Dwelling in the land of Ada and defending magic users called the Jin, Fen Jacin-rei is a trained assassin and an Untouchable, one whose mind hosts the Voices of the Ancestors, spirits of long-dead magicians. His fate should be one of madness and solitude, yet Fen Jacin-rei desperately clings to his sanity and ferociously protects the family he loves. But how does Fen do it? Kamen Malick has every intention of finding out.
When Malick and his own small band of assassins ambush Fen in an alley, Malick offers Fen one choice: join us or die. Determined to decode the intrigue that surrounds Fen--and to have the Untouchable for himself--Malick sets to unraveling Fen's past while Fen delves into the mysteries surrounding Malick.
As Fen's secrets slowly unfold, Malick is drawn into a crusade that isn't his, one surprisingly similar to his own quest for vengeance. Yet irony is a bitter reward when Malick discovers the one he wants is already hopelessly entangled with the one he hunts.
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Dreamspinner Press, LLC
February 17, 2012
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Excerpt from Wolf's-own-Ghost by Carole Cummings
Harvest-month, Year 1322, Cycle of the Wolf
IT WAS, Malick decided, the braid. Snaking between the blades of shoulders set just wide enough and sweeping down the pleasing taper of the torso. Thick and gleaming chestnut-claret in the dim half light of smoking oil lamps, long and thick and... far too fascinating. The leather-bound tail of it swung long enough to brush the backs of the man's knees when he moved. Malick had never seen one so long. Those who wore them, after all, generally didn't live long enough to grow them to such a length. This one must be close to twenty--still young by Malick's definition, but ancient for what he was.
A messy, tangled fringe every now and then fell over the man's brow, obscuring his eyes, and he let it, didn't even bother to push it away. Like it had simply got in his way once, so he'd sheared it off with a dull blade, too impatient, or just not caring enough to make a neat job of it.
Pretty, though, with that not-quite-olive skin and angular face, sharp nose and chin, and high cheekbones. Too masculine to be delicate, but too cagey and set with subliminal rage to be as invulnerable as he was trying to look, even when he tried to make his mien pleasant for the whores who were disposed to ignoring the braid in favor of offered koin.
"Heart's in his eyes, this one," Malick murmured with a smile. That's why he hides behind that fringe.
"What's that, love?"
Malick spared a short glance toward the chippy on his knee as she slipped her small, warm fingers through the hair at his nape. Smiling languidly, she took a delicate sip of gooseberry wine, batting her poppy-soft, kohl-lined eyes over the rim of her cup. Damn, and he'd already paid for her too.
Shrugging, Malick returned her smile with sincere regret. "Nothing, um...." He paused. What was her name again? Some kind of fruit or flower--Cherry? Blossom? Cherry-blossom? Didn't matter. "Sorry, love, but we'll have to continue another time. Something more important just came up." Ignoring the flare of indignation in the sudden blush to her cheek, Malick shifted his legs just enough to compel her to gain her feet. Her soft eyes hardened. Malick forestalled what was sure to be some scathing commentary with a charming grin before he drained his cup. "Keep your fee, my dear," he told the girl as he chucked his cards facedown on the table with a nod to the other players, and stood. "Your company alone this evening has been worth every koin." He collected his small pile of winnings, dropping an extra bit of silver into the kitty and then another for the dealer. With a flourish that was entirely unnecessary but pleasingly theatrical--at least to him--Malick swept gentle fingers through the raven curls at the girl's temple, behind her ear, and came up with another bit of silver; he held it between his fingers in front of her nose. "Next time, eh?"
He waited only long enough for her to snatch the koin before he sauntered away, eyes already narrowed through the gloom, fixed on his target. His heart was thumping a little more quickly than it should do, and his mouth was watering just a little. It was definitely the braid. Well, the braid was a good part of it, anyway. The face and build certainly didn't hurt. And with that heart-hungry look in his eyes, the man was a walking wet dream come to glorious life.
Untouchable or no, Malick couldn't help wondering what all that thick hair would look like unbound and spread across fine linen sheets. A tiny smile curled at one corner of his mouth, and he shook his head. It didn't count as slavering if it didn't actually dribble out, right?
A jostle to his ribs brought Malick back a little, and he suppressed a growl. Game Night at the Girou had brought the crowds, as usual. The smell of sweat and tobacco curled in his nostrils, the thick brume of poppy smoke enough by itself to turn him stupid, if he stayed too long. Good for business, Umeia would tell him. Kept the riffraff in line and the spenders spending. It also had the pleasant side effect of keeping Umeia in a good mood, though Malick sometimes suspected she was otherwise immune to the stuff; all the better.
No Doujou in the motley mix, though; Malick had paid quite a lot to make sure none of the city's guard could interfere tonight. And still, most gave the Untouchable his own bubble of space. Only looking quickly enough to track his place in the room, his proximity to them, then glancing away. Speaking only when he spoke to them, and that was limited to the small clutch of prostitutes that didn't mind taking their chances.
He'd weeded out the chattel, Malick noted, sent them on their way to those less scrupulous, and ignored entirely those that even looked like they might be underage, though Umeia at least required the formality of fake papers when she hired... or acquired. Malick kept watching as the Untouchable crossed the room, ridiculously interested in which doxy he'd choose.
Blank-faced, the Ghost skulked about the edges of whores and customers and players and drinkers, not even bothering to try to look like he belonged--and what would be the point? The braid marked him Untouchable more clearly than a missing hand would mark a thief.
Malick angled himself through scattered tables and bodies, and toward the low couches and mounds of cushions at the back of the room, where the shadows shirred more thickly into the corners. Where the views and paths to the doors were clear and unobstructed, if one didn't mind the gyrating lumps of those who didn't bother to take themselves to a place more private, or didn't have the koin. Where a man could put his back to the wall and watch his quarry without risk of discovery too soon.
Unsurprisingly, Samin had already beaten him there and cleared them a spot. From the nasty looks he was getting and the dishabille of cushions and bodies scattered to either side of him, it appeared as though he'd not been terribly polite about it, either. Blue eyes, sharp and avid in a wide, granite face, focused on Malick as he approached. Malick gave Samin a slight nod as he joined him, leaning hip-shot against the wall, close enough to talk without being overheard, but far enough that they could always say they weren't together if one got caught and the other got away. Not that they needed to worry about that here. It was just habit.
"It's him," Samin muttered in what was surely meant to be a whisper, but emerged more as a gruff growl.
Malick flicked him a look replete with No shit, genius. "Ya think?" How many Untouchables, after all, ventured into a place like this? How many of them lived long enough to be of age to enter? Not that "of age" really mattered, when it came to the laws of Untouchables.
Samin ignored Malick, merely narrowed his eyes at the man, tilting his head like a curious pup. "He doesn't look mental."
Malick's eyebrows rose as he shot a look at Samin and then back at the Ghost. With the want clenching in Malick's gut--well, more precisely, in his trousers--"mental" was rather beside the point, but Samin was right. Calm and calculating, not wild and desperate as the few Untouchables Malick had seen had been. And fit, too, where the others had been thin and fragile, rickety with ill health, and too pale. This one's color was full and hearty, his eyes alive with intelligence. He was obviously well fed, and all that hair plaited down his back looked thick and lustrous. Even as they watched, the braid swung heavily over the man's shoulder as he dipped down a bit to sweep a quick, surreptitious touch to his right boot and then his left forearm. To anyone else, it might look like the man was scratching an itch.
"Knives," Malick said quietly.
Samin's head tilted farther. "Shouldn't be allowed," he muttered, disapproving, and when he noted the lift of Malick's eyebrow, he shook his head. "They're dangerous enough as it is. An Untouchable oughtn't be allowed a weapon any more than a child."
"You don't think they should be allowed to defend themselves?" Malick posed the question with real interest. If anyone had an informed opinion on the matter, it would be Samin.
Samin's mouth set in a grim line. "Defend themselves against what?" he wanted to know. "They're called 'Untouchable' for a reason. No one--Jin or Adan--would dare lay hands on a Ghost, though they've not been true Catalysts for... too bloody long." A weird mix of sympathy and disgust twisted his hard face. "I've seen enough of them, starved and raving. Their own kin won't touch them, not even to help."
Malick peered at Samin closely. "Would you ever interfere?" he asked, genuinely curious.
"Isn't that why we're here?"
"You're a funny man, Samin."
"I'm a practical man, Mal."
Malick politely refrained from giving Samin a sharp thwack to his big, giant head. "You know what I mean. A typical Untouchable." Because the Untouchable quietly choosing himself a whore across the room was certainly not typical. In any way.
A long sigh huffed out of Samin's chest, and he shot a careful glance to all sides, then leaned in closer to Malick. "The laws are there for a reason." The narrow blue gaze followed the Ghost, watched him pause to speak to one of the boys, before Samin turned his head to look at Malick squarely. "But the laws are still locked in fear. The Ancestors have been sending their Untouchables insane for too long, and something needs to be done. If I ever came across some poor, mad soul who couldn't keep enough sense in his head to know he was hungry, or even remember how to eat... if I was alone and unobserved, yeah, I'd interfere."
Interesting. But not surprising, coming from Samin. Malick merely nodded. "I suppose the real worry is the ones who've gone completely off the jump, and decide they need to take a few others with them."
He'd seen it once, when he'd had a commission in one of the camps: a young girl, perhaps thirteen or so, with that telltale braid, wild-eyed and snarling insanity, stoning a middle-aged woman who'd done nothing but stand there and scream, taking it. A crowd of onlookers merely stood watching, eyes full of horror and sorrow, but Malick hadn't been able to tell for whom either was meant. And when a man Malick guessed was the woman's husband attempted halfheartedly to lay hands on the girl, pull his wife away, the crowd stepped in and beat the man. Malick didn't know if it was to death--he hadn\'t waited about to find out.
A far cry from what the Untouchables used to be. Catalysts once, now this man's kind were merely Ghosts, haunted by the laws once meant to set them apart, almost revere them, but now only dragged out an inevitably ugly end.
Touching an Untouchable--for good or ill--with the intent to alter his course, was death. No excuses, no explanations, no quarter. One of the few laws the Jin were allowed to keep when they were overridden and conquered by Ada. Even the Adan held to it, though it had never really been tested, and Malick would be very surprised if an Adan were ever put to death for the sake of a Jin. At any rate, no Untouchable he'd heard of had ventured into the city for a very long time, let alone a whorehouse, and that after the Gates had already closed for the night. Not typical, indeed.
Malick wondered idly if this anomaly of a Ghost planned to stay the night in one of Umeia's rooms, and then wondered--a little less idly--if he'd be able to talk her into telling him which one. Though, Malick supposed, if things worked out, this pretty Untouchable might even tell Malick himself. Or come with Malick to his own. His fingers twitched a bit with the urge to wrap themselves around that thick, soft-looking braid.
"So, if he pulls one of them knives on me," Samin ventured slowly, "I'm not supposed to be allowed to turn it back on him."
It wasn't a question; Samin probably knew the laws regarding Untouchables as well as Malick did. It was a request for permission, a desire for the reassurance that Malick didn't expect him to bare his throat if the Ghost came at him.
Malick shrugged. "Not supposed to." A quick shift of his glance sideways, and he smirked. "But if no one's about to see a thing, does it really happen?"
Samin heaved a loose snort. "Can't make shit like this up," he muttered sourly.
"Ah, you could--but who would want to?"
They were quiet for a moment, watching the Ghost watching the crowd and trying to look like he wasn't, searching. "He's pretty, though," Samin finally put in, thoughtful.
"That's why we're going to take him in the bath," Malick told him with a grin.
Samin grimaced. "Save me, Mal, is your mind always on--?"
"No, sometimes it's on food and liquor," Malick cut in, "but right now I was thinking more along the lines of not having to deal with those knives. The potential view is merely a bonus."
"You can\'t use magic. It doesn\'t work on them."
Malick waggled his eyebrows. "That\'s what makes it fun."
"That\'s what makes it stupid and riskier than it needs to be," Samin corrected, "and you a bloody idiot."
"Aw, stop, I'll blush." Malick nodded toward the eastern door that led to the baths, where the Ghost was being escorted by his chosen whore. "Look, he's picked one." A dark-haired boy--boy, Malick's nethers pointed out gleefully--with fair skin and a pleasant blankness to his expression that spoke to a willingness for just about anything that involved the proper amount of koin. The choice wasn't terribly surprising; Madi was a ready favorite of many whose purses likely weighed heavier than this Untouchable's. Too bad for said Untouchable that he wasn't going to get the chance to find out why. "Go tell Umeia we need twenty minutes."
"You go tell Umeia," Samin snapped. "Last time we brought our business here she threatened to castrate me. Me--like it isn't you as gives the orders."
"I only relay them, friend, I don't give them." That responsibility Malick happily laid squarely on the shoulders of the phantom he knew only as the Mage. And he had no interest whatsoever in learning any more than the scant bits he already knew. "Go on, then," he told Samin, hardening his tone somewhat, "before he slips through. We'll never hear the end of it if Shig and Yori get him." He didn't wait for Samin to stop sputtering. With a cocky wink, Malick slid away from the wall, merging unnoticed into the anonymity of the patronage like sinewy smoke. Hard angles and lanky limbs glided into unobtrusive grace as he slunk to the other end of the floor and down the lamp-lit stone stairway to the baths.
The Ghost was already availing himself of one of the shower-boxes, rinsing off with a couple of buckets behind a screen of woven rushes. Naked, Malick's nethers put in helpfully; he ignored them, though he couldn't help wondering if all that hair was unbound, and what it would look like wet and stuck to sinewy arms and rippled torso. Just how long would it be, untethered from that braid that swung down about the man's knees?--down to his calves, at least, surely. Ankles, maybe? Yum. All sorts of delightful possibilities swept through the little brain, and Malick forced the big brain to put them reluctantly but firmly aside. Business first. Though he did manage a bit of a leer when Madi slipped silently past him and back out the door with a conspiratory wink.
The coals in the corner hob glowed red and hot, the scented pot of water hanging above burbling quietly into the already steamy air. The metallic sting of minerals hung in the close cavern, weighted heavily with sulfur. Malick sucked a long breath through his nose, clearing his senses of the less organic residue of the Girou. Granite tiles wound about the rough rim of the great steaming pool, kept naturally hot by springs flowing beneath half the city. Malick checked the shadows creased into the rough-hewn stone of the walls, the steady drip-drip-drip of condensation rhythmic beneath the sporadic splashing coming from the lone occupied shower-box. Empty, every corner. Surprising, considering the traffic this evening. No one else lurked, not that Malick could see.
The black, high-collared tunic the man had been wearing, along with boots and belts and black trousers, were all lying safely out of reach on the stone bench meant for disrobing. Malick almost tsked at the carelessness, thought about searching the bundle--just out of idle curiosity, to see how many knives the Ghost carried, and what sorts he favored--but decided to err on caution's side, for once. Samin would be so proud.
Making his way silently into the room, Malick checked the other boxes, as well, just to be sure, saw they were all empty, and smiled. Umeia must have been several steps ahead of him, as usual, and cleared everyone out when she spied their quarry. With the exception of Samin, likely now keeping watch outside the door, no one would stumble in and interrupt.
Everything was going perfectly so far, exactly according to plan, so Malick was a little surprised when the man's soft voice--deeper than Malick had supposed, and laced tight with control--came like the point of a knife from the other side of that flimsy screen:
"Why are you watching me?"
Good thing Malick lived for the unexpected. Damn, he'd been so careful to appear as though he hadn't been watching at all. His eyebrows only rose a little as he paused, propped his shoulder to the uneven stone of the wall, and casually crossed one leg over the other, draping his lanky self artistically, and adding a brash grin. For good measure--and better effect--he brushed the long skirt of his duster back to expose the small knife at his belt, propped elbow to hipbone and made a show of inspecting his fingernails. A damned tempting picture he made, if he did say so.
"Well, good evening to you too," he drawled.
The screen jittered then rattled aside halfway. The man stood inside the box, using the screen as flimsy half cover, clad in nothing but a bathsheet and attitude, a hard glare scraping from amber-shot gray eyes ringed in indigo, and spiking through the mist of the bath straight into Malick's chest. Fuck, the man was gorgeous. The hair was still disappointingly bound, but the wild fringe had come loose again to hang frayed and dripping over the eyes; Malick was surprised the fierce, furious stare didn't singe the ends. Lamp-tawny droplets of water slipped over hard, masculine lines, lean and long. Abrasions, bruises, and scars--apparent evidence of close wet-work--mottled unevenly but for a heavy swath of thin, silvery stripes on the left bicep, neat and straight, as though they'd been put there apurpose. His chest was hairless, Malick noted with a slight inner-trill, shaped by hard work and padded with mouth-watering rises and ripples as he breathed; the ridges of a tight abdomen stood out in sublime relief, sliding down to those enticing dual grooves beneath the barrier of the sheet where torso became groin.
Malick let his eyes rove unfettered, taking in every line and swell, lingering too long for manners on the way the sheet bunched in a white-knuckled fist between the man's groin and the tantalizing wing of his left hip. Gaze skidding upward, Malick took careful note that he couldn't see the right hand behind the flimsy shield of the screen, and by the way the pectoral on that side quivered tense, the Ghost likely had something very unfriendly clutched in his fist. Malick was ridiculously pleased that the carelessness at which he'd earlier curled his lip was a figment of his own assumptions, and warned himself not to indulge them again. He would likely not live to regret underestimating this Untouchable.
"Why are you watching me?" Bitten out through teeth clenched tight. Such pretty white little teeth, straight and even. Malick wondered if they'd draw blood when they snapped... wondered if he'd like it. Of course, if those full lips were to follow along, soothe the hurt....
Oh, fuck me. I really think I want this one.
"And why wouldn't I be?" was all Malick said.
"What do you want?"
Malick nearly snorted. What did he want? What a loaded question. He only let an eyebrow rise, let his smirk curl seductively. "Don't ask questions to which you don't want an answer, little Ghost."
There was no flinch or other telltale--the man was too controlled for that--but his eyes darkened, deepened, and his nostrils flared the tiniest bit. "If you know what I am," he said slowly, "then you know what the penalty is for interfering."
His accent was... odd. Malick had a very good ear for them, but he couldn't place this one, and it certainly didn't have the twangy Jin sound to it, like he'd expected. More like it was from everywhere and nowhere at once, no distinct characteristic to classify it, and yet hints of every one Malick had ever heard. Very strange.
Malick noted it but merely shrugged. "Funny, a friend and I were just discussing that. Seems the consensus is that a thing can't actually be said to have happened, if no one was there to see it."
The man's eyes flickered over to the door with the mention of "a friend," and Malick's smirk broadened. Not only pretty but clever, too, and if there was any madness behind that glare, it was the kind that was born of rage and... betrayal, most likely, because didn't it usually come down to that? Rage and betrayal--a lethal combination, the best combination with the highest potential. It didn't generally take much to harness those emotions, point them, use them. The Mage was right again, but then, he always was.
"Here we are, all alone." Malick pushed himself away from the wall, meandered lazily about the granite-tiled edges of the pool, boots clocking softly on wet stone, eyes locked to the Ghost's. "No one to disturb us. No one to interrupt."
Muscles beneath smooth, bare skin tightened and jumped ever so slightly as Malick neared--he never would've seen it, had he not been looking for it; fuck, but the man was good, all calm restraint--so Malick kept a loose perimeter, lingering at the periphery of the man's personal space like a prowling tom. Deliberately seductive, eyes half-lidded, Malick leaned lightly into the screen, all too aware that the sharp point of a knife was no doubt just on the other side, aimed directly at his gut. No, his heart--this one would go for the sure, immediate kill.