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[personal profile] summer_jackel
This one took me forever but it was fun. Pageantry, grandiosity, theatrics! All seven of the main cast, three of the minor cast and something like 20 of their dogs have something to do! Although it feels like Sun-tiger should be somewhere in here too.

I think of this scene as the coda of Orchid's arrival and finding-his-place arc; everything after this is the leadup to the ending sequence and the ending sequence itself. I still have a pretty hefty chunk to go before it actually ends, but I am heading in that direction.

And then there's the whole bit in the middle with freshly emancipated Lial, but that will be easier to do when I have the end, and I always planned to do it last. Lial is the most difficult character by far, but I'm getting more comfortable with her.






61. The aptar and the rose


Pattern poised on the prow deck as the streetcar made its way smoothly up Fourth-radial. She stood on fours, head stretched past the brass railing, watching the human neighborhood unfurl before her as they drew nearer their destination.

The streetcar was crowded, but even the other vayan passengers, most clustered on the prow while humans packed more closely still in the stern and cabin, gave Pattern space. Her nestmates leaned casually to either side of her, the Groundkeeper also on fours and Precision neatly on her sit-pads, hands crossed, sniffing the air with interest.

< You look good in a muzzle, > the Groundkeeper strobed casually into her shared band with Precision. < We should spend some time in one of the dungeons. Steel is good on you. >

Precision responded with a flirt of her tail and a repeating oscillation of < excite : worried : concerned : sure. >

Pattern ignored them. If her posture suggested introspective focus, she was groomed splendidly for festival all the same. Her golden coat was brushed to shining, the intricate designs on her arms freshly cut. The antique muzzle of her matriline foamed intricate silver roses around her heavy jaws, while fresh-cut roses of the deepest red twined in her mane and chest-ruff, held cleverly by near-invisible netting and preserved with pockets of gel. The aptar diadem Valerai had gifted her glittered above her brow ridge, its red garnet eyes flashing a hue to match the roses.

The Groundkeeper, standing at Pattern’s flank, caught an interesting scent and lifted her head, and her short, dense mane rippled with sudden interest. Pattern’s head snapped back quickly, nostrils flaring, ivory flashing under silver.

The Groundkeeper leaned her substantial shoulder against Pattern’s flank and blew softly. < Relax, beauty, > she strobed, moving her tail slowly and flattening her small ears, slowly resting the bars of her own muzzle on Pattern’s ribs. There was nothing fanciful about it; Its bars were utilitarian, heavy steel that only served to emphasize the wearer’s size and power.

Yet, the Groundkeeper was not unadorned. Her thick coat was brushed through flawlessly. The single huge rose nestled just behind one heavily furred ear was a marvel, velvet red shading to deep purple at the edges, shockingly yellow stamens in the middle, and enough visual impact to balance hard steel and the size of her jaws. She had oiled and sharpened her claws, and the top of her tail was braided tightly.

Pattern readjusted her mane and retuned pressure into the Groundkeeper, flattening her ears and taking a deep breath of her companion’s musk as it mingled richly with the perfume of the flower. She signed adoration into their shared band. < You won’t let me do anything stupid. > Her strobing was bright beneath the silver, hot and emotional.

< Truly a difficult task, but I believe we can manage. > The Groundkeeper signed gentle humor into their shared band with the edge of one foot, but the faint ambient oscillation behind her cheekbones intensified and clarified into a clearer < Groundkeeper : protecting : curation : deep affection: excitement! : affection : affection : love : curation. >

Precision rippled her long silver mane, expression softening under a muzzle of graceful, sweeping wire curves. Her own oscillation matched the Groundkeeper’s, who saw and intensified the shared ambient. Both blew softly as Precision shifted weight onto her long arms, curling their tails in amusement as the muzzles clinked together, and then both of them leaned into Pattern. Mindful of the precious silver, they rubbed their jaws on her, oscillating < affection : protection : excitement! : affection : passion : love >

< Passion like a red rose, > Precision gestured lightly, raising enough of her mane to display the golden glitter just beneath white-silver tips. She wore an exuberant collar of roses in red, striped purple and yellow, with a matching ribbon tied around her tail. She had painted her long claws purple with yellow tips. < Humans symbolize love with red roses as well. They most likely learned it from us. Still, it’s a commonality. >

< A question for your Valerai, perhaps, > the Groundkeeper strobed calmly. < Were there roses where she came from? Did she pay attention to them? >

The streetcar rang its brass bell twice and eased into the curb. They had arrived.

The races had already begun, but the crowd at the track gates was still significant. Pattern watched the humans, and then four other vayans disembark, her eyes brightening to violet at the edges. The Groundkeeper seemed to ignore all, but watched Pattern with calm interest.

Pattern nodded briefly, head high, and stepped carefully off of the streetcar. And then she was standing, just like that, in the human neighborhood; but not just any of the many in Urkatriabek. Theirs.

Precision and the Groundkeeper disembarked lightly to stand at either side of the stiff-crested gold. Pattern took a deep breath, and relaxed her weight into one side of her fore, swinging her head back and lowering it as she strobed < gratitude : affection : excitement > to her companions.

Precision held her neck high, sparkling < pleasantly excited : interested spectator > with her pretty, characteristic intricacy and hue cheerfully into public ambient. She located the vayan-built entrance, and led her companions in that direction with a festive curve of her beribboned tail. Her gait was pretty and showy, carrying most of her weight on fore and touching her heels high as she flashed the supple palms of her feet.

It didn’t take much to lead her nestmates, but underneath her playfulness, Precision’s focus was serious and alert. Their tickets were arranged in advance; they paused only briefly at the teller’s window, long enough for Precision to sign a glyph, and the young Kaishi on the other side of the gate to make note on his screen and wave them through.

The three nestmates passed through the gate and onto the racetrack ground. At once, the dogs were obvious. A great clangor of bells had gone up just as they passed the gatehouse and onto a wide causeway, and as the vayans trotted up to the track, motion assailed them. Six slim greyhounds clad in bright silks and light muzzles tore down the track, exquisitely fast, while a human on the loudspeaker called their progress in a fast, hypnotic cadence.

Pattern went briefly and easily onto her hind, standing up for a moment on her legs as though she was a human, impossibly tall as she oriented on the dogs and scanned the crowd. She dropped as easily as she had stood, coat rippling and nostrils flaring. Precision watched her with light, rapid flashes of violet appreciation, while the Groundkeeper thrummed a soft-edged < fine : fine : calm > in low indigo, her tail curling over her broad hips.

The rightmost viewing deck was moderately crowded with vayans, and no few of them responded to the thoughtless display of strength with their own public-ambient response of acknowledgment, appreciation, appeasement or backing away.

A young female, whose creamy-beige fur matched the coat of the elegantly faded bloom she was tending, registered nervous surprise, and the old male lifted his light head, growling. When he saw Pattern, the fallen river of crest over his hollow spine actually raised, and he flashed excitement.

The beige female kept tight hold of his leash, and found a mutual band with Precision. The younger beige relaxed. They strobed greetings, peaceful intent and friendly acknowledgment before each returned full attention to their companion.

Pattern poised at the track rail, as close as she was allowed, and watched the dogs intently as their handlers collected them. It had been a close race, and the human sang information about the dogs and their trainers as they all waited for the camera. The hounds themselves capered, prancing and leaping, coming eagerly to the humans’ slips or dancing teasingly away.

Pattern shone bright gold in the afternoon sun, fierce and bristling splendidly, ignoring the heady musk of the human crowd as though three seething bleachers-full did not exist. Scanning the track, searching the dogs, her tail arched and red roses blooming in her mane. Eloquent in her need and splendor, just barely controlled.

< This, > strobed Precision to the Groundkeeper, feeling her own tail curl and crest rise, < this is lovely, this is beautiful. >

< Yes, > rippled the Groundkeeper in low, appreciative indigo, her white eyes flashing just so, stretching, just a little. < You be excited. It is wonderful. >

Precision flattened her crest somewhat, and dipped her head. The Groundkeeper’s nostrils flared, and her eyes narrowed slightly. < No, be excited. I have this. Smell it. Don’t curb it. > She paused, and let a hotter line of green trace intricately around her eyes. < Please. >

Precision’s breath caught, and her tail straightened, then curved again. With a deep sigh, she swallowed, and raised her long neck skyward, her creamy throat working as her jaws gaped beneath elegantly worked steel. Drinking in the humid sea of human, crowd and excitement, she allowed it to suffuse her intricate brain and reward her chemically.

Pattern looked over, eyes bright silver, mane erect. < Splendid : good : excitement! > she strobed hotly in what was almost a challenge to Precision, and their eyes locked. For a moment, they stood frozen, and then, with a deep, gasping breath, Precision rose briefly to hind as well, if never with such power, catching Pattern’s shoulders with her hands to brace herself. They held for a long moment, and then silver-gray Precision jumped back. Pattern advanced on her a deliberate two paces and stopped, strobing hot excitement, crest spiked, tusks flashing under the foam of silver roses.

Groundkeeper watched mildly, her body at deceptive ease, her focus all for her nestmates. Any vayan who paid her mind saw a prime female deeply relaxed, and gave her careful, respectful space.

The cream male, farther away, watched transfixed and pulled at his muzzle, growling softly. His young relative kept a firm grip on his lead, pleased, responding herself with a haze of violet at cheeks and undertail.

Two races later, they had all calmed. The latest sextet of greyhounds, representing first, fourth and sixth radials, tore fleetly down the track, all eyes on them.

< It is more interesting to watch them hunting, > strobed Pattern. < These smooth ones are pretty, but Valerai’s are bigger and have more fur. I prefer them. >

< The greyhounds are a more southerly breed, > flashed Precision. < The fastest, but not as cold-adapted, and bred to chase hares. Valerai’s wolfhounds are slower, but they take larger prey and work in cold. I believe that a smaller number of wolfhound races will happen when the greyhounds from all radials have finished. >

< I didn’t know you’d taken an interest in symbionts, > flashed the Groundkeeper.

< Well, > scintillated Precision in a pleased apple-green, < I haven’t, but when I heard we were going to do this, I did some research. >

< Do we not take you out enough? > asked Pattern. The Groundkeeper inclined her jaw, watching closely.

< Well…> Precision’s facial oscillation went hazy for a moment. The Groundkeeper flared her nostrils thoughtfully, and reached out to stroke the soft, grey shoulder.

Six fine, sleek greyhounds tore by, eyes wild and hot on the lure. The crowd roared, and perfumed the air with the intoxicating spoor of life and excitement.

The hounds crossed the line. The winner was obvious, a clean, bright blue from Fourth-radial; a hometeam champion. “And ThunderBlue, our own,” sang the grandstand, “takes this win by her nose and neck and her whole body, my beautiful ones, my Fourth-radial!”

The crowd cheered wildly, and from their platform on the farthest right of the grandstands, some of the vayan crowd began to call. It was a deep thrumming ending with a rising note and culminating cry, a sound as much felt as heard. Pattern felt her throat patches swell, braced her jaws against the muzzle, flinching in anticipation; but even unable to fully open her jaws, her call was deep and powerful.

Precision’s responding note was higher, but pure and true, louder than expected. Almost startled, Pattern glanced over to her, and again their gazes locked, hot and full of need.

“You monsters,” came a low cadence, deliberate and rich. “You made Precision wear a muzzle?”

Pattern jumped, crest spiking, and was that easily turned in the opposite direction: ready and dangerous, claws splayed, eyes hot. Precision revealed no startlement but flushed a deep red-violet appreciation as she swung her head agreeably and raised her coat.

“/ !! / I am / !!! / the most dangerous / !!! / one of us,” she buzzed, barely intelligible with her jaws bound, pale silver crest rippling pride.

“I stand corrected, my beauty,” murmured Lial, resting one small hand in the deep black fur of the Groundkeeper’s shoulder. Her long, slender fingers seemed to glow faintly even in the brightness of day, and she regarded the vayans with a practiced ease and hunger. “It does become you.”

Pattern stood frozen, every muscle standing in her neck and shoulders, mane shining and high.

“My Pattern,” breathed Lial, moistening her lips, allowing her chemistry to suffuse their shared band. Need and anxiety, almost too much to bear, a fine-tuned creature on the cusp of sensory overload and trembling with want. Her physical demeanor was almost the opposite, a cool, indifferent posture that eyed them with remote yellow distance, even as her hand tightening on the Groundkeeper asked for pressure and received it.

‘You came,’ signed Pattern, dipping her head.

‘I missed you,’ signed Lial, her hands light and quick, her eye contact intense, bracing her body against the Groundkeeper’s immovably solid bulk behind her. ‘I was pleased when Valerai told me that she had invited you. I’m glad you’re here.’

Pattern took a step forward, possibly unintentional, and caught herself, breathing heavily, tail spiked. Precision touched her very lightly on the flank with her shoulder, and Pattern’s head whipped backwards, catching and stilling in her nestmate’s tender, level golden eyes.

< Help me, > she strobed suddenly.

< You’re fine, > oscillated Precision in tender hot pink, with < safety : nest : this is fine : I’m here > in blue-purple counterpoint of a complexity that only she could manage. Pattern paused to thank her for her effortful beauty.

Precision strobed affection. < She’s waiting. >

Pattern had swung her head around again and was facing Lial, closer than she had been, faster than she’d planned to move. Slow, she reminded, herself, control: but Lial was leaned easily into the Groundkeeper, a night-black void light did not dare transgress, and deeply calm.

The Groundkeeper will protect her, Pattern reminded herself, feeling her breath go harsh, even from you. Yes. She relaxed minutely, swallowed, and rubbed her muzzle against her wrist. The intricate silverwork hurt a little, and reminded her where she was: the precious, annoying ornament, the context more precious still and much more fragile. Yes.

Lial was as a star, cushioned easily against that solid void, her glow obscured by the thinnest layer of pale silk, the colorless crystal beads she favored wrapped around her long throat as though to armor it and twined in her silver-white hair. She watched Pattern with timeless interest, and slowly raised her palms, outstretching the long, idealized fingers.

Pattern remembered a meal, suddenly and viscerally, as though it was present; the taste of the flesh, the tenderness, the texture and sorrow, felt her own chemistry rise unbearably and cry a negation. What was this emotion? Pattern’s jaw gaped; she was losing herself.

Lial stepped forward and buried her hands and then her face in Pattern’s mane, rubbing her jaw in the oils that flowed cleanly in her twice-brushed coat and pressing her body into the thick gold ruff. The Groundkeeper moved, just enough forward to support her, and then Precision eeled delicately around all of them, adroitly resting her temple against Lial’s silk-clad shoulder without touching steel to her.

The four of them moved close, and for a long moment remained, touching and mingling scent with the taste of the racetrack, the spoor of the crowd.

At length, they parted, still keeping close; close enough for Lial to reach out and claim touches of all of them, which she did, stroking Precision’s flank or Pattern’s neck, allowing the curve of the Groundkeeper’s quiet bulk to support her.

“My roses,” she murmured quietly. “My dear ones. I find that I like you being here.”

‘I was afraid that it would be otherwise,’ signed Pattern, not even trying to speak with the hated muzzle. Her lower self wanted to tear at it; she remembered civility and checked herself.

“You see,” said Lial, letting a city-Yrethtari accent lighten her words almost mockingly, “It is better when I am free, is it not? I have the choice to come to you, and it is sweeter.”

‘Treasure,’ signed Pattern with the curve of one foot, adding a modifier for ‘truly, closely intended’; ‘Have you found what you want? You seem well.’

“I don’t know,” Lial said honestly. “I have what I want right now.” Her lips curved. “You seem to be enjoying yourselves. I want that. And it’s about to be the wolfhound race; Valerai’s dogs are going to run.”

“/ ! / Shall / !! / we place / !! / a bet?” asked Precision, struggling and wincing when the bridge of her snout met steel.

“It’s a male race,” she smiled. “She’s running Flight and Pilot, against First-radial and Sixth. You can bet on individual dogs or the overall team. I warn, Sixth is a contender. Valerai is convinced that those dogs could not take a deer if it was, and I quote, hobbled and led to them on a halter, but there is no deer on this track and Flight is slow.”

‘Flight,’ Pattern protested, ‘is very skilled, and very fast.’

“Then put a bet on him,” said Lial, raising a pale brow.

‘A bit on all three?’ Precision signed, indicating that the muzzle pained her; she was past trying to speak. ‘Each dog, and the team.’

“A solid stance,” said Lial, letting her fingers drift to Pattern’s brow ridge and caress the sunwarmed golden fur, “for a vayan with the aptar of Reval upon her brow.”

Pattern shivered slightly under her touch, and Lial signed acknowledgment, appreciation for her control. “Come back quickly, my Precision,” Lial breathed, her eyes paling to lemon and sinking into Pattern’s hot silver. “But don’t be gone long. I want all three of you.”

Precision cupped the side of Lial’s face in her palm for a moment, and exchanged sniffs and oscillations with the Groundkeeper before loping off towards the windows.

It was a lovely afternoon, sunny and clear, the air tasting of turning poplar trees and autumn. Ringing the track, poplar and gingko were streaked with gold and yellow, and bright pennants cracked in a high, swift wind.

The crowd was large and in high spirits. In the break between races, they bought food, walked along the track-facing promenade or listened to the bright, cheerful music of the brass band on its dias between the freshly painted center bleachers. Precision sniffed and watched with bright-eyed interest, pleased and in high spirits as she moved across the causeway.

From the top of the administration building, opposite the bleachers from the vayan deck, a calm observer followed Precision’s progress before returning attention to her companions. Lial was hardly visible now, nestled between black vayan and gold with all the appearance of profound contentment.

Framed by the watchbox window, Kaleb and Zela scanned the crowd.

Thoughtfully, Kaleb lowered the glass from his eye, and cleaned the lens fastidiously for a moment with a soft-threaded handcloth. Its finely wrought brass shone with enameled accents in green, deep pink and burgundy, and matched his bright waistcoat with its embroidered autumn berries.

He raised the glass, and considered a moment longer. “So that’s Valerai’s patron,” he said at last.

“Well,” said Zela slowly, “What do you think?”

Kaleb considered for a long moment, his expression imperturbable as always, if faintly amused. “She has high-status taste in vayans.”

“Does she?” Zela uncrossed her arms and started moving again, slowly padding back and forth between the rooftop room’s three walls of windows.

The office watchbox was the best seat in the house for viewing the crowd and the action. It was comfortably appointed as the sometimes location of private gatherings, press conferences and similar events, but for the moment it was empty save for the two houndsmen and Perch, who floated silently at Zela’s side, calmly pacing with her.

Kaleb raised a neatly trimmed brow, his expression wry. “Well,” he said, lifting his glass and slowly scanning the crowd, coming inevitably to rest again on Pattern, “of course that can be inferred from Lial. But the gold shows it. Her nestmates are watching her like a male.”

Zela made a low sound of dark amusement. “Wouldn’t do for her to eat anyone.”

Kaleb watched her casually. “How are you doing with all this?” he asked at last.

Zela paused in front of the longest windowed wall and looked back at him. Her robes were long black silk, dramatic but still clearly cut to Yllaii styling, not Aelri, and her scarf was deep, loose purple.

“Not surprised she has high-status taste in vayans. Never does a thing halfway, does she?”

Kaleb shrugged.

“Lial seems happy about it,” Zela said at last. Her plainer glass sat on one of the center room’s little end-tables; she did not feel the need to use it again.

“Not particularly surprising.” Kaleb slipped his into a pocket on the inside of his green velvet jacket and adjusted the pale lace that frothed handsomely against his dark throat.

“Did you ever meet a kept before Lial?” asked Zela.

“Me?” Kaleb seemed slightly surprised. “No. Glimpsed at a distance at festivals, sometimes in mixed neighborhoods. Never spoke to any before I met her.”

Zela nodded, watching the crowd, and began to walk again.

“You were the first Yllaii I met,” he said, after a time.

Zela’s lips curved. “How do we compare?”

Kaleb laughed gently. “You don’t. Can I say you’re both complex?” He slowly scanned the crowd again. “Maybe you’re opposite when it comes to Valerai’s taste in vayans.” His expression hardened, just slightly, as he repeated, “How are you holding up?”

Zela looked about to brush him off or deflect, but paused under the older trainer’s mild, direct scrutiny.

“It’s hard,” Zela admitted. “I’ve been through a lot harder.” The Yllaii shrugged, and her fine silk moved delicately with her. “She wants vayan patrons, well, she’s in the place for it. Life’s too short not to have the thing you want, especially when it’s sitting right there, and the city you’re in agrees it’s the thing to do.” She paused, and dipped her head slightly. “Thank you, though.”

Kaleb nodded slowly. “I’m here if you need me. Sentha also extends a dinner invitation. If you’d like to, or need to, come by.” He paused, signing casual-genuine into context. “Give her enough warning and she’ll cook something fancy. Or not, and we’ll get take-out. It’s fine either way.”

Zela’s expression softened. “Thank you.”

His smile was minute, but genuine. “You’re welcome. How about the race?”

“Looking forward to the race,” said Zela with a secret grin.

Pennants flashed brightly in the autumn breezes: the city’s mighty urkatt in blue and green and gold; the red and gold of Reval; the stretched green greyhound of Urkatriabek municipal racing; the white swamp lotus of eternity and the Yllaii.

The band reached a crescendo, and the couples who were dancing increased their pace giddily. It ended just as Melah’s honeyed extensions sang out in anticipation of the coming wolfhound races.

Precision returned at a light prance, her head and tail high. She had acquired a large paper sack of soft apple candies, dusted with sour sugars. The Groundkeeper lifted her head to strobe affection and acknowledge her return and then went still, her nostrils widening and focus pinning on the bag.

‘I did it,’ the silvery-gray signed, her crest rippling with pleasure, handsome in her shining coat and collar of yellow and purple roses. ‘Five each on the dogs, ten on the human herself.’ She flashed coquettishly and gathered a tidbit from her sack with one freshly painted claw. Boldly catching the Groundkeeper’s bright gaze, she slipped the sweet delicately past heavy iron bars and into her mouth with a little caress. The Groundkeeper signed pleasure and strobed appreciation.

Precision next offered a smaller bit to Lial, who curtseyed with tender grace, the silk pooling around her, the crystal in her hair and looped around her throat catching like drops of water in the sun. She took the candy delicately with her long, fine fingers and nibbled on it.

With a little flip of the tail and tiny flash of tusk, Precision found another lump and offered it to Pattern, flattening her ears and pausing before closing their shared band. Pattern slowly erected her mane, emphasizing the dark red roses twining and blooming within the gradations from deep honey nearest her skin to palest gold at the tips.

Precision whuffed softly as she approached, strobing and signing gentleness and happy appeasement as she dropped her silver-clad head. Precision passed the sweet through the bars, and Pattern’s tongue swept it from her fingertips, her eyes catching up her nestmate fiercely, mane and crest bristling.

< Yes > strobed Precision, feeling the Groundkeeper moving to circle all three of them as the taste of sugared apple burst pleasingly across her own palate. She took a deep breath, enjoying smelling all four of them again, noticing the differences in Lial’s ambient olfactory.

Precision licked her tusks and the roof of her mouth. There was the faint taste of other humans, almost a nestmate signature; Valerai, and another. And a symbiont. Lial had gained a symbiont! Her pale crest rippled. How human, how dear!

Less fear. Not its absence, but, feeling Lial leaning into her as she reached hands to Pattern and the Groundkeeper, Precision enjoyed the lack of desperation. It gave her a different flavor, a note of sad sweetness she had not possessed at Rosegarden, or had not been able to reveal. Precision indrew breath deeply, experiencing sudden, deep sorrow, shot all through with gratitude.

Pattern watched Lial as though she had just now beheld the moon, brought scent onto her palate with a need like to welcome the first roses of April. Precision felt the poignance lift her mane, bring her claws to flexing with hope and need, sweet and startling like the fresh, tart apple candy. She was giddy: sad and giddy and so alert.

If it could only be this, this—-yes. Right now, it was, it could. Precision settled her mane and rolled the candy across her palate, savoring Lial and Pattern, with the Groundkeeper surrounding. Right now, she was experiencing it. Sometimes, that was all civilization could give.

“They’re going to start,” breathed Lial, her hand buried in the thick golden fur just under Pattern’s jaw.

It was all done with pageantry. The dog box was brightly white and gold, placed across the track and lifted away mechanically after the hounds were loosed. The start was at the far opposite side of the bleachers, nearest the track’s offices; the dogs, once slipped, looped once around the track and finished directly between the second and third bleacher, running off past the vayan deck.

It made sense that the vayans had the worst view; after all, almost none of them were there because they were interested in the show as a sporting event. Still, Pattern wished that she could better perceive the start.

She craned her neck high, backweighting to rise up on her hind and hold the position long enough to satisfy herself with a glimpse and a mouthful of higher air.

The trainers had come onto the track, each with a brace of silk-blanketed dog hounds. The crowd became louder. The humans were, of course, resplendent. Pattern saw Valerai, richly clad in red velvet with golden threading, in a dress fitted closely at waist and bodice, flaring elegantly in a long skirt that framed her tall, silken-coated wolfhounds. More importantly, the skirling breeze brought a breath of the familiar, her scent mixed in Flight’s and Pilot’s. She was excited, alert like the tense, bright-eyed hounds that flanked her.

Pattern’s jaw gaped beneath its glory of silver roses, and her mane rose grandly. She was suddenly, fiercely, acutely happy. Lial was touching her, confident and free of injury. Her nestmates at her side were strong and relaxed, Precision for once letting herself be taken by the ambient and genuinely gleeful. And Valerai with her hounds, being what she was, splendidly in this invayan but lively place.

Pattern felt her body respond: the excitement, the competition, the need of it. All of them mixing together in her sinuses, washing her senses and rewarding her brain with the pleasure of tasting them all at once. The golden vayan pulled as much scent in as she could, jealous of the tracings, and clawed the deck lightly in frustration.

The band, playing its beginning melody, reached crescendo, and the rows of brass bells on their wooden bars began to ring. Then the gates flew up, the bells hit their loudest clangor, and the wolfhounds flew.

It was hometeam Fourth-radial against Sixth and First, and right away Sixth-radial’s brace of silver brindles had the lead. It was apparent even to Pattern that the slim silvers were, if not another breed, then far apart in type from Flight and Pilot. Nearly greyhound-small and finer-coated, finer-boned and longer of muzzle beneath the wire baskets than Valerai’s Reval coursers, the two slim hounds took fast control of the pack, shooting out ahead with a glory of speed.

In the center of the pack, spangled-sable Pilot ran earnestly with First-radial’s contenders, powerful hounds white spotted with black, while behind them tall, black-and-tan Flight seemed to lose ground immediately.

The pack flew past Pattern’s spot on the platform with a whoosh of speed and tore into the corner, the silver brindles bright as trout, increasing speed and opening a gap.

As they tore past the vayan audience, no few rose to hind, though none as easily as Pattern. They snarled, whooped or roared, and the deep, carrying counterpoint of vayan calls added to the cheering and susurration of the crowd. Pattern found herself calling, trying to quell the sudden unreasoning fury that tempted her to tear at the muzzle. Reminding herself that she was in the human quarter, in very real danger should she lose herself; but that was almost a greater stimulant.

The most exquisite civility, she reminded herself, smelling the familiar dogs as they expended their hearts’ sheer effort in pursuit of the lure. Careful, or you lose this. The best you have, for Valerai, for Lial. For your nestmates, here for you.

Pattern snarled, but quietly, eyes bright and fixed on the rocketing hounds. Need surged in her like tides.

Her nest, all of them here: the vayans, the human, the dogs. What was the name for this emotion, this hue? Pattern extended her neck and boomed with resonant clarity, ignoring the pinch of silver.

The wolfhounds reached the farthest end of the track, more or less as they had been; but now something began to change. The tallest of First’s white-and-black dogs put on a burst of speed, surpassing Pilot, and from the distance Pattern saw the sabled-red take umbrage and respond in kind.

Head low, powerful shoulders and hind flinging him smoothly across fine-graded ground, Pilot surpassed the white-and-black, his glittering eye fixed on the silvers. Slowly, inexorably, he took measure of their lead and began to close it.

The human caller’s apesong increased in excitement and timbre. Pattern could no longer make intelligible sense of her toning, but it did not matter, she could see. Grimly, exquisitely fast, eyes hard above the jewelry-fine basket of his racing-muzzle, Pilot began to close the gap. In the back of the pack, his larger brother saw him move, and understood.

Flight had the disadvantage of size, but the advantages of great strength, momentum and passion. Where Pilot led, the great black-and-tan would not be surpassed. With a hard burst of strength, he came nose to nose with the leading white-and-black as Pilot passed the flank of the trailing silver, and then inexorably up beside the lead.

They were coming on the homestretch. The second silver-brindle, a small, lovely animal with a white spine and tail, was flagging; First’s stalwart dog who had remained in the middle of the pack for the entire race now made his effort and tried to catch him.

Flight launched past both, almost checking the big white-and-black, single-minded in chase, desperate to reach his brother. And finally, tearing up to the first bleacher full of cheering fans, he reached him: Flight and Pilot crossed almost together just behind the leading, unsurpassable silver-brindle, the white-and-blacks just behind them, the last silver-brindle ending the race as his teammate had won it.

Pattern called proudly, and beside her, resting her fingers deep in Pattern’s thick shoulder-coat, Lial cheered. The silver-brindle had won, but Flight and Pilot had taken second and third, and so the victory overall was Fourth-radial’s and Valerai’s. It meant more racing in the second heat, after a midgame pause; but the race itself was done, and decisively.

The photographs were checked and the wins announced. Pattern saw Valerai lift her hand into the air, and felt her throat patches stretch on their own volition. The muzzle made it painful, a small, heightening jab that spooled into her rising euphoria; it prevented attempts at apesong, but did not silence her native range of sound, and the small discomfort made her fiercer. Pattern lifted her head proudly and curved her corded neck towards Valerai, flexed patches and called to her with a vayan’s natural deep, carrying boom.

Lial turned to Pattern, inscrutably pleased, and tightened her fingers in her coat. The feeling was lovely, and there was almost discomfort in the way it could never be discomfort, not with excitement so focused into near-euphoria.

Pattern swung her neck to face Lial, saw and felt that her intensity and speed had startled her. It was a minute change, but real; the pale eyes widened, and her pulse increased. Pattern signed ‘apology : unintended : delicious : appreciation,’ quelled irritation at the awkwardness, and extended her hand to stroke Lial’s temple gently.

The kept smiled secretly and drew another piece of apple candy from Precision’s sack.

“The first series of track races is complete now,” said Lial, her tone low and almost distant, faintly amused. “My golden beauty, I shall leave Valerai to explain the various permutations and niceties of scoring that describe these events, should you happen to care.”

The Groundkeeper snorted, fluffed the mane behind her jaws and signed ironic interest, briefly resting her hand on Lial’s hip. The kept arched her brows and dropped her fingers to trace the line from the big vayan’s wide, soft knuckle-pad to an index claw as long as her hand.

“So we have eliminated five radial teams,” she continued, leaning into the Groundkeeper. “The other five will run again in the second heat, and compete for the swiftest. In the break, they’re going to have a few rounds of steeplechase, Fourth versus Second. After the other two, Valerai will run.” She paused, extending a slow hand to Precision’s small, pointed ears in the thick silver-gray mane. With a little sigh, Precision leaned into her touch.

“I find it somewhat more interesting, personally. It’s pretty when the dogs jump, and they have much more opportunity to do the task incorrectly.”

‘Failed attempts as entertainment value?’ Precision signed with a flick of an ear, dropping her tail and mane slightly.

“Not that, it just demands more work from the trainer—-these dogs run after a lure by nature. Watching them jump obstacles when asked is pretty and appealing, but explaining the order and teaching them to do it well is challenging.” She paused, stroking Precision thoughtfully. “They can choose not to do it, and frequently they exercise that choice,” she finished with a little grin.

‘Watching them making decisions when they hunt is very interesting,’ signed Pattern, watching her.

The band switched uptempo, and people began to mingle and dance. On the field, humans in white and green made adjustments and preparations.

In large part, they did not converse. The questions that flapped around Pattern’s head like excited teeri—- how do you like this, how do you feel about us now that you have gone, do you feel human now—- were too private to ask here, especially with speech between them hobbled even moreso than usual.

Even so, some of the answers were apparent. Lial kept herself comfortably in the middle of them, making occasional comments about the race or her duties, as though she was any human of Urkatriabek. She seemed to enjoy being the only one of them currently able to speak verbally, softly peppering their shared ambient with bits of inconsequential but interesting detail.

Her precious hands she kept mostly on them. Generally casual pressure, occasionally caressing behind their ears and mixing the oils from their coats in her palms before reaching for another of them, or herself breathing deeply and slowly rubbing her palms against her jaws and mouth.

Lial’s carefully honed reactivity was not dulled, nor did she appear to be going mad. She leaned against them and breezed, and they could have been any of several small groups of vayans and humans knotted together, spread across the track’s long promenade.

Touching each other or standing in close groups, the audience mingled scents, enjoying the competition or savoring the perceptual heightening brought on by the excitement of others, the ambient crowd, three close-packed bleachers of humans or the speed of the dogs.

Pattern drank the ambient, listening to the brass band accented by Lial’s periodic meaningful note, watching the crowd, feeling her nestmates comfortably near. They were suddenly like anybody. It was amazing.

There were a few males in the politely scattered vayan crowd. Their neighbor had made contact with a trio keeping company with an even older male, whose frosty coat had once been black. The small groups had moved somewhat back from the track, and the two cherished grandsires faced each other at a civil distance, strobing threat patterns and posturing, crests raising and lowering with brittle grace.

The music changed, the loudspeaker once again directing attention to the track with a liquidity of apesong Pattern could barely parse. “Sylvie’s coming out,” said Lial, slowly lifting the side of her face out of Pattern’s mane and returning casual attention to the track. “Then we’ll have Second, and then Valerai.”

‘I am excited to finally experience such a notable person,’ Precision gestured agreeably.

“You won’t be displeased,” said Lial, petting her with a little smile, tightening her yellow eyes.

Pattern only half-watched the young humans walk out onto the edge of the field, though at least for this event she had a better view. Most of her attention was on Lial, the subtle variances in her scent and mood, the shifts of her movement and her unsettling, surprising joy.

But the trainer was pretty enough, she had to admit, dazzling in white lace with livid purple day-glories embroidered in loving detail on her short overskirt and elaborate bodice. A silk flower to match graced her lace cap and purple ribbon, and delicate ribbonwork accented her long, tight braids. The crowd began to cheer for her.

Sylvie’s expression was proud and confident, but Pattern could detect the chemical signature of her nerves on a capricious breeze. The enormous white-and-black wolfhound at her side was calmer; he was certainly the least excited of any symbiont who had been on display to that point. He seemed to have a casual look at the crowd, adjusted his curly shoulders with easy nonchalance, and reached to brush his human’s soft, dark chin with his tongue. The rest was dismissed with effortless nobility. He only needed to lift his forepaws slightly off the ground to do it.

Pattern’s attention shifted to the young male who walked behind her with two more hounds. He was dressed with less complexity, but still to human-fine detail, deep-rust hose and a long, belted tunic embroidered with white lilies at the centerline. His wolfhounds pranced excitedly, lips pulled back from their teeth and panting. The brace was a black hound with white paws, and a white with a red head and patch across her hips.

“That one is called Ebrin,” said Lial. “He is nest-child of the human with whom Valerai is most intimate.” She paused for a moment, as though the thought had just caught her by surprise. “She is the human with whom I am most intimate, as well. Zela.”

A thrill of emotion cascaded through Pattern. She would not have known the words for it, and the gestures seemed inadequate; her facial background became < excitement : poignance : aggression : hope > , not that Lial had suddenly learned to see. Too happy to be disappointment, too hopeful to be loss — something like human-style jealousy? What an appalling thought.

Precision had swung her silver-tipped head to face the kept, her expression alert and mild. That relief was easier and more obvious. Precision would know what to say to her, know how to feel.

The lanky silver backweighted enough to stroke Lial’s temple with the soft upper side of her hand and settled her mane, her own unseen visual ambient oscillating a beautifully detailed < pleased : tenderness : excited : treasured >. ‘You are not merely surviving,’ she gestured into an intimate ambient with the same hand, giving Pattern some of the weight of her flank. ‘It seems as though you are thriving.’

Lial flashed a smile and it was genuine, accompanied by a pleasant, immediate chemical spike and the faint human-brightening of her eyes. Her long fingers found the oil gland behind Precision’s ears and caressed it.

“I don’t know if I’d exactly say thriving, not yet.” Her eyes found Pattern’s hot violet glow fearlessly, her expression searching. “But I cannot say when I have felt quite so challenged, or excited. I will continue.”

‘It seems that the inevitable suffering of the emancipated kept is exaggerated,’ signed Precision, with a glyph for sharp-ironic.

“Well, I never said that there wasn’t suffering,” said Lial with a tilt of her silver-white brows.

‘There is always suffering,’ gestured the Groundkeeper, fishing another apple candy from the paper sack. ‘Is it worthy suffering, useful suffering? That is the important question.’

Lial curved to face the enormous bulk of the vayan against whose shoulder she rested, reached out and carefully turned her head to kiss her between white-glowing eyes.

On the field, human and hounds began the course. Sylvie gave Ebrin the big dog she held; together, they rigged the three onto a slip of the kind Valerai employed. With Ebrin now holding the three, Sylvie parted from them, ahead and offset to several feet away from the starting obstacle.

The liveried crew had set up a course of brightly painted jumps in the field circled by the racetrack and in the landscape surrounding it, to supplement the hedges that had been grown and shaped to further the same purpose. Pattern saw Sylvie eye the course, from center start to outer field and back.

There was a shift in her lace-clad shoulders and a strengthening of resolve. Pattern watched her make eye contact with boy and dogs. The wolfhounds strained at their slip, knowing their time was near at hand, and eager. Sylvie gave a short nod, her dark-brown eyes intense.

The bell rang and timer began. Sylvie sprinted away and Ebrin loosed the three. Together, the hounds leapt the first jump flawlessly, eyes for their young handler, who was already directing them to the next.

She moved surprisingly well given the elaborate dress, thought Pattern with appreciation, and the hounds paid her close attention. The trio cleared a second jump, then turned towards their fast-moving handler. With a gesture, she sent them in another direction, indicating one jump rather than the other. Two of the hounds obeyed, but her white-and-red took the nearer obstacle, skipping the intended jump and returning instead to Sylvie’s hand.

Sylvie touched her and indicated the pack; with a swish of her long tail, the wolfhound Whisper rejoined the others and took another jump as Sylvie ran beside them.

Lial leaned into the Groundkeeper, drawing Precision and Pattern closer to her with a light, tender demand, even as she kept her eyes on the action.

Done with the obstacles in the center field, Sylvie crossed the track with the three hounds swift behind and before. Lial was right; this was entertaining. But then, was Lial not generally right? When do I learn, thought Pattern with some humor, glancing at the regal kept with her innocently glowing brightness before returning her attention to the field. She is more than I knew.

And now she was reaching out to Pattern, touching her, and it was delicious. Together, they watched the field, where proud Sylvie gave careful directions to her fleet hounds.

They entered the side of the course closest to the vayan-side of the track. Pattern enjoyed the scent of Sylvie’s exertion, the beauty of human and symbiont moving and working together. As Lial said, it was difficult; the dogs missed another jump and all three willfully took a nearer one than Sylvie directed; the crowd groaned. Pattern rippled her crest with amusement. It was far from a flawless showing.

The girl’s expression was humored, not angry, though her direction was sharp. The biggest hound, tall Valerian, looked to her and tightened focus when he heard her, turning to take the last obstacle as she directed. The other two followed, and together the three of them ran to the finish point.

The clock, raised on an ornate brass riser in the middle of the bleachers where all of the audience could see, stopped. Melah in the announcer’s box sang out the time, and Sylvie, panting and stroking her dogs, nodded with satisfaction.

“Fast,” said Lial. “Even though Reach decided to ignore her half way through the course.”

‘You’re right,’ signed Precision, ‘It is quite exciting, isn’t it?’

‘They are very beautiful,’ signed Pattern, returning all of her attention to Lial. Sylvie waved at the crowd as she walked past the bleachers with her three relaxed dogs. ‘Humans and their symbionts. I had not expected that.’

“Neither had I,” admitted Lial. “I had never given the matter any thought at all.” Her lips curved. “I always come back to appreciating your choice in humans.”

Pattern inclined her head, her mane alertly up and blooming with red roses, her eyes bright silver-violet. ‘I think I have better taste in humans than I realized.’

Lial arched her brow. “Not a terrible thing to learn about yourself. Did I not tell you I was intrigued?” She stroked Pattern’s brow ridge, reached up and around to find the backs of her small, pointed ears. “Even I have a symbiont now, did you know.”

‘I smelled him on you,’ said Precision. ‘I was going to ask.’

“He is not well trained,” she said, “though he is rather well-used; he ended his service with two broken legs, and may never run again.” She shrugged whimsically. “Still, maybe he’ll thrive; the symbolism is so obvious. Look, here’s the trainer from Second. Isn’t he a dandy!”

The Second-radial trainer was tall, thin and pale, crowned with a riot of wild coppery hair that cascaded well past his silk-clad shoulders. His hose were striped green and white, and the sleeves of his long tunic were slashed white satin against brilliant green. Vines embroidered of copper thread wound up around him, glittering here and there with crystals and peridots.

His three slim wolfhounds were cream brindle, striped most strikingly on their smooth, narrow faces before the pattern softened into the waves and curls that graced their curving bodies. They were so similar that they must have been brothers, differing only by striping pattern and the amount of white on throats and paws, and even then, not by much. Their blankets were white, green and copper, their wide collars green silk embroidered in copper thread. Melah was singing the praises of their recent wins.

The cream-brindles began to leap. As Sylvie had, the copper-maned trainer handed them to his assistant, a boy dressed less elaborately in the same colors, who changed their collars for a single slip. They took their places, the boy behind the start, the trainer just ahead of the first jump, the hounds wild-eyed and straining.

‘These dogs are not as calm as the others,’ signed Precision, watching keenly. ‘They are not watching him. He is calmer, though.’

“Sylvie’s team didn’t do well,” said Lial, “and this team has been winning, in its own competition. The odds are in their favor. Still. We don’t know; isn’t that part of the pleasure? The uncertainty.”

Pattern wished the muzzle away so that she could close the band between them, taste Lial’s skin and lay her face against her throat. It was delicious torment, a tart shock like apple candy.

The bells rang and the brindles slipped. Pattern had thought Sylvie moved skillfully, but Second-radial’s contender moved fluidly with the dogs and directed them with smooth motions; he was at least as talented, and as Precision had said, less worried about the course.

The slim brindles were lightning-fast and showed no hesitation, surpassing the first jump and second, taking the third jump perfectly where Sylvie’s red had failed, neatly managing a tricky change of direction.

He stayed farther from them than had Sylvie, moving quickly across the course to keep ahead of them. They were splendid, three of type and mind, surpassing the steep jumps as though they were nothing.

One hound went wide and refused a jump; the rest were flawless, and already seconds ahead of Sylvie’s time. Then the crossover, handler and hounds passing through the gap that had been made in the oval track’s rail and netting for that purpose. The team was now on the further, more expansive grounds beyond.

At first, the three brindles continued to jump perfectly, all light, flawless power, driven with the wolfhound’s single-minded grace. The stated course had the team perform two jumps, a turnaround, more jumps, the water obstacle and then the return. Their hedge veered away from the grandstand, toward the back of the field, and this too the fleet cream-brindle pack surmounted with breathless ease.

The satin-clad trainer motioned them into the turnaround, but it was not to be. Those who work with coursing-hounds know them to be strong-willed, with a powerful vein of mischief, even though they are polite. It is the nature of the animal to become excited by some distant thing and give pursuit, though none could see anything to tempt them, and the nature of their distraction was anybody’s guess.

Perhaps it was merely the spark of mischief, but the brindles took the hedge and ignored the turnaround, their handler’s cue, and in fact the handler himself. Instead, they made a straight, swift line towards the poplar-lined back half of the track grounds, increased speed as one, and were quickly gone from sight.

Their handler was left alone on the field, standing dumbfounded and incredulous, jaw slack. Then, he turned his back on the audience and hurried after his team at an awkward run.

The audience erupted with laughter as Melah informed them with a chuckle that any hound leaving the field was a disqualification, and all three…well.

Lial laughed softly, running her fingers through Pattern’s mane and bending forward to sniff at the largest rose blooming just behind her jaw. “You can never guess at what they will end up wanting. They are strong-minded and capricious, the hounds. This makes it much more entertaining.”

There was a lull while the brindles were found and collected. Together they relaxed as they had before, near the rails, enjoying each other. But now, there was a rising tension in Lial, an excitement. Pattern felt herself respond to the kept, felt her own excited frustration rise.

Valerai was going to run. And now the announcer began anew, with the deep liquidity of song that was at once both beautifully and strikingly human, as annoying and difficult to parse as it was artful and lovely.

Melah sang of her grand Kaishi history, the antiquity of her dogs, the lauded achievements of the pack she was running. A demonstration and entertainment before the last half of the races—-come on already, could they not merely have the event?

Then Valerai strode out onto the grounds, and the noisy crowd fell into hush.

She was glittering and resplendent of course, in gold-trimmed red velvet that challenged the autumn sun. Gleaming-black phareaan plumes curved from her cap, and garnets glittered at her throat, looped over a gold ribbon. Garnets gleamed redly as the eyes of aptars on her breast, and red crystals gleamed in the buckles of her tall black boots. The sleek wolfhound at her side shone like copper.

And yet all eyes swept past her, for her male loped quietly behind.

Pattern did not quite throw herself against the track rails, mane and crest high, tail arched. Precision strobed a soothing cascade, asking her for calm, although hilariously she was strobing her own excitement simultaneously beneath it in another color.

As the other trainers had brought assistants to hold their pack at start, Orchid followed Valerai, his heavy mane up and stiff with attention, his focus clear. In one foot, he held the leashes of her other two hounds, Firebrand and a white dog with golden speckles the announcer was calling Sundrop.

Orchid was enormously tall, and in the bright afternoon sun, his coat was gleaming and resplendent. His winter mane had grown in tremendous and leonine, deepest black covering his long neck and framing the hard, smooth angles of his jaw and face. Around his spinal crest and high shoulders, it softened to deepest brown, frosted with red at the longest points, deepening again to black at forearms, legs and his heavily-furred tail. The shorter fur that graced his lean body was the same rich, sabled red as sensitive Firebrand, who comfortably kept him between herself and the crowd, and he moved with a lithe and easy grace.

The movements of his ears and his high head carriage revealed that he took in everything and was moved by all, as alert and effected by the excited crowd and overwhelming olfactory ambient as anyone, but his focus was all for Valerai. She strode before him almost relaxed, utterly confident in her safety, her light wariness for task and crowd but never the huge, tusked death that contextualized the space behind her.

The crowd was noisy, excited and confused, a breath from anger. In the mown green grass before the center-audience, flanked by the effusively blooming roses of the winner’s circle, Valerai stopped and faced them.

The young male, Ebrin, scurried up to her with an amplification device. Valerai touched it and winced at the feedback; Orchid’s ears flattened, as did the dogs’, but he held his weight calmly on fore and kept his head high. He was muzzled, of course, but splendidly. The golden aptars with flashing garnet eyes that framed and enclosed his huge jaws made reference to Valerai’s raiment, only emphasizing her finery and honoring her context.

She made a tiny sound to test the device, and scanned the crowd with irony. Pattern saw her gaze find and settle on her for just a moment. She was too far away to detect any detail of chemical signature, but Pattern saw her flash of recognition, her tiny smile.

“Good afternoon, my beautiful people of Urkatriabek,” she spoke into the device, her voice low and resonant. “Are we having a good race? Let us hear appreciation for the dogs and handlers who have come before you on this day.”

She raised her hands and the crowd cheered for her, raucous and loud. She smiled and listened to them calling, and waited for them to calm.

“It is good to see you,” said Valerai at last, “And as always, it is good to be here with you again, sharing with you my dogs, who are the reason of my life, and the work of my life. It pleases me to entertain you which, hopefully, I will do now.”

She dropped her hand to the red bitch’s fine head, and the hound reached up to meet her, caressing her wrist and slowly wagging her lengthy plume. “Here is Flicker ki-Reval, Fourth-radial’s beautiful running champion, a flower of the hounds of Reval blooming here for you, in the care of this city,” said Valerai, and stroked the hound.

Valerai scanned the crowd, paused to collect her thoughts, and continued. “You may remember Flicker first as all-districts running track champion, which she took as a yearling, claimed undefeated in her second year, still undefeated in her third. Champion of irregular-course racing, Champion at obstacles—-she has done all for you, and splendidly.”

Valerai caressed the hound she had bred and run, comforting Flicker’s readiness and nerves. “Though she no longer competes, I wanted to show her before you with her daughter, Firebrand, a fine runner on my current team, and her grandson Sundrop, a promising but untested young dog. Together, in this city, we are going to run the course for you.”

Valerai gestured to the hounds behind her, and inevitably to the enormous, silent presence that handled them. There was a murmur in the audience, a hush. Valerai’s expression hardened into challenge, and she flashed a brilliant grin.

“You will have noticed Orchid, my assistant,” she said. “His duties did not, I will admit, originally include facing the crowd.” She paused, and gave a little flourish. “You might not believe me, but he actually is quite shy.”

The crowd laughed nervously. Pattern felt her focus sharpen. Beside her, she was both distantly and keenly aware of the old cream male, posture intently fore, face suddenly, brilliantly livid with possession of an area that included herself. Enough to note the Groundkeeper conversing with his nest-guardian and return her attention to Valerai as though nothing else existed, taut and ready to spring.

“But you have wanted to see him, my beloved Fourth-radial,” she was saying in the slow, rough syllables of her remote North-Kaishi upbringing, “and I cannot deny you. So he is here.”

It was sound, excitement, not quite applause; but Valerai silenced them with a sharp motion and held them with her eyes.

“When I was young,” she said, “I would imagine hunting vayans in the woods, as my Master’s Master had done, and his Master back to the day of St. Ailenor, whose own hounds these are, who held the bloodline it is my life’s work to hold.” She blessed herself in the Kaishi fashion. The audience was dead silent.

“I would dream of the day I honored my house,” she said lightly, “by bringing back the tusks and pelt of a legendary monster as my Master’s Master had done, and his before that. I always knew I would do it. After all, this was my highest purpose as a huntsman of Reval.”

She walked back to Orchid and handed him the leash, and Flicker moved easily up to him, taking her place beside the other two and reaching her muzzled face to touch his own. The audience did not fail to notice; and enough of them were touched by this small affection.

“But this summer, when I finally met a vayan while hunting in the woods,” Valerai continued, staring out at her audience with level severity, “he was not hunting me. Instead I found a young person who treated me politely, who had come to hard times and needed work. This is true of many young people, yes? And so I offered him a job.” She softened her last syllable with a disarming shrug and flourish, a helpless little laugh; and enough of her audience laughed with her.

“This city is complex,” said Valerai, touching Orchid’s shoulder. “It is full of questions I do not understand, much less can I answer. Honestly, I do not know very much more than dogs. I am, as you say, nearly entirely wild. But people of my new home, please do not fault me, for I have brought back the tusks and hide as I was always meant.”

She looked up to Orchid, still and enormous with his bronze-clad head held high above, offering himself to the crowd in silent splendor. “But humbly, I ask you to forgive me, for I have not regretted what I did. You see, how lovely—- In these circumstances, I found it best to bring them home still attached to the rest of the vayan.”

The audience rewarded her with laughter and began to clap. With a little sigh, Valerai clapped with them, and Orchid bowed gracefully, falling briefly to one elbow and curving his head. His mane rippled splendidly; there was a collective breath of human appreciation, more clapping.

“And you see, my dear ones, we are here with the red hounds of my house, and I would show them to you —- if they choose to cooperate, that is.” The audience giggled. “We have had a demonstration of the fine and independent, sometimes frustrating personalities of hounds. But let us cheer for the beauty and independence of the Second-radial brindles, shall we? Bring our hands together for Shanzin Tath-keer of Second-radial and his splendid, free-thinking brindles, and of course our own Sylvie Jirahn, handling for Fourth-radial!”

As she spoke, Valerai had taken the ribboned blanket from Flicker, and transferred all three into a coursing slip. “Our hounds grow impatient, Fourth-radial, and our contestants are nearly rested for their winner’s racing. So now you have met my assistant, if you will, please turn your attention to what is truly important, what we have gathered here to appreciate: our splendid Fourth-radial wolfhounds. Orchid, let us run!”

Valerai said the last with a flourish, and Ebrin appeared lightly at her elbow, to take the sound-enhancer. Orchid turned gracefully and took his place, as the other assistants had, well behind the first jump as Valerai placed herself past it, closer to the audience. They were cheering, howling, wild, and the three hounds, tiny in Orchid’s grasp, strained the lead, wild-eyed.

Valerai made a decisive motion of the hand, and Orchid slipped the three.

The wolfhounds moved like water over the first jump, and already Valerai was moving. Eyes intent, she watched the pack as they watched her, moving over the obstacles as she directed. Sundrop missed a jump, and then Firebrand, but Flicker took all of them flawlessly.

They made a tight corner, and all three hounds leapt together over the wide striped bar with its flower-twined stanchions. The audience sighed with pleasure and gave a cheer. The sight was beautiful, and both other teams had missed it.

It was a fine showing, though it was not in competition and not timed: the hounds with their blistering speed, Valerai with her elegant, efficient parity of motion, running neatly between the obstacle and directing her coursers. And now they were on a straightway, almost opposite the point where they had started, with the width of the center-track arena between the hounds and Orchid.

Valerai raised a hand, and the great vayan crouched neatly at the start flared his nostrils and gaped his jaws beneath the splendid muzzle; and he turned, with all his species’ blisteringly rapid movement, put down his head and launched in the opposite direction.

Orchid tore down the field, and the red hounds of Reval met his challenge with their own exquisite speed. Pattern, holding herself taut and not quite touching the racetrack rails, groaned and slowly raised her crest and tail in abject appreciation as the dogs rocketed past, doubled and extended, all but fully airborne.

Here on the straightway, Flicker’s speed was well apparent, and the audience’s cries held no reluctance in cheering her. She had been a sensation, brought the hounds of Reval and Fourth-radial excitement and fame for years, and there was no heart so hard that was immune to her beauty. Daughter and grandson flanked and honored her, running matched and intent, thoughtless of anything but the huge and sprinting quarry.

They were fast, but Valerai had given him plenty of time, and Orchid’s speed and dexterity as he sighted the course were nothing to take lightly. With a crouch and spring, Orchid took a jump and then another, then three in succession. The crowd sighed in something like thwarted desire, denied curiosity suddenly given a measure of satisfaction.

And he was beautiful. They had all seen primed males run, fight and battle on sportscast vids. The endless competitions of the war forests were ubiquitous, their champions honored, the images of their beauty and tragedy central. Similarly, the male likeness was everywhere, in art and statuary, advertising, the sportsfeeds, entertainments written and visual from weekly-dreadfuls to celebrated literature.

Everyone had seen a male vayan, at least at a distance, on the train or streetcar, accompanied by his nestmates or keepers. At the races there was almost always a grandsire in the fading of his blossom, brought so the excitement might tempt him from depression and interest him in life.

But a male in high bloom, huge and shining of mane and tusk, yet still civilized and bent calmly to a human’s hand—-this, they had not seen. If the loftier class of humans, mostly Yrethrari and living inner-circle or in mixed neighborhoods, might have been used to the occasional triumphant outline of a full-bloomed male, commanding his place on the boulevard or running in a playing field, it was no familiar sight here. Here, in the Fourth-radial of industry and factories, neighborhoods of Ash-Kaishi, isolationist Aelri and refugee Yllaii, many had no cause or desire to frequent city-center or any inhuman district. Few had tested past level one civility, and there were many who were not civilized at all.

But now he ran for them, magnificent and sublime. There was no denying his power or presence or the vaunted tragedy inherent in his very nature as he ran. He sprinted all-out, foaming under the heavy jeweled, gilt steel, a golden sash tied tight around his loins emphasizing his leanness, the muscles corded, bunching and extending beneath his gleaming coat. He leapt, he made three jumps at once. He was vayan and male and blooming, and he ran for them. He let them have him; he let them see.

The three red hounds were faster. Hot-eyed, gleaming, flying with terrible and incontrovertible speed, they were gaining.

Orchid was near the far-right corner of the track; he turned neatly on hind and switched directions, barreling headlong towards the vayan-side audience, and they could see his resolve, his full-out running, his fierce control.

Pattern, jaws gaped, coat and tail and body stiffly electric, chewed at the air, seeking him, tasting his sincerity.

There was no denying his quality. Pattern was filled with a sudden, deep passion of excitement and shame. Valerai’s male! She had acted in suspicion, she had mocked; she had never considered who he might be, until now. And he was splendid.

Her nest did not even keep a male!

No, she thought suddenly, nostrils flaring, jaws suddenly desperate for the tastes of the Groundkeeper, Precision and Lial—-how could they; they had her to contend with.

Orchid ran full-out, mane close, head down, hind legs flying loose behind him, and the ground thundered beneath his strides as he tore past the bleachers with the three red hounds hot behind.

The crowd had near-forgotten Valerai, as her hounds had left her to the more enticing target: but now she stood in the middle of the straightway, expression intent, and a murmur of disbelieving anticipation swept the crowd.

Pattern knew before it happened, saw it coming, jaws dripping in her silver muzzle, tail curled tight with need. Valerai’s body held loose and ready, weight easy in her knees, black Kaishi eyes intent. So too she saw Orchid slow, just enough, stretch out his head and shift his weight as he extended one loose thigh and swept her up as easily as an ocean wave.

It was nearly flawless. Pattern saw a little hitch, a slightly awkward scramble as Valerai reached for his sash and unbalanced him as he tucked her hips between his leg and flank, securing her with his dextrous foot. But they saved it. Orchid corrected and kept running as she found her place, lowering his great head and putting on more speed. Valerai circled his lean flank with one hand as she adjusted her well-plumed, straw-brimmed cap with the other, and raised it as they galloped past the bleachers.

The crowd erupted into roaring.

The three red hounds were near on them, but Orchid and Valerai gave them no easy run. The shining male cleared a wide water obstacle with a magnificent leap, as though Valerai weighed nothing, and the audience cried out for the beauty. Seconds later, the three hounds were tearing through water that splashed out behind them in refracting plumes. Valerai and Orchid were over a hedge, and then the hounds, and finally all of them took the next jump together.

The audience howled. Pattern flexed her throat patches and boomed furiously, welcoming the heightening discomfort of her silver muzzle.

Valerai and Orchid and wolfhounds crossed the track and headed for the outside hedges, moving at clip away from the bleachers. The action was easier to see but farther away now, no less perfect in its beauty. The hounds refused no obstacle, but kept close to their handlers, leaping with them, almost guarding them, an epitome of speed and joy in motion.

Close to the bleachers, there was movement. There was a ripple of interest, a susurration of unease, as another took the field.

A stern apparition in fine black silk that responded as liquid to every movement of her body, her black headscarf neat, flowing loosely behind her but wound tight around her throat; and three slim black greyhounds on black slips straining eager at her side. An enameled lotus with petals of iridescent shell bloomed at her clavicle, but it did nothing to soften her.

Her wide olive eyes were hard of focus, painted carefully with kohl, and a pattern of three black dots was drawn on the sharp point of one elegant cheekbone. She nearly tore the amplification device from the hands of the younger human male, her nest-child, and he looked stricken, surprised. Pattern detected his chemical spike and realized that this was not part of the script.

Pattern turned suddenly to Lial, who did not flinch at her speed. “I don’t know,” the kept breathed without looking at her, eyes shining, fixed upon the new contender.

“No,” said Zela harshly, nearly ignoring the audience, so tight was her focus on Valerai, Orchid and the hounds on the other end of the field. “I will not have it. Where are my males, who hid in the forests? Who showed them mercy, who showed civilization then?”

And now she faced the audience, her eyes furious and bright. “This vayan, personally, is innocent of that crime. But I do not forgive.” She looked down in a severity long past anger.

“Then let the hounds decide,” she spat, and loosed them.

The audience moaned and sighed. Zela’s three black coursers shot out from her tight grip, all single-minded drive and glorious speed. Even compared to peerless Flicker, the greyhounds were fast. Faster far than any wolfhound but Flicker, which they announced as they claimed the field.

From a higher vantage, the audience could see them dashing madly to close with the rest, eschewing all obstacles to make an unerring line for their target.

In the far right field, Orchid saw them. His ears pressed back, determined, still balancing Valerai’s weight with delicate skill. The vayan zagged, turned toward the bleachers and put on another burst of speed. The audience gasped, breathless.

The sleek black hounds sought to close with them from the side, but Orchid, breathing hard, was clever and outwitted them. A sharp turn that had Valerai unsettled, reaching for his sash and crouching into him as he adjusted his grip on her, and his side was to the rapt audience once more as he set his gaze on one of the more complex water elements.

It was a series of two hedges with crossbars set between them on either side of a long, shallow waterway. Inside the water, two more hurdles had been set such that the hounds, if they took the obstacle correctly, would clear the first hedge to land on solid ground, run into the water, clear the center hurdles and then jump from the water over the final hedge. The series was exacting, breathtaking if done well, and plenty of space had been given for error and the safety of the dogs.

It had been set to give the audience a good view, and was nearest the track’s vayan deck. For once this strange event, Pattern regained a privileged vantage.

She saw Orchid collect his movements and slow somewhat, focus his gaze on the track, and readjust his grip on Valerai. With a little chuff of satisfaction, spiking her tail, Pattern realized what they planned to do.

< He’s tired, > she strobed. < And he’s good, but he’s still coming off starvation. Look, he’s going to try. >

The red hounds saw the obstacle and accepted it with gallant heart. Orchid slowed to let the pack surpass him, and bright-coppery Flicker claimed her honored lead. The first hedge she took at exquisite height, using momentum to her advantage. She hardly touched the ground before making a precise, unerring line for the water jumps and passing them like trout. And she was over the last hedge, making it look easy.

Sundrop, close behind her, did not have her precision, or indeed much life experience. He took the first hedge and leapt splashingly into the water, took the first jump too close and knocked over its pole. Done with that, he sped out of the water and around the farther hedge to catch his grandmother on the other side.

But, coiling low backweighted on his fore, Orchid was readying his jump, and some of the human audience began to understand what the vayans had already seen.

Heightened < denial : anger : negation > coursed through Pattern, who dimly felt the Groundkeeper’s casual bulk stretch between her and the fence railing.

She saw what they were doing, but if they failed, with their momentum and his weight, physics could quite easily come home on Valerai in a number of unpleasant ways.

Her focus was pinpointed on them, better than the viewing-glasses humans in the audience raised to the action, and she could see him clearly. His own narrowing of focus, a careful twist of shoulders and torso, the hard, fast collection and sudden explosive power. Pattern’s growl rose into a roar. Orchid leapt.

He had timed and set it perfectly. Stretched to full extension, mane held close and long arms poised forward past his muzzle in one long point to cut the air, Orchid sailed over hedge and water, center poles, aimed airborne for the last hedge on the further bank. He was jumping all of it. For a long moment, he hung suspended, Valerai’s posture forward and correct as she held her weight to assist and counterbalance him.

Firebrand jumped with them, nearly heeling Valerai as Orchid carried her aside. As they flew, the dark-red wolfhound took to the water with a neat splash, passing through the downed jump and taking the second with delicate ease. She gathered herself and sailed over the last just after Orchid cleared it, holding airborne for a moment beside Valerai’s shoulder.

The audience howled. They had not seen a thing like this; had not seen a vayan male exerting his great strength with focused care, had not seen one outside the context of war forest vids, snarling and bestial in deadly competition. Had not seen firsthand at all the beauty of the bloom, which had inspired centuries of vayan art and eternal pathos. And he held Valerai, crouched into him, with tender grace.

Orchid took the finish on splayed pads, grunting with the exertion, almost stumbling. Pattern saw his upper arms begin to tremble, but he caught himself, used the terrible chemical power of the bloom to move past the burn of lactic acid in his limbs. He collected. And began to increase speed.

For Zela’s slim black hounds had nearly caught them. Like streams of liquid night, the greyhounds were inexorable. The fastest route between them and their quarry was the jump, and so they took the jump, clearing the first hedge, entering the water with cascades of broken crystal.

Two went around the fallen hurdle and refused the hedge to either side, sighting on Orchid as he sprinted headlong down a straightway. The third, the smallest dog, night-black with white socks on his forepaws and the very tip of his narrow tail, alone did not deviate in honoring the course. He leapt the first as nimbly as a deer, leaping so far that he landed in the water, not the turf. This would have been a point deducted in competition, and a gaffe in training, for it was more dangerous. Yet Blackberry in his unerring thought at distance had seen the fallen jump and judged the vectors properly.

His choice was the most precise angle of strike, given his great momentum and trajectory. Blackberry struck one beat in the water and launched himself, surpassing the pole jump left standing, stretched to full extension in midair as Orchid had done. His landing caught the turf on the other side. A beat, and he was over the hedge a foot ahead of his teammates who had cut the course.

And now they all ran on straight turf toward the yowling bleachers. Head down and withers churning, Orchid ran full-out, his thighs trailing white foam as the red hounds of Reval flew thundering beside him. Valerai held poised and almost casual, her expression distant, hunter’s calm.

The black hounds ran full effort, but Blackberry was the fastest, the most unerring. He closed the gap.

Orchid reached the point the oval track began to curve, where the rail and netting had been removed. He took the track, grated earth puffing underneath his weight, and the audience cheered.

Two beats on the grated earth, and the greyhounds caught him. There was a midair frenzy of leaping red and black around the unlikely juggernaut at their center. And yet, there was no crash or impact, no snapping jaws beneath the wire baskets. Slowing gradually, they ran together as a pack before the bleachers, with Flicker battling two black greyhounds in front for, it seemed, a personal desire to see who was fastest.

The three of them had focus only on each other, and as Orchid slowed they put on speed. Flying, finally on the straight track they had wanted, Flicker faced off against Shark and Thorn, Zela’s senior champions—-in their own division.

The sleek blacks were Flicker’s longtime kennel-friends and rivals. Greyhounds and wolfhound had trained together but never met upon the field —- and the three bitches, who for seven years had run for Fourth radial, understood and gloried in the competition that was their work. Aloof as all three were when a stranger offered to greet them, they knew when they had a crowd, and all three of them wanted to surpass the other in front of it.

And so, they kept on going. Flicker, Shark and Thorn tore past the bleachers with the coursing-hound’s aching, tireless beauty, all but fully airborne. They ran the straight-track opposite direction of starting, giving their audience a fine show, if they could watch it fast enough. And so it was that Flicker ended her renowned public career in glory, proving that she could run apace with greyhounds, of a speed and side to side: and that there was no dog of any age or breed who could surpass her.

The three racers tore past the audience, around the opposite curve of the track, and only then decided it was over and slowed to a casual trot. Humans at the far end of the field moved to collect them.

Before the middle bleachers, Orchid slowed to a fast lope, Firebrand and Sundrop trotting easily beside. Pattern saw Orchid’s eye and ear slide back. Valerai moved to the side as he readjusted her, and nimble Blackberry sailed past her ear.

Performing his favorite trick before an audience for the first time, the little hound jumped from a run and landed on Orchid’s back. Gripping with his long toes buried in a mane that obscured him almost to the shoulder, Blackberry’s jaws widened in a happy, panting, doggy grin beneath their wire basket, and his whippy tail wagged furiously.

The audience laughed and cheered. Pattern bounced lightly on her pads, weighted to fore and coat spiked, oscillating bright appreciation up and down her arms, lighting up the precise designs clipped into them.

Valerai spread her hands and grinned in triumph. The audience, with Pattern, roared.

Valerai, poised like a lady riding correctly aside a horse, indicated the vayan who still held her. The crowd kept cheering. Orchid, head down and mane close, sideyed his audience with anxiety.

Valerai laughed gently, and extended her hand to touch him just below the crest. Orchid indrew a great breath and raised his head, jaws frothing so that the jewel-eyed aptars leapt from seas of foam.

He turned, still trotting, and Valerai faced the audience, grinning and disheveled, her cap awry and feather trailing beautifully, arms extended, accepting their applause. Blackberry grinned and wagged, firmly perched in front of her on Orchid’s shoulder and the tallest of any of them.

And finally, they passed in front of Pattern at less than breakneck speed. Valerai searched and found her, catching eyes tightly round and violet-silver, and graced her with a brilliant grin. Orchid averted eye contact, but strobed a brighter < respect : offering : greeting : appreciation > striation on the cheek that faced her.

Pattern extended the new-grown glory of her golden mane, and plucked the rose that bloomed behind her jaw. Raising her ears to Valerai, she perceived the human’s minute nod and spike of sudden pleasure; backweighted and coiled her shoulders; launched the rose.

The blood-red flower sailed a graceful arc across the rail that separated audience from stage, high above the finely graded earth. Valerai unfurled her arm and reached from hip through shoulder without unseating herself. The garnet eyes of aptars glittered at her collarbones as she reached out, and caught the rose midair.

The audience kept cheering. Valerai grinned and pinned the flower low on her bodice, cheeks livid and eyes glittering at Pattern with delight.

Orchid trotted past, neck arched. Looking carefully past Pattern’s nest, he found the raging grandsires each by turn, raising his foaming head high forward and flashing polite challenge. As he sparred with them, Orchid continued to loop < respect : offering : greeting : appreciation > on the facial pad closest their female companions. His vayan audience returned his context brightly into ambient.

Orchid, swallowing, turned again and slowed to end between the bleachers.

With greatest tenderness, he set Valerai on the track. For a moment, he held her gaze, and she extended pale fingers to touch him behind the ear. Then, Blackberry still perched merrily on his shoulders, Orchid fled from view. Sundrop, tired and overdone with excitement and the crowd, went with them.

Alone on an empty track, Zela faced Valerai and Firebrand. Her sleek black hounds had gone, and she was left a singular, quiet reminder of savagery and sorrow. The audience lulled.

Zela and Valerai paused, facing each other, the space between them electric.

On the track, the Yllaii woman curved her lips slowly as her gaze slid briefly backward, toward the presscast box. Already, one reporter dressed in red was pushing past another from a different channel, who might have been expected to harbor vivid memories of Sundrop.

“St. Valerai,” drawled Zela, “You owe me one.”

“I owe you everything,” breathed Valerai, her accent thick. “I love you.”

She caught up Zela on either side of her enameled lotus and kissed her, hard and long. The audience roared delight.

On the vayan deck, Pattern, Precision and the Groundkeeper poised in identical posture, appreciative front-weighted fore, light on their knuckle-pads and poised to move as one. Lial, resting her left hand on the Groundkeeper’s shoulder and her right, a little higher, on Pattern’s, could see them as they never could themselves.

They shared a context, exquisitely attuned. This was the hunting-pack, the killing force that nature had brought into being to prey on mighty, well defended creatures many times their size. The hunters finally so fierce and cunning that they overmatched their prey, great beasts who at the last could not compete with vayan tactics and their invention of tools, fire and art. Who ultimately, as species and a biome, had succumbed.

Great hunters, endlessly hungry, who had at the last invented civilization and survived. Had survived civility, and were yet beasts of prey. Lial, in the long, empty days of her youth, had been taught everything, given as much history as she would accept. It was part of her training, part of her refined quality and value. She had learned, and now she saw.

Poised into the crowd, if Pattern slipped now, would the others catch or follow her? Lial’s heart hammered. They could kill and be killed, all three of them, very easily right now. In one bloody instant, she could lose them all. It would be so terribly beautiful, so horribly vayan.

Pattern poised into the crowd, roses blooming in her mane, bound in silver roses slick with foam. On the other side of Lial, Precision exhaled deeply and fluffed her mane. The flash of glitter caught Pattern’s eye and called her in.

< She has really interesting taste in humans, > Precision strobed across Pattern’s chest and Lial’s hammering pulse to her shared band with the Groundkeeper. < That was very beautiful and exciting! >

The Groundkeeper didn’t feel the need to respond with anything intelligible, just a deeply amused oscillation of violet.

For a long moment, they stood together, Lial’s fingers light and bloodless in their fur.

She pulled away. Pattern’s neck went with her, curving around with heightened speed. Lial’s emotions flared; she let them. Holding outward calm, showing nothing a human could see, she offered herself chemically.

“My dear ones,” she said carefully, her voice low, “I hope that you’ve enjoyed this. It has been quite bracing! An unusually exciting race.”

‘Yes,’ signed Pattern, watching her with hot intensity, mane and coat hard-spiked.

“I must admit I am a bit undone,” murmured the kept. “You know I am unused to crowds, and you can perceive that I require time to collect myself. I am leaving now.” She paused and smiled, and it was genuine; for a moment, even soft. “It has been good to spend this time with you.”

The Groundkeeper swung away from her, and Lial took two long and gliding steps back, her shoulders balanced over her center, her fingers held tenderly forward. She dropped in a profound curtsey, then turned her back and walked away from them.

It was too much. Their human could not leave! Pattern’s senses, overwrought, tightened focus; the fury bloomed in her. She had already moved.

Her hands tightened cruelly, claws sinking deep in fur. She struck again, and thrice, as her rational brain caught up and curbed herself.

The vayan crowd had given them polite space. She bristled taut, a small tang of fresh blood peppering the ambient, her claws still sunk in a hard grip. Precision curled beneath her, neck long and hands relaxed, strobing appeasement with the facial pad facing Pattern’s jaws. Beneath the protective ridge, her eyes were closed.

Lial must have felt it, but she did not turn. Posture relaxed beneath her white silk robe, the kept one walked away from them, and disappeared into the crowd.

Pattern panted hard. Precision, who had seen it coming and moved faster, oscillated gentleness, and a request for gentleness.

Pattern jumped backwards from her, appalled. < I’m sorry! > she strobed white-green, her ears flat, then up, as her nestmate returned to fours and shook herself. < appalled : apologetic : regretful : beloved > repeated fitfully across her face.

Pattern extended her hand; the silvery-grey flinched, and the gold recoiled. She had never struck Precision outside of play, and before her nestmate turned back in to her, strobing a soft < hey beautiful : I’m fine : this is all so very exciting, isn’t it? > Pattern saw the shock of genuine hurt and pain as Precision flinched away. And she had drawn blood. Not much, but still. Pattern looked down and smelled it on her claws.

< Let me close? > strobed Precision, tense.

< Please? > strobed Pattern, mane spiked around her aptar diadem, crest flat with dismay. Precision moved into her, settled meekly onto her sit-pads. Pattern wrapped her arms around her and felt the high fury melt into a profound, alert sorrow.

On the track, attendants were busy taking down the jumps and readying for the final series of straight races. The crowd was beginning to thin.

< I am sorry > strobed Pattern, sniffing behind Precision’s ear. < I was really enjoying you having so much fun. >

< I still am, > strobed Precision, somehow both light and serious.

< Do you want to go? > asked the Groundkeeper, endlessly calm.

< Is it alright with you that I don’t? > asked Pattern. Her ears and mane were flat and close, her expression remorseful. < I’d rather not end like this. And Flight and Pilot are going to run again. I want to see if Valerai wins. >

< Of course, > the Groundkeeper responded, gently blue. She stroked Precision’s cheek softly with the arched side of her palm. < I’m going to get us some more candy. >

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