Aurelius woke stealthily—eyes shut, body still, and confused. Where? A quick inventory told him that his backside was numb, his feet were cold, and someone was drooling on his shoulder. Why?
Recollection rushed in. The hunt. The pitfall. The girl. Ulrica. Aurelius resisted the urge to pull away, even though his partner’s face was pressed against his neck. Considering the proximity of her fangs to his vitals, he weighed his options with care. Startling her might leave him with nasty gouges.
Taking several slow breaths, Aurelius turned his head, but all he could see was hair. Lots of it. Combs and pins were coming loose, allowing stray wisps to escape Ulrica’s traditional hunter’s knot. Unable to resist, Aurelius reached up and caught a hairpin with the tips of his claws. Pulling it free, he studied the ornament … and paled. Even in the gray light of dawn, he could see the pearl’s value. Large and lustrous, it was probably worth more than his life if she found it in his possession.
He quickly poked the thing back into place. Ulrica stirred, her arms tightening around Aurelius’s chest, but she didn’t wake.
Tilting his head back, he spied the comb she’d snatched from his hand the day before. Given its delicate beauty and rarity, the thing was probably a family heirloom. An uphill mother’s legacy. What kind of girl wears pearls and bells and jade into open territory? Aurelius rolled his eyes. A rich girl. One who pitched gem-encrusted daggers with deadly accuracy. And appreciated peaches. And trusted him to find their quarry.
Aurelius could be honest with himself. He envied Ulrica’s hand-tooled dagger sheathes and the careless ease with which she wore her gems and gentility. But not all legacies were tangible, and even lesser families had their pride. He’d inherited Harrow gold. And excellent taste. The rest, he’d earn for himself. With a little help from his new friend.
A sly smile played across Aurelius’s lips as he tracked the flight of small birds in the surrounding branches. Daybreak wasn’t far off, which meant Vanora posed no further danger. Wake up, already. We have a hunt to … hang on! Aurelius’s eyes narrowed at something that fluttered briefly in a neighboring tree.
He leaned forward, only to be pulled firmly back against Ulrica’s chest.
“Let go, little girl.” Aurelius patted the locked hands that had kept him from falling. “I need to check something.”
She lifted her head and stared hazily into his face. Confusion tugged at her brows and set a pout upon her lips. But her hands fell away.
Aurelius pulled up his feet and turned. Crouching to stretch his cramped limbs, he leaned in so they were nose-to-nose. “Good morning, huntress. The day is new, and glory awaits!”
A blink. A blush. Ulrica leaned back and glanced around. “Aye. The hunt.”
Now that he had her full attention, Aurelius said, “Be impressed!”
His smirk bared a fang. “Because, my dear partner, I am impressive!”
With that, he spun and ran along their tree limb. When it bowed beneath his weight, he used its bounce to leap across the void into the next tree. Aurelius scaled its limbs with reckless confidence. Not until he reached his goal did he check to see if Ulrica was watching.
She was. Eyes wide, lips parted, body taut.
Aurelius strolled with careless poise toward his target. Plucking a tuft of fur from the rough bark, he held it between two fingers. “We’re in luck!”
“That’s from a tree-cat?”
From his superior perch, he preened. “Fortune favors beauty and boldness, and I have both!”
Several emotions flitted across Ulrica’s face before she settled on steely exasperation.
He arched a brow. “Shall we hunt?”
Ulrica’s dark eyes took on a shine. “Aye. We hunt.”
Author’s Note: This story is a prequel to C. J. Milbrandt’s Galleries of Stone trilogy and updates each Friday. The trilogy is now complete! Read all three books—Meadowsweet, Harrow, and Rakefang. 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.