Excerpt--Wolf's-own, Book Three: Koan
Malick had always been enamored with
Even in the time he thought of as
Before—back when he was mortal; back before he’d seen the
terrifying delicacy and elegance of life, of the Balance of the
gods, of the universe, of a single beat of a mortal heart—he’d
admired beautiful things, beautiful people. He collected them,
studied them, until he found something yet more beautiful and
redirected his attention. Umeia told him quite often that his
attention span was that of a two-year-old child; she would
change her opinion eventually and tell him his attention span
was actually that of a gnat.
His mother was the first to have held his
attention. Not for aesthetic reasons, though yes, she’d been
quite beautiful. Then again, didn’t every son think so of his
mother? Still, the lines of her face and the drape of her hair
had not been the things that Malick had heeded.
The carefree nature with which she’d
approached life; the hard practicality with which she’d lived
it; the gentle but stern hand with which she’d led her
children—those were the things that Malick had seen beneath the
near-perfect set of her cheekbones and the supple tilt of her
mouth. But the ferocity with which she’d tried to defend herself
and her children, when their father decided he wanted his family
back and that a knife and a cudgel was a good way to get
them—that was what had solidified her place in Malick’s heart
forever. Turned a poor, mortal woman into something tragic and
iconic, an ideal to which no one else could even attempt to
Malick thought perhaps he’d caught Wolf’s
eye that same night, when his thirteen-year-old self—still all
knees and elbows, but under the delusion that shock and grief
and rage really could turn him into a giant—had driven off their
father with his own cudgel. Malick was only sorry he hadn’t
killed him. Sorrier that he’d taken the time to grieve his
mother and let his father slip away like a ghost into the
darkness. That single regret kept his attention for years.
Umeia had been rather secondary in
Malick’s attention, ’til then.
She was beautiful in a different way,
almost up there on their mother’s pedestal in Malick’s heart,
but not quite. More their father’s daughter, really, with his
looks and his disposition, and that streak of temper that turned
to violence in their father, but in Umeia veered into protective
instinct. She’d get violent, surely, if anyone threatened her
own, and Malick was certainly her own. But she’d also come into
their mother’s pragmatism, somewhere along the way, and she was
wily, Umeia, so she hardly ever had to opt for violence. Brains,
brass, and boobs, Malick would tell her, always laughing and
with a snarky grin, and he’d generally get a healthy swat for
it, but he’d also get real smiles and cackles, and sometimes
even a hug.
She’d been sixteen when their father
killed their mother and Malick had almost killed their father.
She’d had four genuine offers of marriage when it had happened,
even without a dowry or a swath of fallow dirt to bring to a
binding bed, and then another three afterward. She’d refused
them all, taken Malick out of Kente and to Thecia on money she’d
made selling everything they owned, had taught him cards and
charm and petty fraud by the time they’d gotten there, and set
him loose on the unsuspecting.
Malick had known he was aesthetically
pleasing; now he knew what to do with it.
He’d loved all of his marks. Every one of
them. Strange, though, how their beauty didn’t seem to hold up
to constant scrutiny. Blemishes of the soul were a lot harder to
see than those of the flesh, but they almost always revealed
themselves eventually. And then the beauty would fade for
Malick, and the love would go with it, and he’d move on to a new
love, a new purse to plunder, a new body to debauch, because
none of them ever complained about the debauching. Malick had
always made it a point to be very good at everything he did, and
sex was just something else he did.
He didn’t have to trick or steal their
purses from them. They handed him fortunes without him ever
having to ask.
Beautiful women had left their husbands
for him. Beautiful men had threatened to lock him up and keep
him for themselves. Only one had ever really tried it. Umeia had
helped to dump the body in a swamp when Malick was through with
“Someone like that doesn’t deserve the
fire,” she’d told Malick, satisfied. She’d been one of the most
beautiful women he’d ever seen, in that moment.
He didn’t know if Wolf had been watching
him all along, but he thought probably. It had been Desi,
though, that had made Wolf decide that perhaps Malick might have
his uses. Malick knew this because he’d had the audacity to ask.
Beautiful, of course, they all were, in
their own ways. Desi had been special. Malick supposed that
might just be because Desi had been taken away before Malick had
found her flaws, and so she would therefore remain always
beautiful in Malick’s memories. Still, though, Desi had been
Sold to a Thecian lord when she’d been
six, coddled, really, perhaps even a bit spoiled, and taken to
the old man’s bed when she’d been twelve. She’d been seventeen
when Malick had first seen her, her purse heavy and her dark
eyes handing him an easy in.
She’d learned her art just as thoroughly
as Malick had, and that bit of fractured steel inside her,
covered over with layer after layer of silk, had bitten him
deeply. She had fire in her, did Desi. Smothered to near
suffocation beneath the oppression of captivity disguised as
wealth and favor, but it was there, and she’d kept it kindling
for over a decade. Here was one whose beauty was her strength,
and whose strength was her beauty, he remembered thinking. Here
was one who could laugh and bite and moan and snarl, and yet he
thought she might—maybe—accept a cudgel to her beautiful
face for her children, should she ever be blessed with them. Or
cursed. Her lord was rather an old, ugly little man.
Malick had Desi twice, and then he didn’t
see her again until her mutilated body had been displayed on the
gates of her lord’s manor. FAITHLESS, the placard had
Malick hadn’t wept. He hadn’t lost
control. He hadn’t done anything but stare, mark each score and
welt on what had been flawless ebony skin, mark each bruise and
slash on her bloodied, disfigured face. Knowing, knowing,
that Desi would go unavenged and unmourned, because she was
chattel, and a man could do as he pleased with what he owned.
Malick wouldn’t understand it for many
years, but he thought now that that was the moment he became
Kamen, even before Wolf had turned him. Back then, he’d only
understood that justice didn’t come for everyone; sometimes you
had to go and get it.
So he’d watched.
And he’d waited.
And then he’d hunted.
It wasn’t easy. It took patience. It took
charm. It took finding the right people and asking the right
questions. It took amiably bedding those he didn’t even want to
touch and wringing secrets from their mouths as he wrung orgasm
from their bodies. It took finding that sliver of cruelty, a
legacy of his father, and letting it blossom, take root,
Malick didn’t only take care of Desi’s
lord in her honor—he took care of every man in the lord’s employ
who’d marked her, who’d taken her broken body and used it as
she’d spent her last breath on a cry of agony. Malick made them
scream just as loudly and desperately as he was sure Desi had
done in the end. Malick was thorough. Malick was methodical.
Malick hunted them down, one by one, and showed them what
“merciless” really meant. And when the last two had divined the
too-obvious pattern and fled, Malick had stalked them across two
cities and the reach of a sterile wasteland between, and taken
care of them too. Thoroughly and methodically.
Wolf had taken him then, made him Kamen,
and Malick-now-Kamen had dragged Umeia with him.
A whole new sort of beauty opened up to
the Temshiel Kamen, Wolf’s-own. The beauty of vastness
and things unseen by mortal eyes, and knowledge impossible to
attain within the narrow stretch of a mortal life.
Hunting was easier now. It took him almost
two decades to learn how to use the spirits properly, how to be
just cruel enough to be sure you were getting the answers you
needed, but not so cruel as to hasten their slow slide into true
insanity. Malick did Wolf’s bloody work while he learned, and
when he’d learned enough, he’d hunted down his father—an itch in
the back of his mind for years—and made his mother’s
murderer look him in the eye, know his son, as Malick
strangled him. A knife would have been quicker, a simple surge
of power easier, but he’d wanted to feel the pulse slow and
sputter, he’d wanted to watch the life spark out of those eyes
that were too like his own.
Malick generally got what he wanted.
Wolf’s law wouldn’t allow Malick to bury
the corpse and so bind his father to the earth. Malick sulked a
bit as he watched the pyre, but he obeyed. He was Kamen
Wolf’s-own, and he respected his god.
And then, out of the blue and all
unlooked-for, there had been Skel.
Malick hadn’t been impressed by Skel’s
perfect face. Malick hadn’t been impressed by Skel’s raven-black
hair, or his cobalt eyes, or the lines of his body, or the way
he moved it.
Malick had been impressed by the carefree
nature with which Skel approached life; the hard practicality
with which he lived it. Skel was fierce and beautiful and
whimsical and foolish. When he’d tested Malick in a seedy
tavern—Malick somewhat drunk and grieving his mother all over
again, grieving all those he’d already outlived, still smelling
of the smoke and incense from his father’s pyre, and wondering
if acquiescing to being the bloody hand of Wolf’s long arm on
mortal lands had been such a brilliant idea after all—Malick had
been struck not by the pleasing angles of Skel’s face, or the
open invitation in his too-blue eyes; Malick had been struck by
the tiny hints of fracture behind the reckless audacity. The
singular pinpoint of satori that Skel was just as broken inside
as anyone else; perilous enough to be interesting, and yet still
Skel was Temshiel. Skel couldn’t
He’d been beautiful in his way, in more
than the aesthetic sense, though he was of course
extraordinarily aesthetically gifted. His sense of justice was
perhaps a bit rigid, to Malick’s mind, but it lit his soul with
such a bright fiery blaze sometimes that Malick couldn’t look
away. Blinded. Skel was beauty and distraction and laughter and
forgetfulness. Skel was friend and sometime-lover; touchstone
and confidant; role model and bad example.
Malick had thought Skel wouldn’t take a
cudgel to the face for anyone. He’d been wrong.
There had been Asai and foolish choices
and betrayal and bewildered grief, and then there had been no
Malick finally felt the true weight of
what he was. What he’d chosen. What his god had made him, and
what he’d allowed himself to become. Malick looked Kamen in the
eye, and… flinched.
Umeia didn’t need to. Umeia was much
better than Malick at being what they were. Still, Umeia had
come with him. Malick would regret that eventually, but at the
time, he’d been grateful.
Always enamored with beauty, and now it
hovered just out of Malick’s reach. No matter how many drinks he
poured down his throat, no matter how many beds he fell into. He
searched for it in the wrong places—pink lips, light-stubbled
chins, firm breasts, muscled backs, pleasing faces,
sweet-scented skin—he knew he was looking in the wrong
places, but he couldn’t bear to look within. If he found it, he
might lose it. He loved with little splinters of himself he
didn’t mind risking, and nursed with liquor and more liquor the
shriveled part of his spirit that hunkered inside him and
hardened into a snarling little knot.
He observed the world around him with
ever-growing contempt, nurturing his useless craving for
vengeance, while he watched and waited.
And then, out of the blue and all
unlooked-for, there had been Fen.
Malick had thought, right up until Fen had
shot him that first hate-filled glare, that he’d been waiting
for a chance at retribution. He’d been wrong.
He’d thought at first that he was enamored
with Fen’s aesthetic beauty. Angular and sharp-boned, every
slant and slope in exactly the right place. Eyes like storm
clouds over a roiling sea, flecked through with the light of the
suns forcing their way from the other side in scattershot amber.
And oh bloody hell, the fucking hair.
He’d thought it was Fen’s face: perfectly
proportioned, perfectly angled, perfectly exquisite. He’d
thought it was Fen’s body: deliberately sculpted and honed, and
all the more beautiful for the intrigue of the scarred map of
self-inflicted sanity. He’d thought it was Fen’s hair: an
outward symbol of inward bondage, and the bit of rebellion in
the choppy fringe that hid his eyes, but never well enough. He’d
thought it was the way Fen moved and glared and spoke and
sneered. He’d thought it was the way Fen snarled and spat and
fought and came this close to actually winning.
And it was. It was all of those things.
Except all of those things Malick could have walked away from.
And yet somehow, he couldn’t walk away from Fen. Malick told
himself it was because he just didn’t want to.
Fen was not whimsical. There was no
laughter with Fen. Fen’s approach to life was not carefree.
Fen’s approach to life was wholly self-destructive, and yet Fen
wouldn’t permit that destruction until he’d saved everyone he
loved. The way Fen loved was, in and of itself, a prelude
to suicide. Fen was not safe.
Fen was a black hole, all unknown and
unwilling, sucking those around him into hopeless orbit. Malick
had passed the event horizon almost the moment he’d plunged into
amber-shot gray banded by indigo.
Not merely fractured inside, but
shattered, and yet Fen wouldn’t just accept a cudgel to his
beautiful face for those he loved; Fen would wield one. Fen
would learn the heft of it, how to swing it with the most
precision, which point of the body to target, and he’d do it
better, faster, and with a strange elegance that wasn’t elegant
at all, but still dangerously seductive. He’d take your cudgel
to the face, then snatch it away from you and very efficiently
set about killing you with it. And then he’d make you thank him
for letting you take the image of his terrible radiance to hell
There was a feral beauty in that sort of
brutality, one that took that pedestal Malick had set in his
heart, decades and lifetimes ago, and rocked it. One that made
it all too imperative for him to irrevocably accept Kamen into
Kamen was necessary to save Fen and
Jacin and Jacin-rei. Malick was necessary to care enough
to keep the trinity from splintering into irretrievable pieces.
Kamen Malick was necessary to show Fen that living in the
same skin with all of the parts of himself, without losing any
of them, was possible.
It had, apparently, never really been
about aesthetics for Malick.
There were probably some things Shig would
tell him, things about broken dolls and wanting to fix them, or
damsels and wanting to rescue them; Umeia would speculate that
Fen’s unwilling and oh so carefully hidden vulnerability
appealed to Malick’s predatory instincts. Malick knew some of
those things might be a little bit true, but they weren’t all of
It was the beauty in the shards of a riven
soul; it was the beauty in watching that soul pick up each
jagged piece, examine it, judge its worth, then discard it with
learned indifference, or fit it back into the mosaic of Self,
use it. The very tragic beauty in watching Fen do all of
that not for himself but for everyone else. A cudgel to the face
was nothing, when compared to forcing life and sanity you really
didn’t want on yourself because someone else needed you to.
Malick would have liked to say he’d known
he was in trouble from the start. He’d dismissed it when Samin
warned him, scoffed when Umeia did. Umeia thought she knew him,
but she only knew Malick; she’d never understood Kamen. Malick
had told Umeia she was being absurd, she didn’t know what she
was talking about, and in many ways she hadn’t. Still, in that
one thing, she’d seen when he had refused to, and it had almost
cost him everything.
He’d denied he was in deep when he’d
watched the trinity that was Fen shatter then rebuild itself on
a lonely road in the middle of the night; he’d denied it when
he’d watched Fen put a knife through the eye of the man he’d
loved nearly all his life then pry his heart from his chest and
stomp it; he’d denied it when he’d spoken the words and told
himself he’d only said them because Fen needed to hear them.
He’d even denied it when he’d found himself not just willing but
eager to break the laws of his gods to save Fen.
When Fen stepped in front of Kamen’s
sword, Malick couldn’t deny it anymore. When Malick understood
what had been hidden beneath “Untouchable” as life bled from the
wound Kamen had inflicted, Kamen stepped in again and forced
life where it was not wanted.
He remembered wondering if Wolf had known
all along, if it had all been planned exactly as it had played
out, and he supposed it was likely. If Husao had seen all of the
esoteric and mercurial reasons why Fen would become life and
breath for Malick, it was almost blasphemous to imagine that
Wolf hadn’t. Just as blasphemous for Malick to raise his fists
to the sky and curse Wolf for it, though he sometimes did it
Kamen never did. Kamen understood. Malick
grudgingly admitted that he did too.
Asai had failed mostly because he’d
underestimated Fen, but partly because he’d only glimpsed Malick
through Skel. Asai had known Kamen; he’d never known Malick.
Kamen was Wolf’s, but Malick was Fen’s,
and he would no longer deny it. For Fen, Malick could be just as
fierce and merciless as Kamen ever was.
It wasn’t going to be easy, showing Fen
what he was now, watching as Fen came to understand the
necessity of living. The onus now strapped to his back of doing
so for others yet again. It was hard and cruel and just fucking
tragic, and Malick bled with it.
Cruelty had never come easily to Malick;
Kamen, however, had been born of it, had suckled at the teats of
ruthlessness and brutal malice.
And he was, after all, neither Kamen nor
Malick, in truth; he was one or the other and neither and both.
He was Kamen Malick. He was Wolf’s-own.
So, then. Wolf’s will be done.
There was a vicious sort of beauty in
Change-month, Year 1322, Cycle of the
“It’s a panther,” Samin said, fairly
confident, though he’d never seen a real one. The fact that this
one seemed a docile, playful thing, and not the sly, vicious
beast he remembered reading about once upon a time, gave him
some doubt, but the black, glossy coat and the teeth were rather
indicative, so he stuck with his assessment.
“Panther,” Morin breathed, fascinated. He
peered up at Samin, asking.
Samin merely shrugged then watched as
Morin crossed the street and approached the woman who held the
big cat’s leash. The apparent mascot of The Lucky Panther
Theater in front of which it lounged, the panther’s ears pricked
up a little as Morin neared, its yellow eyes attentive but only
mildly so, its concentration more on the thorough stroking the
woman was giving its lazily switching tail. Several men waiting
in the queue for a serving of vinegary rice rolled in spicy tuna
from the little booth next door eyed the panther with interest,
but they appeared to be more intent on lunch than entertainment.
Samin couldn’t hear what Morin said to the woman as he pulled up
in front of her, but she smiled wide then threw her head back
and laughed, and nodded assent. She looked up and winked at
Samin as Morin dared a touch to the panther’s head. The great,
rumbling purr of the thing—that Samin could hear.
“Aren’t you going to pet it?” he asked
Shig squinted over her shoulder with a
twist of her eyebrows then followed the tilt of Samin’s chin
across the street. She looked the panther over critically for a
moment then dismissed it. “Naw. Too tame.”
Samin snorted. If it was tearing through
the streets and ravaging innocent passersby, then she’d
probably try petting it. Shig was definitely unique. Samin was
still smiling and watching Shig tease a rat-sized monkey—waving
the last piece of her fried sticky dough on the end of a stick
as the monkey chittered at her from its perch atop its owner’s
fruit stall—when Morin ambled back across the street, flushed
“Aw, that big thing with all those teeth
and you still have all your fingers?” Shig finally let the
monkey have the pastry, chuckling when it snatched the stick
from her, too, then waved it at her with an indignant squawk.
“How are you going to get yourself any lovely battle scars to
attract the girls if you won’t tease vicious animals properly?”
“What are you talking about?” Morin shot
right back, grin stretching. “I tease my brothers all the time.”
Samin shook his head and ruffled Morin’s
hair then gave him an affectionate cuff. He was glad they’d come
along. Besides getting accosted every five seconds by some
hawker or stall owner trying to shove their wares down his
throat, Samin was having fun.
“C’mon, then,” he said and chivvied Morin
and Shig ahead of him along the market’s crowded thoroughfare.
“I think the smoke shop is down that way,” he told Shig. The day
was getting on, and Joori would probably be fretting by now. Not
that Joori fretting was anything unusual, but they’d been out
and about long enough for Samin’s feet to start hurting anyway,
and he didn’t like to cause any of the boys distress if he
didn’t have to. Balancing Morin’s wish to go everywhere and see
everything right now with Joori’s inability to leave Fen
to his own devices and keep both Fen and Morin in his sight at
all times was a little bit taxing, but Samin did what he could.
Anyway, Samin agreed that Fen shouldn’t be left unsupervised
just yet, and with Malick out for the morning on some mysterious
errand, Samin had approved of Joori staying behind. At least
this time. Samin rather thought—
Samin didn’t growl as the young man with
the funny little spectacles caught his sleeve. He must’ve
scowled, though, because he was let go immediately, and the
strange young man backed up a pace with a quick assessing glance
at Morin and Shig.
“Ah,” said the young man and dipped his
head on a small nod. “I apologize, but….” He trailed off and
again looked at Shig.
Shig smiled, all friendly welcome. “It’s
your business, after all.”
Samin had no idea what that meant, but he
followed Shig’s gaze to the little stall from where the young
man had leapt and raised his eyebrows. Necessities was
written on a small placard and nailed to one of the posts
holding up the stall’s roof.
Morin was frowning, taking the young man
in. On the small side but wiry-looking, and dressed in loose
tunic and trousers that looked like he’d put them together with
a disparate array of eye-wateringly bright handkerchiefs. Dark,
sleek hair was gathered neatly into a long, loose tail at his
nape. His smile was small but sincere enough beneath those
strange violet spectacles, and he offered a deferential manner
to Samin that Samin was still trying to figure out when Morin
stepped in a little.
“Ooh,” said Morin. “Lookit the fish.”
The booth was rather plain, compared to
the others they’d seen down around the main square where the
temples sat. As they got closer to the Ports District and the
inn where Malick had put them, the atmosphere grew just a touch
seedier, but still not seedy.
Bamboo shelves stood prominent in this
man’s shabby booth, one lined with little bowls containing a
single fish each. Ruby-colored and cobalt, velvety black and
silklike jade—their fins were long and flowing, as though decked
in the formal robes of the Adan. Samin privately decided they
were pretty enough, but they looked rather bored and sickly, and
he hoped he wasn't going to have to talk Morin out of one.
Shig was rather bolder than Morin: she
stepped around him and right up to the young man, who watched
her, patiently expectant, with a serene smile on his somewhat
pretty face. Shig turned her grin on him and dipped her colorful
head in a respectful bow. She offered her hand, but not as
though she meant to shake with the young man. “Seyh,” was all
she said, then she put her hand palm up in front of her and
The young man's mouth split in a dazzling
grin, and his small hand settled atop Shig's. “Ah,” he said with
a knowing nod, “a child of Wolf, with the kiss of your god upon
your brow. You've the mark of the spectral domain all about you
like invisible skin.” He closed his eyes briefly, a light frown
beetling his thin brown eyebrows, before he peered at Shig with
keen interest. “You've lost your cursed gift, girl. Have you
come to seek it again?”
Samin's eyebrows shot up, and he leaned in
to make sure he didn't miss anything. Did that mean what he
thought it meant?
“I'm here to learn from my god if he
wishes me to have it,” Shig answered.
Which was certainly news to Samin. He
hadn't even known it was possible, and now he wondered if he
even liked the idea.
Shig was still grinning, but her tone was
strangely somber. “I didn't lose it, seyh—it was taken from me
when the Ancestors went home.”
“Ah!” the man said again, eyebrows
rising, making the spectacles slide a bit down the bridge of his
nose. “Not Jin, though.” He enveloped Shig's hand in both of
his. “Half-Blood, then,” he said with a satisfied nod. He peered
at Morin now, renewed interest in his gimlet gaze. “I've not
seen a full-Blood before.” He smiled again when Morin took a
small step back, wary, but the young man didn't look offended.
“Fear not, young Jin. You are not in Ada, where I hear even now
your kind struggle for that which they know not how to grasp.”
Morin frowned; he looked like he was
trying to decide if he should be insulted or not. “What does
It meant that just because the Adan had no
more cause to fear and imprison the Jin, it didn't necessarily
mean that the troubles of the Jin were over. The gossip Samin
had heard coming from across the sea had not been entirely good
news, and with every additional report, he was just as happy to
be well-rid of it all. He'd seen no reason to trouble the boys
with it, and definitely not Fen; he hoped he wasn't going to
have to shut up this nice-seeming stranger.
“You will know when it is time, I've no
doubt,” the young man answered with a knowing smirk for Samin
that Samin didn't like at all. The man patted Shig's hand then
released it. “Fate is not yet done with any of you, I think.”
“Well, I'm done with Fate,” Morin muttered
and picked up a walking stick that had been propped against the
support post beside him.
“That, young seyh,” the young man chided,
“is not what you need,” and he took the stick from Morin’s
hands. The young man set a protective hand about the wolf’s head
that topped the stick and peered at it closely, as though
looking for damage, before he slipped it under a table weighted
down with what Samin could only think of as junk. “Someone else
will be by for it eventually, no doubt,” the young man said then
pushed up the spectacles and peered at Samin again, as though
waiting for him to say something.
“No doubt,” was all Samin could think of.
He gave Morin a little nudge. “Come on, have your look so we can
go. D’you want a fish or not?”
“Eh,” said Morin, attention diverted once
again to the bamboo shelves and their bowls. “I just thought
they were interesting. They looked better from farther away,
Samin nodded. “Is that all they do? Just
float about and stare?”
“You thought they might juggle?” The man’s
smile was not unkind as he loosed a thready little giggle into
his sleeve. “Here now, girl, back away before you bring it all
down on my head.” He shooed Shig away from where she'd been
dipping her fingers into one of the bowls; she went with a
smirky little smile and a wink at Samin. “Think you they serve
no purpose, eh?” The young man seemed to be talking to himself
as he pulled down two apparently random bowls and brought them
carefully over to set them on the table before Morin. “Sometimes
the purpose of a thing is merely to share its beauty with the
world.” An impish grin spread across his face as he scooped his
hand into one of the bowls, dumping a satiny garnet fish into
the bowl of one that looked like liquid turquoise. “And
sometimes, the beauty merely hides its purpose.”
The reactions were immediate: droplets
splashed up and out as the fish went for each other with a
viciousness that surprised Samin. From floating placidly in
their separate bowls like lumps of pretty jewels, to blood in
the water in a second and a half. Morin only stared steadily,
like he was analyzing tactics or something, thoughtful.
The young man snorted a little and turned
his attention back to Shig. Boldly, he tugged at a stray green
curl that had come loose from the striated tail at her nape.
“Such a beacon to the spirits you must have been, girl. Bravery
or arrogance?” He dropped a quick, knowing wink. “Or brave
Shig let loose a small giggle; if Samin
didn't know better, he'd think she was flirting. “Necessity,”
she told the man with a sly glance at the placard that
apparently was meant to describe his business. “The spirits can
be difficult, but also useful, if one can master them.”
“Mastery!” The man's eyes went wide, and
he reared back the slightest bit. “It is no wonder, then, that
Wolf looks so fondly upon your own spirit.” He dipped his head
in an echo of the respectful bow Shig had given him a moment
“Um… I think….” Morin’s face was screwed
up in mild revulsion. He peered at the young man, then gestured
him over. “I think the blue one won.”
Ech. Samin's lip curled a little at the
bloody bowl, and the blue fish once again floating placidly in
the middle of it, the mangled fins of the other fanning down
over its back from where it hovered, dead, just beneath the skin
of the water.
Morin just kept staring at it, a deep
furrow in his brow. He didn’t shift his glance as the young man
wordlessly dipped his hand into the bowl, caught the victor and
dumped it unceremoniously into the empty bowl and set it back on
It took a moment, but Morin eventually
shook himself. “What are those made from?” He cut a meaningful
glance at a row of amulets, a little bit challenging, maybe, but
he didn't seem to want to dare to actually touch them.
“From the earth, the sweat of my brow, and
the blessing of my gift,” the man answered.
Morin narrowed a skeptical look upward.
The young man nearly choked. “Never!” He
waved an imperious hand out in a sweeping gesture. “The Adans’
ways are not ours, young full-Blood. Look away from your past
oppression, or you may lose forever the ability to see beyond
Samin's mouth thinned down. It was quite
possible that the advice was good, but this man had no idea what
a Jin’s life was like in Ada. It wasn't his right to chastise
Morin for bearing scars and keeping his—in Samin's
opinion—healthy suspicions because of them.
“The oppression is not so long past,”
Samin put in, warning. “The boy's got a right.” Before the young
man could sputter a reply, Samin jerked his chin at the table.
“Do these come with the spells to use them, or is that extra?”
Because that was how these hawkers worked: the product was
usually cheap, but the key to using it dear.
“Not spells,” the man corrected, gathering
his dignity about him like a cloak. “Prayers.” He stepped behind
the table, dismissed Samin, and shifted his attention to Morin.
“You will find many things the same here,” he said, “but also
many things different. We do not command our magic with spells;
we ask of it. We ask the gods to bless us in its use. Only
Temshiel and maijin have the right of control. We merely
pray for the blessing of favor.” He picked up an amulet made of
ruby that sparked like blood when he held it up to the light.
“Merely focus,” he said. “An orison from my hand to yours. You
will find no one of the Craft who will promise an answer to all
of your prayers—only that the gods will hear them.”
An abrupt upswell of music blatted from a
small stage set up across the busy street, nestled between a
cut-rate fish market that smelled cut-rate, and a candle shop
that was apparently trying to overpower the nasty fish smell
with nasty perfumed wax. Morin immediately lost interest in the
vendor and turned his eyes across the street, wonder and
pleasure blossoming over his expression as a puppet show began.
Samin only sighed as Morin bolted away,
the young man and his booth and his fish forgotten completely.
With a polite nod to the young man and a snatch at Shig’s arm,
Samin followed after Morin. Shig looked like she was going to
dip into sullen, but then her gaze caught the show, as well, and
she smiled before running to catch up and take a place in the
watching crowd beside Morin as the puppets began their larking.
Samin ambled leisurely up to the outskirts
of the audience, watching Morin and Shig almost as much as he
watched the show, taking in their expressions and smiling over
them like a proud father, and he didn't even let that thought
embarrass him. A man could do worse than this brood.
A tug at his sleeve pulled his gaze down
and to the right, to see the young man from the booth giving him
that serene, knowing smile over his spectacles as he pushed
something chill and smooth into Samin's hands. “For the boy,”
the man said.
Samin looked down, eyebrows shooting
upward, and confusion pushing aside the pleasure of a moment
ago. He was holding a fishbowl. A fucking fishbowl. A
full fucking fishbowl. With a fish flopping around in it.
What the hell?
“The lad needs no luck or protection,” the
man went on. “Wolf has already marked him. No small thing,
that.” He set his hands around Samin’s and forced a firmer grip
on the bowl, paused as laughter at the puppets’ antics swelled
and drowned out whatever he was going to say, then continued,
“The obvious is almost always a mask.” He paused again as music
started up, then patted Samin's hands and released them. “If
there is equilibrium to be found, it will be the Kurimo that
He was making absolutely no sense, and yet
so serious, so sure, like a bloody fish in a fishbowl could
explain the secrets of the universe. Samin sighed. A nutter, of
course. Samin should have known from the way Shig had taken to
the bizarre little man.
“Uh,” said Samin, and he tried to push the
bowl back, “I don’t think—”
But the man only wheezed his weird little
chuckle and shook his head. “A gift, seyh, a gift. To refuse on
the cusp of the New Year….”
Was dishonor and insult and bad luck
besides, right, terrific. Samin made himself tip his head in a
shallow bow, and kept back the growl. “As you wish, seyh.
Blessings on you for your generosity, and luck in the New Year.”
The man merely bobbed his head and
chuckled some more as he retreated back to his booth, pushing
the spectacles up the bridge of his nose again.
Samin did not throw him down on the
ground and start kicking his head in.
“It’s our birthday soon.” Joori tried to
put buoyancy into his tone, but the statement still came out
hesitant, too forced. He took a step away from the doorway,
trying to gauge his brother’s mood. You just never knew with
Jacin anymore. “Malick says they have fireworks at midnight on
the Turn here. And there’s a bloody-great festival. He said we’d
Jacin just kept staring out the window,
slumped on the bed he shared with Malick, slats of shadow from
the crisscross pattern of the muntins on the windowpane
bisecting the too-sharp planes of his face. There wasn’t even
anything to see—just the weathered boards of the pier on which
the inn sat, the water, and the suns in the sky—but Jacin
watched some kind of inner landscape anyway, so it didn’t seem
to matter. Joori tried not to sigh, tried to just accept it and
pretend at patience. Sometimes Jacin was just like this.
It had been almost three months now since
that horrible day and night. A whole new world had been opened
to them, and then at least some of it presented in more tangible
ways—a new land, new people, new lives. The grief and shock
weren’t quite as fresh. The scars were beginning to cover over
all the past hurts for Joori. Still there but not so sharp, not
so sensitive to the accidental touch anymore.
Jacin’s hurts didn’t seem to be scarring
over, or even scabbing. Jacin still seemed… raw.
He wore a braid now. Only a small one,
plaited neatly back from his left temple. Joori kept wanting to
ask him why, but he was afraid of the answer he might get, so he
didn’t. He never offered to braid it for him, either.
“They keep the traditions of the shrines
here, Jacin, did you know that?” Joori didn’t wait for an
answer, because he knew he wouldn’t get one. “Tougei’s right
across the bay, where it’s said the Temshiel got the
marble to build them. There’s a temple in the city’s center for
each god, and then a whole great shrine for the ashes of—”
He stopped himself. He probably didn’t
need to be going on about the dead right now.
“Malick asked Morin yesterday if he’d want
to go see Tougei. He said there are ferries just for people to
go across and explore, but no one’s allowed to actually live
there but the priests. Sacred, and all.”
Joori might not have even been there, for
all the reaction he got. Jacin just kept staring, that
blank-empty thing that made the hairs at Joori’s nape prickle
and his stomach curl just a little. Joori looked down at his
hand, at the scar across his palm that matched the one across
“Please,” Joori whispered as he crouched
down by Jacin’s hip and set a hand to his knee. “Come back,
Jacin. I want my brother back.”
Not a word, not a twitch, but Jacin’s eyes
slid shut, a suspicious glimmer catching the light at his
lashes. It was abruptly difficult for Joori to swallow.
It had seemed like Jacin had turned some
kind of corner on the voyage here, come to a somewhat tranquil
equilibrium, or at least calm acceptance. He’d still had his
bleak days, but the lighter ones had outnumbered them, and Joori
had hoped. And then they’d reached Mitsu, Tambalon’s teeming
capital, and the nightmares had hit and Jacin’s “ghosts” had
come back, his mind rebelling against contentment with vicious
force, punishing him for things over which he’d never believe he
didn’t merit punishment. Now the days Joori was coming to think
of as Jacin’s Good Days were like heartbreaking teases,
reminders of possibility that seemed to drift further and
further from realistic hopes for the future with every spate of
Jacin’s Dark Days that stretched too long between them.
Joori dragged in a long breath, followed
the blank gaze out the window, and moved his hand to Jacin’s
shoulder. Jacin didn’t flinch away, but that might have just
been because he didn’t even know Joori was there, so Joori
didn’t let it bolster the agony of hope. “It’ll be all right,
Joori said that a lot. He couldn’t think
of anything better to say.
This, Dakimo thought with a tight set to
his mouth, was going to be interesting. Entertaining, perhaps.
Irritating, most probably. But definitely interesting.
He cleared his throat politely, waiting
until Emika lifted her frown from the scrolls and missives
littering her table, and tilted a slight bow. “Madame Governor.
Kamen awaits you in the receiving room.”
“Kamen?” Emika lifted her eyebrows. “The
summons was for Kamen and his….” She paused, glanced down at
something on the table and then back up to Dakimo. “He has come
Not only come alone, but nearly spitting
and snarling about it too. He hadn’t been happy that Dakimo
chose not to disclose how he’d managed to find them. Even less
happy when Dakimo had dryly inquired if perhaps Kamen shouldn’t
be a bit more circumspect about throwing his power around inside
the Statehouse itself. Of course, it had been rather strained
and lost some of its acerbity, what with Dakimo pinned to the
peak of the vaulted ceiling as he’d been. But still. As if
Dakimo didn’t have his own tricks and contacts. As if he didn’t
have too many years on Kamen that he would be so put off by a
little Null magic. And Kamen had let him down eventually.
“He has, Madame,” was all Dakimo said.
Emika scowled. “And should I take this to
mean that he is everything I’ve been led to believe he would
Insubordinate? Arrogant? Disrespectful,
rebellious and uncooperative? If Dakimo’s past experiences with
Kamen were any indication—“I’m afraid so, Madame.”
Emika shut her eyes, running a hand
through silver-shot mahogany before pausing to rub at her
temples. Dakimo traced the scrolling patterns of the henna wards
on the backs of her fine-boned hands as she did so, noting their
depth and detail, checking his work. Just a touch faded, but
these were precarious times. He’d have to be sure to clear her
schedule for a few hours to renew the spells before the week was
He usually tried very hard not to get
attached to mortals. But he liked this one very much. Perhaps
even loved her a little. As Wolf’s emissary here in Tambalon’s
capital, Dakimo had worked with Emika since her installation as
governor, and more closely, once Wolf entered his Cycle.
Beautiful, in the way of mortals, with a brilliant mind and a
sincere desire to do well by her people and her office. She
would make a fine Temshiel, should Wolf ever decide he
had a use for her. Perhaps Dakimo would test those waters before
it became too late, before that silver in Emika’s artfully
arranged dark hair turned to brittle white, and the fine lines
at her mouth melted into folds and furrows. She certainly had
the sort of heart Wolf sought.
“Fine,” Emika muttered. “Fine, damn
it. What’s one more arrogant immortal in a city full of them?”
She peered up with a wry twist of her lips at Dakimo’s delicate
cough and subsequent smirk. “Present company excepted, of
They shared a small grin before Emika
slumped back on her cushions. “He’ll be able to help.”
Spoken evenly, a statement, but Dakimo had
known Emika for quite a long while, and had no trouble
recognizing the underlying plea. He sighed. “Madame, he is our
It would have been better, though, if
Kamen had brought the Incendiary, as he’d been ordered to do.
Dangerous though they were, the Incendiary’s arrival in Mitsu
two weeks ago had sent futures-possible into a murky state of
flux that Dakimo had seen only once before, and it would be wise
to gauge intentions and opportunities before moving ahead with
any of the myriad proposals and risks now before them. What he’d
heard of the Incendiary’s state of mind did not fill him with
confidence, and he would have preferred to see the man for
Incendiary were dangerous enough, but this
particular Incendiary…. Dakimo could only trust in his god, he
supposed. He’d been entrusted with the knowledge of what this
Incendiary was—who this Incendiary was—and whether or not
Kamen was informed was up to Dakimo’s discretion. Today was to
have been a test of the Incendiary, more than of Kamen, but the
way things were working out… well. So far, Dakimo wasn’t finding
himself tempted to relay the information. Powerful though he
was, Kamen was not known for his even temperament and careful
“Kamen is the only Null in existence,”
Dakimo went on, “and he is in his own Cycle. If he cannot root
out the banpair and put an end to them….” He trailed off
“Right,” said Emika. She stood. “Let us
meet this Null, then.”