Kuet slipped off her stool and rose. She kept her head bowed, one hand cradling her teacup. With the other hand she eased her musket from beneath the kitchen window.
The redwings still shrieked, out in the moonless dark. Irritating birds — they swarmed Kuet if she trespassed the meadow’s north end, and bit the horses at midsummer when they wanted blood for their chicks — but they gave better warning than guard dogs.
She pinned the musket along her right side, hidden from the window. The curtains hung half-parted, offering a clear view to anyone looking in. Careless, careless, and she pressed her lips tight. The scars tugged stiff at the corner of her mouth.
Kuet forced her mind quiet and listened. The redwings had stilled their racket, but for one voice crying high and sharp. Not wolves, then, nor wood lions. No honest visitor came in the dark, and her dishonest ones knew to carry signal lanterns.
She set her teacup beside the table lamp, her hand steady. Her heartbeat kicked like a jackrabbit. The musket’s stock pressed into her ribs, its long barrel into hip and thigh. She glided sideways to the inner doorway.
The redwing kept calling, its pace even. The threat had stopped coming closer, that meant, but wasn’t moving away.
Kuet shifted her grip on the musket and pushed her elbow out. It caught on heavy cloth, the door-curtain. She hooked the folds aside and ducked into the room beyond.
The blue cloth swung back into place, blocking the window’s stare. Kuet whirled and flung herself at the far wall. Handholds pocked the stone, shallow marks disguised as shrine-cubbies. Her fingers and stockinged toes scrabbled on old wax as she climbed one-handed.
She levered the trapdoor up and heaved herself into the attic. Its darkness wrapped close, scented with dust and smuggled paper. Kuet resettled the trapdoor. Her searching fingers found one latch, then another, and snapped them shut.
The solid thuds calmed her breathing. Clawlings rarely looked up, even Imperial inspectors, and none of them could fit through such a narrow entrance.
Kuet cradled the musket and crept to her left. No windows, in her attic, but she did have sniper’s ports.
She unbarred a wooden slat and slid it up. The kitchen window lit the ground: a sharp bright line across her vegetable garden, and a faint but wide glow that washed to the road. She scanned that dirt track and the trees thick behind it. The intruder might be on the house’s other side, past the meadow —
A pair of eyes flashed golden, beneath the hawthorn branches.
Kuet closed the slat, her hand already plunging into a pocket. No light needed for this task: she yanked out a paper-wrapped tube and tore one end off with her teeth. A little gunpowder into the flash pan, the rest down the musket’s barrel. The lead ball followed, and the wadded paper. The ramrod last, jamming it all into place, before she took a deep breath and opened the slat again to the night air.
She lifted the musket to her shoulder. “State your name and business here, clawling,” she called.
Nothing moved, in the shadowed space beside the hawthorn, but a purring voice floated out. “Mistress Selyudh cha Kuet?”
She gripped the musket tighter. “I’ve paid my taxes and the inspector’s not due for a season. Your name and your business here, clawling, or I’ll shoot you for trespass.”
“My name is Duvahra.” The eyes reflected again, coin-bright in the dark, and their owner stepped onto the roadway.
Kuet bit down on a ragged breath. The redwing called faster, its voice still damnably calm. She fought the urge to scrub a hand across her mangled face.
The clawling waited on the road, shadow against shadow. A stranger, but Kuet knew every line of its shape: long and lean, as suited a running hunter, the two legs back-jointed and the two hands sharp-clawed. This one was male, by its height. Female clawlings stood a head above tall men, and this one stood a head above that.
Kuet dragged in a second breath and gathered herself. “Your full name,” she snapped. “And your reason for coming here.”
The clawling sidled a step — wariness? Unease spread icy petals in Kuet’s stomach.
“I am Lamishavir Duvahra, saintcalled Sorinad.” The clawling shifted another step. “Mistress Selyudh…I grieve to bear you this news. Your brother Kira is dead.”
The ice petals turned to thorns, punched deep into stomach and lungs. Her brave little brother, mail-rider and rebels’ messenger — the only thing she’d cared to stay alive for, after Feray’s murder —
If she trusted a clawling’s word.
“Have I the honor of a body to bury?” she called.
“I know that Kira would never wish burial.” The clawling’s words remained even, his hands at his sides. “You are Cartjai, and your people prefer the pyre. Kira sent me to you, Mistress Selyudh. Please let us speak further inside. Some things are not suited to open air.”
Anyone familiar with the old nations knew their death customs. Kuet told herself that, as she glared down the musket barrel and blinked fast to keep her good eye clear. “Kira knows better than to send me a clawling.”
“He told me to apologize for it,” the creature said. “He also apologized that he would not see Mercy this year, nor meet Folly. I do not understand that code, but I pass it on as requested.”
Kuet’s mare Mercy, loose in the pasture a dozen paces away; and her spring colt Folly, sired by a stallion of Kira’s choosing. Only he would use them for a trust-this-message reference.
No, Kuet tried to say, the word shaped on her lips but soundless.
“Continue,” she managed.
“The Colonial Governor’s forces captured Kira last week. He died of his own will, before he could be put to the question and have his associates’ secrets broken from him. The Imperial Navy had recently put ashore a powerful zafinad.”
Of the clawlings’ dozen kinds of magic, healing ought to have been the blessing. Naturally, however, their strongest healers were also the greatest sadists, and thus skilled torturers.
She wanted to press her knuckles to her mouth. Kira had long made his own choices, but nothing banished the certainty that she should have been there, should have saved him somehow, her little brother who shone with honor and purpose and hope. All the things Kuet had lost, damaged as she was, and why did her life remain when Kira’s had been snuffed?
The clawling still stood on the roadway, tall predator’s shadow.
“What is your part in this?” Kuet snapped.
“I am one of the associates your brother died to protect.” The clawling’s even tone jarred loose at last. “I told you, Mistress Selyudh. My name is Lamishavir Duvahra, saintcalled Sorinad. Sorinad. I am the most powerful seer on the continent, and I am Governor Lamisahar’s nephew, and I wish to openly join the rebellion I have passed information to for so long.” He took a long stride forward. “Kira’s last act was to send me to you, because you can send me on to Selyudh cor Fenjal.”
Selyudh cor Fenjal, her dead husband’s cousin. More widely known as the Fox General, a leader of the native human resistance. One of the most wanted men in the Twelve Colonies. And a clawling thought she would meekly pass him along — why? For a word? A glib claim of loyalty, when for a century his people had ruled the eastern seacoast by arms and magic? Rage burned Kuet’s throat like bile.
But Kira had sent him to her.
She aimed a pace above his head, shut her good eye, and fired. The musket’s recoil slammed into her shoulder; the noise slammed into her skull. She gasped smoky air and peered through the sniper-port.
The clawling stood in the same spot, though half-crouched. Hawthorn leaves fell loose behind him, near-invisible flutters of motion.
No hint of unnatural speed, in his reaction; no taste of lightning on the air, or any other reflex to betray a different magic than he claimed. No answering gunfire from hidden forces. Kuet swallowed the last, bitter hope that his story had been false.
Morbid curiosity seeped into her chest, and she raised her voice over the redwings’ shrieks. “Did your magic say I wasn’t going to kill you just now?”
“No.” The clawling slowly straightened. “I have seen a significant chance that this encounter ends in my death. I have also seen that it contains my only chance to eventually reach the rebel strategists.”
Most sorinad were luck-tellers: the sort who dealt in hunches, intuition, the knack for being in the right place at the right time. A true seer, who did not merely sense the future but saw into it — saints alive, she’d sooner expect to find a sky-horse building a pearl nest on her doorstep. And this sky-horse wanted to join the human rebellion.
Kuet stared down at the clawling, a cloud of powder-smoke drifting between them.
“Come in,” she said, “and we’ll talk.”
She wiped clean the musket’s flash pan, before she descended, but she didn’t bother reloading. In the kitchen’s close quarters, if she needed a weapon it would already be too late to use.
She racked the musket and scooped her lamp from the table. The back porch creaked, very faintly: clawlings had light treads despite their size. Kuet tightened numb-chill fingers on the oil lamp and pulled her door open.
The clawling waited on the porch’s edge, a stride away — half a stride, for him. Flat black, as all males, a hungry shadow leached from the night. Kuet thrust her lamp high and stared up at his face before her nerve could break.
The clawling blinked once, pupils narrowed to slits. His eyes showed yellowy-gray — a color mix of wariness, of uncertainty and fear. Not gold, the deep pure color of hunting and violence.
Kuet forced her belly muscles to unclench. The clawling blinked again, carefully, and peered down at her. His eyes paled to solid gray.
Distress, that meant, and Kuet huffed bitter satisfaction. She tipped her face back so he could better see the four parallel scars, slashes torn from forehead to throat, across the empty socket of her right eye and knotted flesh of her cheek.
The clawling laid his lynx-tufted ears back, but held her gaze. Undaunted, despite his countryman’s work standing before him.
“Can’t say you’re welcome here, but come in anyway.” Kuet tried to ignore the slight metallic musk of clawling, the way it tensed her shoulders. Another scent underlaid it, too familiar — blood.
Her pulse leaped. She checked his claws fast, the retractable ones on his hands, the longer ones on his toes, the sharp sickle on the inside of each foot. No blood gleamed on any.
Her heartbeat slowed with confusion, and she looked over the rest of him. A rich clan’s son, for certain: cords of turquoise hung among the leather strips of his skirt, and a silver pin fastened his cloak. A sword-baldric crossed his chest, its cloth patterned scarlet — no, blotched with blood.
“Whose is that?” Kuet said, sharper than she intended.
“Mine, mostly.” The clawling remained still, and now she realized it wasn’t only caution: a double set of claw marks raked his ribs, half-crusted and sluggishly trickling blood. “And some from the gerinad they set on my trail.”
Kuet hissed. “You’re bringing a tracker to my door?”
“No.” The clawling’s eyes darkened. “He did not expect me to fight well, sorinad and scholar that I am. May the Twins look kindly on his spirit.”
Kuet scowled, knowing it made her face a snarl. “And when they send the next gerinad, Governor’s-nephew, and that one with reinforcements?”
The clawling inclined his head. “I hope to be gone by then, and safely into the mountains. A gerinad may know his quarry entered hostile territory, but if he cannot follow him into it the knowledge is useless.”
The mountain folk would shoot one clawling dead as soon as another. Unless Kuet told her charge where to go, and what passwords to give when he got there. And send an Imperial traitor with soldiers on his trail into key secret routes?
“Port Ciannis is a day away at pacing speed.” Kuet planted her free hand on her hip. “Depending how fast they find their dead tracker and send a new party, you’ve perhaps two days. I say run south, and swiftly. You might reach Satur-hassali territory.”
The clawling tipped both ears back, looking pained. “The Sata-hass Empire is an appalling regime with respect for neither human nor aurinhas,” he said, “and I would sooner martyr myself in any town square of our good Twelve Colonies than offer the Satur-hassali so much as a pleasant expression.”
So Kira might sound, on the subject of Sata-hass — had sounded.
“Damn pirates,” Kuet agreed, and pretended her voice didn’t crack. “I’ve supplies in the house, if you want to clean those wounds before infection takes.”
She stepped inside and set her lamp back on the table. After a moment the clawling ducked after her, bent near to a crouch. He folded himself down further, legs angled like a bird’s, until he sat with his eyes level to hers.
Kuet turned away from the pale green hope in them. “I’ve no intention of helping you beyond this.” She reached deep into her shelves, past jars of cornmeal and molasses, and hauled out her physicker’s bag. “And this I offer for Kira’s sake.”
She tossed the canvas bag onto the table, harder than she had meant. The clawling — Duvahra — only bowed his head, eyes neutral yellow-green, and reached for it.
Kuet latched the door and pinched the window curtains shut. She turned back fast, hating that she had to keep her blind side on him for even a moment. Her kitchen pressed too close, too small. She disliked human strangers in her space, after years alone, but to be locked in with a clawling, the weight and shape and breath of her nightmares — a clawling, and the scent of blood, and new grief sharp as a knife to the throat —
“How did you come to know Kira?” Kuet said, snapping free of memory before she lunged at the clawling like a cornered dog.
“We exchanged letters for some years.” Duvahra set out a roll of cotton bandages, his gaze lowered. “He first wrote to me after one of my early pieces circulated. You may know the name Redwing, Mistress Selyudh. I have used it since the beginning.”
Kuet had helped smuggle paper for illegal printing presses for a decade. The product of those — pamphlets of news, debate, anti-royalist sentiment — spread hand to hand through every Colony despite the authorities’ efforts.
“I know the name,” Kuet said grimly. She had admired some of his work, a thought that stung like nettles.
“There is a natural alliance between the human rebellion and those aurinhas who reject Imperial control,” Duvahra said. “You know my position — ”
“Yes.” Kuet folded her arms. Redwing’s work argued that the military seizure and supply acts violated the rights of Ifasmeen subjects, colonial or not, and should such violations continue the Colonies would be justified in renouncing Imperial rule. “You base your argument on an elementist reading of the Dualist tradition, do you not?”
The clawling’s eyes brightened green. “You know the elementist readings?”
“My husband was a lawyer,” Kuet said. “I can recite the Dualist philosophy of law from founding scripture onward.” Clawling scripture and clawling law, nothing that had protected Feray in the end. Familiar rage clogged her throat. What had Kira been thinking, sending Duvahra to Kuet? What had he expected of her, of him?
She snatched up her water jug, useful distraction, and filled a bowl. Duvahra watched yellow-gray as she slid it toward him, sloshing.
“Your argument holds for aurinhas subjects,” she said. “Not for humans. Under Dualist tradition, we have no rights. You may take our lives, take our territory, destroy our colors, with as little care as you might hunt a rabbit.”
Colors, that peculiarly clawling concept: the ability to show emotion, to speak thoughts, to stand firm as a tree and spread branches over one’s own ground. Twin gods had created them, clawlings believed — one their bodies, flesh on the grasslands, and one their minds, souls in the forest. It was true each clawling bonded itself to a tree, upon adolescence, and only then awakened its magic. Its saintcalling, they said.
Saintless, they named humans, when they were being polite. Soulless, when they weren’t.
“No.” Duvahra looked at her, ears up, earnest. “Given that humans clearly have reason and speech, we must regard you as possessing equal rights. If you in fact lack souls and return only to shadow upon death, we have behaved honorably. If you are rightfully made creatures, and we treat you as beasts, what greater sin could we answer for before the Twins?”
Kuet stared hard at her water jug, until the urge to crack it over his head passed. “An honest sort of logic.”
Duvahra paused, the baffled desire to ask What other sort is there? clear in his face. “You need not like us, Mistress Selyudh,” he said warily. “We can still be of use to you.” He dipped a cloth in the water bowl and wiped blood from his ribs. “Many aurinhas hold native sympathies. If the human rebellion were to join our resistance to Imperial rule — ”
“We would replace one set of overlords with another.” Kuet shoved her water jug onto its shelf. “Why should we fight and suffer to free you from your overseas kin? At the end you would take power with the same claws and arrogance that they do, and the only change would be the amount of human blood soaking the ground at your feet.” She turned her full face on him. “Go home, clawling. Let us be.”
Duvahra ducked his head, but his shoulders remained set. He mopped more blood from the wounds torn down his ribs. Kuet glimpsed bone, beneath the clotted edges — they needed stitches, badly.
“Home to where?” Duvahra said at last. “Where should we go, Mistress Selyudh, those of us who were hatched here, whose dams were? Back overseas? My oak lives in the wilderness north of Minsharra Colony. I know the redwing’s call, not the song of nightingales. How do you propose to tear us from this land?”
Kuet ground her teeth. Even the wildest rebels knew they could never evict the clawling settlers entirely, any more than Kuet could bodily haul Duvahra from her kitchen. Only the Azhdai, fierce western empire, had succeeded in keeping clawling explorers from their plains.
“We settled here in friendship, once,” Duvahra said. “With contracts and charters, and — ”
“Armies.” Kuet spat the word like blood. “You may have come with words, child of Ifasmeen, but you followed them with armies. That’s always the trouble with clawlings, isn’t it?” She blinked hard to clear her eye, to rid herself of memory. She still tasted her own blood, choking her as she lay helpless. Blood everywhere, that day, and none later on the other, worse day. “You come with pretty ideals and elegant words, and we believe in you. We fight for you, and die for you, and your colors turn out false and your laws mean nothing — ”
She snapped her mouth shut and stared at her cupboards, aware she had betrayed too much. Her chest heaved against her folded arms.
“We have not done as well as we ought,” Duvahra said, almost a whisper. “But there is…chance of better. I have seen it.”
Kuet dug her nails into her palms, forcing her voice even. “Seen it. With your magic?”
She wheeled on the clawling, her head snapping toward him so fast the weight of her braid swung out. “The magic that saved my brother’s life?” she hissed. “Can you claim that honor, seer? Such helpful visions. Shall the rest of your allies suffer such fates, can you tell?”
Duvahra recoiled as if snake-struck. Kuet advanced a step, hoping to drive him out at last — out of her kitchen, out of her life, this ill-luck creature who had brought her Kira’s death.
“I do not see a single whole future,” Duvahra said, reared back into the corner. “I see — chances, possibilities, the consequences splintering off choices. The likelihood of events.” He twisted his face away, inner eyelids closing sharply over his gaze. “I did not know the errand Kira had chosen. I did not know to look, until the consequences rippled through half a hundred futures. It was too late, then. I could not get warning to him. I could not do anything, but find him in the prison cells afterward and offer a knife — ”
Duvahra broke off, voice harsh as grinding rocks. His white-veiled eyes stared blind at her wall.
Kuet turned her gaze aside, sick with shame. If he had not been able to save Kira, neither had she — and Kira had entrusted Duvahra to her, to hear out and judge, not to tear at like a wolf with a carcass.
“I am sorry.” Her voice rasped rough as Duvahra’s.
The clawling blinked his eyes clear, with effort, and Kuet looked away from their gray sheen. Fresh blood welled from his ribs, scarlet slashes against black. She imagined the strikes that had produced the wounds. Hand claws for the matched set, a sword for the diagonal slash opposite them. The deep gash near his shoulder —
Her breath snagged in her throat. A sickle cut, that, part of a hindlimb strike. Clawlings could disembowel a horse or break a man’s spine with one kick. Duvahra was lucky the blow had been glancing, or it might have torn his shoulder from his body. It would have snapped his collarbone, had he been human and possessed one.
But Duvahra had won his fight. Feray had had no such fortune, when a clawling kick caved in his ribs. And hadn’t the disaster at Gelhir Pass taught Kuet not to trust clawling intentions?
Moreover, hadn’t it taught Kira not to trust them? She swallowed anger that he would be so reckless, that he could support the mad notion to combine human rebellion and clawling revolution. That he would call upon her to support it, when she knew better than anyone how even victory must lead to horror and blood and betrayal.
“The horses are in the pasture, so you may shelter in the barn tonight.” Kuet turned her shoulder on Duvahra. “The henhouse is beside it. Take what eggs you will, but leave the hens alone.”
Duvahra gazed at his hands, fingers tucked into palms, while silence lay burr-prickled between them.
“I thank you for hearing me out, Mistress Selyudh,” he said at last.
Kuet gave a stiff nod. “You should go south.”
Duvahra lifted a bandage and began wrapping his ribs, slow and painful. “I cannot argue the wisdom of your advice.”
Advice he had no intention of following. She stared at his bent head, the stubbornness such match to Kira’s. She could do nothing for him, she thought, the hot anger back in her throat. She could do nothing, and Kira had had no right to ask.
She snatched up a handful of matches and ducked past the inner door-curtain, to light candles before the ancestor-tablets and begin the prayers for the dead.
The mail waited on no man’s death, or at least the message system employed by paper-smugglers. At dawn Kuet slung her musket across her back and packed a basket of worn cotton shirts.
Outside the redwings fluttered above their tree, black shapes against pale sky. Kuet scowled. A familiar insult, that someone she loved should die and the world still present clear spring mornings.
She fetched Iron, the gray gelding who had once been Feray’s, and hauled open the barn door. Duvahra blinked cat-sleepy from the far stall.
Iron put his head up and snorted, objecting to predator’s scent. Kuet clucked sharply; Iron knew his manners about clawlings. He dropped his head, an irritated bob, and let her lead him in.
“Be careful,” Duvahra said.
Kuet cast a chilly look over her shoulder. “What?”
“Be careful in town.” Duvahra remained folded down in the clean straw, blinking.
Kuet opened her mouth to ask — careful of what? — and snapped her jaw shut. If it were trouble due to the hunt for Duvahra, twitchy soldiers and extra inspections, she already expected it. If the danger were something else, knowledge gained by seer’s sight — well, she would deal with it as it came. She needed no clawling’s magic, and she would not risk a debt to Duvahra for his aid.
She hadn’t even told him she was going into town.
“I thank you for the warning,” Kuet said, and turned her back sharp as an infantryman doing an about-face.
Straw rustled behind her. Kuet brushed Iron down, put on his blanket and saddle and bridle, before Duvahra gave up and exhaled wearily.
Kuet hooked her boot in the stirrup and swung onto Iron’s back. Sunlight struck her face, already slanting over the eastern pines — the new day off and running fast. As the trackers would be, keen on Duvahra’s trail.
“Go south, clawling.” She peered into the barn’s depths. “They’ll kill you if you stay.”
He shifted, a shadow crouched among the rest. “It is likely.”
“It is — ” Kuet choked on outrage, then tore her voice free. “Do you think this is what Kira saved you for? To wait meekly for slaughter?”
Duvahra rose, a swift motion that sent Iron back a step. But the gelding stood his ground, brave trembling horse, and Kuet glared as if her hands didn’t suddenly slide damp on the reins.
Duvahra tipped his head side to side, like a crow studying a window latch. The sunlight striped him shoulder to hip, across black hide and red-brown bandages. Still bleeding, the deepest wounds, and he hardly cared about those either.
Kuet clenched her fingers. “Saints alive, don’t spend yourself so pointlessly!”
He tilted his head once, twice, and at last said, “I do not find it pointless.”
Kuet snarled in disgust and wheeled Iron away. She kicked him, too hard, and he bolted up the garden path and onto the road. She bent low and let him run.
They passed the fifth mark-stone, halfway to town, before she realized she’d forgotten her basket of shirts. She slowed Iron, cursing. Well, she’d simply have to finish her errand without it — she’d sooner trample her best coat in the mud than return under Duvahra’s gaze and admit her fool’s mistake.
She slowed Iron again at the last mark-stone. They approached the town gate at a sedate walk, birds trilling madly in the bushes. A pair of Ifasmeen soldiers flanked the gate, their scarlet cloaks brilliant. They watched her with sharp golden eyes — far more alert than usual.
Be careful, Duvahra had said.
Kuet swallowed and tugged her shoulder strap, resettling the musket across her back. Inside the streets lay too quiet: there should be children out sweeping porches, women strolling to market. The wooden houses stood whitewashed and silent.
She wouldn’t find the source of tension here, on the human half of town. She turned Iron’s head, dizzy with recklessness, and took him from narrow side lanes to the central avenue.
Clawlings walked it, shadow-black males and steel-gray females. More than Kuet had seen in years — more than she had ever wanted to see again. She drew a hard breath. Most were going about their morning shopping, but small tight clusters dotted the roadway.
“Your pardon, mistress.” A young female stepped wide around Iron, a basket of eggs on her arm.
“Girl,” Kuet called, before her courage died. “What’s happened?”
The lean shape stopped, her peach-striped cloak swinging. “The Imperial Assembly has revoked Minsharra Colony’s charter.” She lifted one hand and extended its claws with slow precision. “We are now under full military rule.”
“Saints,” Kuet breathed. Such punishment — Minsharra’s own Assembly dissolved, rights suspended, a new army called to its shores — that was for clawling resistance to Imperial law, not human. Duvahra had not spoken lightly of rebel support, if Ifasmeen felt the need to snap Minsharra’s spine so roughly. Making an example of it, to any other Colony contemplating trouble.
The clawling girl nodded, her eyes fierce gold against skin the color of a knife blade. Her gaze shifted past Kuet’s shoulder. The inner lids slid fast over her eyes, and she bobbed into the half-crouch that was a youth’s courtesy to an elder.
Kuet turned her head, cursing her blind side — a pair of Imperial soldiers had neared, tall males with ears high-pricked and swords at their hips. Their belts rattled faintly with their strides: each wore a full complement of amulets, knots of wood cut from living saint-trees and thus defense against their magics.
Formidable enemies, for anyone fool enough to challenge them. Kuet dropped her gaze as they passed.
The town clawlings swung wide around the soldiers, two scarlet cloaks like clots of blood. The peach-cloaked girl stared after them with ears flat to her head. No Ifasmeen patriot — Kuet had the mad desire to ask if she, too, read the anti-Imperial pamphlets Duvahra had made such a name in. How many young clawlings read them, wrote them, joined the great underground conversation as equals to humans?
Was it possible, as Redwing’s work advocated, to not only free the Colonies but share them between human and clawling?
Saints, she was a fool. Kuet shook her head, sharp as a dog shedding water. The clawlings cared about Imperial control, but governance was not the problem’s root. It never had been.
But they believed it was. Duvahra believed so, with all his careful logic, his clear-eyed reason — believed in laws, solid as heartwood. But laws broke in the hand, crumbled on the tongue, good intentions snapped easily as the bone of a trusting man’s ribs.
Duvahra could not see it. Kuet jerked upright, frustration penning her close as the clawlings’ walls of brick and granite. Duvahra did not understand, and he would trade his life like Feray, like Kira, for nothing at all.
No. She turned Iron, retaining just enough wit to walk him — not run, never a run around clawlings — back through the lanes and out past the gate soldiers. She would visit the cooper another day; she doubted he had news yet of her next paper shipment, with Imperial forces watching supply routes so closely, and she had forgotten her basket of mending for disguise.
Iron’s hooves startled a flock of sparrows from her garden path. Kuet drew breath and yelled, “Redwing!”
Silence echoed off the pines beyond the meadow. She scanned the house, the empty road, the hens scratching dirt beside the barn.
Had the clawling gone south, then? Kuet sat back in her saddle, swallowing dismay like cold water. An unreasonable reaction — she had told him to leave, after all, over and over.
“Mistress Selyudh?” a familiar cat-purr voice said.
Hawthorn branches rustled and Duvahra stepped onto the road. He blinked yellow-gray at Kuet, his eyes level with hers though she sat on horseback.
She leaned forward, chest tight. “Do you know how I gained these scars?”
Duvahra stared silent a moment. “No,” he said, care written in the slow tilt of one ear. “Kira never spoke of it.”
Kuet smiled, letting those scars warp it to teeth-bared grimace. “My husband Feray served as lawyer to Chorissa Colony’s Assembly. They had a border war going with the Merai — a rebel clan, bred to the foothills and clever enough to raid saint-trees for amulets. The Fourth Imperial Contingent had embarrassed itself trying and failing to hunt them down. The Assembly decided to send a delegation to negotiate peace. Feray and I offered to lead it, as other humans might better persuade the Merai.”
Duvahra watched her, eyes pale yellow with attention.
“It worked.” Kuet stared back unblinking. “The Merai met with us, under the green and white flags. Flags of peace and negotiation, clawling, your own legal guarantee. The Fourth Contingent’s general waited until the clan leaders gathered with us, then swept down and massacred everyone present. Everyone, rebel and loyalist alike.” She inhaled, digging her knuckles into her thighs at the memory of dark shapes landing long-legged, sharp-clawed, their eyes killer’s gold. “I survived by looking dead. Head wounds bleed impressively. Luck, of a sort.”
Duvahra hesitated. “Imperial soldiers do not represent us all,” he said. “Ifasmeen’s brutality — ”
“Is not the issue under discussion.” Kuet took up her reins again. “I could have borne the bloodshed, the general’s betrayal. Ifasmeen has never held my faith. And you are predators — we understand bloodlust, how the pleasure in killing can take you.”
Duvahra dipped both ears, but did not offer denial.
“No.” Kuet took a slow breath and measured her words. “It was not Ifasmeen’s betrayal, but the Colony’s. Chorissa welcomed that general back, even with my face and testimony as evidence of his crime. He murdered those gathered under peace-flags. He murdered Chorissa’s own ambassadors. The Assembly welcomed him into their hall, and thanked him for calming the border. Several Assembly speakers apologized to me in private. But they would not let me speak in public, and they would not take the floor themselves to protest. They bowed to Ifasmeen, and they bowed to their own interests. It was only a lot of humans, after all. What matter that overlooking the massacre shamed their laws and corrupted their honor?” She let her smile twist. “So tell me, clawling. Tell me of your justice, and tell me of your sacred honor. Give me your promises that human and aurinhas will stand equal before the law.”
Duvahra flexed both hands, his eyes near black. “Apology is not sufficient,” he said, “and I do not think you care to hear mine.”
“Wise clawling,” Kuet said.
“I will say” — he shifted his weight and stood straighter, hind claws gashing the dirt — “that Chorissa’s Assembly should be infamous, and the entire Colony shamed with it. We aurinhas are no perfect race. None stand blind to that. Yet if a law be broken, or an ideal be fallen short of — that is no flaw in its grain. Only in those who fail it.”
Kuet shook her head, protests tangling behind her teeth. Duvahra leaned forward.
“I can promise you nothing,” he said. “We colonists may fail you. Your rebels may betray us. I have seen both, and they are disasters as great as you fear. We may stand together and still lose the war. But — we may win, as one people both human and aurinhas. We may win, and found a nation for all.”
Kuet stared at him, breath locked in her throat. He stared back, solemn as a prayer for the dead — for blood was always the price of such visions, such chances. She gripped the reins so hard her fingers ached.
The redwings burst into shrieks.
Kuet startled, gasping. Duvahra went still; he gazed into the hawthorns, his eyes paling.
“Get to the house,” he said. “To your attic. They won’t touch you if you don’t interfere.”
Kuet hissed. “And you?”
He shook his head and backed off the road, into the open grass before her garden. “Run.”
The redwings set up a swift triple call: the threat nearing fast. Kuet cursed and let Iron dash for the pasture fence, for Mercy and her colt milling anxiously. She flung herself off his back. Needful things first: she knotted Iron’s reins to the saddle, so he wouldn’t catch and snap a leg, and sent him safe into the pasture.
The redwings still cried their triple pattern, quick as Kuet’s heartbeat. She cast a glance back at Duvahra, at the still-empty road. Too stubborn to run, the fool, and too injured to fight off multiple opponents.
Kuet ducked between the fence boards and ran. Not for the house, a rabbit taking to her hole, but for the pines at meadow’s end.
The musket bounced against her back. She lunged for the largest pine trunk, hands scrabbling on rough bark. Her boots found the first pair of hammered spikes, the second. Halfway up the pine she swung hard sideways, over a branch, and onto the little platform there.
She pressed herself flat to its planks. Between the branches, a view pruned carefully clear, Duvahra stood on the grass verge. Two lean shapes prowled from the hawthorns.
Kuet rose on her knees and slung her musket free. The pair of hunters swung wide to flank Duvahra. Black and gray, a male and a female — one must be the tracker set on his trail. Relatively harmless magic, in combat. The other would be more dangerous. But which one?
She loaded the musket and lifted it to her shoulder, then paused. Saints, what was she considering? Open attack on Imperial hunters meant fleeing her home, the destruction of all her covert work. For what? To save a clawling seer who promised peril and death and the pitiless golden flags of war?
For a chance of better. For the hope, bright as blood, that human and clawling could join to create a new thing in the world.
Kuet took aim and fired.
The female hunter stumbled, one leg giving way. Duvahra sprang for her. Kuet flinched at the speed of strike, the kick that tore apart throat and spine.
Duvahra spun as the male hunter snaked forward. Kuet snapped herself alert, breathless, and dug another cartridge from her pocket.
Duvahra collapsed atop the dead clawling. Kuet froze, ramrod in hand. The other stalked closer, sinuous and intent as a hunting heron. A colinad, a strength-sucker — one of the most debilitating magics in hand-combat. She had chosen wrong.
Duvahra staggered to his feet, the dead hunter’s belt of amulets in one hand. He leaped away from the approaching colinad. Kuet gasped relief, and rammed ball and paper down her barrel.
The redwings dropped silent. Kuet cocked her musket, unease slowing her hands. The birds had called triple warning earlier, she suddenly recalled.
The branch beside her whipped downward. She swung her musket, the platform swaying beneath her as the pine did. A heavy weight affecting it, but nothing met her sight —
Invisible claws raked her sleeve. Kuet fired into the space, sparks spraying, but the grip snagged her braid and hauled her half off the platform.
Kuet yelled and clubbed the musket butt downward. She struck solid flesh; the clawling flickered into sight, gray skin and golden eyes. The illusionist’s grip tore free of the pine bark and the clawling fell, branches cracking.
She landed on her hind feet, coiled to leap again. No time to reload — Kuet fought retching panic and fumbled the bayonet blade from her barrel. She affixed the blade just as the hunter disappeared again.
The pine tree jerked, needles showering Kuet. She raised the musket, her knees braced for balance, and stabbed downward like a fishwife spearing a trout.
Bone crunched. The impact jarred up her arms, turning her gut, but the clawling faded into sight. Her hand claws dug into the branch; her hind claws braced against the tree trunk. Kuet took aim and stabbed straight into a killing-gold eye.
The hunter fell again, slithering through the boughs. She struck the ground and did not rise.
Kuet sank on her haunches, her breaths sobbing lungfuls of smoke and pine-scent. Two hunters dead, which left a third —
She scanned the field for Duvahra. He and his opponent circled, matching dark shapes — still alive, by all the saints. Kuet pressed her fist to her mouth. Still alive, though new scarlet already stained Duvahra’s bandaged sides.
She laid the bayonet aside, her hands sliding on blood. Her fingers shook only a little as she got out a new cartridge, tapped powder into the flashpan, loaded powder and ball and wadding into the barrel.
She aimed once more and fired. The ball took the hunter in the shoulder, near as she could tell; he jerked, barely turning, but Duvahra had already pounced. A fast messy bout, brutal as a cockfight, left both spattering blood from their sickle claws and swords. Duvahra’s blade rose and descended, and the other lay still.
Duvahra still stood, gazing at the dead hunter, when Kuet walked up. The belt of amulets dangled from his left hand; one of them smoldered, black-streaked. His bandages hung tattered and a dozen new gashes bled down his hind limbs.
“We haven’t time to stitch those up,” Kuet said. “Can you make it to Chorisch’s Ferry as you are?”
Halfway to the mountains, a full day at pacing speed. Halfway to rebel territory. Duvahra’s head came up, his eyes sharp green-gold. “I will.”
“I’ll catch Iron, then, and pack supplies for him.” Kuet slung her musket across her back. She’d have to clean it on the ride. “Go fetch the physicker’s bag from the house, and the case of travel supplies with it.” She had kept that for any message-rider who might need them, and never dreamed she would. “I’ll ask Hara on the next farm over to take Mercy and the colt and my hens.”
Duvahra blinked down at her, ears tilting. “Why?”
Kuet snorted. “I’m coming with you, fool sorinad.”
He blinked more, eyes shifting gold-green-gray. A confusion of colors, and by gods old and new she had startled a seer.
“Well?” Kuet let the scars pull her smile into a scowl. “Supplies don’t pack themselves.”
“No,” Duvahra said, his eyes settling green, and made a tiny bow before he limped off for the house.
Kuet snorted again and listened to the redwings scold his passage. They’d eat well today, battlefield birds, but she could hardly grudge them the feast. War was coming, and a long bloody road lay ahead.
She stared westward, toward the distant blue mountains, and went to fetch her horse.
|Maigen Turner lives in Southern California, where her hobbies include running, singing, and devising imaginary ecosystems. She collects hairsticks and obscure facts (along with the occasional skull or feather). Her work has appeared in Ideomancer, The Colored Lens, and elsewhere. Find her online at spartezda.livejournal.com.|