Fel (James Galloway)

The Shadow Realm

Chapter 1

It was a fine day to be out.

The day was sunny, cloudless, and delightfully warm. The winds blew stiffly over the expanse of open ocean, which was rolling with small waves that barely rocked the ship as its bow cut through them on a westward course. The sails were full of wind, pushing the ship along at a pace that few ships on the seas could match, the speed and grace of the technologically superior Wikuni clippers. Everyone on board the rather large, elaborately painted and decorated clipper ship was busy with work, as sailors minded the sails and rigging to keep them adjusted for maximum speed, and officers stood on the deck studying the sails with hawkish eyes, issuing commands to the sailors above every time the wind so much as fluttered. The Queen had demanded full sail and best speed to Wikuna, and the proud crew of the Royal ship, a ship that did nothing but carry the monarch, would prove to their queen that they were the best sailors on the twenty seas.

Tarrin looked down at them from the crow's nest, a tiny barrel nailed to the top of the center mast, the highest point on the ship, and marvelled at the skill of the Wikuni sailors to handle a ship with so much rigging. The ship constantly had to slow down to prevent from breaking its formation with the squadron of fully armed military vessels that escorted the Royal clipper, ships that formed a very tight, overlapping defensive ring that kept the Queen's vessel firmly within its center. They had no need for a lookout when they were surrounded by friendly ships, so the crow's nest had been empty and available, and Tarrin couldn't resist climbing up and getting a good look around. He raised his face to the sky, staring up at the cloudless, blue expanse, which was broken in half by the ghostly band of white that ran from the eastern horizon to the western horizon. Those were the Skybands, wearing their ghostly veil during the day, only to cast it away and shine down on the land with its brilliant bands of color during the night, colored light that, when combined with the light of any of the four moons, was enough even for humans to see well enough to move around. It never truly got dark on Sennadar unless the night sky was covered with thick clouds. They looked just as far away as ever, but they were narrower than what he was used to seeing. The Skybands appeared narrower and narrower as one moved towards the equator. He'd never been on the equator before, but Keritanima said that they looked like a knife's edge in the sky. Where his mother was from, the great northern kingdom of Ungardt, the Skybands took up almost half the sky. Then again, that was so far north that the sun sometimes didn't rise during the winter and didn't set during the summer.

It was a beautiful day. He looked down at the the deck, absently scratching at the fur on his arm. Tarrin was not human, though he had been born so. He was a Were-cat now, a magically imbued being with the power to shapechange into the form of a common housecat. The circumstances that caused him to be turned were very complicated, and things seemed even more complicated now. The Were-cat who had bitten him, the fiery female Jesmind, was now the mother of his child, and the people who had sent her after him, the katzh-dashi, were now his allies again. He never dreamed he'd go back to the Tower after what they did to him, but he had. Time had mellowed him, had given him a chance to heal those wounds, though not completely. Tarrin had been Were for nearly two years now, and had come to accept it, even desire it. Where most Were-kin were not so obvious, the Were-cats were. Unable to take the full human form without pain, Were-cats took a natural form that was almost human, but not quite. He still looked human, but he had very inhuman features, such as his tail, or his cat ears, or the fur that covered his arms to just above the elbows and his legs to just above the knees, and the fact that he stood head and shoulders over most humans and Wikuni. His hands weren't quite hands, they were hybrids between human hands and cat's paws, and his feet were elongated and thicker than a human foot, forcing him to stand on his toes, with the balls of his feet rather wide. His feet were much more unusual looking than his paws--or his hands, as a human would think of them--but they gave him great balance and stability. Each paw and foot also held very long, very sharp, and extremely wicked claws, the natural weapons of a Were-cat. Tufts of fur grew on the outsides of his wrists and forearms and around his ankles, what were called fetlocks, a visible sign of an age that had been forced upon him.

They were all a little afraid of him, the Wikuni sailors. He could smell it on them. Tarrin's senses were exceptional, and he could smell fear, track people by scent, and could often smell it when people were lying to him. His sense of smell was the most acute sense he possessed, and like all Were-cats, he depended on it, was guided by it, and it formed the foundation of his perception of the world. Where humans would identify things by their names, or how they looked, Tarrin did so by their scent. He couldn't blame them for being afraid of him, after what had happened lately.

Tarrin had been feeling...annoyed. That was a good word for it. It had started out as depression, as he had just been forced to leave his mate and daughters behind in Suld, but that had eased over the journey. He knew it would, because he talked to them every day using magic. Talking to them every day made them seem not so far away, and had eased his sense of loneliness. He also had his blood sisters, Keritanima and Allia, to provide him with the companionship he needed to take his mind off Jesmind, and his friends Azakar, Dar, Miranda, Camara Tal, and Phandebrass were there to talk to him when he felt unsettled. Whenever he felt troubled, however, he immediately sought out Dolanna. The petite, sober, wise Sorceress had never failed to calm him, and her gentle wisdom comforted him many times in the past, as it would do so many times in the future. Tarrin held Dolanna in the highest respect, so much so that he deferred to her authority, something he did not do for anyone else on the ship, not even Keritanima. In his mind, Dolanna was the dominant, was the stronger of them. It wasn't true in a physical sense, nor was it true in a magical sense. Tarrin could break Dolanna over his knee. But she had been the one to help guide him through the traumatizing time after he'd been bitten and turned, and that caused him to see her as a mother figure, a person whose interaction with him caused him to perceive her as dominant over him.

Tarrin's very simple outlook on life boiled down to that one concept...dominance. In his mind, he was the dominant, for he was larger, stronger, and faster than almost everyone else. In his mind, that was all that was necessary for others to obey him. And when they didn't, he perceived it as a direct challenge, one that could not go unanswered. The only being on the ship that Tarrin even came close to viewing as a respectable rival was Szath, Keritanima's massive Vendari bodyguard, but Tarrin didn't bother fighting him to establish the pecking order between them. Szath was Keritanima's servant, and deferred to her in all things. Since Szath submitted to someone who was submissive to him, Tarrin saw himself as dominant over the Vendari. He was glad he woudln't have to fight him over that, though. Tarrin didn't back down from any challenge, but Szath was big...big, and fast. A fight between them would be evenly matched, with the outcome uncertain.

The only real hole in his ordered little concept of the ship was Kimmie. The female Were-cat, who had come along to tutor under Phandebrass, was causing Tarrin certain discomfort. It wasn't her fault, that was true enough, but it was getting to be very inconvenient. Kimmie was a female, and she also rather liked him. That much was a given, for she'd said as much. She'd also admitted that she'd like to take him for mate, but wouldn't do so as long as he was mates with Jesmind. She had even promised Jesmind that she wouldn't touch him during the journey. If she made it so clear, why was she--

He snorted. Females. Kimmie must have forgotten her promise, because she had it all over her scent. She was bandy. Tarrin was part cat, and that gave him the instincts of his animal brother as well as the senses. When cats were interested in each other, it showed up in their scents. Kimmie's scent was absolutely radiating her availability. That wasn't unusual in Were-cat females, and Kimmie had no control over it. She couldn't smell it on herself, so she may not even be aware that she was doing it. But she was, and it was getting to him. Tarrin loved Jesmind, she was his mate, and the idea of dallying with Kimmie seemed...wrong. Oh, there was interest there--real interest--and that made it worse. Tarrin did find Kimmie to be attractive, and she knew it. Tarrin may love Jesmind, but he had the instincts of an animal within him, and no healthy male animal was going to ignore a willing female.

That formed a fundamental aspect of Were-cat society. There were seven females for every male, and the Were-cat nature, being so powerfully grounded in the instincts of the cat, made it impossible for mates to form lasting bonds. Females took males for mate for a while, until their need to be alone overwhelmed their desire for companionship, and the mates parted. It always happened, and Tarrin knew that it would happen to him and Jesmind despite how much they loved each other. Not even love could overwhelm the instincts, and cats were independent creatures. Females had to share the few males around, and competition for males was fierce, even for males who were already mates with a female. Mate stealing was an honorable and practiced custom, a custom of attempting to seduce a male away from another female. It created alot of friction in Were-cat society, but Were-cats thrived in the competitive atmosphere, ensuring that the crafty female, or the strong one, would hold onto her mate and succeed in reproducing. A female worked to find a male, then catch him, then she worked hard to keep the other females away from him. Males were rather appreciative of the custom, for males rarely went without companionship for very long. They were careful to show interest in all females and not show favoritism; even if a female hated a male, she may take him for mate if she was desperate, and that would make the mating a very nervous one. A few males did have favorites, however. All females knew that Thean was owned by Triana, and that Thean adored her. He would be mates with other females, but if Triana showed up to claim him, he would leave them.

He had come up into the crow's nest to avoid Kimmie for a while, to clear his head and think. It wasn't Kimmie's fault, but she wouldn't leave him alone. She would almost seem to go out of her way to track him down and talk to him, or ask him about things, and that closeness made him more than aware that her scent was trying to bait him into making advances. Female Were-cats were usually very direct about getting mates, but Kimmie wasn't being direct like she should be. Was she trying to suppress her interest, or simply trying to get Tarrin to touch her, thereby keeping the promise she made to Jesmind? He wished he knew. If Kimmie came flat out and asked, he'd know...and he didn't know how he'd answer.

It was the combination of Kimmie's distracting him and his separation from his family that had been making him short tempered. Tarrin was feral, meaning that he had an automatic suspicion of and distrust for people he didn't know. That had softened greatly when he was with his mate and daughter, but now that he was away from them, outside of the comfortable confines of the Tower and back out in the cold, harsh world, it had begun to creep back into his personality. Wikuni sailors that had seemed friendly on the first couple of days began to look more and more threatening, as the old feral sense of paranoia had begun to reestablish itself in his mind. There had been a time when Tarrin couldn't control that fear, control that sense of danger from anyone he didn't know, and it caused him to shut himself away from strangers. Now, however, he understood his feral nature, and had learned to overcome the fear to the point to where he could tolerate the presence of strangers around him. He wouldn't turn his back on them, and he wasn't very cordial or friendly when he talked to them, but he refused to allow their presence to interfere with his daily life the way it used to. With him being lonely for his family, annoyed over Kimmie, and wary around strangers, it created a situation nearly as explosive as gunpowder. On two separate occasions so far, Tarrin had struck at unknown sailors that had gotten too close to him. The blows hadn't been to kill--Tarrin could kill with a single swipe of his paw if he so wished it--more like warnings to stay away from him. Keritanima and Dolanna had to go around to all the sailors and explain that this Were-cat was not was friendly and personable as the female, and to stay out of his way, and also to automatically obey any command he gave them, no matter what it was or how crazy it seemed. They made it clear to the sailors that their lives depended on that obedience.

Tarrin's behavior had been very disappointing for his sisters. They had seen him be so calm in the Tower, so mellow, almost like the way he'd been before they fled from it the first time, but they simply did not understand. Once a Were-cat was feral, they would never be anything other than feral. The degree of the feral nature could change, as could its symptoms depending on the surroundings, but it never went away. Tarrin knew he would live the rest of his life in fear of strangers, unable to trust anyone he did not know, not in the slightest manner. Now that he was out of the comforting surroundings of the Tower, away from the calming influence of his mate and daughters, the old mannerisms were returning, and returning quickly.

He looked down to the deck and saw Phandebrass and Kimmie near the bow. Phandebrass was a human Wizard, thin, tall, and his age was somewhat indeterminate. He had hair that was partially white and partially dark, which had to be the result of some kind of magical spell, for it had been white before that, with a narrow face that seemed young but held eyes that looked ancient. He wore a simple gray robe with mystical symbols embroidered into it and a ridiculous conical hat. He was an addled man, given to rambling on when he talked and speaking of things that nobody else could understand, but Tarrin respected him. He was flaky and erratic, a bit annoying at times, but he was a very good Wizard, and he was exceptionally intelligent despite his rather befuddled demeanor. Tarrin would trust his life in Phandebrass if it came down to it. Phandebrass' little pets, two red-scaled drakes, sat on a rope coil beside their master, watching him. Chopstick and Turnkey had become the ship's mascots. They were curious little creatures, fearless and bold, and were rather friendly and affectionate. Tarrin had not liked them when he first met them, but he had grown quite fond of them, to the point where they commonly slept with him at night, all curled up in a bundle of scales and fur on a bed that was so small he was forced to sleep upon it in his cat form. Phandebrass was explaining something to Kimmie, waving his arms in an animated fashion as the female Were-cat nodded with an intent look on her face. Kimime had come to learn magic from Phandebrass, and he had begun her education.

He shifted his gaze, to where Keritanima, Miranda, and Szath were near the sterncastle. Keritanima was a Wikuni, the queen of Wikuna, a bipedal being that resembled a mixture between a human and a fox. She had a human body, but had a fox-like head, complete with a muzzle. She had reddish fur with white on her front, black tufts of fur on her ears and the tip of her tail, and amber eyes that gave people the creeps when she stared at them. Tarrin thought that she was rather cute, for her fox features were flavored with human appearance, making her look more like a human woman with fox features rather than a fox walking on two legs. All Wikuni were like that, resembling animals, but not all of them were foxes. Most of the sailors on the ship were varieties of cats, dogs, and other carnivorous mammals, like badgers or wolves. There were some bird Wikuni and some reptillian Wikuni as well, but they weren't as common as the mammal Wikuni. Keritanima was sitting on a cushioned chair, reading from a book in her lap, as Miranda sat beside her in a similar chair and kept her eyes on her knitting as she conversed with her employer and friend. Keritanima was very smart, easily the smartest of them all, but she didn't advertise that. Keritanima--or Kerri, as he called her--was a woman of deep mysteries, a result of a lifetime of hiding her true self from those around her. She was born a princess, but had no desire to take the throne, given the rather bloody and deadly environment of Wikuni politics. She had thrown all her energies into escaping from her gilded prison and running away, and that caused her to submerge herself in other personalities. Keritanima was the best actress he'd ever seen, able to fool anyone and everyone into believing that she was the person she pretended to be. She had used her vast knowledge of political chicanery to succeed in escaping from her father, only to have him capture her and drag her back to Wikuna. Tarrin still wasn't sure what happened there, but he did know that Keritanima had somehow managed to get her father abdicated from the throne and take it herself. She didn't want it, but she had done it anyway, probably for no reason other than to get rid of her father. Her Royal Majesty's resources had been incredibly useful during the battle for Suld. Since she commanded the armies of one of the prominent nations on Sennadar, she was able to supply troops, materials, and even the deadly muskets and cannons that only the Wikuni knew how to make, to the defense of Suld. When she wasn't acting like a queen, Keritanima was an engaging young woman, funny and endearing, with a good sense of humor and a vibrant nature that made people like her.

Miranda was a mink Wikuni, almost criminally cute and innocent looking, yet Tarrin knew that the Miranda hiding under that deceptive facade was as worldly and seedy as a veteran sailor. Everything about Miranda was feminine, from her voluptuous frame to her long blond hair and silky white fur, to her wide, cheeky face with a cute little button nose on the end of a short muzzle and round ears poking out of her blond hair. Miranda was Keritana's maid, a member of her council of advisors, and also was the head of her intelligence service. Miranda had served Keritanima faithfully and well for a very long time, since the time when she was a princess trying to stay alive long enough to run away so she wouldn't have to take the throne, and they were very close. Tarrin liked Miranda very much, for she was smart, quiet, observant, and often saw to the core of the matter. She had been trained by Keritanima, so she had some of Kerri's quirks, but she was much bawdier than her more uptight employer. Miranda was attractive, sexy, and desirable, and she knew it. She used them as weapons to get what she wanted from men, and that made her an incredibly effective spy. Few men could think rationally when Miranda gave them her cheeky grin and fluttered her eyelashes at them, even human men. Miranda's beauty and desirability crossed racial lines. Tarrin knew alot more about Miranda than she did herself, like the fact that she was an Avatar, a mortal who had within her the power of the god who had touched her. Tarrin had discovered that Miranda had literally been created to be Keritanima's companion, a woman with a mind to keep up with the vastly intelligent Wikuni princess, and a stalwart companion to be with her through all the hard times. One of the Wikuni gods had put her hand on Miranda before she was born, made her what she was, even though Miranda herself had no idea that she was blessed in that manner. Miranda supernatural nature had been what had attracted him to her at first, for the god who had touched her was a god of the sky and the moons, and Tarrin, like all Were-kin, had an unusual affinity for the moons that probably explained all the wild stories about how Were-kin always changed into monsters when the largest moon, Domammon, was full. Miranda sang to him the same way that the moons sang to him, and it had a very calming effect on him and caused him to be very attracted to her.

They were good friends, but they all knew that they took a second seat to Allia. She was sitting with Dolanna and Dar near the bow, not far from Phandebrass and Kimmie, the petite katzh-dashi instructing them in some magic. Allia was Selani, a race of warriors that lived in the eastern desert, and she was, simply put, the most breathtakingly beautiful woman alive. No one could look at Allia and not be moved by her appearance. She had creamy brown skin and ethereal features, sharp and alluring, with large eyes that were the color of the sea. Her hair was a silver-white color, caused by the bleaching of the sun over generations, which often covered up the tips of her pointed ears. Allia looked human from a distance, but when one got close to her, they saw that she obviously was not. She was unnaturally tall for a woman--at least to a human--as tall as a human man, and had much sharper and more defined features than a human. That sharpness of appearance was that made her so lovely, a bone structure that no human woman could possess that accented everything about her that was pleasing to the eye and made her so attractive. The pointed ears were one of the big giveaways that she wasn't just a thin Mahuut, a race of brown-skinned humans, as did the fact that she only had four fingers on her hands instead of five. This day she was wearing a loose, baggy shirt that concealed her very tight, busty torso, silky skin wrapping steel-toned muscle, yet possessed of enough bosom to make most women envious of her. She wore a pair of tight leather breeches that accented her long, shapely legs and alluring hips, pants that made every male eye move with her as she passed. She was beautiful, but Allia was a warrior, a proud warrior from a race of warriors, her entire life bound up in her honor. Few outside the Selani understood the Selani, so they all did not understand Allia. Most found her cold and arrogant, maybe even a little conceited, but they didn't understand Selani ways. Allia was a warrior, and a good one, and she was also a woman who held tremendous honor among her people. Allia was actually a very modest and self-effacing woman, but she was proud of who she was and what she had attained, and it showed in her manner and her speech. Allia didn't talk very much, but when she did, everyone around her listened to her. Allia was a wise woman, kind and loving, and she was Tarrin's best friend. The love he held for Allia was so intense that it defied rational explanations, but it was a platonic love. She would always be his closest, most intimate friend, willing to tell her things he wouldn't tell another living soul, not even his mate, Jesmind, because he knew they would go no further. Allia's love for him was just as strong, and it formed the basis of a bond of friendship that could never be broken. No matter what either of them did, or how far they fell from grace, they would always love one another and respect one another.

He wondered what Dolanna was teaching them. Dolanna was a human woman, very short and petite, yet with a figure proportionate with her size that made her attractive. She was a handsome woman, not beautiful or cute like Allia or Miranda, with pleasing features and dark, expressive eyes and a thick mane of long, dark hair. Dolanna was the undisputed leader of their group, the one all of them respected and trusted, for she was very wise, very learned, and had travelled for so long that she knew someone almost everywhere and was never caught off guard by the dangers of the road. Dolanna was a calm woman, able to take what was thrown at her without getting too ruffled, and always with an idea for how to get out of a bad situation. Tarrin adored Dolanna, respected her as much as his parents or bond-mother, and looked up to her. She was the only one on the ship outside of Keritanima or Allia who could berate him or chide him for doing wrong and expect to live through it. There was an aire of calm that always surrounded the woman, who was from the southern kingdom of Sharadar on the distant continent of Arathorn, a sense of assuredness that calmed everyone around her. She was a careful, thorough woman with an eye for detail and an answer for every question . He enjoyed her company, for she never failed to make him feel safe.

He smiled as Dar touched the Weave, and wove an Illusion of a Troll for some reason. Dar was a very young man, an Arkisian, with swarthy, dark skin and features that promised that he would be a handsome man when he was fully grown. He wore this day a simple white linen shirt, his brown doublet laying on the deck before him, and a pair of black trousers, with leather shoes. He was about sixteen now, just starting to shave, but despite his young years he was a very accomplished Sorcerer. He had been Tarrin's roommate when he was at the Tower to learn,and had become a good friend. Dar was a dreamer and an artist, with an almost amazing affinity for weaving Illusions. But he was also a smart, worldly young man who was the son of very successful merchants, and because of that, had a very broad education that dipped into many different aspects of history, society, culture, and politics. He was intimidated by the august personas around him, and rarely spoke, but when he was alone with Tarrin or Kerri or Allia, he was much more open and affable. Tarrin liked Dar very much, for he was an honest young man with a very mellow nature.

There was a sudden shout, and Tarrin looked almost straight down, to where Azakar and Camara Tal were sparring. The Amazon had returned to wearing her halter and tripa skirt, and the ensemble showed much more skin than they concealed. Camara Tal was a very tall woman, with copper-colored skin and hair as black as pitch, tall and buxom and sleekly muscular. She was a very handsome woman, with a sharp-cheeked face, large, dark eyes under elegantly sloped eyebrows, and a sharp chin and narrow nose and a pair of pouting lips that drove men crazy. She also had a scar on her cheek, the only mar on her coppery skin, a scar that she had told him once was something that her goddess wouldn't allow her to remove. A reminder of some past event or transgression, though Camara Tal had never told him the specifics. She was a Priestess of the goddess of the Amazons, but had been a warrior before the calling of the religious order. She prided herself on her ability to fight, and was checking to see how improved Azakar had become under his tutelage with the Vendari. Camara Tal reminded him alot of his own mother, Elke, a gruff, direct, no-nonsense kind of woman who didn't play around, yet held great capacity for love and friendship within her. Once one got past her rather unfriendly front, they found a warm, caring woman beneath, and a stalwart friend. Tarrin had been learning the spells of the Priests from her during the mornings, chants in some arcane language that nobody spoke anymore, a language that was used universally among all Priests, no matter what god they served. They used the same spells as well, the Goddess had told him, part of a rule that the Elder Gods had made concerning the gods granting their power to mortals. Tarrin found them difficult to learn, for the language they used made very little sense to him. It was more a memorization of obscure words and sounds than any kind of language he had heard. Tarrin had a strong affinity for languages, being able to speak six languages fluently, so it bothered him a great deal that he couldn't decipher this odd languages that all Priests used to chant their spells, yet none of them seemed able to speak outside of spellcasting.

She was really pressing Azakar. Azakar was an oddity, a human that was so unbelievably tall that he was even taller than Tarrin. He had to be ten spans tall--a Wikuni would call him eight feet tall...strange term, that--an absolute monster of a human that was as strong as three men yet moved with the speed and agility of a panther. Even decked out in his plate armor, so heavy that an average man couldn't even lift it, let alone wear it, he still moved with speed and precision, though there was a great deal of clanking and squeaking involved when he did move. Azakar had been caught up with Keritanima when she had been separated from the others, and had taken lessons in fighting from the Vendari bodyguards that usually protected the queen, but could not come to Suld with her this time. Tarrin had seen him fight during the short war in Suld, and he had to admit that he had come a very long way. Binter and Sisska had taught him new techniques, but they had also taught him what was most important for a warrior, patience. Azakar, or Zak to his friends, had learned how to not lose his head in a fight, to be controlled and calm and force the opponent to make mistakes that would allow him to defeat him. He watched as Camara Tal and Azakar daned around each other for long moments, then the Amazon lowered her sword meaningfully, a signal to stop. The human sheathed his weapon and took off his large visored helmet, baring a rather handsome face with a strong jaw and a slightly wide nose and full lips. Azakar was a Mahuut, a race of humans from the southern continent of Valkar, with dark brown skin and coal black hair that had curly waves in it, and slightly smallish dark eyes, eyes that seemed hooded and defensive most of the time. Azakar kept his hair very short on top and on the sides, but had rolling black waves of hair cascading down onto his shoulders in the back. Azakar had been a slave at one time, and though he couldn't see them, Tarrin knew that his back and the backs of his arms were covered in a multitude of criss-crossing scars, scars gained at the business end of a whip. Those scars defined much of Azakar's personality, for he was a haunted, defensive man, nervous around strangers and very quiet. He never tried to bring attention to himself, which was very hard considering his great size. But he opened up when around friends, showing that he was a considerate, friendly man who had come through his slavery surprisingly well, not allowing it to change him too much on the inside, though it had hardened him on the outside. If he'd been a Were-cat, Tarrin would have considered him to be feral. He certainly had the traits.

A strange group, very diverse, but that diversity had proved to be an advantage so far. What one could not do, another could. They had Dolanna and Phandebrass' education, Keritanima and Miranda's intelligence and cunning, Camara Tal's, Allia's, and Azakar's martial skill and bravery, Keritanima's resources and contacts, and Tarrin had many unique attributes that made him useful. Firstly, he was a Were-cat, and his nature granted him several magical and quasi-magical abilities that made him exceptionally hard to kill. Were-kin could only be truly harmed by silver, magic, and weapons of nature, such as fire or acid or being struck by unworked, natural objects, or falling from a height. Wounds inflicted by a non-magical sword healed over as soon as the weapon was withdrawn, which only managed to anger the Were-cat struck by it. His Were nature gave him inhuman strength, a strength proportionate to a cat of the same size. Cats were deceptively powerful creatures, and it gave him the strength of six men, a raw power few humans could challenge. He also had the senses of a cat, and had the power to shapeshift into cat form. The gifts of his Were nature were primarily defensive, keeping him alive and allowing him to detect foes, but his magical powers were most definitely an offensive weapon. Tarrin was a Sorcerer, a very rare kind of Sorcerer called a sui'kun. He was a Weavespinner, a Sorcerer that could weave spells that normal Sorcerers could not even dream to be able to do alone. Tarrin's power was staggering, eclipsing every magician of any order around him, a huge power that few could withstand when he used it in anger. If that weren't bad enough, his Were nature had stopped his aging, rendering him all but immortal. That distinction was important, because it allowed him to transcend a law set forth by the Elder Gods that no mortal would be able to use more than one form of magic. Tarrin was a Sorcerer, but he was also a Druid, a being with mystical ties to the energy generated by living things, an energy called the All. He could use that energy to create Druidic magic, which was very versatile and clever, capable of some things Sorcery either could not accomplish, or he had yet to figure out a spell to accomplish it. He had learned very recently that he could also use Priest magic, which was the reason he'd been taking lessons in Priest spells from Camara Tal, but it was still new and rather uncomfortable. The Goddess had already told him that she would grant no Priest spell to him that had a corresponding spell in Sorcery. Since Sorcery was very versatile in its own right, that covered virtually all Priest spells he had learned so far.

Tarrin was an almost undefeatable, unkillable opponent, and that was the only reason he was still alive. He and his friends were on a very important mission, a quest to find an ancient artifact that was called the Firestaff. It was an object that could turn a mortal into a god, if he held it on a certain day and at a certain time, the brief time in which it activated every five thousand years. Half the world knew of the Firestaff, and almost all of them were either searching for it or had sent agents to retrieve it for them, so Tarrin and his friends had encountered stiff competition, competition that had often turned violent. From the very beginning, one group in particular, called the ki'zadun, had known of Tarrin, and had continually tried to kill him almost from the very day he left his home village of Aldreth, before he knew anything about the Firestaff. They knew he was the destined Mi'Shara, a term for the one who had the best chance of finding and winning the Firestaff, and they knew he was in the hands of their enemies, the katzh-dashi. So they tried to kill him to deprive the order of Sorcerers from gaining his aid in the search. It did not in any way mean that he was the only one who could get it, but the ancient books that spoke of it said that of all beings, he had the best chance of succeeding. Even he could fail, and if he did, it would fall to some other who had a lesser chance than him, but may have better luck.

It was why they were on the sea. The Firestaff had revealed itself to the world during the battle at Suld, a battle between the ki'zadun and half of the kingdoms and races in the West, a battle to prevent the ki'zadun from finding and destroying the icon of the Goddess of magic, the Goddess who maintained the Weave. It was an attack aimed at destroying Sorcery and killing almost all Sorcerers in one fell swoop by destroying the physical manifestation of the Goddess, which was also her link to the physical world. Without the icon, the Goddess could not give magic to the world, and it would cause the Weave to tear. That would kill any Sorcerer with even a modicum of ability, and would conveniently destroy the one order of magic that posed the greatest threat to their own bid to find the Firestaff. It had been a very involved plan, a very clever plan, and a very thorough plan. And it had come so close to succeeding that it still made the fur on Tarrin's tail ruffle with goosebumps. Had it not been for the warning he had received from Jegojah, once a Doomwalker under the control of the ki'zadun, they would not have known about it, and they would have won at Suld.

The Firestaff had revealed itself, and now virtually any Wizard, Priest, Sorcerer, and Druid knew in a general sense what direction in which the Firestaff lay in relation to where they had beeen standing that instant that the Firestaff had activated. Tarrin had no doubt that many of them were now on ships, sailing towards the direction of the Firestaff, hoping to get lucky and find it before anyone else. It was a race on the open sea, but Tarrin and his friends had a fundamental advantage in this race, for they had discovered very specific directions to follow that would take them to where it was hidden. The directions also held warnings, warnings that no ship with sails could reach the Firestaff, so they were sailing to Wikuna to take a very experimental ship that was propelled by a paddlewheel that was turned by a contraption called a steam engine. It could move over the ocean without sails, and would suit their needs.

That advantage made him optomistic about all this. They may find where the Firestaff is, but they wouldn't be able to physically reach it. But Tarrin's group could, meaning that the only hairy part would be getting the Firestaff back out. They'd have to run a gauntlet of enemies to get away with the prize.

He was hungry. Kimmie looked intent on her magical lessons, and it was about time for Keritanima's lessons as well. Kerri had crossed over during the battle at Suld, had become a Weavespinner herself, and that meant that there had been some pretty significant changes in her magic. Sorcery was much a function of the body as it was a magical power, and the crossing over changed the body. It rendered the Sorcerer invulnerable to any kind of heat or fire. Keritanima could stroll through a volcano and swim in the lava now, and the worst it would do is burn the dress off her body. But that physical change affected her magical powers, and she had temporarily lost them until she adjusted to the changes her body had undergone. Despite not being able to use magic, Tarrin had begun teaching her the basics of Weavespinner magic, fully confident that she'd be able to use it when she did regain her powers.

In return for the lessons in magic, Keritanima had been teaching him the Wikuni language. Tarrin had used that as an excuse to experiment a bit with Priest magic, using a spell that caused him to remember with perfect clarity everything that was said during the spell's duration. It was how Dolanna learned Sha'Kar in a matter of a couple of rides. Now Tarrin was using it to learn Wikuni at an accellerated rate, and so far, it had been working. In six short days, he had gone from totally ignorant to being able to form sentences in Wikuni and understanding some of the more obscure grammar rules. He'd been working on his vocabulary the last few days, doubling or tripling the number of words he knew every day. At the rate he was going while using the magic to assist him, he'd be competent enough to understand almost everything everyone said when they got to Wikuna. The Priest spell augmented natural ability, and Tarrin's natural affinity for language made the spell that much more effective when he used it.

It seemed like cheating, though. He had learned Sulasian and Ungardt as a baby, from his parents. One was Sulasian, the other Ungardt. He learned Arakite from Karn Rocksplitter, the village smith in Aldreth, who taught it to him during long hours over the forge when Tarrin had briefly worked there to help Karn after his apprentice broke both his arms in a very bad accident. He learned Selani from Allia while they were at the Tower together, the Selani woman wanting to be able to speak to him in her native tongue, a language in which she could express herself more easily. He learned the dead language of Sha'Kar from scrolls that he, Keritanima, and Allia had stolen from forgotten vaults in the Cathedral of Karas in Suld. And he'd learned Sharadi from a Selani named Denai while crossing the Desert of Swirling Sands. Now he was learning Wikuni, but he was doing it in a matter of days, and that seemed...cheap. Things gained easily weren't valued as much, his mother would say. He was learning Wikuni with almost no effort, and he wondered if the language would hold in his mind long after the magic that helped place it there faded away. Cheating or not, he enjoyed it. Tarrin loved languages, loved to learn them, loved to speak them. It was a special gift, something that had nothing to do with Sorcery or being a Were-cat or anything, something he enjoyed. Where some knitted or collected ancient coins or carved or painted, Tarrin learned languages.

He felt better. Kimmie's scent had been flushed out of his nose, including the inviting smell of her availability, replaced by the clean smell of the salty ocean and the smell of the wood and rope and paint that surrounded him, as well as a few lingering scents of some those who had recently occupied the crow's nest before him. He felt ready to go back down there and endure it for a while, while he taught Keritanima about Weavespinner ways and she taught him the Wikuni language. He enjoyed the lessons, both teaching and learning, just enjoyed spending time with Keritanima. She had been separated from him when they had left Suld to seek out the Book of Ages, an ancient tome of knowledge that held information vital to their mission, had been taken back to Wikuna to face her father for running away. Tarrin had missed her desperately during the time she was gone, and it got worse when he himself had been separated from the others after getting the Book of Ages, forced to get back to Suld on foot while the rest of them went back by ship. That had been a journey of nearly two thousand leagues, and it had taken him nearly a year. A year with no one but Sarraya for company at first, and then later the companionship of Var and Denai, two Selani he'd met while crossing the Desert of Swirling Sands.

Var and Denai. He had to chuckle at the thought of them. They'd been coming to Suld with the other Selani to help, but he hadn't seen them there. He'd honestly forgotten about them in all the chaos, but when he did realize that he hadn't seen them, he asked his bond-mother Triana to find out what happened to them. Triana had circulated the word through the Druids, and one of them had finally responded two days ago. She had contacted him the day after and told him that his suspicions were correct. Denai was pregnant, and according to Selani custom, the expecting mother and the father of the child could not fight, to protect the interests of the child. They had gotten but two days from Suld when they were forced by their clan chief to leave the West, to return to the desert before Denai got too big to travel. They had been forced to turn around almost within sight of their destination.

Fate was sometimes cruel that way.

But he was happy to hear it. Var and Denai were young, and very much in love. The child would be loved, nurtured, and would grow up happy. That was the best thing that could happen for a child.

Climbing up onto the edge of the crow's nest, Tarrin vaulted out into open air and snagged a rope. He dropped down onto a mast spar, startling the two Wikuni who were trying to secure it with ropes, then almost immediately stepped off of it and dropped twenty spans to another rope, using it to break his fall. Tarrin had the agility and dexterity of a cat, and had an absolute fearlessness concerning heights. He used the rigging and the masts and spars and jibs to execute a controlled descent to the deck, moving with a speed and grace that made all the sailors stop what they were doing and watch the Were-cat seemingly fall through the rigging and land easily on the deck so far below. He landed right beside the mizzenmast, not far from the sterncastle, and within spans of Keritanima's chair.

"It's about time," Keritanima said without looking up from her book. Szath turned to stare at him, with his boxy, scaly green snout and black, soulless eyes, and shifted to get out of Tarrin's way as he approached. Tarrin didn't really like Szath, for he was a bit stiff and not too smart. He hoped that Binter and Sisska would rejoin them when they got to Wikuna. He liked those two. "I thought you were going to forget about me."

"How could I do something like that?" he asked simply, looking around. He spotted a barrel tied against the sterncastle, an empty one that had once held water. He untied it and dragged it over to face the two Wikuni females, then seated himself atop it easily. "Where did you want to start, Kerri? My lessons, or yours?"

"I'll go first today," she said with a toothy grin, showing off that muzzle full of sharp teeth, closing her book and setting it on the deck beside her. "I've come to discover that the person going last gives a longer lesson. I'd rather spend more time learning than teaching." Kerri didn't actually give that lesson by herself. Miranda helped out quite a bit, since she spoke Wikuni as well. She didn't look up from her knitting, pausing to brush her thick blond hair from her face, pushing it back up into the little poof that hung over her face, yet didn't droop down to touch it. She parted her hair to the side, tucking the long bangs up over the round, furry ear that poked up through her hair, giving her that poof of hair in front.

Tarrin cast the Priest spell that enhanced his ability to learn, and then they began. Keritanima concentrated on vocabulary, expanding the number of words that Tarrin understood. Tarrin could speak Wikuni as it was, albeit slowly and not without a little prior preparation, so she was working on the more uncommon words that still managed to find their way into everyday speech. The way things were going, Tarrin was going to be fluent by the time they reached Wikuna, which would be in about twelve days, by Keritanima's estimation.

After his lesson was over, he became the teacher. This day, he concentrated on the Weavespinner's ability to join his consciousness with the Weave and leave his mortal body. It was something that all Weavespinners could do, and it allowed one to perform some pretty clever tricks, such as weaving spells from great distances, or looking out into the physical world from the strands of the Weave. Tarrin took great pains to explain the metamagical geography and the rules of the Weave, for they were completely unlike anything Keritanima had ever experienced before. The Weave was its own world, its own domain, and it had its own set of laws. The most obvious one, and the one that caused Tarrin so much trouble, was that the geography of the Weave did not correspond to the geography of the real world. A Sorcerer may have to travel vast distances through the Weave to look on the other side of a door, for instance, and that was why using the Weave in that manner was better used for looking across a continent rather than across a city. Joining the Weave took energy, and a Sorcerer could tire himself out much more by spying through the Weave than he would by simply going and looking for himself.

"You haven't taught me how to do this yet," Keritanima complained. "You keep talking about what I can and can't do when I do it, but when are you going to teach me how to do it?"

"You already know how to do it," he replied calmly. "You've done it once before, when you crossed over. When you regain your powers, you'll find yourself joining the Weave even when you don't mean to, and the Weave will respond to you even when you don't think it can."

"What do you mean?"

"When you crossed over, you became bound to the Weave," he explained. "It's much closer to you now. It's why Weavespinner magic doesn't require drawing power. The Weave responds to your desire, not the force you exert against it. The Weave will react to you whenever you're highly emotional, because it senses your feelings. Sometimes it doesn't do anything you notice, but sometimes it does. When I get like that, sometimes I hear echoes in the Weave, memories of past events still reverberating along the strands. More than once, the knowledge of what I need, what got me so worked up in the first place, came to me through echoes when I needed it. But don't think that's going to happen all the time," he cautioned immediately.

"Can I find these echoes?"

"You can look for them, but more often than not, they find you," he replied. "And when you do find them, what you get is broken and incomplete. The Weave has all the knowledge any of us ever knew trapped in it, but it's not coherent. More often than not, what you hear leaves behind more questions than answers."

"You just had to go and ruin a good idea," she muttered with a snort.

"That's just one of the things you can find when you're inside the Weave," he told her. "There are also currents of magical power that flow through the strands. Some of them are strong, and a few times I almost got pulled away by them. Every once in a while, you'll find yourself in a nexus, a point where some magical device draws energy from the Weave to power itself. Those try to drag you into them, so avoid them."

"What would happen if you did get pulled in?"

"I have no idea. Odds are, your consciousness would become part of the magical item you'd just been pulled into. You'd be a living magic item."

Keritanima shuddered. "I think I'd like to keep the body I have right now, thank you," she said.

"That's about it as far as danger is concerned. The Weave is actually a pretty safe place. It's easy to get lost, but you can always return to your body any time you want just by willing it. It's also easy to find the Heart. All you do is sense which way the magic flows, and follow it. All magic flows back to the Heart."

"I, I remember that place," the Wikuni said with reverence. "I could feel the Goddess there, like really there. And there were glowing threads in the blackness, as well as thousands of glittering stars. Those stars seemed so close I could touch them."

"You could," he replied. "The stars represent every Sorcerer alive, and each of us has one there. When you see a star go out, that means the Sorcerer it represented died. When one appears, a new Sorcerer has been born. You can use a Sorcerer's star to find the Sorcerer in the real world. Remember the first time I used a projection to talk to you?" he asked, and she nodded in reply. "Well, I couldn't find you physically through the Weave, so I used your star to locate you. It guided me to you."

"Then why did you tell me to touch the Weave?"

"So I could find you more easily," he replied. "It was the second time I'd ever done it, if you recall."

"Oh yeah," she mused. "I tell you, brother, I just can't wait until I get my powers back and I can practice all this. It sounds so much more exciting than boring old Sorcery."

"It's just an aspect of Sorcery, Kerri," he replied. "And don't worry, it's been a while since you lost your powers. You should be getting them back any time now. You been practicing?"

"Every night," she assured him. "I can feel the Weave now, but I still can't weave spells."

"Then you're close," he told her. "Just remember that the Weave is going to seem slippery at first. The flows will resist you until you get the hang of it. When you have that down, I'll show you how to weave spells without that resistance."

"Why not show me how first?"

"Because you have to know the basics before I can teach you the advanced concepts, Kerri," he chided her.

"I hate it when you get smug," she snorted.

"I could say the same thing about you," he teased. Chopstick, one of Phandebrass' pet drakes, flapped over and dropped itself in Tarrin's lap. He stroked the creature's iridescent reddish scales gently, and it nuzzled its scaly head against his stomach in contentment. It was a very clever little animal, and looked just like the pictures of dragons he'd seen in so many books. Only it was the size of a small dog, when a dragon was supposed to be the size of a large house. It even had small black horns that swept back over its head, jutting out over each little yellow, reptillian eye. Its muzzle was narrow, and filled with a mouthful of needle-like teeth. Tarrin rather liked the two drakes, because they were affectionate and didn't make too much of a nuisance of themselves. Turnkey was more mischievious than Chopstick, given to playing games of hide and seek with Phandebrass at the most inopportune times. Chopstick was a spoiled little drake, always wanting someone to pay attention to it. Usually it bothered Allia for attention, for both drakes seemed to really like his Selani sister, but when she or Phandebrass were too busy for it, it came to Tarrin. Tarrin didn't mind at all. The little drakes were companions for Phandebrass, and now for the entire group, but they had proven that they could be very useful in fights. Both of them were very small, but they were utterly fearless, and they were fast and agile enough to distract enemies and give their human and non-human friends an easy shot against the distracted foe.

A bell rang on the sterncastle, signifying that dinner would be ready within the hour, and Keritanima clapped her hands. "It's about time!" she announced. "I wonder what they're cooking tonight."

"I hope it's not fish," Miranda said, making a face. "I'm getting tired of fish."

"I thought all Wikuni loved fish," Tarrin mused.

"There is such a thing as too much of a good thing, Tarrin," she told him with a wink. "I saw them bring some sides of beef on board when we laid over at the Stormhavens. I hope we're having that tonight. They'll have to cook it soon, or it'll go bad."

"They already did, Miranda," Keritanima told her. "It's been gone for a week now."

"You had to go and ruin a good idea, didn't you?" she accused. Then she batted her eyelashes at Tarrin and gave him that quirky grin that warned him she was about to try to sweet-talk something out of him. "You love me, don't you, Tarrin?" she asked in a little-girl voice. "Do you love me enough to make me some steak?"

Tarrin looked at her, watched her wink one more time, then he chuckled ruefully. "You could ask, Miranda. If you keep flirting with me, I may take you up on it. Then you'd be in real trouble."

"Bah. A girl shouldn't flirt if she wasn't ready for the consequences," she said dismissively. Tarrin often forgot that Miranda was actually a very bad girl, nothing like the rather straight-laced Keritanima. She had often had to seduce information out of targets, and it was something she did not entirely object to doing. She had even confided that she enjoyed it, given that her mark was handsome. "It's an empty threat, anyway. I know you wouldn't be serious about me," she grinned.

"Well, you never know, Miranda. You are cute, even to a Were-cat."

"And you'd break me in half if we tried," she teased. "Entirely accidental, of course, but you know how wild things can get when--"

"I think we get the idea," Keritanima cut her off, the fur on her cheeks ruffling slightly, her form of a blush. Keritanima was bold, but Miranda often seemed to get the best of her friend and employer. Talking about such things wouldn't bother Keritanima if they were talking about strangers. To Keritanima, it would be the same as her brother sleeping with her best friend, something not entirely pleasant to think about.

"Well, will you, Tarrin? I've been dying for steak all week."

Tarin had to think about that a minute. The Wikuni used some different standards for measuring things, like distances, or time. A Wikuni week was a period of seven days, when the West used the terms ride or tenday to describe a period of ten days. They also used weird terms called feet and miles for expressing distances, where the West used span and longspan. The length of a foot was different than the length of a span; a foot was longer than a span by a small amount, but those small amounts added up when talking of large lengths. Tarrin was nine and a quarter spans tall, but Keritanima had told him that in her measurements, he was seven and three-quarters feet in height. Azakar was ten spans tall, but Keritanima said in her measurements, he was just a shade over eight feet in height. The monstrous Szath was well over twelve spans tall, nearly thirteen, but Keritanima told him that he was ten feet in height.

Tarrin wondered how those terms came to be used, and how their distances were set. It was something he'd have to study one of these days.

"Well, I guess so, but let's not make it common knowledge," he told her. One of Tarrin's abilities was called Conjuring, and it was an aspect of his Druidic magic. It was what Miranda was asking of him. It was a catch-all term for three forms of conjuration magic, Conjuring, Creating, and Summoning. They were simple tricks, something any Druid could do. Conjuring was bringing to a place an object that existed elsewhere, but not a specific one. The magic tended to grab the closest object that fit the Druid's parameters when the spell was used, regardless of who owned it beforehand. Creating was just that, creating something from nothingness, often used when Conjuring an item would deprive someone of something valuable or when something with specific dimensions or qualities was desired, and Summoning was causing a specific object to appear. Druids used the tricks to conjure food and drink, conjure gold and other valuable items, and generally to conjure anything they needed. Druids never went hungry and were rarely left without something they needed. Tarrin preferred Creating rather than Conjuring, for he never was very comfortable with the idea that the food he was Conjuring was being stolen off the plates of innocent people. It required more energy than Conjuring, but he was willing to make that sacrifice knowing he didn't just steal the food out of a child's mouth. "I'll have people asking me for menus."

Keritanima chuckled, and Miranda grinned at him. "You're such a good friend," she told him. "What did we do without him, Kerri?"

"Oh, just deposed my father and took the throne of Wikuna," she teased, winking at him.

"And you didn't want the throne," Tarrin chided.

"I still don't, but I'm safer on it than off it," she replied honestly.

"How is the new system working?"

"I'm not entirely sure yet," she answered. "The nobles seem to be accepting it, but on the other hand, Jervis told me that they've been real secretive lately. I have the feeling that they're up to something, so I had Jervis find out what it is."

Keritanima was the queen of Wikuna, having taken the throne from her father, Damon Eram, with deceit, chicanery, and political cunning. In other words, like any Wikuni monarch would gain the throne. But since Keritanima didn't really want the throne, she had changed the system of government into something she called a republic, where the people generally governed themselves. Keritanima was still the head of the government and had tremendous power, but not the absolute power she had had as the sole ruler. The nobles, secure in their dominion over the commoners, had had a fit when Keritanima had effectively stripped them of all their power and made them little more than rich commoners. But when Keritanima threatened to turn them into poor commoners, they all bit their tongues and decided to cooperate. But Keritanima had said that the Wikuni nobles were hard to repress for very long, and this secrecy probably collaberated her worries. No doubt they were up to something, taking advantage of Keritanima's absence to deal with the crisis at Suld. She had left the subject king of the Vendari that lived in Wikuna in charge in her place, and it struck Tarrin as odd that the nobles would be insane enough to try anything against him. Sashka was a Vendari, and they had very, very strict and regimented laws and customs, and though he was governing the Wikuni in Keritanima's stead, he would still act with the same severity of action. If the Wikuni nobles tried anything, it was entirely possible the Sashka would summon the Vendari army and crush the nobles in a massive war of absolute destruction. That was the Vendari way. And it was not something that any Wikuni--human, Aeradalla, Fae-da'Nar or just about anything with intelligence--would want to have happen to them. The Vendari were the most feared and respected race on Sennadar, because their size and power made them almost invincible warriors.

Chopstick gave a little growling hiss, demanding more attention, and Tarrin dutifully began to pet the little drake again. "You are getting so spoiled, Chopstick," Tarrin chuckled, using a claw to scratch delicately under his little horns, something he really liked.

"You should get your own drake, Tarrin," Keritanima told him. "You have a way with them."

"I don't need my own drake when I have Chopstick and Turnkey," he replied easily. "Besides, they'd get jealous."

Chopstick chirped in agreement. The drakes were very smart, and understood quite a bit of Sulasian. They were much more intelligent than a common housepet.

"Well, Phandebrass has been trying to breed drakes," Miranda said.

"Both of them are males," Tarrin said in confusion.

"I know, but we have drakes in Wikuna," she told him. "They're unbelievably expensive, but you can buy one in Wikuna. I think Phandebrass is thinking of buying a female."

"He'd better be careful," Keritanima snorted. "Drakes have very aggressive mating habits. Chopstick and Turnkey would fight one another for the rights to her, and the fact that they're brothers wouldn't matter. Drakes sometimes get killed in duels over females."

"Then he should get two," Miranda said calmly, biting apart the yarn and then holding up what she'd been knitting. It was a tasselled shawl, and it looked to be finished. "Ah, there we are," she said with a smile. "That looks nice."

"Who's that for?" Keritanima asked curiously.

"Oh, nobody," she replied. Miranda knitted just for the sake of knitting. "I'm sure somebody will want it."

"It'll go nice with my new party gown, as soon as I change the color," she hinted.

"You'd change the color of your gown for my shawl?" Miranda asked with a slightly mischevious smile.

"You," Keritanima laughed. "The shawl!"

Miranda handed it to her friend without a word, then dropped her knitting gear into the leather satchel she carried with her everywhere she went. "I've had about enough of knitting for a while," she announced. "I think I'll start doing needlepoint again. Or maybe crochet."

Keritanima threw the shawl over her shoulders, and Tarrin saw that Miranda had knitted it to fit her perfectly. Obviously, Miranda had an owner in mind for it since she started it. "I'll get an ivory hoop for the ends, and it'll sit perfectly," Keritanima mused. "Just over my neckline."

"She's fishing," Miranda whispered to Tarrin.

"I am not! Well, not really," she amended.

"Oh? And just who is she fishing for?" Tarrin asked.

"Rallix," Miranda replied with a cheeky grin. "The badger that runs the trading company she owns under one of her other identities."

"Kerri told me about that," he told her. "Just be careful, Kerri. Workers get nervous when the boss starts flirting with them."

"He knows who I am, Tarrin," Keritanima said with a face. "It turns out that he knew the whole time," she said in a voice that made it clear that the idea of that still mystified her. "I'm not out to get him, Tarrin. Not yet, anyway. I'm just testing the waters, that's all."

"She's already picked out the rings," Miranda laughed.

Keritanima's face fur ruffled so badly it looked like she'd been attacked by a pack of licking puppies. "Well, a girl should be ready for any eventuality, shouldn't she?" she said defensively.

Tarrin smiled. It was a very good thing that Keritanima had started noticing a man. He'd been worried about her that way, worried that her bad childhood had hardened her to any kind of intimate contact with others. It was a very healthy thing if she'd started noticing a man.

"Want me to kidnap him, Miranda?" he offered. "We can persuade him that marrying our friend here is the only way he'll live to see tomorrow."

"Tarrin!" Keritanima gasped in shock. "You leave him alone! I'll get him in my own way, in my own time!"

"You can't rush these things, Tarrin," Miranda chided him.

"I'm not too familiar with Wikuni mating habits."

"It's not a mating habit,"Keritanima said sharply.

"Do you want to marry him?" Tarrin asked bluntly.

"Well...maybe."

"And that means that you want to mate with him?"

Her fur ruffled furiously.

"Then it's a mating habit," he said in a calm, logical manner. "Some animals are just more complicated than others."

"Not like those Were-cat females," Keritanima sniped in reply. "Always ready to rip off their clothes!"

"They're a bit more honest about what they want than other races," Tarrin replied calmly, taking no offense. "At least with a Were-cat female, you know exactly where you stand with her, and exactly what she wants. There's none of this flirting and deceit and silly games that seems to go on with humans and Wikuni."

"Were-cats have no romance in them!" Keritanima accused. "None at all!"

"We're part animal, Kerri. Romance is an alien concept to us," he agreed without batting an eye.

Keritanima snarled slightly. She wasn't used to losing arguments, especially when the points she was making helped the other side. "Well, it's not right," she growled.

"For you. It works for us, though. And that's all that really matters."

"Well, our way works for us," she declared.

"And that's all that matters for you. Don't compare your culture with mine. They're apples and pears." He turned to Miranda. "Explain this to me, Miranda."

"Well, Kerri has to attract Rallix's attention first," she began. "She'll do that with low-cut dresses and little hints in her conversation. When she has his interest, she has to show him that she's the only woman for him, and that all other women are worthless. That won't be too hard for Kerri, she's good at making people think the way she wants them to. Then she cleverly guides him into believing that he chased her the entire time, and then dupes him into asking her to marry him, while he thinks he started it the whole time. So he won't think she's too forward, you understand. At least not until after they're married, and he can't do anything about it," Miranda added with a wink.

"You make it sound so deceitful," Keritanima snapped at her friend.

"Deception seems to be a Wikuni requirement," Tarrin said dryly. "Where some races find size or attractiveness or ability desirable, I guess Wikuni see deception and glibness as good traits in a mate."

Miranda laughed. "I think you're right, Tarrin," she agreed.

It all seemed a bit silly to Tarrin, but to each race its own customs and culture. He wasn't one to pass judgement on them because their ways weren't as simple and uncomplicated as his kind's were.

"When does the quest for the prize begin?" he asked.

Probably the minute the gangplank hits the wharf in Wikuna," Miranda laughed. "Kerri wants his ring on her finger before we leave for Vendaka. That gives her about two weeks."

"You can force a man to marry you in two weeks?" Tarrin asked her in surprise.

"I'm not going to force him," she said challengingly.

"You call that testing the waters?" Tarrin asked with a laugh.

"She just didn't want you to think that she was a hussy, Tarrin. It's not becoming for a Wikuni lady to seem too aggressive."

"But she's a queen. She's supposed to be aggressive," Tarrin scoffed.

"Then people would think that she's a titled hussy," Miranda told him. "Women aren't supposed to seem too willing, Tarrin. Not in Wikuni society. They have to play hard to get, even when they're playing it against a man they want to get them."

"What a waste of time," Tarrin grunted.

"It makes the victory that much sweeter," Keritanima grinned at him.

"I doubt it'll take that long," Miranda said with a smile. "Rallix is smitten with our cunning little queen here. I'll bet fifty gold marks that he'll fall all over her as soon as he sees her flirting with him."

"I'll take you up on that, Miranda," Keritanima said confidently. "I'm a good judge of people, and I haven't seen that in him. Not that I don't want him to do it, but I'm not going to be that optomisitic."

"It's your money," Miranda shrugged. "Or mine now, as it were."

"Don't count your gold yet, Miranda," Keritanima said smugly.

The bell rang again, and then Keritanima stood up. "I'm going to go wash up for dinner. See you there," she said, then she sauntered away, her fox tail swaying back and forth behind her with her stride.

"That's the easiest fifty marks I've ever made," Miranda laughed after Keritanima went below decks.

"What is this Rallix like?" Tarrin asked.

"A good man," she said sincerely. "Smart, well educated, and very loyal and dependable. He's known about Kerri for a long time, but kept her secret and kept working for her. Kerri doesn't understand why, not really. She thinks he did it because he was making a fortune at her trading company. But I've looked into his eyes when he's looking at her, so I know that that's not the reason at all."

"He loves her," Tarrin surmised.

"You bet," she said with that cheeky grin. "He's devoted to her, and he's absolutely loyal to her. He doesn't even skim off the top. Rallix wouldn't have given away Kerri, not even after a week on the rack. He'll be a good husband for her, because he won't be quite so pliable once they're on even ground."

Tarrin chuckled. "He's that strong?"

"He's like steel, Tarrin," she winked. "Kerri's going to have quite a shock waiting for her when she does marry him. She'll be up against someone just as strong as she is."

"That's good. If Kerri could knuckle under her mate, she wouldn't respect him."

"I know. Now then, let's get moving before they ring the bell a third time," she announced. Tarrin stood up with her, putting Chopstick up on his shoulder, and they walked towards the stairs. "I think I'd like a nice porterhouse, tender, well aged, and cooked to where it's still pink in the middle," she told him. "Do you do baked potatos?"

"For you, Miranda, I'll do a banquet."

"You're such a good friend," she gushed, leaning on his arm girlishly.

"Flirt."

"I have to stay in practice, you know," she said with a teasing giggle.