A romantic retelling of a classic fairytale...
The Southern Continent of Nemerl is a lawless region of brigands, slavers, and petty overlords. The land is embroiled in bloody border skirmishes between the Hilurin and Aralyrin factions of Byzantur, and every day brings a new clash, a new horror. Scarlet of Lysia is an honest Hilurin pedlar, a young merchant traveling the wild, undefended roads. Liall, called the Wolf of Omara, is the handsome, world-weary chieftain of a tribe of Kasiri bandits blocking a mountain road that Scarlet needs to cross, except Liall demands a carnal toll for the privilege. Scarlet angrily refuses and an inventive battle of wills ensues, with disastrous results. Soon, the hostile countryside explodes into new violence, and proud Scarlet is forced to look to the most unlikely savior in the world for help.
Liall woke to Peysho scratching at the wall of the yurt again, then the flap moved aside and Peysho thrust his head in. The angle of the moon behind him told Liall it had been only an hour or so since he had fallen back asleep. The feather and the ring were tucked safely under his mattress.
“There’s a matter, atya. Ye’d best come.”
Grumbling, he pushed aside his blankets and furs as Peysho retreated. So much for sleep. There were few reasons he tolerated being roused twice from his bed: raid, flood, fire, or the soft skin of another nuzzling his side. None of those were in sight when he exited the yurt and stepped close to the circle of warriors huddling close to the campfire. Then the circle opened up and Kio flung the black-haired pedlar at his feet.
The pedlar’s hands were tied behind his back and his white skin was dirtied with ash. His dark eyes blazed with fury as he struggled uselessly with the ropes binding him. “Let me go, damn you! Kasiri dogs!”
Liall laughed and drew his cloak closer around him. This, at least, was a happy diversion. The wind was frigid. Inwardly, he felt a tinge of admiration toward the youth for venturing out into the dark, cold forest in an attempt to sneak past his men. He watched as the pedlar attempted to rise and Peysho grabbed him by the neck and flung him back to his knees in the snow and dirt. The boy looked fierce as a wolf, squatting on his heels and baring his teeth in the orange light of the campfire.
“What’s this?” Liall flowed down to one knee and took the pedlar’s chin in his hand, just barely retrieving his fingers before the pedlar snarled and snapped. He contemplated his whole digits, and then the boy, more thoughtfully and with less humor.
“You have the temper of a Minh,” he said, which was more of an insult among Byzans. “Perhaps they should call you the wolf instead of me. Speaking of which.” He reached for him more swiftly this time, dodging his dangerous teeth and seizing his smooth jaw in his hand. “You did not give me your name before, though I gave you mine. I will have it now.”
The pedlar only narrowed his eyes at him and closed his mouth more firmly.
“You’re stubborn, I’ll give you that,” Liall said, greatly impressed. “And you have courage, if not the brains to back it up. Did you not know we would patrol the forest?”
“Hark, he speaks at last.” Liall released him. Standing up, he motioned for Peysho to slash the bindings on the boy’s hands. “So you thought you could slip past the Kasiri, did you? Whence comes such confidence?”
The pedlar stood and stripped the severed-leather laces from his hands before he angrily kicked them toward Liall with the toe of his boot. “I’m not confident. I have to get to the other side of this mountain and you won’t let me by. That’s all.”
“Ah, but I will… for a price.”
“I don’t like your stinkin’ mucked price,” he snapped.
Behind the pedlar, Peysho chuckled, then prudently coughed and looked away.
Liall dropped his voice and moved a little closer to the irate youth. “The price, or me?”
The pedlar met his eyes unflinchingly but did not answer immediately, and Liall saw that he was struggling with his answer. The atya fought down a surge of irritation. Princes had knelt at his feet once. Who was this illiterate merchant to refuse him? Who did he think he was?
“Come now,” he coaxed. “You will not injure my feelings. I am no charming prince, this I know. But still, am I an ogre?”
“No,” the pedlar judged after a moment, studying him. “You’re a wolf.”
“And you do not like wolves?”
“I like wolves fine, so long as they stay clear of my path. Wolves and men don’t mix.”
Or men and men, Liall supposed he would have liked to say. Peysho had shooed the tribesmen off and taken himself away with them, leaving Liall with the pedlar, the campfire, and the soft-snowing night around them.
“What about wolves and pedlars?” Liall asked softly, daring another step.
“I don’t…” the pedlar began. He stopped and swallowed hard, looking up at Liall. There was no fear in his eyes. “I don’t see why you’re vexin’ yourself, is all.”
“Vexin’?” Local dialects often threw him. He waited for the boy to explain.
“Why are you going to so much trouble on my account? I can’t be worth this much bother.”
Liall began to suspect that this one was not terribly experienced with the desires of men. “Are there no mirrors in Lysia? Give me your name,” he urged.
“I–” he closed his mouth. “Let me pass.”
Liall shook his head slowly. It made the pedlar angry again.
“Damn you, why not?”
“Because I’m not through vexin’ myself, I suppose.”
Snowflakes drifted slowly down and settled on the pedlar’s black hair as he glared at Liall in loathing. Then, he abruptly dropped his gaze to his boots and his shoulders slumped. “All right,” he muttered.
The boy clenched his hands into fists and yelled it at him in a rush; “I said all right, I’ll meet your gods-be-buggered price!”
Liall cocked his head as he regarded the pedlar. This capitulation was unexpected. Now that the youth had consented, Liall discovered that he had not asked enough. The pedlar would scrub the kiss from his mouth and walk away: still hating him, still believing himself superior, and Liall would have won a hollow victory.
Liall noted the stance of the pedlar’s feet and the position of his fists before he spoke his next words. After all, this one had already mortgaged his precious pride. He would not enjoy what he heard next.
“The price has changed, red-coat.”
The pedlar gaped. “What?”
“Today, it was a kiss. Tonight, since you have disturbed my sleep crashing about in the woods, it is one hour.”
“An hour… what?”
He would have to be more blunt. “One hour,” he said with a smile he hoped was gentle. “With me. Alone.”