He’d been born with a Shadow Twin. Teo was the only person in the whole village who could say that, and he was the only person who’d had a Twin that almost all of them (except Teracit, who claimed to be old enough to have once shook hands with the original Duke) had ever encountered.
He was sitting in the cliff face that overlooked the river, in an icicle-choked crevice. The sun was rising. He’d crept out early, saying he was going to check snares, but truth was, he liked sitting and watching the world go pale grey, then violet, then gold and lavender, sumptuous as silk embroidery.
Often he wondered what his life would have been like if his Twin had drawn breath after the womb. History said that men and women with living Shadow Twins to assist there went on to do marvelous things. Verranzo and his Shadow Twin had each done a marvelous thing: Verranzo had founded Verranzo’s New City, far to the east on the coast, and his Shadow Twin (female, as Teo’s had been, for a Shadow Twin always took the opposite gender of its sibling) had gone south, with the Duke of Tabat, and founded a city in his name.
Teo’s would not found cities, would not draw on any of a Twin’s reputed powers: toe extend life or augment magical abilities. Verranzo’s Twin had been able to tame creatures with her voice alone.
Snow swans flew across the river far below in a glitter and beating of wings. He’d snared one of them last year and his father had beaten him, because you never knew when a creature like that, a swan or eagle or wolf, might be a fellow Shifter or Beast, and exempt from being hunted or trapped accordingly.
His swan had not been intelligent, but it had been lively when he’d freed it as Da had ordered. It beat at him with clublike wings as strong as Da’s fist, and its head darted at his face and hands like a snake, hissing and clacking its bill. He cut it loose and it waddled away, then leap up against the moons, its wings driving it upward, frosted with starlight. It honked derisively at Teo, poor bruised Teo who couldn’t shift, and therefore couldn’t tell what was or wasn’t a fellow Beast.
If he’d been Human, he would have been famous, might have been taken to Tabat to serve the latest generation of Dukes. But he was a Shifter, even if a failed one, and Humans hated Shifters, even more than the Beasts they habitually enslaved. So he and the other villagers must keep quiet, passing themselves off as unremarkable in the eyes of explorers and priests, here in the frontier territory that belonged to neither city.
Sunlight glinted on the river’s frozen mirrors, far below, dazzling him. Despite the worry that rode his shoulders — why, just today, were others avoiding his eyes? And what had happened in the night to his youngest sister, little Bea, who’d been struck with fever the last four days. Fever didn’t come often to the villagers, but when it did, it could kill.
Teo and his sister were all the children his parents had. No wonder they had haunted Bea’s bedside day and night.
Someone was crossing the river; his uncle Pioyrt, in Beast form, an immense, slope-shouldered cougar, with two grouse gripped tight in his jaws, his whiskers drawn back to avoid their feathers. This time of tear hunting was bad and they’d eaten porridge and baked roots too often lately. At least one bird would be reserved for broth for Bea, but the rest might be fried with roots for something more appetizing than usual, crisp bits of meat and perhaps even a trip into the spice sack for a couple of peppercorns to grind or a pinch of dried orange peel. His mouth watered.
He raised his knees, wedging them against the rock’s cold, slick bite, to lift himself upwards, grainy snow crunching under his gloves and boots as he scrambled onto the top of the cliff. He paused to look once more out over the world. The clouds shawled the mountain that rose of the valley’s opposite side, its flanks white with snow, slicks of purple and cobalt streaking their sides. The river was a gray and blue snakeskin, laced over with the black skeletons of trees.
He sighed and turned his face homewards.