“Not fond of eye contact, are you?”

This djanada has a good accent. It makes sense, that such a consultant would speak Runaja fluently; some of those on whom he consults surely speak no K’San. It’s still discomfiting, to hear speech that wouldn’t be out of place in a village or a kitchen coming from the one across from him, claws curled gently around the arms of his chair.

Will continues looking at the claws. “If you wish to see someone’s eyes, you need only ask,” he says.

The consultant– Ha’annibal, he knows against his will– doesn’t ask. He doesn’t want to ask. He wants Will to want, to get curious about him that he’ll show them of his own accord. An exchange that will benefit only the djanada.

“Would you like to sit down?” He’s already been shown to the chair; there are two comfortable, hide-upholstered chairs in the centre of the room. Ha’annibal is sitting in one. Will had run his finger along the back of the other, feeling the echos of the Runa whose skin had made it. Meat lasts only a moment, but hide is forever. It’s a nice room; quiet, comfortable, full of art. Large windows let in the light, first sunset a while off but beginning to cast red through the panes. Will stands at the side of the window, as if he mustn’t impede the progress of the light into the room. “Someone would like to stand,” he says.

“Very well.” The consultant sounds entirely relaxed. “Tell me, then, about Hobbs.”

Hobbs. VaHaptaa, a poacher, of no interest to anyone besides that his theft be stopped– and who had stopped it, and how. “You don’t want to know about Hobbs.”


He is giving too much. He is killing himself. Will fancies that he can smell the chair, skin like his own, tanned with brains like his own– well, maybe not so much like his own. There is something wrong with his brain. It is like that intentionally, bred into him; you cannot breed a poacher-catcher without a killer instinct. The VaCrawf family had been working on his lineage for centuries. His sire and his sire’s sire before him had led their masters to VaHaptaa, as Will leads Ja’ak. The only difference in Will is that he did it too well. “You want to know about someone,” says Will, wondering if the consultant is wishing they were speaking K’San instead. Difficult to be precise about blame in a language that makes only the barest distinctions between individuals. Will is kind of glad of it, though– he’s not sure he could manage the ritualized grovelling of K’San right now. “That’s your job, isn’t it?”

And you would presume to tell me what my job is? I should have you butchered this instant. Would be the normal response. Will is used to the threats from Ja’ak, but knows them to be bluster– had known. He is too valuable. Or was. Or still is, but the man is coming around to the idea that sometimes a lineage is simply done, has taken a wrong turn somewhere, must be discarded and started over, no matter how valuable.

Which is what Ha’anibal is for. “Tell me about Hobbs,” he says, firmly, and his voice has too much power and authority in it to ignore. They hadn’t bred servility out of Will’s lineage; they had simply bred aggression in. Tied him to two poles and left him to tear himself apart.

Will sighs, turns around. He doesn’t sit down in the chair but he does rest his palms on it, the feed of another Runa’s skin a deep and unwanted comfort even if that other Runa is a chair.

“Hobbs poached from a village to which Ja’ak has breeding rights. Someone found him. Someone led Ja’ak to him.”

“You killed him.”

“Ja’ak was going to kill him anyway.”

It’s not the action that’s disputed; it’s the motivation. Will was not supposed to have a desire to kill. No Runa is supposed to. It shouldn’t be possible. Prey protect their own, sure, but they don’t hunt. Perhaps if Will had been alone, he could have passed it off as Runa protective instinct gone wrong. A poacher, after all, is poaching his people– though only harming them insofar as death by poacher prevents legitimate death. But he hadn’t been alone: Ja’ak had been there, following where Will lead him and coming in ready to do the dirty work. The real hunting. and instead he had witnessed Will ripping out Hobbs’ throat himself. The prey taking down a predator through the sheer force of–

--well, force of what?

That is Ha’annibal’s job to find out. “How did it feel to kill him?” he asks.

“Someone is not answering that,” Will snaps. This conversation is his death warrant, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to sign it himself with a smile on his face.

For a moment, Ha’annibal just taps his claws on the leather, looking pensive. Then he stands, walks to his desk and begins to write.

Will watches, feeling more detached than he thought he would. No panic. The breeding consultant will hand this letter to Ja’ak, and it will serve as absolute proof that the VaCrafs had done everything in their power to preserve a lineage of poacher-sniffer Runa upon which they had toiled for generations. It was not Ja’ak’s fault, nor anyone’s, that Will, the last of the lineage, had had to be butchered before he had been bred. Something had gone wrong in him. In a way, Will’s own detachment is interesting to him. It could almost serve as some kind of counter-argument; yes, he has gone wrong, he is bloodthirsty in a way no Runa should be, but he feels no strong emotion at the thought of his own butchering, only a deep inevitability. He is, after all, still Runa.

Ha’annibal stands. “You read K’San?” he says.

“Yes,” Will says, and the djanada hands him the letter.

He reads it, and then wonders if he really can read K’San, and reads it again, insisting on the meaning of each word. He knows them all, and they fit together into sentences that are perfectly intelligible, except for what they seem to say, which is that having undergone the standard battery of tests, Ha’annibal finds the Runa Will to be within acceptable ranges of docility, and considers his accidental killing of the VaHaptaa Hobbs to have been a normal prey-protective reaction magnified by the stress of his occupation. He recommends that Will be bred as per the VaCrawf clan’s plans for his lineage, and provided with additional support and oversight in future poaching cases.

Will hands the letter back, and he accidentally looks in Ha’annibal’s eyes as he does so. They are gold flecked with red, fixed intently on him, and make him look very pleased with himself indeed. “Now Ja’ak can rest easy knowing he has not ruined your lineage,” he says, “and our conversation can continue unencumbered by the threat of butchery.”

“Immediate butchery, anyway,” Will murmurs, borrowing a tense from K’San to handle the wry implication of future butchery not being off the table, handing the letter back.

“Yes,” Ha’annibal agrees, and gestures again to the chair opposite him. Will sits. The Runa skin feels good against his, like being held. When he is butchered, he thinks he would like for his skin to end up somewhere like this. It’s quiet in here. Impossible to imagine this room being crowded; it is made for two, for quiet conversations, for life or death decisions to be carried out elsewhere, out of sight. Ha’annibal would probably be interested to know that Will craves quiet and solitude; that, even more than his killer instinct, sets him apart. Runa crave the safety of the herd. They do not spend time alone on purpose. A Runa should feel frightened in here, alone, cut off from the safety of numbers and community. They should not feel soothed by the peace and emptiness. They should not wish for their skin to stay here forever, if no other piece can.

Will had failed in keeping the violence under his skin hidden; but the other thing is still a secret, and he intends to keep it that way.

The best defense is a good offense. That is djanada thinking, but it is true, which is why Runa herds are generally kind of shit even at defense. Ha’annibal can ask him questions he doesn’t want to answer, but Will can do the same. “Breeding consultant,” he says, leaving back into the uphostery. “What do you see, then? Four, five generations on, when I’m long gone from the tongue and the belly. What will my descendants be able to do?”

“That depends,” says Ha’annibal, “on you. The best breeding choices, alone, cannot create a distinguished lineage of Runa. Or, indeed, of Jana’ata. Both require the care and attention of Runa fathers, or Runa nurses, as the case may be. What will you pass on to your child, given the chance?”

Will doesn’t answer. Can’t; he’s never thought about it. Ha’annibal just waits, long past the point when anyone else would have said something just to fill the silence.

“I don’t know,” says Will finally. “I’ve only just been told that I’m fit for breeding. I never thought about it.”

“But I was only asked to evaluate your fitness in response to a recent incident. Surely, before the Hobbs case, it was never in doubt.”

“No,” says Will, “of course not,” because he has to say that. And it’s probably even true, from Ja’ak’s point of view. Ja’ak had never seen it coming, had been so shocked when his prize poacher-catcher went rogue that it was almost worth it just to see his shock.

And Will– Will almost felt relief. Relief that the feeling of having something hanging over him his entire life, ready to fall and crush him, was finally fulfilled. He might have been crushed, but at least he was right about the inevitability of it.

And he has, after all, been bred to find the highest satisfaction in being right.

“But you never imagined raising your children,” says Ha’annibal.


“Think about it now, then. Consider what would you like them to inherit of you, and what would you like them to relinquish.”

The silence fills the room while Will thinks; silence deep enough that it occurs to him that Ha’annibal hasn’t actually asked him to state his conclusions out loud.

Which is good, because the answer is coming through with the clarity of truth and action. Everything. I want them to finish what I started.

“Perhaps,” says Ha’annibal quietly when the sound of Will’s master restless in the waiting room begins to cut through the silence, “We ought to meet again, and discuss it then.”