The Lady read as the black wolf circled. The book was bound between sturdy wooden covers, a new transcription of an older text. The wolf was growling almost too low to hear, hackles raised. It snapped the air some five feet away, then leapt back another two, stumbling at the landing. It recovered with a snarl. She brushed a strand of blonde hair back behind her ear and turned a page.

“There’s an old theory.” She made to look up. The wolf tensed, to spring or to run or to defend itself. She turned her eyes back to the book. “We were more secure on the continent. Some people lived their whole lives devoted to scholarship. To finding new knowledge, not just transcribing it. Not just letting it be forgot like a child pulling the blanket up over her eyes.”

The wolf circled, limping on its right foreleg, eyes never leaving the slender woman. Its claws clicked unnaturally loud over the stones of the courtyard. These were feet made for red pine needles, legs made to run. It did not know how it had gotten into this gray walled place, and it did not know how it had come to be injured, but it knew that this was wrong.

The Lady’s table sat in the center of the courtyard, small and round and alone. The Lady sat atop it, using the lone chair as her footrest. “On the continent, they drew elaborate diagrams of how we are all related. Unicorns and kirin and shadhavar, like branches of a tree, rooted to a common ancestor whose bones they’d dug from the ground. Some nested closer together, nearly on the same leaf, like phoenixes and bennu birds. Some were on distant branches, wide enough apart to be trunks of their own. They drew the whole world, and inked names of things none of them had ever seen alive. Would you like to see it, Aaron?”

The black wolf had paced around to her back, and crouched to spring. She wore a silver hair clip. The tarnished black cait sidhe watched him with unblinking eyes. The Lady herself did not turn. She shifted, and he bolted, skidding into a corner where walls would help defend him on two sides.

She was only crossing her legs. “Our closest living cousins are the selkie. To the seal women it comes naturally. The skin is their own, and they change it at will. There must have been some common grandmother in our lines, some old woman of the sea who left her cloak on the beach to become the first human. The ignorant shun us when they see our magic, but it’s not the Letforget we use. Slipping skins is as much a part of us as wings are to birds. We were only born without our feathers.”

The wolf held his injured paw to his chest, panting warily past sharp teeth. The woman was not the only one here, not the only one in sight or hearing or smell. The courtyard was small and its wooden door closed and its square flowerbeds increasingly more trampled by wolf paws, but there were other people up on the walls, watching like crows.


“You can do this, Lord Sung.” One of the humans on the walls said. A rather small, weedy creature, half-grown and gangly. Young. A boy. There was a thin gold band in his fire-red hair.

Connor, the crown prince. Heir to His Majesty Orin O’Shea.

The wolf stared up at the boy. He whined, a thin noise. These were not things that a wolf should know. They felt wrong in his head, bigger than him, different from what he was now.

“Mind what names you speak outside the royal quarters, Your Highness,” the woman chastised lightly, eyes on her book as she again turned the page.

The boy tucked his shoulders. “Sorry, Aaron.”

A girl stood next to Prince Connor, her hands white on the parapet, her face half-hidden by a white rose-printed scarf. He could see her lips, set in a thin line. Her shoulders, straight and stiff as his own. The wolf’s hackles lowered, hair by hair. His tail rose resolutely.


He did not know why he was here, or how, but there was a thought in his mind that felt older than him. Like something shouted while waking from a dream. He felt its truth like he felt the stones under his paws.

The Lady had to die. It was the only thing he knew.

“Humans make fine tailors, Aaron, but it’s a very certain cloth we must cut from.” The breeze toyed with her hair. Every strand tucked neatly away stole its chance to spring free again, and flew to the end of its tether. “We cannot find a wolf in the forest and skin it. A wolf has four legs and a tail, and rather different dimensions overall. We would never fit.”

A rapier and a dagger were on the table behind her, sheathed and ignored. If he could get the dagger—

With what hands? He’d thought he had them, for a dizzying moment. He could remember—

He felt that he remembered—

He was a wolf. He had teeth. And if that was all he had, then he would make do. The Lady had to die. He did not remember the reason for it, in the same way he did not remember why the spring sun was warmer now than it had been in winter, or the blue sky would turn to fire red at dusk. He could spend time thinking about all these things. Remember them, if he’d ever known. But it wouldn’t change any of them.

She had to die. He would never be safe until she was.

“If a man lets a wolf under his skin, then we can cut him to size. When we slip him on, it is the human underneath that lines our cloak, even if the wolf outside is all the world sees. We wear him, and we tuck him back in the wardrobe when we are done. And we remember, as he never did, what is cloth and what is man. Remembrance is the most important part of our profession.”

She was unguarded and alone, with book in hand instead of weapon. The ones that watched from above could not help her in time.

Yet this was a trap. It had to be. She sat like a lion basking on a rock; she smelled of a greater predator than he.

He had to think.

“Not everyone can swing a hammer well, nor fight without walls to defend him. Smiths and armored merchants leave these men behind when the time for choosing careers comes.”

The Lady looked up. Looked directly at him. The wolf stood his ground, painful leg and all, teeth bared and tail stiff behind him.

“Similarly, the Late Wake has no need for journeymen who cannot see past their own cloaks. If you cannot learn this, I cannot teach it.”

She returned to her book. There was a cloak around her own shoulders, blacker than his fur, scaled finely, flashing blinding spots of light where the sun played across it.


This is what she had been talking about. Her words had meaning. The cloak was her weapon. She was a weapon.

“How long does this usually take?” another man on the wall asked. His skin was dark and his features bored, like a particularly judgmental piece of sod.

The wolf had the urge to share this insight with the man, to watch as he took offense and gave up the argument for lost, all in the same instant. Second Lieutenant Lochlann Varghese was a fun rock to kick. This was another thing the wolf knew for truth.

“The quickest take only minutes,” the Lady said. “The longest died of old age in His Majesty’s kennels, after a distinguished career as a pheasant hound.”

“Did they bury him a dog?” the young prince asked, fascinated.

“It’s an easier task, taking clothes off a dead man.” She turned another page, and held it flat with her hand as the wind tried to flutter it.

Varghese eyed the wolf critically. The wolf eyed the man back, somewhat more cheekily. It set its paw down, and immediately remembered why this was a poor idea. The pain cleared the fog of prince and lieutenant and other human matters. He snapped his gaze back to the Lady, hackles rising again.

“What’s it like in there?” the young prince asked.

“Much simplified to an inexperienced mind, Your Highness. We advise new journeymen to try holding only the one thought. So long as they can cling to it, they’ll find their way back eventually.”

“What thought?” the girl asked. The wind had teased her scarf loose, but she did not seem to notice. Her eyes were pale green, and followed him as intently as his own followed the Lady.

“ ‘I am human.’ ”

The Lady had to die. It was beyond questioning. If he didn’t have this thought, he didn’t have anything. She wore a basilisk cloak, but had not yet taken its shape. She had sword and dagger, but not at hand. She was a half-second from being deadly. He was a half-second from being at her throat.

The wolf circled again, slowly, testing its injured leg. Broken in the near past, but almost healed. Painful, but it would just have to mind itself. He’d no time for babying it. If it could hold weight, then it would. He no longer wasted breath on growling.

The good lieutenant had a hand on his blade, even though he was too far up to be in danger. He had moved closer to the royal charges, his instincts trumping his reason. “Are your journeymen always so aggressive?”

The Lady turned a page.

The wolf sprung.

Action made it easier to think, easier to focus. His paws, landing on her chest as she spun to face him. Claws digging into her leather vest. Teeth snapping for her throat. Everything was clear and everything was easy—

The hard wooden corner of a book, painfully digging into the soft place between his jaw and throat, forcing his head back. Her other hand, reaching for her cloak.

Black coils, darker than him and larger than him and faster than him, roiling where once there had been a woman.

The wolf sprang back. He landed painfully, rolling over his bad leg, coming to his feet too slow too slow—

The basilisk coiled over table and chair. She held her eyes closed. On the walkway overlooking, the good lieutenant had not waited to confirm that fact—he’d pressed both children down below the level of the parapet, his own eyes squeezed firmly shut. The royal twins made muffled protests.

Further along the castle walls, guards shouted an alarm. Six quick bells tolled into the air from the royal tower. The rest of the city watch towers dutifully took up the message, though none but the castle guards could see the cause.

Six, six, Late Wake’s tricks.

No threat to the city at large; only the king’s spies trying to kill each other in a quiet corner of his home.

The wolf belatedly closed his own eyes. His ears swiveled to catch each smooth hiss of scale-on-scale. His nostrils flared, stinging with the bitterness of thinly sheathed poison.

The basilisk did not pursue. It could have; it could have killed him. It was choosing not to.

The wolf did not have that choice to make. The Lady had to die. It crouched, readying itself, hoping its movements were more silent to the great snake’s ears than his heartbeat was to his own.


If the wolf had opened his eyes, he would have seen a girl that had elbowed her way free of the lieutenant’s attempts at protection.

“Aaron, stop this. As a member of the king’s council, you are reflecting poorly upon His Majesty and the entire royal family. You are reflecting poorly upon me.”

He did not need to open his eyes to hear the tremor in her voice.

“If you plan to spend the rest of your life in the kennels, then you should know that—that I will only read you tax records, and I will forbid the baker’s apprentice from slipping you anything unhealthy for a wolf, and furthermore, I will allow Connor to name you whatever he wants and I assure you that it will be something stupid.”

“It really will.” There was a sound very much like a younger prince trying to join his sister in standing up, and failing due to an unamused lieutenant.

“Aaron,” she said again. Just that.

The wolf whined, and cracked open his eyes.

“Aaron, come.”

He came, limping, and sat below her next to the wall, and kept one ear on her and one ear on the basilisk.

“You are a human.”

…Things made a great deal more sense, when she put it that way. Things that had hurt his head before, that didn’t fit, seemed to shift and find their place. He was Aaron, street rat and friend to the castle’s library fey, who happened to be a princess. His foreleg hurt because it had been broken, his wrist cleanly snapped by the hilt of his father's sword. He was Aaron, bastard son of the traitor Duke, friend to Princess Rose O’Shea.

She stared down at him, fierce as any basilisk. “Nod if you can understand me.”

Aaron nodded, a moment before he remembered why he shouldn’t.

The Lady had to die. She had poisoned King Liam less than a month ago, may his soul not wander. She had framed her husband, Aaron’s father, for the act. Niall Sung rotted in the castle dungeons now, awaiting an obligatory investigation before his hanging.

She had ordered an inconvenient street rat knifed in the back on a cold autumn street, to clean the gutter filth out of the succession line. That filth’s name had been Aaron, and she hadn’t cared to meet him, hadn’t cared what his hopes and dreams were, or whether he even wanted to be counted in line for the throne. She’d ordered him dead without knowing anything more about him.

She thought he was Markus, the son she had some part in raising. She thought Aaron was an act he’d put on to be a better spy for her. If she found out who he really was, he was a dead man.

This had been his best chance. In front of everyone, with no one blaming him. Just an accident in training, a new journeyman who’d forgotten himself.

A book closed behind him, and he knew the chance for lost.

“Congratulations. You’ve passed the first test of any Late Wake journeyman.”

Soft leather boots slid onto the stones, and crossed the space between them. She set a hand lightly atop his head. “I’m proud of you.”

Her smile was small, but genuine. Her guard as low as he’d ever seen it. He could still do it—leap up and snap her throat out.

Rose was smiling down at him. He could count on one hand—one paw?—how often he’d seen her smile. She would probably not look that way if she saw her mother murdered in front of her. She might never look that way again. At least, not where he was involved.

The Lady removed her hand. She knelt, briefly, and set her book in front of his paws.

“These are the population records of Last Reign, from our founding to the present year. It is not so riveting as tax records, but it is the first required reading of a journeyman. You will find there is much to discuss.”

Aaron pawed despondently at the book’s wooden cover. It was a thick, heavy thing, sturdy enough to be used as a weapon in a pinch. He knew this from experience: his neck still hurt. Markus the literate lordling would have been able to read it. Aaron the street rat had only recently mastered the writing of his own name.

“Why are you still a wolf?” the crown prince asked, leaning over the stonework curiously, the good lieutenant looking quite ready to grab his belt if he overbalanced.

“Ah,” the Lady said, in the absent tone of a maid who’s brought seven napkins out to the table instead of eight. “That relates to the second test. Namely, turning back. Good day, Aaron. Please call on me when you can knock.”

…The Lady had to die.