Ulrica braced herself for disdain or disbelief, but something else entirely flashed through the idiot boy’s eyes. He believes me. And suddenly, Ulrica was torn between relief and regret. Few accepted her at her word. Except Brother, who is too trusting by far. But she’d blurted private matters to some no-account lackwit. If Mother found out, there would be blood.
“When is your thirteenth festival?” asked the boy.
“The next,” she admitted. “Autumn.”
In peevish tones, the boy said, “I have three seasons on you!”
“Yet I have every advantage—height, reach, strength, skill.”
The boy brushed aside her assessment. “Tell me, little girl. How often are you insulted simply because you bloomed early?”
Ulrica’s grip on his arms tightened. “I have been hiding my ears since I was nine!”
“Will you turn around and underestimate me simply because I lack height?”
She sniffed lightly. “And as far as I can see, your only skill is dodging like a rabbit.”
“While you have more stingers than a nettle,” he rejoined. “How many daggers do you carry?”
Ulrica felt her face heating at the near-compliment. Turning him loose, she stalked across the rock-strewn pit, collecting her daggers. “Your manners are as ill-shod as a wild horse’s if you think that a polite line of inquiry.”
“Age and arsenal are indeed forbidden topics where a lady is concerned,” he said with a casual shrug. “But rude questions are the secrets friends keep.”
“Friends?” she scoffed, checking the bent tip of a dagger. Bone and bark are kinder than stone walls. It would take hours to put her blades back to rights. She scanned the floor for any remaining weapons, but he’d already collected them.
Holding them out, he took a slightly different tone than earlier. Pleading. Pleasant. “Hunt with me, little girl.”
“Stop calling me that, you unkempt, underweight upstart! I won’t be trifled with!”
“Perish the thought.” The boy bared his palm in an offer of peace. “What would my new hunting partner prefer to be called?”
“Ulrica!” she snarled.
Triumph blazed in golden eyes. “So be it.”
Too late, she realized what answering meant. By giving her name, she’d accepted his offer. Hunting partners. Fury buzzed in her ears, and she balled her hands into fists. He tricked me!
“I’m Aurelius, by the way.”
She scowled at his outstretched palm, then bolted for the rope at the far side of crumbling pit. The end dangled so far over her head, she wondered how the boy expected to reach it. Springing with her good leg, Ulrica snagged the trailing end and swung upward. Hand over hand, she made her escape, pulling the rope up after her.
Finally out of the boy’s line of sight, Ulrica sank to her knees and tried to gather her wits. Father was depending on her showing today. She needed to distinguish herself, to call down accolades on the house of Rakefang. Are bare feet and bells enough?
From the pit, Aurelius called, “Still there, Ulrica?”
Maybe the scheming boy had hit upon a better set of tracks. If she returned with superior prey, would it restore enough of Father’s pride to keep Brother safe? For his sake.
Ulrica took a deep breath, released it in a soft growl, then tossed Aurelius the rope.
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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.