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.”