“Honesty is always best, Ulle. That way I know just how many fools I need to work to convince.”
“They are set in their ways, and you are not only a woman, but”—he cleared his throat—“they fear you are not entirely natural.”
Eryk wasn’t surprised. When other Grisha saw the power that he and his mother possessed, they had only one of two responses: fear or greed. Either they ran from it or they wanted it for themselves. It’s a balance, his mother always said. Fear is a powerful ally, but feed it too often, make it too strong, and it will turn on you. She had warned him to be cautious when displaying his power, to never show the full extent of what he could do. She certainly never did—she never used the Cut unless the situation was dire.
That wasn’t a problem for him, he thought bitterly. He still hadn’t mastered the Cut. His mother had managed it when she was half his age.
Now she lifted a brow and addressed the Ulle. “The first men to see bears thought they were monsters. My power is unfamiliar, not unnatural.”
“A bear is still dangerous,” noted the Ulle. “It still has claws and teeth to maul a man.”
“And men have spears and steel,” she said sharply. “Do not play the weak party with me, Ulle.”
Eryk saw the flash of anger that moved over the big man’s face at his mother’s disrespectful tone. Then the Ulle laughed. “I like your ferocity, Lena. But have a care with the old men.”
Eryk’s mother dipped her head in acknowledgment.
“Now, Eryk,” said the Ulle, “do you think you can be comfortable here?” His eyes were merry, and Eryk knew he was expected to smile, so he attempted it.
“Der git ver rastjel,” he said, giving the traditional greeting first in Fjerdan, then in Ravkan. “We are grateful guests.”
The Ulle looked slightly amused, but he replied in the prescribed fashion. “Fel holm ve koop djet. Our home is better for it.”
“Why is there no wall around the camp?” Eryk asked.
“Does that worry you? The villagers barely know we’re here—they certainly don’t know what we are.”
Someone must, thought Eryk. That’s how we found you. That was how they always found Grisha. He and his mother followed legends, whispers, tales of sorcerers and witches, of demons in the forests. Stories like that had led them to a tribe of Squallers camped along the western shore, to Baba Anezka and her cave of mirrors, to Petyr of Brevno and Magda of the black woods.
“My son asks a good question,” said his mother. “I saw no fortifications and only one man on watch.”
“Start building walls, and people begin to wonder what you’re hiding. We keep our buildings low. We don’t raid the villagers’ fields or farms, or empty their forests of game. Better they do not notice us than that they think we have something they want.”
Because you don’t. And you never will. It was like this wherever they went. Grisha living in camps and broken-down mines, hiding out in tunnels. Eryk had seen the island nation of Kerch, the library at Ketterdam, the grand roads and waterways. He’d seen the temples at Ahmrat Jen, and the great fort at Os Alta, protected by its famous double walls. They felt permanent, solid, a bulwark against the night. But places like this barely felt real, as if they might just slip away into nothing, vanishing without notice or regard.
“You’ll be safe here,” said the Ulle. “And if you stay until the spring, we may go to see the white tigers in the permafrost.”
“Maybe that will earn me a real smile,” the Ulle said with a wink. “My son will tell you all about them.”
Once the Ulle had said his goodbyes and departed, Eryk’s mother sat down on the edge of her sleeping pallet. It had been raised off the floor to keep out the cold, and was piled high with blankets and furs—another sign of respect.
“Well?” she asked. “What do you think?”
“Can we stay until spring?” He couldn’t hide his eagerness now. The prospect of tigers had defeated his caution.
“We’ll see. Tell me about the camp.”
Eryk heaved an irritated sigh. “Twelve huts. Eight have working chimneys—”
“Those are the huts for Grisha of greater status.”
“Good. What else?”
“The Ulle is rich, but his hands are callused. He does his own work. And he walks with a limp.”
“Old or new injury?”
“Are you guessing?”
Eryk crossed his arms. “The wear on the side of his boot shows he’s been favoring that leg a long while.”
“He lied about the elders.”
His mother cocked her head to one side, her black eyes glittering. “Did he?”
“None of them voted to have you at the meeting, but the Ulle demanded it.”
“How do you know?”