Harvest-month, Year 1322, Cycle of the Wolf
IT WAS, Malick decided, the braid. Snaking between the blades of shoulders set just wide enough and sweeping down the pleasing taper of the torso. Thick and gleaming chestnut-claret in the dim half light of smoking oil lamps, long and thick and… far too fascinating. The leather-bound tail of it swung long enough to brush the backs of the man’s knees when he moved. Malick had never seen one so long. Those who wore them, after all, generally didn’t live long enough to grow them to such a length. This one must be close to twenty—still young by Malick’s definition, but ancient for what he was.
A messy, tangled fringe every now and then fell over the man’s brow, obscuring his eyes, and he let it, didn’t even bother to push it away. Like it had simply got in his way once, so he’d sheared it off with a dull blade, too impatient, or just not caring enough to make a neat job of it.
Pretty, though, with that not-quite-olive skin and angular face, sharp nose and chin, and high cheekbones. Too masculine to be delicate, but too cagey and set with subliminal rage to be as invulnerable as he was trying to look, even when he tried to make his mien pleasant for the whores who were disposed to ignoring the braid in favor of offered koin.
“Heart’s in his eyes, this one,” Malick murmured with a smile. That’s why he hides behind that fringe.
“What’s that, love?”
Malick spared a short glance toward the chippy on his knee as she slipped her small, warm fingers through the hair at his nape. Smiling languidly, she took a delicate sip of gooseberry wine, batting her poppy-soft, kohl-lined eyes over the rim of her cup. Damn, and he’d already paid for her too.
Shrugging, Malick returned her smile with sincere regret. “Nothing, um….” He paused. What was her name again? Some kind of fruit or flower—Cherry? Blossom? Cherry-blossom? Didn’t matter. “Sorry, love, but we’ll have to continue another time. Something more important just came up.” Ignoring the flare of indignation in the sudden blush to her cheek, Malick shifted his legs just enough to compel her to gain her feet. Her soft eyes hardened. Malick forestalled what was sure to be some scathing commentary with a charming grin before he drained his cup. “Keep your fee, my dear,” he told the girl as he chucked his cards facedown on the table with a nod to the other players, and stood. “Your company alone this evening has been worth every koin.” He collected his small pile of winnings, dropping an extra bit of silver into the kitty and then another for the dealer. With a flourish that was entirely unnecessary but pleasingly theatrical—at least to him—Malick swept gentle fingers through the raven curls at the girl’s temple, behind her ear, and came up with another bit of silver; he held it between his fingers in front of her nose. “Next time, eh?”
He waited only long enough for her to snatch the koin before he sauntered away, eyes already narrowed through the gloom, fixed on his target. His heart was thumping a little more quickly than it should do, and his mouth was watering just a little. It was definitely the braid. Well, the braid was a good part of it, anyway. The face and build certainly didn’t hurt. And with that heart-hungry look in his eyes, the man was a walking wet dream come to glorious life.
Untouchable or no, Malick couldn’t help wondering what all that thick hair would look like unbound and spread across fine linen sheets. A tiny smile curled at one corner of his mouth, and he shook his head. It didn’t count as slavering if it didn’t actually dribble out, right?
A jostle to his ribs brought Malick back a little, and he suppressed a growl. Game Night at the Girou had brought the crowds, as usual. The smell of sweat and tobacco curled in his nostrils, the thick brume of poppy smoke enough by itself to turn him stupid, if he stayed too long. Good for business, Umeia would tell him. Kept the riffraff in line and the spenders spending. It also had the pleasant side effect of keeping Umeia in a good mood, though Malick sometimes suspected she was otherwise immune to the stuff; all the better.
No Doujou in the motley mix, though; Malick had paid quite a lot to make sure none of the city’s guard could interfere tonight. And still, most gave the Untouchable his own bubble of space. Only looking quickly enough to track his place in the room, his proximity to them, then glancing away. Speaking only when he spoke to them, and that was limited to the small clutch of prostitutes that didn’t mind taking their chances.
He’d weeded out the chattel, Malick noted, sent them on their way to those less scrupulous, and ignored entirely those that even looked like they might be underage, though Umeia at least required the formality of fake papers when she hired… or acquired. Malick kept watching as the Untouchable crossed the room, ridiculously interested in which doxy he’d choose.
Blank-faced, the Ghost skulked about the edges of whores and customers and players and drinkers, not even bothering to try to look like he belonged—and what would be the point? The braid marked him Untouchable more clearly than a missing hand would mark a thief.
Malick angled himself through scattered tables and bodies, and toward the low couches and mounds of cushions at the back of the room, where the shadows shirred more thickly into the corners. Where the views and paths to the doors were clear and unobstructed, if one didn’t mind the gyrating lumps of those who didn’t bother to take themselves to a place more private, or didn’t have the koin. Where a man could put his back to the wall and watch his quarry without risk of discovery too soon.
Unsurprisingly, Samin had already beaten him there and cleared them a spot. From the nasty looks he was getting and the dishabille of cushions and bodies scattered to either side of him, it appeared as though he’d not been terribly polite about it, either. Blue eyes, sharp and avid in a wide, granite face, focused on Malick as he approached. Malick gave Samin a slight nod as he joined him, leaning hip-shot against the wall, close enough to talk without being overheard, but far enough that they could always say they weren’t together if one got caught and the other got away. Not that they needed to worry about that here. It was just habit.
“It’s him,” Samin muttered in what was surely meant to be a whisper, but emerged more as a gruff growl.
Malick flicked him a look replete with No shit, genius. “Ya think?” How many Untouchables, after all, ventured into a place like this? How many of them lived long enough to be of age to enter? Not that “of age” really mattered, when it came to the laws of Untouchables.
Samin ignored Malick, merely narrowed his eyes at the man, tilting his head like a curious pup. “He doesn’t look mental.”
Malick’s eyebrows rose as he shot a look at Samin and then back at the Ghost. With the want clenching in Malick’s gut—well, more precisely, in his trousers—“mental” was rather beside the point, but Samin was right. Calm and calculating, not wild and desperate as the few Untouchables Malick had seen had been. And fit, too, where the others had been thin and fragile, rickety with ill health, and too pale. This one’s color was full and hearty, his eyes alive with intelligence. He was obviously well fed, and all that hair plaited down his back looked thick and lustrous. Even as they watched, the braid swung heavily over the man’s shoulder as he dipped down a bit to sweep a quick, surreptitious touch to his right boot and then his left forearm. To anyone else, it might look like the man was scratching an itch.
“Knives,” Malick said quietly.
Samin’s head tilted farther. “Shouldn’t be allowed,” he muttered, disapproving, and when he noted the lift of Malick’s eyebrow, he shook his head. “They’re dangerous enough as it is. An Untouchable oughtn’t be allowed a weapon any more than a child.”
“You don’t think they should be allowed to defend themselves?” Malick posed the question with real interest. If anyone had an informed opinion on the matter, it would be Samin.
Samin’s mouth set in a grim line. “Defend themselves against what?” he wanted to know. “They’re called ‘Untouchable’ for a reason. No one—Jin or Adan—would dare lay hands on a Ghost, though they’ve not been true Catalysts for… too bloody long.” A weird mix of sympathy and disgust twisted his hard face. “I’ve seen enough of them, starved and raving. Their own kin won’t touch them, not even to help.”
Malick peered at Samin closely. “Would you ever interfere?” he asked, genuinely curious.
“Isn’t that why we’re here?”
“You’re a funny man, Samin.”
“I’m a practical man, Mal.”
Malick politely refrained from giving Samin a sharp thwack to his big, giant head. “You know what I mean. A typical Untouchable.” Because the Untouchable quietly choosing himself a whore across the room was certainly not typical. In any way.
A long sigh huffed out of Samin’s chest, and he shot a careful glance to all sides, then leaned in closer to Malick. “The laws are there for a reason.” The narrow blue gaze followed the Ghost, watched him pause to speak to one of the boys, before Samin turned his head to look at Malick squarely. “But the laws are still locked in fear. The Ancestors have been sending their Untouchables insane for too long, and something needs to be done. If I ever came across some poor, mad soul who couldn’t keep enough sense in his head to know he was hungry, or even remember how to eat… if I was alone and unobserved, yeah, I’d interfere.”
Interesting. But not surprising, coming from Samin. Malick merely nodded. “I suppose the real worry is the ones who’ve gone completely off the jump, and decide they need to take a few others with them.”
He’d seen it once, when he’d had a commission in one of the camps: a young girl, perhaps thirteen or so, with that telltale braid, wild-eyed and snarling insanity, stoning a middle-aged woman who’d done nothing but stand there and scream, taking it. A crowd of onlookers merely stood watching, eyes full of horror and sorrow, but Malick hadn’t been able to tell for whom either was meant. And when a man Malick guessed was the woman’s husband attempted halfheartedly to lay hands on the girl, pull his wife away, the crowd stepped in and beat the man. Malick didn’t know if it was to death—he hadn't waited about to find out.
A far cry from what the Untouchables used to be. Catalysts once, now this man’s kind were merely Ghosts, haunted by the laws once meant to set them apart, almost revere them, but now only dragged out an inevitably ugly end.
Touching an Untouchable—for good or ill—with the intent to alter his course, was death. No excuses, no explanations, no quarter. One of the few laws the Jin were allowed to keep when they were overridden and conquered by Ada. Even the Adan held to it, though it had never really been tested, and Malick would be very surprised if an Adan were ever put to death for the sake of a Jin. At any rate, no Untouchable he’d heard of had ventured into the city for a very long time, let alone a whorehouse, and that after the Gates had already closed for the night. Not typical, indeed.
Malick wondered idly if this anomaly of a Ghost planned to stay the night in one of Umeia’s rooms, and then wondered—a little less idly—if he’d be able to talk her into telling him which one. Though, Malick supposed, if things worked out, this pretty Untouchable might even tell Malick himself. Or come with Malick to his own. His fingers twitched a bit with the urge to wrap themselves around that thick, soft-looking braid.
“So, if he pulls one of them knives on me,” Samin ventured slowly, “I’m not supposed to be allowed to turn it back on him.”
It wasn’t a question; Samin probably knew the laws regarding Untouchables as well as Malick did. It was a request for permission, a desire for the reassurance that Malick didn’t expect him to bare his throat if the Ghost came at him.
Malick shrugged. “Not supposed to.” A quick shift of his glance sideways, and he smirked. “But if no one’s about to see a thing, does it really happen?”
Samin heaved a loose snort. “Can’t make shit like this up,” he muttered sourly.
“Ah, you could—but who would want to?”
They were quiet for a moment, watching the Ghost watching the crowd and trying to look like he wasn’t, searching. “He’s pretty, though,” Samin finally put in, thoughtful.
“That’s why we’re going to take him in the bath,” Malick told him with a grin.
Samin grimaced. “Save me, Mal, is your mind always on—?”
“No, sometimes it’s on food and liquor,” Malick cut in, “but right now I was thinking more along the lines of not having to deal with those knives. The potential view is merely a bonus.”
“You can't use magic. It doesn't work on them.”
Malick waggled his eyebrows. “That's what makes it fun.”
“That's what makes it stupid and riskier than it needs to be,” Samin corrected, “and you a bloody idiot.”
“Aw, stop, I’ll blush.” Malick nodded toward the eastern door that led to the baths, where the Ghost was being escorted by his chosen whore. “Look, he’s picked one.” A dark-haired boy—boy, Malick’s nethers pointed out gleefully—with fair skin and a pleasant blankness to his expression that spoke to a willingness for just about anything that involved the proper amount of koin. The choice wasn’t terribly surprising; Madi was a ready favorite of many whose purses likely weighed heavier than this Untouchable’s. Too bad for said Untouchable that he wasn’t going to get the chance to find out why. “Go tell Umeia we need twenty minutes.”
“You go tell Umeia,” Samin snapped. “Last time we brought our business here she threatened to castrate me. Me—like it isn’t you as gives the orders.”
“I only relay them, friend, I don’t give them.” That responsibility Malick happily laid squarely on the shoulders of the phantom he knew only as the Mage. And he had no interest whatsoever in learning any more than the scant bits he already knew. “Go on, then,” he told Samin, hardening his tone somewhat, “before he slips through. We’ll never hear the end of it if Shig and Yori get him.” He didn’t wait for Samin to stop sputtering. With a cocky wink, Malick slid away from the wall, merging unnoticed into the anonymity of the patronage like sinewy smoke. Hard angles and lanky limbs glided into unobtrusive grace as he slunk to the other end of the floor and down the lamp-lit stone stairway to the baths.
The Ghost was already availing himself of one of the shower-boxes, rinsing off with a couple of buckets behind a screen of woven rushes. Naked, Malick’s nethers put in helpfully; he ignored them, though he couldn’t help wondering if all that hair was unbound, and what it would look like wet and stuck to sinewy arms and rippled torso. Just how long would it be, untethered from that braid that swung down about the man’s knees?—down to his calves, at least, surely. Ankles, maybe? Yum. All sorts of delightful possibilities swept through the little brain, and Malick forced the big brain to put them reluctantly but firmly aside. Business first. Though he did manage a bit of a leer when Madi slipped silently past him and back out the door with a conspiratory wink.
The coals in the corner hob glowed red and hot, the scented pot of water hanging above burbling quietly into the already steamy air. The metallic sting of minerals hung in the close cavern, weighted heavily with sulfur. Malick sucked a long breath through his nose, clearing his senses of the less organic residue of the Girou. Granite tiles wound about the rough rim of the great steaming pool, kept naturally hot by springs flowing beneath half the city. Malick checked the shadows creased into the rough-hewn stone of the walls, the steady drip-drip-drip of condensation rhythmic beneath the sporadic splashing coming from the lone occupied shower-box. Empty, every corner. Surprising, considering the traffic this evening. No one else lurked, not that Malick could see.
The black, high-collared tunic the man had been wearing, along with boots and belts and black trousers, were all lying safely out of reach on the stone bench meant for disrobing. Malick almost tsked at the carelessness, thought about searching the bundle—just out of idle curiosity, to see how many knives the Ghost carried, and what sorts he favored—but decided to err on caution’s side, for once. Samin would be so proud.
Making his way silently into the room, Malick checked the other boxes, as well, just to be sure, saw they were all empty, and smiled. Umeia must have been several steps ahead of him, as usual, and cleared everyone out when she spied their quarry. With the exception of Samin, likely now keeping watch outside the door, no one would stumble in and interrupt.
Everything was going perfectly so far, exactly according to plan, so Malick was a little surprised when the man’s soft voice—deeper than Malick had supposed, and laced tight with control—came like the point of a knife from the other side of that flimsy screen:
“Why are you watching me?”
Good thing Malick lived for the unexpected. Damn, he’d been so careful to appear as though he hadn’t been watching at all. His eyebrows only rose a little as he paused, propped his shoulder to the uneven stone of the wall, and casually crossed one leg over the other, draping his lanky self artistically, and adding a brash grin. For good measure—and better effect—he brushed the long skirt of his duster back to expose the small knife at his belt, propped elbow to hipbone and made a show of inspecting his fingernails. A damned tempting picture he made, if he did say so.
“Well, good evening to you too,” he drawled.
The screen jittered then rattled aside halfway. The man stood inside the box, using the screen as flimsy half cover, clad in nothing but a bathsheet and attitude, a hard glare scraping from amber-shot gray eyes ringed in indigo, and spiking through the mist of the bath straight into Malick’s chest. Fuck, the man was gorgeous. The hair was still disappointingly bound, but the wild fringe had come loose again to hang frayed and dripping over the eyes; Malick was surprised the fierce, furious stare didn’t singe the ends. Lamp-tawny droplets of water slipped over hard, masculine lines, lean and long. Abrasions, bruises, and scars—apparent evidence of close wet-work—mottled unevenly but for a heavy swath of thin, silvery stripes on the left bicep, neat and straight, as though they’d been put there apurpose. His chest was hairless, Malick noted with a slight inner-trill, shaped by hard work and padded with mouth-watering rises and ripples as he breathed; the ridges of a tight abdomen stood out in sublime relief, sliding down to those enticing dual grooves beneath the barrier of the sheet where torso became groin.
Malick let his eyes rove unfettered, taking in every line and swell, lingering too long for manners on the way the sheet bunched in a white-knuckled fist between the man’s groin and the tantalizing wing of his left hip. Gaze skidding upward, Malick took careful note that he couldn’t see the right hand behind the flimsy shield of the screen, and by the way the pectoral on that side quivered tense, the Ghost likely had something very unfriendly clutched in his fist. Malick was ridiculously pleased that the carelessness at which he’d earlier curled his lip was a figment of his own assumptions, and warned himself not to indulge them again. He would likely not live to regret underestimating this Untouchable.
“Why are you watching me?” Bitten out through teeth clenched tight. Such pretty white little teeth, straight and even. Malick wondered if they’d draw blood when they snapped… wondered if he’d like it. Of course, if those full lips were to follow along, soothe the hurt….
Oh, fuck me. I really think I want this one.
“And why wouldn’t I be?” was all Malick said.
“What do you want?”
Malick nearly snorted. What did he want? What a loaded question. He only let an eyebrow rise, let his smirk curl seductively. “Don’t ask questions to which you don’t want an answer, little Ghost.”
There was no flinch or other telltale—the man was too controlled for that—but his eyes darkened, deepened, and his nostrils flared the tiniest bit. “If you know what I am,” he said slowly, “then you know what the penalty is for interfering.”
His accent was… odd. Malick had a very good ear for them, but he couldn’t place this one, and it certainly didn’t have the twangy Jin sound to it, like he’d expected. More like it was from everywhere and nowhere at once, no distinct characteristic to classify it, and yet hints of every one Malick had ever heard. Very strange.
Malick noted it but merely shrugged. “Funny, a friend and I were just discussing that. Seems the consensus is that a thing can’t actually be said to have happened, if no one was there to see it.”
The man’s eyes flickered over to the door with the mention of “a friend,” and Malick’s smirk broadened. Not only pretty but clever, too, and if there was any madness behind that glare, it was the kind that was born of rage and… betrayal, most likely, because didn’t it usually come down to that? Rage and betrayal—a lethal combination, the best combination with the highest potential. It didn’t generally take much to harness those emotions, point them, use them. The Mage was right again, but then, he always was.
“Here we are, all alone.” Malick pushed himself away from the wall, meandered lazily about the granite-tiled edges of the pool, boots clocking softly on wet stone, eyes locked to the Ghost’s. “No one to disturb us. No one to interrupt.”
Muscles beneath smooth, bare skin tightened and jumped ever so slightly as Malick neared—he never would’ve seen it, had he not been looking for it; fuck, but the man was good, all calm restraint—so Malick kept a loose perimeter, lingering at the periphery of the man’s personal space like a prowling tom. Deliberately seductive, eyes half-lidded, Malick leaned lightly into the screen, all too aware that the sharp point of a knife was no doubt just on the other side, aimed directly at his gut. No, his heart—this one would go for the sure, immediate kill.
Malick smiled, ran his fingers through his hair. With studied carelessness, he let his hand come to rest lightly over the short dirk on his belt. He flicked his wrist in his sleeve a little out of habit to feel the garrote coiled about his forearm. Gaze still geared toward seduction, Malick peered into dark-rimmed gray, shot through with shards of gilt-amber, glaring back at him with a flat look of profound hatred and a disappointing lack of awe for his enticing self. Perhaps he should’ve unlaced his shirt a bit.
“You,” Malick murmured through his smile, “have been a very naughty boy.”
A reaction, at least a small one, and one besides that impassive mask of abhorrence: the glittering eyes narrowed just slightly. “Step away,” the man hissed, low and full of venomous intent.
Not What are you talking about? not a question at all, in fact. The man merely stood his ground, glaring death at Malick. Cornered, bare but for a single bathsheet and whatever weapon he had in his hand behind that screen, and still his breath came steady and even. There was no trembling but for the ready tension thick between them, and those gray eyes betrayed nothing but loathing and disdain.
Fuck, I don’t even think I care if he guts me—I’ve got to have this one.
It was the braid, had to be, the novelty of it or… something. Or all that not-quite-olive skin and the solid curves of muscle beneath it. Surely it couldn’t be the glare, the dark look of profound menace that too closely resembled the part of a map that warned, Here be monsters.
Malick sighed theatrically and shook his head with overdone regret. “Even if I wanted to, I’m afraid I can’t.” He let the smile crimp and shrugged. “Orders.”
That got a further narrowing of the eyes. Reluctant interest.
“Mm,” Malick answered to the question in the man’s eyes, if not on his tongue, “I’m afraid you’ve gone and called attention to yourself, little Ghost.” Daring, Malick reached out slowly, swiped a fingertip down the damp, smooth lumps of the plait hanging over a thew-molded shoulder. Malick wasn’t sure if the tiny hiss of breath was a reaction to the name or the liberty. “Don’t worry, I haven’t come to kill you—”
A deliberate snort, a very clear as if you could, so Malick simply ignored it.
“—nor have I come to blackmail you, or any of the ten thousand other possibilities that are likely blooming in your twisted little mind this second.” Malick paused, gaze flicking up through his lashes, let his fingers slip around the braid, and stepped a bit closer. “Although, I could be talked into a quick go against the wall if you’re—”
He’d been wrong. The knife hadn’t been behind the screen in the man’s right hand, it had been twisted into the bathsheet in his left. Now its tip rested just below Malick’s chin, and he couldn’t even care, because the grip on the sheet had been forsaken for the advantage and now lay puddled about the man’s ankles.
Malick didn’t even reach for his own knife, didn’t slip his fingers through the loop of the garrote, didn’t try to step back or attack. He merely stared, raked his gaze up and down, groaned a little, and tightened his grip on the braid. Fizzy little bubbles went pop-pop-pop in his brain when his gaze instinctively hitched and hung between the man’s legs—gah, yum—before he forced it on. “Mm,” was all he said.
The same sort of scars as on the arm striped the man’s right thigh—thin and tight, most of them silvered, but a few still pink and new-ish. One wound was still scabbed and not yet scarred over. No suicide attempts, these. Still, they were… odd. Ritualistic, almost. Some Jin tradition Malick didn’t know about? Didn’t seem likely.
“Let go,” the man hissed.
So much control, such intensity beneath it, buried and locked down tight.
“Can’t, sorry.” Malick couldn’t help the sigh, the regret sincere this time. It was looking less and less likely that the Untouchable was going to let Malick touch. “You assassinated the wrong prefect this time, and you’re— Ah-ah, watch it.” The knife had jerked just a little, and Malick adjusted his stance to accommodate, though he didn’t draw back. “Don’t kill me just yet, or your exit from here will be a bit more difficult and attract a lot more attention than I’ve no doubt you’d prefer.”
“It’s a little damp in here,” the man said through his teeth. “My fingers are a bit slick, and you never know when my grip might… slip.” He stepped up, chest flush to the screen—well, what do you know, he did have a blade in his right hand, too, now poking just as firmly at Malick’s gut as the other was beneath his chin. “Perhaps it would be best if you got to the point.”
Bad dog. Sit.
Malick had to grin—he couldn’t help it. “I’m rather on the point, don’t you think? Two of them, in fact.” Apparently, the man was not as amused with Malick as Malick was with himself. The tips of both knives pressed harder, one drawing a slight, warm trickle of blood down Malick’s throat and one threatening to slip right through the layers of leather and thin mail under his tunic. Fuck, his trousers were actually getting a bit painful. Umeia always said his brain lived in his pants, and now here was proof. “All right, all right.” Malick took a small step back but didn’t release his hold on the plait in his hand. “To put it bluntly, you’ve been recruited. You are no longer an independent agent; you are no longer to be left to your own devices or discretion.”
The impassive mask, if possible, grew even stonier. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Of course you don’t. And so you won’t know exactly what’s happening to you the next time you go after a prefect or a curate or a lord, and we’re there waiting for you.” Gray eyes once again shot quickly to the door and back. Malick sighed again. “Look, what’s your name?” Cold silence and a slow blink were all he got for an answer. Malick rolled his eyes. “If you don’t give me a name to call you, I’m going to have to keep calling you ‘Ghost’, and I know you don’t like it.” Still with the blinking. And the unfortunate continued lack of awe. Malick’s jaw tightened. Definitely should’ve unlaced his shirt. Maybe tousled his hair a bit too. “Fine, Ghost. You’re causing too much trouble, Ghost. You’re making it all too risky for the rest of us, and your kills aren’t even making a difference.”
“Us,” the man repeated blandly. His head tilted a little, tugging on the braid in Malick’s hand. “A difference to whom?”
“Ah, not going to tell you that just yet. We’ve not yet reached the part where I decide whether to let you dress and come outside with me, or just kill you right here and pay the extra koin for the mess.”
Dark eyebrows rose and the gaze went half-lidded. Malick could read the You really think you can? as clearly as though the man had spoken it aloud, instead of merely standing there, no outward reaction but a long, slow blink.
Seriously—no man needed lashes that long and lush.
Malick shrugged, winked, then knocked the blade away from his chin, dodged a quick parry that almost got his throat cut for him, and snagged the dirk from his belt. He pinned the braid to the wooden frame of the screen with the tip of the blade before the man could lunge again. Good thing Malick had stepped back, because there was now a long, clean slice in the rushes of the screen, though the knife that did it had moved so fast he hadn’t even seen it. Malick grinned, backing off with his hands held palms out. “Unless you’d prefer to prove your superiority in a more pleasant fashion?” he asked with a waggle of eyebrows. “I usually prefer top, but I’ve been known to make an exception now and again.”
The loathing in the man’s glare was almost tangible. And still no awe. Bloody stone, the man was.
Malick shook his head, impatient now. “Look, Ghost, we can have ourselves a little pissing contest in here, where one of us will surely end up very messily dead, or you can come with me and we’ll go somewhere we can talk about it like very much alive grown-ups. The customers will be clamoring for the baths all too soon, and we can’t faff about much longer—what’ll it be?”
Not only that, but Umeia was going to have Malick’s head if he cost her much more money tonight. Those screens were cheap, but Umeia wouldn’t see it that way, and he was already holding up the custom for the baths and so therefore the whores.
“Why should I?” the man wanted to know.
Ah, finally, an intelligent question. “Because you’ve been given a choice, if you can call it that—join us and live to see whatever vengeance it is you’re looking for, or the hunter becomes the hunted. My patron does not share the Adan’s generosity, and believes quite firmly that no one is Untouchable.”
The man’s control was slipping: his jaw tightened, and his eyes took on a very slight shimmer in the soft light. Malick couldn’t help but wonder what he would look like with all of that control puddled about his feet like that forgotten bathsheet.
“What d’you know about any of it?” the man whispered.
Another glimpse, only a tiny one, of what lay beneath all that hatred and iron rule. There was something achingly wrenching about the way the question emerged, though Malick couldn’t have said exactly what—the anger was still there, but the grief that crept out beneath it all nearly blared its misery at him. Malick slouched a bit, softened his stance. The adrenaline kick was wearing off, and even his libido had stopped muttering innuendo at him. Unapologetic mercenary or no, compassion still existed beneath Malick’s surfaces, inconvenient and annoying though it might be.
“Nothing but what I know about myself,” Malick said kindly. “Except that you’ve been promised that the man you want will one day twitch at the end of your blade—if you join us. If not….” He sighed, stepped back over and retrieved his knife with a last, lingering caress of the shiny plaits of chestnut. He purposefully turned his eyes to the small knife and watched the lamplight scud over its honed edge and now slightly blunted tip. Handing the Ghost an opportunity to attack, but avidly wary and on watch for it. The man didn’t take the opening. Intrigued, Malick flipped his gaze back up, met ambered gray, and shrugged. “I like you. You’re pretty, even if you are a bit of an ass.” Malick flashed a grin when the man’s jaw tightened. “I don’t want to kill you. And I certainly don’t want you to kill me. Do us both a favor—get dressed and come outside.”
The man stared for several long moments, eyes narrowed and intense beneath their obscuring fringe. Malick stared back, kept his own gaze and mien blank, and his hands very still. The urge to smirk was twitching at him, and he fought it down. Those knives were still out and looked very sharp.
“You go first,” the man finally said. “I’ll want privacy to dress. I’ll follow.”
Malick’s eyebrows rose, and his gaze dipped inexorably down the sleek, bare skin, resting on the bathsheet still crumpled on the floor, then gliding back up again—probably more slowly than it should’ve done. Privacy. Sure.
“You’re joking, right?”
Another of those slow blinks was all he got for an answer.
Malick narrowed his eyes. “What’s to stop you from just skiving off?”
The man shrugged, casually lifted the knife in his left hand and wound it through his fingers—blade-hilt-blade-hilt—like another would weave a koin. “I should imagine you’ve all the exits covered.”
Too bloody right. And somehow, this Untouchable didn’t seem terribly worried about it. Suspicion flaring bright—why did Malick suddenly feel like a cat toy being batted about between a couple of deceptively clawless paws?—but intrigue flaring brighter, Malick allowed the budding smirk to bloom, dipped his head: challenge accepted.
“You’ll be there, then? I’ve your word?”
“Oh, I’ll be there.”
There was no way to know if the promise meant a thing, and that bland tone of the assertion could have implied anything at all. Malick was absurdly fascinated by the prospect of finding out what it could mean.
He slipped his own knife back into its sheath, stepped back with hands raised. “I’ll meet you in the alley out back by the kitchen doors, and we’ll go somewhere to talk where we won’t be overheard. Who knows? P’raps you’ll even allow me to make up for ruining your, um… plans for the evening.”
Malick didn’t wait for an answer, merely waggled his eyebrows and deliberately turned his back on the Ghost as he sauntered to the door. Those gray eyes might be glaring daggers into his back, but no actual daggers were coming for him, he could feel it. Somehow, Malick was absurdly certain that if he took a blade from this Untouchable, it wouldn’t be in the back. He didn’t even flick a glance over his shoulder to make sure as he opened the door and stepped through. He simply turned to Samin, waiting just on the other side, the scowl on his face telling Malick that he’d been listening very carefully, and was not at all happy about what he’d heard.
“Why’d you leave him alone?” Samin barked. “Have you completely lost your small mind?”
I just might’ve done, Malick didn’t say. “Manners,” he retorted instead.
Samin gave him a fair twin to the slow blink Malick had been getting for the past fifteen minutes. “Manners.”
“What, I have some!”
“Mal, I’m being serious.”
“So am I!”
“Yeah, but I’ve met you.”
No respect. Honestly. “Just shut it, will you? I gave him a chance to come quietly. It seemed… I dunno—fair.”
“Fair?” Samin snorted. “You kill people for a living—when has ‘fair’ ever meant a damn?”
“I kill bad people for a living, Samin.” Malick’s voice had frosted over. “And so do you. Remember it.”
Samin chewed on that for a moment, somewhat chastened. “Will he come quietly?”
Malick shook his head, grimaced, and led the way up the stone stairs. “Not a chance.” He jerked his head toward the back doors of the Girou. “Go give Shig and Yori a heads-up, then come back up and follow him down. I’ll be in the alley behind the kitchens. Waiting.”
It was the braid, Malick grumbled at himself as he made his way through the crowd and arrowed through the kitchen, retrieved his belts and kit from one of the lads then pounded down the steps and to the alley. He didn’t pause but merely strapped on his gear as he stalked, the long tails of his duster flapping behind him. That damned bloody braid.
SAMIN watched Malick go, shook his head, and rolled his eyes. Best tactical mind Samin knew, that lad, but in some things, he was purely and simply a blazing bloody idiot. Not enough blood to the big brain, because it was forever rushing down to the little one, that was Samin’s opinion.
Mouth tight, Samin spared a dark look down the stairs then shoved his way toward the gaming tables, where Umeia was busy keeping the losers from starting trouble and the winners playing. At least until she’d made sure the House had won back whatever the players thought they were going to walk away with. Since Umeia was the House, she gave it her full attention.
Samin didn’t even bother to try and catch her glance. One eye on the stairs to the baths, watching for their quarry to emerge, he instead waved down Lex, Umeia’s right hand, and if Samin wasn’t seriously mistaken, her toy when she was in the mood. Not that Lex seemed to mind. Nor would Samin, in truth—Umeia was gorgeous. And bloody well stunningly stacked.
“I need you for a moment,” Samin said as he grabbed hold of Lex’s arm.
“Haven’t got one,” Lex barked, and he made every effort to extract himself from Samin’s grip.
Good thing Samin had several inches and at least a score of pounds on him. “Make one,” he growled. “Or I’ll be sure and tell Malick he got a knife in the ribs because you couldn’t find the time to go tell his backup they’re needed out back.”
“Malick?” At least it got Lex to stop trying to tug away. Still, he wasn’t quite convinced yet. In fact, he looked somewhat suspicious. “Aren’t you his backup?”
Samin graciously refrained from knocking Lex cold. Anyway, he needed the favor. “Now,” he said, with every ounce of menace in what he knew to be an already very menacing face. He knew because he’d been told. Lots of times. And those on the receiving end of it generally backed down, and very quickly—just like Lex was doing. Rather ungraciously.
“Right, fine,” Lex sighed, all put-upon and self-sacrificing. “But you owe me.”
Um, no, he really didn’t. But Samin was happy to let Lex think so, if it got his ass moving, which it did. “Shig’s watching the front, and Yori’s at the stairway up to the rooms. Tell them Mal’s on his way to the alley behind the kitchens, and tell them to move quick.”
“Done with the baths, then?” Lex wanted to know.
Samin rolled his eyes. “By the time you tell Shig and Yori, we will be, so haul ass—the sooner you’re back, the sooner Umeia’s purse swells.”
That seemed to convince Lex, finally. Samin would swear the man could throttle silver and make it cough up gold just as ably as Umeia could. He let Lex go and, still in a gracious mood, refrained from giving him a shove and a kick in the ass to hurry him along. Sucking in a long breath, Samin returned his full attention to the stairs to the baths, spearing his gaze through the gloom that gathered about the landing and trying not to step on any of the writhing bodies on the cushions near his feet as he sank into the shadows against the wall.
Leave it to bloody Malick to risk making this errand twice as dangerous as it needed to be, merely because he was a soft touch for a pretty face. As if Malick didn’t get his wick dipped enough as it was. Asking for a knife in the back or a cut throat, that boy was, letting his prick lead him like he did. Samin blew out a heavy sigh, gave the man accidentally humping his shin a swift kick, and stepped a little away.
What was taking the little bugger so long? There was only the one way in and out of the baths, so he couldn’t be trying to give them the slip. Drowning himself out of fear? He didn’t seem the type. Even if he did, it was no skin off Samin’s nose. He didn’t think they really needed a fifth, and it would likely make his life a bit easier if this ended tonight with the pretty Ghost dead. Because if the boy let Malick shag him, he’d likely be impossible once Malick tired of him, because Malick always did, and if he didn’t let Malick shag him, Malick would be impossible until he eventually gave in, and there it went back to the first option—either way, Samin and the girls would be the ones to really suffer.
Samin rubbed at his eyes. The poppy fumes were starting to get to him. The shadows he was watching thickened and blurred deeper for a moment, the greasy lamplight shifting and sputtering in the stir of a draft. Samin blinked, squinted, a spurt of adrenaline flowing through his heart and spangling up his backbone. Was that…?
No, couldn’t be. It wasn’t that dark, and even a man head to toe in black would’ve been obvious. No stealthy pretty Ghost could get by, no matter how good he was, and Malick had said this Ghost was supposed to be very good. Took out an Adan prefect, of all people, and in his own office, with his guard right outside the door, or so Malick had said. These things always grew in the telling, Samin had found, so who knew, really? Still, it wouldn’t hurt to be careful. Damned poppy; it always softened the senses, and he’d be too stoned to be of any use at all soon enough, if he didn’t hurry things along.
Anyway, waiting wasn’t one of the things Samin did well.
Fuck manners. And fuck “fair.”
Setting his teeth, Samin pushed away from the wall and made his way quietly down the stairs. With all the stealth he could gather, which wasn’t much—he was built for brute force, not slinking—he pushed the heavy door open far enough to peer cautiously inside. Nothing. He frowned. Could be right behind the door, waiting for him, and Samin knew Malick hadn’t disarmed the fellow. Idiot. Samin could see a little of the small chamber from this angle—the far side of the pool, and one shower-box—and it all appeared clear, but there was an awful lot he couldn’t see, and there was still the small fact that he couldn’t see through the door.
Damned thorny, fractious, little pretty boy.
“Lad?” Samin wasn’t really expecting an answer, which was good because he didn’t get one. He thought about craning his neck to get a look behind the door, but all that might have done was hand the little pain in the ass a good opportunity to break Samin’s neck—no fuss, no muss—and Samin would deserve it, if he did something that stupid. “I’m not here to fight, just to hie you along a little, yeah? Haven’t got all night.”
Still no answer. Bloody sodding rotten difficult Ghost.
Already-stretched patience at its limit, Samin didn’t give any further warning. He threw his weight into the door—if the man was waiting behind it, he’d be squashed like a very stroppy little bug, and Samin would merely shrug at Malick and find a good place to dispose of the body. Easier for everyone all around.
Samin crouched low as he came through the door, the heavy thunk of wood against stone rebounding in his ears and his gaze flying to every shadowed corner and recessed cranny. Benches, shower-boxes, linen cupboard, pool—all empty.
Gone. The little son of a bitch. How the hell…? Samin shook his head, looked again, but the chamber remained decidedly vacant. He’d been watching almost every bloody second, he couldn’t have missed….
Untouchables didn’t have magic, and magic didn’t work on them. So how had the damned Ghost got by him?
More to the point—now what? Besides the fact that Malick was going to be… exquisitely pissed.
Malick was going to be exquisitely pissed only if he actually got the opportunity. He was, after all, waiting by himself down in that alley, and who knew if Lex had bothered to hurry fetching Shig and Yori. And Malick had paid the Doujou to stay away tonight.
“Oh, fucking hell!”
Not even sparing the two seconds it would take to kick his own ass, Samin spun, flung open the door, and raced up the stairs.
It was pure chance that Malick looked up when he did. Pure chance that he’d been growing bored and a little edgy, and a child’s song about Wolf and Raven and Bear had flitted through his head. Pure chance that he’d peered up to check which phases they happened to be in. Pure chance that Wolf was gibbous tonight, and backlit the creeping figure on the second floor’s terrace roof as though it had been limned in silver.
“Oh,” was all Malick managed as he stood there and watched the figure swirl down two stories from the sagging eaves, gliding to the ground only steps away from him with an ease he wouldn’t have credited had he not seen it himself. Long knives left smeary trails behind Malick’s retinas as they glittered in the moonlight, almost forming a tangled orbit about the Ghost as he advanced like a silent, twisting storm, the ropy length of braid trailing and fluttering behind him. Not graceful—it was too economical for that. Not a single unnecessary move, not a breath wasted. A perfect, spiraling tempest of ice and fire.
Malick hissed out a tight breath, very nearly sighed like a woman. “Well, would you lookit that,” he breathed.
Oh, yeah. He wanted this one.
Instinct had taken Malick’s hands to the belts crisscrossed over his hips, one drawing his dagger and the other drawing a short sword. He’d already shifted into a defensive stance. Now, he flicked his wrist, watched the man’s eyes narrow as the blade of the short sword swirled down and around Malick’s forearm, came back up to rest at an angle between them. Out of the corner of his eye, Malick noted the slim figure of Yori hugging the shadowed brick of the building, at least a dozen paces behind the man and to his left, her bow nocked and drawn. Shig must be about here somewhere too, then. Malick didn’t have to tell them—they’d wait for his signal. If he chose to give them one.
“You don’t have to do this,” Malick told the man evenly. “You’re safer with us. Think about it. You’re wanted. They’re looking for you.”
“They’re looking for a phantom,” was all the man said, voice as flat and cold as the steel in his hands.
“And look at this—I’ve gone and found one.” Malick shook his head. “You’re good, but you’re not invincible. How long d’you think it’ll be before they hunt you down?”
“You didn’t find anything—your ‘patron’ did. He won’t find me again. I don’t need a pimp.”
Frosty and contemptuous. Clearly unwilling to hear reason, let alone see it. There was no point in arguing. Malick had known that from the moment he’d stepped into the baths. The Ghost wanted a fight—Malick would have to give him one. He’d rather tender another way to work out aggressions, but it seemed the stony little prick was also an uncooperative stony little prick. Who clearly didn’t recognize a good offer when he saw one—witness his repeated failure to succumb to awe.
Footsteps pounded down from the kitchen stairs behind Malick, a heavy tread that could only belong to Samin; the man was not known for his stealth. Malick stopped him with a short whistle.
“Stay back,” he ordered. “I’ve got this.” Gray eyes narrowed to slits; Malick couldn’t help the smile. “All right, Ghost.” He firmed his stance. “C’mon, love, at least give us your name, then. We’ll want to know who we’re burning incense for.”
The man sneered, twirled a knife in his long, nimble fingers, then flipped it up by the tip and caught it neatly in his gloved hand by its wire-bound hilt. “Fuck you.”
Malick parried when the first strike drew sparks from steel.
Then he grinned.
Change-month, Year 1299, Cycle of the Raven
IN THE Old Days, Qiri fumed to herself—back when the Ancestors spoke sanity and sense to their Untouchables, and didn’t send them mad in the speaking—she would have been a lot happier to have been called to the more affluent part of the village on the cusp of the New Cycle, and in weather such as this. Though, “village,” she thought with a cynical bit of a snort, was putting it kindly these days, and getting less apposite with each Turning. Camp, more like, but they weren’t allowed to call it that.
A sideways glare crept over to the man who stepped along beside her, though she yanked it back again before he caught her at it. Still, it wasn’t as though he wouldn’t know anyway, if he chose to, so what did it matter?
Qiri bunched her bony shoulders beneath the cloak, sank deeper into the scraggy, frayed fox pelt of the hood, and blinked against the chill of the rain. She risked another sideways glance, let it linger this time, but still the man didn’t look back, had hardly even acknowledged her existence at all since he’d come pounding on the door of her hut to inform her Fen-onna’s time had come ’round and she was to collect her kit and accompany him to the birth. Telling Qiri her own business, that was what he’d been about. As though she’d needed anyone to do that, having been about it smartly enough herself for nearly half the Raven Cycle. And looking to be about it well into the Wolf Cycle, too, if the Adan didn’t one day tire of taking their lives away a hair at a time and simply decide to go for the whole head and have done with it.
And this Adan—this Adan seer, as if she didn’t know—looked to be as full of himself as the rest of them, with his high ways and ill manners. And what he wanted with poor Fen-onna, Qiri hardly dared speculate. Had he imposed himself to prevent or help along?
Would he do the deed himself, or just stand there and make sure she did? Or would he simply take the babes from between their mother’s legs and Disappear them, like so many others? Though she’d never heard of them taking such tiny ones before. And she’d never heard of an Adan seer imposing himself on an actual birth. To what purpose, after all? No child manifested before their Change. What use would infants be to these people?
“She is unstable, this Fen-onna?”
Qiri’s eyebrows rose—they were the first words the man had spoken to her since they’d left her dooryard. She flicked a quick look through the weak, dusky light from the globed gas lamps that lined the muddy walk between shacks and huts and the occasional more respectable cottage. Class meant nothing anymore, and possessions were no longer truly their own, but some families had managed to keep more than others after the invasion, and the Adan hadn’t yet got ’round to taking what little wealth was left among those once well-off and influential.
“She is… delicate,” Qiri returned carefully.
Too delicate for her husband to trust the risk in keeping the first set of twins and hiding their magic, though Qiri’s price for silence was a mere pittance on that one, out of deference to Fen-onna’s hysteria and Fen-seyh’s honest grief for both his wife and lost children. More than a year ago, that was, but for Fen Marika, it might as well have been yesterday. Poor thing had always been delicate, from the moment Qiri had pulled her from her mother’s womb, all blue and frail, and singing with the Blood as its strength poured into Qiri’s hands.
Frailty turned to fragile beauty, back when Fen-onna had been little Marika, Changed and full with the spirits, and just beginning to catch the eye of young Fen Olanne. Not all could allow the spirits into their hearts and still keep their minds, and Qiri had continued to be surprised as each year passed and pretty little Marika somehow maintained the balance. Ripe with the Blood but without magic himself, Fen Olanne had been fascinated. They’d barely waited the proper six months before the Binding, and it was barely another fortnight before the Adan had tightened their noose, increased their raids, and the rumors of the Disappeared had crept through the camps.
Brilliant with life and stunningly bold once, little Fen Marika, but always with that delicate grip on the sane side of madness. The poor girl’s eyes, when Qiri had felt her full belly and told her it was twins again, the blood and pain when she’d tried to end the pregnancy and couldn’t.
A shiver wracked up Qiri’s spine and out through her creaking bones.
“You have known the family long?” the man went on, his tone much too casual and disinterested to trust.
The first thing the Adan had done upon the occupation—after they’d commandeered the ports and usurped all trade—was to outlaw Jin magic and put to death any who had it. Except for the midwives; they were “useful” to the Adan in a way that turned Qiri’s stomach, but she’d done her best over the years to be of as little use to them as possible. Qiri had helped many a desperate mother since the occupation took its newest, cruelest turn, and if the Ancestors had something to say about the blood on her hands when she finally faced them, she’d have a thing or two to say herself about their decided lack of help for their faithful.
Certainly, she’d taken koin from the Adan for carrying out her repugnant duties, and she’d taken koin from the Jin for pretending to. But more Jin families were intact because of her, and more magic was hidden in their folds than the Adan might suspect, regardless of their constant efforts to wipe it out or take it all for themselves. In Qiri’s own considered opinion, she’d done more to protect the Jin in the last few decades than the Ancestors had done since before the Binding Wars. And look how that had turned out.
“Being as ancient as I,” Qiri replied, her own tone even, though likely a bit hard, “I have known all of the families in the… village all their lives.” She paused, narrowed her eyes, and slid a bold glare sideways. “All that are and all that were. There are considerably fewer to keep track of these days.”
“Indeed,” was all the man said.
Qiri could have slit his throat right there for that one.
The huts and shacks were dwindling behind them, more cottages and the rare house along the street now, and the walkway slowly turned from mud to rocky cart ruts beneath their feet. Meager, oily light flickered through slat-bound shutters, rain and shadow reeking of the tangy stench of animal fat cooked over coal fires; it coiled heavy through her nose and clenched with a warning burn at her bowels as they neared what was once the farm of Fen Olanne and his wife, Marika, and was now little more than ruined earth and scrag-strewn rows of wheat and rye. Verdant fields and pastureland, when Qiri was a girl, and before Fen Olanne was even a gleam in the corner of his father’s eye. Now it lay nearly as bald and blasted as Qiri felt.
This Cycle would not end well, likely for any of them.
She paused at the end of the muddy rut of a path that led up to their destination, reluctant to continue, but all too aware that she had no choice. Already, she could hear the cries of labor, the high-pitched shrieking of driven panic and pre-emptive grief. A woman astride the teeth of insanity, merely biding in her throes, grinding through beatific agony to birth two hearts of her own who were already dead, or better so. Tears scorched Qiri’s eyes, and she was, for once this terrible evening, glad for the rain.
The man—the Adan prophet, damn him—merely stood silent on the path, mud up to the ankles of his fine boots and dragging heavy on the hem of his thick, fur-lined cloak. Waiting.
Qiri led the way to the door, her chin up and her eyes straight ahead, because how could she do else? She kept her expression calm when Fen Olanne shoved the door open, his mien moving quicksilver from relief to confusion to alarm and then, finally, knowing grief. He’d been good-looking and close to strapping once. Now he was thin and sallow, his lank hair hanging in amber-shot gray eyes gone dull—just another man defeated. He stared for a moment, his wife’s moans and nonsensical jabber leaking all around him and out into the oppressive night, turning it near unbearably heavy, before defeat slumped his shoulders, grayed his face. After a long, gravid moment, he merely cast his heavy gaze to the ground.
He stepped aside.
IT HAD gone harder this time, mostly because Qiri could not—no matter what she said or threatened—compel Fen-onna to cooperate, to push, to tilt her hips… to stop her bloody pitiful weeping before Qiri lost her damned mind. The presence of the seer only seemed to drive Fen-onna closer to the edge, though Qiri had insisted that he keep himself out of her sight.
The first emerged red and squalling, announcing his arrival with all the ill grace of a hearty set of newborn lungs. “He’s beautiful,” Qiri said, to no one in particular; Fen-seyh had withdrawn directly after showing them to the bedchamber, and Fen-onna refused to look. Earth-bound this one, just like Fen-onna’s firstborn, rest him. Qiri could feel the tremble of it in her fingertips, and she closed her eyes, bowed her head. She nearly snapped the little thing’s neck right there.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered to the child, kissed his scrunched brow. “I don’t know what waits for you, but I wish I could say I didn’t suspect.” The tremble moved right up her arms, swirled along her backbone and into her chest. Her heart took several painful lurches behind her breastbone, and she stubbornly choked back a small sob.
Strong enough to move continents, this one would one day be.
Qiri shot a look to the Adan man outside the door, then, on inexplicable impulse held the child up so he could see. Perhaps, if he could see the babe for the beautiful new life it was….
The man merely tipped her a curt nod, said, “So ends the Raven Cycle,” and turned his eyes back to Fen-onna, expectant.
The second came quickly, almost too quickly for Qiri to clean the mouth and nose of the first and settle him in linens, even as his twin was crowning. Fen-onna was shrieking again, refusing to push, so Qiri had to actually reach in and pull the child from her body in a rush of blood and viscid waters.
“Thus, the Cycle of the Wolf is born,” the seer intoned, and stepped into the room. Qiri expected Fen-onna to go into hysterics, but she merely lay there, panting and weeping softly, and star