Each year, at the end of March, a great fair was held in Cría, the capital of Galla.
It was a hectic one, and the crush of thousands of bodies come to do business provided excellent cover for lots of things—up to and including less-than-reputable trading, illegal goods effectively disguised by the sheer volume of all the goods being sold. The law enforcement could try to catch it all, but they bogged down easily, especially with the Rogues bumping up the petty crime to keep them busy.
Numair was in one of the shadier districts, passing by a stall selling exotic animals (in parts and as pets), when something caught his attention.
He glanced at the creatures on display, then his gaze was pulled lower, to one of the larger crates.
It wasn't often that you saw wolves in cages, much less for sale. They weren't nearly exotic enough in northern countries for bragging rights, nor aggressive or territorial enough to make good guard animals. That the owner of this particular stall hoped to sell it for as much as he did was surprising.
Numair had seen enough wolves in passing to know that this was a younger one—adult in all but size, with glossy, smoky brown fur and a graceful muzzle. The state of that fur was good enough that it most likely hadn't been in captivity for very long, but it was taking the hubbub of the market in remarkable stride, content to doze in its too-small cage and ignore the noisy humans.
He crouched by the cage and frowned. Any wolf was strange, to be sure, and this was a beautiful one, but something had tugged on his senses, and he was pretty sure it was right here.
He closed his eyes, letting out a breath, shutting out the market and trying to think—
Warm, earthy, burnished-fire brushed up against his senses, a small sun's worth of wild magic compressed under the pelt of the animal right in front of him.
It wasn't quite as much as a god's power and the power itself was too earthly to belong to an immortal, but that amount of wild magic was well beyond that of any normal animal Numair had ever met—or of any human, for that matter. Had someone poached a deity's offspring? A forest spirit of some sort?
Sensing that it was being watched, the maybe-wolf-maybe-not blinked awake and looked at him.
That was definitely no wolf.
Blue eyes weren't that unusual on a wolf of that coloring, but the intelligence in them didn't belong in the body of any mortal canine.
"Hello," he greeted it softly. "What are you doing in there?"
The wolf looked away, shame and defeat on its lupine face. Its ears laid flat back on its head as it rested its head back on its paws, brow tightened in pain.
The expression brought back horrible memories of Carthak.
Numair stood abruptly.
Fishing out his purse, he said, "I'll take the wolf," to the stall owner, and laid out the full amount listed on the creature's cage, not bothering to haggle.
The stall owner gaped at him.
Numair stared him down, impatient and more than a little bit irritated.
"Y-yes, o' course, sir. Right away, sir." The man lurched half out of his seat in his haste to find the key for the enclosure.
Numair went back to the not-wolf, and tapped the lock with a fingernail, testing it.
The not-wolf opened its eyes at the noise and looked up at him, silently questioning.
"Listen," he said to it. "I'm going to get you out of here, but I have business to do before I leave the city. If you think you can leave on your own, you can go, but I think you'll be safer if you stick with me for the next day or so. What do you think?"
The not-wolf's eyes had widened with a heartbreaking amount of hope, and the look didn't falter as its tail thumped twice on the bottom of the cage. It got to its feet in one smooth motion and struggled to shake out its fur in the tiny enclosure.
"You're gon' t' need a collar for this beastie," said the stall owner, coming up behind him with the key.
Numair looked back to the not-wolf, who continued to look at him with a level of hope and trust that he knew he hadn't earned yet.
"...Fine." It made his skin crawl in warning to think of the wolf collared and leashed, but for the sake of getting through the fair safely, it would likely be a good idea.
Aside from a flick of an ear, the not-wolf didn't react.
The stall owner slid back into his seat and waved to the rack of accessories, glittering with baubles and magic both. "Take yer pick."
Numair didn't bother looking at them. "Plain leather. Unspelled."
Some measure of hitherto unnoticed tension ran out of the not-wolf's frame.
The stall owner's face contorted in alarm and consternation. "Sir, the lass put up quite the fight, I don' feel that—"
"Unspelled," Numair repeated, flat.
The stall owner withered under his glare, then turned to his rack, muttering, "On your head, good sir," under his breath.
"Do try not to savage me," he said, sotto voce, to the not-wolf as he fitted the key into the lock. "That would make this rather more difficult than it needs to be."
The look it—she—gave him was distinctly unimpressed, but the expression vanished as soon as the cage door squeaked open. Tentatively, she stepped forward, hesitating right before the threshold, then gave a strangled yip and jumped back when the stall owner returned.
"We've got none big enough for 'er without no enchantments at all." The stall owner offered him a plain leather collar and lead, and Numair took them. "This one's meant for a trained animal, though. Only gives 'em a bit of a zing when they get noisy or frisky."
Numair felt around the spellwork of the collar with his Gift, found a seam in the crude sigils, and then shoved power into it until the whole working popped... possibly with a bit more force than was strictly necessary.
His companions both jumped, the not-wolf sneezing at the rush of magic.
A quick check confirmed that the leather itself was still sound, as well as now free of anything that wasn't leather or metal.
"That was—" the stall owner started, outraged enough to talk, and then stopped when Numair flipped him three copper nobles and the key, and then shooed him off.
Numair held up the singed collar to the not-wolf and smiled, both encouraging and apologetic.
She met his eye, then slowly came forward again.
"This should keep people from attacking you, I hope," he murmured as she finally stepped over the threshold. She laid her neck in the curve of the collar, and he buckled it shut. "Stick close anyway, and tug on the lead if you need my attention."
Limpid, liquid eyes gazed so deeply into his that he half-wondered if she really could see his soul, and then she leaned forward and solemnly, almost reverently touched her cold, wet nose to his cheek, leaving a streak of damp behind.
"You're welcome," he said, because that seemed like the thing to say, and her tail wagged exactly once.
That ritual done, he stood, bunched the lead in his hand just enough to keep either of them from tripping on it, and, with a signal to his new companion, started walking.
The not-wolf stuck by his side close enough and unobtrusively enough that he might as well not have had the lead at all, examining everything with too-intelligent eyes and the rapt attention he'd expect from a particularly reserved youngster.
He talked to her throughout the trip. He tended to narrate his life when he had a listening audience, human or otherwise, and to his surprise, the only two times she tugged on the lead were to point out that he was about to walk past the goods he'd told her he'd come to get.
Towards sunset, he stopped for dinner, ordering two plates of something he was relatively certain would be meat-based and wouldn't have onions or grapes, and set down one for the not-wolf while he ate.
To his amusement, her share was gone in seconds, and the plate licked clean shortly after.
"Want another one?" he offered.
She looked up at him in surprise, then down at her plate in thought, then slowly shook her head.
"Want something else?"
She looked out from under the awning they were resting under, contemplative.
"Well," said Numair, taking another bite, "let me know."
She nodded, then sat and lounged gingerly while he finished.
The 'something else' she wanted was a kebab skewer, apparently—it was the first thing she tugged on the lead for that was purely for her own sake.
He bought a meat one for her and a vegetable one for himself (he liked onions, personally, and had missed them in his meal), and held hers out for her as she delicately slid each chunk of meat off the skewer and devoured each in turn. He was pretty sure she'd be chewing with her mouth closed if only biology allowed her to.
It was odd. Her core was wild magic, so she couldn't be human, but obviously her understanding of human communication was on par with (or even better than) that of most adult humans he'd met. She could express herself effectively in expressions and physical gestures, if not words themselves, and seemed to be familiar with human niceties. He'd been getting the impression that she even understood currency—her shock at the prices of some of the materials he'd been buying had been too blatant and immediate to be anything else.
His running theory, that she was a forest spirit given physical form, had taken a hit with that bit of information; why would a forest spirit need to know about money?
It was possible that she was a shapeshifter, but if she was, why hadn't she shapeshifted to get away from the poachers, before or after she'd been trapped? If she'd been worried about becoming a circus exhibit if caught, why hadn't she taken her leave of him as soon as her cage had been opened? Or shown him, once she was relatively certain he wouldn't leave her in the cold or turn on her? Surely communicating verbally would be easier than the game of charades they had running.
There were always werewolves, but as far as he knew, werewolves only showed up in fiction novels, never myths, which made it highly unlikely that they existed as immortals. Maybe someone had finally managed to dream them into existence... except the only werewolves he'd ever read about were mindless beasts when they transformed, and he'd read many, many novels where werewolves were found. It made no sense that any immortals spawned from them would retain their senses.
It could be that she was a demigod (or demigoddess, as it were), but even then, he'd never heard of a god who could reasonably have a wolf as a child. The Divine Realms were incredible and varied, but were they the sort of place where a wolf learned table manners?
She could also have been a normal wolf who'd been saturated in magic by other means, but that still didn't explain why she understood money and table manners, unless she'd drunk the blood of a black robe mage who'd specialized in being very human.
The possibilities were endless, and none of them quite seemed to fit.
Once she was done with her kebab, she gently tugged the wooden skewer from his hand and walked off with it, trailing the leash behind her. She located a pile of waste as he watched, dropped her skewer there, and then came back, taking a seat beside him and waited for him to finish his own.
He considered praising her for the gesture, and then decided that if she really was as intelligent as she'd given him every indication she was, she'd probably find it patronizing, and didn't.
Instead, he finished the last few bites of his food and stood, dusting off his backside and going to throw away his skewer too.
"I got almost everything on my list today," he told her when he returned, stooping to pick up the leash, "and the rest of it should be at the nighttime stalls. If I manage to get it all, we'll stay at an inn tonight and leave in the morning. If I don't, then I'll be staying another night, but I can take you to the edge of the city during daylight hours tomorrow. How does that sound?"
She gazed up at him steadily with those clear blue-grey eyes and thumped her tail on the ground twice.
Good enough for him. "Then let's go."
It was with a full pack and crossed out list that he and his new friend arrived at the inn. The proprietor looked like he wanted to protest the additional guest, but Numair was paying enough for the room and service that a slight rise of an eyebrow was all it took to get the man to subside.
Taking off the not-wolf's collar as soon as the door was shut behind them, he then moved on to opening his pack and sorting and double-checking his purchases.
His companion looked around the room curiously, then walked over to the settee, hopped up, and perched on the cushion, seemingly content to wait for him to finish his business.
"I'd offer the lady the bed," he said as he started repacking the materials, "but you will fit on the settee, and I will not. I hope you don't mind."
She snorted, then pointedly laid down where she sat, resting her chin on one of the pillows and curling into a loose ball.
He finished up packing and then got ready for bed, pausing to check up on her as he went to put out the light, and smiled. She was a beautiful creature both awake and unconscious, but there was something just adorable about sleeping canines. Something about the paws.
She sighed, twitching those paws as she dreamed, and he breathed a laugh and pulled the fire from the candles.