Ulrica trailed after Aurelius, who aimed for the closest stream. “Will this suffice?” he asked.
“Aye, for its fresh.”
“Sea water wouldn’t work?”
“Nay.” Dipping into the pouch at her waist, she palmed her precious bit of blue. “All the tears in the world couldn’t convince this guardian to move. Only sweet waters will do.”
When she knelt on the bank, he crowded close. “How does it work? Show me!”
But she kept her treasure hidden. “You will keep my secrets.”
Aurelius rolled his eyes and made a grab, but not for her cradle guardian. He caught the wrist of her free hand and brought it to his chest, pressing it to bare skin. “Should I be insulted by the fragility of your trust? Or flattered that you’ll settle for naught but my heart?”
Ulrica’s cheeks flamed. “Betray me, and I’ll drag it from your quivering corpse.”
His hand over hers, Aurelius added a vow to the pact and promise they already shared. “Your secrets are my silence; one traitorous word, and my life is forfeit.”
She curled her fingers so her claws pressed into his flesh, but Aurelius remained still. “I never asked for your heart,” she grumbled.
“Yet it is freely given.” He smiled sweetly. Too sweetly.
Ulrica didn’t like being teased. “I have no use for it.”
“Not so hasty!” he protested. “For while it beats, we can run through open territory and share the hunt.”
She nodded, albeit grudgingly.
“And it pays to think ahead,” he prattled on. “Who can say what future use you might find for this loyal heart of mine?”
“Loyal,” she scoffed.
“Should I be concerned, little girl?” His gaze steady, Aurelius curled his fingers around hers. “Is loyalty so rare in uphill society?”
“Rarer than master-marked stone in dockside hovels.”
Aurelius’s attention swung back to her other hand. “And is your little statue master-marked?”
“Marked, aye. But my brother is not yet a master.” Turning away from him, she slipped her feet into the water. “He will be, though.”
“I’ll take you at your word. Now make me believe in magic.”
Ulrica finally uncurled her fist revealing a pudgy rabbit with a tuft of tail and drooping ears.
He shifted closer. “Bluestone is quarried on First Continent.”
“You’ve been there?”
“Aye, we trade with the Basq.” Holding out his hand, he asked, “May I?”
Ulrica relinquished her small treasure and watched him turn it this way and that, studying the statue from every angle. Would he criticize Tuft? The lop-eared bunny was one of the first guardians Frey had smuggled home for her.
Aurelius hummed. “You don’t often see bluestone so highly polished. This level of luster must have taken patience.”
She puffed out the breath she’d been holding. “Aye, my brother is patient as a hunter on the trail of skittlers and scatterheels.”
Testing the weight in his hand, Aurelius lifted his gaze to hers. “I see the mark. I don’t see the magic.”
“Dip it in the stream.”
When she offered no further instruction, he simply obeyed. A second later, Aurelius was cursing and fumbling. Polished stone was slippery when wet, and Tuft was a wriggler.
“This is like trying to catch pond peepers,” he grumbled. Caging the tiny blue rabbit between his hands, Aurelius lifted them to eye level and tried to peer between his fingers.
Ulrica’s lips twitched, but she didn’t warn him.
The statue bolted through the gap, and she tittered as Aurelius pounced—and missed. The idiot boy ended up crawling after the runaway, straight into the water. She could see Tuft hopping along the pebbled bottom of the clear stream.
She giggled. He grumbled, but good-naturedly. With a well-timed snatch, Aurelius caught him again, this time in a much less delicate grasp.
Ulrica wasn’t worried. Tuft might streak like a prey before wolves, but he was still stone.
“Why’s this ridiculous bounder trying to get away?”
“He is trying to get to me,” said Ulrica. “He looks to me.”
“Stone can’t think,” he said dubiously. “Rocks can’t be loyal.”
Ulrica rolled her eyes. “Set him down.”
“Him?” Aurelius let the cradle guardian tumble onto the mossy bank. “How can you tell?”
“Frey told me. His name’s Tuft.”
To Ulrica’s supreme satisfaction, Tuft hopped straight to Ulrica and put his forepaws on her toe. His long ears lifted, and he gazed up into her face.
“He does seem to know you,” Aurelius admitted.
“Naturally.” She scooped the little statue and cuddled him to her cheek. “All my guardians adore me.”
“Will you introduce me to the rest?”
“I can bring another next time.” Ulrica hoped she didn’t sound too presumptuous. He might not want her bartering for his time.
“Where and when?” he asked eagerly.
“Dawnstone wakes at first light. And there’s starstone, moonstone, sunstone…”
“Some by day, some by night?” Aurelius frowned. “Which will be easier for you to sneak out?”
“No one would question a morning hunt.”
Aurelius nodded. “How many days from now?”
Feeling entirely brazen, she lifted two fingers. Is it too soon?
But he nodded again and countered, “Will you teach me how to throw a dagger?”
“In exchange for what?” Ulrica asked, curious how much she might gain from their haggle. “We should trade, lesson for lesson, skill for skill.”
He pursed his lips, then shrugged. “Stories are not skills, but I know good ones. What about languages?”
“My brother is already teaching me.”
“Do you ever come down to the sea? I can sail … fish with net, spear, and hook … dive for pearls …”
Ulrica leaned forward. “Aye, that. All of that!”
Aurelius sprang to his feet and slapped his thighs. “Then it’s settled. We’ll divide our summer between forest and sea.”
Ulrica couldn’t have been more pleased. Just like that, the whole season belonged to the two of them.
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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 2015–2016, 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.