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Tacivaar’s yellow stare was near as eye-burning as looking directly at the nooning sun. He didn’t blink; it didn’t seem, even, that he drew breath. Some instinct – mine? Kaivelt’s? Something born of our Solemating? – knew I would to meet that stare as long as he chose to give it.

~ I am uncertain that that is a wise approach, my own. He can easily outlast you, can he not?~

I readied to argue, but, before I could gather my protests – false as they would be – he touched them gently. ~ He is an adult, and we, children. He is of an ancient species with powers you have inherited only in part. It isn’t logical to challenge, Niaan, when you cannot win.~

Fury that he would dare to show it to me vanished as quickly as the sun-warmed dew. He did not hunt meat, but his mind was a fine Hunter, swifter and more patient than mine. Already, he was offering other means of resistance, and I felt his a life of unspoken tension, a battle to be simply who he was, against all that would wish him to be something else…

It was a feeling I knew too well, but I always, pulled back so forcefully that there was a backlash. I’d never considered using my Huntskills to enact a quieter, camouflaged rebellion…

Until now.

I set the empty bowl aside, saying nothing. I Changed and stretched my forelegs, delighting as always in the tugging as I dug my claws into the bark of the log that was my perch. I didn’t drop my eyes in defeat; instead, I simply moved as though it had never been my intention to accept the challenge, to begin with, and as though there was no question that, if I did not choose to speak of my Solemate, I was not obliged or duty – bound to do so.

“I had thought you done with such insolence, child!” My head rocked at the cuff; and Kaivelt’s rage was hot green fire running through me, outrage that I would be struck, that anyone would be treated so.

Through the singing pain in my ears, and the tears I could not blame on smoke from the woodfires, I wondered at this. It said things about his world, and about him – and, although I did not like it, also about me and my world, too.

I shook my head, and laid down on the log; I knew my stubby tail thrashed, but something in Kaivelt that echoed with my own mind said that there was little point in worrying over what could not now be otherwise.

“Is it insolence, Huntleader, to prefer privacy in my play at Matehunt? Is any other child required to speak of those they Solemate, or any other fancy?”

“If you have Solemated…I must know. You are not of an age, yet, youngling, to choose for yourself, and, when you are, first I will have of you my Truestborn.”

Kaivelt recoiled, sickened fury raging at what had planned. ~Wrong, ugly, and unnatural! You are a child, and he -!~ He would do whatever he could to prevent it. ~Thee art bound to me!~

I delighted in his response, and it fueled my daring. “I am yet a child. In my play, my Solemate lives on a world that circles a point of light in Everdeep….” I almost felt I could point the direction; all of me was pulling toward him. “We may never meet, but, if we do, you can’t prevent our Solemating, so long as our Witnessing is accepted.”

“Even as play, I will never accept it, child. Know that. Know it to your core, and be certain that you SOLEMATE knows it, as well!” Another cuff, rolling me from the log to huddle behind it, as though there were some shelter to be offered there. But, of course, there was none, from him, in the Pridekeep, and none in Mother’s, either….always, there was threat, and danger…

~ I will be your safety, and your shelter, Niaan, my own. ~

And so he was. The words I spoke next were from his mind. “Then you will have killed me, and my mate, and you will have no Truestborn of me – and a people as enemies who have never been defeated, people of means you cannot begin to imagine. For, if he can touch me, others will know how to follow.”

A third cuff, and something within me – something not of me, or of him, but of us – broke free. I bristled, and snarled, and then hissed, “You do not own my mind! And you never will!”

Then, while he raised his clubbed paw, I leapt, springing, claws out, onto then over his back, bounding out to the ledge with his yowl of thwarted pain behind me, not stopping, out into the moonslight, my fur ruffling in the cooling summer breezes as I Ran….