Excerpt--Wolf's-own, Book Four: Incendiary

© Carole Cummings

 

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Chapter One

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THIS, Samin thought with a bit of a sigh, was just not the sort of thing he was good at. He needed someone to kill. Even someone to punch would be good. This trying-to-maneuver-information-out-of-someone thing was a little too much for him. And the fact that this Goyo seemed much better at it than Samin was—and that Goyo seemed more interested in questioning Joori than he was in answering Samin—was really starting to piss Samin off.

“And you don’t know where your brother would go?” Goyo asked Joori, his blue-green eyes intense in his dark face.

Joori cut a quick glance down at Samin, and when Samin merely shrugged, Joori shook his head. “He doesn’t know the city. We don’t know the city. Mal… Kamen had mentioned he was planning on coming here the night… the… last night, before… um.” He looked away and shrugged. “He was on his way here. We thought it was a place to start.”

“Please,” Goyo said with a wave of his hand at the cushion between him and Samin, “join us.”

Joori looked again at Samin then sat slowly on the cushion, propping himself stiffly on the edge closest to Samin and staring at Goyo and Seb warily. Seb pushed a small cup across the table at him and poured something strong smelling into it from the jar at his elbow, but that was all he seemed willing to contribute. Samin hadn’t heard a word out of him since the mutual greetings and introductions.

Joori set his fingers around the cup but didn’t drink. Good lad. “So, you’ve seen no one who looks like me, then. Longer hair. Knives.” He paused with a grimace. “Kind of a beard.”

Seb snorted and shook his head, then cut a kindred glance at Samin. Revealing, and Samin was pretty sure Seb had meant it to be. Shig was right—Fen had been here.

“I only just arrived myself,” Goyo said smoothly. “I work with the Patrol, you see.” He paused to take a sip of his drink, eyes on Joori. “Seems there was an altercation. A Temshiel of Raven got herself skewered and sent to spirit.” He smirked. “I’d like to meet the man who did it myself.”

Ah. Samin was pretty sure he knew where this one was going.

“You….” Joori had gone rigid. “It couldn’t… Jacin….” He trailed off and looked helplessly at Samin.

Samin sighed and set a hand to Joori’s shoulder. “This is good news, Joori. It sounds like your brother got into a fight and won.” Got into a fight with a Temshiel. And won. Samin did not smile proudly. “There’s no need to try to be clever,” he told Goyo. “If we knew where Fen was, we wouldn’t be here looking for him.” He narrowed his eyes. “And you don’t know as much as you’d like to, do you?”

Goyo didn’t say anything, but his expression soured a little and he shot an annoyed glance at Seb. Samin didn’t know what kind of knowledge was passing between them, but he was pretty sure it was something he didn’t possess himself, and they had no intention of sharing.

“So, is the Patrol looking for him?” Samin watched Goyo and Seb carefully, but neither of them gave anything away this time. “From what Naro-yi says, it sounds to me like Tambalon law stops at the door.”

That made Seb chuckle as he watched Goyo curl his lip.

“Tambalon and the Gates of Rapture have a… an understanding,” said Goyo. “But Raven’s-own demand an accounting. And I have questions that need answering.” He shrugged, annoyed. “One needs to find a man before one can put questions to him.”

“Are you going to arrest Jacin if you find him?” Joori asked bluntly. His voice was cold and sharp, but Samin could see the fear in his eyes. “Because he won’t… I mean, he can’t….” He set his jaw, mouth working like he was still trying to find the words.

Samin gripped his shoulder tighter to stop him. Whatever Joori meant to say would do nothing but give these men more information than Samin thought perhaps they should have, and take away any reason they might have to give Samin some in return.

Instead, Samin turned directly to Seb. “Was he all right?” Because there was something about Seb, something Samin recognized without really recognizing, that told him if Seb knew the answer to that question, he would give it.

Seb cut a sharp glance to Goyo then back at Samin. He shrugged as he turned to Joori, his big hand going to toy with the choppy ends of his wispy white beard. “He was alive and quite… energetic when I saw him.”

Samin thought Joori might break down and cry right there. He didn’t. He merely let out a breath that sounded like it came up from a well of smothering anxiety, and nearly slumped over the table. With a shaky hand, Joori picked up the small cup Seb had given him and threw back whatever was in it, eyes watering and breath hitching, but Samin didn’t know if it was the strength of the liquor or the emotion that did it. Maybe that was the point.

When he had caught his breath, Joori peered over his shoulder and tipped a small nod and a smile at Morin. Morin had nearly the same reaction as Joori had had, only without the liquor. Samin thought about telling Shig to get the boy some—he looked like he could use it—but Shig seemed to have wandered off. Only Naro-yi and Morin still sat at the table where Samin had left them, Naro-yi smiling placidly and chattering at Morin, apparently trying to distract him, but Morin was dividing his attention between Joori and something over in the far corner of the tavern, and didn’t seem to have much of it to spare for Naro-yi.

Samin followed Morin’s glance and found Shig crouched over along the far wall, smiling and with all of her mercurial attention on what Samin thought at first was a spray of emeralds but turned out to be tiny green lizards. They crawled over Shig’s outstretched hand, twining around her fingers as Shig chuckled lightly and spoke to them in soft words, only the tone of which Samin could make out from here.

Seb stood and abruptly clapped his hands. “Everyone out,” he said with no preamble and only aimed a shrug that didn’t look the slightest bit apologetic at Goyo and Samin. “I am sorry, but you’ll have to take this outside.”

Samin stood too. “Now, wait just a minute. I need to know—”

“Only a fraction of what you think you do,” Seb said and clapped his hands again until all of the patrons in the tavern started to slowly move, looking just as confused as Samin was. “Your friend was here and now he is not. I can’t help you any further than that.”

“You say that like it’s any help at all!” Samin looked at Goyo, who was directing a narrow look at Seb, looking just as unhappy about all this as Samin. “Listen, I don’t want to make trouble for you, but you don’t understand what—”

“Please,” Joori interjected, stepping in front of Samin and right up close to Seb, reaching out to latch onto Seb’s great, tattooed arm, but apparently not quite daring. He let his hand drop to his side. “Please, seyh. He’s my brother.”

“Yes, young seyh, I can see that,” Seb said, perhaps a touch more gently. “And I am sorry. But these matters are not for us. You must leave. Now.”

He stepped over to Shig, who was still crouched down and playing with the lizards, merely watching as Seb approached and blatantly not moving except to wiggle her fingers while the little creatures cavorted like puppies doing tricks in exchange for her affection. “Little shepherds,” Shig said lightly, peering up at Seb with a knowing lift of her eyebrow that Samin had every intention of decoding once they were through getting kicked out. “Seen any lost souls lately?” Shig asked, sly. Her gaze settled on Goyo. “Looking for one?”

Naro-yi had pulled up beside Goyo and peered at him now with a look that reminded Samin that Naro-yi was maijin, and not just some semi-silly avuncular banker looking for adventure. The look was canny and sharp and old and assessing. Goyo didn’t seem to notice; he was staring at Shig with almost the same look.

Seb took it all in and set his jaw, but when he reached down to pull Shig away, his big hands were fairly gentle. Shig didn’t resist, only leaned over and let the last of the lizards hop down from her fingertip and onto the floor before it skittered away, apparently through the rough, wide-set floorboards.

“Off with you, little shepherds,” Shig cooed. “You’ve more than one hope resting on your….” She peered up at Seb with a curious grin. “Do lizards have shoulders?”

“What does that mean?” Joori asked, voice rising. “Shig? What does that mean?” He turned on Samin. “Does she know something?”

Three more tattooed men appeared to herd along the patrons who moved too slowly, and then once everyone else had been cleared out, another four came to loosely surround Samin and his little party. Not hostile, but certainly not friendly. Samin had no doubt about the message they were meant to convey. And he got it with no problem. His temper was a brittle, nasty little animal caged up somewhere behind his breastbone, and not at all happy about the confinement. He set his jaw and glared, because it was really all he could do. And because these men obviously knew something about Fen, and could look right at that desperate expression on Joori’s face and deny him.

“C’mon, Joori,” Samin said, making his displeasure quite clear, impotent as it was. “We’re not going to find out anything more here.”

“But… Samin, they—”

“Yeah, I know. I’m sorry. But we’re outnumbered, and I haven’t got any magic.” Samin speared another harsh look around him, letting it rest a little bit longer on Seb and then Goyo. Seb seemed completely unaffected, but Goyo… there was something there. And maybe Samin recognized that too. Samin tipped his head at Goyo. “After you, seyh.”

Goyo’s eyebrow went up, but that was all. He turned toward the door then hesitated, looked back at Samin, and gave him a nod in return. Well. That was something, at least. And maybe it would turn into something more if Samin handled this right. Samin gripped Joori’s shoulder and prodded him along before all these men decided to do it a little less gently.

“We can’t just leave,” Joori said, edging on panic, but his feet moved when Samin pushed him. “Samin, they know something, they’ve seen Jacin, they have to tell us!”

“No, they don’t,” Morin put in as he followed after them with Naro-yi then quickened his pace to catch up with Joori. He peered up at Seb with an unabashed curl to his lip as they neared the door. “That’s the problem.” He leaned in close between Joori and Samin. “Did they say anything at all?”

“That Jacin was here,” Joori told him, “and got into a fight.”

Morin reached out and stopped Joori with a hand to his arm. “And?”

Samin met Seb’s eyes again. That look of kinship was still there, but Samin didn’t respond to it this time, because it had done him a fat lot of good, and it pissed him off. Maybe this Seb had all the compassion in the world for two young brothers looking for another, but he wasn’t going to do anything to help them, so he could go fuck himself.

“And he won,” Samin told Morin, “and now he’s not here anymore.”

“But that’s good news, Joori.” Morin grinned and patted at Joori’s arm. “Didn’t I say you should be worrying about the people who got in his way?”

Samin didn’t say anything to the boys as he chivvied them out the door, but he did feel a little bit lighter as he did it. Because when Morin passed Goyo, Goyo smirked and winked.

 

 

GOYO had every intention of telling the Incendiary’s brothers what he knew. Had every intention of setting their minds as easy as he could with what little information he had. It could do no harm, as far as he could foresee, and it might gain him some goodwill, get rid of at least a bit of the blatant distrust for which he couldn’t blame them. Not that he thought for a moment they’d run and tell him if they found the Incendiary before Goyo did—or, more likely, that the Incendiary found them—but Goyo didn’t need that kind of information anymore. He knew exactly where the Incendiary was, and further knew that the Incendiary was probably safer where he was than his brothers were.

It was the blunt reality of that last thought, unfortunately, that prevented Goyo from doing his intended good deed. And it was Seb’s muttered, “Watch your back,” as he shut the door behind Goyo—and threw both bar and latch then tightened down the wards until Goyo almost couldn’t breathe—that alerted Goyo that perhaps something more than Shig’s strange little display had prompted the curt kicking out and locking up; it was Naro-yi’s abrupt tension as he breached the barriers of Rihansei’s protections at the mouth of the alley that told Goyo things were about to go very wrong.

Goyo didn’t wait until everything fell apart, and he didn’t need to see the trouble to know it was coming; he sent out a call for the Patrol and tried to reach beyond the wards with his magic, get a sense of what was approaching, but they were too good, too heavy, and he couldn’t get past them. He was just trying to wend his way around Morin and Shig, get himself out of the alley so he could let his magic loose, when everything started to happen at once.

He’d never seen Naro-yi put on a warrior’s face before. He’d never really even considered that Naro-yi had one. The blue-green splinter of light from the just-visible edge of Owl’s moon—splattering over Naro-yi as he drew a sword and shoved Joori behind him, even before the murky ripples of not-substance warped themselves into actual shapes—was not, Goyo decided, his imagination. Nor was Joori’s sudden cry of “Jacin!” and Goyo’s realization that Naro-yi was in the process of charging a young Jin man who looked remarkably like Joori, but with longer ragged hair and a face that was exactly the same except sharper, older, angrier.

Wolf’s moon was fat and round, and lent silver light to the world, glittering in the young man’s eyes as he bared his teeth and charged in return. Three black-clad figures backed him up as he met Naro-yi’s rush with long knives that Goyo knew couldn’t have an actual sinister gleam but did anyway.

Chaos whirled. Goyo drove in, past Samin, who was too busy holding Joori back to engage while shouting at Naro-yi to wait, that’s Fen, damn it, don’t kill him! Naro-yi merely kept going, curling sputtering little balls of blue-white lightning in his hand and hurling them as he swung the sword, but neither were doing him any good; the lightning merely winked out when it reached its targets, and the attackers were too fast for Naro-yi’s sword.

“That’s not Fen,” Shig was telling Morin, also being restrained and not happy about it, even as Joori cried, “What are you doing, that’s my brother!” at Naro-yi and then Goyo as he joined in.

“Shig, hold him,” Goyo heard Samin say behind him, then more curses and accusations of betrayal from Joori. Goyo didn’t have time to look back as two of the attackers drove in, one with a short sword and the other with a tiny bow that, Goyo learned very quickly, shot wicked little darts that zinged and hissed as they whipped past his head. Goyo all at once thought Kamen’s startling fall a lot less funny. He tried to shield with magic, tried to reach out and swat with it, too, and he could feel Naro-yi doing the same, but it did no good. Magic didn’t work on Incendiary, Goyo knew that, so he wasn’t surprised, but he was surprised that it didn’t seem to affect the other three, either.

Banpair, the ones Kamen’s magic couldn’t thwart, which made Goyo’s gut curl a little, because Goyo was strong, but no one was as strong as Kamen, and if these creatures were the ones who’d taken Kamen down….

Damn it, Goyo could use the spirits with almost no effort, and he could coax even a cup of water into a raging waterspout if given enough time—none of which was going to help here. He didn’t have a fire-gift, nor could he move the earth, and neither could Naro-yi. Still, Goyo had speed that could rival Kamen’s, and he could fight.

Goyo didn’t have any weapons on him but the short sword of the Patrol and the small baton that had always been more decorative than useful. He drew them both now and waded in, using the shadows to deflect and distract, trying to watch Samin’s back as Samin engaged one of them, snarled, “I know you,” and he swung his broadsword around his head in a wide, violent arc that just missed taking his assailant’s head off.

Two of them moved in on Naro-yi with redoubled ferocity, giving the Incendiary an opening to rush through and toward his brothers. Goyo slid into substance just in front of him, driving in close, dodging and feinting away from the knives and swinging his short sword, while trying not to actually kill the Incendiary. Snake hadn’t told him to yet, so Goyo wasn’t going to do it right in front of his brothers if he didn’t have to.

“Jacin, stop!” Joori broke loose from both Shig and Morin and rushed out into the middle of everything. He skirted right past Goyo, preventing him from following up an offensive swipe the way his body wanted to. He pulled the move just in time as Joori shot past and around him, avoiding at the last second the swipe of the blade that would have opened Joori’s side up and spilled his insides out onto the walk. Joori didn’t even seem to know how close he’d come, simply barreled in until he was between Goyo and his brother, hands up in front of him, shouting, “Stop, Jacin, stop!”

Incredibly, they all did, Naro-yi’s opponents disappearing right in front of him, and not to shadow or spirit, just seemingly winking out of existence. Samin cursed as his opponent disappeared, muttered, “Blasted little bitch can’t fight fair,” as he licked the blood from a long slash on the back of his hand and then switched his sword to the other.

“Come with me, Joori,” said the Incendiary, voice hoarse as he held out his hand to his brother in a gesture that looked a little too eager for the pleading tone. The Incendiary growled when Samin knocked Naro-yi out of his way and stepped up behind Joori, preventing any attempt to do as his brother had said with a firm grip to Joori’s arm. “Joori, get Morin and come with me,” the Incendiary ordered.

Morin made a halfhearted attempt to shrug Shig off, but stopped when Shig repeated, “That’s not Fen,” and she stepped a little closer. “Joori, that’s not your brother.”

“What d’you mean, that’s not him?” Joori asked, eyes wide and confused, betrayal all over him. He turned to the side so he could glare at Shig. “Of course it’s him, are you blind? How can you say—?”

“Because I see Yori!”

The dart came out of nowhere, lodging itself in Joori’s arm. “Son of a bitch!” Samin snarled as Joori yelped and slapped at it, already wobbly and faltering as the creature pretending to be the Incendiary stepped in to snatch Joori up. Samin got there first, dropping his sword to catch Joori as he fell and putting himself between Joori and the Incendiary. Only the sweep of Naro-yi’s sword kept the Incendiary’s knives from removing Samin’s heart through his backbone.

The zip of another dart sounded, and this time it was Shig who loosed a little cry, Morin snapping, “Damn it, Shig, wha’d’ya do that for?” and swiping at the thing as Shig tried and failed to pluck it from the thick muscle of her thigh. She started to go down, too, leaving Morin to catch her, and Goyo and Naro-yi the only two left to defend.

“Get them back into the tavern,” Naro-yi barked at Samin, and he drove in again with his sword when the Incendiary moved to prevent it.

“They’re mine,” the Incendiary hissed. “Morin, take Joori and come with me. Don’t make me have to hurt the others.”

Morin shook his head as he backed up and dragged Shig with him, moving slowly, but not needing Naro-yi’s instruction or Samin’s growled commands to hurry. “You’re not my brother,” Morin whispered, too shaky for confidence as he stared and kept backing away. “Who are you? Where’s Jacin? Was that poison in those darts? What did you do to Joori?”

“Morin,” said the pretender, sharp and cold. “Shut up and come here. Don’t make me hurt you.” He pulled out a throwing knife and aimed it at Samin’s back as Samin, carrying Joori, herded Morin along. “Don’t make me hurt anyone.”

Morin reached the alley’s mouth, dragging Shig, then sneered from its shelter. “Jacin couldn’t hurt me.” He jerked his chin over to where Samin now stood beside him, holding an unconscious Joori to his wide chest like a sleeping child. “He couldn’t hurt Joori. That’s always been his problem.” His teeth were clenched, and Goyo could tell he was shaking. “Fucking idiot, you’re supposed to get to know the people you’re trying to impersonate.”

The Incendiary pulled the knife back over his shoulder, cocked and ready, aimed at Naro-yi this time. “Now, Morin.”

“You’re not Jacin, and I’m not coming with you.”

There was a moment of stillness, breathlessness, really, as Morin and the counterfeit Incendiary stared at each other across Rihansei’s wards. Goyo didn’t know if the not-Incendiary reconsidered his approach because he knew Morin wouldn’t be moved, or if there was simply no one left Morin cared enough about to threaten, but the mask of the Incendiary fell away, replaced by almost yellow eyes over a dark kerchief that covered the lower half of this… creature’s true face.

“All right, then,” a new voice said as the imposter dipped a condescending nod. “Your weakling Ghost-brother could never hurt you. But you can hurt him, can’t you, little Jin?” Goyo kept quiet and so did Naro-yi, but they both saw Morin flinch a little. “If you want him back, you will take your brother away from these people and come with us. We would hate to have to bear the news of your tragic death to the Ghost.” He paused, yellow eyes crinkling at the corners with what would likely be a chilling little smile, if it were visible beneath the kerchief. “In his state, it will be nothing at all to convince him that he brought it by his own hand.”

Morin nearly dropped Shig. “Where is he?”

A vague ripple shuddered at the edge of Goyo’s peripheral vision, and a presence that he knew and would ordinarily not welcome made itself known to him as the ripple moved, a sinuous quiver just at the verge of magical sight. It settled on the Incendiary’s blind side. And waited.

“They don’t have him,” Goyo put in calmly, and he neatly deflected the dart and the one that came after it with the flat of his sword, because he’d rather been expecting them. “I know where he is, young seyh. And whoever these… creatures are, they don’t have him.” He narrowed his eyes. “They want you because they think you’re how to get him.”

“He is already ours,” the imposter said, discarding the little throwing knife for one of the long knives as he adjusted his bearing again into one of offense. The three assailants with him popped back into sight behind him, all of them tense and in attack stance. “He just doesn’t know it yet.”

“What do you want from him?” Goyo asked, not really expecting an answer, mildly surprised when the imposter chuckled, something deep and bubbling that reminded Goyo somehow of black tar.

“We want our master’s property returned, of course,” was the answer. “We want what belongs to us.” He nodded to one of the others, said, “Get the woman too,” and they all broke into a swift advance.

Imara shot from spirit with a high-pitched war cry that grated right up Goyo’s spine, but he wasn’t about to complain. A wall of fire sprang up between Goyo and Naro-yi and the four black-clad assailants, just as Goyo saw the first of the Patrol round the corner down by the teahouse. He lost sight of it all for a moment, the flare of the fire blinding him and the flames themselves cutting him off from everything that wasn’t directly beside or behind him. He took a quick assessment of the others through the initial roar, squinted through watering eyes at Joori and Shig, and shouted, “Alive?” relieved when Samin nodded. Goyo turned to Morin, caught his still wide eyes, noted the fear and doubt in them and tipped a reassuring nod. It was all that could be done right now.

When the flames finally went from a great bellow to a steady shout, Goyo ran through them.

 

 

IMARA was not surprised when the so-delicate-as-to-almost-not-be-there thread that led to Shig stopped abruptly and left the spirits both upset and confused, looking for their “little niijun” and lamenting when they couldn’t find her. Nor was Imara really surprised at exactly where the thread stopped. She was a little nonplused that any of Kamen’s mortals would have known to come here, and somewhat dismayed that Naro-yi would permit it. Indeed, taken aback that Naro-yi had apparently gathered the stones to accompany them. Old and powerful as he was, Naro-yi much preferred the sedate life of a wealthy solicitor-investor-merchant-banker to that of the one he’d lived in more troubled times. Imara had entrusted her charges to him precisely because he avoided trouble.

She really should have known that once she got involved in Kamen’s affairs her entire world would lurch on its axis and everyone would start acting like idiots. Kamen was contagious that way, apparently even when he wasn’t around.

Imara didn’t emerge from the company of the spirits until she butted up against the wards surrounding the Gates of Rapture and had no choice. And when she saw what was going on, she backed away from the wards and waited. She tried to send out a shield to protect the mortals but could get nothing through, so she compromised by layering her own magic over Rihansei’s incomprehensible—but all too effective—protections.

The Patrol was coming, Imara could feel the interests of the spirits piquing as they neared, bright pinpoints of focus for them as they felt the spikes of excitement and then the rough-rumble of Goyo’s anger as the thing no longer wearing the Incendiary’s face said, “In his state, it will be nothing at all to convince him that he brought it by his own hand.”

Imara almost gave Goyo a prod, almost revealed herself to tell him that his indignant reaction to the affront was feeding this creature, strengthening it even as they faced off, but things began to slide dangerously all at once, and the best she could do was try for surprise. She roared as she burst from spirit, a long, ululating cry, remnant of a people to whom she once belonged, almost too long ago to remember. And when she called the fire to her hand, it came to her and splashed out at her command, feeding on itself and building a wall between the imposter and Kamen’s mortals. Unfortunately, it also cut off Goyo and Naro-yi, leaving Imara momentarily alone, unarmed, and facing four creatures with power she didn’t quite know what to do with, but it couldn’t be helped. Seven of the Patrol were skidding into attack range, and they would simply have to do.

“Capture if you can,” Imara shouted at the patrolwoman in the lead—Annaichi, a young maijin of Bear—then amended it with, “but risk nothing. Kill them all if you must.”

One of the black-clad figures lunged for her, and she whipped up a wind to carry her out of range faster than what her legs could’ve done. Goyo shot through the flames, sword raised and glittering, and joined those of the Patrol who had already engaged.

The creatures used the shadows to parry and distract, and Goyo and Annaichi fought back in kind, creating a vortex of whirling, smoky not-substance that faded in and out as it slid and spun and gyrated amongst the spark and flash of the fire. Wavering ripples of heat slithered into the mix, making it almost impossible for Imara to follow the action, only marking hits and attacks when blades clashed and voices cried out.

Two of the Patrol had taken up position in front of her, a protective stance, but she growled at them and snapped, “Get in there and help as you can,” because if these creatures wanted to come after her, mortals weren’t going to stop them. She held out her hand to the man closest to her and demanded, “Give me a weapon,” grimacing a bit when she found herself gripping only a short knife. She couldn’t blame the man, she supposed—she wouldn’t have given up a sword now, either.

Imara waded in, sliding into and out of shadow and then into and out of spirit, depending upon which defense she needed most at the time. The shadows were faster, but her earlier encounter with the not-Incendiary told her that spirit was the safer refuge. She backed up the mortals as she could, because they were taking the brunt as far as she could tell. She caught glimpses through the whirling battle in which Goyo and Annaichi were engaged only long enough to see they were at least a little blooded, but the six mortals had no defense against this magic but physical skill. Imara dodged and slipped around them, heading off attacks with quick swipes of the too-small knife then darting back into shadow or spirit again for a swift retreat.

Their magic wasn’t working against whatever these people were, though that didn’t stop Imara and Goyo and Annaichi from throwing it about in a constant stream. Imara threw flames that merely spattered around her targets—if they were even in the same spot when it landed as they’d been when she’d thrown it—but it merely scattered off them like a dash of water and dripped around them, harmless. Goyo seemed to know better than to try to conjure a storm or flood, but it didn’t stop him from attempting to cast small bolts of power that did nothing more than dissipate when they hit. Annaichi was new to her powers, and now she was making it too obvious, chucking it all haphazardly, not caring that it merely glanced off the creatures and bounced away. She’d already bashed in two storefronts, and chunks of street cobbles flew around in the confusing mix of shadows and physical bodies and clashing metal. It made holes in the streets into which a foot could misstep, or over which someone might trip in a crucial moment, but that was equally dangerous to either side.

One of the mortals went down with a long spike of a needle in his back, just below his shoulder blade. He fell right in front of Imara as she emerged once again from spirit. Every healing instinct she had urged her to go to him; instead she edged up as close as she dared to the flames and set her back to them. If she had to, she could dive through them and retreat behind Rihansei’s wards, then figure out what to do from there if these creatures won. For now, she couldn’t do much more than what she’d been doing and vow that, after this was all through, she was going to swallow any embarrassment and ask Goyo to help her find a suitable weapon to carry. She might even ask him to spar with her, brush up on too-old training she hadn’t used in too long, but that might be pushing things.

It was when Naro-yi parted the flames and walked through them, a blazing ball made of what looked like a strip of his torn coat in his hand, that the tide began to turn. Naro-yi merely stood there, watching the not-quite-visible battle with sharp attention, waiting patiently with fire in his hand, and when one of the creatures solidified to engage a mortal patrolman, he simply lobbed the flaming lump of fabric at the creature’s head.

Nothing magical about it, no maijin power against which these things were immune—physicality at its most basic and violent. The creature’s hood caught first, and then the hair beneath it. The man-shape dropped the long needles with which it had been fighting and began beating at its head. A patrolman took the opportunity to decapitate it. There was a grating curse from one of the others, and then the falling body burst into consuming flame—disembodied smoldering head and all. No way to identify it now, but Imara thought it rather likely that this one was on the list of the missing.

Imara looked at Naro-yi, who merely grinned back at her, said, “The young ones always forget the old tricks,” and then he tore off another bit of his coat.

It was unnecessary. Goyo and those of the Patrol still standing kept whirling and dodging for a moment or two, until it became apparent that they were fighting air. One by one, they stopped, but none of them relaxed their offensive stances and none of them stopped darting their gazes into nothing, squinting like it would help.

Naro-yi scowled, tossing the little ball of fabric in his hand up and down a few times, then he dropped it to the ground with a sigh. Like he was disappointed. Imara gave him a look, but Naro-yi merely shrugged. “It’s been a long time since one I’ve been told to make my enemy so clearly was.”

Imara’s eyebrows rose. Huh.

She was still eyeing Naro-yi with interest when Goyo sauntered up, a little bloody, a lot sweaty, and breathing hard. He jerked his chin behind Imara. “Could you maybe…?”

Imara shook herself and blinked, then waved the flames away, still a little thrown. She stood back while Naro-yi and Goyo both made their way back to Kamen’s mortals. Imara only paused long enough to make sure they were all still alive then turned her attention to those of the Patrol who needed healing. The man who’d fallen nearly at her feet was already dead when Imara reached him. A woman who was very quickly bleeding out from a wound to the chest took time, concentration, and care to heal, and though she’d be fine eventually, there would be a lot of rebuilding to do; two losses for the Patrol. The others had relatively minor injuries. Imara decided they could wait for a moment and went to see to Joori and Shig.

“… really matter if you’re right or wrong,” Annaichi was saying to Goyo when Imara got there. “Everything’s going to shit and the Incendiary is standing right in the middle of it all, wherever he is and whatever his intentions might be.”

“I don’t understand,” Morin put in, Naro-yi behind him with a hand on his shoulder. “Why would Jacin attack the governor?”

Imara jolted. What? “The governor was attacked?”

Annaichi opened her mouth to answer, but Goyo glared her into silence. “Dakimo was attacked,” he corrected. “The governor was, as always, in his proximity, and it appears she tried to… help.”

“Wolf’s temple too,” Annaichi put in. “And Owl’s.” Imara’s eyes widened, and she gave a start she couldn’t help, but Annaichi merely shrugged. “No one was harmed, but all of your priests and priestesses have been looking for you.”

Oh, brilliant.

“And they think Fen Jacin did it?”

“They know,” Annaichi put in, this time ignoring Goyo’s glare and lifting her chin defiantly. “The man was described as Jin, dark-haired and with gray eyes.” She looked pointedly at Joori. “Since the Incendiary’s twin has obviously not had such an opportunity, and since Dakimo’s magic could not touch the assailant, nor could anyone at the temple, it had to have been the Incendiary himself.”

“Or someone who looked like him,” Samin said through his teeth.

He was holding a bloodied strip of cloth around his hand, so Imara decided to distract his obviously building frustrations. She took up Samin’s hand and began unwrapping the makeshift bandage.

Samin tugged his hand away, not terribly gently. “See to Shig and Joori first.”

“Neither Shig nor Joori is bleeding,” Imara told him mildly. “Nor have they been poisoned.” She caught the narrowing of Samin’s eyes and softened her voice into the soothing tones she’d perfected through the centuries. “Whatever was in the darts was not meant to harm, and there is none. They are merely very deeply asleep. I will get to them once I’m through with those who have more immediate need.”

Mollified but still hostile, Samin cut an annoyed glance to Annaichi and let Imara take his hand back. “The man who attacked us was not Fen. I know him, I know how he fights, and that wasn’t him.” He hissed a little when Imara eased the cloth away from clotted blood and torn skin. “And I recognized one of them. I’ve fought her before too—the night banpair attacked and took Malick down. Kamen,” he corrected with a twist of his lip.

“Yeah,” Morin put in, standing between the crumpled forms of Joori and Shig, as though daring anyone to come at them, and with Naro-yi silently backing him up. “And Jacin doesn’t have magic. That man changed right in front of us. One second he looked like Jacin and the next he didn’t. Jacin can’t do that.”

“He has Kamen’s ring, no?” Annaichi asked.

Goyo jolted and blurted, “He has what?”

Imara cursed rather colorfully and snapped a glare up at Annaichi. “How did you know that?”

“Dakimo felt we should be informed.”

“Nice of Dakimo to think of that now,” Goyo snarled.

Imara sighed. “And is that, Snake’s-own, information you would have bandied about, if—?”

“I suppose not,” Goyo snapped. “Not if I was the one who’d lost him in the first place.”

“I didn’t lose him, he—”

“You lost the Incendiary, Imara, and tonight you almost lost—”

Wolf’s Incendiary, Goyo. Don’t pretend your interest has anything to do with concern.”

Anyone’s Incendiary, and once you lost him—wearing Kamen’s ring, for the love of all the gods—he lost Wolf’s protection too. Who knows what could—?”

“He wears Kamen’s ring because Kamen is an idiot. He left Wolf’s protection because he doesn’t know any better. The Incendiary is unstable, and ran before I could reas—”

The Incendiary,” Samin cut in, bristling with anger as he jerked his hand from Imara’s grip, “has a bloody name.” He glared between Imara and Goyo for several long seconds then turned the look on Annaichi for good measure. “Fen Jacin did not attack us tonight. Fen Jacin most likely also did not attack your governor. Fen Jacin is in trouble and likely needs help very badly, and you people are too busy arguing over who he belongs to, instead of figuring out where he is and why banpair want him so badly they’d try to kidnap his brothers to get him to come to them.”

He snapped a hard look at Annaichi. “Is the Patrol meant to capture and arrest him?”

Annaichi lifted an eyebrow and looked at Goyo. When Goyo nodded, she scowled and said, “Yes. My orders from Dakimo himself were to find Goyo and have him redouble the hunt.”

Samin’s eyes narrowed at Goyo. “Hunt?”

“The Incend—” Goyo cut himself off and tipped a conciliatory nod. “Fen Jacin is of interest to many. It is Dakimo’s theory that he is of special interest to the banpair that have been plaguing Mitsu. It was also his theory that if I found the Incendiary, I would find the banpair.”

Imara rolled her eyes. “He had you looking for him?”

Goyo’s lip curled and he opened his mouth, but Samin cut him off. “Brilliant. So, now these banpair have the whole city scrambling and all of the gods’ minions so fucking confused you can’t see the absurdly simple strategy of it all when it’s sitting right under your magical noses.”

Morin snorted a little and tried to turn it into a cough. Samin dropped him a blatant wink and looked at Imara, Goyo and Annaichi, one after the other, then shook his head, expression curling into undisguised disgust.

“It’s called ‘running to ground’. You find out where your target would hole up, and then you take away his hiding places. You find out what your target cares about, and then you take it hostage. You find out who trusts your target, and then you corrupt that trust until everyone and his brother is ready to hand the target over to you.” He looked at them all again, clearly annoyed, and then at Morin; his mien softened. “They’re after him but they don’t have him, lad. Your brother is still giving them a hell of a fight.”

It looked like Morin was caught between puffing his chest out in pride and crying. “So they don’t know where he is, either? Nobody does?”

Strangely, Samin lifted an eyebrow and peered at Goyo, expectant.

Goyo growled then shot a glare at Imara. “I can’t be certain,” he said with a grimace, “but I nonetheless am. If I’m not very much mistaken, he entered Rihansei’s Gate hours ago.”

Well, of course. Because Imara was still caught in Kamen’s trajectory and everything that could possibly go wrong would.

There was nothing for Imara to do but sigh. She shut her eyes and pinched at the bridge of her nose. “Just bloody brilliant,” she muttered.

 

 

“FEN… Jacin. Bloody hell.”

Jacin only closed his eyes, pushed his face into fine, soft sheets, and let his body mold into the mattress. Malick’s breath was damp and hot against his cheek and the side of his throat, shirring down to rake shivers from nape to tailbone. Jacin shut out everything but the heat and rhythm, the sticky fusion of skin on skin, the sense of not alone that he could only seem to catch when Malick pushed his body relentlessly into pleasure so his mind could just ride along and… fly.

He loved it this way. Malick preferred it face to face—I need to see you, so beautiful—but Jacin didn’t always want Malick to see. He liked the way he could almost disappear between sheet and skin, surrounded on all sides, safe in a world made of sensation and ground-out words he could acknowledge and believe for as long as it lasted.

“Fucking love you.”

Malick’s voice. Malick’s voice. Torn from shaky breaths and rasped to the cadence of long, agonizing strokes, the pleasure-pain of it too complex to narrow into word or even thought. It just was, and Jacin let it attach itself to the fizzy heat swarming under his skin, pooling down into a core that added to the physical weight of body but spiraled every other sense out into some soothing nowhere of mindless now. No intrusion of past failures, no fear of future defeats or regrets or weaknesses or losses. Only Malick’s body caging Jacin inside desire and slow-rolling passion, Malick’s voice and touch giving Jacin’s mind a tether to grasp or ignore while he drifted on dusky wings made of cherry blossom petals.

“Tell me, Jacin.” A harder shove that hitched Jacin’s breath in his chest. “Say it.”

Jacin stretched his arms out and up, taking hold of the sheets in two tight handfuls. Malick’s firm touch followed, rough palms sliding over Jacin’s shoulders, up his arms, long fingers closing over his fisted hands.

“Malick,” Jacin croaked, tried to push something more coherent through the mess of feeling and could only manage, “here, I’m… fuck, here, I….” because that usually worked, even when it wasn’t really true, and it seemed to be at least close to what Malick needed because he shuddered then shoved harder, picking up his rhythm.

“Yeah,” Malick agreed, all thick and gaspy-sounding, ground out, “Yeah,” again, and he slid his arm around Jacin’s torso, pulled his hips from their mindless slow humping of the mattress, and took hold of him.

Most of the time, Jacin didn’t even care if he managed to chase down orgasm. It wasn’t the point. Even so, Malick always took care of him. Always.

Long, firm strokes with a slight twist of the wrist at the end sent Jacin’s body out to meet his mind in that nowhere of sensual-sensuous ephemera of untainted feeling, the rush of now and nothing else, hitting every sense with blinding white. He spread the wings of his mind and coasted toward climax on the hard-fast thrusts of Malick’s body against and within, on the shaky groans pulling themselves from Jacin’s chest, meeting Malick’s in a resonant rasp of blissed-out near-harmony.

Fuck, yeah,” Malick growled—almost a snarl, really—right into the knobs at the top of Jacin’s spine. It sent more heat-shudders through him as he lingered in the in-between state of perfection of sensation just before it tipped into too much feeling. “Fucking beautiful,” Malick murmured, and Jacin slid right over the edge, groaning a little when he felt Malick follow, wallowing in the wondrous numb ecstasy that flooded his limbs and blanked his mind.

Yeah. Jacin would agree that everything was pretty beautiful right now.

He kept hold of the feeling—greedy and shameless—as Malick tipped them to the side, somehow melding their sweaty bodies closer, even as he pulled out. Jacin refused to feel the spark of emptiness, merely tangled his limbs agreeably with Malick’s as Malick gently tugged and adjusted until even Jacin couldn’t tell which parts were his and which were Malick’s.

It was a little chilly in the room, but Jacin didn’t even consider moving to find the covers yet. He only kept sucking in breath until it came a little more steadily and easily, feeling the sluggish prickles against his skin as the sweat cooled and evaporated and stirred the fine hairs all over his body.

“Never would’ve pegged you for a cuddler,” Malick mumbled into Jacin’s hair.

Jacin could actually hear the small smile in the rough voice. Not mockery, then. Merely one of those chattery little comments Malick couldn’t seem to help sometimes, his version of a compliment, though Jacin couldn’t figure how.

“Hmm,” was all Jacin said.

“I like it,” Malick told him. He tightened his grip to strengthen his point and sighed. “And it makes sense, I guess.”

Jacin frowned at that one, because it certainly didn’t make sense to him, but whatever. He didn’t need everything about Malick to make sense. And Malick didn’t require that Jacin make sense the majority of the time, so it was only fair. “Hmm,” Jacin said again then went silent.

Where are we, little Catalyst?

Out of nowhere, but right next to him too. He knew the voice but couldn’t place it.

Jacin had a vague feeling that it should surprise him, annoy him, maybe even frighten him. It didn’t. He was getting pretty tired of the “little” thing, though, but it was far away and… trivial. He took a long breath, greedy for pine-sage-sex.

Someplace… safe.

Had he ever told Malick that? He didn’t think he had, hadn’t thought he should or could, but now he wished he could make Malick know it. And then he wished he could beat Malick bloody for it, because he’d given it to Jacin, made him want it, and where had that gotten him in the end?

That does not matter. All that matters is right now. Everything else falls away but this when and this where. Are you safe here, little firebrand?

Jacin nodded, his vision going all glowy with a weird rosy patina that made everything feel warm. I’m safe here.

He sighed a little when Malick’s hands clamped tightly around his wrists. Tether. Safety. He was sitting now, with no recollection of having moved, but Malick was a firm heat against Jacin’s back, so it didn’t matter.

Then this shall be our touchstone. Deep breaths now.

Without thought, Jacin obeyed. He pulled in air weighted with the scent of Malick, sinking into the taste and feel of spent passion, the damp heat of the sheets and the firm muscle of Malick’s chest settled against Jacin’s back, the faint drips of condensation and the featherlight skittering of tiny jeweled creatures with sharp little teeth. The warmth of Malick’s breath slid over Jacin’s ear, down his neck, and over his shoulder.

You feel good, don’t you, little Catalyst? You are at peace. You are safe and where you want to be. Every part of your body is relaxed and heavy. You are warm and safe and calm.

Yes, Jacin slurred, tears setting a light burn to his eyes, because he felt really fucking good, and he couldn’t remember if he’d ever felt like this before.

You want this, don’t you? And you want to obey me so that I will let you have it again.

Yes. A sob this time.

Then we are ready. Open your eyes.

Jacin was afraid at first that he wouldn’t be able to, that his lids were simply too heavy, and everything would slip away from him because he’d failed this one small thing. But then he was blinking slowly, clearing blurry vision, until he focused on Rihansei, sitting in front of him in nothing more than an elaborate clout. His beard was twisted to lie over a thick shoulder, exposing his wide chest, covered in ink and designs that seemed to shift and animate themselves as Jacin watched.

“What is that?” Jacin asked, surprised that his raspy voice had so much presence. He’d half expected it to sound as far away as he felt.

“This,” Rihansei answered, “is only what you need it to be.” He brushed a white hand to his pectoral. “This is what you have been in this incarnation.”

Jacin watched, stricken and sickly fascinated as Malick’s face appeared, then melted into Joori’s then Caidi’s then Morin’s. He thought perhaps he sobbed when he saw his mother, but she told him, Don’t cry, love, so kind and soothing, so he choked it back. Everything he’d done, everything he’d been—it all spooled out before his eyes in living tattoos over snow-white skin. His father turning from him, Joori risking himself to hang on, Dani teasing him, Malick telling him things he was afraid to believe, and Asai telling him things he shouldn’t but did.

“No.” He wanted to look away, but he couldn’t. Like living it all again, but from far away this time, so he could see everything, and how could he see all this with such clarity when his head felt like it was stuffed with sand?

“You loved him.”

Not a question, but Jacin nodded and dug his fingers into Malick’s arm until Malick tightened his grip.

Every lie Asai had ever told Jacin was playing out in front of him, every manipulation that Jacin had refused to see around the blinders of obsessive adolescent love now paraded before his eyes in too-stark clarity. Cherry blossom petals began to fall, and Jacin let them comfort him as he watched Asai trick him and use him and pretend Jacin mattered to him.

Rihansei held out a hand to catch a few petals. “What do they mean, little Catalyst?”

Jacin wanted to say Death, but Caidi’s voice came to him as he sat in a carriage outside Yakuli’s gates and waited for Fate to find him. “Transience.”

“And where shall we go, then?” Rihansei asked.

Jacin couldn’t stop watching the swirls of ink come to life, couldn’t stop watching himself make mistake after mistake, couldn’t stop watching himself fail as his father went into the fire and Caidi fell and Morin put their mother to rest. Couldn’t even look away when he put a knife through Asai’s eye then cut his throat, and took perverse comfort through Malick’s touch as Jacin cracked Asai’s chest and stole the heart he’d tried and failed to win.

“Away,” Jacin answered, thick and choked, and he almost screamed out a grating sob when everything shifted. He was tumbling, falling, directionless and careening toward… he didn’t know, but there was a sense of Mother as bright light flared into his eyes and new lungs filled to push out a murky little squall, but hard hands snapped a merciless wrench to his neck and cut it off. An instant of pain as he floated away, and there was a bizarre disappointment to it all, a sense of going back, moving from where he didn’t want to be to a place he didn’t want to go, and he knew in that moment it would never end. He’d been broken too many times, he’d been broken only a moment before, and he was going to a place where he’d be broken again, and the reprieve had been only the few seconds it had taken a midwife to pull him from the womb and turn his neck. And then he was falling again, not even fooling himself that he was flying, trying to brace himself against… something—something he wanted but something he wouldn’t take, refused, again and again, because You’ve always known perfection is hopeless, even for gods—and he could almost see what it was, but the petals fell thicker, blotting out everything.

“Ah,” said Rihansei, white eyebrows high on his forehead, nascent shock all over his face. “You were not destroyed, then. Merely hidden.”

Jacin didn’t have time to ask what that meant; he was already plunging into another life, another incarnation, another braid weighting his neck and chaining him to Untouchable. Life after life, slow agony after slow agony, and all of them tethered to the braid that marked him, the voices that made his ruination a thing of shame and pity. Punishment, and he knew when that first wave of insanity hit him—every time, every life—he knew it was retribution, but he didn’t know from whom or for what.

He fell and fell and fell through life after life. Time after time he was born Untouchable, and time after time he went deeply and irrevocably insane. Four times he suffered the slow, excruciating pain of starvation as he raved and mumbled into the dirt from which he was too weak to raise himself. Once he somehow managed to find his way out of the camp and then wandered to the seaside, where he merely kept walking until the water closed over him. Five times he climbed and climbed and climbed, searching, seeking, not knowing for what, reaching for the heavens, and five times he threw himself down or merely fell.

And each time, the cherry blossom petals came, covered him, smothered him, and he knew they were obscuring something he needed to see, but he was just so fucking relieved they’d finally come that he couldn’t care.

“And that, little Fool,” Rihansei said gently, “is the only true failure, I think.”

Jacin was weeping, slow trickles stinging his cheeks. He had no answer, so he didn’t even try.

Rihansei held another bowl out to him, the tattoos on his arm swarming and curling into shapes Jacin didn’t want to see, so he shut his eyes. “It will not be so easy as all of that,” Rihansei told him, soft with sympathy but still implacable as he put the bowl to Jacin’s lips. “The veil of transience is not of your making, but it must be breached if you are to surpass it in this incarnation.”

Jacin didn’t care. He didn’t want to know. He growled and turned his face away, but Malick held him still. Jacin fought, throwing himself against the restraint, not daring to cry out, because if he opened his mouth, Rihansei would pour that drug down his throat and then he’d have no choice.

“Malick,” he wheezed, teeth clenched. “Don’t. Don’t let him.”

Malick’s hands tightened around Jacin’s wrists—hard, like shackles, blood dripping down Jacin’s arms—and an army of the tiny lizards stared at him from Rihansei’s flanks. Jacin couldn’t move. He could only flail ineffectively as Rihansei clamped a hard hand to the hinge of Jacin’s jaw, poured the tea down his throat, and then closed a hand over his mouth, pinching his nose ’til he had no choice but to swallow or choke. Two more little lizards had latched on during the struggle, bright little pinpoints of burning acid on Jacin’s thigh and his collarbone where their teeth sank in and their venom washed through him.

“You fight too hard against the one thing that might save you.” Rihansei sat back and shook his head, twisting his beard back over his shoulder again so that the tattoos on his chest were unobscured. “And yet always you fight for a purpose, even if you don’t know what that purpose is.” He waved at the petals, still falling steadily. “This is not of your making, little lost Fool, this shroud that covers those paths your soul journeys when it is not locked into mortal flesh.” He paused, leaned in, and shoved his palm in front of Jacin’s nose, the fragrance of the petals cloying and thick, making Jacin’s head spin, the scent of jasmine leaking in and making him want to retch. “This is what you fight, little Catalyst. It is both what you fear and what you crave. Only when you break through this veil will you understand those things that drive you toward despair and impossibility. Bind yourself to the safety that embraces you, hold to it, for you will walk this path.”

Jacin heard it as if from miles away. Everything was too fuzzy, too thick. Malick’s hands on him were like chains, and yet he didn’t want to fight against it anymore. Safety. Love. Hope. Had he ever known what hope was?

“I want to,” Jacin breathed. “So badly. I want… I….”

“You have no idea what you want.”

It echoed, then curled around him, suffocating.

You have no idea what you want, little Ghost. You need your beishin to show you.

I don’t.

“No, you do not,” Rihansei said steadily. As though it had been spoken aloud, but Jacin really didn’t think it had been. “When you believe that fully, perhaps then you will learn to reach for those things you both want and need. Until then, you will not be Fate’s Incendiary, but merely the tool of any who offer the lies you want to hear.”

“Let me go,” Jacin wheezed, nearly soundless, and he tugged a little at the chains—no, at Malick’s grip—but he hardly even managed a weak yank. “Please. I don’t want—”

“You are a dangerous wild card. And I don’t think you really want to be let go.” Rihansei swept a hand over his chest, stirring ink and lines and swirls. “Hold to your safety.” He smiled a little when Jacin obediently gripped Malick’s arms and pulled them tighter. “When you leave my Gate, you will be Fate’s Incendiary, for good or ill, and you will have the resources within to keep that which you would have for yourself.” He gripped Jacin’s hand in a comforting hold and waved again at the thick fall of petals. “This obscures you from yourself. You will push it aside and we will look—together. No more dallying in useless lives. All the way back to the beginning now. Say ‘yes’, little Catalyst.”

All the way back to the beginning. “Yes,” Jacin whispered

 

~~~~

 

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