Ulrica and her brother danced with exceptional polish, as if trained to the art, yet with obvious enjoyment. All through the evening, Aurelius catered to their whims with extravagant compliments, discreet haggling, and a net bag of melons. Frey’s instructors would doubtless enjoy them, and Aurelius’s pockets were weighted with more coin than he’d carried since … ever.
He’s a dismal haggler. Or a grateful brother. Aurelius strongly suspected the latter but chose to believe the former. That made it easier to accept the older boy’s unwarranted generosity.
Right before the siblings left the Spice District, Ulrica cornered Aurelius. “Hunt with me.”
“Gladly.” He leaned close to ask, “What prey?”
She quietly revealed, “I know where there are birds with scarlet plumage.”
Aurelius’s interest piqued. Such a trophy would undoubtedly please Aunt Lissie. And to hunt with Ulrica again … well! “Where do you want to meet? This square? Or one closer to you?”
Ulrica’s blinked once, then twice. “Nay. We should meet in open territory.”
“Aye, that’s sensible,” he replied smoothly. Her relief amused him. She may be fierce, but she is transparent as a child. Clearly, this hunt would occur without parental consent. “What day?”
She held up three fingers.
“Near the boundary, then? Where we last parted?”
Ulrica’s dark eyes flashed to where her brother patiently waited. “Without fail,” she whispered. Then she gathered up her skirts and ran off without a backward glance.
With a parting wave, Frey led his sister out of the square.
Aurelius kept his arm raised to the count of twelve, then darted after them. Because any merchant worth his coin knew what he was trading on. And you can’t trade on ignorance.
His quarry entered quieter roads. Away from the squares, there were shadows aplenty, so Aurelius had no trouble concealing himself. But the citywide festivities could be heard on every side. To Aurelius’s amusement, Ulrica and her brother danced up the street. Swaying steps. Wide twirls. Their indulgence reinforced Aurelius’s earlier impression that Ulrica loved to dance.
From district to quarter, he followed them higher.
An invasion of privacy? Nay, this wasn’t a betrayal of trust between partners. It’s practical. A necessary precaution. What if something prevented Ulrica from meeting him three days hence? It would be as if another pit opened at her feet, swallowing her forever. If he lost her now, she might stay lost. To him, at least.
He wasn’t surprised when their course continued upward. Rich clothes. Fat purses. These two were comfortable with elegances. Another turning and another steep incline. The roads here were lined with residences and specialty shops. A seamstress and a beadery. A hairdresser and a tobacconer. A jeweler and a hairdresser. All suited to expensive tastes and expendable incomes.
The siblings moved at an easy pace. Ulrica shed her extravagant slippers and chattered away. Her brother interjected with teasing tones and deep laughter. They were caught up in their own happiness, utterly ignorant of their stalker.
But the mood shifted at the next turning. Frey and Ulrica lapsed into silence, and their steps turned stealthy.
The neighborhood certainly had. Elderly trees lined the switchbacks, and humble homes gave way to lofty estates. Gates and guard towers marked the homes of elite statesmen and clan heads.
Frey swerved to one side and reached out, meeting the hand of a man posted by one such gate.
When Aurelius came even with the entrance, a thrill ran down his spine, and he stopped to gape. The guard was solid gray from head to toe. A statue with hairy legs, cloven feet, and curving horns, unlike any creature Aurelius had seen on any of the four continents.
The guardian’s attention swung unerringly to the shadows in which Aurelius lurked. With what he hoped was a polite nod, Aurelius hurried past.
More statues came into view, though not all of them showed signs of life. Some gates bore lanterns, which illuminated decorative mosaics and colorful pavers—booty from old conquests. Aurelius judged much of the architecture in this section to be hundreds, if not thousands of years old. These were glories from an era when Pred often went to war.
One last turning, and the winding landscape vanished, leaving Aurelius with an unhindered view of the night sky … and a staggering realization. Ulrica wasn’t just uphill. She was hilltop.
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.