It was raining when Poz reached Edgeminster, the kind of perpetual drizzle that seemed to sap away all color and wash the world in a beautiful monochrome palate that reminded Poz of the ghost lights of his people. It was a good omen, as far as he was concerned. Comfortable, cool, damp – the way the world should be.
Edgeminster was located at the fork of two rivers, right on the point where the flow of water met. It was an ideal inland port for shipping goods out to the ocean. This late in the day, the two docks were shut down, allowing only one way into and out of the town. The guards on the walls waved Poz through with barely a glance at his hooded form. They were they to stop rebels trying to raid the town, not lone travelers.
Or, more likely, they just didn’t want to be bothered leaving their warm and covered guard station.
Either way, it worked to Poz’s advantage. Once past the guards on the walls, people had a tendency to assume you belonged. It was the one flaw in the Alohym’s heavy emphasis on checkpoints at certain locations – once the checkpoint had been bypassed, there was an unspoken belief that you’d gone through proper channels to arrive. Even if you were the only Underfolk still walking the surface.
Oh. That’s how they keep finding me. It was a testament to the dullness of Horseflesh that he was just now figuring that out. At least, Poz told himself that was the cause of his blind spot, deliberately ignoring that he’d spent much of the past few days in Crowflesh. But if the Alohym knew that the Underfolk had grown rare, all they’d have to do is put out word to their soldiers to detain any Underfolk they found walking the world.
It was a depressing realization that he’d never be truly free, not as long as he had something the Alohym so badly wanted. That shadow-damned egg was heavy in his pocket, safely stowed behind a complicated knot around a thick hide pack. Its weight bumped against his leg with every step, a reminder that all of this was because of his foolish greed when deep in the throes of Grubflesh.
No, don’t blame the flesh. Poz had spent sixteen years blaming his wretchedness on Grubflesh, and the Manflesh before that. Just as he’d just blamed his failure to realize why he was so noticeable on horseflesh. Just like he’d blamed…
Someone bumped into Poz, and his mind skittered away from the introspection as he felt a hand tug at the weight in his pocket. Someone was stealing the egg.
Horseflesh offered some strong instincts. He’d earlier thought that it only told him to run when he’d become startled. Apparently, there was a second reflex to Horseflesh – kicking.
The would-be thief went tumbling down the street at Poz’s foot, the sole as hard as a horse’s hoof, caught him in the chest. Poz could hear a rib crack under the blow. A few people gave Poz sideways glances and scurried a bit out of the way. A guard was approaching, his hand on the arcwand on his hip. He was blue-haired and sandy-skinned, a clear native of this land. “What’s going on here?”
“He tried to steal from me,” Poz said, pointing at the man that was groaning on the ground while trying to retreat further under his hood. In the dim light, if the guard didn’t peer too closely, he could mistake Poz for a human.
Right as the guardsman started to lean forward, the would-be thief groaned, drawing his attention. “Didn’t…steal…nuffin’” he coughed out through the pain.
“Four-fingers?” The guard said, walking over to the thief. “Alohym burn my eyes, it’s four-fingers! You, sir, deserve a reward – you stopped one of the most wanted – hey, where are you going?”
The last four words were shouted in Poz’s direction, but Poz was already turning down an alley, moving as fast as his feet would carry him. The guard was alone, without anyone to watch what was apparently a notorious criminal. He’d leave Poz be for now, send a song to the local outpost. They’d look for the tall man in the black cloak – the black cloak that was already fluttering to the ground.
Stupid, stupid, Poz growled at himself. He’d been so eager to see Nicandros he’d entered the town in Horseflesh. The knot around the egg pouch was too firm to be easily undone, even for someone so well-known he had a colorful moniker. Poz could have just jerked away and the pick-pocket would have gone on his way. Instead, Poz had made a scene.
He needed smarter flesh, and he needed to take the night to change. It would be smarter, and safer. Nicandros would not leave in the middle of the night. If he was here, he would be here come morning. But where would he find it? Humans rarely kept Crowflesh, even at the height of the Underfolk’s dealings with them. Now, who would bother?
Besides, Crowflesh would be dangerous. It was too intelligent. Too curious. Too distractible.
No, he’d need a better sample for this. Something he could use to navigate the currents within Edgeminster. Something smart enough to not startle at a light brush, but with instincts for running and hiding – and something he could easily obtain.
The answer was obvious, and even in Horseflesh Poz knew where to find it. At least, in general. In specifics, sticking to back alleys without signs to guide him, it was difficult to find. It didn’t help that in Horseflesh, he hated these claustrophobic environments. Horseflesh was for running across the open plains, the wind tugging at his mane. It was not for skulking between buildings, his heart pounding at every stray footstep that the wind carried to his ears.
Finally, his nose gave him a clue where to turn. The smell of mutton roasting in a clay oven. It wasn’t what he wanted to eat – Goatflesh would be a poor choice right now – but what they’d have to protect the mutton.
In a city this dense, inns couldn’t rely on cats alone to protect their food stores. They would help, but for this particular beast, the city would have to be swarming with cats to keep the food perfectly safe. As such, the back alleys of inns were lined with spring-loaded traps.
One had been sprung earlier today. The poor creature was dead, and not dead long enough to have attracted grubs that would infest and ruin its flesh. Poz grabbed the trap and pried his prize free, shoving it into his face greedily.
Now he just needed to find a sewer where he could safely wait for the transformation. He’d be able to leave come morning and find Nicandros. If he was still here, Nicandros certainly wouldn’t leave the city in the night – no one would be that foolish to set out on the road at this hour. Come morning, Poz would be far cleverer and infinitely better prepared than Horseflesh for dealing with the complexities of the city.
Ratflesh would give him exactly what he needed.