Storm-month, Year 1322, Cycle of the Wolf
HE HADN’T been expecting to see Jacin again so soon. He certainly hadn’t been expecting to see him before the small hours, and yet here he stood, rain-soaked and hollow-eyed, in the doorway of the little hut, blinking about himself like he’d forgotten why he’d come. Joori’s mouth quirked up in an uncertain half smile—right up until he saw the two men who came up to stand behind Jacin in the doorway.
His first instinct—hunters? bandits? was Jacin some kind of hostage?—was to yank Jacin through the door and slam it shut. Too bad his body’s first reaction was to freeze like a rodent beneath the shadow of a hawk’s wings.
Joori was still gaping like an idiot and didn’t catch Caidi before she made a run at Jacin, so she was rather open prey for the man who stepped forward to intercept her. Jacin didn’t move—Joori couldn’t. Just watched the man swing his little sister up onto his hip with a grin Joori didn’t quite believe—more wolfish than friendly—then cut a narrow glance at Morin and a mocking one at Joori.
“Kamen Malick,” the man said, “you can call me Malick,” then he tipped a nod at Morin and spared a quick smile for Caidi as he tweaked her nose before turning his cool glance back on Joori. “Friends of your brother’s. We’re here to take you somewhere safe.”
The other man, the big one, pursed his mouth in clear disapproval. “You plan on telling everyone you meet your real name?”
You-can-call-me-Malick just grinned. “It’s Fen’s family,” he said, like it was a perfectly reasonable retort.
Handsome. Friendly-seeming enough. The other man was big and blocky, a little bit scary, maybe, but not threatening, though a broadsword hung at his hip. The one who called himself Kamen Malick was armed, as well, but no weapons were drawn, which had to be a good sign—right? With Jacin just standing there, somewhat glassy-eyed, You-can-call-me-Malick smiling, all amiable amusement, and the other waiting in the doorway like an attentive steward, it all seemed absurdly unthreatening for a sudden appearance in the dark of night with a storm rolling steadily. And the statement—safe; could it be possible?—really should have set elation through Joori, not raise his hackles the way it did.
It was the hand on Jacin’s shoulder that made Joori’s eyes narrow. The casual way You-can-call-me-Malick tipped in and spoke something quietly into Jacin’s ear as he set Caidi down and gave her a pat between the shoulder blades, then gently pushed her away from Jacin. The impossible to mistake marks just below Jacin’s ear. And then the way Jacin merely peered at Joori, then at Morin and Caidi, said, “Take what you can carry; the cart’s only big enough for Caidi and a few provisions,” then angled stiffly away from the door and out from under the grip on his shoulder to direct Caidi and Morin with the packing.
Joori had had his suspicions for years about what Asai had wanted with his brother—hell, he’d been pretty sure he knew exactly what Asai was about the night he stepped arrogantly into their dooryard—and Jacin’s reticence and unwillingness to talk in detail about the man at all in the weeks they’d spent in this little hut had drawn conclusions of every sort of abuse and exploitation Joori could fathom. And he’d be damned if he’d see it done again—not in his name, never again.
He pushed past the cocky stranger with the too easy grin, growling a little at the way the man tried to angle himself between Joori and Jacin, like he was trying to keep Joori away—keep Joori away from his brother; how dare the man—and took hold of Jacin’s elbow.
“Jacin, what’s going on? Who are these people?” And then he peered a little closer. “Are you drunk? Or…?” His eyes narrowed, and he wheeled on the grinning stranger. “What’ve you got him on?”
You-can-call-me-Malick’s eyebrows drew down. “What’ve I got him—?”
“I can barely see the color of his eyes for the pupils, and he looks like he’s about to fall over.”
“Joori, not now.” It was snappish and short. Jacin pulled his arm away from Joori’s grip. “They’re who they say they are. This is Malick. And that’s Samin.”
He waved at the man still standing like a block of stone just outside the door. Good thing too, because the hut was only so big, and Caidi was taking up half the floor with the pile of clothes through which she was sorting with Morin’s help. Caidi was chattering excitedly, while Morin kept half a cagey eye on everyone in the room.
“Yori and Shig are keeping watch outside,” Jacin went on. “We’re taking you to a safe place in the city. Get your things.”
“A safe…?” Had he really said “a safe place”? In the city? Was there such a thing? Joori looked around. At Caidi and Morin obediently throwing together all the clothes Jacin had brought. At the man Jacin had called Samin standing out in the rain on the other side of the door, watching everything going on inside while simultaneously scanning the yard. At the other man—this Malick—smiling that self-satisfied smile, eyes far too focused on Jacin, even as he crouched down beside Morin to help shove balled-up clothes into a sack. At Jacin, making his stiff way over to the rickety board and staring down at the piles of food, like he couldn’t decide what to do about them….
“Leave it,” Malick said quietly. “You won’t need to worry about it anymore.”
…at the way Jacin just nodded vaguely, compliant.
Joori gave Malick a bit of a glare as he stepped up behind Jacin, annoyed when Malick simply widened his smirk and shook his head, like Joori’s distrust amused him. “Jacin,” Joori said, leaning in so he could speak softly, for Jacin’s ears only, “are you sure this is real?”
Jacin turned to Joori slowly, gaze a touch murky, but by no means muddled. He was pale, going sallow, with twin spots of color on each cheekbone. “As real as I can manage,” he muttered, dropping his glance guiltily to the floor. Half moons like bruises blotted the thin skin beneath his eyes, and his jaw was clenched so tight Joori would swear he could hear teeth squeak.
“What’s wrong with you?” Joori demanded. “You looked fine last night.” A little shredded around the center, but otherwise all right. No, that wasn’t true, really—he’d looked exhausted, too, and there’d been… something. Something in his eyes.
“Nothing that won’t keep.” Jacin tried to smile a little, but the ghastly thing that crooked at his mouth only knocked up the worry blooming in Joori’s gut. “We don’t have much time,” Jacin said. “I didn’t know… I had no idea….” He paused, dipped his head again, and rubbed at his temple. “Asai… Fuck, Joori, I’m so sorry, I never—”
“I think that’s got it all,” Malick cut in, shouldering past Joori to pull up beside Jacin. That too-possessive grip went once again to Jacin’s arm. Tawny eyes settled far too keenly on Joori as long fingers curled around Jacin’s braid. Smirking. Silent laughter bubbling just beneath it. Like he knew exactly what Joori was thinking, and thought it terribly funny. “We should go, Fen.”
“Yes,” was all Jacin said. He reached out and gave Joori’s shoulder a quick brush as he squeezed around him.
Biddable. Like what this Malick person said mattered.
Joori took hold of Jacin’s elbow and stopped him, leaning in to speak softly into his ear again. Joori kept his narrow gaze locked onto Malick’s smug one. “Jacin,” Joori whispered, “are you sure this is real?”
Jacin turned his head, met Joori’s eyes. “It’s real.” Then why did he look so damned miserable? “It’ll be all right, Joori. I… this wasn’t… I’m sorry.”
“For what?” Joori shot a look at Malick, who was still holding onto Jacin’s braid like some kind of leash. Joori set his jaw and tugged a little until Jacin took a step away. “Why are you sorry, Jacin?” He dropped his voice as low as it could go and still make sound. “What are you paying for this?”
Rising dread turned to unfocused alarm when Jacin whiffed a tired laugh. “No price,” he murmured. He craned his neck around to meet Malick’s even gaze for a long, heavy moment, face unreadable, then straightened and pulled away. Joori was ridiculously relieved when Jacin irritably yanked his braid from Malick’s fingers, and even more so when Malick let go. “We have to leave now.” Jacin turned to face Joori squarely, eyes flicking quickly over Joori’s shoulder at the smirking man who watched a little too closely, then back again to Joori. “Please, Joori.”
Joori looked at Jacin hard then turned his glance once again on Malick, let it narrow at the steady look he got back. “I don’t trust him,” he said, voice deliberately loud enough that Malick could hear. Joori kept his gaze steady, even as Malick shrugged, indifferent.
“He never asked you to,” Malick said, then he sauntered on past and made it a point to drop a quick touch to Jacin’s shoulder as he angled around them both and out the door, collecting Samin as he went.
Joori turned back to Jacin, anger receding and worry crowding back in at the weariness and wan cast to Jacin’s face. “Jacin—”
“Brother,” Jacin cut in, closing his eyes for a moment as he sucked in a deep breath, then he leveled his gaze with Joori’s. “Please.”
Joori could only stare, mouth tight and unease roiling up his backbone. He nodded. Because really—what choice did he have?
FOR all the rush and worry, Yori concluded, this “job” was turning out to be the most boring one she’d ever been on. Not for the first time, as she rolled her neck irritably, mouth pinching tight as rain trickled down between her shoulder blades, she wondered why she’d even been necessary to carry it out. The conclusion she drew was that she wasn’t—neither were Samin or Shig, or even Fen, when it came right down to it. Maybe Shig, now that Yori thought about it, since Malick seemed to keep Shig close while he was using his magic, laying hands on her more than Yori thought entirely necessary, but Shig didn’t mind and Malick was Malick, so Yori didn’t say anything. Still, though, it seemed Malick could have done this job all by himself.
Well… all right, she supposed Fen’s presence had been necessary, or Malick might have had some trouble getting the three refugees to come along as compliantly as they’d done, but other than that….
She didn’t suppose she was too put out. She’d only gotten to see Malick do his trick with the Gates once before—most of their jobs fell inside the city’s walls, and he used his magic so rarely she sometimes forgot he had it at all—and she rather enjoyed the high the aftereffects gave her. Nothing she understood, and nothing she cared to understand, but Malick had half explained it as fazing their corporeal realities while altering the perceptions of any who might cross their paths. Yori had just sort of nodded a, “Yeah, yeah, whatever,” at him, and enjoyed the bit of euphoria.
It didn’t work with Fen, which surprised Yori a little, but wouldn’t have done, had she stopped and thought about it. Magic didn’t work on an Untouchable. Maybe she forgot because she hadn’t thought of Fen that way since after that first night. She’d only noticed the braid anew as something compulsory and not really a part of him when they’d had to wait for him to make his own stealthy way over the Gate. Too bad for him. It was a heady thing while it was happening, Malick’s magic, a little like coming down from poppy afterward, but even that bit of a thrill—and the knowledge that there would be another like it when they returned—wasn’t enough to offset the squishiness in Yori’s boots now, the too-steady rain seeping through her oiled cloak, and the annoyance that was Fen’s little brother. And Yori had thought Fen was hard to get along with. She snorted.
“Why couldn’t they have gotten a cart big enough for all of us?” Morin was snarking at Fen.
Fen mumbled something back at him that Yori couldn’t hear, and though the tone sounded almost mellow to her own ears—or at least as mellow as Fen got—Morin’s mouth still shut up tight and didn’t open again.
Yori shook her head.
The strangest reunion she’d ever seen, though admittedly, she couldn’t recall ever having seen one before. Still, though, she’d sort of expected hugs and shouts of relief; what she’d actually witnessed were intense looks between Fen and his twin, some sort of silent plea that the brother had accepted with clear reservations, and distrust and hostile looks at all of them, but particularly at Malick. The little one, Caidi, seemed to be rather a limpet where Fen was concerned, to which Fen submitted with some softening of his usual stony expression, and stiff embraces when she demanded them, but the other one, that Morin, was a bit of a puzzle. Not hatred in his eyes when he looked at Fen, but… Yori couldn’t tell, really. He was too obviously afraid of both his elder brothers, and Shig engendered harsh distrust from the second he laid eyes on her—the hair was apparently too much for him—which turned to outright anxiety when she spoke. Though, Yori mused, the fact that Shig’s first words had been, “Damn, but you’re an angry little rabbit, aren’t you? Stop thinking so loud, you’re giving me a headache,” probably hadn’t helped. Not the best way to introduce herself to a boy who’d been taught that magic, or even one’s proximity to it, meant painful death. Pretty amusing, though, at least to Yori, but then, lots of inappropriate things amused her.
Samin terrified the boy, with his granite face and hard eyes, though that might have been because Samin had made the mistake of trying to smile at him. Not a pretty thing, Samin’s smile, at least not ’til you got to know him. For whatever reason moved little girls, it had stirred a giggling fit in Caidi, and she’d allowed Samin to lift her and plop her on top of the things they’d packed into the dray, and even obediently complied when he gruffly directed her to fan out her cloak to cover what it would. Yori thought perhaps she better understood the girl’s good humor when she saw Caidi surreptitiously poke her tongue out at Morin as Samin settled her in for the ride.
The boy hovered about their edges now, sticking to a loosely defined middle ground between his two elder brothers. Fen kept his head down, jaw set, silent but for occasional monosyllabic answers to Caidi’s chatter behind him in the cart that he refused to allow anyone else to help him pull, all the while pretending not to limp. The twin, Joori, had engaged Malick for a while in a conversation Yori hadn’t been able to hear above the rain and the squishy grind of the dray’s wheels on the road, but she’d heard Asai’s name spoken sharply twice—first by Joori then later by Malick—before Malick had stopped abruptly. He’d jerked his head at Yori to take point while he pulled the brother to the side to growl something at him, low and intense and strangely cross. Malick’s eyes stayed on Fen the whole while, though Fen hadn’t seemed to notice anything but his own feet and the death grip he had on the dray’s handles since before they’d even gotten to his family. Samin had offered four times now to pull it for him, and four times had been ignored, until Samin had given up and dropped back to slog along beside Shig as rearguard.
“You’re Yori, right?”
Yori shifted a glance sideways and tipped a little nod. “And you’re Joori.” She couldn’t help the silly grin. “Sorta rhymes.”
The chuckle out of the dark sounded more tense than sincere. “So, how long have you known my brother?”
With an irritable swat at some fringe that wouldn’t stay put beneath her hood, Yori blinked rain out of her eyes, squinting at the blob of murk walking beside her that was Fen’s twin brother. “About….” She paused.
Besides whatever had passed between him and Malick, she’d watched this one trying to wring conversation out of Fen since they’d maneuvered the little cart out of the scraggy yard of the hut where they’d been staying, and had been surprised that he’d been just as unsuccessful as she’d ever been. She would’ve thought Fen would be more communicative with his family, at least, considering what he’d apparently gone through to protect them. All things considered, perhaps it wasn’t her place to be blabbing things Fen himself didn’t choose to disclose.
“A little while.” She slanted a look sideways at the sigh that was nearly a growl, and steered the subject in another direction: “Has anyone told you we’ve a hot-spring bath where we’re going? Bet it’ll be nice for you to sink into that, won’t it? I know I can’t wait.” And she hadn’t been living out in the middle of nowhere for weeks and weeks with no apparent bathing facilities but a half-full barrel in the dooryard.
“You’ve come very well armed,” Joori observed, ignoring her comment altogether, his voice just as deep as Fen’s, but with a different nuance she couldn’t quite ken yet. “I take it you don’t have the same magic as that other one, with the hair.”
Yori snickered at the description. She’d have to remember to tell Shig later. “That’s Shig,” she told Joori. “My sister.”
“I figured,” Joori replied. “You look a lot alike.”
“Except for the hair, yeah?” Yori grinned.
“And you’re prettier.”
Yori only just kept from rolling her eyes. Honestly—men were so transparent. “So, you tried wringing answers out of Fen, then arguing them out of Malick, and now you’re down to flattery.” She shook her head. “You’re not even very good at it.”
“Huh,” said Joori. “Strange, because I meant it.” Yori could just make out a shrug in the dark, then frowning features momentarily illuminated by a fleeting streak of lightning. “I won’t say I’m above it,” Joori said over the quiet rumble of thunder, “and I certainly do want answers, but it’s still the truth.”
Yori gave him a slit-eyed stare as he walked along beside her, looking right back, his eyes a mere dull gleam in the night. She had to admit he was attractive. Identical to Fen in respect to facial features, but there was something about Fen—his hardness, maybe; that all-consuming rage too often in his gaze—that had… not repelled her, really, but at least put her off from the start. Unlike some infatuated dimwits, Yori had never had a single carnal thought about their newest duckling. This one, though….
“Fen works with us,” she told Joori.
“And you rescue the families of everyone who works with you?”
“Everyone who works with us is family.”
Joori went quiet for a few moments, taking that in, then he turned his head to look at Yori. “He’s been looking for our mother.”
Silence again while Joori pondered whatever he was pondering, turning every now and then to walk backward for a second or two, likely eyeing his brother, before turning back. “He looks like shit,” he told Yori, low and just for her. “What’s going on with him?”
Yori looked back over her shoulder, squinting, but all she could make out was Fen’s hunched figure, stubbornly pulling the dray and trying to keep up with the pace she and Joori were setting. Malick was walking beside him now, and Morin hovered a little closer than he’d done before. Fen had stopped even the quiet, one-word answers he’d been giving his sister, a chore that Malick had seemingly taken to himself, though Caidi didn’t seem to mind. In fact, she seemed charmed, which almost made Yori roll her eyes, but the girl couldn’t be much older than ten, and it was Malick, after all. Samin had moved up to walk behind the cart, leaving Shig to watch their backs, which he wouldn’t ordinarily have done unless Malick had told him to. It appeared Fen’s brother was not the only one waiting for him to collapse, though Yori was putting her koin on Fen—he was too mulish to let his body stop if he wanted it to keep going. In Yori’s observation, when Fen hit a wall, he just rammed until it fell down.
“He got a cut on his leg last night,” Yori said. “Umeia had to sew him up. Probably just needs a painkiller. And to stop insisting on pulling that dray by himself.” Bloody bonehead.
“I saw him last night.” Joori had turned again, cloak billowing around his knees as he pivoted to walk backward. Yori could see more of his face now, though he was still little more than a dim smudge against the foggy black. “I didn’t notice anything wrong with his leg, although….” A shrug. “He was covered in blood.”
It was the accent—that was what was different. Joori had the same voice as Fen, but Fen didn’t have the twangy Jin accent. Huh.
“Yeah?” Yori shrugged too, but didn’t volunteer anything. Like how Fen’s descent from the top of the Gate had been more like a fall, and that he’d landed awkwardly then snarled off any concerned attempts to help. And how she was almost certain she’d heard a strangled wheeze of a scream when he was trying to drag the dray from the culvert where he and Shig had stashed it, and then nearly bitten Malick’s hand off when he bulled his way in to help. Obstinate idiot. She’d have to make sure Umeia knew about it when they got back. Umeia would take care of it, whatever it was. He’d probably gone and gotten the thing infected, and Yori would bet some stitches got pulled when he was wrestling with that cart. What the hell were they supposed to do with all these people if Fen up and died on them? And anyway, what would…?
“You saw him last night?” Yori frowned. “How? When?”
“Is he sleeping with that man? That Malick?”
Yori blinked, eyebrows snapping upward. Apparently, flapping from subject to subject was a family trait. She almost barked a laugh, but the question had been posed so… almost angrily, and the tone of it, the suspicion inside it, roused something oddly protective in her. Fen’s brother or not, this Joori wasn’t theirs, at least not yet, and what Malick and Fen got up to wasn’t even her business, let alone his.
“I’m not quite certain that’s your concern,” she told him, her own tone deliberately even and unruffled. “Or mine. Perhaps you’d best ask Fen.”
Joori turned his head from his scrutiny of his brother, stared at Yori for several strides, then waved a hand vaguely over toward Fen, said, “Pardon me for a moment,” and he walked off.
Damn. Yori wished she could warn Fen, and apologize in advance for apparently setting his brother on him, but…. Well, maybe it would make him stop dragging that stupid cart for a little while, at least. Joori was right about that—Fen looked like shit.
Deliberately, Yori looked away, sent a glance ahead and to all points, scanning the shadows, but if anything was going to come at them, she was fairly certain she wasn’t going to see it before it saw them, not tonight. No moons, a low-hanging fog, and trees bloody everywhere. She’d have to rely on Shig and Malick twigging in time. Anyway, they were halfway home, and nothing had happened so far, and she had more magic at the Gates to look forward to.
Biting back a bit of a sigh, Yori ignored the steadily rising sound of Joori’s voice as he chastised his brooding brother, tried to ignore her numbing toes with rather less success, and tucked her hands up under her cloak to warm her fingers. If there was trouble, she’d need them flexible. Although, she mused, trying not to snort as Joori’s voice rose again, and the sound of the dray’s wheels on the road ceased abruptly, perhaps any trouble that might come wouldn’t be from anything lurking out there in the dark.
“Yori, look sharp!” Malick snapped as he flew past her, sword drawn and stalking ahead, a hot welter of power like she’d never felt in her life nearly swatting her aside when he brushed her arm. Had that come from Malick?
Body moving before she even told it to, Yori swung her bow around and nocked an arrow, feet planting themselves into an offensive stance, even as she squinted ahead in the direction Malick was striding. Trees and more trees, shadows and more shadows, and she’d been looking right at them only a second ago, but now… well, bloody damn. Now they were moving. And not in any way people moved—at least not people with bones beneath their skin. Vague man-shapes then hunched… somethings. It was fascinating and revolting all at the same time, and she hadn’t even got a good look yet. She wished for a flash of lightning, just so she could see what the hell they were dealing with.
She spared a quick glance behind her, taking in the configurations, so she’d know if things got messy. Fen had shoved all of his siblings behind him. Morin and Caidi both huddled in the cart with Joori between them and his brother. Samin still stood behind the dray, sword drawn, watching Malick, and Shig had turned to face the rear, bright head atilt in the way it did when she let her own magic loose, seeking. Satisfied, Yori turned back, eyes flicking back and forth between the smoky curls of… whatever they were farther up the road and Malick as he stalked up to them, planted himself mere paces away, and drew himself straight. Threatening. Frightening in a way she’d never seen him before. Powerful.
“Three of you?” he taunted, swinging his sword lazily in a figure eight about his shoulders, smirking. “That’s all?”
Rolling hisses gathered from the writhing murk as it wound into three distinct shapes then fanned out again.
“No,” Shig called from behind. “There’s more.”
Yori glanced back again, just long enough to see more of them pooling to either side of the dray, like twisting pieces of the stormy sky, thrashing themselves into shapes she almost recognized but couldn’t quite settle in her head yet.
“Fucking Husao,” Malick muttered, jaw clenched. “Manipulative prick. Whatever you see,” he called, voice deep and resonant, almost eager, like he was looking forward to whatever was coming, “remember that it’s all glamour. They’re only maijin. They bleed and die just like everything else.”
Terrific, Yori thought sourly, good to know, then sucked in a long breath and sighted down.