he’d gone right for the jugular, first thing.

“I thought he wanted you.”

“Yeah, well—”

“You said he wanted you. You said they’d be safe. You said Umeia was protecting them.”

It was, quite possibly, the most words he’d ever heard Fen put together all at once.

“I did, they are, and she is.” Malick turned around again to see that Samin hadn’t released his hold on Fen yet, though Fen had gone still—stiff, really. The rage and suspicion were almost tangible things. “Look, what d’you want from me? I’m not a bloody seer.”

“Why not?”

“Why…?” Malick sheathed his sword to stall. “Because—” He ground his teeth.

He knew what Fen was thinking—the distrust and hostility were all over his face—and he was probably at least half-right in his dubious assumptions. Because yes, Malick had certainly calculated the value of using the annoying, possessive twin as bait, and hadn’t yet discarded the notion. Not that he’d let Fen in on that one; not if he didn’t want a knife to the ribs. Right now, Malick should probably be trying to soothe and placate.

He wasn’t in the mood. All his careful caution to keep who he was, and exactly where he was, from Asai had just been blown to shit. And now he’d put Umeia right in the middle of it, too, along with Samin, Shig, Yori, and everyone he knew named “Fen.” Not to mention everyone at the Girou, because now that Asai knew who Malick was, he’d know how to look for him. It was only a matter of time.

The next time Malick saw Husao, he was going to fucking kill him. Slowly and with a smile.

“Joori,” Fen said, “get Caidi back in the cart. We’re going. Samin, let me the fuck go. Now.”

Malick shot a quick glance over, relieved when he saw that Fen’s knives were in their sheaths. Still, he would have felt even better if Samin had managed to disarm Fen entirely.

“Mal?” Samin said, waiting for an order from Malick before he did as Fen demanded.

“Where you gonna go, Fen?” Shig asked, her voice quiet beneath the drum of the rain, honeyed in that singsong way she had when she was going all spirit-bound on them.

Terrific. Just what Malick needed.

“Not now, Shig,” Fen warned.

“Back to the little hut in the wilderness?”

“Samin, let me go!”

“Not ’til Mal says so,” Samin answered calmly.

Shig snorted. “If he lets you go, you’ll fall over.”

“Fuck off, Shig,” Fen snapped.

A slippery little giggle warbled up from Shig’s throat. “Think you’re going to go after Asai now?” She tsked. “Angry ghosts with raging infections don’t make for good assassins.”

“Infection?” Joori took a step toward Fen, but Shig snagged hold of him and kept him back.

Morin turned a narrow look up at Malick, head atilt as he held his weeping little sister by the hand. “Infection?” he asked, low and quiet.

“Looks like.” Malick laid a hand on Morin’s shoulder to keep him where he was. “Leg. Long story.”

“Think you could do it this time?” Shig wanted to know. “Or will you just bare your throat and beg him for what you can’t have?”

“You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,” Fen grated, but his eyes were going a bit rabid and almost afraid. “Your voices make just as much sense as mine do.”

Shig ignored him, voice dipping low, close to outraged. “You don’t want to know, but you’ll go anyway, won’t you? You hate him as you hate yourself, so much hate you could raze the world, because no one else can hurt you like he can.”

“Shig, don’t fuck with me, I’m warning you.”

“The pain’s the only thing you understand, so you’ll go to him to make sense of it all. You’ll walk right into your own murder just to spite the man who would make himself your master.”

“Samin, if you don’t let me go, I’ll—”

“That’s a pretty suicide, innit?” Shig crooned. “Can’t hate what you love and can’t love what you hate.”

“Why won’t you just shut the fuck up?”

“Can’t scream, so you’ll let your knives do it for you, or let his make all your pain go away.”

“Suicide.” Joori was staring at Shig, brow drawn down in a frown that turned him to the mirror image of his brother. He turned wary eyes on Fen. “Jacin—”

“Your blood’s not yours to spill, isn’t that how it goes, angry Ghost?” Shig hugged Joori’s arm tighter as he tried to push away from her. “Can’t keep the Blood of the ones you love in their veins, and can’t sweat enough of your own to save them.”

Fen actually snapped his teeth, eyes nearly crazed and wild, startling Joori into stillness. “Shut up, Shig.” Low and threatening; a clear warning.

“Mal?” Samin asked quietly.

Malick cut him a glance, shook his head. Shig didn’t do something like this unless it was important, and it was, after all, why she was so valuable. “Let her go.”

Shig ignored it all. “Can’t spill your own blood, so you’ll corner the man who won’t love you into sticking a knife in you instead of sticking his cock—”

“Shut up, shut the fuck up!” So feral it was almost unrecognizable, buried inside a guttural growl as Fen thrashed against Samin’s hold, surging against the tight grip and trying to lunge at Shig. Samin now had Fen’s wrists locked in both his hands, arms crisscrossed over Fen’s chest. Immobilized. Unable to reach for the knives he had everywhere, but it didn’t stop Fen from trying to break loose. “You don’t know a fucking thing about me, just shut—”

“Can’t take care of them the way you think you should, so you’ll leave them all to the Temshiel who’s handed you his promise, and if he burns for it—”

“Leave him alone!” Caidi shouted, breaking herself loose from Morin’s grip on her hand and skirting in to stand in front of her brother, all childish impudence and Fen-like audacity. “He’s not a ghost, Joori said so. I thought you were a nice lady, but you’re not, you’re mean, and, and… and your hair looks funny.”

Malick shut his eyes, pinched at the bridge of his nose, burying a tense and highly inappropriate snort inside a light cough.

Shig had no such qualms: she threw her head back and laughed. “Such a fucked-up family.” She turned a grin on Yori. “And you thought we had it bad.” She leaned down toward Caidi, amiable, almost conspiratory. “Never, ever leave him alone, pretty little forfeit. Alone is the one thing that’ll truly break him.”

Forfeit. That… didn’t sound good. Come to think of it, none of this sounded good, and Shig was on a very rare roll. Despite the edge over which he could see Fen lurching, Malick had no choice but to let Shig keep going.

Yori took a cautious step in. “Shig, I think maybe—”

“Get away from her, Caidi,” Fen growled, jerking again in Samin’s grip. Caidi didn’t move, but Fen didn’t even seem to notice, wild eyes blazing at Shig, gaze nearly empty of sense altogether, but overflowing with malice and rage. “Stay away from her,” he snarled at Shig. “Stay away from all of them, and stay away from me!”

“Poor Fen,” Shig sighed. “Standing here in the rain and watching yourself fail them all.” She took a step forward, shaking herself loose from Joori and shoving him backward. “Except no one sees living as a failure but you, Ghost. You think I don’t know why you stare so at the Gates?” She shook her head. “Dying is the failure, Fen.”

“Someone….” Fen’s voice was mangled, rough, like it had to get through physical obstacles to claw its way up his throat. “Get her the fuck away from me!”

“Mal,” Samin said, low and warning, “I swear by the suns and every moon in the sky, I can hear the fucking cracks.”

Malick could almost see them.

“Sorry, can’t,” Shig told Fen. “You’re all part of the pack now. And our alpha bitch won’t stand for a forfeit of the weak and small.”

Malick’s eyebrows rose, despite the steady erosion of the entire situation. “Alpha bitch”—he’d have to tell Umeia that one.

“What are you going to do about your mother, Fen?” Shig went on, relentless.

“My mother is none of your damned—”

“You limp off to your self-destruction now, she’ll spend eternity bound to the earth—”

“Fucking bitch, I swear—”

“—vying with the crows for seeds to sate her hungry soul, until her spirit’s madder than your Voices.”

“Stop it.” Thin and wound tight. “Don’t.”

Shig leaned in, right in Fen’s face. “Shall we just pack up your brother now, and send him off to join her? At least she’ll have company.”

And Fen… snapped. Malick actually saw the break in reason.

Fen’s eyes went blank, and his face pulled into a vicious snarl, so full of despair and deranged fury it actually hurt to look at him. A wordless roar broke loose from his chest and rolled up his throat, and he lunged with the strength of a wild beast. He managed to get an arm loose from Samin and went for Shig’s throat, fingers hooked into lethal claws.

“Shig, that’s enough,” Malick growled—too late, naturally; his timing was always shit—and swept over to Samin to help hold Fen back.

And it wasn’t easy. He writhed like an oiled mink, kicking and punching and gouging. Incoherent curses and screeches grated out his mouth, until Samin actually threw his arms around Fen’s torso and lifted him off his feet. Fen didn’t stop, in fact intensified his struggles. He swung his head back, trying to connect with Samin’s, and only managing to beat at Samin’s shoulder with it. Joori wasn’t helping—just as Malick got a good hold on Fen’s flailing right arm, Joori latched on to Malick’s, snarling, “Get off him, let him go!” until Yori joined the fray and pulled him away. Caidi was screaming back there somewhere, high-pitched and grating, making Malick’s teeth hurt, so he clenched them as he grimly held on, buffeted by a mad strength he wouldn’t have credited, until Fen actually threw Malick off and he stumbled a little sideways.

“Shifts to Null,” Fen muttered, thin and breathless as he struggled, eyes shut tight and teeth clenched. “Wolf calls the Prime to his own he sees the Eye and calls the… the Prime the Prime fuck… leers through a… Raven’s Raven's duplicity the gods speak no more silent silent dead and quiet, aw fuck, shutupshutupshutup—”

“Jacin!” Joori was shouting. “Jacin, it’ll be all right, just—” Trying to writhe out of Yori’s grip just as frantically as Fen was trying to writhe out of Samin’s, and only managing to drag Yori in a little closer as she held on tight. “Let me go, I can help him!”

Malick didn’t think he wanted Joori to help him. As hard as it was to watch, as wrenching as it was to allow it to happen right in front of him, he knew now why Shig had pushed so, because he understood what Fen was saying, where it was coming from, what it meant. This was worlds different from what he’d heard last night on the roof.

“Dying magic Catalyst slides to Zero the Null veils the Eye a cloak of night sound the vaults of Raven cast acid to the sky they don’t see like Owl won’t hear mockery it’s all gone sour worm-ridden carcass of faith and hope the gods won’t save them they’ve all gone home… spitted… spitted….” Gasping now, strength running thin, and yet, still, Fen kept bloody fighting, kept struggling in Samin’s hold. “Joori!” Fen screamed, fierce and desperate. “Our boy clinging to corpses wandering both edges… crux… crux of….” A harsh burst of air, and, “Aw, fuck, Beishin, please!”

It did something in Malick—a hard twist of real concern and compassion wound too tightly with fascination and darkling jealousy. That name—that name.

“Damn it, let me go!” Joori cried, Yori and Shig both hanging on now, with Caidi fluttering about, weeping, unsure to which brother she should go. Morin was just standing where Malick had left him, watching it all, his face unreadable. Joori’s desperate glance fell on Malick, pinned him. “Stop it!” he said through his teeth. “He’s falling apart, can’t you see it?”

Yes, Malick could see it.

“Stop it or I will, Mal,” Samin growled, all caustic accusation. “Enough.”

And yes, it was enough. Malick had seen enough, heard enough. More than enough. Except, before he could decide what to do about it, how to bring Fen out of it, Morin stalked past him, gave Joori a look that was half apology and half disgust on his way by, and stopped in front of Fen. Stood there for a moment and watched him struggle, listened to him mutter and scream. Waited for an opening then leveled a solid kick to Fen’s thigh, right where the chunky line of stitches wound over thick muscle beneath the cover of his trousers. Morin couldn’t have aimed it better if he’d inflicted the wound himself.

“For the love of—” Samin gaped at the boy then up at Malick. “Mal….”

Nothing squeezed out of Fen’s chest but a thin, wheezy scream. His eyes went wide and shock-blank in clear agony, then his back arched and his eyes rolled back. It was worse than that night in the alley when Malick had taken him down. A single strangled sob leaked from Fen’s throat as he went limp against Samin, head lolling back on one bulky shoulder, like all the bones in his neck had melted, and then all was still and silent.

They stared, all of them, the silence a live thing, until Joori stepped slowly over to Fen. “What…?” He shot Samin a murderous look before reaching out, laying a hand to the side of Fen’s face then sliding it down to his chest. A long breath of relief sighed out when he apparently felt his brother’s heart beating. Joori’s arms went deliberately to hang at his sides, fists clenched, the muscles in his jaw ticcing and jumping, then he whirled on Shig, a too familiar snarl curling at his mouth, but it didn’t have the same fire behind it Fen’s did. When he got no reaction from Shig, he turned on Malick, barked, “Temshiel? You’re bloody Temshiel? And this is the best you can fucking do?”

“It’s not my fault!” Malick protested, reflexive, because, really—whose fault was it? He’d known what Shig was doing, and he’d let her do it, because there were things he needed to hear, and he apparently needed to hear them from right inside the madness of the Ancestors. He’d used Fen, pretty badly, but he’d gotten what he needed. Well, almost. For now. And he wasn’t sorry. Mostly.

Except… how had Shig seen this, and Malick had missed it entirely? Now he recognized Fen’s recurring derring-do for the repeated attempts at passive suicide they were. Malick might’ve taken too long to twig otherwise, and then it likely would have been too late. He’d bloody admired it, hadn’t he? Stood there and watched Fen try to drive himself into apparently welcome death with a twirl of knives, and thought it was pretty.

“Don’t hate, jealous lad,” Shig was telling Joori, though Joori couldn’t seem to bring himself to look at her. “He had to say it so Malick could hear.” She turned her glance to Malick, reproachful. “And I had to show it so Malick would see.”

Malick’s mouth tightened. “Yeah, yeah, Shig, I get it, all right? Leave off.”

“I tried to tell him you could help him make sense of it, but he doesn’t listen.”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed.”

“Give him to me,” Joori said, staring down Samin, who still held Fen, though he’d adjusted him somewhat so the rain wasn’t pelting his face. Fen was now draped rather awkwardly over Samin’s shoulder.

Samin sighed, shot a look over to Malick, then shook his head at Joori. “I’ll put him in the cart.” He didn’t wait for Joori to protest, just turned and did as he’d said.

Malick watched. Something about the way Fen dangled over Samin’s arm, the bonelessness of his neck as his head rolled about with Samin’s stride, the way the tail of the braid dragged in the mud… it bothered him more than it should’ve done. He looked away, uneasy, only to have his gaze clash with the puppy-dog eyes of Caidi. She was staring at Malick, eyes a bit swollen, and he could only talk himself out of the uncomfortable thought that she was still crying and he was expected to do something about it because, what with the rain, he couldn’t really tell, right?

“Is Jacin going to die?” she asked, voice low and wobbly.

Oh, hell.

“No.” Malick put as much force into the word as he could without turning it sharp and frightening her more. “No, he’s not going to die.”

Caidi seemed to unknot, just a little bit. She took a cautious step closer, big, worried eyes stubbornly holding Malick’s. “Were those really maijin?” was her next quiet question.

Malick swiped at his face. “Yeah.”

“And….” Her lip quivered. “And they were going to take Joori away?”

Malick sighed, only just kept himself from growling and snapping at her. What did she bloody want from him, after all? “I don’t intend to let that happen,” was all he said, because it was simple, reassuring, and the truth.

Caidi thought about that for a moment, then took another step. It was all Malick could do not to step back in absurd retreat. From a little girl. Sucking the swagger right out of him. “And you’re really—”

“Come along, Caidi.” Joori’s hand landed on Caidi’s shoulder, his angry gaze locking onto Malick, the disdain and blame perfectly clear. “I’m sure Kamen-seyh has Important Things to take care of.” The sarcasm all but dripped. Eyes still on Malick, Joori tugged Caidi away, like he suspected Malick might eat her just to be a prick. “C’mon, I’ll give you a pig-a-back,” he said then turned Caidi around and pushed her over toward the cart, where Samin was adjusting Fen’s cloak to cover as much of him against the rain as possible.

That left Morin. Staring at Malick like his sister had been doing, only his eyes were measuring… interested. When Malick had watched the brothers that night in the hut, Morin sneering and snarking and generally making everything more difficult than it had to be, Malick had thought he didn’t much like the little shit. After tonight, he thought perhaps he’d jumped to conclusions. Fen covered every emotion he had with anger; this one covered them with pragmatism, and managed to keep a clear head because of it. Born to fear, knowing he would lose one brother, the constant threat of losing another and his mother.

Morin might be the sanest one in the whole bloody family.

“She was going to ask if you’re really Temshiel,” Morin offered, like he was only doing his sister a favor and didn’t really want to know himself.

“And you’re not?” Malick asked mildly.

Morin shrugged, threw his cloak’s hood off his head and scraped his fringe out of his eyes before pulling the hood back down. “It’s only that I didn’t see you do any magic.”

“Well,” Malick said, giving him a small, conspiratory smile, “just because you didn’t see a thing….” He chuckled a little when Morin rolled his eyes. “You should go see if your brother needs help.”

A grim snort. “Which one?”

“Mm, good point.” Malick cocked his head. “How did you know?” he asked. When Morin’s brow twisted, quizzical, Malick clarified: “I didn’t tell you exactly where to kick him.” Malick paused once he’d said it—he hadn’t told the boy to kick Fen at all, but… well, it had turned the trick better and faster than anything Malick had been able to come up with in the moment.

“Lucky guess,” Morin said, mouth screwing down into a bit of a sneer as he looked over toward the dray. He turned back to Malick with another shrug. “He used to wait ’til we were all asleep before he’d go out to the wash barrel. I wanted to know why, so I….” He shifted uncomfortably. “I pretended to sleep. He’s got… lots of scars. And those things chewed him up pretty good. Someone better have a look at that leg.” He sighed and shook his head. “Joori’s going to kill me when he calms down.”

“Hm,” Malick said, but he couldn’t help the smile. He might like the little shit after all.

“We’re ready, Mal,” Yori said, sidling up and bumping shoulders with him. “Samin’s going to lug the cart, and Joori’s going to carry Caidi. How we’re going to get Fen back in through the Gates is for you to figure out. Can’t exactly climb it this time, can he?”

“Oh, fucking hell.” Malick sighed. He slumped sideways into Yori and put his head on her shoulder. “If you love me,” he told her, “you’ll just kill me now. Before Umeia gets me.”

Yori shoved him off and shook her head with a grin. “Yeah, if,” she told him. “All this bother about maijin and Temshiel, and all I get is rain down my back, sore feet, and two lost arrows.” She gave him a poke in the ribs. “I want to see the magic next time too. C’mon, Morin, you’re with me.” With another shake of her head, Yori prodded at the boy until he went along, then she looked back at Malick over her shoulder and rolled her eyes. “And here I thought tonight was going to be boring.”

Ha. So had Malick. Wouldn’t that have been lovely?

Shig was the last one left, waiting for him several paces away, placid and with a tiny smile, for all the trouble she’d caused. It would take a while for the headache to hit her, but Malick had no doubt it was coming. And he couldn’t be altogether sympathetic about it. He only scowled as Shig strolled up to him, looking for all the world like she’d just woken from a particularly pleasant nap. When she failed to wither beneath his glare, Malick just rolled his eyes and shook his head, then he started after the dray. “Not a word, Shig,” he growled, annoyed when she only snorted and followed along. “Not one bloody word.”

 

 

“NOT a word, Malick,” Umeia growled as she slipped Fen’s arm over her shoulders. “Not one bloody word.”

“Umeia, you—”

“I don’t want to hear it,” she snapped. “Samin and Yori already told me the important bits, and anything you have to say will be colored all too brightly with The World According to Kamen Malick paint, so just stuff it, now, before you make me kill you.”

Fen snorted a little, too bendy and wobbly between them as they lugged him up the steps—wet and shivering, though Umeia could feel the fever burning through the chill—but he was at least mostly conscious and semi-aware. “Kill ’m anyway,” he slurred, added, “Fucker,” and staggered a little against Umeia when he tried to pull his arm loose from around Malick’s shoulders.

“I see you two are getting on just as pleasantly as usual,” Umeia observed then turned a scowl on Fen. “And you’re no better,” she growled at him, pausing while Malick readjusted his grip then advanced another awkward step upward. “You knew that leg was infected and you went anyway. Stupid. It was stupid, Fen.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered then snorted again and went silent.

Umeia turned her wrath on Malick. “I’d ask what you were thinking, but I suspect you weren’t thinking at all. At least not with the big brain. If you even have one.”

“It wasn’t my fault!” Malick protested. “It was his decision. He was going to go, one way or another. What did you want me to do—drug him and tie him to the bed?”

Yes,” Umeia snapped as they cleared the top step to the third floor and started down the hall to the attic stairs. It was creeping up on the small hours, the doors to the rooms all shut and their occupants occupied. With any luck, no one would poke a head out. Umeia didn’t want to have to drag Shig down here, not after she’d just gotten everyone dried off and settled in upstairs. “I don’t think you understand how serious this is, Malick. Magic doesn’t work on him, which means I can’t fix this. All I can do is what a surgeon would do. He could lose the leg or die.”

His choice,” Malick replied, voice tight.

“Pfft,” Fen put in, stumbling again, and growling when it drove him too snugly into Malick.

“And it no doubt suited your purposes,” Umeia bit back. She shook her head when Malick narrowed his eyes at her over Fen’s head. “Save it, I don’t want to hear it. Just get him upstairs before that brother of his has an apoplectic fit.”

Speaking of whom….

“I thought I told you not to come downstairs,” Umeia hissed.

Joori stood up from the bottom step of the attic stairs as they approached, eyes glittering in the low lamplight from the sconces, narrowed at Malick, mostly, suspicious and distrustful, but softening a little when they landed on Fen. “You all right?” he asked softly.

“Fine,” Fen told him, though Umeia didn’t miss how he stared at the toes of his boots instead of his brother.

“He’s always ‘fine’,” Malick put in, sardonic, “except for the trail of blood behind us, anyway,” then he moved to push past Joori and up the stairs.

Joori merely angled himself into a firmer obstacle. “I’ll take him,” he told Malick, eyes narrow little slits now, jaw clenched in very clear malice as he shoved his arm between Malick and Fen.

“I’ve got him,” Malick growled back, slanting his stance to block Joori’s attempted coup and bully past him, jostling Fen into Umeia and nearly knocking her sideways, while Fen hissed in apparent pain. Like Fen was a bloody wishbone, and they were going to snap him in two to see who got the bigger piece.

Umeia’s teeth tightened. “How about I take him while you two whip ’em out and start measuring?”

They stared at her, both of them, like they had no idea why she’d be pissed off, which pissed her off more. Fen just topped it off with, “Let go. I can do it myself.”

Umeia almost did, just to spite them all.

You,” she snapped at Joori, “go up and tell Yori I need my bag then take the sheets off his bed so we don’t foul them.” She turned to Malick. “You—get a better hold and take more of his weight before he takes us all down.” And then to Fen. “You—shut up and start hobbling. You’re heavier than you look, and if I go tumbling and break a leg, I’ll beat you with my crutch.”

They all shut their mouths and did as she’d said, which was good, because Fen really was heavier than he looked; Umeia’s shoulder was going numb and her balance was chancy, with him pointedly hanging mostly on her rather than Malick. Fen might look lean and rangy, but he was apparently all dense, compact muscle under the angles and sharp lines.

Yori trotted down as they reached the third step, sparing no more than a sympathetic shrug of her shoulders to Umeia then a smirk at Malick as she bounded past them without a word. “Tell Samin to hurry it up while you’re down there,” Umeia said over her shoulder. She’d sent him down to bring up tea and something to eat for the new arrivals as soon as he’d dried off and changed, and he was certainly taking his bloody time about it.

Umeia smiled at Yori’s quiet, “Yes, Umeia,” from the bottom of the stairs. At least one of them did as they were told.

“How did you get him through the Gates?” she asked Malick when they were halfway up. She’d fretted for nearly half an hour after Yori and Samin had gotten back with the children, wondering if Malick and Shig and Fen were going to have to spend the night outside the city, and what Umeia was supposed to do with Fen’s frantic brother if they did. Malick had gotten them all in then sent them ahead while he went back for Fen and Shig, Samin had told Umeia, with which Samin had plainly disagreed—Joori, as well, from what Samin said; quite vocally too—but of which Samin, at least, had obviously recognized the necessity. Joori, not so much, since he’d apparently been seething ever since. And after Joori had told her exactly why he was seething, Umeia had only fretted more.

“I was going to go with old-fashioned bribery,” Malick told her, brooding. “Even got them to open up one of the accessory doors, but then they saw the braid.” He shrugged when Umeia shot him a frown. “It was either have Shig take care of them, or let them arrest me for interfering with an Untouchable. Or killing them all, but….”

Umeia shook her head. No wonder Shig had merely stomped past her and gone right to bed. Her head must be near to exploding. Umeia would stop in after she finished with Fen.

Joori was waiting at the door to Fen’s room when they finally crested the top of the stairs, his jaw still set tight and arms wrapped stiffly about his torso. Vibrating. He didn’t advance to try to take his brother back again, but Umeia could tell it was all Joori could do to keep himself still and wait. The younger ones—Caidi and Morin—were standing in the hallway between their new room and the one Yori shared with Shig, wrapped in blankets, watching as Malick and Umeia got their brother up the stairs. Again, Fen didn’t look up, just hung his head, hiding behind his hair again, gaze on the floor as he shuffled. He stayed silent as Umeia and Malick maneuvered him down the hall and through the door to his room.

“All right, let’s see what we’ve got here,” Umeia sighed, gratefully lowering Fen to sit on the bed and shaking out her arm as she stepped back.

With an irritated scowl, Fen shook off Malick’s grip, but he paused in mid-growl, eyes abruptly sprung wide and anxious, and a sharp little gasp leaked from his throat when Malick moved away. Blindly, Fen reached out, grabbed hold of Malick again, catching only a loose shirttail at first, groping desperately, until Malick reached back and took his hand. The reaction was immediate: instant calm and instant frustrated shame for needing it.

Umeia watched it all with… too many emotions that pissed her off. She sighed. “Help him with the shirt and trousers, M—” She cut herself off, rolled her eyes when Joori’s mouth went tight, and shook her head. “Never mind. C’mon, lad, let’s get ’em off.”

She tapped at Fen’s nearest elbow, satisfied when he only sighed and reached up to unlace his tunic, though she noted—and noted Joori noting—that Malick’s hand went to rest on Fen’s knee, and Fen didn’t try to kill him for it, tightening his mouth only when the tunic gave him trouble. The tie was leather and soaked through, and squeaked when he tried to unknot it. Mouth set, Fen reached down to the sheath on his hip—stopped. He lifted a glare up at Malick.

“Who took my knives?”

“Samin’s got them,” Malick said, fingers gently tightening on Fen’s knee.

Fen chewed on his lip for a second. “Did… was I…?”

“Yeah, you were,” Malick said; Fen seemed to understand what Malick meant, because his shoulders slumped a little and he reached up to rub at his brow. “Fen, it’s all right,” Malick assured him smoothly, “everyone understands, no one cares.”

A lovely, tender moment—or at least as tender as these two got, Umeia supposed—but none of it was getting the job done. She shook her head. “Cut it for him, Mal, and let’s get this done. Joori, help me get his boots and get the— Shit!” Mei snapped a look up at Malick. “What chewed through his boot like that? And….” Oh, for pity’s sake. She’d been supporting Fen on the left, and it had been dark when they’d finally staggered through the alley doors. Umeia hadn’t gotten a good look at him until now. There was a small puddle of blood pooling on the floor around the sole of his boot, and now that she looked, there really was a trail of it. And she’d thought Malick had just been doing his smartass thing. “What got at you, lad?”

“Wolves,” Joori volunteered with another glare at Malick, which Malick ignored.

The wolf-things Yori had told her about, no doubt, and about which that little Caidi was likely to have nightmares for weeks. These were no blade wounds, and the way the boot and trouser leg were torn to hell….

“Asai bought himself a coven,” Malick said, disgusted and quietly livid. “Came at us all wolfen. Cocky bastards. Leu and a mishmash from Owl and Snake.” A low snort, not the least bit amused. “Tried to pull on a dragon glamour when she recognized me, like she thought it would make some kind of difference.”

Leu?” Umeia would have thought Leu smart enough to stay out of something like this altogether. “She wouldn’t do this, surely.”

“She didn’t, but her thugs did.” Malick grimaced, and very obviously choked back a growl. “She said they’d be punished for touching him.” A roll of his eyes relayed exactly how appeased he was with that.

Umeia looked down at Fen’s leg, ran her fingertips gently over shredded fabric, and poked very lightly at the bloody, mangled flesh exposed through the tears. She stopped immediately when Fen hissed and flinched. It must really be excruciating if Fen was reacting like that to such a light touch, and with the infection she knew was already twisting beneath the torn stitches she could see…. “Damn it.” She nodded at Joori. “Boots,” she said then stepped back and out of his way.

“No,” Fen said. He shot Umeia a quick glance then leveled his gaze with his brother’s. “Go, Joori. Take care of Caidi and Morin. Malick will help me.”

If Umeia hadn’t already been getting a pretty good idea of what the budding dynamic was between these three, the clenching of Joori’s jaw and the flaring of his glower at Malick at the command would have told her in no uncertain terms.

“I’m not leaving you alone with him,” Joori said, low and even, then he snatched up Fen’s left leg.

Before Joori could yank the boot free, Fen snapped his leg out, nearly knocking Joori sideways to the floor, jarring himself in the process, and going a frightening shade of gray as he swayed to the side. “I don’t….” Fen paused, sucking in short, shaky breaths, and most telling, allowing Malick to hold him up to prevent him from listing sideways. “I don’t want you here, Joori. Get out.” Hard and cold, like he was trying to take the concern in his brother’s eyes and turn it into contempt.

To his credit—and Umeia’s astonishment—Malick stayed silent, just watched as Joori’s eyes widened then narrowed, homing in on Malick’s hand again, set firm on Fen’s shoulder this time. Joori peered at Fen steadily, shook his head. “No,” he said, quiet but fierce, then he surged in, angling himself between Malick and Fen and trying to shove Malick away at the same time. A solid right hook hit Malick’s temple and sent him backward on the bed with Joori on top of him.

Fen went over to the side, rasping out a harsh yip when the raw meat of his leg hit the corner of the mattress. He would have fallen off the bed altogether if Umeia hadn’t lunged in to catch hold of him and drag him away from the sudden brawl. “No, no, no,” Fen was muttering, shaking his head and bringing his hands up to crush his palms into his temples. “Stopstopstop, I can’t… can’t….” His eyes were squeezed tight and his muscles were rigid beneath Umeia’s grasp.

Malick got the better of Joori quickly, flipping him over to his back on the mattress, knee pressing into his stomach and one arm pinned, grabbing for the other one. “What the fuck is wrong with you?” he grated, snapping his head to the side to avoid a clumsy swipe of Joori’s curled fist.

“He’s paid enough!” Joori shouted back at him. “He’s not some kind of—”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” Samin thundered from the door. “Are you bloody kidding me?” Yori stood beside him, shaking her head in consternation, steaming basin and Umeia’s satchel in hand. Caidi and Morin stared, wide-eyed, behind them.

Fen’s gaze shot up at Samin’s outburst, plummeting right down into desolate when he saw his brother and sister. “Get them out of here,” he wheezed. “Get them out, get them out, get them out!”

“Yori, take the children down for a bath,” Umeia snapped, relieved when, yet again, Yori did exactly as she was told, settling the bag and the basin to the clothespress beside the door then hustling the children away.

The surprise and pause in action was just long enough for Malick to get hold of Joori’s other arm and slam it down to the mattress, pinning him completely but for his legs, which kept kicking wildly as he tried to buck Malick off him. “He’s not your whore!” Joori seethed.

Fen was stiff and shaking against Umeia. Now he took hold of her sleeve with clawlike fingers. “Not now, not now, I can’t… the noise, I….”

“Oh,” was Umeia’s inane reply. The noise—too much of it, and too much pain. He was losing whatever control he usually managed right in front of her. Of course. She spun a helpless look around the room then settled it on Malick. “You’re going to have to do something,” she told him.

Samin had deposited the tray he was carrying on the clothespress by Umeia’s bag. His glance snapped over at Umeia’s quiet command, then locked with Malick’s. A quick look sparked between them, then Samin nodded and stalked across the room, square jaw set. Bracing himself to the side of the bed, he gave Malick a short nod, and when Malick broke quickly to his right, Samin swooped in, took hold of Joori—still cursing and spitting—and hauled him to his feet.

“You son of a bitch!” Joori snarled, but Malick seemed to hear only Fen’s raspy little, “Pleasepleaseplease,” and he left Samin to deal with Joori while he rushed over and wedged himself under Fen’s arm again. Murmuring things Umeia couldn’t hear beneath all the other noise, Malick took Fen’s weight from Umeia just as Fen went boneless, gasping, allowing Malick to draw him in and push his face into the hollow between Malick’s chin and chest.

Umeia used the opportunity to hustle over and retrieve the tea and her bag. Quickly, she threw a sleeping powder in—xsinzaua, because it worked damned fast, and getting Fen to pass out seemed like a very good idea right now. In fact, she wouldn’t mind if every damned one of them lost consciousness. She added some painkiller, not even bothering with spices to soothe the bitter taste, and carried it over.

Fuck,” Fen wheezed, muffled by Malick’s still-wet tunic. “I can’t… can’t listen now, I can’t… they can’t ask it of me, not… it’s not fair.”

“Shh,” Malick soothed. He shot a sharp scowl over at Joori and began carefully leading Fen back over to the bed. “It’s not, and you don’t have to, not now. I’ll keep it quiet for you, all right?”

“Quiet.” Fen choked on a groan. “I don’t want him here,” he whispered. “Please.” With a shudder, he buried his face in Malick’s shoulder as they sank to the mattress, burrowed close in a way that was almost touching, but mostly unnerving. It was so un-Fen-like.

“Here, drink this,” Umeia said, then she held the bowl to Fen’s lips until he turned his head, eyes still shut, and let her pour the tea down his throat.

“What’s in that?” Joori asked, all suspicion and anxious bravado.

Shaking her head, Umeia turned, looked Joori up and down—heavens, but he did look like his brother, especially with that glare burning holes in Malick—then pinched at the bridge of her nose.

She only had secondhand knowledge of what had gone on tonight, but she’d heard enough, and now she’d seen enough. With a heavy sigh, she left Fen to Malick and stepped over to Joori, caught his fiery gaze, and made her own as nonjudgmental as she could manage toward someone who’d just spat poison at her brother and all but accused her of drugging Fen for purposes all too clear. Then again, if she’d suspected that someone was doing to Malick what this one obviously thought Malick was doing to Fen….

“He doesn’t want you to see him like this,” Umeia told Joori quietly. “It isn’t that he doesn’t love you—it’s that he does.”

Joori’s jaw clenched tight, and he jerked his chin at Malick. “But he doesn’t mind him seeing him like—?”

“Malick can make it quiet for him.” Umeia kept her voice low and patient. “Understand? Quiet.” She paused as Joori’s face wrenched into something pained and close to resentful. “After whatever went on tonight,” she continued more gently, “I think he’ll take anything that comes along with the quiet. Wouldn’t you?” She took a step in closer, lowered her voice even further. “He’s clinging to the edge by his fingernails, lad.” And the gods help them all if he lost his grip, because Umeia was sure it wouldn’t be pretty—it wasn’t pretty now. Good job they’d thought to take his weapons away.

“He—” Joori’s eyes filled, and he blinked, looked away from his brother, and turned his gaze slowly to Umeia again. He leaned in, nearly whispering, “Please—what does he make him pay for it?”

She could have smacked him. She could have hugged him. She rolled her eyes. “Just because he lives in a whorehouse,” she said evenly, “doesn’t mean he is one. Or that anyone expects him to be. Save your worry for someone who needs worrying about.”

Joori’s mouth tightened. “Have you met my brother?”

Umeia didn’t answer, only turned an almost-thwack into a pat on his cheek and gave Samin a nod. “Let him go. He’ll behave.” A narrow glare at Joori. “Won’t you, lad?”

With a look that wasn’t entirely unpleasant but mostly was, Joori shrugged out of Samin’s grip, stared at Umeia for a moment, like he was thinking about saying something, then just shook his head and pushed past her toward the bed. Ignoring Malick’s wary glance—which was not, again to Umeia’s surprise, the least bit victorious—Joori crouched down. He grimaced at the mess that was Fen’s right leg then peered up at his brother’s face.

“Jacin.” When Fen only shook his head, Joori reached up, hands coming up to either side of Fen’s face, turning his head and holding him still. He leaned in until they were brow to brow. “Jacin. Look at me.”

Fen’s own hand rose, shaky and tentative, and he laid it to Joori’s arm. “Sorry, I’m sorry.” Pushed out on a strangled whisper.

“Stop it,” Joori said. “Look at me.” It took a moment, but Fen eventually did as his brother asked, tears spilling out the corners of his eyes the second he opened them. “I won’t look, if you don’t want me to see.” Joori’s tone was soft, artless. “But you’re my hero, Jacin. You always have been. Don’t you know that?”

It was sweet. It was touching. And still, it made Umeia’s teeth clench. Couldn’t the lad see he was just making it worse? Couldn’t he see his brother was already under too much pressure to rescue… well, everyone he loved? And now Joori wanted to go and wrap “hero” around his neck?

“You’re the other half of me,” Joori went on. “You’re my heart. I could never, ever see whatever it is you see when you look at yourself.” His voice went wobbly, and now his eyes were leaking too. “Don’t make me lose you so soon after I got you back.”

Fen murmured something Umeia didn’t quite catch, but it sounded too close to, “I’m already lost,” so she pretended she hadn’t heard it at all.

Joori must have heard it, though, because he winced then pushed himself back, stood, and swiped at his face with the crook of his elbow. Jaw set again, he directed a level look at Malick for a long, long moment, hands fisting then flexing as Malick merely looked back. No smugness, no challenge—nothing at all but steady resolve and confidence as Fen wilted into him again, shutting his eyes and shuddering quietly. The xsinzaua was kicking in, thank all the gods. With a deep breath, Joori dragged his glance away, shot it quickly around the room, nodded to Umeia, and left.

Silence lurched into the room, uncomfortable, until Umeia shook herself and peered at Samin, then jerked her chin. Without a word, Samin left, too, casting one last look at the bed as he pulled the door shut.

Malick gave Fen a careful jostle, sighing a little when Fen didn’t so much as twitch in response. “He’s out,” he said quietly.

Good.

“All right, then,” Umeia sighed. “If we’re done with the melodrama, let’s see what we’re dealing with. I’ll get the boots, you get the shirt.” She shook her head in dismay as Malick laid Fen out on the bed and she looked him over, taking in all the tears in wet fabric and the no doubt gory wounds waiting for her to uncover. “We’d better just cut off the trousers. Honestly, Malick, what were you thinking?”

Malick’s mouth tightened as he sliced through the ties on the tunic that had started the whole mess. “I was thinking he’d been manipulated enough.”

“Lovely,” Umeia retorted sourly and braced herself to tug the un-mangled boot off. “And trying to manipulate him into coming ’round to your way of thinking never once occurred to you, I’m sure, what with your motivations being all pure and innocent.”

“His father sold him, Umeia.” Angrier than Umeia would have guessed, the statement pushed out through his teeth and caustic, hands pausing on Fen’s chest and curling into fists. “Sold him to fucking Asai when he was still a child. Now, if you want to tell me Asai’s motivations are pure and innocent, and Wolf would approve, I’ll be happy to—”

“And you’re going to tell me that indulging his every whim—even the ones that might kill him—has nothing whatever to do with trying to gain his trust for yourself? You’re going to tell me that you didn’t basically sneak him out tonight under my nose because you knew he was in bad shape and I wouldn’t allow it if I knew? You’re going to tell me you don’t plan to use and manipulate him and his brother, and those children, if you have to, just as much as As—”

Do not put me in the same sentence with Asai,” Malick seethed. “I’ve got shit choices here, Umeia, but at least I don’t dress up what I do with lies of salvation and promises I don’t intend to keep. I haven’t asked of him anything he didn’t intend to do anyway, and I won’t promise him anything I’m not damned sure I can give him. I can’t help that Fen is the best chance I’ve got of getting Asai, I didn’t do this to him, and I’m certainly not going to watch while he goes to the suns for that son of a bitch. Fucking manipulation. You want to talk about manipulation—”

“All right, all right, calm down.” Bloody hell, he was in deep, thrashing and telling himself he wasn’t all the way down. Umeia shook her head. “Maybe he will take care of Asai for you. But, Mal… it won’t solve all his… problems. And I cannot allow you to use those children. I’ve sworn. I’ll fight you, if you make me.”

She would too. Because drawing Asai out before he was ready, holding out as bait the very leverage they all knew he needed, was exactly the sort of thing Malick would do, what he probably should do, and what she should let him do. But he’d brought Fen to her for a reason, and maybe he hadn’t known what that reason was—probably still didn’t know—but Umeia understood it, and better than she had that night when she’d blithely sworn oath, all too confident then that she’d known exactly what she was doing. She wasn’t just precautionary protection for Fen’s siblings. She was the empress, hunching on her square of the chensuboard, shielding her pawns as both Malick and Asai maneuvered the rest of the board around them. Malick had wanted her there to protect them all from himself, just as much as from Asai. To protect his own soul and prevent him from straying too far from Wolf while he wended through what was to come. It was a difficult thing, removing oneself from mortal wants and concerns, while still maintaining in one’s heart those things that kept one from becoming… well, Asai. Or even Husao. Malick had been trying to find that balance for far too long, and even when he tried to turn himself into something cool and callous, he still ended up on the heart-hungry side.

Wolf smiled on her little brother—oh yes, surely, the aloof prick—because Malick bloody suffered for what he was, and suffered harder when he tried to be something else.

No wonder he and Skel had understood each other so well. No wonder people threw themselves at him. No wonder broken hearts dogged his steps. How could you not adore someone who loved you a little bit merely for existing?

Umeia sighed. “Sometimes I wish you really were the ass you pretend to be, little brother.”

Malick only clenched his teeth and started moving again. “We can’t stay here for long,” he said, eyes on his hands as he maneuvered Fen out of the tunic, pausing to shake his head and growl at the bloody, twisted flesh of his forearm—that was going to need sutures too, damn it—then dragged him out of the layer of mail beneath the shirt. “It’s only a matter of time before Asai finds me. And when he finds me, he finds you and everyone else. They were after his brother tonight. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that Asai plans to use him to blackmail Fen into doing what he wants, and he won’t stop coming after him, even if he has to tear down the Girou around us. Or, more likely, pay someone else to do it for him. Fucking prick, he never has stooped to doing his own wet work.” Malick paused, shoulders hunching a little, the muscles of his back heaving with two long, deep breaths, but he still didn’t look up. “I’m sorry.”

“Save ‘sorry’ for when I ask for it,” Umeia told him as she dropped Fen’s boot to the floor and went for the other. “Cut that trouser leg right up the center. We’ll talk about the rest in the morning.”

Because she’d be damned if she’d let Asai, of all people, drive her out of the home they’d made, or harm the people who made up their family. It had been too long since they’d had one. And she wasn’t about to argue with her obstinate brother over it now.

Anyway, with what she saw when she finally got a look at Fen’s leg, they likely wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while. Umeia stepped back, hands on her hips. “Go get my bag off the clothespress,” she told Malick wearily.

She had work to do here, a duckling to tend.

Asai could just fuck off for now.

COLLAPSE
Reviews:Lisa on The Novel Approach Reviews wrote:

Forfeit. Collateral Damage.

In a megalomaniac’s bid for supremacy, it was inevitable. It seems there’s a price to pay for everything in this world, and the currency is nothing less than a man’s very soul.

Fen Jacin-rei is the pawn through which other players wish to manipulate this game. He is the tool, the sacrifice player that will be used in a bid for ultimate power, used in an effort to find redemption, to destroy evil, to communicate with the past, to keep him tethered to the present, to prove to himself that he is worthy of being loved, to show him that he is neither perfect nor a failure, certainly not a perfect failure, but that he is simply human. That he is real.

Sometimes manipulating the game itself is the only way to sway the players, but the problem with continuing to change the rules and attempting to outmaneuver the man who often tries to be someone else, as well as the man who tries to be everything he was taught to be, for bad or for worse, is that one could never possibly anticipate and correct for all the variables of the game. And sometimes the price for that failure is your life.

The problem with persistent calculating is that there is then always room for miscalculation, and underestimating the enemy is ever a danger. Where there is coolly calculated evil, there should be the right and the fair and the just to balance the scales. Evil always seems to underestimate the power behind the need for justice, but how can there be Balance without it? And the greatest miscalculation in this sinister game may be to assume who is Jacin-rei’s heart. It is a supremely perilous risk to take, thinking you have all the answers, because even Jacin-rei doesn’t hold the piece that fits into that puzzle yet. But he is close. So close.

Fen Jacin-rei is the moth that will choose to fly away from the flame because his sacrifice, his forfeit, is to live. What happens when the moth changes course, quits flying toward the flame that portends its certain death and begins to redirect his own fate? When he believes in the nothing he’s been taught he is, he returns to Zero. “Unraveling. Shattering. Undone. Unmade.” The problem with Zero, however, is that as soon as it encounters even a small fraction of something, it can no longer be nothing. It immediately becomes more and is transformed into something new, even if he believes that that something is little more than a pretty lie. The Untouchable wants nothing more than to be touched in spite of how much he loathes himself for that need. Seems the unlovable also wants nothing more than to be loved in spite of how much he resents those who inspire that need in him.

But Fen is the conduit and it is through him that so much is possible and reality is precarious and it is a danger to attempt to predict the unpredictable. He must depend upon borrowed sanity because he has been burdened with a madness that is not his own; he needs the quiet that can be borrowed from the Null. For everything there must be balance and for everything there is a price, even if that price is your Self, paid in the form of submitting to the needs you hate and the relief that comes from the man you can’t trust.

The pain of grief overwhelms the ability to feel the pain of punishment and proves there is a difference between living and merely existing. Existence is the breeze, but living is the hurricane wind that sweeps you along in its wake and proves that you’ve experienced something that will continue to alter and influence you for all Time. It is up to Fen to decide how to escape the noose of his former reality and use it to capture some semblance of a life. He will live as a form of revenge against the betrayal that has dogged his steps. He will live for those he’s lost and for those who remain, until he learns how to live for himself.

Through the sandpaper eyelids that come from staying up into the wee hours, reading; through the irregular heartbeats, the increased blood pressure, the anxiety, the heartbreak and hope for what is yet to come, I flew and I fell and I joyfully survived this journey.

And now I wait to see what will become of them: Malick and Jacin, Joori, Morin, Samin and Shig. I will mourn their losses and cheer their successes until next time. I hope I’ll have recovered by then.

Pixie on MM Good Book Reviews wrote:

God damn. But this cover suits the book to a tee. Fen/Jacin doesn’t give a damn what the Gods’ want, he wants his family safe and Malick to keep his promises and that’s all he wants. Well, that and silence. Malick has made promises that he always seems seconds away from keeping, he can’t break his gods’ law, but he needs his vengeance and Fen is the only way to safely get it. But, now his promises are falling apart, he’s being betrayed and he finds he still has a heart.

Carole Cummings, I bow down before your greatness. This story/series is what High Fantasy is all about and damn if you haven’t made me one happy Pixie. Fen/Jacin struggles to find balance within himself and without. He finds himself having to depend on other people for the first time, he expects betrayal and manipulation, he expects to be used for others needs, but what he never really expects is for someone to see him, to love him and to truly want him. Malick is bound by the laws of the gods, but he has his own instructions from Wolf and his own plans to fulfill, all the while keeping everyone safe and facing betrayal from one who is close to him.

There is no way that I could explain everything that goes on in this book, as it really is just too epic and I really wouldn’t want to give anything away, but this I will tell you… there is betrayal from unexpected quarters, there is love, hope, dreams, tragedy, deaths, devastation, grief of epic proportions, bloodshed, gruesome bloodshed, grave injuries, smug maijin and Temshiel and above all else we have a troubled Untouchable and a perplexed Temshiel.

This is not a story for those who don’t want something to chew on or those who want a light read or instant romance and love and lots of sex. This is a story that is complex in its diversity, because just as you think you have a good grasp on what is going on and what is being said, something else is thrown into the mix to change it all. Malick accepts that he has a more mortal heart than he remembered and how that has affected the outcome. Fen sees more than he thinks he does and the Ancestors voices make more sense than anyone thought. We get caught up in Fen’s insane rambling mind a few times and we can begin to truly feel what he goes through constantly, but Malick giving Fen silence only makes it worse when he has to listen to the voices again.

There is only one sex scene in this book and it is more out of desperation for Fen than true want… Fen really has no true clue about sex and love and the meaning of both of them. There are moments for both Fen and Malick of just snuggling, but it throws Fen as to why he’d want it. The writing in this book is smooth and flows well and sometimes it’s like watching poetry in motion with its whimsical feel. The characters are all incredible well written and you will all end up with your favorites (mines Fen/Jacin ;-).)

Well, anyway, I have to recommend this to those who love high fantasy, betrayal, bloodshed, plots, manipulation, twists, devastation, an epic brutal final battle, a promise of two more books and a happy as it’s going to be ending.


About the Author

Carole lives with her husband and family in Pennsylvania, USA, where she spends her time trying to find time to write. Recipient of various amateur writing awards, several of her short stories have been translated into Spanish, German, Chinese and Polish.

Author of the Aisling and Wolf’s-own series, Carole is currently in the process of developing several other works, including more short stories than anyone will ever want to read, and novels that turn into series when she’s not looking.

Carole is an avid reader of just about anything that’s written well and has good characters. She is a lifelong writer of the ‘movies’ that run constantly in her head. Surprisingly, she does manage sleep in there somewhere, and though she is rumored to live on coffee and Pixy Stix™, no one has as yet suggested she might be more comfortable in a padded room.

…Well. Not to her face.


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