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“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 that. 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 you’d 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 lock. He resumed the task of hanging more herbs overhead.
“Besides, all you have to do is get someone to listen 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 isn’t 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 grey. 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 not 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 table top 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. Much better, he thought. A wolf’s nose is definitely superior to a tiger’s for sniffing out clues. And that scent…is…
…Bone? 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 have to smell something? It’d be more useful.”
Bellar 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.
Drag marks? 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.
Grass viper eyes weren’t particularly adapted to seeing in the dark, but the path was wide and straight, and he could tell it opened into a larger space. Determining it was large enough, Kenyen transformed into a fourth form once he was beyond the tunnel, changing into the shape of a hunting cat. Once he did so, he could see a few details. Light from the front part of the cave seeped through a couple of gaps in the rocks—which had been deliberately placed, he now saw, for there were no signs of smaller chips or dust resting among the larger chunks on the backside of the pile, only on the front, as if to make it look like a true rock fall.
Those faint beams of light allowed him to see the bones lying on the packed earth of the alcove. Most of the flesh looked like it had been picked clean by insects or small animals; what little was left had dried along with the bones themselves, and nothing large had disturbed the lay of the body. More disturbing, it looked like rodent-chewed remnants of leather had been looped around the wrist and ankle joints of the body. A pile of desiccated waste lay to one side, and a bucket to the other.
“…Kenyen? Kenyen Sin Siin, where are you?”
This time, it was Ashallan Nur Am who called to him. One of the many female shapeshifters of Family Lion, Clan Cat, the princess wasn’t a particularly strong shapeshifter—five pure shapes at most—but she was an experienced warband member and huntress, and the nominal leader of this expedition.
Since there was enough room for him to take human form again, Kenyen reshaped himself and responded to her call. “I’m back here, Highness! Behind the rock pile. There’s a path big enough for a small cat, and from this side, the lay of the stones looks like they were deliberately placed.”
“What are you now, a stonemason?” Bellar called back. Kenyen couldn’t see his face, but could hear a slight edge in the older man’s voice, the barest hint of upset. “I told you those rocks are unstable!”
“Stop playing around, Kenyen,” Ashallan sighed. He interrupted her before she could order him back out.
“There’s a dead body back here, Princess,” he told them, raising his voice a little to make sure he would be heard. “It looks like he or she died in here as a prisoner.”
That caused an immediate uproar. The others called out questions to both Kenyen and Bellar, some merely confused, some accusatory. Ashallan’s voice cut through the others, sharp and hard.
“…Enough! Bellar Sil Quen, you seemed rather eager to keep us away from that rock pile. If Kenyen’s words are true, then such eagerness is suspect. Manolo Zel Jav, I brought a Truth Stone in my right-hand saddlebag. Fetch it for me.”
“Of course, Princess,” the older shapeshifter murmured.
“Narquen Vil Shem,” Ashallan continued, “you have a rat form, do you not? See if you can find that tunnel Kenyen used. Anyone else have a form small enough?”
“There’s only enough room for one other, Princess, before we crowd this place too much,” Kenyen called out through the wall of rock separating them. “As for where I went, I passed through it as a snake, so you should be able to see my tracks. But there’s enough room for a rabbit to hop through—actually, if you could bring the smallest of the lightglobes, that would be great. The light back here isn’t very good. Only a cat or better could see some of these details in the dark, but not all of them.”
“Narquen, take it and go,” Ashallan ordered.
“Well, if you’ll forgive me for not using a pure shape, Your Highness…” the shifter in question murmured.
Some of the light gleaming through the gaps in the rock pile shifted. It grew stronger down at ground level, shifting with the shadow of the rat-like creature pulling it along. Narquen had taken on a largish rat form with extra muscular limbs and an elongated, prehensile tail, which he had wound through the netting their people used to carry and hang the precious, enchanted spheres.
Kenyen shifted out of his way, giving him room to expand back into his natural form. Picking up the netting, the other shifter lifted the globe to one side, letting its light fall on the body, the bucket, and everything.
“He’s right,” Narquen confirmed after a long look. The slightly older shifter raised his voice so that he could be heard through the wall of stones. “These rocks were piled deliberately, and stabilized on this side. The bones of a human are also back here, with signs that it was bound and kept here for a while. What looks like a water bucket, and a corner of this little pocket-cave where he voided himself… Wait—Kenyen, does that look like writing under the body?”
Frowning, Kenyen crouched along with Narquen, peering as the other shifter angled their source of light for a better look. The soil back here was thin, some of it hard-packed, the rest just smears on the hard stone of the cavern floor. Though the letters were smudged in a few spots, words had been scratched into dirt and rock alike.
He wasn’t as scholarly as his older brother Akodan, but Kenyen wasn’t illiterate, either. Few were, on the Plains. Squinting, he studied the markings carefully. “Yes, it’s definitely writing… From the position, I’d say…this rock was used to scratch it into the ground one letter at a time—yes, you can see the scratches on the pointier end, here.”
“Yes. And the letters were scratched several times to try and deepen them,” Narquen agreed. He hesitated, then gingerly lifted one of the arm bones. “But why are they only under the body? Why not elsewhere in this place?”
Kenyen scratched behind his ear, then shrugged. “Maybe he didn’t want his captors to see what he was writing, so he lay on top of it?”
“Help me move it—Father Sky, Mother Earth, forgive us for disturbing this unfortunate person’s resting place,” Narquen added in wry reverence. “But—careful with that bone—it’s pretty obvious he was a prisoner, here. Or maybe it was a she. If that book of your sister-in-law’s is right, they were more likely to torment women.”
“It could’ve been anyone,” Kenyen agreed, grimacing as they carefully shifted the corpse. Once the unpleasant task was complete, they peered at the letters again. It didn’t take long for Kenyen to figure out what the words were, smeared spots and all. “I…am…the real…Tunric Tel Vem? …Tel Wem?”
Narquen shrugged. “Looks more like a W, maybe? It’s hard to tell with some of the scratches laid over each other. What’s this word here?”
Kenyen shook his head. “Too smudged to tell. This bit could be either of Nespah or of Mespak or something between the two. If I remember the maps right, those sound like two of the valley-holds, places with more tea plantations than actual villages or towns to the south. Neither location looked like they were all that close to the Plains.”
The other shifter shook his head. “I only know a little bit about the kingdom of Correda, and I only glanced at the maps. We’d have to check the ones we brought.”
“Speak up!” they heard Ashallan order. “What have you two found?”
Kenyen answered her, raising his voice again. “It looks like this body was a man named Tunric, which I’ve heard is a common name for men in Correda. Tunric Tel Vem or Tunric Tel Wem. He was from either Nespah or Mespak, we’re not sure which.”
Narquen rubbed his chin, murmuring, “…That’s rather an odd thing to say, isn’t it? That he’s the real Tunric?”
“If he was worried about people finding his body, he’d just say he was Tunric,” Kenyen agreed equally as quiet, frowning. “But to emphasize he’s the real one means he feared his identity was in doubt. Which means he feared someone was going to try and pretend to be him. But, the magics for casting an illusion spell are very complex and taxing. With magics in this whole region deeply weakened by the Shattering of Aiar, a mage that strong would have had to come from very far away.”
Narquen put his hand on Kenyen’s arm. “Not a spellcaster, Kenyen. It could have been a shapeshifter. If these Family Mongrel types were cruel enough to brutalize women, then what’s to stop them from perverting their abilities from the purity of animal forms to the atrocity of echoing human faces? We may have done it as children when learning how to make small shifts, but we don’t go around pretending to be each other once we move on to animal shifts. These curs have no such honor.”
“Atava isn’t the sort to lie, and apples rarely fall far from the tree,” Kenyen replied, thinking it through. “The scribe who raised her would therefore have been equally honest, particularly one entrusted with writing legal contracts for his fellow Mornai. The only doubt lies in the words of Atava’s mother. Did she tell the truth, or did she exaggerate and even lie? With her long dead, we can’t ask her directly…”
He fell silent for a few moments, thinking, then voiced his thoughts aloud.
“There are plenty of different animal tracks layered with human ones in the dirt of the main cavern, enough to say that shifters lived here for a while,” Kenyen reasoned out. “So many different wild animals would not mingle openly with humans. So shifters stayed here, and a man who feared his true identity was being stolen died here. Which implicates dishonorable shapeshifters.”
“Then she was most likely telling the truth,” the other shifter agreed.
Narquen’s agreement confirmed Kenyen’s own thoughts. The Shifterai were nomadic most of the year, but they were not an ignorant, uneducated people. Logic was prized among their kind.
The other shifter nodded at the desiccated corpse. “The men who left this body here were not above extreme cruelties, to imprison and leave a man to die behind this wall. The words in that book have a solid kernel of truth within them, between those tracks and this man’s demise—when I dragged the lightglobe in here in one of my smallest forms, it looked like others had dragged supplies in via the same route. The bucket probably held water, which they’d bring in via skins.”
“A little water, a little food…enough to sustain him for days, maybe even a turning of Brother Moon. Long enough for them to interrogate him, until they had wrung all the information they needed to try and take his place in the greater world. Long enough for him to realize they were probably going to kill him once they were through.” Kenyen sighed roughly, rubbing his forehead. “So then the important question is, is someone still impersonating this man? And why? And how long ago did this man die, and was he really from the holdings of Nespah or Mespak, and if so, did his impersonator go back?”
Narquen chuckled under his breath. “That’s more than one question, you know. But good ones all the same.” Raising his voice, he called out to the others. “I have verified what Kenyen has seen back here. It indeed appears that someone was kept back here as a prisoner…and was either slain back here or simply left to die.”
“How unpleasant. If you two are done back there, we have the Truth Stone, now,” Ashallan called through the rocks separating them from the main cavern. “I want you to help us question Bellar, here.”
Both men shifted shape and made their way back through the small tunnel, bringing the lightglobe with them. Once in the main cavern, they both returned to human form, loins covered in modesty-preserving fur long enough to don the clothes they had folded and set aside. As he dressed, Kenyen noted that Bellar Sil Quen didn’t look happy to see the white marble disk in Ashallan’s hand, standing with his arms folded across his chamak¬-covered chest. Bellar reluctantly pulled one hand free, accepting the stone the middle-aged woman held out to him.
“You know how this goes,” Ashallan reminded him. “State a lie, then state the truth.”
“My name is Marro,” Bellar obligingly muttered, clutching the palm-sized disk. A shift of his fingers revealed blackened imprints where his fingers had touched the surface. They faded after a few moments, leaving nothing but white, unblemished marble. Gripping it again, he cleared his throat. “Look…he may have been banished from the Plains, but there is nothing in the law which says I cannot talk with my brother. And yes, I’ve met with him over the years. Always off the Plains.”
A shift of his fingers revealed the unblemished truth of that statement. Ashallan nodded, her expression neutral. The other two female shifters watched him with a mixture of curiosity and wariness, the same as most of the males. Kenyen finished clasping his pectoral collar around his shoulders, and wondered if he should shift his nose to something sensitive enough to pick up whether or not Bellar was nervous about these revelations, perhaps hiding something by omission, if not through a lie.
“Nollan…we disagree on several things, but he’s still my brother. And for the last ten years, he’s made a life for himself in Correda as a tea farmer,” Bellar told them. “When I heard about this expedition being planned this last winter, I flew into the mountains to meet with him, to see if Nollan had anything useful to tell me. He…”
“Go on,” Ashallan urged quietly when Bellar hesitated.
Bellar looked uncomfortable, nose wrinkling and brow furrowing, but continued. “He gave me a funny look. Kind of like I was a bug and he was debating whether or not he’d squish me for it. He’d never looked at me like that before. Then he sighed and…and he just told me to keep people away from this cave, particularly the back of it. But I don’t know why, and he didn’t tell me why, and I didn’t know about the body back there. I swear it on this stone.”
Opening his fingers, he showed the all-white disk to the others.
“Where do you meet with your brother, when you go into the mountains?” one of the other princesses, Anaika, asked him.
“I used to meet with him near here, but not for the last half-dozen years. These days, I leave word at a tavern in the town of Teshal, and he gets back to me within a day or two. I’ve never asked where Nollan lives—he has a right to make a new life for himself, even though he’s been banished,” Bellar added defensively.
Kenyen frowned in thought. “If I remember the map right, Teshal’s nowhere near either the Nespah or Mespak valleys. It’s off to the east.”
Manolo, from the same Family Tiger as Kenyen, dug into the saddlebag he had brought into the cave. Within moments, he fished out a folded map. He flopped the worn parchment over his hands so that it could be seen by the others and nodded. “…Teshal isn’t near either; you’re right.”
Ashallan looked at Kenyen and Narquen. “Do you have any questions?”
Kenyen nodded, and lifted his chin at Bellar. “Did your brother Nollan ever mention Nespah, or Mespak?”
“Not that I can recall.” He displayed the stone again, proving his words true.
“What about the name Tunric?” Narquen asked.
Bellar shrugged. “Not that I can recall.”
“Well, if you do recall, let us know,” Ashallan ordered him tartly, the same tone of voice a mother would use on a son who had disappointed her. Considering Bellar was close to her age, her tone made him flush.