Aurelius spent a rowdy night with his father, uncles, brothers, and older cousins. They acknowledged his accomplishment by drinking a cask dry, then embarking on a spine-tingling game of death dare. But he woke the next morning to an aching head, a wagon-load of barrels to shift, and six shipboard stalls to clear.
Aye, he’d had his shining moment, but he was still the sixth son of a lesser brother in a family of middle-class merchants. And that meant work. Even during festival. Or as Aunt Lissie would say, especially during festival. For parties loosened purse strings, and ready merchants could reap the rewards.
And rake muck. In the belly of a newly-returned ship, Aurelius leaned his head against the wall beside an open porthole. The fresh air helped a little, but daylight sliced through his eyes, leaving him nauseous.
Aurelius dredged up a sneer for Flaygore, who was as unruffled as ever despite the previous night’s escapades.
Shifting the rolled cargo net on his shoulder, his brother held out a folded triangle of paper between two fingers. “Stir this powder into hot water and down it in one go. It’ll settle your stomach and ease your head.”
“Did one of the others put you up to this?”
“Nay, this is mine to offer.”
Aurelius still held back. He’d been doused to misery before.
“No pranks, little brother.” Flaygore pressed the packet into his palm. “I have my own reserve, which I bought off a Pika healer while we were on Far Continent. It’s honest stuff.”
“Why do you have your own supply of medicine?” Aurelius asked.
“For the same reason you suspect my intentions.”
Slipping the belated gift into a pocket, he mumbled his thanks.
Flaygore simply nodded and returned to the task at hand. He tossed the net over the barrels they’d transferred earlier. As he made them fast with a complex series of knots, Aurelius begged a trip to the necessary.
In the warehouse’s break room, he swirled the powder into a cup of lukewarm water and swallowed the bitter dose. Bounders were a wispy, quivery people, but they did know their way around an herb patch. Aurelius would follow Flaygore’s implicit advice the next time he was abroad and barter for stores of his own. I’m a man now. I should see to my own needs.
Self-reliance would require careful planning.
And a goal.
Aurelius stole back onto the ship but remained on deck. Perched on a rail he’d undoubtedly have to polish later, he stared at the hilltop where Ulrica lived. Ulrica Rakefang.
I am heartily peeved with you, little girl. How dare she be the daughter of a founding clan? Wealth and power were in her pedigree. The haughty, headstrong huntress might not be pretty, but she had a fat purse and considerable pull. Advantages she took for granted. Advantages he could take.
He almost wished he could take back his discovery, for it opened up dazzling possibilities.
Flaygore emerged from the hold stinking of horse. “Better?”
“Aye.” Nodding to the heights, Aurelius asked, “How far uphill do we trade?”
“Most of our stock stays in the shops surrounding the five squares.” His brother angled a hand at a point barely a third of the way up the hill. “There’s a persnickety tea merchant who relies on uncle’s runs to Last Continent. And father’s sister’s husband’s cousin specializes in titian jade. He’s willing to look over any beads and baubles we bring in, but father says he treats us like petty thieves trying to pawn off stolen goods.”
Aurelius pulled his knees to his chin, wrapping his arms around his legs. “Do all Hillers look down on Docksiders?”
Flaygore’s smile was philosophic. “They do have the high ground.”
For two more days, Aurelius pondered strategies and outcomes. Most stank of duplicity. Several had mercenary qualities. A few turned his stomach. In a way, he was relieved that his options appalled him, for it meant his conscience was intact.
That’s probably Aunt Lissie’s fault.
Many a merchant boasted over acquisitions that were little more than raids. They swooped in and, by ruthlessness or rookery, carried off whatever they wished. And they would say, why not? Were they not Pred? Conquest was in their blood!
But Anlace Harrow railed against such lack of foresight. Why be satisfied with one night’s conquest when a properly brokered trade agreement could yield a steady supply of goods for decades?
Ingenuity. Etiquette. Diplomacy. Adaptation. They might not work on other Pred, but they opened doors overseas. Aye, they were feared for their heritage. But Harrow Shipping and Trade had cultivated a long list of connections, and the integrity of their dealings held them in good stead.
So what of Ulrica?
Normally, hers was a connection he couldn’t make. Yet we are linked. Ulrica should have swiftly severed that connection. Yet she pacted with me. And what hilltop girl left the security of her elevated society? Yet she danced away half the night in our square.
Aurelius was no lackwit. But neither was he short-sighted. He saw what Ulrica could not.
From her perspective, it was deucedly simple. She didn’t want anything from him. She wanted him.
Presumptuous in the extreme, but her offer of friendship was a fine compliment. However, Aurelius couldn’t reciprocate with the same simplicity.
Not because of skulking motives. He didn’t want anything from her either. She was enough. But he couldn’t have her.
Ulrica might not see it yet, but their partnership was a game of make-believe. Even if she doted on him for a season or two, she’d come to her senses. Like a childhood toy, she’d outgrow him, and then she’d abandon him. Why open himself up to inevitable betrayal? Or butchery, should her family find out and decide to bury the scandal. Nay, he shouldn’t accept her proposition.
Yet I am here.
Insects sent up a deafening buzz in the thick forest. Air clung with summer stickiness. And his cheek stung, struck by a pebble.
And so is she.
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.