A chosen servant left for dead
A pair of hunters with hidden secrets
A fateful choice of who to trust…
The young cowboy Teer has joined the rogue El-Spehari demigod Kard in his work as a bounty hunter. Both have powers they conceal, but they are determined to guard the people of the Unity’s Eastern Territories.
When a favored servant of the Unity’s Spehari ruler is beaten and left for dead, the two bounty hunters are hired to track the attacker into the wilderness. The Unity has betrayed them both, but they still believe in justice.
Capturing the fugitive is only the first step. Teer faces a harsh question: when a beautiful young woman begs for protection, what is more important—her crimes…or why she committed them?
Teer woke up alone.
That was neither unfamiliar nor really a surprise, though he hadn’t gone to sleep alone. The dark-skinned young man got out of bed and lit a lamp. The dim light of dawn was streaming through the shutters into the small but comfortable hotel room, and he could hear the growing chaos of the town outside.
Soon it would become unbearable. Teer hadn’t been in a large town in a dozen turnings of the seasons, and he was certain his senses hadn’t been as sharp then. He could pick out the shouting of early-morning vendors clearly, even though the nearest of them had to be half a mile away.
He wouldn’t be able to track Doka, though. The blue-skinned Kotan woman had stayed longer than she’d originally planned to, and he liked to think she’d stayed because of him, but he’d always known she was going to leave.
Doka was a tracker, one Teer and his master had hired for a specific job. They’d been friends, but the sex had explicitly been without strings—and she’d clearly run out of her patience with Carlon, the largest town in the Unity’s Eastern Territories.
There was a dent in the mattress where Doka had fallen asleep, but that was the only sign she’d ever been in the room. Teer had no illusions about his ability to follow her, either. Unnatural senses or no, he was a fledgling bounty hunter at best. The tracker had ten turnings of experience on him in every way.
He put his hand on the mattress. He could still pick up a bit of warmth, but it had been at least three or four candlemarks since she’d snuck out without waking him.
Teer sighed and found his clothes crumpled against the wall where Doka had tossed them the night before. Bending over to pick them up, he tested his motion where he’d been slashed across the back before they’d arrived in Carlon.
Everything bent and moved like it should. Like him, Doka possessed gifts others would call magic. Hers was in poultices and potions, the magic of the Kotan tribes who remained outside the Unity. His was in his own flesh and muscles, the magic of the Merik people who formed the bulk of the people of the Unity.
Between those magics, his wounds had healed in mere days.
Teer dressed with the practice of a ranch hand long used to nights on the prairie. The clothes were higher-quality than he’d worn before, bought with the proceeds from the first bounty he’d brought in with his master and partner, but only the armored gray coat was different from what he’d have worn before.
The coat was a sign of his new job. It was apparently tradition, worn by most bounty hunters, and could resist bullets. Finally dressed, Teer gave the empty bed one last disappointed look and then headed for the door.
The turnings of the seasons didn’t wait for people of any race.
Teer’s master, partner, companion—he wasn’t entirely certain what exactly the relationship was yet—was already in the inn’s common room when Teer came downstairs. He was leaning over a table, a cup of tea steaming at his left hand as he leafed through a set of formal parchments.
To Teer, Kard was a big man, as tall as Teer but more heavily built than the Merik youth. His skin was pale and his hair was dark, pierced by long and sharp ears that curved backward like knives strapped to his skull.
Kard was El-Spehari, a halfblood child of the demigod-like Spehari who ruled the Unity. Since the halfbloods had revolted a dozen turnings earlier, any El-Spehari who wasn’t specifically sworn to the King in Winter was subject to arrest and execution.
That was why Teer was the only person who saw the true Kard. His magical gifts rendered him completely immune to the illusion that Kard wove around himself of a Merik man even more darkly colored than Teer himself.
All that illusion did for Teer was give him a headache. There was a vague disturbance around Kard to his eyes, like there was a hot summer sun behind him, and that was all he saw of the spell.
“The server will be back soon,” Kard told him as he arrived. “Take a seat.”
“Anything of use to us?” Teer asked, gesturing to the parchments. They were Writs of Seizure, the formal papers authorizing bounty hunters like Kard and now Teer to arrest people and bring them to the Wardkeepers of the Eastern Territories.
“None of them have any useful information on where the target can be found,” Kard admitted. “And the rewards are slight. Two stone, maybe three.” He waved vaguely and took a sip of his tea. “I can see a few places to check out, but I figure it would do no good to chase any of these quickly.”
The server returned to the table as Kard was speaking. She was a Merik like Teer and cast him an assessing glance as she laid a wooden plate in front of Kard.
“Where’s yer third?” she asked. “The blue one?”
“She’s gone,” Teer admitted. “City weren’t for her.”
“I see,” the young woman replied. “Well, what it be? Breakfast?”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “Thanks.”
He settled into his chair and grabbed a random Writ. This one was for a Zeeanan man named Pozi. Wanted for nonpayment of debts, reward of a single stone for live delivery.
The stamped redcrystal stones were worth quite a bit, but one wasn’t enough to justify two Hunters riding halfway across the Territories.
“I’m thinking to head northeast, to the swamps,” Kard murmured. “I have an old friend in the hills out there who might know more of your…”
He cut off as the server returned with a cup of tea for Teer. Teer nodded his thanks to the woman—and his understanding to Kard.
The Merik had been conquered by the Spehari a long time before. If there were any records of Merik magic, the Spehari had them—and they weren’t sharing with the son of a dead Unity conscript or a proscribed halfblood.
“Learning more would be nice,” Teer admitted. “But money is good too.”
The one bounty they’d brought in had been a mass-murdering bandit and his gang. The reward had been enough to cover living well for a few turnings at least—especially if Teer managed to get away from the overwhelming noise of Carlon.
“Any of these lead north?” he asked, gesturing at the Writs. They could turn in a captive bounty to the Wardkeeper at any wardtown so long as they had the Writ. Some would be jailed. Others would be hung over the wardstones that shielded the Territories’ towns from weather and attack, their life force charging the stones’ magic.
“A couple,” Kard said. “None have…useful clues.”
The waitress slid a wooden platter in front of Teer, the same thick bread and bacon on Kard’s plate. The inn was one of the better ones in town, but “breakfast” was still a single menu item here.
She stayed by their table for a minute, her hands on her hips and her body tilted forward in a way Teer hadn’t seen from the girl before.
“Anythin’ else?” she asked.
“I think we’re good,” Kard told her. “On our tab?”
“’Course, ’course,” she agreed, winking at Teer before she headed back to the kitchen.
“She wants something else put on our tab,” the older Hunter said with a chuckle.
Teer looked at him in confusion.
“Kard?” he asked.
Kard chuckled again.
“Most of the staff in a place like this is, ah, available,” he told Teer. “She won’t bed you for free, but she might think you’re attractive enough for a discount.”
Teer flushed, grateful that his coloring didn’t show that easily.
“I see,” he said. “I…I’ll be good.”
“Doka wore you out, did she?” the other man asked. “Fair enough. You finished your shopping here?”
“Yeah,” Teer confirmed. “Picked ever’ing up yesterday. Waiting on you now.”
He’d bought new clothes to supplement the clothes he’d left home with. His mother and her husband had forced a lot of things on him when he’d left, but more clothes were always useful.
And he’d had no choice about leaving. His initial encounter with Kard had involved him shooting the man in a fit of rage, thinking he was Spehari. To spare him the penalty of attacking a Spehari, Kard had magically bound Teer to him.
A brand on Teer’s shoulder marked him as Kard’s property, not that the El-Spehari treated him that way. And it wasn’t like the Spehari didn’t regard everyone in the Unity as property.
Teer stared morosely into the plate of food, almost unconsciously slathering the bacon and its grease over the fresh bread. The days in Carlon had helped drive home just how strange his situation was.
He had just started eating when the tone of the shouting outside changed. He paused, chewing and swallowing as the chaos grew louder.
“Someone in trouble,” he said softly. “I hear…murder.”
“Murder?” Kard asked. Both of them knew Teer’s senses were sharper, though Kard could hear better than anyone else Teer knew.
“Lot of shouting,” Teer confirmed. “Should we…”
“Unless you hear shooting, finish your breakfast,” Kard ordered. “It sounds like we might have some real work to do.”