Excerpt--Wolf's-own, Book Three: Koan

© Carole Cummings

 

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Chapter One

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Malick had always been enamored with aesthetics. Always.

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 aspire.

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 him.

“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 something else.

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 stated.

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, flourish.

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 strangely safe.

Skel was Temshiel. Skel couldn’t die.

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 more Skel.

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.

He retreated.

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 with you.

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 his skin.

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.

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 anyway.

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 that.

 

Change-month, Year 1322, Cycle of the Wolf

 

“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.

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 and grinning.

“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—

“Seyh! Seyh!”

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 merely waited.

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 that mean?”

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, anyway.”

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 arrogance?”

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 ago.

“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 the shelf.

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. “No Blood?”

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 it.”

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 finds it.”

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 all go.”

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 Jacin’s.

“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, Jacin.”

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 alone?”

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 be?”

Insubordinate? Arrogant? Disrespectful, rebellious and uncooperative? If Dakimo’s past experiences with Kamen were any indication—“I’m afraid so, Madame.”

“Brilliant.”

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 out.

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 course.”

“Of course.”

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 best hope.”

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 himself.

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 consideration.

“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 then shrugged.

“Right,” said Emika. She stood. “Let us meet this Null, then.”

 

~~~~

 

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