The tera were gone by the time Silver returned to the hotel, but in their place was someone far more dangerous.
The stranger had his back to the entrance, his hands on the front desk as he spoke to the Snake. It was his clothing that gave him away: the stranger was wearing tracker insignia.
Officially, the trackers were Empire soldiers sent to Tulkan to govern the city and oversee the saltpeter mines. But as the mines had dried up, Tulkan had lost the Empire’s favour and fallen into obscurity. The trackers had hardened with the city, their loyalty wavering, until now they were little more than guns for hire. While there were thousands of reasons for why a tracker could be in the hotel, most of them were in the WPL’s pocket. And if the WPL was planning something, the pack needed to know.
Silver moved over to the left wall, staring at the bulleting board advertising Tulkan’s black market attractions. Most of them were written in code but he didn’t bother to decipher them, angling himself so that he could see the reception desk clearly.
The tracker gestured with a granite-grey hand: he was a stein, a race of affected with nigh-indestructible skin. “You’ll be rewarded for useful information,” he said.
“Your reward is of little interest.”
There was a faint grinding noise as the tracker shifted positions, his rock-like limbs rubbing against each other. Silver kept his eyes on the bulletin board, running his fingers over a flyer as if deciphering a code.
“What if—” the tracker’s voice was even lower than before “—the reward was being offered by the Guild?” Not WPL business, then. What information would the Guild be after?
The Snake’s tongue flicked into the air. “Continue.”
“There have been . . . reports of an incident at the theatre,” the tracker said, leaning in close. “One or more blands escaped, possibly accompanied by a werekin.”
Silver stiffened. If the Snake said anything. . . . Pack rules be damned, he’d have to take the girl and run.
“There are no blands here,” the Snake replied smoothly. His head lifted slowly, until he was looking at Silver. “But over there is a werekin.”
The tracker glanced over. Silver gave up any pretense of disinterest and stared back impassively. He was a werewolf: to show weakness would only arouse suspicion. A second of silence, then another. The tracker’s eyes lingered on Silver’s bare feet.
Finally the tracker turned back to the Snake. “Let us know if you see anything suspicious,” he said. When the Snake didn’t reply, he nodded and left. Silver waited until the sound of his foosteps had faded before approaching the front desk.
The Snake gave him a long, measuring look. “You’re late.”
“Sorry,” Silver replied, although it was clear to both he wasn’t. “I was getting money for the room.”
“Money is irrelevant. The girl, on the other hand . . . .”
His eyes narrowed. “What about her?”
“Who is she?”
“What do you care?”
“Just curious,” the Snake replied, drawing out the final s.
Silver didn’t believe that for a second. He pulled out the cash Dev had given him, placed it on the desk. “For the room.”
“Unacceptable. Your answers, or nothing.”
Silver hesitated. There was no way he’d let himself be tricked into owning the slimy bastard a debt, but the possibility of saving money was too good to pass up. “My answers as payment for the room,” he confirmed.
“If you answer truthfully, yes.” The Snake tilted his head back so that the hood no longer obscured his mouth. His fangs gleamed as he spoke. “Who is she?”
Silver wasn’t fooled. “How many questions?”
The Snake paused, considering. “Ten.”
“Deal,” the Snake said, so quickly it made Silver suspicious. “The first question remains the same: who is she?”
“She is mine.”
“That does not answer the question.”
“It’s the truth,” Silver replied flatly.
The Snake inclined his head in acknowledgement. “Where is she from?”
It was too obvious a question: the Snake might as well have asked whether the girl was a bland. “Not from here.”
The Snake’s tongue flickered out, tasting the air. “Interesting.” He placed a hand on the counter and tapped one finger thoughtfully, the dark nail clacking against the surface. “When did you meet?”
“Recently.” Only two more questions left. This was easier than Silver had expected.
“Why are you travelling together?”
“Convenience.” Which was true: there was no easier way to ensure the girl’s safety.
The hand on the reception desk stilled. “What is she?”
“A girl, what else?” Silver immediately realised his mistake. The omission made the girl’s nature obvious: she wasn’t a werewolf.
“That’s your five questions,” he said curtly, turning to leave. He had barely taken three paces when the Snake spoke again.
“The trackers have offered a large reward for useful information,” he said, almost idly.
Silver pushed down the sudden urge to shift. He turned around slowly. “And?”
“What is silence worth, to you?”
“I don’t need your silence.” The lie fooled no one. After a moment Silver scowled. “What’s your price?”
Silver’s scowl intensified. “No.”
“More information, then.”
“I don’t know anything else.”
The Snake dragged his claws against the desk, gouging in the surface. “Those are the only two offers.”
“I’ll know more about the girl when I get back,” Silver said, picking his words carefully. It was a half-truth; he’d only know whether he could take her to the pack or not. “I could tell you what I know then.”
The Snake tilted his head to the side. “When do you return?”
“Her presence will not be reported to the trackers until tomorrow.”
It was long enough. Silver nodded curtly. “Okay.”
The Snake didn’t respond. His head turned sharply to the side, to the staircase door. Seconds later, Silver heard the sound of shuffling feet, the faint drag of a tail. The door opened and an ewte—an aquatic reptilian race of affected—traipsed in. He eyed Silver cautiously as he approached the front desk.
Silver turned to leave, glanced back when he reached the exit. The Snake and the ewte were conferring in tones too low for him to eavesdrop and he hesitated, wary of conspiracies. But just then the Snake looked up and hissed a warning.
Their deal was far too tentative for Silver to push his luck. With no other choice, Silver stepped out into the alleyway. He looked up at the third floor, wondered whether he should tell the girl his plan. Then, disgusted by his unexpected concern, he stalked off without a backwards glance.
There was a long queue at the city wall, a line of hooded people fidgeting impatiently. Silver scanned the crowd. Small fry, all of them, simple men and women who had come into Tulkan for the day and were anxious to return home, their business concluded. But the main gates were barred shut, and the only exit was a small pedestrian gate on one side, slowing the afternoon rush to a trickle. Neither Dev nor Rae were in sight; perhaps they were already waiting outside.
Silver joined the queue, scanning the crowd. The main gates were never barred shut during the day—it hurt business. The trackers would only have closed them for someone with deep enough pockets, and out here that could only be the WPL. Then he remembered the tracker in the hotel and felt his muscles stiffen. What if this had to do with the events at the theatre?
The queue moved forward and it was then Silver realised he was standing in the first of a series of queues. A tracker was guiding the crowd. Those sent to the left joined a smaller line and made their way slowly through the pedestrian gate. Those sent to the right had to wait on one side, backs to the wall, under sharp supervision. All those sent to the right, Silver noted with growing wariness, were werekin.
He couldn’t let them stop him for questioning. He ran through his options as he neared the top of the line.
“Right. Left. Left. Left.” The guard hardly glanced at Silver. “Right.”
Silver ignored the instruction and strode straight over to the tracker standing by the pedestrian gate, a measly squama whose lizard-like face shone dully in the afternoon sun. He had his hood pushed back and he straightened stiffly as Silver approached.
“Hey! There’s a queue for a reason, y’know,” the guard said in a coarse inner-city accent. “You best—”
Silver cut him off brusquely. “What’s going on?”
“Emergency procedures.” The guard blinked once, slowly. “All werekin leaving the city got to be questioned.”
Emergency? Who was he trying to kid? “How long will this take?”
The guard made a show of eyeing the growing queue, scratching the heavy ridge above his eye. “An hour or two. You best join the line.”
Silver reined in his temper. Nice way first. He kept his voice low. “How much?”
The guard stared, played dumb. “I already said. An hour or two.”
Shit. Whoever was paying them was paying big.
“I don’t have that time.” Silver kept his body stiff, staring down the guard. Squama were animals, after all. They understood body language as well as any werekin did.
The guard squared his shoulders. “Rules are rules. Any werekin leaving the city get interrogated.”
“I don’t have that time,” Silver repeated, now letting the wolf shine through his eyes. It made his pupils flash yellow like a wolf gone feral, and that was generally enough to frighten others into submission.
But this tracker didn’t budge. His hand edged under his cloak to grasp the handle of his blade, the white scales on his chest taking on a red tinge. “I don’t care. Wait your turn or stay in the city. Just move away from here.” There was a rasp of metal as he began to unsheathe his sword.
Silver glanced at the queue of werekin. He spotted a few dogs, some minor predators, and a lot of prey, but none worth notice. There were only three trackers in sight, hardly enough to handle the wrath of a wolf. He turned back around and smirked. The tracker’s underbelly flashed red; whether out of fear or aggression, Silver wasn’t sure.
He made to push past, through the small gate. The tracker took half a step forward, sword aloft. Silver met the tracker’s eyes with a direct, unblinking stare.
The tracker looked away first. “Fifty rebels,” he said. “Not a penny less.”
“Too late.” And Silver tensed his legs and shifted his weight forward, as if he were about to attack.
The squama crouched, brought his sword up again. For a moment the air was charged with intent, then the tracker’s sword drooped uncertainly. He straightened and sheathed his sword with studied casualness, then turned away and called forward the first werekin in line, as if Silver wasn’t worth his notice. Silver didn’t care. He strode through the city gates and out into the late afternoon sunshine.
He should’ve threatened the tracker to begin with, Silver mused, navigating his way through the small crowd gathered outside the city walls, all of them hooded, the hems of their robes streaked with sand and dust. The trackers were interrogating the new arrivals, too—getting back into the city was going to prove difficult if the blockade lasted for much longer. If only he’d brought the girl with him . . . but it was too late for regrets. Besides, he still didn’t know how to explain the situation to his pack.
Dev and Rae were waiting off to one side of the well-worn trail that linked Tulkan to the next closest settlement, Rivton. The passing travellers were giving them a wide berth, eyeing Dev’s shaved head and bulging biceps. Little did they know it was Rae, all coquettish as she shaded her pale face from the sun, who was the more vicious of the two.
“Something’s wrong,” Dev said when Silver joined them.
“I know.” They didn’t ask for details, so he didn’t give any. When they started to strip, Silver quietly followed suit.
Rae nodded at the gates. “How much did you pay the guards?”
Dev’s lips tilted upwards. “Us, neither.”
As soon as they had shifted into wolf form, Dev took the lead. But instead of heading west, to where the pack had been staying before Silver had gone to the theatre, Dev pointed his muzzle to the east, towards the riverside. Silver loped after Dev, keeping a tight hold over his growing irritation. The pack had moved while he was gone. No wonder Dev had said it would take him until nightfall to get back to Tulkan.
He had the sudden urge to return to the hotel and take the girl with him. But he couldn’t, not with blockade at the city gates. And if the pack had moved for the reason he thought it had, then bringing the girl with him could prove even more dangerous than leaving her behind.
Silver allowed himself one last glance at Tulkan, fading into the horizon. If the girl got herself into trouble he was going to be very, very angry.