Kanna frowned at her daughter. “Honey,” she began, trying for patience, “you’re only six. You don’t actually feel dysphoric yet. That doesn’t happen until well after you’ve had your own children and they’ve grown up. You know that.”

Hazi was unfazed by her mother’s logic, a stubborn set to her red brows. “My skin don’t fit right,” she protested, pinching at the soft flesh of her upper arm. “Inn’t that dys-pho-ri-a? Dada tol’ me it was.”

The Merre woman lifted a hand to massage her temples and the base of her long ears. “Honey,” she tried again, “how old is Dada?”

“Dada is five times me!” the little girl said triumphantly, still pulling restlessly at her dark skin.

“Has Dada said he feels like he needs to change his skin?”

Hazi gave a gasp and a scowl. “Of course not! Dada stays with us ’til I’m a mama.”

Kanna smiled gently, kneeling to look her daughter in the eye. “Exactly. Now. Try to tell me how you feel without using the d-word, okay? If you’re getting sick, we want to make sure we take you to the herbologist today while the light’s still warm.”

Hazi’s face fell and she bit her lip. “Um. Liiike my skin is a wool sweater and it’s summertime, so it’s all hot and scratchy inside. And my tummy feels like it’s made of water.”

“Do you have to pee?” Kanna asked matter-of-factly, a distant fear beginning to toy with the back of her mind.

The child stuck her tongue out. It was purple. Kanna blinked; Hazi had been born with a blue tongue. Well, sometimes even children in good health changed colors… “No!” she grumped, folding her arms across her chest. “Not full of water, made of water!”

Kanna sighed. “Did Dada tell you what dysphoria feels like?”

Hazi slumped her shoulders in a sulk. “No,” she mumbled. “I tol’ him what I felt like an’ he said go find you and tell you ’cause it sounds like dys-pho-ri-a and if I got that then it’s a bad thing. He said I shoul’ mention his brother.”

Kanna recoiled, despite herself. Her mate’s brother had become one of the shapeless and gone mad. The fear blossomed in her throat, cutting off her air. If Hazi became shapeless…

“No,” she whispered, shaking herself off. She reached out and touched her daughter’s dark mane, ran her thumb along the soft cheeks. “No, sweetheart, you’re not going to be like Dada’s brother. Come with me; I’m going to leave you with Dada while I go talk to the herbologist. There might be an illness going around that’s making you feel funny.”

Hazi took her mother’s hand and scuffed her feet all the way to her father’s workshop, where the hill-shouldered man sat over a pottery wheel and shaped clay with paw-like hands. “Dada!” she called, running up to him as soon as Kanna released her hand. “Mama’s gonna talk to the herbogist–”

“Herbologist, honey.”

“Herballagist.” Hazi stuck her tongue out. “And gonna ask if I’m sick.”

Tenyu looked up from his work and met his mate’s troubled gaze. She mouthed no over their daughter’s head, forced a smile, and walked down the slope towards the dirt path that wound towards the center of their village.

“Okay,” Tenyu sighed, pushing the rim of his work-in-progress to correct a fold in the lip. “Tell me again how you feel.”

“My skin’s a scratchy wool sweater in summertime,” Hazi diligently repeated, pleased with her newfound metaphor. “An’ my insides feel like they’re made of water.” She frowned, plopping down next to her father’s stool. “An’ my bones kinda ache.”

The Merre potter kept himself busy with his work, wondering when she would list the fourth common symptom of dysphoria: a growing exhaustion that would lead her to sleep more than a few hours a day, giving her body time and rest to begin its first evolution towards a new skin and shape.

The shapeless were the only ones who ever changed as children, and they never stopped once they began.

As Tenyu worked in silence, Hazi yawned.

The coast was dazzlingly bright, opalescent sands reflecting the long sunlight like a million minuscule crystal mirrors; the light sprayed in all directions, creating an exotic glow that outweighed the luminance of the distant sun.

The water did not lap at the shoreline, did not foam and froth in the surf, but receded steadily from the gleaming beach; waves rippled the midnight-dark surface of the water as the ocean poured steadily away from the land.

Rai Gerring stood at the edge of the world and wondered how the hells he’d managed to find himself here, blinded by the refracted light, captivated by the darkness of the waters he knew to be ice-cold and stinging with salt. A man would sooner freeze than drown if he tried to swim this sea.

He knew. He’d seen it happen.

The sun was a brilliant point of light far behind him, its slanting rays reaching across the entire disc of the world before igniting the sand to radiance. Between him and the sun, the sky over the world was reddening, a bloody smear left in the wake of the sun’s descension.

The wind brushed him, spitting hard grains of sand against his black cloak and sweeping them from beneath his slippered soles. Rai tucked his hood lower and stared at the empty horizon where the sea dropped away into the void of space.

When he looked up into the ebony sky, away from the shoreline’s glow, he fancied he could see the distant glimmer of sparks so far away from any of the worlds that no one knew what caused them. Perhaps another universe, not quite within sailing distance; perhaps shimmering demon-fires from all the layers of hell that existed above and below the worlds.

Quietly, forcedly calmly, Rai stepped forward, eyes unfocusing as he reached himself towards the darkness sleeping so potently within the retreating water. If he could but bring enough shadows from the depths, he could leave; he could get out of here before anything stupid and fateful happened.

The darkness didn’t budge, latent beneath the surface, heedless of his increasingly insistent tugging. He had never felt such stubborn shadows; he had never been refused even a gentle request before.

I shouldn’t be here, Rai hissed to himself, thin hands slipping from his sleeves. His skin was as pale as the sand, fingers and palms etched in black and red runes. I can’t stay here. This place is a myth. No one reaches the edge of any world. Destiny can go to its favorite hell for all I care.

I want gone.

Since he was alone, Rai figured it wouldn’t do any harm to pull up every pulse of magic he could command and unleash it in a bid to return to the bedroll he had so innocently left behind. He drew a breath, caged it in his lungs, and tilted his head to the black sky of the void above him.

The last time he had used his full power, he had killed a hundred people and destroyed the world magic for miles in every direction.

Rai exhaled. The sky dropped like viscous ink, severing the stretched rays of sunlight, drowning him in shadow. His cloak billowed, outstretched wings made of simple cloth, buffering him against the now-freezing wind as it gusted wildly, shoving at him, trying to make him stop.

Slowly, the darkness crept out of the water, a roiling layer of intangible sludge, coiling dank tendrils around his ankles as it swept around him. I should not be here, he hissed, bringing everything he could command into an oval sphere around him.

There was a thunderclap loud enough to obliterate a mountain–

–when Rai opened his eyes, he was laying in his bedroll, muscles weak from deep sleep rudely interrupted. Nearby, Brandon let out an erratic snore.

Rai let himself breathe and tried to still the shaking in his limbs. The visions were getting worse.

It’s the thrill that has addicted me so perfectly. The open field of possibilities at the beginning of each day, potential ripe and pungent, each choice dripping a different color of syrup like honeyed sweat. With every breath I take, I can change my world if I but pick the wildest option of those arrayed before me.

Each new face could be the evening’s entertainment. Each voice on the wind could be the one I hear tonight, gasping and groaning. Each body that shuffles past me in the press of foot traffic could be the one I pull to my chest as limbs gyrate and pulses quicken into a thunderstorm of hearts.

Ahh, the hunt, the hunt. I love it. I crave it.

Each morning, I go out among the people. I watch them. I brush their hands in passing. I smile or stare and see who smiles or stares back.

I like the aggressive ones, the ones who return my hard looks, the ones with fire in their eyes and a certain set to their jaws. They make my nights more fun. The ones who flirt back are softer, sweeter, and savoring them is like sinking my teeth into sun-ripened watermelon and letting the juice drip down my chin.

By evening, I’ve made my choice. I engage: a wink, a rough collision of shoulders, a casual conversation that lingers. I invite them to coffee, dinner, the bar, the park. We go, and as time wears on, I shrink the distance between our bodies until there’s no room left even for clothing. They never truly resist baring themselves to me.

By the moon-pale hours of early morning, I have a new experience pounding through my veins and a new body to dump somewhere inconspicuous. It’s a big city – hiding places are a dime a dozen. I know fifty holes within a mile’s walk at any given point, and after I’m done with my targets, they’re never too heavy to carry.

What I love best, though, is when they don’t die – when they pick up and stagger off, as wet with sex as they are with blood, too stubborn to fully succumb. Soon, they’ll become just like me, living for the thrill of potential, the infinite openness of each day’s choices.

Sometimes I meet them, my former victims, my new brothers and sisters. Our eyes meet and see right through the thin veneer of humanity stretched over our faces. Sometimes they smile; sometimes they stare. Sometimes they stay the night and try to kill me – I let them try, but I never let them win. We part the next morning, exhausted and gloriously sated, the taste of iron and sweat lingering on our lips.

I think those are the mornings I like best.

Today, I received the news that the most infamous and wretched Korat that Lavana had ever known is dead. Before Wureshi, my people had not had words for “rape” or “tyrant,” and no Korat had ever amassed a well-trained army of its own progeny. It took two of the greatest surviving masters to kill him in traditional combat, while his loyal children stood by the sidelines, commanded to not interfere.

He was my father.

Today, I celebrate outwardly with the rest of the world, though they would kill me if they knew my heritage. But then, my people have always been prone to genocide. That’s why I’m the only child of my litter still alive – the other two were stripeds, genetic mutations considered to be weaker, lesser than the pure, unicolored breeds.

As a baby, just as now, my long fur must have hid the faint, yellowed lines that stripe my belly.

Today, I am lost. My sole purpose for existing was righteously slaughtered, and my violent brothers and sisters will be hunted to extermination by vengeful purists. My heritage won’t be questioned if I am known to be a striped, since Wureshi killed all of his striped spawn, but there would be other purists who would want me dead for having an extra color stain my fur. And if I do not reveal my muddied genetics, then my age will call my parents into question, and I will have to lie very well to escape discovery as Wureshi’s seed.

So today, I am leaving the world. I hear the Olashi are looking for people to go into space with them.

[First Part: The Birth Of A Pirate]

The heavy wooden door of the captain’s private quarters slid open a few inches, and a grey-skinned face showed itself in the gap. “Captain Masya. We’ll arrive in twenty minutes. The merchantship is still hovering, and no other ships are in sight.”

Masya turned, long legs folded beneath her and half-hidden by a worn quilt, talon-like feet dangling thick toes off the edge of the stuffed mattress. She grinned past long fangs. “Good. Come get me when we enter atmosphere and can breathe on deck. Everyone ready?”

“Aye, Captain.” Lasna flashed an identical smile from a startlingly similar face, features also lean and angular but muzzle whiter with age. “The skies are still clear of other ships. This will be an easy raid, just like any other.” The other rarra slid the door closed with a thump of wood against wood, and the seal was tight enough that her receding footsteps could not be heard.

Falar watched the exchange in silence, most of his nude body swathed in the same quilt that warmed Masya’s legs, his paw-like hands folded behind his head. Masya met his gaze, green eyes ever-startling in their hue, and softened her smile. “Better get dressed, my mage,” she murmured, reaching a short-fingered hand to touch his knee. She traced circles up his thigh with padded fingertips, small claws blunt enough to tickle and not scratch, and he squirmed.

“You too, Captain,” he replied, a grin creasing his muzzle as he wriggled out from under the blanket. The air in the cabin was cool, the local sun’s warmth not yet penetrating the sturdy hull of the Fanged Flower as it swept through the sun system of Do’agnun. The fine hairs covering his tawny-golden skin prickled and stiffened in the chill.

“I could walk over there naked and not get bled,” Masya boasted with a low chuckle, voice smooth and deep. Her voice and her eyes, so unusual for her people, made her stand out nearly as much as her pirating methods. She stretched her arms out and twisted her torso side to side, pretending to ignore Falar as he rummaged for clothing, his back turned.

“Only because of me and Lasna,” Falar retorted. They both knew he was lying, but it was a good game to play, acting as though Masya wasn’t fearfully competent alone, without her lover and her second-in-command. Though rarra were a species born of a magic-rich world, Masya only used bladed weapons in combat; Falar, on the other hand, was a master of air magic, and Lasna was an exceptionally-skilled water mage. Together, the three of them were a force to be feared on the battlefield.

But they never entered battles if they could help it – that’s what made Masya so unique among pirate captains. She had a full crew and a strong ship, and she only picked targets that she could surely overpower. Most of their raids resulted in immediate surrender, no casualties, and plenty of anonymous loot. The crew of the Fanged Flower had remarkably low death rates and an equally low turn-over of members, and since it always chose minor targets, the law did not know the ship’s or its captain’s names.

Falar buckled his leggings around his waist and buttoned the outer seams along each leg. Masya found his undershirt hiding beneath her knees and tossed it at him, laughing liquidly when he stopped it mid-air and kept it hovering until he finished his buttons. Then, he plucked the soft fabric out of his magical grasp and slid his arms through the open holes. “Smooth,” Masya grinned. “I think you’re getting better with your subtlety.”

“I’d better be, with you around,” Falar grinned back. He shrugged into his leather vest and buttoned it across his chest, dressed unimpressively for battle. An air mage’s best asset was discretion, since they made such good targets for the enemy, and he didn’t look like anything more than a deck-swabbing apprentice. It would keep people from realizing how dangerous he could be long enough for him to incapacitate them if necessary.

Masya, on the other hand, wore a full set of leather armor over fine silks and cotton, looking every inch the deadly captain. Atop her clothes, she wore a weapons harness that held half a dozen weapons; few would mess with a rarra whose skin was heavily scarred with experience, whose blade-like horn had lost its tip and been worn to bluntness. Even her long ears were notched with too many close calls.

Falar sat on the edge of the mattress and watched as she dressed, lean muscles flexing like whitewater rivers beneath her silvery skin. He had spent the last three years in her service as a secondary air mage – secondary only because of his unwillingness to kill with his magic, not because of his skill. He had spent nearly as long courting her, offering up his body to her curious hands, waiting and desperately hoping for the day that she returned his love as well as his lust.

Sometimes, he felt like he had loved her from the day they had met, when she took refuge from the local law enforcement in his workhouse. Back when he worked the land as a farmer, a scorned profession that made no use of his magical training and talent. She had bewitched him then, using mind-magic that no rarra would deign to learn, and released him only when she asked him to choose his future.

He had chosen her. He had devoted himself to her, yearned for her, and only four months ago did she finally admit to enjoying him for more than his flesh. It took her an achingly long time to acknowledge that she wanted his company, his companionship, his presence. His love. And he could not imagine being happier, now that they were truly partners, now that he could share her heart and not just her bed.

Masya turned to him, resplendent in her red-dyed armor, every knife snug in its sheath. As though on cue, the door slid open again and Lasna’s sharp voice filtered through. “Air on deck, Captain. We’ve unsealed the ship. The boarding crew is ready and in place.”

“Perfect,” Masya said, her smile reserved for Falar as their eyes met. “Let’s go.”

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