I snorted, turning away to look down into the dark street. I posted the chair by the window to observe the comings and goings of the populace. Very little of either occurred. Nothing moved, for in the aftermath of the battles and riots, the citizens kept close to home and hearth. Only the criminal element and the royal Federates stirred in the street below. Neither seemed interested in The Royal Crown. After the five soldiers took away their prisoner, I had seen none since. As I watched, a cur slunk out of an ally, sniffed along the doorway of a merchant’s stall, then moved on.
“Let’s get drunk,” he suggested.
I looked down into my mug of ale. I had grown to like the stuff. If the Kel’Hallan beauty had indeed summoned Brutal’s troops, we would need our wits about us.
Regretfully, I shook my head. “No. Not now.”
Rygel sighed, looking bored. I could see he felt energetic now that he had food in his belly. His eyes looked brighter, his disposition sunny, his smile less tremulous. Yet I knew his sudden surge would last perhaps an hour. Then he would lapse into a deep restful sleep.
He suddenly eyed me with speculation. “How did you get your name?”
I shrugged. “My parents, of course.”
“Not Raine, fool. Why did the Khalidians call you The Wolf?”
“Why is that important?”
“Just humor me, all right?”
I sat back from my window view and propped my boots on the table. Rygel watched me with ill-concealed impatience as I took a long draught of my ale. I swirled it about in my mouth, allowing my tongue to saver its rich flavor. I swallowed it and took another, again swirling and savoring. Rygel’s glare all but split my head in twain.
At length, I gave up the pretense and shrugged. “I don’t know. Why do you ask?”
“Because there is something decidedly wolfish about you.”
“In looking at you I’m reminded of an old legend.”
“I am a legend.”
“Right.” He tried to wither me with a look. “A legend in your own mind.”
“Get serious, will you? I am.”
I drank more ale. Despite the knowledge I shouldn’t get drunk, I felt I was well on my way. I found an intense disliking for the turn Rygel’s conversation was taking. My belly felt fluttery, as though a family of rabid squirrels set up housekeeping in my stomach. The ale I’d drunk and the food I’d eaten made me feel slightly queasy. Fervently wishing he’d change the subject, I knew any hope of that was well-nigh impossible. When Rygel got his teeth into an issue, he was worse than any old terrier.
Why should his choice of conversation subject bother me so? It should not, but something deep inside my soul told me Rygel trespassed in territory I had long since marked no trespassing. When it came to wolves and me in the same sentence, I wanted no part of it. Gods above and below, those damn wolves….
“Long ago in Khassart,” Rygel resumed slowly, his tawny eyes fastened squarely on me. “I heard tales of men who could turn themselves into wolves.”
I rolled my eyes, exasperated. “I repeat…so? Your country has magic. You said you can turn me into a toad, I imagine you can turn yourself into anything you want, including a wolf.”
“I can, but that’s not my point. These men were not wizards, not magicians, not a one of them had magic in their blood.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but his raised hand forestalled me. “Wait, Raine, please. I feel this is important.”
It wasn’t his impatience that convinced me to allow him to have his way. Rather the powerful lack of it stopped me cold. For the first time since I’d met him, his catlike eyes held nothing but a strong, yet quiet sincerity. I shut my mouth, cut my eyes from his and drank more ale. For some odd reason, it no longer tasted very good.
“These men were not all from Khassart,” he resumed. “I’d heard this legend in other realms that knew next to nothing about magic. The man-wolf creature is extremely rare, yet every culture speaks of the legend. Another odd thing I noticed, no matter the country or the language or the culture, the creature is always named gai’tan, the werewolf.”
Deep within me, something stirred in recognition. Like a faint scent wafting on a summer breeze. Or the ghost of a ghost of a ghost. Distantly, I heard the dim howling of wolves under the light of a full moon.
The squirrels in my gut reproduced and repopulated into my heart and lungs. My pulse pounded in my ears. My breath snagged in my throat and refused to travel any further. I tasted fear on my tongue. Gods above and below -
Frantically drawing air into my lungs, I tried to raise some scorn. Yet even to my own ears, my voice rang false. “Werewolves? I suppose they could turn themselves into wolves only at a full moon and murdered little children in their beds?”
Rygel smiled. “Not at all. A gai’tan is a man born with the soul of a wolf. Therefore, he is both: man and wolf, in one body. No murder involved.”
“There are no such things as werewolves.”
“The first time I saw you, I saw a wolf. Not a man.”
I forced an eye roll. “Your brain was also fried by tros. As an argument, that is rather pathetic. You need to do better than that.”
“I know what I saw.”
I twirled my finger in the air around my right ear. “You’re crazier than privy-bound rat.”
Rygel smiled, a calm understanding smile. It was one of those I-know-more-than-you smarmy smiles. I clenched my fist to prevent it from erasing that irritating smile from his face.
“Search the inner-most rooms of your soul and you’ll know I’m right.”
“Search this.” I used a gesture more commonly used slaves and not by the landed gentry.
Rygel laughed. “Face it, you know I’m right.”
“You’re a lunatic.”
I shook my head in negation, trying hard to make Rygel’s words in my mind be as foolish as they sounded spoken aloud. A man and a wolf who shared one body? Nonsense. That was impossible…wasn’t it? Of course it was. The sudd