Aurelius was halfway down the pit wall, swinging from a rope that wasn’t going to be long enough. A few minutes won’t matter one way or the other during a test I could have passed when I was nine. He let go of the rope, dropping into a crouch not far from the unconscious girl. Pebbles hadn’t roused her, so he was risking a closer look.
All Pred hunted with their hair knotted, but the accident had knocked hers loose. Aurelius stole closer and plucked a comb from amidst messy brown waves. Titian jade? Jewelry carved from this glossy orange stone was rare, expensive, and coveted by shopkeepers in the most fashionable districts.
This is better than any of the trinkets we brought back. Uncle is such a cheapskate. Aurelius ran a fingertip along a tasteful seashell boarder. Exquisite craftsmanship. Unusual design. He had spent enough time on Far Continent to know that the Fwan usually carved flowers into the precious stone taken from the Sunset Mountain.
He was searching for a maker’s mark when a swift hand snatched the comb. Aurelius automatically showed his palms. Not an apology. Rather a protest against unwarranted suspicions. Merchants had the sense to keep peace with any potential customer, especially those with an excess of coin. “Rest assured, I w– ”
Without warning, a blade flashed past Aurelius’s ear, clattering against the wall behind him Another glittering dagger was already poised between the girl’s fingertips.
Aurelius had the sense to duck. “Wait!”
“Leave!” she snarled.
He bolted to the far corner of the pit, which had smooth sides but no visible egress. A collapsed tunnel, then. Another blade sang against stone, and he darted away, barely a step ahead of the ungrateful girl’s next missile. “I’m trying to help you!”
She answered with two more daggers thrown in swift succession.
That’s when Aurelius realized she was using both hands. Is she toying with me, or did hitting her head take the edge off her accuracy? Flattening himself against the floor in what he hoped was her blind spot, he wracked his brain for a way to survive.
Dodging is no way to win a confrontation. This time, when he ran into the open, he was ready. With his own dagger clenched between his fangs, he waited for her throw, then flung handfuls of grit into her face. He knocked her flat and set the edge of his blade against her throat. “Now will you listen?” he asked in exasperation.
“Nay. Be gone, or I’ll reduce you to gobbets.”
Aurelius pinned her wrists to curtail her claws. “This is an offer of assistance. Can you move your leg?”
“I would rather gnaw it off than allow a callow ….” She trailed off and blinked.
Finally. I was beginning to think her impervious. Aurelius seized his momentary advantage. There was still a chance he could persuade this girl that she owed him. “There are two ways to earn admiration during a hunt. Speed is lost to us because the pitfall scattered our prey. But we can make up for it with a superior catch.”
“We? This is a solo hunt.”
“Two hunters, one hunt.” Aurelius watched color spread across the girl’s cheeks and hoped for the best. The lull in her storm couldn’t last. By now, she had to have realized that she had the advantage in height, strength, and reach. If he backed down now, she’d drop him. “Hunt with me.”
Fury snapped in dark eyes. “I don’t need you.”
“Say that after we check the state of your extremities.” Aurelius found grappling with death giddying. Could he charm her into cooperation? If she could be brought to heel …!
All at once, Aurelius was on his back with an elbow braced against his windpipe and claws testing the delicacy of his skin. Their new position must have wrenched painfully at the girl’s leg, but her control was perfect. In imperious tones, she said, “You are clearly a lackwit, so I’ll use small words. Set me free or die by my hand.”
Aurelius shrugged. “Since you asked nicely.”
Author’s Note: This story is a prequel to C. J. Milbrandt’s Galleries of Stone trilogy and updates each Friday. The first two books in the trilogy—Meadowsweet and Harrow—are currently available. The third and final volume is set to release in February 2015. Useful information about Pred culture can be found here.
Deuce © Copyright 2015, C. J. Milbrandt, all rights reserved. If you want to receive an email whenever this story updates, subscribe to the blog. You can also watch for notifications on Twitter and “like” the series on Facebook.