Aurelius strutted along the wharf, head high, eyes fixed on the red sails that had always meant home. Uphill families might look down on dockside folk, but merchants had their place and their pride. Tooth and claw, rip and raw—we are Pred.
“Trophy walking!” called the owner of their district’s ale house. “Look sharp, Spicers! We have us a man among men!”
Flaygore saluted the barrel-chested barkeep. “Save a cask for us, sir. Tonight, we celebrate!”
“Aye, it’s already on reserve. Your father placed the order himself.”
Happiness exploded in Aurelius’s chest. So Father does have an oar in.
The Tallow sisters hustled out of their shop, half-dipped candles dangling from gnarled claws. “Who is it, Sister? Can you see?” asked the elder.
“Ooh, it’s that pretty Harrow.”
“Nay, the baby.”
“Ooh! The one who favors Anlace?” Eyes gone milky with age roved over Aurelius. “I smell blood. What’s he brought back?”
Aurelius stepped up and swept into a bow. “A tree-cat, Missus Tallow. Have you ever heard of finer prey?”
“None!” assured the younger, whose hair was white as the sands along their shore. “Those in before you only brought hares and one a brace of pheasants. Isn’t that so, Sister?”
“Aye, a fair showing. But this …!”
“It takes a real Pred to bring back a predator,” boasted Aurelius.
Flaygore collared him, saying, “Forgive my brother, marm. The hunt has gone to his head.”
The women tittered like a pair of birds as the brothers walked on. But their voices followed. “Such fine manners! Such fine boys!”
“That’s Anlace’s doing,” the younger sister whispered loudly. “She’s a lady straight down to the planks.”
“Aye.” Lifting her voice, the elder candlemaker called, “You do Anlace proud, Aurelius!”
He turned to walk backward and waved. “I’ll remind her!”
Aurelius basked in the attention as more neighbors volleyed compliments his way. In the Spice District, status wasn’t based on pedigree. Savvy and skill. Quality and connections. Resources and revenue. Even the sixth son of a lesser partner could distinguish himself if he made the most of them.
When they reached the pier owned by Harrow Shipping and Trade, Aurelius veered toward the ships.
Flaygore drew up short. “The warehouse is this way. Aren’t you eager to gloat?”
“Is Aunt Lissie there?”
“Nay. She doesn’t disembark for anyone. Not even you.”
“I want to see Aunt Lissie first.”
“To check on the state of your breeches.”
Aurelius drew himself up. “To pay my respects!”
His brother simply dropped onto a coil of rope and waved him off. Yet another reason Aurelius liked Flaygore best. He could make a point without pressing it.
Running lightly along the dock, Aurelius made for Aunt Lissie’s place. Anlace Harrow was his father’s sister, a maiden aunt more fond of the sea and sightseeing than of hearth and home. She lived aboard the ship docked in the last slip. Leaving his boots on the dock, Aurelius stole across sun-warmed planks.
Aunt Lissie’s cabin door stood open, and he slipped into a room filled with sunlight and silk. Bolts of fine cloth. Dress forms and hat stands. Shell buttons and stone beads. Spools of sheer ribbon and fat tassels. The breath Aurelius been holding slipped out as a sigh. Flaygore’s old breeches were draped over the chair beside hers, and they were no longer an unbecoming gray. She’d dyed them peacock blue, and he would have thrown his arms around her … if the impulse wouldn’t have ended with a blade stuck between his ribs.
She glanced up from the heap of plumage she was adding in neat rows to the collar of a tunic. Her hands stilled, and her eyebrows arched. “Finally, a Harrow who exceeds expectations.”
“The pins you lent me must have brought me good fortune.” Aurelius’s gaze remained on her latest creation. “Is that for me?”
“Such audacity! You stand there, dribbling blood on my floors and expect me to drape you in a fortune in feathers?”
“Are those imported from First Continent?”
“Naturally.” She held a feather between two fingers and squinted past it at him. “I suppose they would set off your eyes.”
Delight zinged through his soul. The tunic was for him and always had been.
Aurelius’s aunt was a fashionista who devoted herself to trends on all four continents. While the family suspected that half her ship’s hold was packed with shoes, Aurelius knew it for a fact. He’d grown up trying them on.
Truth be told, Anlace Harrow was the true source of every fashion trend in the Pred capital. If Aunt Lissie said to buy beads, the Harrow ships brought them in by the basketful. If she said cool colors were the next big thing, their merchant fleet combed the world to meet the need. Aurelius had often wondered if the snooty uphill clans realized that their current passion for persimmon was at his Aunt Lissie’s whim.
She raked him with a gimlet eye, then sniffed. “You are aware that it takes two hunters to bring down a tree-cat?”
“That is the usual way.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Most boys brag freely.”
“Only a fool gives away what he can trade upon.” Aurelius matched her arched brow. “The hunt was good; the tale is better.”
“Aye.” The barest of smiles touched Aunt Lissie’s lips. “Find your father. Stuff tree-cat meat down his gullet. Bathe. Don’t return until you’re in a fit state to dance—pierced, perfumed, and ready for preening.”
Risking life and limb, Aurelius crossed the room and bent to kiss her weathered cheek. “I’ll hurry back, Auntie.”
She swatted him away, grumbling. “If you’ve soiled my decks with that beast’s blood, you’ll swab the lot. And polish the rails for good measure.”
Aurelius smiled into eyes as gold as his own. “Aye, and gladly. If you’ll save me a dance.”
This time her smile was wide and wicked. “We have a bargain.”
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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 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.