Chapter the First

I miss Aris. It’s been two months, more or less, since he died the second and final time, and I still miss him every moment. For almost twelve years I never went longer’n a week without seein’ him—most often I never went longer’n a day—and sometimes I forget that he isn’t there anymore. It’s worst at school, but thoughts a’ him are never far away.

I’d been back at college for nearly a week before things started happenin’ again. Eastwick’s class was easily the worst to go back into, and not just cause I knew somethin’ a’ what Eastwick was. The man seemed to hate me so much I wondered if he’d somehow found out what I was doing. He didn’t, and I knew that cause if he had he would a’ cornered me in some lonely street and blasted me if he could, and he certainly had plenty a’ opportunity, but I still couldn’t help wonderin’ sometimes.

I’d spent the last two months livin’ at home, workin’ on the last minute construction squad. The job was pretty simple. We were makin’ sure that the city would stand through the winter without anything too important going wrong, which meant we were hauled all over the city at all hours, patchin’ up roads, repairin’ telephone lines, takin’ down dead trees and haulin’ away whatever debris the fall storms had tossed down, or up, or just generally around into the public convenience. They paid us well enough that I could go back to school on what I earned, but it was a brute of a job.

I’d managed to get back down to the GypCirc a couple a’ times. I missed the first full moon, cause I’d only just moved back home and me and my parents were still fightin’ about just about everything, and I felt guilty as hell about it cause I’d promised Col I’d be there, but I made it down about two weeks later and Paka had told me that Suora had talked to him and explained why I weren’t there and he’d been satisfied, and promised to be back next full moon and every full moon after that. Aid was ridiculously glad to see me, considerin’ I hadn’t been gone even a month, and he showed it, but the others were glad too, in less obvious ways. I think it was because I weren’t livin’ in their world anymore. I think, though I weren’t sure, that they were afraid that once I got back into the lightworld I wouldn’t be able to walk in the twilight any more, and while I was fightin’ with my parents that had seemed like a real possibility. I never told anyone, but the truth is that if I’d had to choose I would a’ chose them.

I didn’t talk with the GypCirc about the job we were takin’ on next although a’ course Suora knew I was in it. I didn’t see Sebas or Mund or Ly either ‘cept once and we didn’t talk then. (Sebas laughed when he told me Edmund’s nickname—apparently it was an old word for moon. He said it was peculiarly appropriate, since Mund was the one a’ the four who saw the battle as a whole, like the moon lookin’ down at the whole scene. Sometimes they called him Moon as a sorta joke, and his squad a’ spies were called the Moonsquad, or the Stars.) I saw Lawrence three times, the first time when he met me at Aris’ grave to tell me that Eastwick was evil, and a second and third time at full moon when he met the Gamblers. The third time was only a week or so before I was scheduled to go back to school, and I asked him about Eastwick.

“We don’t have anything particular in mind,” Lawrence replied. “The battle over Ferdinand’s death has slowed things down a lot, on both sides of the river, and the next move is more or less up in the air. At the moment the action is confined mostly to hunting parties—the southside vampires are trying to—er—recruit new members and we are trying to stop them, and of course the government is getting in their way with the persistent annoyance of mosquitoes on a hot summer day, which, I don’t mind telling you, fills me with gleeful satisfaction.”

“Nice to hear our government’s good for somethin’,” I remarked. “So what d’yeh want me to do?”

“Watch him—discreetly. Don’t do anything stupid like trying to follow him around or break into his office. Put your remarkable perception to work and if you think something significant is happening—I mean if he’s unusually happy or unusually upset—get in touch with us. Although I don’t think anything is going to happen. In the meantime,” he added, seriously, “it might be a help just to get to know him—again, discreetly. His moods, that kind of thing.”

“He doesn’t like bein’ a teacher, he has a serious superiority complex about bein’ a spark, and he’ll always go for cruel if he can,” I said promptly. “I ain’t actually seen him fight, but my guess is he’ll be quick to hurt and slow to kill. His skill is almost enough to justify his pride, but not quite, and he’s emotional. A well-timed insult will be as effective in a fight against him as a well-timed blow. He’s quick and he’s clever, but he underestimates people, fashers especially. He always underestimated Aris. And one day soon he’s going to find out that he’s underestimated me.”

“So long as you don’t underestimate him,” Lawrence said lightly. “I don’t think Col would ever forgive us if he got you.”

Col, hearin’ his name from the other side a’ the fire, raised his head an’ looked at us, his tail waggin’ gently. Col had taken to me as much as Aid did, but in a completely different way. Aid was as energetic as a lightning storm. Even as a wolf Col was quiet, and he’d turned out to be intelligent, too. He and Victor between the two a’ them were managin’ to do a fairly respectable job a’ educatin’ Aid. Victor had the authority to make the little were-elf sit down and listen for an hour or two every day, but Col had the gift a’ makin’ him interested cause he was always so interested himself. Mornings after the full moon I’d watch Aid and Col sittin’ by the ashes a’ the fire talkin’, and they reminded me a’ me and Aris, a little. Col would sometimes get the same look on his face that Aris would get when he was tellin’ me about somethin’ he’d found out or some question that had been raised, either that he’d thought a’ or that he’d read. Both times I was down there they managed to get into the same tent as me, and slept on either side a’ me.

The first time I went down, shortly after I’d made peace with my dad, I’d told Suora about him wantin’ Aid to come visit. She’d hesitated, understandably.

“You know he is under my special protection,” she said. I nodded. “And your parents—they are trustworthy?”

My turn to hesitate.

“They’re comin’ round,” I said, finally. “I can tell you this, though—they won’t hurt a child, or allow him to be hurt. They’re prejudices about halvers and weres go pretty deep, but their—their parentness goes even deeper.”

For a long moment she stared at me.

“I’d understand if yeh didn’t want to allow it, though,” I said. Her stare was makin’ me uncomfortable.

“I know Gabrielle appeared to you,” she said, abruptly switchin’ subjects. I was startled into not havin’ an answer a’ any kind. “You saw him here, the night you gambled your soul.” That was easier. I nodded. “You saw the child he had with him.” I nodded again. “That child was Chance, and the coin he surrendered to my brother was the deciding coin. Your soul was important enough that the very laws of nature were bent in your favour. Under the circumstances, I will choose to trust you. Do not do anything to make me regret my choice.” And that easily won the award for most terrifying warning of the year, but I was confident in what I’d said a’ my parents so I just said:

“I won’t.”

“I wish to send Victor with you,” she added.

“Absolutely,” I said, feelin’ a little relieved. I didn’t particularly like the idea a’ Aid meetin’ my parents with only me there to ease the tension. “The more the merrier. Maybe you could send Paka, too. I think Pak and my mom would get along like fire.”

Suora almost went so far as to smile, and agreed that Paka was a charm, and then a’ course work started to get real heavy and I barely had time to sleep, let alone invite people over for the afternoon.

Then I went back to school, and sat for a whole week under the curious and commiserating and insulting stares a’ the other students and the cruelty a’ Eastwick and missin’ Aris like I’d miss my heart if that were torn out, and by the end a’ the week I was fed up. Friday afternoon I dropped in at home and asked Mom how she’d feel about havin’ a few people over on Saturday.

She paused in the middle a mixin’ somethin’ and said, “This would be the werewolf your Dad asked you to bring home, yes?”

“Yes,” I said. “And a couple others.”

“A couple others a’ what?” Dad asked. He’d just gotten outta bed an’ hadn’t even bothered to get dressed. He and my Mom had a system on the weekends. Dad would sleep most a’ Friday, but he’d be up well before dinner an’ he’d go to bed with her, and that way they’d have all a’ Saturday together and part a’ Sunday. He’d have to sleep Sunday afternoon, cause he went to work all Sunday night, but it averaged out to two whole days together, and Mom was satisfied.

“A couple others from the GypCirc,” I said. “They want to come with Aid.” Dad raised his eyebrows a little. “Under the circumstances, Dad, they’re kinda nervous too, and can yeh blame them?”

“How many extra will your Mom be cookin’ for?”

I shrugged.

“When Pak gets into the kitchen Mom probably won’t be doing much cookin’ at all. As far as I can tell Pak cooks for everyone. I think she enjoys it.” Mom and Dad both made noises that meant ok with an overtone a’ doubt and an undertone a’ excitement, and asked me to stay to dinner.

“Can’t,” I said, sighin’. “I had somethin’ to eat already and I have homework, and I have to go down to the river, but I’ll see you for most a’ tomorrow. By the way,” I added, pausin’ in the doorway, “they don’t eat meat.”

“Thank heaven,” Mom said unexpectedly. “I’m almost outta meat, but Mrs. Theran gave me bags full of vegetables and spices just two days ago.”

“See yeh tomorrow, son,” Dad said, and I left.

As I walked to the bus stop I wondered, not for the first time, whether our herbalist was a prophet.

I hopped on the bus and headed to the library.

Chapter two

I hadn’t told the strict truth when I said I had homework. Missin’ Aris was the worst mornings and evenings, ‘specially wakin’ up in my dorm room with Chrian. I didn’t have anything against my new roommate, ‘cept that he weren’t Aris, and he couldn’t help that, but it still hurt to wake up and see him. Most mornings I woke up with a sick feeling in my stomach, my eyes sore from unshed tears, and just lay in bed tryin’ not to cry so that I could get up and go to class. Most evenings I went to bed feelin’ sick and dreadin’ the dreams that would come.  The best remedy I’d found was to be exhausted to the point a’ death when I went to bed, and to wake up still tired. Weren’t healthy, I know, but I weren’t sleepin’ well anyway and it made it easier to get outta bed in the morning if I was mostly thinkin’ about how tired I was instead a’ how much I missed him and how—I don’t know how to put it—how he was still dead. How I was going to get up and go to class and face Eastwick and he wouldn’t be there.

And it helped me be nice to Chrian. I was too tired to resent him.

One a’ the things the placer had mentioned about Chrian while I weren’t listenin’ was that he was a spark, a truly powerful one, and a scholarship kid, and that he’d had to put off comin’ for a semester cause his parents didn’t have the money to get him here. He was quiet, and he didn’t have the pride most sparks had cause he was so poor, and he had a sensitivity to him that made it real important that I never showed how much his presence hurt me. We didn’t talk much. He was too shy and I was too busy with other stuff. I didn’t know if he’d get less shy after a couple weeks. I didn’t think so, and the thought didn’t bother me at all.

One thing I had learned from havin’ a spark for a roommate though, and that was that it was a lot easier to get a grasp on magic theory if yeh had some knowledge a’ the practical side a’ things too. I couldn’t get an insider’s knowledge, obviously, so instead I’d taken to stayin’ at the library as late as I could readin’ accounts a’ spark scraps, and the few spark diaries that had been published. From what I gathered, havin’ magic was a little like havin’ another body. Practical magic was a lot more like learnin’ to fight than anything else. Yeh learned to see and hear and move with magic, rather than with eyes and ears and arms and legs, and to react with magic.

Chrian and I had had a brief conversation about Eastwick the second day a’ the semester, and he’d said a’ couple things that put me on to studying practical magic, and since then I spent the evenings at the library doing all the homework and all the extra work I could do to wear myself out.

So, as I say, it weren’t exactly homework, but it was pretty close. Close enough, anyway.

Chrian was in the library when I walked in, and so was Cor, the other fasher from my magic theory class. Cor ignored me, which he’d been doing all week, mostly I think cause he had no idea what to say to me. He weren’t a very pleasant person—he was shy, but the sorta shy that comes from feelin’ inferior, and he’d never made any particular effort to be nice in spite a’ himself, ‘specially to me and Aris. Chrian nodded at me, and managed a tiny, shy smile, and in a burst a’ self-sacrificing friendliness I joined him at his table. I could tell he appreciated the gesture, and that he had no idea how to show it, and the result was that we studied together in complete silence for about half an hour till he said he was headin’ back to the dorm and he’d leave the light on for me, he didn’t mind. That was the difference between Chrian and Cor. Chrian was cripplingly shy but at least he tried.

So I said thanks, but I was stayin’ somewhere else that night and I’d probably not be back till Sunday, and he whispered an embarrassed goodbye and left.

Aris would a’ liked him, I thought. Poor kid. I hope Eastwick doesn’t get to him.

That was why the first week was miserable. School reminded me too sharply a’ Aris, and I wanted to be doing somethin’—I really wanted to lay into Eastwick—and I hadn’t heard anything from Sebas or Lawrence since I’d seen Lawrence last full moon, two weeks ago, and I hadn’t seen or heard anything from the GypCirc either. I knew enough a’ Eastwick’s moods to know when he was what passed as happy for him, and when he was pissed off, and he’d been nothin’ but pissed off whenever I saw him, so I guessed that the battle of Ferdinand’s heart had interrupted business somewhat, but that weren’t satisfying. I knew Mund was takin’ his Stars out every night, and that they were attackin’ the southside vamps, and I wanted to scrap with them and I couldn’t. A part a’ me still wanted to find however had done that to Aris and rip into them with everything I’d got. I was angry and grievin’ and above all helpless. So I studied as hard as I could and looked forward to the every trip to the river like it was my birthday.

This time I was ostensibly going to tell Aid that he was comin’ to my house tomorrow, but really the whole occasion was an excuse to go down again, and this time, with the awful week only just behind me, I wanted to talk. I wanted to know that somethin’ was bein’ done about Eastwick.

I left shortly after it got dark. Cor had been fidgetin’ for a good hour, and I knew what that was about. For some reason he’d always tried to be a better student than Aris, but he didn’t have the brains for it, and now that it was just me he was determined to be a better student than me. If we ended up in the library at the same time he hung round till I left, whether he had anything to do or no. It was startin’ to get real annoyin’.

I headed down the street and paused on the corner to look back. Sure enough, two minutes later I saw Cor leavin’. My instinct was to be angry but he weren’t doing anything that actually affected me, ‘cept by annoyance, so I just shrugged moodily to myself and walked on. Two hours later I was crossin’ the field by the light a’ the waxin’ moon.

Aid hailed me joyfully. He didn’t usually get to see me more than once a month and the surprise made him even more twitchy and jumpy than he was usually. He clawed his way onto my back and I had to shove him off to keep the skin on my shoulder. I told him about comin’ to my house the next afternoon and he showed no apprehension. I asked Victor and Paka if they’d come to, and Paka said she’d love to and Victor said he wouldn’t take responsibility for Aid if he broke something.

I went to the mer-elves next. Whenever I got to the GypCirc I always spent a few minutes alone with the mer-elves. Atella, Orseki and Terian each had a memory a’ Aris, a memory that they’d gotten along with a piece a’ my soul, and I made them tell me the memory every time. It was odd, feelin’ them slide into place in the holes in my own memory. They had my pain, too, or a piece a’ it. They could say, with more truth than anyone else, that they knew what I was going through.

They’d been soulless till I’d given them part a’ my soul, and it was comfortin’ to me in a way to teach them how to mourn. They had their own pain as well as mine, their own memories a’ Aris, and we talked about that too. They didn’t even know how to cry.

I didn’t talk much with the others about him. They hadn’t known him long, just long enough that each a’ them said, in their own half-veiled way, that they wished they’d known him longer. New moon, the first time I went back, Riair sang an ancient mourning song for him and Suora lit candles a’ passing, and Ella, Sek and Ter learned how to cry, really cry, and I was teachin’ by example. That was the one time I’d seen Sebas and his command since I’d left the mansion after Aris died the second time. Lydia was the only one cryin’, but it was easy to see that she weren’t the only one grievin’.

Chapter three

When I’d finished talkin’ to the mer-elves I pulled together what I had a’ courage and went lookin’ for Suora. Suora was pretty terrifyin’—she was a messenger, she’d defeated the necromancer and been in the battle a’ nightmares, which accordin’ to rumour had driven those unlucky enough to witness it mad, and the second time I’d been there she’d invited Death to her campsite and he’d come. Searchin’ for her, however, was safe enough I reasoned, cause if she didn’t want to be found she could probably make it impossible for anyone to find her, ‘specially someone ordinary like me. So it was a bit unnerving when I did find her, sittin’ by her wagon just outside the circle a’ firelight, smokin’ her short-stemmed pipe. She beckoned to me.

On an impulse I sat down beside her, facin’ a little away from her and on her left side. Aris had told me once that when a king was entertainin’ a sorcerer or prophet whose power was so great that they could be considered above even the king, tradition dictated that the king surrender his own throne to the guest and sit on the left side, facin’ a little away. It was a symbol a’ submission before a superior power. It was also the way knights and warriors sat in the presence a’ the king, the idea bein’ that while the warrior may have been able to take the king out with one swing, he wouldn’t do it cause he’d surrendered that power.

She almost smiled. Suora was old enough that she’d been around when the custom was still in practice. She was probably the oldest being to walk the earth with a body, and as a messenger she was a lot older than that.

“Do you come as a king or a warrior?” she asked.

“I’m nothin’ much at the moment,” I replied, sighin’. “It’s been two months and I ain’t heard anything to tell. I’m not complainin’,” I added, hurriedly and untruthfully. “I’m just restless.”

“You are still mourning,” she replied. “For you the grief is still too great. You must be restless a while longer, and learn to control your grief.”

I’d seen what had happened to fighters who acted outta emotion in a street fight. Hell, I’d seen what happened to vamps who let their version a’ emotion, which was bloodlust, take over. It didn’t end well for them. Mostly in ended on the point a’ my silver stick.

“Right,” I said, and it was clear that I agreed with her however much I didn’t want to. “Can yeh give me a quick update, then?”

She sighed.

“We are not keeping things from you, se hela kiram. We have told you nothing because there is nothing to tell. The vampires are hunting, that is all. We are watching Azare, and your professor as much as we can, but the battle of the heart has thrown everyone’s plans into disarray. Perhaps you can tell me something.”

I pulled out a cigarette and lit it.

“Eastwick’s angry,” I said. “I can tell things aren’t going well for him, and I’m guessin’ that it’s cause a’ the battle, but a’ course I can’t be sure. D’yeh know how the black market business is going?”

“Badly,” she said, and smiled.

“That’d be it, then,” I said. “I’ve been down to the southeast slum bars and everyone there is a little on edge. They know somethin’s up, but whatever it is doesn’t concern them, so I guessed it was the black market business again. One other thing,” I added, and paused to think. Suora smoked her pipe in silence and waited. “I don’t think Eastwick’s runnin’ the business. I may be wrong, but I think there’s an edge a’ fear to his temper. And I think he’s been tryin’ to recruit outta our class. I heard about a couple students havin’ private meetings with him that weren’t about grades, or at least, not only about grades.”

Suora drew her breath in.

“We missed that,” she said. “He is well protected at home and at the college, and we can only watch his movements and not always those. Can you counteract it?”

“I can try,” I said doubtfully. “I know he’s got no chance with Er and Mare, and I can get at Ben through Mare, but I ain’t sure about Dev and Kate. I don’t think he’s tried Ara or Pearl or Lisa yet, and I ain’t sure he’s tried Ben, although Ben would be an easy play. He’s going after power, now, if I’m any judge. If he takes a shot at Chris that’ll be tricky cause I’ve never spoken to the guy, and if he goes after the underclassmen or the seniors I don’t think I’ll be able to do anything, but…sure. I can try.” I paused for thought again, breathin’ smoke. “I’ll get in with Er as much as I can. The others tend to look up to him. Even Dev. Even some a’ the seniors.”

Suora nodded.

“And you wish to take Aiden with you tomorrow. How are your parents doing?”

“Gettin’ better all the time,” I said. “I ain’t told them about Eastwick yet, but give it another day or two, a week at the most, and I think I’ll be able to. They don’t like him much more than I do, so that ain’t a problem, but it would be nice if I could tell them somethin’ that would stop them worryin’ about me. Fashers don’t take on sparks,” I added, “and I ain’t told them about se hela kiram either, and even if I did I doubt they’d find it any comfort. I don’t.”

Suora nodded, slowly.

“I have something for you,” she said. She stood up, and went into her wagon, and came out again a moment later with a book. It was a small book, one that I could easily fit into my pocket. She handed it to me.

It was a book of runes. I remembered the first time I’d seen the Gamblers. Lawrence had asked after a fourth soul, and one a’ the Gamblers had scratched a rune into the dirt.

“Learn the language of Death,” she said, handin’ it to me. “Be ready when he chooses to meet you.”

“More homework,” I said and sighed. “I wish Z were here. He would a’ loved this.”

Suora put her hand under my chin and lifted my eyes to hers.

“Never forget the price that was paid to set him free,” she said. “Learn to seek truth without him to guide you.” She paused, and looked like she was tryin’ to remember a word or a phrase she’d heard once. “Make him proud of you.”

It was such a human phrase for a messenger to use that it was almost quaint. I nodded, and put my hand over my eyes for a moment till I stopped cryin’.

“There is one final thing I must tell you,” she said, when I looked up again. “The scarred elf has been across the river. We think he was looking for you.”

“What?” I exclaimed. “Even with Death and all? I thought the elves would be stayin’ the hell away.”

“Korata’s bravery is legendary among the elves, and even we have heard of it,” Suora said solemnly, “but in your actions he has seen a bravery to match his own. You are most likely in no danger from him, so long as you stay out of the elf wood. But watch for him, and be cautious. We do not know what his intentions are.”

I nodded. And to think that when I’d arrived an hour ago I’d been wantin’ somethin’ to happen.

“Now go,” she said abruptly, and added, under her breath, “before Aiden falls into the fire from impatience.”

I went, and spent the next couple a’ hours tryin’ to wear Aid down to the point where he’d let me sleep. I managed to drag him to bed eventually, and got a couple hours sleep.

I woke up at dawn when I felt him crawl outta bed. For a few minutes I lay still, fuzzy with sleep and wonderin’ whether it was worth the effort a’ crawlin’ outta bed to find out where he’d gone and why. Eventually I did, and found him sittin’ by last night’s fire starin’ at the east with a look of concentration on his face. I walked over to him and sat down. Frost covered everything, and it was so cold my fingers were numb after five minutes, but he never moved, except to glance up at me and return to starin’ eastwards.

“Tell me,” I said softly after a moment.

“You and Z used to sit out here sometimes watching the sunrise,” he said. “I thought maybe he’d be here still, at least a little bit.”

I gazed at the sunrise too, and lit myself a cigarette. Aid glanced up at me again and smiled.

“He is here, now,” he said.

“How d’yeh know?” I asked.

“Isn’t he with you still, at least a little bit?”

Aid was a funny little creature, even for a halver werewolf. His notion a’ reality was a little different from most people’s and not strictly wrong either, just confused. He confused the symbol a’ somethin’ for the thing itself. He sometimes called bones and weapons Death or a hug a love and didn’t seem to fully understand why that wasn’t quite right. It was probably because he’d been a were since he was very young. To animals, the symbol and the thing often are the same, cause their minds can’t separate them, can’t form notions like Death separate from the simple fact a’ dyin’.

Sometimes, though, I wished he was right. I wished yeh could hand someone Death or Love the way yeh could hand them a spoon and that would be the end a’ it.

“If yeh come out here rememberin’ how he used to come out here, isn’t he with you a little bit too?” I asked. Aid crawled on my lap, a habit he picked up from bein’ a wolf one night a month, and leaned his head on my shoulder and I could feel a little patch a damp startin’. It didn’t last long. He got warm with my arm around him and fell back asleep, and I threw my cigarette butt away and carried him back into the tent and got a few more hours myself.

Chapter four

I was dragged outta sleep round about noon by a nervous Paka askin’ what time we were expected at my house and whether we’d meet a lot of people along the way. I dragged myself outta bed a second time and told her it was near a two and a half hour walk and I hadn’t given any time when we’d be there but we could leave in an hour and get there about mid-afternoon, and that I’d take them through the warehouses round the edge a’ the Caves and we’d see hardly anybody at all. And not to worry. She didn’t listen to that last part.

I got dressed and fed, and the four a’ us left, Aid friskin’ with excitement, Pak lookin’ nervous and Tor lookin’ a little short-tempered and sarcastic, which was the ginger were’s way a’ lookin’ nervous. Didn’t bother me much. My parent’s’d be just as nervous, and I figured a good sharp dose a’ tension would make everyone pay more attention to what was going on. Besides, as I said, my parents are damnably perceptive. They’d probably recognize the nerves in Tor as easily as I did and it would help put them at ease. After all, it was a very human response.

As luck would have it, we only met one or two people on our way through, and they knew me so they didn’t stare at my companions—or at least, they waited till I couldn’t see them starin’. We passed Mrs. Theran’s house, and she nodded companionably to me from her porch and didn’t even look surprised to see a blue-skinned girl and a kid with ears and a tail walkin’ with me, and I thought, that’s one more on my side. If my parents got short about the kind a’ company I keep by the river I could send them round to Mrs. Theran’s.

I wondered what she’d say if I asked her if she was a seer.

It was close to three o’clock when we got to my house. I could see my parents through the front window, sittin’ together on the couch, pourin’ over an old photo album. They’d taken to doing that a lot, ever since I got home after bein’ gone for a month. I never asked, but I knew what it was about—they missed me. I’d become someone else. I took Pak and Tor and Aid round the back and in through the kitchen. My parents and I had a sorta code—people who came in the front door were people we had to see but didn’t want to, people who came in the back door were people we wanted to see. When I was a kid it was how I’d made it clear to my parents who I wanted to be friends with and who I’d gotten stuck with by accident. I’d considered bringin’ the three in the front door, as a statement to my parents so they’d know how much I didn’t like havin’ to bring bits a’ the GypCirc home, but I didn’t know how they’d take it. They’d know what I meant, a’ course, but it mighta hurt them and we were still on pretty rocky ground.

Soon’s they heard us at the back door they put the photo album away and came into the kitchen, and I started in on the introductions to cover the tense moment when my parents looked from Paka to Aid and tried to come to terms with the fact that one a’ them had ears and the other was blue. They heard the names and responded in an ordinary way, and didn’t even stare very much—I was the only one who noticed their reaction.

“Yeh’re earlier than we expected you to be,” Dad said when the introductions were done. “Yeh must be tired and hungry if yeh walked all the way up from the river.”

“Surely yeh didn’t walk all the way,” Mom said.

“Weren’t likely we’d be let on a bus,” I replied, and immediately regretted it. Dad looked awkward, but Mom, with the quick instinct a’ someone who dealt with other people’s spoiled kids and the short-sighted quick-tempered parents all day said:

“A’ course, stupid a’ me. Yes, yeh must be tired and hungry. We’ll have a late supper and I’ll make you somethin’ to eat now.”

“Let me help you,” Pak said.

“Yeh’ll do nothin’ a’ the kind,” Mom replied kindly. “Not till yeh’ve had a rest. Go, sit, Charles will help me. We’ll see about you helpin’ me later, when there’s real food to be made.”

Chapter five

We went into the front room and sat without sayin’ much. When Mom came in ten minutes later with what she called not real food Pak quailed a little and Victor said somethin’ elfish under his breath. Aid just stared.

“Yeh’re kiddin’,” I said. Mom gave me a dark look.

“The leftovers can help fill out supper,” she said.

“The leftovers could probably be supper,” I replied. “We walked up from the river, Mom, we didn’t scale a mountain.”

“How did you do that in ten minutes?” Paka asked. “Maybe you could teach me.”

“I know one or two tricks,” Mom replied. “There was a time in my life when I cooked for two growing boys who’d show up without warning and be gone half an hour later. Here—don’t feel the need to eat it all just to please me. Charles is always tellin’ me I cook too much.”

Not by accident, though. It was Mom’s way a’ dealin’ with a situation like this. She made enough food that all awkward silences could be covered by eating.

She set the tray down on the table and for about five minutes we made good use a’ the food to cover the fact that we were all tryin’ to think a’ somethin’ to say. Not that we needed a reason to eat—Mom’s an excellent cook, and even if we’d all had pressing things to say we woulda put them on hold to taste her cooking. After a little while, Paka paused, and cleared her throat carefully, and said:

“I want to thank you for this—for your generosity to us. It must be a bit of a shock.”

“It was,” Dad replied, and I thought a’ all the fights we’d had. “Took some gettin’ used to, and I ain’t used to it yet, but I trust Tam.”

“I don’t mind,” Mom said suddenly. “It’s nice to have people over again—to have friends of Tam’s over again, since—” She stopped.

We never talked about Aris being dead, my parents and I didn’t. I mean, we talked about it a little when I told them what I’d been doing for the month I’d been gone, but beyond that, nothin’. We didn’t talk about the hole he left. For all that the GypCirc and the northside vamps had seen in our last month together, it was still my parents who knew him best, besides me, and who knew best what he’d meant to me. So we just didn’t talk. We woulda gotten around to it eventually, I think, ‘cept Aid got there first.

He guessed immediately what my Mom wasn’t sayin’ but didn’t bother with why she weren’t sayin’ it, and instead started talkin’ about Z in his own peculiar, irresistible way. Part a’ the time he talked like he was still alive, and it was only by one or two odd things he said that yeh woulda guessed Z’d been undead when he knew him. He talked about the crazy things we did as we might talk about tryin’ a new type a’ coffee or switchin’ newspapers, and he weren’t shy about cryin’ either. Nor could he stick to the topic, but wandered all over the place and eventually fetched up by sayin’, to my father no less:

“And then Tam left too, and he came back into the city, and I was afraid once he was here you wouldn’t let him leave again, so I was very, very happy when he came back, and only a little bit less surprised than I’d’ve been if Z had come back, too.”

Course growin’ up with the GypCirc he didn’t realize how insultin’ that was, and a’ course my parents picked up on that, but he actually meant it as a compliment and they missed that completely which is hardly surprising. Paka knew it was an insult but she couldn’t know that my parents realized it weren’t meant to be, and Victor knew it was an insult but he didn’t care. Weres tend to be the most bitter a’ the others cause they start out as humans and get the full brunt a’ human cruelty. I could see what everyone was thinkin’ and I couldn’t think a’ somethin’ to say that would ease everyone’s mind.

While I was tryin’ to think a’ somethin’ Dad said, “Yeh should never be surprised to see Tam go where he will. Lily and I haven’t had the directing a’ him since he was about fourteen, and we were hard put to keep any semblance a’ control even that long. Tam was always an independent boy.”

“He was right to stand by Aris,” Mom said, and then her voice broke and she had to stop for a minute. “We both think so,” she continued, when she’d swallowed her tears. “And he was right to stand by you.”

Then she did start cryin’, and Dad took her hand and Aid came round the table and crawled into her lap and hugged her. She put her arms round the boy and held him, and cried quietly. No one else could see it, but I knew she was cryin’ for him too. Once a mother, always a mother, I guess.

I took a deep breath, and said what had to be said.

“It’s Eastwick.”

Maybe, if I died and she could understand how important what I died for was, it wouldn’t break her heart.

“He ain’t runnin’ the black market, I don’t think, but he’s heavily involved. We’re going after him. I’m going after him. And we ain’t gettin’ the police involved. I can’t risk it, not with Sebas and the northsiders so involved.”

“Eastwick,” Dad repeated. “Yeh’re sure?”

I nodded.

“Oh, Tom,” Mom whispered. “Tom, yeh can’t. He’s a spark.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Well. Not by myself I couldn’t, although if I knew and I was alone I’d have to try, wouldn’t I? Knowin’ what he was doing.”

Mom shook her head, but Dad said, “Yes, yeh’d have to try.”

Chapter six

Victor perked up a little when he said it and I could see surprise formin’ in his mind though his face didn’t change at all. My Dad was little more than a lower middle class factory hand, according to society, but he had a moral code yeh could bend iron around and an innate sense a’ good and evil that wavered for nothin’, not even the life a’ his son. Aris had taught me to see good and evil, true good and evil, but before that Dad had taught me to be good at any cost. His prejudices against halvers and vamps and weres didn’t come into it, not really. There were a lot a’ reasons why I was glad he and Mom hadn’t made me choose between them and the darkworld, mostly cause I loved them and didn’t want to lose them, but also cause I couldn’t have a better ally than Dad.

“Eastwick,” he said again. “I’ve been sellin’ silver to him for years. He’s been buyin’ more recently.”

“Akeinan,” Victor hissed. I recognized the elfish insult. “He’s hunting werewolves.”

“Huntin’ weres?” Dad frowned. “What for?”

“Were souls are easier to steal, especially in the moments after a were’s killed, and the wolf part tries to disentangle itself from the immortal human soul,” Victor said. “Damn. We didn’t notice—how did we not notice?”

“How can yeh be sure that’s what he’s doing?” Dad asked. “Surely the government would notice.”

Victor looked at me, and I said, “He’s huntin’ the wanderers.”

The first time a were doesn’t come home he’s reported by friends or family, assumin’ he has any left. The silver slingers will keep an eye out for him, but they ain’t lookin’ for him specifically. They’re lookin’ to make sure he doesn’t start attackin’ other people. After about a month, if there’s no reports of attacks or rise in the number a’ weres, which they keep a pretty close eye on, he’s written off. No missing persons file, no one lookin’ for him—he’s just gone. He might as well be dead. Eastwick could hunt and kill every wolf south a’ the river and no one would notice.

“We can’t let this go on,” I said. “If he’s orderin’ a lot a’ silver he must be huntin’ a lot, and not by himself, either. He must be hirin’ hunters. If we knew who he was hirin’—”

“We could what?” Victor asked. “Appeal to their humanity? Have them arrested?”

“Maybe I can do somethin’,” Dad said.

“Charles,” Mom said softly.

“Eastwick’s dangerous,” I said. “Don’t think I don’t realize how dangerous this is just cause I’m doing it anyway.”

“Don’t think I don’t realize just cause I offered to help,” Dad retorted. “My overseer had a brother who was a were, years ago. He was killed for bein’ a were and for nothin’ else, and I know James is still hurt about it. He’ll help me and be glad to do it, and he’s got no family left either, so I won’t feel bad about askin’. Is it true,” he continued, adressin’ Victor, “that moonstone mixed with silver stops the effect?”

Victor nodded.

“There yeh go, then. It’ll still be a bullet, I can’t do anything about that, but at least it won’t be silver. James and I can mix the moonstone in without anyone else knowin’ what we’re doing, but there’ll be at least twenty other people who coulda done it, so it ain’t as dangerous as it sounds,” he added to Mom.

“Won’t he complain to the company?” Pak asked.

“He’ll have to explain how he knows it’s been diluted,” Dad replied. “The company’ll insist he produce proof, cause diluting silver’s a serious accusation to a factory like ours. Chances are he’ll keep it quiet so no one suspects he’s huntin’ illegally.”

“Would a suspicion like that really matter to someone like him?” Victor asked doubtfully. Dad looked at him, and read in that look twenty years a’ bitterness and pain.

“It ain’t like that all over,” he said quietly. “There’s more people out there like James than you know—people who lost loved ones to illegal huntin’, people who’re still lookin’ for their were even after years, people who still look after them and love them cause it’s still their brother or sister or son or daughter. If it came out that Eastwick was huntin’ the lost weres there’d be a hell of a row, cause all those people would be thinkin’, maybe he killed someone I loved. He’ll try to keep it quiet.”

“He’ll try to find out who’s sabotaging him and stop them,” I said seriously. “He’ll be lookin’ for you.”

“Then yeh’d better get him quick, before he figures it out,” Dad replied. “I said I’d help you if I could and I ain’t going back on that now. Lilly?”

Mom put her arms around Aid a little tighter and nodded.

“We’re in it together, then,” I grinned. “Yeh see anything even a little suspicious, call me.”

“And if he comes here, if he attacks your home,” Paka added, “come straight down to the river, straight through the warehouses. We’ll be watching.”

“Let it not come to that,” Mom said.

“It won’t,” Aid replied confidently. “Tam is se hela kiram. But you should come down anyway. Suora can make the fire burn all different colors, and the stags are very friendly.”

Someday soon, I thought, I’m going to have to have a talk with Aid about when to keep his mouth firmly closed.

“He’s what?” Dad asked.

“You didn’t tell them?” Paka asked.

“Would you?” I replied. “No, don’t answer, it’s a rhetorical question, and yes, I learned that word from Aris. We ain’t elves, Paka, or mermaids—maybe it means somethin’ to Terian, and to Marya, and to you, but not to me—not to us. I’m just human.”

“There’s no just about you,” Pak started to say, but I cut her off.

“We ain’t talkin’ about it.” I looked round the room, and met everyone’s eyes but Aid’s. “Not now. Maybe not ever. It ain’t important,” I added to my parents. “I do what’s gotta be done. That’s all.”

Chapter seven

And that more or less ended the serious conversation for the afternoon. Tor and Pak and Aid stayed through the afternoon and to dinner, and into the night, eatin’ and drinkin’ and helpin’ with the cooking and washin’ dishes and even, as the night wore on and we all got more comfortable, laughin’ a little. Aid settled in so comfortably that by the end a’ the night he’d practically disappeared, ears and tail and all. Pak and Mom got on well, as expected, and, somewhat to my surprise, Tor and Dad got along almost as well. A weird thing happened, where Dad’s prejudice and Tor’s bitterness sorta cancelled each other out and they were left talkin’ about silver slingers and werewolf legislation like it was the weather. It was so odd I mostly didn’t join in, just listened.

There was an awkward moment when the party broke up, when Mom and Dad made the assumption that I was stayin’ the night with them and the other three assumed I was going back down to the river, and I had to say I was going back to the river without sayin’ that it was to make sure no one attacked them on the way, but it was, as I say, only a moment, then my parents realized and said good-night and we left. Walkin’ in the dark was easier and we got back without anything happenin’ and stayed up into the morning, and went to bed with only a few dark hours to spare. I left early on Sunday, early for stayin’ up most a’ the night, I mean, so about two o’clock in the afternoon, and headed back to the library.

Chrian weren’t there but Cor was—he was usually in the library. Fortunately I saw him first and slipped behind a bookshelf before he saw me, and managed to find a hidden corner. I didn’t want him fiddlin’ around all afternoon, checkin’ to see whether I was gone yet, specially since I weren’t studyin’ for class.

I’d been carryin’ the book a’ runes around in my pocket since Suora gave it to me, but I hadn’t had a chance to look at it yet, what with work and school and hatin’ my life. I pulled it out now and laid it out, lookin’ only slightly worse for bein’ crammed into my coat all the time, and started studyin’. It was rough goin’. It weren’t like studyin’ a written language—this was a language that was clearly never meant to be spoken at all, and the meanings of the runes were written in the old high tongue which made it harder. Not the ancient tongue—that I wouldn’t a’ been able to read at all.

There were thousands a’ basic runes, and hundreds a’ thousands a’ variations on them, but the book only covered what it called the founding four hundred and seventy-seven, and a ream a’ variations. A dot could change the meaning of a word, a pen stroke in the right place could make a word a sentence, and a second stroke could negate the sentence or, if reversed, reinforce it. I tried to remember the rune the Gambler had written, and decipher it, but either I couldn’t remember it right or I was missin’ somethin’ in the rules a’ translation cause nothin’ I came up with made any sense. I kept at it, though, till well past dinner time, till I got a sense a’ how it was organized, then headed back to the dorm, still avoiding Cor, called my parents—strictly a courtesy call; I never let them demand that I call them to tell them I was safe—and went up to my room.

Chrian was there, sittin’ upright and cross-legged on his bed, readin’ a letter from home. He folded it up and dropped it on his desk when I came in.

“Don’t let me interrupt,” I said.

“You’re not,” he replied quickly. “I was done.”

I threw my coat over my chair and myself onto my bed.

“What’s up?” I asked. “Somethin’s botherin’ you.”

“How can you tell?” Chrian blurted, startled. I grinned.

“It’s a talent I have,” I replied. “Yeh don’t have to tell me if yeh don’t want to, a’ course.”

Chrian shrugged, hesitant and uncomfortable, and asked if I’d eaten.

“Ain’t hungry,” I replied. “You?”

He shook his head.

“Not hungry either.”

“Must be pretty serious,” I remarked and sat up. “It ain’t somethin’ from home, is it? Your parents ain’t in trouble or anything.”

“No,” Chrian replied. “They’re fine—they’re doing better, actually, now that—”

“Now that yeh’re outta the house and they only have to feed two,” I finished for him. “Yeah, it was like that for my parents too. Course they never said it, and I’ve been pullin’ my own weight in the family much as I could since I was old enough to work, but still, it makes a difference. So, it’s a school thing, then.”

“Eastwick wants to see me,” he said. “After class, tomorrow.”