excerpt of Summer-set
Monsoons filled that summer, and she filled his heart. Later, during evening storms, he thought of the sudden shadows her breasts made with every flash of lightning. Thought of how the rain would seep into her and give her its wetness, until she was fluid all around him, her skin slick with it, her cries dissolving. They moved with the same steady rhythm of the drumming of the water. And when he called her name in that last desperate delving for her innermost secrets, the thunder drowned his voice.
In the autumn, she slipped out of his hold like the rain.
Ryuan stared at the droplets scattered on his window, his body clenched fist-tight. It had been three seasons and still he thirsted after her. There had been other women, sleek perfumed beauties at court, but he scarcely remembered them. None of them had satisfied him, even when he shut his eyes and imagined their hair to be sable instead of whatever other color it was. And she had been tall and lean. With these other women he had to bend his head too low to cover their mouths with his own, and his hands skimming down their sides only told him with mounting aversion, No, this is not she.
Still, he had lingered at court for a long while—too long—hoping to find someone who could ease away her memory. He had stretched even the prince's patience, pursuing this hopeless task. The prince had given him a different task, an old one—a chance to repair a mistake made one year ago. It had been his only failure.
He was the prince's justice and executioner, and he never took his prey standing.
Ryuan pressed one hand to the window. Beyond the clouded skies was a tomorrow, and it was then he would begin his hunt. The quarry the prince had given him was as meaningless as the rivulets down the glass, for he knew whom he truly sought. "Run, Calanthe," he whispered. "I will find you."
Behind him came a soft rustle and footsteps, no doubt one of the court ladies seeking his bed one last time.
"I don't want you," he said without turning around.
A chuckle, one that he knew well. "Just as well."
Ryuan turned. "Forgive me, Kaen. I thought you were someone else."
"You must be distracted indeed to mistake me." Prince Kaen regarded him with all of his old affection. They had been raised together as brothers, and Ryuan remembered wondering at the differences between them—Kaen's dark brown hair next to his own tawny gold, the rangy frame where Ryuan had a thicker build.
Later, the differences had only grown. Smells that cloyed Ryuan's nostrils and whispers that filled his ears were barely noticeable to Kaen. Kaen was right— it was unusual for anyone to surprise Ryuan, because his senses were keener than any human's.
"You leave tomorrow?" asked Kaen.
Ryuan nodded. "I could leave tonight, even."
"The matter's not that rushed. Wait for the morning and a clear sky." Kaen had a touch of weather-ken and knew these things. He hesitated, then went on in a gentle tone. "I've enjoyed your constant company at court these past three seasons. It's just that I think it's best for you to go out, before it overwhelms you."
"I know." And he did. Ryuan had learned the crucial thing that distinguished him from Kaen when the wild-mind had begun to descend upon him: blurred sections of time when movement fascinated him, from running strides to the beat of the pulse in someone's neck. His hunger would be insatiable, whether it was to kill or rut, and the scent of blood became an overpowering, flaring thing...
When those at court had decried him as mad, Kaen's parents had spread the truth before them. Ryuan was one of the wolf-born, those considered as much beast as man because they could take both shapes. Although when roused, there was nothing considered more dangerous, Kaen's parents had reasoned that there could be no more fearsome a bodyguard for their son. They had somehow brought him to court while he was too young to remember, and had him raised as a companion to secure his loyalties. When Kaen later became ruler, he had turned Ryuan's abilities toward other directions. "He will hunt the two-legged hyenas who prey upon my land and my people," the prince had told the court as he secured the signet ring on its chain around Ryuan's neck. "Let no man stand in his path or deny him anything he asks for." Now they called him the prince's hunter.
Ryuan didn't begrudge the name. Being able to call Kaen his foster-brother was the most precious gift in his life. There had been a brief summer when he had thought that a woman might overshadow Kaen in his heart, but he knew better now.
He had also believed then that the wild-mind could be sated through lust rather than through killing. But even after bedding most of the court women he remained restless from unfulfilled cravings, the constant effort of staying human leaving him tense and his temper strung taut. Once he had even been driven to hunting just outside the city, taking down a stray boar before the blood-urge subsided, and even then not wholly.
It would not stop until he took down a human.
"I won't return until the sorcerer is dead," Ryuan said, staring blindly out the window again. He had never explained why he had failed last time and Kaen had never asked. When they were boys, there were no secrets between them. But that had been before Kaen became prince.
"Ryu..." Kaen's voice drew him back, anchor-steady. "Send word if something goes amiss. And whenever you need to, come back. This is your home."
"And let a rogue sorcerer go unpunished? You'll set a poor precedent."
Kaen balled his hands into fists and his eyes blazed with a sudden rage. "This sorcerer hurt you once, and if he does it again— One criminal isn't worth my brother, damn it!"
The corner of Ryuan's mouth quirked. Usually he was the quick-tempered one and Kaen patient, but whenever they were together they seemed to reverse roles. Kaen's presence helped calm Ryuan and stave away the wild-mind, and Ryuan in turn only seemed to incite his foster-brother to more passionate bouts of emotion.
He said with deliberate lightness, "Are you worried about me, or the mass of court ladies who'll pine themselves away in my absence?"
Kaen's laugh was choked, but he was unwillingly drawn into the banter. "You think you're that good?"
Ryuan shrugged. "It's harder to keep my bed empty than to fill it."
"It's true that you've been seeing a lot of women," Kaen said. "A different one each night, it seems. You need to take a wife before you disqualify all of them."
"You sound like our mother when she was trying to marry you off," Ryuan said dryly. Their mother—his foster-mother—had been a relentless matchmaker, and finally hounded Kaen into wedding a sweet-voiced girl— pretty enough, but far too timid for Ryuan's own taste. He knew that the closeness he shared with Kaen disturbed her, and she rarely looked him in the face, let alone addressed him.
He didn't want anyone who feared him. Even those who came willingly to his bed did so for the thrill of it, the edge of danger. With them he had to keep himself locked into human thoughts and hands, careful to maintain the guise that he was no more than an exotic man, because to do otherwise would send them fleeing. He needed someone who accepted his nature and there had only ever been one such woman. And then it had only been a ploy on her part.
"No one suits you," Kaen said, reading his thoughts.
"Tell truth, Kaen. What woman would consent to settle with one of the wolf-born?" He stretched out his hands and deliberately brought the claws forth. It hurt when he did so without being in the wild-mind.
Kaen watched him flex his hands, unafraid. He had been with Ryuan when he first discovered the ability. "You found that woman, last summer."
Ryuan looked up sharply. "You knew?"
"It wasn't difficult to tell." At Ryuan's expression, Kaen added, "For me, at least. You've been grieving ever since."
Ryuan subsided. He felt unaccountably ashamed, not so much by the actual revelation as by the fact that he had never shared this. "I should have told you. But it hurt too much...because I lost her."
"The sorcerer took her from you," Kaen said. The words were flatly spoken, not a question.
It had to be so. He remembered asking her whether she had ever heard of the sorcerer, and her evasive non-answer. She had pulled him down over her to distract him. Her entire presence had been meant to distract him, he knew now. "Yes," he said.
"Hunt that bastard down," Kaen said fiercely. "Exile is too good for him."
Ryuan inclined his head as though it had been a royal command and not a vindictive curse.
Kaen hesitated a moment longer, then said quietly, "Safe journey, brother." He turned and walked out of the chamber.
Ryuan cradled those words, as he had the first time Kaen had called him that. He should have been more considerate of Kaen's worries, he knew, but his thoughts all dwelled with Calanthe. He returned to his post by the window, watching the downpour.
Lightning lit the sky and illuminated a past summer.
He had been hunting a man into exile when he first saw her. She was lifting water from a well. Against the dimming sky she was a seductive foretelling of the night, with her smoke-dark eyes, earth-dark skin and raven-dark hair, falling free down her back as no respectable woman would wear it. Gold glinted around her neck with the last of the sun's light.
Ryuan scented no danger, so he turned human. He wore nothing but a chain about his neck, from which dangled a signet ring. It identified him as well as his name would.
She looked up at his approach and her eyes caught on that telltale signet. Then her gaze slipped lower for a moment before she caught herself. She unhooked the bucket. "Water, my lord?"
Grown men blanched at the sight of him, knowing him to be wolf-born, while women turned away from his nakedness. She seemed unfazed. Intrigued more than thirsty, he cupped his palms and let her carefully pour water into them so that he could sip. "My thanks."
"You've been on a long road."
And no one ever spoke to him about his hunts. They were his business and the prince's, the execution of law, not fodder for gossip. "You know who I am?"
Her eyes flickered to the signet again. "The prince's hunter. Lord Ryuan. No other man would be fool enough to wear that. And nothing else."
Her forthright manner was more refreshing than the drink she had offered. "Your name?"
"Calanthe, my lord."
"And what do you know of my journey so far, Calanthe?" He let suspicion harden his voice. He didn't want her to be in league with the sorcerer, a sentiment that surprised him, but how else would she know of the path he had taken to track the man?
She wasn't oblivious to the danger she was in—he heard her pulse grow faster—but she answered readily enough. "It started at the capital, did it not? Perhaps it's shorter as the wolf runs, but for the rest of us, it's more than a tenday away."
He relaxed, chuckling at how he had overlooked the obvious. "My apologies for the interrogation. My journey did start there. And it has been long, even as a wolf."
"And you are parched in either form, I'm sure. They always warn us about the hungers of the wolf-born, but they should mention the thirst." She smiled and gestured for him to cup his hands again.
He did so, but this time he watched her instead of the flow of water. Her hands, like her figure, were slender and graceful yet strong. There was a sureness to her that he liked—not the arrogance of the court women, but an unaffected confidence that his presence did nothing to diminish. She spoke easily of him in his wolf-shape, made light of the wild-mind.
He wondered what this woman would be like in bed. Just as bold and teasing? A touch careless, though, in her attitude.
"You shouldn't discount danger so easily," he said. "Not from me, but there are men in this area who would part you from that gold." There were lawless men in these parts. Ironically, it had been the death of one of them that had brought him here. Ryuan would deal with them if he encountered any, but for now he had greater prey to pursue.
"With the prince's hunter here to serve justice?" She shook her head. "Surely there's nowhere safer right now." Was that a trace of banter in her voice, as though his prowess could be questioned?
"I am on hunt," he said. "I won't be lingering long."
"You spurn my hospitality, my lord?" She tilted her head and looked at him in wide-eyed appeal, still playing her game of innocent challenge, and yet the thought of spending a night with her was a temptation.
It had been long—too many nights spent curled as a wolf in dens he had dug. There had been a court woman the night he had left the capital, but he had already forgotten which one it had been. Those were empty rituals of pleasure, enjoyable but always the same: some woman seeking the thrill of bedding one of the wolf-born, perhaps also trying to win the prince's favor.
Calanthe would be different. He would stay a night, he decided, if this woman were willing to share more than a roof.
Ryuan nodded to the bucket and said, "I won't spurn more water." But this time, after she poured and set the bucket upon the rim of the well, he kept his filled hands still and said, "But I interrupted you just as you were pulling this up. You too should drink."
There were two choices for her here. He was curious which one she would take.
She looked at him with a sudden awareness that hummed between their bodies. She wore her hair unbound, so she was neither a shy maid nor a wed woman and would know his words for an invitation. He didn't move at all, though. There were simple ways out for her—she could deny thirst, or reach into the bucket with her own hands. That she was a free woman did not mean she was any man's.
She was still unafraid, he was glad to see. Her pause was to consider him, and as her gaze moved over him, he felt himself stirring. An expression he couldn't read passed over her face. Then she said gravely, "A generous gift, my lord. Offering water which I gave to you." But the corner of her mouth quirked, and she slid her palms beneath his to steady them and drank from his hands.