“Cower more,” Ulrica muttered.
“Oh, aye. I shall cringe and grovel at your bejeweled feet.” The infuriating boy’s gaze flicked briefly to the dagger in her hand. “When you need me less.”
She bared her fangs.
He smirked and went back to ignoring the threat she posed in favor of carefully removing rubble.
Ulrica’s rage simmered just below the surface, but on an entirely different level, she was pleased. He noticed. The pedicure had taken her hours, but she considered time well spent. Wriggling her toes, she admired the teensy winking gems affixed to the center of each glossed nail. Her scowl faded into a soft moue. If I can’t dance tonight, my new open-toe slippers will go to waste.
“Does it hurt?”
“Nay,” Ulrica lied, schooling her expression into haughty neutrality.
The only thing worse than needing help was having to ask for it. Even couching her plea between an insult and a death threat hadn’t prevented this boy from recognizing his advantage. I may as well have whimpered like a mewling and surrendered my last blade. And to a boy from who knows where.
She’d never met a Pred with gold eyes before. Girls in her set swooned over the rare trait, which supposedly gave their possessors the air of a predator. Wild and piercing. Inspiring fear with a glance. But all Ulrica found in this boy’s eyes was mockery. Beauty was wasted on someone who was clearly downhill. His boots are shabby, and his breeches are no better than rags.
He caught her looking and asked, “Shall I turn a circle? Or do you prefer covert admiration?”
Ulrica hid her mortification behind a fierce glare. “I want to kill something. Messily.”
“Surely you’re not contemplating my demise.” With a reckless disregard for her frayed nerves, he said, “The forest is thick with prey, but allies are scarce. Now, where are your boots?”
She lifted her chin. “My father completed his rite in bare feet. Can his daughter do any less?”
“I can appreciate added challenges to keep things interesting.” He lifted away the last of the smaller stones, then fit his fingers under the slab that held her captive. With carefully measured strength, he eased it up enough for her to pull free.
Ulrica started to stand, but the boy’s hands locked around her knees.
“Not so fast. Let me check.”
She hissed in annoyance but stayed still.
With a look of concentration that put a crease between arched brows, he ran his hands over her calf and ankle, then kneaded her foot. She suspected him of checking to see if she had enough calluses to support her boast of hunting barefoot. His impersonal manner reminded her of the shopkeeper who took her measure whenever she outgrew her shoes. Which was far too often.
Ulrica braced herself for some banal remark about the enormity of her feet when the boy made a soft noise of surprise. “What?” she demanded.
He slowly hooked a finger under the silken ribbon knotted around her ankle. Giving a tug, he set the tiny bells at her ankle to jingling. Disbelief plain on his face, he asked, “By chance, did your mother wear bells during her initiate hunt?”
“Nay, but my daughters will not have an easy time if they wish to meet my standard.”
The boy’s next smile held no trace of mockery. “Audacity itself. But can you pull it off?”
“Did you hear me coming?” When his eyes slowly widened, she laughed. “Neither will my prey.”
“Hunt with me,” he repeated earnestly.
“Oh, aye,” she drawled, standing and brushing grit from her breeches. “I shall track the prey you lost and fell a mighty beast with flying blades, all so you can dip your fingers in its blood and paint another’s glory upon your own skin.”
“I will track,” he bartered, smoothly rising. “And first choice of trophy goes to you.”
He grinned as if he’d won. “Can you climb a rope?”
“Since I was five.”
“A late-bloomer, then!”
And this time, the veil was too thin to hide his insult and insinuation. She drew back her blade, and he lunged forward catching her wrist. “Can’t you take a joke?” he asked peevishly.
The boy barely came up to her chin, but there was strength enough in his scrawny limbs to check the blow she wanted to deliver. In her frustration, Ulrica exclaimed, “Never once in my life have I been late for anything!”
Leaping backward, he offered his palms like a pandering shopkeep. “Look, I don’t care if you’re five or fifteen, so long as I don’t have to carry you out of here.”
“Is that what you think?” She charged, hauling the boy up against the wall. Ignoring his claws, which rested warningly against her throat, Ulrica snarled, “You wispy, undernourished runt of a gutter-scuttler! I am superior to you in every possible way!”
He rolled his eyes. “I prefer lean, and pulling rank won’t improve our chances in open territory.”
She pressed closer. “We are not the same!”
“The hunt puts every hunter on equal footing. As does the age set for this rite.” With a skeptical glance at the curves her snug hunting attire revealed, he asked, “Do you really expect me to believe we’re both thirteen?”
Ulrica flushed and looked away. “Nay.”
With a triumphant air, he said, “I’m sure you have your reasons. And my offer still stands. With your strength and my keen wi–”
She cut him off with a slap. Nothing too hard. Just an attention-getter. “Don’t boast and preen simply because your tongue is touched with silver and your eyes are dipped in gold. You are a lackwit, and I demand an apology!” Tossing him to the floor, she sneered down at him. “Cringe and grovel at my bejeweled feet, or I’ll turn your pretty face to pulp.”
“Apologize?” he retorted. “You just admitted you’re not thirteen!”
“Nay! My father bid for an early rite.” Ulrica drew herself up and bitterly revealed, “I’m twelve.”
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.