Authors: Jean Johnson
Before the Sons of Destiny came to be, shapechangers ruled the heart of a shattered empire and navigated the uncertain shifts of fate...
Years have passed since there was any sighting of Family Mongrel on the Shifting Plains. Yet traces remain, and they lead south into the Correda Mountains. As a favor to his brother and sister-in-law, Kenyen Sin Siin has taken it upon himself to track down these hints from the past and make sure the curs have not survived. The trail grows colder, more tangled, until he's trapped in a valley where not everyone is as they seem. He will either adapt and survive or be uncovered and perish before his mission is complete.
Wary of strangers and distrustful of the unfamiliar, Solyn Ys Rei and her best friend have formed a secret resistance. One of a rare few with the ability to stand up to and evade enemies, she must still tread with great caution, particularly when even her best friend starts acting oddly. Allies could be enemies lurking in disguise, and a stranger's face could hide a new foe as easily as a new friend.
"Married?" Traver hissed, leaning close as he reached over Solyn's shoulder to hang yet another sprig of greenery on the drying lines strung in her mother's herb-room. "I mean, I like you as a friend, but not like
. It'd be like... like marrying one of my sisters!"
"I panicked, alright?" Solyn hissed back as the young man mock-shuddered. She elbowed him lightly, more as a warning not to harangue her than as a warning at how close he was standing. "Let's see how clear
think with the stink of Tarquin Tun Nev fouling each breath! And you're not exactly the kind who makes my heart race, either," she conceded, gently shaking more herbs over the lower lines. "At least we like each other as friends. I certainly don't like him."
"True." Traver scrubbed his knuckles over her wavy brown locks. He resumed the task of hanging more herbs overhead.
"Besides, all you have to do is get someone to
to you while you're off trading tea. Once we get this... thing investigated," she whispered, lowering her volume even further, "then they can take everyone involved away, and you and I won't have to get married."
"Unless, of course, what I saw wasn't him at all, and Tarquin
involved," Traver muttered. "Then he'll still be around, flexing his muscles and pressing for your hand. But I doubt it."
"Ugh." Solyn made a face. She stiffened and grimaced again as the silver band of her ring squeezed her middle finger twice. "Shh. Someone's coming."
"I don't think Tarquin smells all that bad," Traver stated quietly, hanging the last of the hyssop over her head. His body bumped against hers, but neither of them paid it any attention. They had been friends too long to notice such things. "He buys and wears the perfume you make. You should be grateful for his coin, at the very least."
"Buys and wears too much of it, if you ask me," Solyn muttered back. "I don't think he bathes, which is why he drowns himself in it. Hello, Aunt Hylin."
"Solyn, Traver," the older woman greeted them. Like her niece, she had wavy brown locks and hazel eyes, though her hair was streaked with gray. She dropped two baskets of yet more herbs on the worktable. "Hang these up as well when you're done with those, and don't dawdle. Your mother says the hedges in the upper pasture are finally ready for clipping, and we're just about done with the garden herbs, here. Your mother wants to pack some fresh tea in with the dried."
"Yes, Aunt," Solyn murmured. If one wanted a stimulating tea, one picked something grown in the hotter lands down by the southern coast. If one wanted a delicate tea, one drank the kind grown in the mountains. Fresh tea carried the most nuances and was highly prized, but it was difficult to transport, compared to the bruised, fermented, and dried varieties more commonly traded.
"And no twining around each other when you're supposed to be working," Hylin added, giving the closely standing Traver and Solyn a pointed look. "You're not married yet."
Blushing, they quickly separated. Solyn gave Traver a guilty look, while he struggled not to look awkward. Clearing his throat, he asked, "You, ah... know about that?"
Hylin raised her brows. "Huh. So it's
a jest... That Tarquin boy was complaining that you'd lied about an engagement to this lout, but from the looks of you two, it isn't a lie, is it?"
Traver cleared his throat. "Ah... no. Not a lie. As such. I mean, I haven't asked Ysander for his blessing, yet..."
Hylin snorted. "Then you'd better get to it, hadn't you? Those teas get sent off in the morning, and so do you—and no twining in here!"
Plucking the emptied baskets from the side table, she flicked a stray stalk of hyssop onto the tabletop and left the herb-room. Solyn sighed and lifted the plant toward one of the few empty spots on the strings stretched over her head. Taking it from her, Traver draped it on the highest line with the others, then squeezed her shoulder.
"Guess I'll have to visit your father tonight, instead of when I get back," he muttered. "The, ah, living arrangements will have to be discussed, since neither of us have a home of our own."
Holding up her palm in caution, Solyn tapped her ear with her free hand, then nodded when the silver band on her left hand twisted of its own volition around her finger, indicating no one else was close enough to eavesdrop. Traver was exempt from the spell on the ring, thanks to a special, hidden loop of metal he himself wore. If anyone tried to imitate him without it, she would know; the ring would warn her that someone was trying to impersonate her friend.
"Sorry about that. As I said, I panicked. I guess I'm only good at one subterfuge at a time," she sighed. "I'm more a woman of action. Except I can't take any actions. I can only sit here, study what little I can, and wait to react to everything."
Shifting his hand to her other shoulder, Traver gave her a one-armed hug. "We can't all be perfect. Once we get down into the hills, I'll head north as fast as I can go, and I won't stop until I reach the Shifting City and find someone who will listen to me."
"Remember, it's not paranoia if they really are out to get you," Solyn quipped, before turning serious. "Be careful, Traver. I don't want anything to happen to you on the journey."
"I'll be careful. You be careful, too," he warned her. "Now... what's the next category for when I see you tonight, if we get a moment alone?"
"Um... colors, and be opposite—blue to orange, yellow to purple, that sort of thing," Solyn said. "Though I don't know if we'll have another chance to be alone before you go."
"Then if I don't see you tonight, when I get back, I'll talk about how blue the sky was down by the Morning River, and you'll tell me how you prefer orange sunsets up here among the mountains." Hugging her again, Traver reached for the herb basket. "Let's get these hung up, then I'll help you clip tea leaves for the trip."
Kenyen Sin Siin did not like the way the cave smelled. Nor did he like the nervous way their guide, Bellar Sil Quen, kept looking at him every time he sniffed at the mound of stones at the back of said cave. Unfortunately, a tiger's sense of smell was not nearly as good as one might think. Kenyen couldn't quite tell if the smell came from the rocks or from something behind them. He thought it might be the latter, but most of the rocks were fairly large; a tentative touch with one large, tan-and-white paw proved they would not be easily budged.
"Hey!" The warning came from Bellar. "Get away from there, young man. Those rocks don't look stable—you don't want to get crushed, do you?" the middle-aged man challenged him.
Kenyen quirked his brows but obediently lowered his paw. Sitting on his haunches, he watched the shapeshifter from Family Dane, Clan Dog, stare at him for a few moments more, then turn back to the work of the others. A coalition of twelve shapeshifters, three of them travel-experienced princesses, had been sent by the Queen to look for signs of a "Family Mongrel" along their southern borders.
Supposedly the band was a group of banished outcasts, shapeshifter men who had turned their back on nearly two hundred years of civilized behavior, choosing instead to rob travelers, abduct women, and worse. Kenyen and the others only knew about it because one of their victims, a woman named Ellet Sou Tred, had managed to escape during a great wildfire. She had run to the river valley of the Mornai, where a scribe had taken care of her and her newborn child, writing down the woman's words before she succumbed to her lingering injuries.
That book had been brought to the Plains by that daughter, who was now Kenyen's sister-in-law. Her fears that the Shifterai were like the men her mother had described had dismayed the true shapeshifters, prompting them to send an expedition south into the hills and mountains described in the book. This cavern, nestled among the northern foothills of the Correda Mountains, was one of the few signs their group had seen that anyone had camped for extended periods of time in these hills, ex-Shifterai or otherwise. Similar caverns had been described in the book, making this one a very likely candidate.
Kenyen couldn't get that scent off his mind. He sniffed again, whiskers twitching. Something dry, something dusty... but not enough of it to really tell. It didn't help that the others brought their own scents, stirring up the ashes of the long-abandoned fire pits, poking at moldering rubbish from discarded animal bones and bits of clothing, so on and so forth. At least the light illuminating the chamber came from the three brightly rapped lightglobes they had brought, shedding a steady blue white glow across the large cavern.
Giving in to his curiosity, he shifted his shape. Muscles shrank, fur grayed, and claws turned blunt, no longer retractable. Pausing just long enough to scratch behind an ear with one hind foot, Kenyen stood and sniffed again at the pile of rocks.
, he thought.
A wolf's nose is definitely superior to a tiger's for sniffing out clues. And that scent... is...
Further sniffing reassured him it was indeed bone. Bone, and something else. Bone and... decayed flesh?
Is that... dead human I'm smelling? Is there a body trapped under these rocks?
"Hey, I said get away from there!" Bellar ordered. "Why don't you come over here and sniff at these old ashes and bits of cloth, if you simply
to smell something? It'd be more useful."
Bellar had seemed interested in helping the party look for any signs of outcast activity among the foothills marking the end of the Shifting Plains and the start of the Correda Mountains, but now Kenyen wasn't so sure. Bellar's own brother had been one of the men banished around the same time as the reported actions of Family Mongrel. This expedition to find that so-called Family had almost missed this cave, despite Bellar's supposed familiarity with the area from his many trade expeditions into the mountains to the south.
So was it a deliberate avoidance of this area, or simply an accidental one?
Settling onto the ground, Kenyen crossed his wolf paws and lowered his head. His ears still flicked, listening to the others murmur over the years-old evidence that this cave had once been occupied by a group of people, but otherwise he feigned disinterest in the proceedings. Idly studying the rocks, it took him a few moments to realize that there was more to the rock fall than just a pile of rubble.
One of the larger, deeper clefts between the rocks at the bottom had two peculiarities to it. The first was that it was fairly large, about the size of his head, and deep enough that he couldn't see anything blocking its shadowed depths. The second thing he noticed was the faint impression of tracks in the gritty dirt lining the cavern floor. The animal tracks he expected, since many other items in this cave had been investigated by wandering animals through the years, but drag marks, he did not.
Kenyen almost lifted his head off his paws. Forcing himself to relax, he glanced at the others. They were discussing the moldered contents of what must have been an abandoned food basket. A quick glance showed that Bellar wasn't looking his way. Shifting shape again, Kenyen slithered cautiously into the hole, tongue flicking to taste the air hidden in those shadowed depths.