I - The valiant knight

Footwork: flawless. Technique: perfect. Attitude: irreproachable.

I am nailing this.

And that‘s with a sword and shield, to boot. I hate sword and shield combat. I am tiny. I have no range. It’s a problem when your opponents tend to be roughly mountain sized. So, am I at my best? No. Give me a glaive and I‘ll show you my best. But can I hold my own in a fight? Better than the other wannabe squires, that’s for sure. Even if they have a head (or three) over me.

Besides, it’s not like this is a “real” fight, just tryouts for squire positions. As long as I outlast my contenders, show discipline, and make no mistakes whatsoever, I should be selected. Easy-peasy.

“Again,” snaps my opponent, stepping back and readying himself for a new attack.

He‘s a lieutenant of the King’s Guard, even though this event has nothing whatsoever to do with the Guard, and everything to do with the Royal Knights. But Royal Knights have more important things to do than wrangle novices, such as slaying dragons, defending the realm, and lounging in the stand with cups of beer as they snicker and point to the candidates’ mistakes.

The sergeant doesn‘t like me. That’s fair. I‘m aware I don’t quite fit the mold of a knight in training, for many, many reasons. I am small. Female. Non-human (but they don’t know that part). In this case, the sergeant objects to my not going down in one blow, or at all, despite my ladylike puniness. He called me “girl”.

He must not be aware of Queen Laeticia’s “Fair Opportunities” edict, which allows “all women of acceptable skill” to enlist in the army, Royal Guard, or to become knights. It was only signed forty years ago. There was a lot of outrage back then, but Queen Laeticia had just decapitated her evil stepmother with a two-handed sword. It would have been difficult (and suicidal) to argue against her arguments.

I loved Queen Laeticia.

Keeping the sergeant on his toes is a joy. Knocking him on his ass would be a sweet bonus, but he has been keeping the sparring bouts too short for me to get an advantage.

I defend, he attacks, I block, I counterattack, once, twice, thrice, then he withdraws. He has been putting more and more weight in his blows, too, but it is evident by now that I will not stumble, so he concedes.

He wipes sweat off his cheek, frowning, frustrated.

“Congrats, girl. You made it.”

Did I mention I am twenty-one?

I grin, bow my head, and bring the sword and shield back to the weapon rack.

Seven applicants are waiting by the judge’s table, which makes me eight out of the ten spots open for new squires. I join them and, just like them, turn to the stands to see if I caught the attention of one of the attending knights.

I didn‘t. I guess I’m going to be the last pick, by the less renowned of them, the unlucky one who will not get to snatch a “good” squire. I hoped there would be an opening with a female knight, but they are much better at keeping their squires alive.

I watch candidate nine get selected despite the blow to the shoulder he took.

I hold my breath.

Nearly there.

Just one more applicant, a few minutes, and then it will be all over, I’ll have been picked, the contracts will be signed, and it will be too late for me to get cau–

Someone grabs my ear.

“What the heck!” the trainee next to me yells. “She’s a beastling!”


Normally, I’d have many ways to free myself and make him eat his genitals in the process, but using physical force while being a beastling is a foolproof way to get yourself lynched. So I just wince and grit my teeth as he drags me to the judges by the ear.

“Look at her! She has fur!” he yells.

I throw my hands between my head and the table before he can bash my face against it.

I got the fur waxed yesterday morning. Got called the “shame of the family” the whole time my cousin was doing it, too. Did she miss a spot? Did she miss a spot on purpose? Or did it simply grow back in already?

I know it likely grew back in. Duvet, at least. It would be a bit lighter than my skin, so it would show.

“Let me see,” one of the judges intervenes, waving the trainee away.

The hand holding my head down is lifted but I know better than to move.

The judge takes my ear and folds it in all directions. At least he is not trying to tear it off. Yay for small improvements!

The other judges lean forward. The trainees are trying to get a better look, too, but there’s only so much room available. They are soon pushed away by the King Guards, who have their hands on their swords and their eyes on me. The crowd in the stands is getting agitated. But, “thankfully”, the judge who reacted first is not a raging racist.

He runs his thumb against the back of my ear, that would normally be covered in thin mousy fur. Then he pushes my “hair” up to inspect its roots around my ear, and I know I‘m done. I don’t have many animal traits — just the one — but it‘s a dead giveaway. I don’t grow human hair: I grow fur. Dull brown, short mouse fur, on my head and behind my ears. I dye it red and style it with copious amounts of wax, so it looks like I want to be short haired, but the truth is that I will forever be stuck to a pixie cut with extra ear fluff. So, even with the excess fur plucked away, it doesn‘t hold up to scrutiny. I don’t have a soft curve of fine hair around the ear, naturally fading into clear skin: just a stark contrast between the waxed skin and trimmed fur. Not too regular, either, I guess. A barber, my cousin is not.

The judge sighs and lifts my head.

“Teeth,” he instructs.

There is shouting in the stands and around the courtyard, but all I hear is the roaring of my thoughts and the shuffle of the soldiers surrounding me.

I glower and show my teeth, which are perfectly normal. Well. One cracked canine is tipped with gold and I‘m missing one premolar, courtesy of the thief who once smacked me in the face with a brick, but I don’t have fangs or anything.

He tugs on my cheek and pulls my mouth open to inspect my molars.

Look, I might have human jaws but they are still strong enough to bite your filthy fingers off.

He sighs, again, deeper, rolling his eyes, and pulls away.

“What are you doing here?” he asks. At least he asks. I’ve had worse days. “You know beastlings are not allowed into the knights!”

Well, duh.

“I’m fourth generation,” I protest. “One eighth.”

“That doesn‘t matter, now, does it? The law clearly states ’no monstrous physical traits’.”

“It’s just some fur,” I mutter between clenched teeth.

“Hands,” he orders.

I show him my hands. No fur. No claws. He narrows his eyes.

“Were you born with a tail?” he asks, because amputations are common among beastlings living in the city.

“No,” I answer. And it’s true: my father was, though. I give him a sirupey smile. “Need to check?”

He stares me down with his eyebrows quirked in disapproval, but ignores my words.

“Leave,” he tells me. “Clearly, you are not without skill, girl. Go to the army. Go to the city guards. They will take you. But you are not allowed here. And you are lucky your trickery was discovered before you could sign any kind of contract, so you can walk away rather than end up in jail.”

I scoff, but he has already turned away from me.

“Escort her to the gates,” he tells the sergeant I sparred with. “And make sure she stays out, for her own benefit.”

He points his chin at the enraged crowd in the stands to hammer the nail in. Not that he needs to. I’m aware of the glares aimed at me, of the angry murmurs of the other candidates, of the hostility of the guards. So: a day like any other.

The sergeant puts a hand on my shoulder to push me towards the exit. I let him. There is no point antagonizing the crowd, especially the knights whose attention I did get in the end. There are ways to circumvent laws, and there might still be a way for me to be knighted. It will merely take a bit more work. I’d rather get along with my coworkers once I get there.

“It was a stupid trick you just pulled,” the guard tells me once we are far enough that the chaos in the courtyard has turned to a muffled rumble to our ears. “Could have gotten yourself in more trouble than you’re worth.”

“I’ve got the skill,” I retort.

He huffs.

“You’re not as good as you think you are, girl.”

“Bitter much you couldn’t drop me on the first blow?”

“Knights don‘t make a living off pretend matches on training grounds. You’re never gonna be able to take a group of stronger opponents.”

I roll my eyes, because I will be. I have been.

“You don‘t have the body for it,” he adds. “You’ll get your ass handed to you sooner than later. Grow a foot and maybe…”

At this point, we have reached the gates, so I quicken my pace and walk out, giving him the finger over my shoulder. I don’t look back.

I don‘t want to be a soldier. You’d have to be batshit crazy to want to be a soldier in the middle of the (lukewarm) war between the kingdoms of Thandyr and Pyreas. Sure, it has considerably calmed down since my childhood — entirely because of Queen Dawn, who is a terrible substitute for her late mother-in-law — but joining the army would mean years, and years, and years of sitting in trenches at the border, in an endless war of attrition with the occasional lethal skirmish or bout of cholera. No, thanks. There is no glory in that. Also: no money.

I don‘t want to become a city guard either, in the same way that, if I were a cow, I would not want to enter an apprenticeship at a butcher’s. That is not to say that I do not sometimes work with the city guards. Loosely. When your best honed skill is “stabbing people”, the ways to employ your talents are limited.

I’ve had a somewhat successful career as a thief-taker so far. Bodyguard, too, sometimes, to the daughters of rich merchants convinced a female warrior would not seduce proper young misses (ha!). But those contracts are rare and, so far, the thief-taking has been my most lucrative endeavor.

This is how I end up at the City Guard’s headquarters, squinting at the bounties posted on the board by the entrance. Slim pickings today.

“Oy, Persia!” someone calls as I’m memorizing the details of one posting. “How did it go?”

I turn to the voice. Houen, the brattiest of all city guards, has materialized on the outer wall, a cigarette hanging from his fingers. At nineteen, he thinks it gives him an air of maturity. What it does give him is a nasty cough and a lingering ashtray smell. But, other than the jackassery and his particular brand of perfume, he’s easy enough to get along with. He never even tried to arrest me.

I glare at him. He knows it didn‘t go well. I wouldn’t be here otherwise. He’s grinning, too.

“Got caught,” I answer, turning my back to him.

He jumps down the wall and joins me, patting my shoulder in false pity.

“I am so sorry. Nobody could have foreseen this.”

I elbow him in the ribs, which has him erupt in coughy laughter.

“There‘s no way I’m giving up,” I point out.

“Yeah, no shit, but I don’t see many avenues left for you.”

“Oh, I do. There‘s still the ’services rendered to the Crown’ clause.”

Houen steps back and gapes at me. I raise my eyebrows.

“Do you know how hard it is to get a knighthood for services rendered to the Crown? It hasn’t happened in twenty years, and only because the man took an arrow for the king.”


“I mean, the king isn’t gonna volunteer to be shot at some more. What are you gonna do? Rescue princess Valerianella?”

I raise my eyebrows higher.

There’s a long silence while he processes that, yes, that is what I plan.

“You‘re crazy,” he blurts out. “Nobody even knows if she’s still alive!”

I think she is.”

“Well, you, the queen and nobody else.”

I snort at the mention of Queen Dawn. She’s, after all, the one whose idiocy left the door open for the rescue of her missing daughter.

It’s a simple enough story.

Thandyr and Pyreas are at war. Thandyr and Pyreas have been at war for three centuries or so. In the West: Thandyr, our kingdom, thriving, radiant, fertile, and ruled by humans. In the East: Pyreas, the monster kingdom, land of the beasts, the demons and other abominations to the Three Gods. My great-grandfather’s country. Decades upon decades of bloody battles, salted fields, burned towns and conquest, with the pendulum of victory swinging this way and that.

Queen Laetitia was the first to turn the tides for more than a year and, for a while, it was believed Thandyr might finally push the monstrous forces of Pyreas back. Then she died. Of a fever, of all things.

Her death forced her son, King Alban, to lead the war effort, and Gods does he suck at this. There was hope at first: he conquered some land, seemed wise and decisive. Yet, as of now, our troops have been paralyzed for more than a decade.

That being said, he is not as bad as his wife. She accomplished nothing. Well, that’s not true: she accomplished “disaster”, when she had everything. Early in her marriage, Queen Dawn got pregnant, which is usually regarded as a good thing for royals, especially with a war on your hands and no heirs. Queen Dawn could have left it at that, her marital duties accomplished, and focused on getting herself a life or something. But no. No. Queen Dawn grew capricious during her pregnancy. She required this, she required that, she required fruit in the winter, pastries in a war-starved land and, in the end, a delicacy: a plant that only grew in the land of Pyreas, as delicious as it was rare.

So the king sent a party of knights to the disputed borderlands, and they came back with the desired vegetable. Which they stole. From a monster witch.

Anyway, that’s how our princess and heir to the throne ended up abducted by a pissed-off witch, and now all we have is a barren queen and a ravenous pack of royal cousins waiting in line for the king to croak.

Queen Dawn won‘t win any popularity contest any time soon. She never attempted to rebuild her reputation, either. She takes no interest in her people, leaving King Alban to handle the kingdom, the politics, and the shows of goodwill towards the populace. Right now, she’s burning our tax money travelling through the countryside — where the weather is more pleasant — so our lesser nobles can entertain her with balls and garden parties.

“I am confident,” I tell Houen. “I‘ve been investigating this for two years now. There’s rumors. There are a few places that haven’t been thoroughly searched yet.”

He takes a puff of his cigarette and attempts to look cool blowing the smoke out.

“Enlighten me?”

“Nope. Can’t have you rescuing her before I do.”

“I wasn’t planning to. I have a good job here. Living wages. No witches.”

“Then I don‘t see why you’d be interested in my deductions,” I reply, smacking his shoulder. I gesture at the board. “So. That’s all the bounties you have?”

“What, you think we are keeping work for ourselves when you mercenaries could do all the heavy lifting?”

“Right. Well, I’m glad you guys have more time for the parts of the job that matter, like harassing beastling kids and —”

He frowns, genuinely hurt.

“Persia, that’s not fair.”

“Sorry. Things were pretty dire before you came along.”

His mood has dulled, now. I pat his shoulder.

“If it’s any consolation, the kids on my block LOVE you. The parents, though…”

“The parents?”

“The parents think you should stop smoking,” I exclaim, snatching the cigarette from his hand and running away. I stop a little farther. “Bad influence and all.”

He stomps to me, takes the cigarette back, but sighs and crushes it on the ground before throwing it into a bin.

“So what are you gonna do? Roam the land until you stumble upon a magical tower with a princess inside?”

I chuckle.

“Close, actually! I‘m gonna roam a specific part of the land. But first, I’m gonna rob some drug dealers and get myself a horse.”

“How great that someone with your impeccable sense of morality aspires to be a knight.”

“You know what I mean. I need funds. And for funds, well, I need bounties.”

“Would manual labor do?”

I look at my arms, which are adequately muscular, what with the decade of hard training I have behind me.

“Who’s hiring?”

“I mean, there‘s no glory and fame in manual labor. Isn’t it a bit beyond your notice?”

“Who’s hiring, Houen?”

Shale, of “Shale‘s esoteric paraphernalia’s boutique”, is hiring.

I know him well, actually. His store is one of the oldest in our part of town (by “our”, I mean “us, the beastlings”). It‘s a run-down building of average size standing on its own on our main shopping street. All of the other stores are cramped, packed on top of each other, with no room to expand, but nobody wanted to build next to Shale’s magical goodies shop, what with all the explosions.

Explosions are the reasons Shale is hiring.

I wish his employees a swift recovery. I hear they kept all of their appendages, so they should be fine. I will gladly do their jobs and collect their paychecks in their absence.

So far, the job has been “hauling boxes around” and “delivering packages without being robbed”. I take pride in my performance, especially with the deliveries. Some thieves did try to ambush me, but a glaive under the nose had them reconsider real quick.

“Done for the day,” I announce, walking back into the store after dropping a last package at a human collector’s house, in the fanciest part of the city. “No new orders?”

Shale is standing behind the counter, a grumpy old man with reading glasses and a lanky frame. He looked roughly the same when I was a little kid. I don’t feel like he aged, per se. He just grew drier, like a fallen branch through the seasons.

“No, but supplies came in. Restock the ingredient shelves, then carry the marked boxes upstairs.”

He doesn‘t bother looking up to talk to me, but watches me from the corner of his eye as I work. It can get a bit upsetting when you are not used to him. His eyes are all yolk and no white, with thin black slits as pupils, and they reflect the light. He’s a halfling, I think, if he even has that much human in him, and whatever is not human is feline. My little cousins, all of them mice, are terrified of him. I never minded him myself.

Shale is well respected around here, and enough of an expert in his field that even humans dare to venture through our streets to come check out his wares. He pays well, too, for a shopkeeper.

“Done again,” I tell him once I’m done stocking the shelves and hauling a dozen boxes to the attic. “Anything else?”

He might just let me go early if I run out of tasks. I‘m ravenous and didn’t think to grab some food on my way back. But Shale is a stickler for, among other things, work schedules.

“No. Sit your ass over there and reorder the sale bin, if you are bored. And don’t blow yourself up.”

I shrug.


I drag a stool to the sale bin, which is surrounded by various signs in various languages, all of them expressing the same concept: “defective pieces, hands off”.

“Gloves,” Shale reminds me.

“Yes boss.”

I get to work, which mostly consists in throwing the random crap the bin contains into the correct boxes in the bin: “benign”, “dangerous”, “will kill you”. The rest of it is cleaning up dust, blood, and the eventual finger left there by customers who did not remember to wear gloves.

It has pretty neat stuff, like necklaces meant to capture evil spirits, but just with enough cracks in them that the spirits can burst out of them at random. Sometimes, inside the store.

“You know, you could make good money here,” Shale points out, nose buried in his accounting books. “It‘s a respectable job, and you’re decent at it.”

I wrinkle my nose. This is too flattering and well-meaning, there has to be a trap.

“Did my father ask for a favor?”

He takes off his reading glasses and wipes them with a handkerchief.

“No, young lady, your father did not. I am not in the habit of granting favors. Why would he ask me for anything?”

“He has tried before,” I explain. “Last time I saw him, he was still trying to keep me on the straight and narrow.”

That was a while ago.

Shale snorts.

“Your father was always a reasonable man. But no, he didn’t ask me. I merely need an employee with a modicum of survival instinct.”


“Well, clearly you are alive despite your lifestyle, so your instincts and reflexes must be good, even if your wisdom is lacking.”

“Thanks, boss. You’re so kind.”

“I‘m not hearing a ’where do I sign up?’.”

I shake my head.

“I appreciate the offer but I’m not the kind to stick around in one place for long,” I mutter. I focus on the label of the amulet I was about to put aside, which is described in both Thandin and Pyrean. I perk up. “Hey, can I borrow this?”

“What? Of course not! Do you have any idea how much it’s worth?”

I dangle the squirrel-shaped pendant in front of my nose.

“Of course I do, it‘s written right here. Which is why I’m asking if I can borrow it.”

“You‘re so cocky it’s a wonder your grandfather was a mouse, and not a chicken.”

“Great-grandfather,” I correct him. “But seriously, can I?”

“Which one is it?” Shale asks, squinting in my direction, in vain.

He grumbles and joins me, then inspects the pendant without touching it.

“This is just a toy,” he comments. “And it only works from a close proximity. What would you even do with it?”

You never know when little things might come in handy.

“Play,” I answer. “It does sound like fun.”

“You know what? Make it to the end of the month without destroying something, and I’ll throw it in as a bonus to your pay.”


He shakes his head, with a long suffering sigh, and returns to his work. I hear him mutter something about “children having less sense than squirrels”.

I stash the amulet into a drawer so nobody can snatch it before I do.

Working for Shale allows me to move in, rent free. The apprentice‘s bed in the attic was available. I’m now a cook on top of a deliveryman and cashier, and I do some housekeeping, but I am saving a fortune. Shale’s diet is on the simple and “obligate carnivore” side, too, so the cooking itself is easy.

He did make faces, many of them, when I dragged my stuff in.

“How much weaponry can one woman own?” he exclaimed at some point.

Never enough, Shale. Never enough.

I have been forbidden from unsheathing the weapons inside the house, which is okay. I have also been forbidden from taking lanterns and candles upstairs, which is less okay, even if I like not exploding.

The lighting restriction leaves me little time to ponder my plans, since I do not see in the dark and have maps to study.

I think I know where princess Valerianella is.

We’re at war.

We are at war, and our princess is missing.

You would think Thandyr would have been conquered, by now. Eighteen years with a princess held hostage is a long time, with such a huge pawn in the hands of the enemy. The queen of Pyreas and her sisters are not known for their kind souls. They are bloodthirsty creatures with not an ounce of pity between the three of them. Their own people are scared of them. Heck, some say the king consort is scared of them. The queen herself used to appear on the battlefields, leaving the enemies petrified by terror and, for the unlucky, magic.

Yet, the war is half-hearted. Thandyr was not invaded. On the contrary: Thandyr seized some Pyrean land, a decade ago. Yet there was no retaliation, no bloody revenge, no threats, no consequences. Princess Valerianella was not dragged in front of crowds and threatened with execution. She wasn’t wed by force to a Pyrean noble.

Which means Pyreas does not have her.

Now, I doubt the fearsome Queen Lucina of Pyreas would be unaware of the whereabouts of her most powerful subjects. “Witches who can kidnap foreign princesses straight from their cribs” strike me as “powerful subjects”. You‘d want to keep an eye on those, and on their political leanings. The queen’s spies wouldn’t have “lost” such an asset and her royal hostage.


If the witch and the princess are not lost, they are out of reach. And if they are out of reach, they must be in the patch of land Thandyr conquered.

It makes sense. The border is well defended. It cannot be crossed without significant effort. You’d make it from Pyreas to Thandyr, maybe. There are successful raids, sometimes. Harpies can definitely get in through the air without being shot down, but harpies could not carry a growngirl over the border. Their wings lack the strength for it. And through the roads? Through the countryside? Monsters trying to drag a human from Thandyr into enemy territory? They would not make it. Hell, Pyrean beastlings trapped in Thandyr have not been allowed to return home.

I have a triangle of land marked on my map. Far enough into Thandyr that the Pyrean forces could not dash from the new border to the witch‘s hideout and back. Far enough beyond the old border that Thandyr should not have been able to reach the area. Away from the place where, once upon a time, Thandin knights pilfered some fancy vegetables from a sorceress’ garden (no stone there has been left unturned).

My reasoning is sound, my reasoning is simple, and I figure the only reason my target area has not been combed through by the royal knights is its inhospitable reputation. Werewolves. So many werewolves.

Even among us beastlings, werewolves are feared. Sure, we have bear people who can kill you with one blow, we have venomous snake people, we have sirens who really like to drown humans and use their bones as decoration for their underwater palaces. The werewolves are something else. They go ballistic so easily. They eat people. Along with the harpies and the gorgons, they are part of the unholy trifecta of the most bloodthirsty sentient monsters. Vampires are only fourth, I think, because they don’t gore people to eat their guts (not that they would not if they could digest that).

Can I survive a cursed forest inhabited by rabid werewolves?

Probably not.

But I can try.

I end up working for Shale for two months and a half before he takes me for a delivery uptown, to Hubley and Sons, “the most renowned breeder of magical beasts in Thandyr”. As every other day, I get uneasy remembering that, out of the extended Thandin vocabulary, my people ended up being called “beasts” and “beastlings”. That’s not the case in Pyrean. In Pyrean, we are “people”.

I guess you never get used to bullshit.

“Now,” Shale tells me as our carriage stops in the courtyard of the farm. “No begging my customers for cheap horses. No begging my customers to borrow horses either. No begging whatsoever.”

I nod.

“No haggling either,” he insists.

“Okay, boss.”

“I mean it, Persia. The man is half of my income. You lose me this client and I sell you off to the next wizard asking for a virgin for blood sacrifices.”

That startles me.

“Wait, you get those?”

“I deal in the esoteric, of course I get maniacs who fancy themselves dark mages. Not that I have much to sell them. Usually,” he adds with a pointed look at me.

“Ugh. I swear to the Three Gods…”

“Now, get down, and unload the crates. Do not talk to anyone, do not stab anyone.”

“As you wish, boss,” I answer, jumping down and inspecting the pile of crates we brought in.

It’s a large order, Shale did not exaggerate. Hubley deals in livestock and magical creatures, and he is in need (more or less constantly) of enchanted harnesses, leashes and other equipment. On top of it, he seems heavy-handed with the sleeping droughts and calming herbs, which makes sense for a trader who advertises “the finest griffins in the realm”.

And people call me insane.

Shale leaves me and vanishes into the largest building, led by a servant. I spend the next ten minutes handing crates to frantic stableboys, and then I’m done.

“Ah well,” I mutter.

That was quick.

I climb into the carriage, lean back and stretch. All I can do now is rest while I wait for Shale to return. Well. I can try. The place smells like manure, being a farm and all, but that doesn‘t distract me quite as much as the barking. There’s no lack of animals around (magical or otherwise). Mostly, I see horses, hounds, a few salamanders in a charred metal cage that holds an equally soot-stained bathtub. The rest of the animals are farther away, in the pastures behind the farm. I can hear them a little, but the barking mostly covers it, and it comes from much closer.

It’s angry.

Then it turns to growling, and I go investigate. I can see two farmhands arguing near an alleyway, in the area the barking is coming from. “Well, you try if you are so smart,” I hear one of them yell.

I slip past them and into a second, smaller courtyard, where a single animal is occupying a large, high, reinforced paddock. I only see its back, as he is growling and snapping at a third farmhand who is trying to reach him, but I can tell what it is.

A hellhound.

Well. A mixed hellhound. Its fur is all wrong: too long, and yellow. It only has two heads: it should have three. But its size is right at least: taller than a horse, as large as a bull. It could fit my head between its jaws and still have room for a shoulder or two.

“I’m trying to help you, you silly hellspawn,” the farmhand grumbles. “Oh for the love of —”

He throws the towel (in this case, a literal towel, and a bucket of water which he drops on the ground before exiting the paddock). It takes less than five seconds for the hellhound to smack the bucket under the fence.

The farmhand walks away.

“Stay away from him,” he warns me as he leaves. “He’ll maul you.”

I watch him go, then I turn back to the paddock. I make sure not to move.

The hellhound’s growling dies down. He curls up on the ground, so tense he is twitching.

I take a better look at him and wonder which bloody idiot decided to breed a hellhound with a golden retriever. The poor pup‘s brains must be a disaster zone. You couldn’t find two sets of instincts more at odds.

Talking about disaster zones… his body is something to look at. Whatever deities presided over his conception, they couldn‘t make head or tails of the materials they were handed. For a start, they replaced one of his heads — the middle one — with a tail. It hangs there, limp, dirty and stained with blood. As for the rest of him… The body seems in working order, for the most part. Joints in the right places, an even number of legs, no obvious deformities. It’s mostly his fur that’s mixed up, with patches of short brown hair sprayed at random on his right side. Half of one of his heads is dark brown, with one red eye and a small, sharp ear contrasting with the other one, of the floppy golden retriever kind. Magical animals mix poorly with normal ones, which a good breeder should know, so I wonder how Hubley ended up with him.

I take a step forward. The dog warns me with a low growl, raising one of his heads.

“Hey boy!” I call, getting closer to the paddock, but remaining at a sufficient distance not to be reachable through the fence.

His hellhound ear perks up. The growling continues, uncertain.

“What are you doing here, boy?” I ask, smiling at him. Dogs, in my experience, are considerably smarter than a lot of people, and understand us bipedal idiots quite well. “Having a bad day?”

He lifts his half-hellhound head, with a little whine of curiosity. The other head is still growling. I wonder: is it one dog multitasking? Is it two dogs disagreeing with each other? Whatever. They’re doggies.

I lean against the fence (which is twice my height, or I’d have leaned over it), and relax as best as I can. It helps that I ran out of fear at around age seven.

“I‘m Persia,” I inform him. Them. “What’s your name?”

And I hold out my hand through the fence.

That gets his attention. He sniffs (with both heads), then stands gingerly and tiptoes my way. He is careful not to let me reach him, but gets both his snouts as close as he can to my hand.

“Good boy,” I say, and am rewarded by a wet little nudge from one nose.

I take back my hand and rummage through my jacket. He perks up then, watching me intently, like he can read minds. My lunch is in my pocket. I take it out, unwrap it, and grab a carrot.

“Hungry?” I ask.


I chuckle and snap the carrot in two, throwing the parts at his heads. He snatches both mid-flight and chomps on them happily.

That’s a golden retriever alright.

I shove my slice of bread in my mouth so it will have vanished from existence before my new friend can beg for it. He will have to be content with my carrots. He is already whining for them with his best puppy eyes.

So I throw him another one.

He catches it, swallows it, and starts wagging his tails. On both ends.

I have a split second to watch his front tail smack hard against his fangs and swing to do the same on his other set of fangs, and then my face gets sprayed with blood.


What the farmhand was trying to help with is now abundantly clear to me. What is not clear to me at this point is everything else, what with my vision blurry and pink as if I had just bathed in a river of wine.

I would say that I am shocked and horrified, but it isn‘t even the first time I end up covered in canine blood. I babysat beastling toddlers. They get tail accidents too. I’m just glad that, for once, I am not in someone’s living room.

“Hush, hush, calm down,” I say, reaching through the fence to pet a muzzle I can barely see. “Quiet, quiet.”

I scratch his head with one hand and wipe my face with the other, blinking the blood away. And I make damn sure not to touch his tail.

As it turns out, the big pup loves pets, and rubs his heads against my hand with great enthusiasm. That seems to come as a shock to our audience, which grew considerably while I was busy being blinded by bodily fluids. Half a dozen farmhands are gaping at me, as well as several stableboys, Shale, and a large farmer with somewhat clean clothes I assume is Hubley.

I give the hellhound a last scratch behind the ears, then stand and join Shale and Hubley. Better put some distance between me and the fence before the men start talking. I‘m not sure Goldie will be as fond of them as he is of me. Unsurprisingly, as soon as I’m gone, he moves away from the fence himself and growls at the closest farmhands.

“What the hell were you doing?” Shale hisses. “Have you seen that beast?”

“Yep. He’s cute.”

Shale goes red in the face and his tail puffs up. He looks a lot more willing to maim me than my hellhound friend. Thankfully, his companion steps in.

“You‘re good with dogs, aren’t you?”

“Well, it‘s a golden,” I point out. “For the most part. They’re big sweeties.”

“Still. He’s been in a mood, lately.”

“I think it helps that I‘m not a farmhand. He knows they’ll try to dock his tail.”

“That is exactly right,” Hubley comments, looking at me and my brand new all-natural makeup. “And I suspect you look and sound somewhat less intimidating. No offense meant. We have been trying to cajole him into getting care for days, with little success, I’m afraid. The more my men attempt to tend to the wound, the more wary he gets of them. Sleeping droughts also proved useless. But the tail needs docking, before it gets infected and kills him.”

It should have been done when he was a puppy, what with the placement, but I‘m gonna assume his mother had objections. Now, it’s a bit late.

“I think he could keep it,” I muse, rubbing my sticky cheek. “With proper bandaging, then proper protection. But docking wouldn’t hurt.”

He would likely get a little calmer with age, and get into the habit of not smacking himself in the faces when enthusiastic. I’m not positive, though. Most of my knowledge pertains to beastlings, who can be reasoned with.

“He is unfortunately not quite welcoming to carers, so bandaging seems like a pipe dream to me.”

I shrug.

“I could take him off your hands. Is he for sale?”

And now Shale looks like he is having a fit of apoplexia.

Hubley guwaffs.

“I couldn’t possibly sell an untrained, mixed hellhound. Way too dangerous, as sweet as the poor boy can be in the right circumstances.”

Some cogs start turning in my mind. I change topics so my interest in the acquisition of the untrained mixed hellhound is not so obvious.

“Where did you even get him?” I ask. “He seems like an unlikely mix.”

“Breeding accident. We have a few golden retrievers, to keep company to our orphaned or nervous beasts. They have the temper for it. We got Ravager‘s mother as a loan, for breeding, with the plan to train her descendants as guard dogs for high security facilities. Unfortunately, she saw her intended mates more as, well, snacks than potential partners, so we gave up. And then this happened,” he concludes, gesturing at… Ravager? “Much to everyone’s surprise. We are not even certain of who the happy father is.”

“What are you going to do with him, then?”

“Hopefully: deal with his tail, for a start, and then train him as… We’re not so sure yet. He is young, and he does have a bit of the hellhound in him, so he is suited neither as a company dog, nor as a guard dog. Hunting seems like the safest bet — it would match both his races — but he is so costly to feed and so large that I doubt hunters would invest in him.”

“What about breeding him?”

I‘m only keeping the conversation going. I know it wouldn’t work. Even if it did, recovering the hellhound line would require a lot of culling and inbreeding.

“He is likely sterile. It tends to be a problem with male hybrids. Not that he is unfriendly to our dogs.”

“That’s a shame,” I comment as the cogs in my mind spin like a pinwheel in a storm. “About the breeding, I mean.”

“That‘s nature for you. Now, miss, Shale and I weren’t quite done with our meeting. Can I tempt you with a cup of coffee and, possibly, a washcloth?”

That reminds me I must look like I escaped a slaughterhouse.

“Yeah. Yes, I mean, thanks, sir.”

Anything to get on friendly terms with the man. The closer to him I get, the easier it will be for me to steal his elephant-sized dog.

“I can’t believe you stole a goddamn hellhound,” Houen says when I introduce him to Scout.

The pup and I have elected to forget about the whole “Ravager” debacle.

Scout is happy as a lark to have a new friend, and does not seem to mind that he is peeling several layers of cigarette grime with every lick he gives Houen‘s cheeks. He doesn’t mind the city guards gaping at him either, nor the deafening noises of the street. He’s a sweet boy.

“I didn’t steal a hellhound,” I retort. “I adopted him. With dedication, love, and a little elbow grease.”

Houen elects to ignore my answer.

“How are you even gonna feed him? He’s huge!”

Two can play the “ignoring game”.

“I‘ve been changing his bandages for three months, and walking him every day, and handling most of his care, really, so now I’m his mom. Hubley could see it. And, besides, he‘s a merchant. He doesn’t have the time to care for one pet in particular when he has eighty animals at home.”

“So what, he gave it to you?”

“Him. Scout is a ‘he’. And no, of course Hubley didn‘t ’give‘ him to me. He’s on a lease. And if I pay all of his full price over the next, um, fourteen years, he will be entirely mine.”

“Sometimes I feel you have been bashed in the head a little too often.”

“Scout! Maul the jackass.”

Houen seems alarmed by my words, but of course all Scout does is give his ear a slobbery lick. Houen winces and digs inside his ear with his little finger.

“I don’t see Shale taking it well,” he says.

“He kicked me out, actually. Which, you know, is fair enough. He is a feline.”

I feel like he is going to need a solid ten years to get his tail back to smooth. His hackles were so raised he could have been mistaken for a porcupine.

“What? Where are you gonna stay?” Houen asks. He gestures at Scout. “And him?”

“Well, about that. I’ve a favor to ask.”

“Persia, I rent a bedroom where a mattress doesn’t even fit.”

His protest is high pitched enough that Scout whines.

“I thought you had good wages!”

“I got hired just last year! I have good wages for my age and experience! That doesn’t mean I can afford a place large enough for —”

“Stop, stop, I don‘t need a place to crash. I wondered if you could bring some of my stuff to my parents’. If I show up, we‘ll argue again. I’m done with all of that.”

“Wait… You’re leaving?”

I blink at him in disbelief. I have been discussing going on a quest for six months now. Houen came with me to buy armor and supplies. He heard me ramble about the price of potatoes while I was trying to save every cent I could for the trip. Surely he was aware that I was going to bail as soon as the stars aligned.

“I mean, I didn‘t think that—” he starts. “I don’t know, I thought it would take you more time to get the funds, I guess?”

I shrug.

“I‘ll figure it out. I’ll do little jobs on the way, I‘ll hunt, I’ll fish. But it‘s spring. It’s now or never. Scout is faster than a horse, so I‘ll probably get to the border quicker than planned, but the more time I have to explore, the better. Once winter arrives, I’ll have to turn back.”

He breathes in, looking withdrawn. Scout gets worried and nudges him with both his noses. Houen pets him absentmindedly.

“I think you should bring your things to your parents yourself,” he says, eyes riveted to a crack in the pavement. “In case you don‘t return. Oh, and if you don’t, I’m not adopting your dog.”

I squint.

This conversation is starting to circle towards arguments I have never liked to hear. Houen is usually laid-back so it hasn’t been a problem until now.

“I’ll come back,” I tell him, rolling my eyes so hard my muscles feel the strain.

“Or you could just stay,” he replies. “Why would you go and chase after a dead princess that you might never find when you have so many opportunities here? We’d hire you!” he snaps, gesturing at the City Guard headquarters. “We could use someone with your skill.”

“Yeah, I’m more inclined to make the bullies bleed than to join them,” I mutter.

But I say that in a low voice and while Houen is talking, because I needed to say it but he doesn‘t deserve to hear it. He’s nice. He thinks he can change things from the inside. But he is human, and he is nineteen.

He pauses mid-sentence.


“I don‘t want those opportunities,” I sigh. “It’s like I‘ve been telling my parents over and over again. I don’t want to get the jobs I‘m allowed to have and keep my head to the exact level of low it’s allowed to be! I want to be more. I have to be more.”

Houen says nothing for a while. He just looks at me, something breaking on his face, and sometimes I swear I feel a century older than him. But he didn‘t have to drag himself through his childhood with only spite to carry him, so he is innocent, and I am happy for him, I am. It’s good that he cannot get as angry as I am, and that he can‘t even fathom how it feels. He’s still my friend.

“I see,” he murmurs, his voice brittle. “Well. Um. Don‘t get killed, right? I’d kill you.”

“I’m not getting killed, you dumbass. Heck, after all the crazy things I did in my life, I think I might just be immortal. And Scout will keep me safe, anyway. He can be pretty scary when he sets his mind to it.”

“Who’s a dumbass? Talk about the pot calling the kettle…” He trails off. “When are you leaving?”

And now I‘m the one feeling sad. But I’m also the one feeling a century older, so I smile.

“Today,” I say. “But I thought I‘d grab lunch with you first. It wouldn’t do to travel on an empty stomach.”

He chuckles, quite softly still, then nods.

“Alright, but you’re footing the bill.”

“Scout, maul the jackass.”