THE morning came way too fast, William decided as he finished shaving. He'd slipped back into the house and caught a few hours in bed, but most of him still felt like he had been run through one of the Broken's dryers with some rocks added for the extra tumble.At least his room had a bathroom attached to it, so he could clean up in relative privacy. His shoulder had gone from blue to sickly yellow-green. The yellow would be gone by the evening - changelings did heal fast. But then, healing fast often just invited more punishment, he reflected.Something had happened early in the morning. He remembered waking up to some sort of commotion, but his door had stayed locked, so he went back to sleep.William dressed and tried the door handle again. Open. Good. It had taken all of his will not to bust it last night. Being locked up had never been his favorite.He slipped into the hallway. The house was quiet and sunlit; the air smelled of cooked bacon. He decided he liked the Rathole. With its clean wooden floors and tall windows, it was an open, uncluttered place, welcoming, comfortable, but not overwhelming. He caught a faint hint of Cerise's scent and followed it down the stairs and into a huge kitchen. A massive table, old and scarred, dominated the room. Behind it an enormous wood-burning oven sat next to an old electric one. Erian sat at the table doing his best to empty his very full plate. Kaldar leaned against the wall. No Cerise. Great."Here you are." Kaldar saluted him with a wave of his hand. "You missed breakfast, friend.""I thought you were supposed to watch me," William said. "What the hell?"Kaldar grimaced. "Things happened. Anyway, I figured you'd find your way here sooner or later. Besides, we all watch you. Can't have a stranger in the house unsupervised. No offense.""None taken. Urow's wife explained to me where I stand."Kaldar's eyes narrowed. He glanced away.Something had happened to Clara or Urow. Something that made Kaldar wince."That's Clara for you," Kaldar said. "Anyway, you've met my younger brother before, yes, no?""Yes. Erian."Erian waved at him with his fork. He ate slowly, cutting his food into small pieces. His face was smart but slightly melancholy - the man worried a lot."Usually we have to introduce everyone three or four times before guests start remembering names." Kaldar picked up a metal platter covered by a hood and took the lid off. William took in a pile of fried sausage, chunks of battered fried fish, scrambled eggs, and two stacks of golden pancakes glowing with butter, and tried not to drool."Leftovers," Kaldar said. "Sorry about the fish. We don't get much meat here. The plates are in the cabinet behind you."William retrieved two plates and traded one of them with Kaldar for a fork and a knife. They sat down on opposite sides of Erian. William attacked the pancakes. They were sweet and fluffy and perfect.Kaldar passed him a small jar of green jam. "Try this."William slathered a small bit on his pancake and put it in his mouth. The jam was sweet and slightly sour, but mild. It tasted like strawberry and kiwi and some odd fruit he once tried . . . persimmon, that was it."Good, yes?" Kaldar winked at him. "Cerise makes it. She's a great cook."Erian stopped chewing. "Did you just try to broker Cerise to him?"Kaldar waved at him. "Shut up, I'm working here.""No," Erian said. "For one, we barely know the man."William loaded his plate with sausage. Rabbit. Mmm. If Kaldar thought Cerise would let him sell her, he was deeply mistaken. That much he knew."And I'm practically her brother, and I'm sitting right here," Erian said.Kaldar regarded him. "And that concerns me how?""You don't try to sell a man's sister right in front of him, Kaldar.""Why not?""That's just not right." Erian looked at William. "Tell him.""You've got to be careful about that," William said. He'd learned very early on that there is a fine line between joking among men and pissing a soldier off by saying something bad about his sister. He never could tell the difference, so he stayed away from the subject altogether. "People take offense. You might get your throat slit.""Well, I don't see a problem with it," Kaldar said."That's because you're a scoundrel," Erian said dryly.Kaldar put his hand to his chest. "Oh, Erian. From you, that hurts."Erian shook his head. "I don't know about a slit throat, but Ceri will cut your balls off if you keep meddling."Now that was something William could believe. "Where is she?"Both men took a bit too long to chew their food before Erian answered. "She's in the small yard. Cutting things.""So," Kaldar leaned back. "You're a blueblood, and you said you aren't rich.""He isn't?" Erian glanced at him."No," William said."So how do you earn your cash?" Kaldar asked.I lay floors in the Broken. "I hunt.""Men or beasts?" Kaldar asked."Men."Erian nodded. "Any money in that?"William washed his pancake down with a gulp of water. "Some. If you're good."Erian's eyes fixed him. "Are you?"Keep pushing and you'll find out. William stretched his lips, showing his teeth to Erian. "How badly do you want to know?""Oh, now that's not nice ..." Kaldar clicked his tongue.Footsteps approached the stairs. William turned to the door. "Company.""I don't hear anything," Kaldar said."Perhaps if you shut up?" Erian wondered.The stairs creaked. The door swung open and a massive form dwarfed the doorway. Urow pushed his way into the room. Haggard, his gray skin pale, he staggered to the table, his right arm in a sling. Kaldar got up and pulled a chair from the table. Urow sat.All the strength seemed to have gone out of him, as if he'd grown too heavy for his muscle."Blueblood," he said, offering William his left hand across the table.They clamped hands. Urow's handshake was still hard, but William sensed weakness in his grip."You all right?" he asked."Been better." Urow's eyes were bloodshot and dull."How's your wife?""Hurt."He thought as much. Clara was hurt and Urow's world had been split open. He could've taken on a lot of punishment, but failing to protect his wife broke him. "Sorry to hear that.""I have a favor to ask," Urow spoke slowly, as if straining to push the words out. "You already helped me once, so I'd owe you two.""You owe me nothing. What's the favor?""I'm leaving my youngest son here. He needs to stay busy, so if you need something done, tell him to do it for you. The harder the job, the better."Strange. "Fine," William said. "I'll do that."Urow reached into his pocket, pulled something out, and pushed it across the table. It was a round thing, about two inches wide, made with braided twine and human hair. A black claw stained with dried blood protruded from the circle. It smelled of human blood and looked like one of Urow's claws, except he had all of his."Keep this for me, so my son minds your orders."Behind Urow, wide-eyed Kaldar furiously shook his head. Erian's face was carefully neutral, while his hand was making "don't take it" motions beside the table, out of Urow's view."What is it?" William asked."It's a thing. A sign." A faint tremble laced Urow's hoarse voice, and William realized that this was the closest the man could come to begging. The urge to get up and walk away gripped him."I've got nobody else to take it," Urow said. "Family won't work, and the rest of the Mire, well, there isn't anyone I'd trust with my boy. They would use him badly." Pain filled his eyes. His voice fell to a rough, broken whisper. "Do this for me, William. I don't want to kill my son."William sat utterly still. Pieces clicked in his head. He'd read about this custom before, in a book about the tribes on the Southern Continent of the Weird. When a child committed an offense punishable by death, his family could surrender him to another guardian and keep him alive. The child would serve the guardian until maturity.Urow's youngest boy had done something punishable by death and Urow could no longer keep him. The only way the kid would survive would be if he belonged to someone else.William sat very still. When he was born and his mother didn't want him, she could've thrown him in the gutter and walked away. In Louisiana, he would've been strangled at birth. He survived because he was born in Adrianglia and because his mother cared enough to surrender him to the government instead of tossing him into a ditch like garbage. For better or worse, they took him, they fed him, they gave him shelter, and while his life had never been easy, he never regretted being born.It didn't matter that the kid wasn't exactly a changeling and this was not Adrianglia, and he didn't know Urow or what to do with his son.It was his turn. Only a fool didn't pay fate back, and he wasn't that fool.William took the amulet.Urow exhaled slowly through his nose. Kaldar pretended to hit his face against the cabinet. Erian leaned forward, rested his elbows on the table, and put his head on his fists, hiding his face."If you ever need anything ..." Urow pushed to his feet.William nodded. The rest went without saying.Urow turned and walked out of the room."You shouldn't have taken that." Erian raised his head. "It's done now."Kaldar sighed. "You're a good man, William. Stupid but good."William had just about enough. "You talk too much.""I've been telling him that for years," Erian said.A door swung open the second time and one of Urow's kids came in. Gaston, William remembered. The kid was about sixteen or so, judging by the face, still leaner than Urow but already a couple of inches taller and on the way to his father's massive build. Same temper, too, judging by the shallow scars on his muscular forearms. Fighting with his brothers probably. William scrutinized his face: hard jaw, flat cheekbones, deep-set eyes, startling pale gray under black bushy eyebrows. The kid could pass for human, if the light was bad enough. Bruises marked his jaw and neck. Somebody had pummeled him.William pointed to the chair across the table. "Sit."The kid sat, his shoulders hunched, as if expecting to block a punch. His left hand was missing a claw. The wound had barely had time to scab over."Hungry?"The kid eyed the food and shook his head.William got another plate, loaded it, and passed it to him. "Don't lie to me, I'll know."The kid dug into the food. William let him eat for a couple of minutes. Slowly the kid's posture relaxed."How old are you?""Fifteen."Three years older than George, Rose's brother."What's your name?""Gaston."William touched the amulet. "What did you do?"Gaston froze with his fork halfway to his mouth.William said nothing.The kid swallowed. "You left. Dad was sleeping. Ry and Mart went to herd rolpies into the shelter, because Mom was worried that if the Sheeriles showed up, they'd kill the rolpies first. I was supposed to watch the house. We have a hand crank siren up in the tree. If anything went wrong, I was supposed to crank the siren so Mart and Ry would run home. Mom was cooking carp." Gaston stared at his plate. "Dad hates carp. Says it tastes like waterweeds. I had lines set up in a creek. I went to check my lines."Gaston looked at his plate. "I abandoned my family.""Who came to the house while you were gone?" William asked.Gaston slid into a toneless monotone. "A man. He attacked Mom. He . . . cut off her leg. Ignata says that there is nothing she can do. My mom will be a cripple now. Because of me."The kid was dumping buckets of self-loathing on himself. The fault wasn't his. Clara should have left when Cerise told her about Ruh. Gaston wasn't pushed out of his family because he'd left his post. He was a child and likely not properly trained. Gaston was pushed out because Urow loved Clara, and now every time he looked at his youngest son, he would be reminded of her injury. Urow had injected himself into the situation, his wife failed to evacuate, and now they loaded all of their guilt and their mistakes onto their child and removed him from the family. A clean sweep.The wild scraped at his insides. That was fine. The kid was his now."What did the man look like?""I only saw him for a second, when he jumped out of the window. Tall. Blond hair.""What else?""He offered Clara limes for her soup," Kaldar said quietly.Spider. William hid a growl. Only Spider could walk into a house of a woman to interrogate her and start the conversation by offering her fruit.William leaned forward. "The man dove into the water and didn't come up for air."Gaston blinked. "Yes. Dad and the guys didn't believe me, but he didn't come up.""He has gills that feed air into his lungs. What did he want from your mother?""He was asking about you and Cerise."William expected as much. Clara didn't tell Spider what he wanted to know, but there had to be more to it than that. Something made him forget why he'd come there and lose himself to blinding rage. "What did she do to him?"Gaston stared at him."He lost it. Otherwise, he wouldn't have attacked her. He's very good at inflicting pain to get people to talk. Hacking off someone's leg just makes them bleed to death. The target goes into shock and becomes useless for interrogation. They're too focused on their own pain and injury to respond."Everyone winced. Apparently, he'd said the wrong thing, but William really didn't care. He had to get to the bottom of this. "What did your mother do to him?""She threw boiling soup at his face."That explained everything. William leaned back. "Yeah, that would do it.""And then Dad grabbed his crossbow, and the guy jumped out of the window," Gaston said."I've seen it. It's a big crossbow," Kaldar said. "I'd jump, too."It wasn't the crossbow. It was Urow with his gray skin and serrated teeth popping up behind Spider right after he'd been scalded."This guy." Erian took his plate to the sink. "He has a thing about soup?""He has a thing about being scalded. When he was a child, his grandfather dumped boiling water on him.""Why?" Gaston asked."He thought his grandson was a changeling. He was trying to get the demon beast to come out.""Lovely family," Kaldar murmured. "I take it, that's the fellow you're hunting.""Yes.""You have a history?" Erian asked.William nodded.The boy gripped the table. The wood creaked under the pressure of his fingers. His voice came out as a ragged snarl. "When I see him, I'll kill him."Spider would break him in half and toss him aside like a dead rat. "When you see him, you'll get me. That's an order."Gaston opened his mouth. William looked at him the way he looked at wild wolves when he wanted them to move out of his way. The kid clamped his mouth shut. "Yes, sir.""You fucked up," William told him. "You never leave a post you're assigned to. If you do, people get hurt."Gaston nodded. "I understand.""However, your mother set herself in harm's way. She was told the house wasn't safe and she had to leave, and she refused."Gaston clenched his teeth."I know it's not what you want to hear. But your mother got into a pissing contest with your aunt and made a bad decision. You are a kid. You aren't responsible for her decisions. So stop wallowing in self-hatred. You're no good to me that way."William rose. He wanted to see Cerise. He hadn't seen her since last night, and he wanted to smell her scent and see her face and know that she was all right. "Where is the small yard?""I'll take you." Kaldar started toward the door. Gaston jumped to his feet, dropped his plate into the sink, and followed them.CERISE finished the combination and lowered her swords. The sun was out, and the small yard looked so nice this morning. Sheltered by the walls of the building trailing the main house, it was completely secure, a small haven in the swamp. The sunlight danced on the short grass, turning it a cheery green, and at the western wall, flowers bloomed in the small garden. Grandma Az sat on the short brick wall bordering the flower beds. Their stares connected and the old woman waved. Surrounded by white and blue blossoms, Grandma looked ancient and serene this morning, like one of the harvest goddesses the old ones worshipped.Cerise launched into another combination, twisting, slicing at invisible opponents with her swords. The exertion felt so good . . . When she'd come out here two hours ago, twisted up inside from seeing Clara on crutches, she thought the weight that rode in her chest would never disappear. It wasn't gone now, but it was so much lighter.She'd warned Clara. She told her to come to the Rathole. In the end it was Clara's decision, and there wasn't a thing Cerise could've done to change it. But it was she who'd started this chain of events. If she had never put Urow in danger in the first place, Clara wouldn't be missing a leg.Gods, she was so pissed off. She wanted to run upstairs to Clara's room and slap the woman across the face. She'd endangered the kids, endangered Urow, got her leg cut off, and all for what? For a little bit of pride.Cerise unclenched her teeth. More exercise was in order.The door swung open. William stepped into the sunlight.Don't look straight at him, don't do it, don't do it . . . Too late. Fine, she would just have to pretend that she didn't do it.Cerise slashed the air, glancing in his direction out of the corner of her eye. He stood completely still, watching her. Kaldar was saying something, but William didn't seem to be listening.The look on his face was all the confirmation she could've wanted. He did kiss her yesterday. She didn't dream it up.Keep watching, Lord Bill. Cerise spun into the Thunderstorm, her swords a whirlwind of precise strikes, spinning faster and faster, as she gathered her magic. Left, right, left, down, churning the air like the fury of the wind churned the storm clouds. She paused for a fraction of a second, poised on her toes in the middle of her lethal storm, and let her flash leak into her eyes. The magic sparked like lightning and shot to her swords. She broke into her dance again, the flash riding on the edge of her blades; she was lost to its rhythm, so deep in it she drowned in the flow of magic. When she glanced up, he stood two feet away, watching her, utterly focused on her every move.She arched her back, twisted in the last smooth cut, and straightened."Lord Bill." I hope you enjoyed the show. I need to lie down now. "Didn't see you there."He stared at her with such open, raw longing it sent tiny needles of adrenaline through her. She wanted him to cross the distance to her and kiss her.William pulled back. She saw it in his eyes. It cost him, but he pulled back, almost as if he put himself on some invisible chain. She felt so disappointed it actually hurt."Very pretty," William said. "Small problem.""What's that?" She turned away to put down her swords."The air doesn't fight back."She pivoted back, narrowing her eyes. "And you do."He nodded.Oh, you sad thing, you. She stepped aside and bowed, inviting him to the weapon rack with a wave of her hand. "Take your pick."William surveyed the weapons on the rack. "Too big. Do you have a knife?""You can't fence with me using a knife, Lord Bill. I would slice you to ribbons."He growled a little and picked up a short sword.Behind him Kaldar nudged Urow's youngest son. "Bet you he lasts at least thirty seconds.""Umm ..." Gaston looked at him. "No, he won't.""Bet me something.""I don't have anything."Kaldar grimaced. "Pick up that rock."Gaston swiped the rock off the ground."Now you have a rock. I bet this five bucks against your rock."Gaston grinned. "Deal."Kaldar's face took on a look of intense concentration. Cerise glanced at him. Yep, he was trying to work his magic. When a bet was involved, occasionally luck was on Kaldar's side against all odds. It didn't work every time, but it worked often enough, and right now her cousin seemed to be straining every ounce of his will to help William spar with her. She had no idea why. The inside of Kaldar's head was a mysterious place better left alone by all sane people.Cerise raised her swords. "Any time, Lord Bill."William struck. She swiped his blade aside with her longer sword, turned, reversing her short blade, and rammed the pommel into his face, tripping him. He fell down.That felt almost too good. Guilt nipped at her.Kaldar and Gaston made some sucking noises."Are you okay, blueblood?" Kaldar called out.William twisted his legs and rolled back up, shifting his stance, the short blade raised above his shoulder, his knees lightly bent. Amber rolled over his eyes and vanished. He was smiling. Interesting. She'd never seen that stance before. No matter.Cerise charged. He thrust into her attack, sliding his blade against hers. She moved to parry, and he smashed his left fist into her ribs. The blow took the air out of her lungs. She slashed at his ribs, opening a light cut across his black shirt. You want to play? Fine.William muscled her back. She was no pushover, but he was freakishly strong and he wasn't kidding. They danced across the yard, cutting and punching and grunting. He punched her shoulder - her arm nearly went numb - and knocked the shorter sword from her hand. Sonovabitch! She elbowed him in the gut, which must've been made of armor, because he didn't even wince. The next time she smashed her fist above his liver. He laughed, dropped his blade, and grabbed her right wrist. Cerise hammered a kick to his knee. William dropped down, and she kicked him in the jaw, knocking him into the grass."Weak knees and elbows, Lord Bi - "He grabbed her ankle and twisted her off her feet. She hit the ground hard. Her head rang, and when she blinked the ringing off, her arm was caught between his legs. An arm bar. Nice."Done?" William looked into her eyes and put on a bit more pressure.She groaned."How about now?"Pain shot through her shoulder. "Done."He kept the arm in the lock. "So help me out here, does this mean I win?""Could you gloat a little more?"He grinned, nodding. "I could.""Okay. You win."He dropped his voice. "What's my prize for winning?"She blinked. "What do you want?"The feral thing in his eyes winked at her."No!" she told him. "Whatever it is you're thinking of, I'm not doing it in front of my whole family. And threatening to dislocate my shoulder isn't the best way to ask for it.""Get off the ground, children," Grandma Az called.He let her go. Cerise twisted and kicked him in the head, not very hard. The blow took him just below the ear. He shook his head, looking a bit dazed. Cerise rolled to her feet."What the hell was that for?" he growled."For being a jackass."She picked up her swords and went to sit by Grandma Az. It was highly unlikely he'd follow her there.Their audience had grown. Aunt Pete and Ignata sat next to Grandma. Aunt Pete was sporting a black eye patch that made Cerise's heart lurch. Aunt Murid leaned against the tree behind them.Cerise sat on the grass between Aunt Pete's and Grandma's legs and gave William the evil eye. He grimaced, got up, and headed to the large, round sink at the other end of the yard to wash up."Pummeled you pretty good," Aunt Pete said."I could've cut his head off.""But you didn't," Ignata said."No."Ignata gave a little innocent smile. "I wonder why that is."William pulled his shirt off. Shallow cuts crisscrossed the muscle on his back and sides. She'd nicked him more than she'd thought."Oh my," Aunt Pete murmured. "What are they feeding them in the Weird?"A hand touched Cerise's hair. Grandma Az. Cerise leaned her head over, brushing against familiar fingers."So how is your romance going?" Grandma Az asked."It's not going.""What are you talking about?" Ignata squinted at her. "He was giving you a look.""That was not a look," Auth Pete said. "That was the look.""Looking is as far as it gets," Cerise murmured. William was rinsing blood off his side, presenting her with a view of carved chest and lean stomach, and she had trouble concentrating on the conversation. You'd think a man washing off his blood would be the least attractive thing ever. Yeah.It wasn't his body, she reflected. It was in his eyes. In the way he looked at her."Have you tried dropping hints?" Ignata asked."I dropped boulders of hints," Cerise said. "He pulls himself back every time. It's not working.""I don't see how it couldn't." Ignata bit her lips. "He's obviously all about getting with you.""Maybe he doesn't get it," Aunt Pete said. "Some men - ""Have to be hit over the head with it. Yes, Mother, we know." Ignata rolled her eyes."I don't want to just throw myself at him." Cerise grimaced."No, that would be bad." Aunt Pete frowned. "You said he was a soldier. You don't suppose . . . ?""Oh, Gods." Ignata blinked. "You think something could be wrong down there?"All of them looked at William, who chose this precise moment to slide the wet shirt back on his back, which required him to flex, raising his arms."That would be a shame," Cerise murmured. Maybe he was impotent. That would explain the frustration she saw on his face."Such a waste," Aunt Pete said mournfully."There is nothing wrong with his body," Grandma Az said. "It's in his head."William turned. He walked past them to where Kaldar and Gaston haggled over a rock, pausing for a moment to look at her. Something hungry and sick with longing glared at her through his eyes, and then he turned away.Like being burned."Oh, boy," Ignata murmured."Now isn't a good time for this sort of thing anyway." Cerise sat up straighter."Are you crazy?" Aunt Pete stared at her. "Both of you could die tomorrow. Now is the perfect time for this. Live while you can, child."A hand rested on Cerise's shoulder. She looked back. Aunt Murid nodded to her and walked away on her long legs, heading straight for William.She said something, William nodded, and the two of them took off, Gaston at their heels. Kaldar stood there for a second, looking at a rock in his hands, shrugged, and followed them."What do you suppose all that was about?" Ignata asked."Who knows?" Aunt Pete shrugged.