Refugee. Huntress. Enforcer. Detective.
For three hundred years the all-human Valconian Empire has used bronze blades and powerful rune-based magic to rule with a crushing fist.
But now the horned, violet-skinned, reclusive SETHYDS have been forced from their island-nation home. Given no choice but to seek refuge on Imperial land.
Tall. Graceful. Beautiful. Possessed of an unholy, terrifying strength.
The humans loathe them. Fear them. Call them "demons."
Yet the Empire's fate is about to come to rest on Nysska's shoulders as she becomes the first sethyd member of the Imperial Criminal Investigation Ministry.
The Empire will surely crumble and fall...unless Nysska can solve THE RUNEMASTER HOMICIDE.
The demon’s face floated up to him, unreal, like the ragged remnants of a hazy dream.
Covered in the blood of the men who’d sworn to protect him, Wendell Anwar lay on the icy dock, his cheek grinding into the rough planks, wrists bound tight against the small of his back.
One of the brigands had stabbed him. He couldn’t tell how bad it was. It felt bad, lancing through him with each shallow breath, every thump of his heart spilling pain-infused blood. He could hear each drop as it fell into the river below him.
Shuddering, teeth chattering, Anwar tried to calculate his chances of living through the night. The depth of the knife wound would tell the tale. If the blade hadn’t nicked any major vessels, they’d hold him for ransom. If the blood dripping down between the planks proved to be more his than his guard detail’s, the brigands would dump him into the frigid water.
Anwar lay on his right side, his body twisted, his face no more than thirty centims from the river’s surface. The fight had led into the shallows, just off the rocky bank, men grunting and swearing and screaming beneath the three bright moons overhead. Anwar couldn’t tell how much of the liquid soaking his clothes was water, but his shivering was growing worse. He wondered if he might freeze to death before the brigands could make up their minds about what to do with him.
Beyond the dock, a black, frigid forest stretched away, klik after klik, until it fetched up at the base of the far mountains. Anwar spotted the dark clouds building that afternoon and had hoped they could make it to the next town before the rain began, but such luck was not to be. This far north, the nights got cold, even this early in Hexember. The tiny, desperate sound of his blood leaking away got lost as another freezing shower let loose, the impact of each raindrop on the water a whisper that built into a collective roar.
He couldn’t turn his head, so he couldn’t see which of his Imperial soldiers died last. He could only listen as the final man spat and cursed, struggling to the end—could only imagine two of the vile, fur-covered heathens holding him by both arms, the leader of the raiding party sheathing his knife in the soldier’s throat.
The brigands talked quietly among themselves, long enough for the shower to end. As he blinked rainwater out of his eyes, Anwar had no doubt they were discussing his fate—Do we loot the corpses and be done with it? Or do we take the prancy nobleman back to camp, and gamble over how much he might mean to someone?
Anwar couldn’t feel his toes anymore. Or his fingers. He wondered how much of that was thanks to the blood loss, and how much to the freezing night air. His nose seemed to have turned to fragile crystal, such that it might shatter and fall away from his face were he to press it against the dock.
With half his face hanging over the dock’s edge, only his left eye peered down into the water. His right saw nothing but frozen, dirt-encrusted wood.
He narrowed that left eye as he gazed down into the river’s depths. Did blood loss cause hallucinations? He couldn’t remember ever hearing such a thing, and yet, as he stared, two spots of soft, luminous green appeared in the gloom directly beneath him. They rose slowly, carefully, and just before he realized those soft green spots were eyes, two black, dagger-pointed, sharp-ridged horns broke the surface, the rest of the demon’s face following a heartbeat later.
The soft green snapped away, revealing yellow eyes as bright and hot as candle-flames, and Wendell Anwar’s body became a living ice sculpture as the demon raised one long, elegant finger and laid it across her lips.
The demon didn’t have to make any sound. Anwar simply couldn’t, because whatever scream he might have dredged up from inside him lodged and died in his windpipe.
If all three moons hadn’t hung so full and bright overhead, he would never have seen anything but her eyes, as her skin from her nose to the soles of her feet was a deep, rich violet. Even with the moons’ radiance, he could take in only the outlines of her lean, rippling body as she passed him by. The demon rose noiselessly from the water, wearing not a stitch of clothing, and slipped onto the dock as gracefully as a snowflake settling onto a blade of grass.
She paused, only for a second, only long enough to place a hand on his shoulder—a fleeting pressure, one that Anwar might have found reassuring had he not seen the moon-flash on the broad-bladed knife in her other hand.
Anwar tried to move as the demon padded down the dock’s length away from him. He tried to squirm and twist and bring himself up far enough to see what was happening, but he’d grown too cold and too weak, had lost too much blood, and could only listen, motionless.
Another icy cloudburst swept over the dock as, once again, men screamed and cursed and died. Their voices reached the swift-flowing river and drowned there, just as the woods on the other side of the highway swept them up and smothered them.
Anwar didn’t hear the demon approaching. Hands as strong as those of a blacksmith grasped his shoulders, and his head swayed as she hauled him up to a sitting position. When the world had stopped spinning, he tried to focus on the demon, but instead his eyes fell on the twisted pile of mangled corpses at the far end of the dock. A few meters past them, the coach had overturned and caught fire. Both draft horses lay dead, still strapped to the shafts.
The demon trailed her knife in the water. Anwar thought he might have seen the blood coursing away from it, a tiny black rivulet.
“Am I dead?” he asked, taking in the demon’s blood-spattered nakedness. She didn’t seem to feel any need to cover herself. Neither did she seem to feel the cold.
“Not yet,” she said, and her voice hung in the winter air, a smoky presence that made him think of the whiskey his father had favored. Anwar had been present when envoys had spoken of the flowing precision that colored demons’ words, but he’d never heard the accent himself before. The demon said, “I’m taking you to the fire,” and the lyrical color she put to the words came close to making him forget about the cold and the pain and the blood.
Anwar expected the demon to offer him her hand. Or anchor his arm around her shoulders and support him as he limped toward the burning coach. He expected to have to protest, to tell her that he was too weak to walk. Instead, the demon slid her arms around him and picked him up, carrying him—cradling him—as easily as she might have carried an infant.
The ridged black horns that protruded from her forehead, to his quiet astonishment, took nothing away from the beauty of her face. Narrow it was, fine-boned and sharp, though he saw something around the lines of her jaw—something he couldn’t put into words—that struck him as even less human than the horns. At first, he’d thought her yellow eyes glowed with some kind of infernal inner light, but this close, he saw that they simply reflected any light shined upon them. Firelight. Moonlight. He wondered how dazzling they might be in the sun. She inclined her head, and those eyes settled upon his own very, very plain brown ones, and she said, “How bad is the pain?”
He tried to answer her, but his teeth chattered, and all he could do was shake his head. As they arrived at the coach-fire, he managed, “Aren’t you c-cold?”
The corners of the demon’s mouth flickered up, and he got a glimpse of bold white teeth. “Don’t concern yourself.”
He swallowed hard, and then once more. “My n-name is Wendell Anwar. It’s—you’ve—you saved m-my life.”
The yellow of her eyes caught the fire’s flicker and danced like twin stars. “Am I going to regret that?”
He clung to her. To the impossible warmth and sinful smoothness of her skin. “I p-promise you. You won’t.”
The demon set Anwar down with his back against a half-buried boulder and crouched beside him. “Show me the wound.”
Anwar gestured weakly at his side. She pulled up the edge of the sodden fur jacket, then the silk shirt underneath, and her eyes narrowed in an unreadable expression. She tilted her head, and for the first time Anwar became aware of the mass of hair that started just behind her horns and fell to the middle of her back. While her skin absorbed the light of the fire, her lustrous, straight black hair gleamed in it, like a million perfect strands of onyx. When she moved again he saw, among the black, a streak of breathtaking metallic blue. It left him wondering if such a color could sprout naturally from her scalp alongside the onyx, or if such a thing were a demon’s concession to vanity.
“It’s not deep,” the demon said. “But it will require stitches. Do not move.”
He clutched at her arm. The warmth from her body and the heat radiating from the burning wagon had restored a fraction of his equilibrium—enough not to let his voice quake as he said, “You’re not leaving me here?”
This time her lips parted fully, her white teeth revealed in a grin that made his belly tremble, and the quality of her jaw and mouth that he hadn’t been able to identify before came to him.
It was strength. Power. Physical might that would let those teeth tear through flesh and bone as easily as through a slice of crusty bread, he had no doubt of it.
“Do not worry, Wendell Anwar. Those men…” She nodded toward the pile of dead brigands, “…were the only threat in these woods. You will be safe until I return.”
Anwar nodded, and the demon turned and disappeared into the woods. He winced as a fresh stab of pain shot through his torso, and he tried to think of how he would describe all this to the territorial officials in Tember.
Anwar let his head drop back against the boulder and wondered what Emperor Valco would have to say about his current situation. With a flare of shame to mirror the pain in his side, he wondered what his mother would have to say as well, since it was on her word that he’d gained this post in the first place. He imagined the criers in the squares bellowing the news to all who would listen: Governor Pro Tempore slain by brigands before arriving in Tember to take office. He let his eyes slide shut, grimacing at the imagined pain and humiliation.
Anwar jerked awake and gasped at the sound of soft footsteps approaching. He had no idea how long he’d been asleep, but darkness still filled the spaces between the trees, and the fire had only burned down a little.
The demon knelt beside him. Now she was covered from neck to heels in what appeared to be skillfully sewn fur garments, including tight leather gloves and a fur-lined hood that nestled against her shoulders. She opened a leather pouch and produced a length of fine line, a set of small, hooked bone needles, and a couple of little ceramic jars. “Here,” she said, the warmth and husky texture of her voice washing over him again. “Lie on your side.” Her gloved hands helped him as he stretched out on the frozen ground, his wound facing the firelight. He hissed as an icy wind sliced across his bared flesh.
“What are you doing? Exactly?”
The demon had begun humming a soft tune, and Anwar was suddenly sure his wound had to be much worse than he’d been led to believe, because he heard her answer him over the tune—the notes and the words reaching his ears simultaneously, and without interruption. “I need to put a bit of medicine in the wound before I sew it up.” The melody hummed and flowed through a tiny pause. “Now lie still.”
Anwar wondered if this were naught but the height of folly, trusting this strange, deadly, spectacular creature to perform such intimate duties. And yet he couldn’t help returning to the knowledge that without the demon, he’d be dead or worse by now…and that he had no other option.
A few minutes later, with the pain in his side steadily abating, the demon helped him upright again, and sat down less than a meter in front of him, gracefully folding her legs. “How do you feel?”
Anwar tilted his torso in small, ginger movements. “Better? I believe? What kind of medicine is that?”
The demon shook her head. A small, dismissive gesture. “Just a few herbs. There is little choice but to tend to one’s own needs out here.” She paused, and though her lips did not move, he thought there might have been the tiniest flash of amusement in her brilliant yellow eyes. “Is it not impolite to stare in human society?”
He realized that he had, indeed, been staring, and dropped his gaze, his cheeks abruptly hot. “Sorry. I’m sorry. You save my life, and I repay that grace with rudeness.” Carefully he looked up at her again. “I’ve never met…one of you…before. Please forgive me, but I—well, I—if you don’t mind, may I know your name?”
The amusement dropped away from the demon’s face. She did not look exactly hostile, but Anwar thought it would be a short journey to get there. “Wendell Anwar, those stinking, lice-infested men I killed tonight have been a pain in my tits for half a year. A trade caravan comes through once every full moon and stops here, so that I may sell my wares. Four of the last six times, the ‘Rock Knives,’ as they called themselves, attacked the caravan and disrupted my trade. Tonight was the first night I was able to catch them all in one place and distracted enough for me to rid myself of them. I did not set out to rescue you.” Her nostrils flared. Settled. Her eyes darted to the burning coach as she said, “My name is Nysska Stonegate.”
Anwar had been struggling, as she spoke, to take in and process all the words, so overwhelmed was he with the sudden barrage of the demon’s unparalleled voice. He blinked a couple of times and ordered his thoughts. “Well…Miss Stonegate…what, if I may ask, are your wares?” Out of habit he wanted to add, And why has it not been reported that an Imperial trade caravan is doing business with a demon on the Tember Road? but kept that to himself.
“Furs,” she said, and plucked at the lapel of her coat. “I catch them. Cure them. Cut and sew them, if requested.”
Anwar blinked again. “And you live out here—in the wilderness? Alone?” When she didn’t immediately answer, he said, “I thought all of your—that is, all the refugees—had congregated in the Crags? Mainly around Slocum?”
“And…please forgive me if I sound impertinent. Are you, ah—satisfied with this? With such a solitary life?”
Nysska Stonegate leaned forward. She sniffed once, quietly, leading Anwar to wonder what a demon’s sense of smell constituted, and whether anything about his scent betrayed more than he would’ve liked. “Why do you ask?”
Anwar took a breath to speak, thought better of it, and took another one. The wheels had indeed been spinning in his head, as the ancient saying went, and even as the words left his mouth, the vision he saw in his mind took more and more solid a shape.
Wendell Anwar, Governor Pro Tempore of the Green Needles Territory, said, “Because, Nysska Stonegate, I would like to offer you a job.”
* * *
Nysska returned to the place she had reluctantly come to think of as home just as the sky began to turn gray in the east. Built onto the front of a shallow cave in the side of a hill, the log structure might have qualified as a house. Nysska thought of it as barako. “The shack.” It kept the rain off her head, though, and the wind at bay, and the crude hearth she’d fashioned out of stones from the river provided warmth during the cold months when the nights stretched out so long.
The nights like tonight.
She pushed the door open and stepped inside, and a weak voice almost drowned out by the crackling of the flames reached her from the back. “Nysska? Cxu estas vi?”
Nysska crossed the floor and knelt by the bed of furs where her mother lay. “Of course it’s me, panjo.”
Simana, Nysska’s mother, had gone blind not long after the Krizo, when she and Nysska and all of their brothers and sisters—the ones who’d survived, which hadn’t been many—had fled Fortikajxo, running for their lives. The disaster had affected Simana’s skin and muscles as well. For far too many months, Nysska had watched in powerless horror as her mother’s skin turned gray, peeling off bit by bit, while her muscles atrophied and collapsed. Only in the past few weeks had she seemed to turn a corner—skin healing, muscles returning, but only so, so slowly. Nysska hoped her sight would come back. It hadn’t yet. Simana’s eyes, once a fiery orange, had changed to a smooth, unseeing white.
Her mind, unlike her body, had never lost even a single step, no matter how much she had suffered. “Where have you been?” Simana asked quietly, in Plainish now. They both knew the value of maintaining fluency in the human tongues.
Quickly, concisely, Nysska related what had happened with the Rock Knives, and the Imperial caravan, and the man she’d saved.
Simana nodded. A near-imperceptible motion. Her brow creased in a thoughtful manner Nysska recognized. “What did he look like? This human?”
Nysska grunted noncommittally. “Like most humans. A collection of various shades of brown. Hair like…” She made a spiral in the air with one finger, despite knowing her mother couldn’t see it. “…springs.”
“Young? Old? How was he traveling?”
“Grown, but still young. He had a wagon, and eight men guarding him. What is all this?”
“Tell me where this man is now.”
“Back at the site. It was only a few meters from the road, and he’s well enough. He’ll be able to call out to the next travelers he sees. They’ll take him to Tember.”
Simana’s white eyes narrowed. “You saved this man’s life…and left him unattended?”
Nysska sighed. “I will tell you the same thing I told him. The Rock Knives presented the only threat in these woods. Now that they’re all dead, he has no reason to worry.”
“Perhaps not from any other human threat. But what do you think will happen should a beast scent all that fresh-killed flesh? Would your Wendell Anwar be able to defend himself?”
“I never asked to be involved in his affairs. I have already done him one service. Should that not be enough?”
“You never asked…? Shame on you, daughter. You involved yourself. And you know the teachings of Atiina at least as well as I do. That man is now your responsibility. Never mind that you’ve left him, alone and vulnerable. What would prevent him from going to Tember and telling everyone of the…” Simana paused at the word. Her lip wrinkled in distaste. “The demon who abandoned him? What if he comes back with fifty soldiers and burns down the woods until he finds you?”
Nysska shook her head. “I do not believe he would do that. In fact, he…”
Simana turned her head to face Nysska fully. “He what?”
“He suggested that I…could…take up a position.”
Simana’s voice took on an edge, weak though it was. “What do you mean by ‘position’?”
“He offered employment. In the human—in the Imperial government. He said that I could become an…ambassador…for my people.”
Simana’s hand quested out until it touched Nysska’s arm and clamped around her wrist. “You must. You must. Return to this Wendell Anwar at once and tell him you will do as he asks.”
Nysska pulled her arm away, scowling. “How can you even suggest that? The humans want no more to do with us than we do with them! They call us demons, yes, but better than half of them believe it fact!” Her tone softened. “Ne. I will stay here, panjo. With you. As we agreed.”
Simana opened her mouth to speak, but only sighed. “I know that tone. Little can be done to change your mind now.” With great effort, she rolled over onto her side, her back to her daughter. “We can discuss it further in the morning.”
“There is nothing to discuss,” Nysska said moments later, but Simana’s breathing had already gone deep and even.
After a few minutes, during which Nysska decided to wake her mother and then decided not to at least five times, she stepped out into the sharp night air, headed for the latest latrine she’d dug.
“Hello, Nysska,” a deep, smooth voice said, halting her in her tracks no more than two meters from the shack’s door. She watched as five tall, lean columns of darkness detached themselves from the shadows and stepped closer, yellow eyes shimmering, ridged horns limned by moonlight. The one who’d spoken moved closer still, until he looked Nysska dead in the eye.
“What a fascinating conversation we just overheard.”
* * *
Wendell Anwar had asked Nysska Stonegate repeatedly not to go, and then asked her to take him with her, wherever her destination, but he wanted to believe that he hadn’t quite resorted to begging.
“Stay here,” she’d said. “Another caravan should pass this way tomorrow. The day after at the latest. They will take you.”
“But…what about…” Anwar had eyed the pile of corpses the demon had built, and beyond them, the bodies of his guards scattered near the river. “What about other brigands?”
“There are no others,” Nysska had said, plainly and simply. “Good luck to you.”
She’d left him with a full skin of water taken from the river and a handful of strips of dried meat. He’d watched her vanish into the darkness between the trees, beyond the fire’s reach, and had taken a breath to call out to her one last time but bit it off.
Now that she had faded into the woods, it was as if she had never been there at all. As if he had somehow been deposited by a mercurial god at the scene of the massacre, the only living human for hundreds of kliks, nothing but slowly draining cadavers to keep him company.
Anwar considered the possibility that this might have been a nightmare, but just as quickly rejected the thought. Yes, he was a world away from his warm bed in the Senatorial. Yes, he had just encountered a being that far too many citizens of the Empire still believed mythical. Yes, the scenario as a whole struck him as absurd.
He had only to run his fingertips across the skillful stitches the demon had left in his skin to know how real it all was.
A day, she had said. Perhaps two. If he kept the fire going, he might not freeze to death. If he rationed the water in the skin carefully or, if he got very lucky, managed to make his way back to the riverbank without tearing open the sutures in his side, he might not die of thirst. If the demon—Anwar caught himself. Use the proper term. If the sethyd was right, and no other thieves or murderers lurked along the edges of the highway, he might not awaken to the sensation of a blade slicing across his throat.
A board—once part of the side of the now-destroyed coach—turned loose of its nails and fell into the center of the fire, sending a shower of sparks skyward. The glare of the flames prevented him from seeing any of the stars he knew to be overhead. Often, as a boy, he’d made his way onto the roof of his father’s grand home outside Caulspring and stretched out on the tiles, staring up into the vast darkness. Picking out the brightest stars and watching them shimmer. Tracking the paths of the three moons as they lumbered across the sky. It had always made him feel tiny. Insignificant.
But there on the side of the Tember Road, leaning against a boulder, watching a fire burn, he felt more minuscule, and more alone, than he ever had before in his life.
His twenty-second birthday was coming up in a few weeks.
Wendell Anwar wondered if he’d be around to see it.
Slowly he chewed one of the strips of meat Nysska had given him. He’d contemplated the possibility of her poisoning him but couldn’t see any point to it. If she’d wanted him dead, he would’ve been cold and rotting already. Just like the Rock Knives. He wished he could have seen how she had dispatched them, instead of only hearing the brutal sounds of breaking bone and opening skin. He thought perhaps witnessing the carnage might have let it seem more…more normal. Instead of the hideous, demonic wrath conjured by his imagination.
Anwar took another bite, chewed, swallowed—
A sound had reached his ears. Not from the fire, not from his own breath, not from the grinding of his teeth, and yet he still felt the sound in the marrow of his bones.
A heavy, grunting chuff. Somewhere behind him.
Anwar put one hand on the ground, about to try to leverage himself up to his feet, sutures or not, but as his palm pressed flat to the earth, he felt something. A vibration—and then another—and he knew. Not from any school-learned knowledge, not from any lived experience, but on a deeper level, an awareness that rose up from the bottom of his soul. Instinctual. Primal. He knew, and he abandoned any thought of running and simply pulled his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them.
The great gray bear took another step, sending more tremors into the earth, and came around the boulder. It chuffed again. Anwar felt the punishing heat of its breath. The scent of blood and raw meat filled his nostrils like a carnal fog.
He’d never seen a bear that big before. Not in books, not in zoos. The animal moved past him, swaying by as if Anwar were nothing, negligible, and its mass seemed so great that it made Anwar feel as if an entire building had invaded the camp, as if the bear’s flank were a wall stout enough to withstand the assaults of armies.
Anwar kept very, very still, and tried not to breathe.
The bear approached the fire first, but lingered near it for only a few moments. Its mammoth head swung toward the dead horses, and a few more seismic footsteps took it to them. Another chuff. The bear sniffed the dead animals. The nose lifted, still tasting the air, and guided it to the pile of slaughtered brigands. Once more it sniffed, and used one massive paw to shove a couple of the bodies to one side. The firelight glinted off its claws, each of one of them easily as long as one of Anwar’s fingers.
Anwar racked his brain for information. How to survive a bear attack. Was this the kind of bear that didn’t want to deal with humans? If he struggled to his feet and raised his arms high and bellowed at it, would it shamble off into the woods? Or…was this the kind that a human’s only hope of surviving was to flatten out and play dead and hope against hope that it wouldn’t maul him too badly?
The bear swung around and, for the first time, faced Anwar head-on. Its eyes fixed on his.
Anwar lost a small amount of control over his bladder.
The bear’s eyes glittered silver. Its colossal skull swung back and forth as the immense clawed feet padded toward him. Anwar whimpered, and wished he hadn’t.
The word rang in his brain.
He wanted to call out—to the demon, to the Great Silver Dragon, to his mother—but the breath had locked tight in his lungs.
The bear stopped no more than a meter away. It exhaled, long, casually, and its summer-heat breath washed over him. The bear’s skull, on its own, easily weighed as much as Anwar’s entire body, and he watched as the great gray head tilted to one side, then the other, the glimmering silver eyes narrowing.
“I kn-kn-know what you are,” Anwar said, surprising himself for saying anything out loud. “Y-you’re a seraphic animal. You’ve got argonium running all through your v-veins. I know—” He choked, and coughed, and swallowed hard. “I know how smart you are. And I—I beseech you. Don’t kill me. Please.”
The bear closed the distance between them. The metallic eyes had not changed, giving Anwar no reason to believe that the beast had understood him, but he was too petrified to move, too petrified even to close his own eyes as the bear lifted a paw and reached forward—
One dagger-like claw, only one, snagged the hem of his tunic and raised it, exposing the stitchwork Nysska had performed on his flesh. The bear chuffed. Let the tunic fall back into place. The silver eyes bored into him.
Anwar swallowed again, his mouth abruptly dry as cotton. “Do you understand me? Do you—do you understand language? My language? Plainish?” The bear didn’t move. Anwar tried again. “Estmani? No? Do you—do you speak the sethyd’s language? Oh, uh, no, forget I asked that, I don’t speak her language either, so it wouldn’t do me any good.”
From somewhere far down in the bear’s body, a low growl emerged. Anwar got the rock-solid impression that the beast was losing patience with him.
“All right—all right! We can do this without language! Maybe.” He picked up a twig and drew a couple of long, gently waving parallel lines in the dirt next to him. “Look, this is the river, yes?” He pointed. “That river. That’s what I mean with this.” He drew another line. “And here’s the highway, running alongside it. With the forest—” a series of short lines, “—coming right up to it. And here’s the dock, the one right over there. And here’s the dead horses, and the dead brigands, and the fire.” More scratching in the dirt, with points in between each. “And here’s us! See?” He drew two figures, one much larger than the other. “See, this is you. And this is me.” Anwar made a slow, sweeping gesture that he hoped and prayed would appear non-threatening. “This is this place, right here, where we are. Maybe you could nod if you understand me?” He nodded, an exaggerated motion. “This means ‘yes.’ Do you get it? This area. This is where we are. Right now.”
The bear gazed down at his scratchings in the dirt and, after a moment, glanced around at the surrounding area, then back at Anwar. Now something had changed. Something deep in the beast’s eyes.
“Fucking hell, you do understand me, don’t you? All right—all right. Listen.” Anwar drew a large circle around the rudimentary map. “I can see to it that no humans come into this area. Ever. I—” He paused, wondering if the word governor would mean anything more than a random collection of sounds to this animal. “Other humans will do what I say. I will make sure no more humans…” He patted his chest. “No more men or women or children come into this territory. Your territory. If you let me live. I have to go to the city, and there I can make this law.”
The bear’s eyes never left his. The colossal skull moved closer, closer still, and when the mouth opened only centims from Anwar’s face, he wanted to squeeze his eyes shut and say a prayer, but he couldn’t move, couldn’t make even a single muscle twitch, and the bear’s roar blew Anwar’s hair back—
And cut off.
The bear sat down, and reached out one massive paw, and patted Anwar on the head. From somewhere in the creature’s chest a sound emerged.
His eyes huge, jaw hanging open, Anwar said, “Are you—are you laughing?”
The bear patted Anwar again, on the side of the head and on the shoulder. Still making the sound that may or may not have been a great seraphic beast laughing at a puny, helpless human, the bear lumbered over to one of the horses, cut the leather belly band with an efficient swipe of a claw, and dragged the horse’s body away into the night.
Wendell Anwar stared after it for a few minutes, silently, before he burst into tears.
* * *
Anwar awakened with the dawn’s light, and mourned the loss of the last of the dried meat strips Nysska had left him. The fire had finally died away, all the wood of the wagon burned through, and he examined his fingers and toes for signs of frostbite. None showed itself. He even had sensation in most of them.
His stomach growled as he carefully, gently got to his feet and relieved himself at the edge of the woods, his eyes darting everywhere. The great gray bear had not put in an appearance since it had left with the horse carcass. Neither had he seen any other animals, besides birds in the trees overhead and the occasional squirrel. Still, Anwar wasn’t sure he would ever feel relaxed again, and so Nysska’s approach did not startle him. She came out of the woods, still covered in her fine fur clothing, and now had a large leather pack slung between her shoulders. He gave her a chattery, almost-frozen kind of smile. “Miss Stonegate! I’m so glad you came back! I—”
Anwar fell silent at the grim lines on her face.
Nysska came to him and, for the first time, he appreciated just how tall the sethyd was. Cranking his head up to look her in the eye, he said, “Miss Stonegate—are you all right?”
“I have changed my mind,” she said, all the smoke and dark, dusky sensuality of her voice drained away, replaced with bitter exhaustion. “And I accept your offer.”