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© Carole Cummings


Bless-month, Year 1189, Cycle of the Raven

The smells were getting to him. Cut-rate liquor and sour wine; days-old sweat and too-fresh spunk. The scents of mortality.

Skel wrinkled his nose.

The tavern wasn’t crowded, but there were enough bodies present to drive up the summer heat to a sticky swelter. Cheap tallow candles added a slickness to the air that almost made Skel wish he didn’t have to actually breathe. And if he got one more look from one of the shoddy sows that apparently passed for doxies in this forsaken hole, he might not be able to stop himself from razing the place.

Bloody Husao.

For two days, Skel had been watching, and still, he had no idea what he was supposed to be seeing. Watch, Husao had told him. Gauge. Tell me what it is Wolf saw when he turned him.

Skel rolled his eyes and downed the rest of his drink. He grimaced. Even the beer here had a sour tang.

He thumped the cup down and set his stare once again on Kamen. And saw the same things he’d been seeing since his first look.

A pretty face, but not perfect, by any means. This Kamen had broken his nose once or twice—the bridge of it slightly skewed to the left. He could have taken care of that when Wolf had turned him, or any time he'd returned from spirit thereafter, but he hadn’t. Skel couldn’t tell if it was because Kamen hadn’t known it was possible—indeed, expected—or simply hadn’t cared, but he had yet to employ glamour, so Skel suspected this Kamen simply thought himself quite handsome as he was.

He is vain, Father.

But then, most Temshiel were.

Skel ran his fingers through his own jet-silky hair, confident in his classic looks, the deep blue of his eyes, the straightness of his nose and chin. Husao had made him, and Husao was very good at everything he did. Sighing, Skel posed himself artfully at his lone, wobbly table, and sent out a little shove to the maid who’d brought him the beer before; he didn’t really want another, but it looked like Kamen had dug in for a while, and Skel needed to do something while he watched Kamen do nothing.

He smiled when the girl came to refresh his flagon, made his gaze bright and dazzling, and smirked a little when she pulled up a practiced blush. She didn’t speak to him, because he didn’t wish it. He’d been watching Kamen flirt and flatter her through two drinks on the house thus far; Skel knew just enough about this house in particular to understand what a rare thing that was. What he didn’t understand was why Kamen bothered. He could have prompted the girl to hand over the entire bottle with a great deal less effort.

Then again, Kamen was new and quite young. Perhaps he simply hadn’t grown into all his powers yet.

He still acts as though he is one of them. He seems to actually like them, even the little harlot handing him drinks he could very well have taken.

Skel almost sneered; he took a drink instead. There had been no need for Bear’s-own to grow into anything—Skel had simply stretched himself inside his new skin and taken what had been given him. If he were completely honest with himself, he might admit that he fostered a small seed of resentment that the Null power had come to him as a result of the making of Wolf’s newest. Skel rarely felt the need to be honest with himself.

The flame of the candle on the table flickered in a light draft, climbed a quick inch then settled again. Skel slipped his fingers idly through the flame, set it to dancing slowly as he ruffled at Kamen’s veil again, annoyed when he was once more stymied. He’d learned nothing about this Kamen but what he could deduce through corporeal senses. Skel didn’t like feeling so blind. Kamen might well have yet to utilize all of what Wolf had given him, but he’d certainly learned to veil himself so tightly that even Husao hadn’t been able to wriggle anything through it.

He was not turned arbitrarily, Husao had said when he’d set Skel to this frustrating task. Wolf, perhaps, does not make his intentions quite as clear as his counterparts might, but he always has a reason for what he does. He has plans for this Kamen.

Skel couldn’t imagine what. He’d watched Kamen get himself quietly drunk last night, in the same spot where he stood now at the end of the bar. Staring down into his glass as he was doing now, like he might make it boil with his gaze. It was a very hard, almost cruel gaze, what Skel was able to see of it. All the more intriguing, because Kamen could turn it to an easy grin in a mere flash, going from dark and brooding to light and friendly in the space of a breath. Skel couldn’t help but wonder which would be more frightening, should one find himself on the other end of it.

He almost approved.

Sipping slowly, Skel wondered if the funeral had been what had drawn Kamen here. Perhaps the man put to pyre this morning had meant something to him. He hadn’t stood with the rest of the mourners as the fire was lit, but had hovered just outside the trees that surrounded the shrine and watched. The sister had been there, but Skel had paid her no mind. She was baggage Kamen had had the audacity to insist upon bringing along when he was turned. Skel had not been the only Temshiel shocked that Wolf had obliged.

The sister had been easy to read, until Kamen had seemed to sense it and slammed his veil down around her as well. Still, the small glimpse Skel had managed had been enough. It seemed Wolf had taken the sister’s natural inclination to mother her brother and enhanced it with Temshiel strength. An empath and a healer; Skel had very nearly rolled his eyes. A waste of Temshiel power, but then Skel was no god and hadn’t the right to think such a thing. And it seemed the sister had been turned specifically to watch her brother’s back, so perhaps Husao was right—Wolf had plans for his Null.

Skel couldn’t imagine what. He didn’t know who had been sent to the gods this morning, but Kamen had been turned at the end of Wolf’s Cycle, and it was now less than two decades into Raven’s. It wasn’t unreasonable to assume the dead man had been someone Kamen had known when he was still mortal. Someone he’d perhaps cared for. According to Husao, Kamen had abandoned his watch on the trouble brewing between Ada and Jejin to drag his sister back here to Kente less than a week ago—back here to Kente where Kamen had lived his brief mortal life.

The little flame rolled over Skel’s fingers before he let it settle back on its wick. It spat and sputtered as it reconciled itself to its captivity.

A warm hand set itself to his shoulder, and Skel smiled, leaned away from the familiar touch—contrary, just because he felt like it—and sprawled himself over the back of the chair, pleased when the open throat of his shirt skewed to the side and revealed a hint of skin. Asai eyed it openly, an appreciative light in his dark eyes. Notching his own smile up to a grin, Skel shoved the opposite chair away from the table with his foot and waved a languid hand toward it.

“Why are you not causing trouble in Jejin?” he asked, pushing his tone laconic and his grin knowing.

Asai’s eyebrow went up, disapproving. “Still on Husao’s errand?” he retorted as he took the offered seat. He cut a glance over his shoulder at Kamen, speculative, before turning back to Skel.

Skel ignored the way the seemingly idle question raised his hackles a little. There was nothing idle about Asai; the casual insult was both clear and intentional, but it was merely Asai’s way. It worked wonderfully on the always wobbly confidence of mortals. Skel was perhaps young himself for Temshiel, but he had never been mortal; Husao had been once, but it was too long ago for him to remember what it had been like.

Anyway, Skel himself had rather started the snarking.

“Some of us,” he said carelessly, draping his arm over the back of his chair and waving a lazy hand, “don’t necessarily despise the one from whom we sprang.”

He grinned when Asai merely rolled his eyes and ignored the return jab. Asai had no use for his dam, had even sent her to spirit once, when she’d refused to teach him the cards. He still seethed that he’d had to learn the craft from a mortal seer. Skel respected his sire, willingly learned from him, and the hostile dynamic between Asai and Xari amused him.

Skel’s eyes roved back over to Kamen, then narrowed a little, thoughtful.

Had he watched Kamen watch his father burn this morning? Was getting drunk by himself then getting laid Kamen’s way of mourning? More to the point—why would he bother? He’d had nearly twenty years to get over mortal weaknesses, after all. The ceremony hadn’t seemed to affect the sister at all; her entire attention had been focused on her brother as the fire was lit. And Kamen had been blank-faced, impossible to read, his damnable veil as porous as granite. He’d walked away from the sister without a word, without a look, come here and set himself to drinking with the promise of debauchery later.

I’m afraid you will be disappointed, Father. He seems… perhaps not weak, but… emotional.

He seemed, in fact, a mortal with immortal powers. A combination of which Skel, like most immortals, did not necessarily approve. Skel would not presume to speculate on the wisdom of the gods, but he did have to wonder what Wolf had been thinking.

“Is he even a little bit interesting?” Asai wanted to know, ignoring entirely the girl who cautiously approached and set a cup of deep-red wine in front of him. His gaze was on Kamen’s back, as Skel’s had been for almost two days now. With a casual flick of Asai’s fingers, the girl jerked back as though on a string and retreated. Skel had no doubt she’d already forgotten they were there.

Skel frowned, propped his elbow to the table, and set his chin on his fist. “He is… deeper than he appears, I think.” He eyed Asai’s handsome profile then Kamen’s. “He’s veiled so tightly I can’t get a look. It makes me wonder what he’s veiling. It makes me wonder why.” Skel paused with a shrug. “I would be very surprised if what we can see was all there is of Kamen Wolf’s-own.”

The corner of Asai’s mouth twitched. “You’re intrigued.”

Another shrug as Skel shifted in his chair, sweeping his fingers through the candle’s flame again and letting it bob along the tips. “I’m always intrigued by what I don’t know.” He let his glance slide up to Asai, half-lidded, his hint of a smile sly.

Asai puffed a small chuckle. “With that I shall agree.” He turned away from Kamen entirely, settling all his intense focus on Skel. “It is what I find so… alluring.”

Skel acknowledged the warm shiver that traveled his backbone. “Oh?”

“Oh.” Asai’s smile curled sardonic. “The centuries have not dulled your hunt for knowledge, lovely Skel. Nor your hunt for compliments.” He smirked when Skel rolled his eyes. “Temshiel generally bore me with their complacent superiority.” He said it like the same wasn’t just as true of maijin. Skel held back a snort. “But you, my Skel….” Asai’s gaze narrowed, and he flashed a rare grin. “You want him.”

Skel’s eyebrows shot up, and his glance went reflexively to Kamen, now leaning down and to the side so the girl with whom he’d been bantering earlier could speak quietly into his ear. His face remained blank, his eyes bright with attention, calculating, until the girl leaned back to look at him. The tender smile flashed over Kamen’s face so quickly and naturally that Skel wondered if it was a sort of self-invented glamour all by itself, no magic involved at all but what Kamen had brought with him from his mortal life.

It was, Skel had to admit, impressive.

Kamen shifted against the bar, watching the girl go back to her duties before he turned again to his drink. Propping a boot to the rail at the foot of the bar, he cranked his head to the side and stretched his neck then his shoulders, a languid, silky shift of lean muscle beneath the thin duster. Fit, borderline lanky, but too well built to be called so. Muscle and bone and tendon strapped together on a frame that was taller and wider than it appeared at first glance.

And unreadable. That was why Skel hadn’t already gotten disgusted and told his father to do his own nosing around. Things so rarely caught his interest anymore.

“Yes,” Skel found himself murmuring, before he was even aware he might speak. He wanted Kamen. More—he wanted to know if he could get him; he wanted to know if he could manage a glimpse beneath that veil.

Asai chuckled, swirled the wine in his cup, and took a swallow. He grimaced at its smoke-and-vinegar taste, and his mien was cool when it settled. “Then you should have him.”

Skel gave him a glare. “Should I, then?” Offended and trying not to show it.

“You, lovely Skel….” Asai leaned in, dark eyes reflecting the candlelight like flat onyx koins. “You should have everything you want.” The soft smile was disarming, almost believable. “You shall have what you want and then you shall come back to me.” Asai’s face didn’t change at all, but somehow, Skel got the impression that the smile had turned cold. “I can be a jealous man, you know. I prefer to have what I want, as well.”

It soothed the prickle of resentment, stirred the fascination. This was one of the things he found so appealing about Asai—he never allowed Skel to falter into complacency. In a world that offered an immortal very little that was new or unpredictable, Asai kept Skel guessing.

“Make a new friend, have your fun.” Asai pinned Skel with his dark gaze, the intensity of it curling right down to Skel’s groin, warming him through. “And then come tell me all about it.”

Skel couldn’t help the way heat coiled in his gut; he never could, so he didn’t try.


“Your friend should learn to shield better.”

Skel paused at the flat tone but willfully set a grin to blooming, refusing to show his surprise or his annoyance at being surprised. He turned to the side and leaned against the bar. Close enough to touch, though somehow Skel suspected he might lose a hand if he tried. “I beg your pardon?” He couldn’t even pretend at ingenuous, so he went for urbane. “Do we know each other?”

It was all wasted on Kamen. He didn’t even look up. “Maybe we do.” Kamen stared down into his drink, swirling it slowly in his glass. “You’ve been following me for two days now.” He tipped the glass back and emptied it in one swallow, then gave it a casual tap on the bar. When the girl peered over at him, eyebrows raised and smile a little hopeful, Kamen slipped her one of those knowing grins and nodded toward his glass. “Liking what you see?” he asked Skel.

The grin was still there, but the tone was hard and hostile, despite the innuendo. It hinted at a certain ruthlessness that pooled like the suns at the base of Skel’s spine.

“What if I am?” Skel turned his back to the bar, very nearly draping himself over it. Making it a point to lower his guard. Wondering if Kamen would take it as invitation or insult.

Kamen only smirked, sighed as though he was bored, and turned all his attention to the girl as she approached with a bottle. Uzin, Skel noted, and curled his lip. It was expensive here, but only because it was imported from Ada, not because it was worth it. It seemed Kamen had picked up a preference for it on his recent assignment. Skel filed it away. That tiny tidbit, after all, nearly doubled the scant knowledge of Kamen he’d managed to learn in two bloody days.

Yes, Father, he’s got brown hair and drinks uzin. Am I done yet?

“Who’s your friend, Mal?” the girl asked as she tipped the bottle over Kamen’s glass, giving Skel an appreciative glance as she filled it.


Skel filed that away too.

Kamen smirked again, then turned his gaze fully on Skel for the first time. His eyes were rather plain, an unremarkable light brown; it was what he had behind them that captivated. Candor lay thick over lurking secrets; open interest masking shadows. Deceptively languid with drink, but deep and aware at the same time, and yet Skel couldn’t read a damned thing in them. The look could have been anything from disdain to interest to humor to threat. Rose and thorn in singularity. And yet still, the pulse of potential violence thrumming from Kamen was like a live thing.

“Why don’t you introduce yourself to the lady?” Kamen said. He pointedly broadened the smirk  and added, “Friend,” tipping his head to the girl smiling easily between them from behind the bar.

Skel narrowed his eyes a little. Danger! tingled under his skin, but he couldn’t tell why, and it was both exhilarating and infuriating. He showed none of it, only turned and held out his hand to the girl. “Tallis,” he lied, shooting a quick look at Kamen, and he added a little push to his touch when the girl took his offered hand.

Her gasp got Kamen’s attention right away. Skel couldn’t help the smirk as Kamen narrowed his stare, peering at her closely as her eyes went half-lidded, raking Skel with obvious intent. Her face flushed, her expression blooming wanton, gaze overbright and heated. Casually, Kamen reached out and took the bottle from her lax grip and set it on the edge of the bar, kept watching. Skel pushed a little more, watching Kamen as he did it, and swallowed a snort as the girl ran her fingers over the edge of her satiny bodice where it plunged and just managed to cling to the swell of her bulging breasts. Kamen’s jaw twitched, tightened.

Skel would have missed it, had he not been watching: Kamen’s hand curled into a loose fist, pulsed once, twice, then the push Skel was sliding at the girl whiplashed back at him with an almost painful snap. He couldn’t even pretend at blasé or detached; Skel gaped. He dragged his hand back from the uncomfortable tingle that was now coming from the girl’s touch. She kept staring at him, wide-eyed now, clearly verging on fright, but Kamen reached out and took up the hand Skel had just released.

“All right there, love?” he asked, all smooth with concern and genuine compassion. “You looked like you might faint for a moment there.”

Skel stared. How had he done that? It was almost as if he’d taken Skel’s spell in his fist and crushed it. And, really—how had he done that?

The girl’s gaze went dazedly to Kamen’s, hung there. “I….”

“You’re working too hard,” said Kamen, almost tutting as he shook his head, his thumb stroking the back of the girl’s hand. “I do hope you’re not coming over ill?”

“No, I… I don’t think….” She trailed off, eyes roaming warily over to Skel, confused, then homing back in on Kamen like she was drowning and he was the only piece of driftwood in the sea. She looked almost panicked when Kamen let go of her hand, but she settled back down into relief when he came around the bar and slipped his arm around her, shoring her up.

Just to see what would happen, Skel reached out with another push; harder to direct without touch, but enough for a mortal, anyway. And again, it snapped back at him, spangling up and down his body this time like tiny little stars birthing and exploding all over his skin.

“You’ve gone pale,” Kamen said, soothing the girl, still with that gentle, worried expression, but his eyes flicked up to Skel over the bar with cold murderous fury. “Come with me. We’ll get you—”

“But I thought we—?”

“We will,” Kamen told her. “If you’re feeling up to it later, all right?” He shot another lethal glare at Skel as he led the girl away, and Skel felt a wordless but very clear command run through him—don’t fucking move.

A raised eyebrow was all the answer Skel deigned to give, but he had no intention of going anywhere, so he added a shrug. He watched Kamen lead the girl over to the woman who apparently ran the house and proceed to charm her into giving the girl the rest of the night off. Still shooting Skel the occasional glare filled with dangerous intent.

Skel wasn’t necessarily worried—all right, perhaps a bit uneasy—but the annoyance at being thwarted so easily was slowly strangling beneath the thrill at something new and different, something unexpected. Bear’s grace had been heady when she’d bestowed it, the power exhilarating and the trust flattering. For decades, Skel hadn’t come upon any other Temshiel whose own power came close, not even Husao. Asai was the strongest of the maijin, but there had never been any doubt that Skel could beat him in a battle of power if he wanted to, even in Raven’s Cycle as they were. Kamen had flicked away Skel’s magic like it was an annoyance, and he hadn’t even really seemed to be trying too hard. And he wasn’t even in his own Cycle!

He watched Kamen charm both of the women at the other side of the small, dingy tavern, smooth any remaining hostility with the flash of koin exchanging hands, then lay a fond kiss to the top of the girl’s head and bow to the woman. With a last word Skel couldn’t hear, Kamen retreated, turned himself back toward the bar and sauntered his slow way across the room again. Taking his time, his gait almost lazy and relaxed, but again that thrum of power swelled around Skel, that tingle that was half violent and half seductive. Predatory.

Ah, Father—now we’re coming to it. There is more here than even you suspected, I think.

“You know,” Skel said, tone purposely cool, as Kamen hitched up at the bar again and leaned over his glass, “many of our kind would not stand for such intrusion. I’m surprised you’ve lasted as long as you have without being called out.”

Calmly, with no reaction whatsoever, Kamen took up the bottle from the bar and poured himself another drink. “Who says I haven’t been?” He swigged the uzin back in a single gulp and poured another.

Skel paused, thought about it for a moment, then shook his head. “I would have heard about it. We may be stretched far and thin, but gossip knows no distance.”

“Yeah?” Kamen snorted, but there was no humor in it as he sipped his drink more slowly than the last. “And a Temshiel centuries old, beaten by a ‘youngling’, wouldn’t do everything possible to be certain no gossip ever got started?”

Narrow-eyed, Skel thought about that, too, decided it was bluff and bravado, but let it go. Kamen was cocky and perhaps a little too sure of himself, but he didn’t really strike Skel as someone who needed to be knocked down a peg. Not yet, at any rate.

Skel jerked his chin to where the girl had stood before. “It was only some fun. A ‘getting to know you’ thing. I wouldn’t have hurt her, and she wouldn’t have minded, if you’d left it alone.” Skel was Bear’s, after all; Bear wouldn’t stand for such a thing from her Temshiel. And even if Bear would, Skel wouldn't. He didn't suppose he could fault Kamen for not knowing that, but still. The girl wouldn’t even have remembered anything. Kamen had to know that, at least.

“And that’s how you generally introduce yourself to new people?” Kamen’s jaw had tightened again, but his body remained loose, deceptively relaxed.

Skel scoffed. “Mortals, you mean.”

“Mortals are people,” Kamen retorted flatly. “More so than you or I.”

Skel rolled his eyes. “If you want to argue semantics, I’ll just give you that one now. It’s boring and not worth the debate.” He leaned in, genuinely interested. “She’s nothing. No hand of Fate hovers over her. No god has marked her. Her life or death means nothing to the Balance, and it isn’t as though I had any intention of hurting her.” He propped his chin on his fist, frowning. “Why do you care?”

“Why don’t you?” Kamen snapped, the most emotion Skel had seen him display yet. “For pity’s sake, we’re not here to play pranks on them! They’re people!”

Was he… indignant? Surely not.

Skel’s eyebrows rose. “True, I suppose, but… you're Temshiel, not maijin.” He waved his hand around, indicating the motley ne’er-do-wells surrounding them. “Anyway, how many of them, d’you suppose, really want to learn? There are people who matter, people who are necessary, and then there are… just people.”

“Just people,” Kamen echoed then turned to stare at Skel, darkly amused. He shook his head with a grim snort. “Why am I not finding that a compelling argument?”

“Perhaps because you’re still young,” Skel told him, fairly certain there was no condescension in his tone, because he felt none. For all of Kamen’s “youth,” one had to respect his power, and further respect the fact that he was confident enough in it that he felt no need to throw it around. After all, he had yet to actually attack Skel, and he seemed to think he had the right to do so. “Perhaps because you were once mortal, and only a short while ago, at that. Wolf tends to prefer his Temshiel to be….” Skel waved his hand around.

“Soft?” Kamen suggested.

Skel wasn’t fooled by the mild tone. He stifled a smirk. “Circumspect.”

“Do be careful not to cut yourself on that fine-honed survival instinct.” Kamen slid Skel a sideways look, sardonic. “What were you really going to say?”

A laugh bubbled in Skel’s throat, but he choked it back. “I was really going to say ‘circumspect’,” he insisted. “I mean no disrespect when I refer to your former mortality. All down the centuries, Wolf’s Temshiel have been turned, not made. He prefers mortal hearts.” Skel shrugged and leaned back. “Perhaps that’s why he loves the Jin so.”

Kamen’s eyes narrowed a little, but the hint of humor still flashed behind them. “Perhaps,” he conceded. He tilted his head. “You were made, then. Not turned.”

“Husao made me,” Skel answered.

“So I’d heard.” Then why had he asked, Skel wondered, but the set of Kamen’s shoulders seemed to relax a little, the hostility winding down to mere wariness, so Skel said nothing. “So, why aren’t you Dragon’s, then?”

“I was.” Skel flipped a hand out, negligent. “But I have always thought Bear’s laws more….” He trailed off, suddenly unwilling to complete the borderline blasphemous thought. He needn’t have bothered; Kamen had no such reservations:

“More just,” Kamen finished for him, and he grinned—a real grin, not that chilly thing of before, and not the aggressive one that had followed.

Skel grinned back. “Dragon suits Husao. He prefers the… ambiguities.”

“And you prefer to be told what to do?” The question was almost teasing, edging along the line of mockery but not quite stepping over.


Skel’s grin pulled wider. He propped his elbow on the bar and leaned into it, once again draping himself into a languid slouch. Oozing, Asai called it, though his tone was always approving when he said it. “That depends on who’s doing the telling,” Skel drawled.

Kamen snorted again, with a roll of his eyes this time that was genuinely amused, and not cynical. “Somehow, you don’t strike me as the choosy sort.”

“And you are?”

“Very.” Kamen’s eyes were laughing, but his tone was quite serious. He stuck out his hand. “Kamen Malick.”

Skel offered his own. “Skel,” he replied then tilted his head. “‘Malick’ isn’t an alias, is it? You’ve kept your mortal name.”

Kamen didn’t answer, only shrugged as he withdrew his hand and picked up his glass again. He didn’t protest when Skel took the glass from his hand; he merely retrieved the bottle and splashed some more uzin in to top it off. Skel just watched him, intrigued further by the new bit of information. A Temshiel who’d kept his mortal name—Skel had never heard of its like. Perhaps Kamen really was still tethered to his former “life.”

“Who did you see off to the gods this morning?” Skel asked. No smartass tone, no challenge; he genuinely wanted to know.

Kamen paused, gaze on his hands, then he set the bottle back on the bar, peering at Skel out of the corner of his eye. “My father.”

Skel had suspected as much, or at least something like it. He took a sip of the drink, wincing a little as it burned its way down his throat, and waved the glass at Kamen. “This is how you mourn?”

“Celebrate,” Kamen corrected him, his voice flat again, his expression gone hard. And then, abruptly, as it had been when Skel had watched him with the girl, Kamen smiled, all open and easy, even his eyes. He sloshed the bottle. “Care to join me?”

Alluring. Affecting. Arousing.

Oh, Father….

Skel swilled back the uzin, then thumped the glass to the bar.

…I have a feeling I shall be wanting to thank you when next I see you.

And no one said he had to tell Asai everything.



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