Ulrica was about to smear the excess of blood on her hands over her arms when Aurelius caught her wrist. A downhill boy. A dockside commoner. A lowly merchant. Her indignation should have blazed, yet she restrained the instinct to turn her claws on him. It would be a waste to gouge out such beautiful eyes. And to leave scars on such fine features. Curling her fingers as if to sheathe her claws, Ulrica took a reasonable tone. “I’ll bludgeon you with this haunch if you don’t let go.”
Aurelius’s gaze flicked to the stripped bone, its ends blackened from fire roasting. “Don’t be hasty, little girl.”
“Release me, or it will be your blood painting my skin.”
“I’d rather use the tree-cat’s.” Holding up a gory finger, Aurelius nodded toward her shoulder. “May I? My skill is enviable.”
Ulrica hesitated. Neither of her parents bothered with anything beyond spatters and smears, but she’d seen several of her cousins come home from hunts with more decorative applications. The ritual was optional. And quite fashionable. Father called the practice an excess of vanity, and Mother bowed to his wishes. Ulrica had once asked Frey to flourish her arms since his artistry was beyond compare. But … well. That had not ended well. Ink and char suited her brother better than blood.
Aurelius tipped his head to one side, catching her eye. “May I?” he repeated.
She searched his face, which glowed with confidence. Scooting a little closer and lifting her arm, she said, “Show me your skill.”
The sun was angling toward midday before Aurelius was satisfied. Rings and spots, twists and flourishes. Bold patterns covered their shoulders, arms, and faces. “Aye,” he declared, his gaze sweeping admiringly over her figure. “You are glorious in victory.”
She fumbled for a response. “And … you.”
“Aye,” he said, striking a pose. “And me.”
Ulrica’s lips twitched. She had a feeling Father would hate this boy and his excess of vanity.
The homeward run was long. Both carried their trophies and enough meat to share with their respective clan leaders. Ulrica’s heart was light. Her rite was fulfilled. Her mother would pierce her. Her father could boast. Finally.
They stopped shy of the forest’s edge to catch their breath. Aurelius indicated the south. “My family will be watching for me over there.”
“Mine will be there,” Ulrica said, waving a point further east.
“Then this is where we part company.” Aurelius set the tree-cat’s head on the ground and stepped close. When he reached for her hands, Ulrica rocked back on her heels but didn’t step back. His gaze was solemn. “Will I see you again?”
He truly was a lackwit. The answer could only be nay. Not wanting to say as much, Ulrica lifted her chin. “I don’t see how.”
“Find me.” Aurelius’s grip tightened. “Go to the merchant bazaar in the Spice District, near the docks where all the ships have red sails. My brothers will be selling chilled melon and spiced ale in the square. I’ll treat you, and you can compliment me on my dancing.”
“Red sails,” she echoed.
“Aye. Red sails and Harrow gold.” There was a hint of challenge in his smile. “Or are your tracking skills limited to open territory?”
Her heart was hammering. “Perhaps ….”
“If you are fortunate, perhaps you will see a newly-pierced huntress in the Spice District. She will be wearing orange.”
Aurelius leaned closer and dropped his voice. “Do you mean the flame-orange of last season, or the newly popular—and dreadfully insipid—coral?”
Ulrica snorted. “What do you take me for?”
“Persimmon would suit you.” Aurelius’s eyebrows arched. “Right down to your toes.”
She wriggled her prettily painted toes and mentally blessed her brother for suggesting the bolder hue. “Aye. That’s the color to mark.”
With nothing more to say, Ulrica withdrew her hands. Aurelius reclaimed his trophy and backed away. “Don’t look so down, little girl. When the hunt ends well, the hunters remain.” His steps were light, with nearly enough bounce to rank as skipping. “Can two who hunt as one be two?”
And he was gone.
Ulrica throat closed on the sharp retort he deserved. Burying her hand in the thick fur of the pelt at her waist, she struggled against a wretched sense of loss. Nay! This is my triumph. The house of Rakefang will celebrate my return. Still, Ulrica doubted that any of the upcoming festivities would mean more to her than one boy’s admiration.
“We shared the hunt and the heart of our prey,” she whispered to the woods. “He called me glorious.”
And he was gone.
Before it was too late, Ulrica darted to a jutting stone. Drawing her dagger, she struck two beats then held her breath. Waiting.
His answer came. Two strong beats. Proof of partnership.
Her trust rewarded, Ulrica turned toward home.
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.