Zing! When a second pebble hit his cheek, Aurelius’s pride stung. So he retaliated, but not in kind.
Lunging at the tree from which he’d been ambushed, he vaulted into the limbs. In less time than it took to say revenge in Terse, Aurelius was nose-to-nose with Ulrica.
Her dark eyes flew wide, and her lips parted with a gasp.
If she’d been one of his interminable cousins, Aurelius would have given her a taste his indignation. Of course, if she’d been one of his cousins, he wouldn’t have had the tip of a jeweled dagger tickling his chin.
“Good morning, little girl,” he said sweetly. “Eager for the hunt?”
Pushing aside her weapon with one finger, he made himself more comfortable on the branch. “Did you start without me?”
Ulrica returned the little blade to her belt, then plucked a crimson feather from her hair. Waving it under his nose, she asked, “Does this plumage please you?”
The color was stunning—jewel bright, like fine rubies. And the feather’s shape had its own appeal, tapering to a curled tip. But no merchant admits how much they want another’s wares. So instead of complimenting the goods, he did what any savvy haggler did. He complimented the seller.
“Not so much as seeing you again.”
And in that moment, Ulrica gave herself away. Despite her dark scowl, happiness sparkled like the jewels in her hair. Aurelius’s smile wavered.
“What?” she asked, her guard back up.
“Why am I here?”
He shook his head. “Why me? I’m dockside rabble, remember?”
Stubbornness gave an almost saucy tilt to her chin. “The hunt puts every hunter on equal footing.”
Aurelius’s eyebrows arched. “My very words, but do you believe them?”
She looked away. “If you didn’t want to hunt with me, why did you come?”
“We are pacted,” he countered in serious tones. “I will honor our pact until you cannot.”
“What do you take me for?” Outrage lent a snarl to her retort. “By our claws, we wrested victory from a pit. By our fangs, we tore flesh and hide from our prey. We are bound by heart’s blood. The hunt was ours, and we were magnificent.” Ulrica’s claws dug deep into bark. “I would never dishonor our pact!”
Aurelius smirked. “You have a way with words.”
Ulrica snapped, “And yours insult me.”
“Nay.” He rescued the feather from her hand, smoothing its edge as he chose better words. “How long do you think we can hunt together?”
She eyed the sky. “I will not be missed until dinnertime.”
He’d been referring to seasons, not hours, but he pounced on her wording. “Missed. Because no one knows you’re here?”
“We are meeting in secret.”
“Because you are too young to hunt apart from your clan?”
Aurelius tapped his chest. “Because they would not approve of a dockside hunting partner.”
She grew still, then whispered, “Aye.”
“Then listen again, little girl. I will repeat myself. We are pacted—by hunt and heart’s blood, by chance and by choice. And I will honor our pact until you cannot.” Aurelius tucked the feather back into Ulrica’s hair. “I am a secret you cannot keep. Not for long.”
“Do not underestimate me. Silence is the same as subtlety.” She searched his face. “Does your clan know you’re here? With me?”
“Nay.” Aurelius swung his legs. “You are my secret as well.”
“Then you should stay,” she said, as if handing down an order. “We hunt well together.”
“Well?” He matched her hauteur. “I was recently informed of our magnificence.”
“Aye, we will hunt.” Her mood shifted, and she leaned closer. “But first … I brought one.”
Aurelius only needed a moment to grasp her intent. Forgetting to bottle up his enthusiasm, he asked, “Your cradle guardians?”
“But it’s daytime.”
Ulrica smiled coyly. “Not all stone sleeps by day.”
“It’ll move?” Aurelius’s gaze locked on the pouch riding at her hip. “Can I see?”
“Aye. Lead me to water, and I’ll show you.”
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.