Ulrica found her prey loitering behind a pierced screen. “Run away with me?” she whispered.
Freydolf frowned at his sister, then scanned the crowded room. In low tones, he replied, “Give me any excuse, and I’ll ensure our swift escape.”
In a trifling, they were out a window, over the wall, and away.
With skipping steps, Ulrica steered clear of their usual haunts. She tried to be subtle about it, but her brother noticed.
“Where are you taking us, little sister?”
“I want to dance.”
“We’ve already passed two squares with music and merriment aplenty.”
“Let’s go somewhere else tonight.”
Freydolf blandly inquired, “Somewhere … downhill?”
Ulrica’s chin lifted. “He promised melon.”
“Good. I like melon.” Freydolf’s hand slipped under her elbow. “And I want a look at your hunting partner.”
“Aye. You can judge for yourself whether he’s coarse or competent.”
“And you can show off your dress,” he teased.
The evening was far enough along to cover the color in her cheeks. She did want Aurelius to see her bedecked in persimmon and pearls. Not because his first impression needed correction. After all, the audacious boy had seen her in less than ideal circumstances and called her glorious.
But she’d seen the way his gaze lingered. Not on me. I look too much like father to aspire. Yet Aurelius had taken note of every detail of her hunting kit. Not with greed. Nay, with appreciation. And Ulrica understood. They had shared the hunt and the heart of their prey. And they shared a love of beauty. What else might they find in common, given the chance?
To find out, she would chance her father’s ire and her mother’s censure. But not her brother’s happiness. With a faint scowl, she asked, “Will this make things easier for you?”
Freydolf’s gaze was fixed on the emerging stars. “Aye.”
“Aye,” her brother repeated. “Your triumph has everyone’s attention. For a while, at least, I can breathe easier.”
Ulrica tried not to think about how long ‘for a while’ could last.
“May I beg a selfish promise, little sister?”
A tiny corner of her heart quailed at her brother’s tone. So sad. So resigned.
Peering down at her, Freydolf quietly begged, “Be magnificent enough for two.”
Only that? Ulrica had a blade at his throat before he could react. Brushing a kiss to his cheek, she whispered, “Watch me! I will be glorious!”
His hand closed around her wrist, gently turning aside her blade. “Aye,” he said warmly. “I will be watching.”
Aurelius noticed them long before she spotted him. How could he not? Ever since the lighting of the lanterns in the square, he’d been on the lookout. He felt justly rewarded for remaining alert, for he was able to watch from the shadows. And size up her companion.
The man bore a strong resemblance, so definitely a relative. The brother? They made quite the pair—tall, fierce, and refined. Without a doubt, they were a cut above the usual dockside lot, but the brother was surprisingly comfortable in their midst. He spoke easily and laughed often.
After a minute, Aurelius revised his initial impression. Nay, not a man. Ulrica’s brother was good-natured, to be sure, but oddly unguarded. His open manner suggested innocence or ignorance. He’s like her—carrying more maturity than their years. He was certainly older, but not by much.
Stealing closer, Aurelius shadowed the two until he was satisfied. When a lull came between sets, he struck the heel of his boot against the cobbles underfoot. Two beats. Their signal. Proof of partnership.
Ulrica’s paused mid-step, her head turning at his call, as if she’d been waiting for it.
Their eyes met, and Aurelius swept into a bow. “I knew you’d come.”
She turned fully and tossed her hair. “Your challenge is met. I tracked you to your den. Such as it is.”
“Do you find us lacking?”
Aurelius had meant the Spice District in general, but she tilted her head to one side and scrutinized his finery. He struck a pose.
“Only in height,” she answered.
He tossed his hands into the air. “I’ll find more soon enough,” he grumbled.
With a soft tinkle of bells, Ulrica stepped inside Aurelius’s guard. What now, little girl? Her fingers touched his loose hair, and he was certain she tested its texture before brushing it aside to inspect his newly-pierced ear.
She whispered, “Were you lauded?”
“I am the talk of the district!” With blatant familiarity, he teased a lock of her hair out of the way and blinked in astonishment. Instead of the traditional slips of white stone, hilts of miniature swords protruded from the holes in Ulrica’s earlobes. “Exquisite!” gasped Aurelius. “Where did you get them?”
“They are an heirloom. Handed down on my mother’s side of the family.”
Aurelius nodded approvingly. “Was your trophy well-received then?.”
“I am the boast of my clan,” she assured, chin set at a haughty angle.
“Are you grateful to me?” Aurelius asked. She scowled, but the dark look fell away when he produced a handful of curling white feathers. “For these, of course. They’ll look well in your hair.”
Her dark eyes widened, and pleasure brought a rush of color to her cheeks. However, she looked to her brother, who was watching with interest from a polite distance.
Aurelius gamely addressed him. “A gift for your lady sister, if you have no objection?”
The brother strolled closer, an indulgent expression on his face. “They would be an interesting touch. Unexpected. Whimsical. A little like the Keet.”
An arched brow. A sidelong look. Aurelius asked, “You know of the Keet?”
“One of my language teachers is from Old Continent. Her plumage is green.” Plucking one of the feathers from Aurelius’s hand, he twirled it between his fingers, then set it against the dark luster of his sister’s hair. “White suits Ulrica’s trappings better.”
Wanting a better vantage, Aurelius stepped backward, beckoning. “Over here. Come and sit.”
The siblings exchanged a glance and followed him away from the hubbub of the square. Under the guttering torches that lined the boardwalk, Aurelius pointed to a rope-wound post. From here, it was possible to hear the lulling rhythm of waves as they shushed against the sand in the darkness beneath the pier. “Do sit,” he urged.
Fine cloth rustled as Ulrica took her seat. She had to look up at him now.
Aurelius favored her with a pout. “You have not commented upon my attire.”
“Very … dramatic. Lavish. And I’m told that feathers are coming into fashion.” She hesitated, then shyly asked, “What do you think, Frey?”
“For the Keet and the Grif, feathers are always in fashion.” He shrugged. “They’re a trifle outlandish, but so is your friend.”
Outlandish? Aurelius wasn’t sure if he should take exception or not. But he’d not missed the friend reference.
“Go ahead, little sister,” Frey said in indulgent tones. “You’re clearly beguiled, and his embellishments will complement the rest. He chose well for you.”
With a grateful smile for her brother and a haughty look for Aurelius, Ulrica said, “You may proceed.”
“Aye.” Aurelius considered his options. Small sections of her hair had been gathered up and looped atop her head with a complex arrangement of loops and pins. Sheer ribbons, starry white flowers, pearls, and titian jade beads twined through the heavy waves that fell to Ulrica’s hips.
“All to one side,” her brother said. “So they curl toward her ear, like a softly curving wing.”
Aurelius blinked, then narrowed his eyes. “Agreed. But I’ll need to move this comb.”
It was the same one she’d worn during the hunt, the finest piece by far, carved all in one piece from titian jade. Studying the delicate workmanship, he asked, “Is this also an heirloom?”
Ulrica’s expression turned coy. “Nay.”
At her pointed look, Frey supplied, “That was my gift to her during her last birth festival.”
“You have expensive tastes, sir.”
He snorted, but his tone was amiable. “I’ll accept the compliment, misdirected though it be.”
“Frey made it, lackwit,” said Ulrica. “He’s very skilled.”
Aurelius looked between them and the comb. “But …! But this is wonderful,” he exclaimed. “Better than half the stuff we bring in from Fwan territory. Mind you, it’s shop-made and unmarked …”
The gilt on Frey’s claws gleamed as he reached over and flipped the comb. Tapping the back, he said, “This is my mark. I am apprenticed to the trade.”
Unable to help himself, Aurelius made the hand signal for a bid. “Would you like to do business? My family would be honored t–”
“Nay. I wouldn’t be … that is, I’m not yet allowed to …” He looked away, rubbing awkwardly at the back of his neck. “I can’t. But I do appreciate the compliment.”
Aurelius eyed him speculatively. But he held his peace and quietly finished arranging feathers in Ulrica’s hair. After a bit of fussing, they did look rather like the a bird’s wing. Stealing pearl-studded pins from amidst her abundant tresses, he made them secure. “Aye, that should hold.”
She touched the addition lightly, but before she could shower Aurelius with the thanks he so rightly deserved, her brother interrupted. “Are you the one who daubed Ulrica after your hunt?”
Hoping for compliment rather than censure, Aurelius cautiously inclined his head.
“I didn’t get a good look,” Frey continued. “but the overall impression bespoke skill. Are you perhaps … also an artist?”
Aurelius was temporarily flummoxed. In the most traditional sense, Frey’s question was a veiled insult. But there was no cloaked dagger since he’d willingly aligned himself as a fellow artist. Even so, the inquiry was vaguely … rude.
Uncomfortably aware of the tension in Ulrica’s shoulders, Aurelius took refuge in diplomacy. “I have taste, certainly. An eye for color. And a legible hand, but nay, I’m no artist.”
Frey dipped his head, then slipped a finger under Ulrica’s chin. Turning her head so he could admire Aurelius’s arrangement, he said, “I’d call this artistry.”
Ulrica snapped, “Some would call that an insult.”
“Well I know it.” Placing his hand under his heart, Frey murmured, “I meant no harm.”
“You landed no blow,” Aurelius quickly assured.
Clearing his throat, Frey changed the subject. “My sister mentioned melons. If you can spare half a dozen, we have Drom in the Towers who would weep for joy.”
“They’re not easy to come by this early in the season,” Aurelius said, grateful to be back in familiar territory. “But for the right price, I might be able to arrange …”
“Must you prattle like merchants?” complained Ulrica.
Aurelius was loathe to point out that he was born to the trade as surely as he was to the hunt, but she spared him from admitting as much by jumping to her feet and grabbing onto her brother’s arm.
“This is a festival! I want to dance!”
Frey laughed and gave her a twirl. “Aye, little sister, as many dances as you like. But give me leave to speak for a melon or two, for the journeymen have been good to me. I want to repay their patience.”
She grumbled agreement, then dragged him into the square.
Aurelius wasn’t entirely sure if she was furious or flustered, but the color was high in her cheeks. He drummed his fingers against his thigh and switched his attention to Frey. Without a doubt, the older boy’s whole manner was discomfiting. For a Pred, he’s deucedly meek.
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.