Chapter One

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The arrival of a Clan warship was normally a joyous occasion, as a tour of duty would take months up to a year. Its return would be followed with feasting and hunting. But for Starfang, there was no joy, no feasting. The warship was in mourning, the loss of an important member of the pack still keenly felt. An emptiness echoed on the bridge. Starfang was now in hunting mode, a predator on the trail of an elusive prey. Even a refit and refuel above Noah's Ark would mean a delay. I itched to move on, to continue the hunt, the kill.

I will avenge you, Mariette.

I clenched my hands into fists, nails biting into skin, into flesh. The pain reminded me why I was still alive.

A gentle hand on my shoulder soothed me. April.

"The Clan requests our presence on-planet," she said, her voice unusually tentative, as if she was trying to walk on egg shells or deal with an open wound. "Should we proceed with the docking?"

I looked hard into her face. Dark rings smudged her eyes. She too had sleepless nights.

"Yes, we should," I said, attempting a smile. "A respite would do us some good."

April nodded, a slight incline of her head. I saw her worry, the tension in her shoulders.

Will we find him? Will we find Yeung Leung? She seemed to be asking me. Will we?

A growl centered in my stomach and found it up my throat. We will.

~*~

The dining hall was still decked in clan colors of gold and blood-red, the mahogany furniture gleaming with care. As I walked further in, servants flitted about the huge dining table, placing dishes and utensil on the smooth surface. I paused and stood at attention; protocol demanded I wait for my parents' arrival.

While I waited, Aunt Gertrude weighed heavily on my mind.

Aunt Gertrude still remembered me. She insisted this time to be called Cloud, her hanzi name. She still lived in her prison box, the small enclosure far away from civilized homo sapien lupus. The scent had gotten stronger, more animal, less human. She was degenerating rapidly. Yet I saw it as a merciful 'letting go'. I couldn't watch her suffer anymore. The Grand Wolf, my grandfather, won't want it to continue. My mother won't, either.

"I am still here," I had whispered through the small slit that constituted her only view of the outside world. "Me. Ming Yue. Francesca."

A growl preceded a querulous "Francesca?"

"Yes, I am Francesca."

"Leave me," Aunt Gertrude's voice was low, gasping. "I am not myself today."

I shuddered, hearing the wolf beneath the voice. I had also instinctively responded in kind: my hackles rose, my teeth bared. I forced myself to back away.

"Ming Yue," the voice came again. "Call me Cloud. That's my name. Yun."

I bowed and knew that she would not be able to see my gesture. "Yes." My skin prickled. Sadness, leaden and uncomfortable, laced my bones.

It was the same uneasiness and sorrow that occupied my mind while I waited for my parents. This homecoming was grim. The hunt-urge pounded in my blood. I wanted to go back to the trail.

A rustle and a hint of cedar warned me that Mother had emerged from the inner hall. She was wearing her forest-green qi pao this time. Her black hair was slicked back, pinned to the ear with a bunch of jasmine flowers. I tilted my head. Mother liked symbols. Jasmine flowers and forest green. Mother had pots of jasmine growing in her courtyard. The entire Clan compound was surrounded by forest.

Then Father joined her, a primal power centring on his being. He was tall and regal in his Clan uniform. He was clean-shaven, his hair dark and spotted with white.

I wanted to rush over and hug them. I had not shown them affection since I was a puppy. But restraint held me back.

"Welcome back," Father intoned.

I saluted, fist on chest.

"The hunt has been wanting this year," Mother said. Her eyes gleamed gold.

"I will rectify that," I replied. "The hunt will be fruitful."

They had served roast duck, smoked with fragrant wood over a slow fire. The soup sent tendrils of steam upwards: a thick consommé of fish maw and dried scallops. Pink-colored rice balls swam in sweet syrup in bowls of red and orange. It was the end of the lunar year. Mother cooked these dishes.

I ate sparingly. Instead my attention lingered on the paintings of ancestors on the walls. They sat or stood with court official wear, grim and unsmiling, always with a black wolf sprawled beside them. Their eyes judged. Why won't they? They were our best, our elite. In their eyes, I had probably failed.

Mother put her chopsticks down and wiped the corners of her mouth with a crisp white cloth napkin. Father continued eating, picking at choice bits and chewing with much gusto. We might find the ways of the jukka and shishini strange, but even they might find our behavior and posturing enigmatic and mysterious. We too played our social games with physical cues and body language. I knew my parents had news to tell. They simply enjoyed making me feel uncomfortable with the waiting.

"Lien is well," Mother began. "She grows an inch every day."

I bowed my head. My heart felt a rush of warmth for the child, an Amber Eye foundling who had been adopted by my Clan. I hid my smile behind my napkin. "That's good to hear, Mother."

"She drives Cook up the wall and rummages through my things. Aiyah, the world knows all my secrets!" Mother was fond of Lien. She was the granddaughter Mother had always wanted.

I took a sip of my tea, grateful for the astringent taste cleansing the palate and steeling my heart for other things.

"Starfang will be refitted with a new weapon battery," Father spoke up now, his voice low, like a alpha male wolf's growl. It was a question and a statement. So he had read my acquisition report.

"Yes," I replied. "Better for the hunt and the guarding of Clan boundaries."

"Before the trail goes cold," Father countered back. "Spoor disappears in time."

"My nose is on it," I said. "Trust in the determination and strength of Starfang."

Father drank his tea. "We have heard prey being flushed out in Section 5, beware of snakes in the bushes. Perhaps your hunt should be directed there for some success."

Yeung Leung active in Section 5, the furthest region covered by our Clan, almost overlapping into shishini space. My skin crawled as I remembered one particular shishini in my most recent past. My arm throbbed painfully. I still couldn't look at it without flinching. My body remembered other hurts too. A perpetual hunger gnawed in my bones, stemmed only by rigorous discipline and medication. Father's news confirmed Yuen Leung's collusion with the lizard aliens. An alliance with them bode ill for all the Clans, not just ours. The shishini were rapacious and intelligent, quick to react and even quicker to fight. Dealing with them was akin to dealing with a nest of venomous night vipers. War with them was unimaginable. War should be avoided at all cost.

Yet...

Mariette.

Her death alone would fuel my hatred and power the desire to hunt him down.

Father stood now, signalling the end of the meal. "Rest. The hunt has wearied you. Rest and refresh your body and mind."

"Yes," I said, leaving the table too. My back was stiff, my mood cold. "Yes, I will."


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