Kiet glanced at Shanti and Aiden in concern. They had saddled their gryphons and were following the two kits they had rescued down a steep winding path. Shanti was sleeping in the saddle, a blanket folded beneath her arms and head. She was deep asleep, despite Icewind’s struggle to keep her footing. The path was narrow, far too narrow for a massive gryphon to walk, but she managed, using her wings for balance.
The kits chattered in their strange language, beckoning for them to follow. They constantly looked back to make sure Kiet, Aiden, and Shanti were there. It was nice how welcoming they were, but Kiet could only think about the sun high above them. He should be on Icewind, flying to the wolf city, not lingering in another village. Still, they needed to escort the kits home to their families.
The path opened into a more comfortable road, and ahead of them, cultivated fields spread across a lower plateau. The sheer stone cliffs overlooking the fields were pockmarked with doors and windows. Larger creatures like the kits were hard at work in the fields or carrying out various chores near their homes. Several ran out to meet them, looking at them in confusion. The kits talked, and the adults nodded and smiled, beckoning for them to follow.
“How long is this going to take?” Kiet grumbled more to himself than anyone else.
“What’s your hurry?” Aiden motioned to the kits. “We saved their lives, just like you saved my life.”
“Stumbled upon them and you,” mumbled Kiet.
“I’m glad you did.”
Several of the creatures ran ahead of them, shouting excitedly. A short time later, a larger group approached in a run, and the kits ran to them. Judging by the laughter and tears, these were their parents.
“Job done,” said Kiet, a smile spreading over his muzzle, despite his annoyance at losing time. “Glad they got home.”
“You found them!” someone called from the crowd. A Cyantian, even more bizarre than the long necked Cyantians, emerged from the group with a shivae right behind them. His fur and curly hair were dark, grayish-black, and a strip of white fur wrapped around gray eyes like a mask. “You’re not from…here.” The newcomer gaped at Kiet, his ringed tail dropping and ears flipping back in horror. “Fox.” He managed. “Fox. Fox!”
“No, no!” Kiet threw his hands up, flipping his ears back and walking in a crouch, his tail low. “I’m just passing through with my friends.”
“Kiet’s a good Fox,” added Aiden, running to his side.
“You’re not…looking for me, are you?” The long-necked Cyantians and the two kids gathered around him, talking all at once.
“I don’t know who you are,” said Kiet with a shrug, “and I don’t care. We’re just passing through and ran across these two kits stuck in a hold. Cyotts were bringing them food.”
“Oh.” The strange Cyantian’s left ear went up. “My name is Eithan.” The kits bounced up and down in front of him, pointing to Kiet and Aiden. “They say thank you.”
“They’re welcome.” Kiet smiled and waved. “We should get on our way.”
“Wait.” Eithan turned as several of the adults began talking to him, gesturing to Kiet and Aiden. He nodded and looked at Kiet. “They want to know if you will stay the night to celebrate their return.”
“We should be on our way.” Kiet looked over his shoulder at Shanti, who was still asleep on Icewind’s back. “Like I said, we are only passing through.”
“They would like to show you their gratitude.” The long-necked Cyantians looked at them expectantly. Eithan said something in their language, and they made gesturing motions, unmistable invitation.
“I don’t know.” Kiet closed his eyes, considering the time. It was already late. They wouldn’t get far before they would have to look for another place to camp for the night. If they stayed, they could eat, rest, and be on their way early in the morning.
“They do not get many guests,” said Eithan with a smile as his shivae rested its head over his shoulder. He reached up and stroked its muzzle. “I’ve been here a few years. You shouldn’t tell anyone about them. They keep to themselves and are very friendly.”
“Who are they?” Aiden asked curiously. “I’ve never seen any Cyantians like them.”
“They are the Linnaeus,” replied Eithan, “and they are good people. Will you stay?”
Kiet sighed, looking at Shanti again. “Okay.”
The Linnaeus were friendly people, and even though Kiet couldn’t understand a word they said, they showed their gratitude with platters full of delicious food. They provided food for Icewind and Tumbler and led them to a rookery with rooms across the halls. Unlike the Mounties, they kept a mix of shivae and gryphons.
Eithan showed them around the small town, translating for them as they went. There were far more people than it first appeared. The people occupied the cliffs, using the plateaus to grow food. Linnaeus had tunnels and bridges to reach other plateaus, and there were few predators. It was a veritable paradise with plenty of food and people residing peacefully with family chiefs instead of royalty or politicians in charge.
‘You’re like me.’ Kiet overhead Shanti talking to Eithan. ‘You’re from Genoworks?’
“Yes, I escaped when the facility burned to the ground.” Eithan smiled at her. “You’re one of the Jackalopes, but not a Navigator?”
‘Botched communicator.” She laughed, and Kiet smiled. Shanti was typically cheerful, but there was a different tone in her laugh. ‘What are you?’
“I don’t know. I was young.”
‘What can you do?’
As the conversation continued, Kiet and Aiden went quiet, listening. Genoworks escapees kept to themselves, for a good reason. They often had highly sought-after abilities. Many were failed experiments, but there were rumors that some of the escapees were dangerous in ways that could not be imagined—walking biological weapons.
Eithan went silent, slumping as his shivae, Daisy, pushed her nose into his back. “I would rather not say.” He glanced down the path at Kiet, who cringed. The insinuation was clear. Eithan didn’t trust Fox.
“I’m going to check on Icey.” Kiet turned away, ears twitching back. He could leave them to talk as they wanted without fear of him overhearing something important.
The Linnaeus didn’t regard him with the same suspicion Eithan did. It was likely they didn’t have any experiences with the Fox. They were far from the border, with mountains and kingdoms between them and his people.
Kiet grumbled, the walk back to the rookery a short one. Icewind was stretched out on a ledge just off her small cave, enjoying the sunlight and sleeping off a heavy meal. Tumblr was up on a higher shelf, on her back with all four legs in the air, her distended stomach on full display. Since they weren’t flying, they had a full meal. It was good for her, another day of rest. Kiet settled into her side, sinking into her thick fur. He folded his arms and sighed.
He had a stupid mission, and he hated it more and more with each passing moment. Was it worth bloodying his hands to please his father? It was murder. There was no sugar coating what his father wanted—a wolf’s head, from a wolf near his age. Kiet sighed and closed his eyes, pushing the conflict away.
Until he stood face to face with Darius, there was time to search for a solution to his problem. What the solution was, continually evaded him. He was a prince, the heir to the Fox empire. There was only one path to the throne, through his father, and unless he killed his father, he would have to murder Darius to secure his right to ascension.
There had been Fox princes in the past who had taken the throne, bypassing elder brothers by murdering their father…and every prince in the family to make sure they were not challenged. The thought turned his stomach. How could they do that? It wasn’t in him to take anyone’s life, and he didn’t even know if he could.
“Kiet?” Aiden called, coming in through Icewind’s cave. Tumbler trilled, rolling over and fluttering her wings. She jumped to the lower ledge and ran up to him, purring.
“Yes?” Kiet waved a hand in the air, showing where he was against Icewind.
“So, Eithan has a question.” Aiden came closer, Tumbler butting her head against his shoulders as he walked. “He would like to come with us when we leave in the morning.”
Kiet grimaced, running a hand over his face as he left the comfort of Icewind’s thick fur. “Why? He doesn’t trust me.”
“Eithan is looking for more Genoworks escapees like himself, and there are rumored to be many of them in Centralis.”
“Just wants company for the trip?”
“Nobody likes flying alone.”
“That’s true,” said Kiet with a resigned sigh. “Okay, I don’t mind. It’s not a long trip.”
“Great, I’ll let him know!” Aiden waved to Kiet as he turned and left, Tumbler following him back inside the cave.
More people to keep track of? Kiet sank back against Icewind. It would make the trip there safer, especially if they ran into any trouble. He didn’t think they would, but you never knew.
The evening banquet spread out before them, even more delicious food, and Kiet could enjoy every bite of it. There would be no sleeping out in the open, keeping watch. They had rooms with doors, up high with their mounts. Shanti sat on one side, Aiden on the other, each piling their plates full upon the urging of their hosts. Eithan sat by Shanti, translating.
“Tell them it’s good and thank them for their hospitality,” said Kiet as dancers performed on a nearby stage. Shimmering red cloth hung from their lithe bodies as they cavorted to wild music, drums echoing through the air.
“They say you are very welcome,” said Eithan with a grin. While he kept his distance, he appeared to be more relaxed around Kiet than when they had first met. “And they have a gift for you.”
“That’s not necessary.”
“It gets cold.” Eithan motioned to the blanket-like garments most of the Linnaeus wore. They were woven cloth squares that came down to their knees. Fringes and beaded tassels decorated the edges, providing an overwhelming amount of distracting movement. Each one was colorful, filled with designs that spoke of tradition. “You will like them.”
As Eithan talked, the two kits they had rescued came bouncing up to their table with packages in their arms. Several adults Kiet assumed were their parents accompanied them. Kiet blinked at how the two had been cleaned up. One was pure white with brown splotches, the other a creamy, gold color. Before, they had been covered in a thick wooly fur, but it had been shorn down to the skin, and they wore light clothing.
Kiet looked around, examining the other Linnaeus. They had short fur, nothing like the kits had when he found them. Eithan followed his gaze and inquired curiously, “Is there something wrong?”
“They shave their bodies?”
Eithan cracked a grin, his canines showing. “Their fur isn’t like ours. It’s more like hair. It never sheds. It just continues growing until it’s very long. If it gets too long, they get mats, and it’s disgusting, so they shear in the spring and use their wool to make their mantles. That’s what they call their coats. Mantles.”
A package was offered to each of them, the givers waiting for them to be taken.
“It is rude to deny a gift,” said Eithan, motioning for Kiet to accept the package. “And it is useful.”
Kiet nodded, taking the offering with a bow of his head. “Thank you.”
Eithan spoke to the Linnaeus, and they all struggled to get the words out he gave them. “We are honored by your presence.” It came out in mangled words, but they tried, then stood waiting. “Go on, open them.”
Shanti ripped through the paper. A gorgeous blue and white mantle fell from the wrapping, and she gasped in delight. She lifted it, examining the designs and colors. Aiden opened his with more care but was just as pleased. His mantle was primarily black with bright blues and greens woven into it, a lively design dancing over the woolen fabric.
Kiet stared. The mantles. They were made from their hosts’ fur. He was sure that’s where the wool had come from, and it felt strange to even imagine wearing someone else’s fur. His skin prickled as all eyes fell on him. There wasn’t a choice. He had to accept the gift.
The paper peeled back easily beneath his short, sharp nails, and a stunning bit of color met his eyes. Pale yellow fading into green with woven squares gradients from orange to darker green spread over the mantle in a pleasing mixture of colors. It was soft and light, the texture unlike anything he had felt before in a woven garment. There was a hood attached to one end, and he forgot where it had come from. Without hesitation, he pulled it over his head and smiled, situating it like the Linnaeus wore their mantles.
They smiled at him, speaking to Eithan. “They wish you good health,” he translated.
“Thank you.” Kiet ran his fingers over the cloth, examining the texture and craftsmanship. It would be considered crude at home, but it was comfortable and what he needed out here. He liked it, and that was all that mattered. The best part was, he would never forget their kindness and generosity to him, an outsider, and a Fox.