When country boy Teo arrives in the coastal city of Tabat, he finds it a hostile place, particularly to a boy hiding an enormous secret. It's also a city in turmoil, thanks to an ancient accord to change governments and the rising political demands of Beasts: the Unicorns, Dryads, Minotaurs, and other magical creatures on whose labor and bodies Tabat depends. And worst of all, it's a city dedicated to killing Shifters, the race whose blood Teo bears.
When his fate becomes woven with that of Tabat's most famous Gladiator, Bella Kanto, his existence becomes even more imperiled. Kanto's magical battle determines the weather each year, and the wealthy Merchants are tired of the long Winters she's brought. Can Teo and Bella save each other from the plots closing in on them from all sides?
"a fascinating world of magic, intrigue, and revolution."– Publisher’s Weekly on Beasts of Tabat
"an excellent and refreshingly different kind of a fantasy novel with a touch of bittersweetness. … this novel is an exceptionally good fantasy novel, because Cat Rambo shows genuine talent for creating an intriguing fantasy world with three-dimensional protagonists."– Rising Shadow
"[BEASTS OF TABAT] was a fantastic introduction to Rambo's writing, and I can say without a shred of doubt that her worldbuilding is outstanding, wrought with care and full of fine detail that makes it all pop on the pages and come alive for the reader."—– Bibiliotropic
Introducing Teo, a Boy
Perhaps Teo couldn't change his shape in real life, but in his mind he certainly could. As he shimmied down the rocky crevice, he was heroic Bella Kanto, Gladiator and Champion of the distant city of Tabat. Frozen stone rasped against the leather and wool clothing he wore, but to him it was Gladiator's armor, clinking as Bella climbed down to unimaginable dangers in order to rescue …
No, not to rescue—to explore some place no Human, Beast, nor anyone from his village had ever ventured into before, he decided as he emerged into the icicle-choked crevice that opened to the cliff's face. He would be like the hero of his favorite penny-wides, someone who opened new paths.
Those penny-wides were the thing that Teo loved best about shipments from Tabat, so far away on the southern coast. Crates came up the Northstretch River on the steamboats or in wagons pulled by oxen or great goats—crates whose contents were kept in place with crumpled newsprint, discarded penny-wides, smudged columns of black type detailing adventures, scandals, intrigues of the heroes of Tabat, primarily the Gladiators, the heroes whose ritual fights determined the fate of the city while teaching the stories of the Gods.
Gladiators. No other figures so glamorous, so perilous, so ephemeral, so suitable for stories with long narratives that included step-by-step swordplay, rescues, and escapes, and detailed conversations from courtiers and courtesans.
He harvested them whenever the crates were unpacked, pulling wads from between vials of medicines and other glassware; tins of foods that would never be found here in the north, soft-lily root and peppers soaked in vinegar; small round cans of coffee beans and bricks of pungent tea. Glass bottles of amber and black liquor, smaller sizes of perfume in red and blue and cat's-eye emerald. And once a cardboard box filled with the coin-sized mirrors folks used to chase away ghosts, enough to last his village for another generation.
And always two jars, one of high-quality black ink and a smaller one of red for Neorn, who acted as the village scribe, along with paper suitable for witnessed declarations. When the Trader left, he or she would carry with them a sheaf of such documents, copies to be filed with the Ducal offices back in Tabat.
Teo thought that they must have an entire drawer full of his village's papers by now. Which was important. It let them masquerade as Human and kept the Duke from sending up troops to exterminate them for being Shifters. They'd maintained the subterfuge ever since Explorers first came across them, almost a hundred years ago now.
It staggered him to think there might be a drawer for every Human settlement, maybe entire cabinets for larger cities. The world was so much larger than his tiny village, so full of wonderful, exciting things that surely room after room must be employed to track them. And none of those wonderful things could be found here, except in the pages of the penny-wides, which arrived out of order, often with gaps that his imagination was forced to supply. Most of them came from Spinner Press, orange pages edged with blue, and concerned the adventures of Tabat's premier Gladiator, Bella Kanto.
Bella Kanto, who'd visited the Old Continent and killed two sorcerers there; who'd ridden a wild Dragon and brought it to live in the Duke's menagerie; and who'd fought foes ranging from the Fish-folk of the Southern Isles, with their poisonous barbed wrists and elbows, to an entire Centaur Tribe bent on keeping her from approaching their village.
Bella Kanto, whose love life was a constant array of nobility, warriors, and conjurers of either gender, who was forever giving up people for their own good, and leading what seemed to be a star-crossed but thoroughly enjoyable existence.
At fourteen, Teo's knowledge of sex had been well informed by observing animals, but his ideas of how it all worked with people, the flirting and wooing and such, still mystified him.
But not Bella. She was gallant, she was brave, she was dashing. She was everything a hero should be. The smudged pictures, steel-cut and rendered in broad lines, showed a beautiful face as narrow as an axe blade, a smile inevitably twisting one side of her mouth.
Bella Kanto, once a Beast Trainer's apprentice, who'd come to the all-female Gladiatorial School, the Brides of Steel, a year too old to be admitted, but who then had fought so well that the school was forced to take her, who had risen rapidly through their ranks until she was the Foremost Gladiator in Tabat, the one chosen to fight for Winter each year. Winter had been slow to release its grasp on the world for the last nineteen years, and the reason was Bella Kanto, who won the ceremonial battle with Spring each year.
Teo had crept out early this morning, saying he was going to check snares, but the truth was he wanted to daydream, and that was best done in an undisturbed spot. A chance to watch the rising sun, to witness the world go pale grey, then violet, then gold and lavender, sumptuous as silk embroidery, was a bonus.
Teo had found the shelter of the cliff long ago while hunting, trying to escape the pitying eyes of the village. He could never hope to match the hunting prowess of the other early teens, certainly, but he could try, at least. And sometimes that attempt yielded unexpected results, like this hideaway that was, as far as he knew, his and his alone.
To reach this open nook, you wiggled down through a chimney that seemed to go into the very face of the cliff. Depending on the time of year, it was slick with ice or thickly overgrown with brambles. It looked out south, and when all three moons were in the sky—tiny purple Toj, vast red Hijae, and Selene, the white moon—you could watch them and wonder if the Moon Priests were right, that their movements predicted everything that would happen.
And everything that had happened.
Was it the moons' fault he couldn't change his shape, run in animal form, the way the rest of the village could? It wasn't fair that he couldn't change, but he'd come to accept that, to live with it the way old Fyorl lived with his missing foot, which he claimed a bear had bitten off but which was, according to Teo's mother, the consequence of being too drunk to clean flea bites when they festered. She said when it had gotten infected the Moon Priest visiting the village had cut it off.
And now another Moon Priest was here, treating someone else.
Teo's mind skittered away from thoughts of the Priest's presence. The solid rock against his back, he slitted his eyelids and tried to force himself back into his daydream.
The white moon was a thin arc, hollowed out with Winter hunger, thin as his sister's face, which kept replacing the black and white image of Bella Kanto. Elya was sick. Elya, Teo's little sister, alive in a way the sister who had been his Shadow Twin never had been. Elya, with big green eyes and a quick laugh, who loved the little animals he carved for her. Elya, who had never rejected him in the way others had for not being able to shapeshift.
She knew he was special, after all. They all did, even if they didn't always remember it. He'd been born with a Shadow Twin. He was the only person in the whole village who could say that, and he was the only person who'd had a Twin that any of them had ever encountered.
The thought didn't make him any warmer. Watery sunlight sifted down on the rock around him, which opened itself to the air, forming a ledge on which he could crouch. The breakfast he'd brought, two withered apples, sat on the stone beside him. From here the river's loop was visible, and he waited, hoping to catch sight of a puff of smoke that might signal the passage of a trade boat.
When he'd left that morning his mother had barely acknowledged his departure. She crouched by Elya's bed, watching her daughter's face as though willing her to keep breathing.
He wiped tears from his face with the back of a skinny hand, ashamed of them. The Gods take who they will, when they will. That was what the Moon Priest had said when he first looked at Elya. Who could resist the Gods? Not Teo, that was for certain.
And then they had chased him from the room in order to confer.
He wished he had magic. What would his life have been like if his Twin had drawn breath after the womb? History said that men and women with living Shadow Twins to assist them went on to do marvelous things. Verranzo and his Shadow Twin had each founded an entire city: Verranzo had created Verranzo's New City, far to the east on the coast, and his Shadow Twin (female, as Teo's had been, for a Shadow Twin always took the opposite gender of its sibling) had gone south with the Duke of Tabat and helped found a city in his name.
Teo's Shadow Twin had died at birth and would not do marvelous things. She would not draw on any of a Twin's reputed powers: to extend life or augment magical abilities. Verranzo's Twin had been able to tame creatures with her voice alone. Teo's was dead, and with her any chance of specialness deriving from her existence was gone.
Far below, snow swans flew across the river in a glitter of wings. He'd snared one last year. His father had beaten him because you never knew when a creature like that, a swan or eagle or wolf, might be a fellow Shifter or Beast, and exempt from being hunted or trapped accordingly.
His swan had not been intelligent, so it had been just an animal, not a Beast. But it had been angry when he'd freed it as Da had ordered. It beat at him with club-like wings as strong as Da's fist, and its head darted at his face and hands like a snake, hissing and clacking its bill.
He cut it loose and it waddled away, then leaped up against the sky, its wings driving it upward, frosted with red moonlight. It honked derisively at Teo, poor bruised Teo, who couldn't shift and therefore couldn't tell what was or wasn't a fellow Beast.
If he'd been Human, he would have been famous, might have been taken to Tabat to serve the latest generation of Dukes. But he was a Shifter, even if a failed one, and Humans hated Shifters, even more than the Beasts they habitually enslaved. So he and the other villagers must keep quiet, passing themselves off as unremarkable in the eyes of Explorers and Priests during their rare visits, here in the frontier territory that belonged to no city.
It was why they clung so close to the Moon Temples, sheltering under a Human religion.
Sunlight glinted on the river's frozen mirror far below, dazzling him. Closer, someone was crossing the meadow: his uncle Pioyrt in his animal form, an immense, slope-shouldered cougar, two grouse gripped tightly in his jaws, his whiskers drawn back to avoid their feathers. This time of year hunting was bad, and they'd eaten porridge and baked roots too often lately. At least one bird would be reserved for the Priest, but the rest might be fried with roots for something more appetizing than usual, crisp bits of meat and perhaps even a trip into the spice sack for a couple of peppercorns to grind or a pinch of dried orange peel. His mouth watered.
That was good, to have a reason to celebrate. And the Priest would heal Elya, surely. That was all good, so why did the Priest's presence bother him so? Something about the way the man looked at him. A considering look.
He raised his knees, wedging them against the rock's cold, slick bite to lift himself upwards, snow crunching under his gloves and boots as he scrambled onto the top of the cliff.
He paused to look once more out over the world. Clouds shawled the mountain that rose on the valley's opposite side, its flanks white with snow, slicks of purple and cobalt streaking their sides. The river was a gray and blue snakeskin, laced over with the black skeletons of trees.
Teo sighed and turned his face homeward.
O O O
No one would meet his eyes.
That was the truth of it, and not paranoia on his part. No matter where he went in the village, no matter who Teo talked to, whether it was Lidiya or his father's hunting partner Dayo, no one would meet his eyes. They'd look past his ear or pretend interest in something at their feet.
What did it mean?
Unease ate at him as he made his way past the hunters' sweat bath and into the village's center. He stopped in to see Lidiya the alta, the village herbwoman who had been unable to help his sister. He found the Priest with her and started to move away, but she beckoned to him.
Teo came closer, eying the Priest uneasily. The man was stout but muscular, with the light hair and skin that proclaimed he had as much Northern blood as Teo. He wore red robes, showing that he followed Hijae, the red moon, rather than the white or purple moons.
Lidiya patted Teo's shoulder and said something in her garbled voice that was hard to make out. She'd been taken by hunters in animal form, hunters who had tried to cut her throat and in the process damaged the vocal cords of her Human shape.
But the Priest seemed to understand her. "You're Teo?" he asked.
It was a little alarming to be recognized by an adult outsider. Teo nodded reluctantly.
"Your sister is the child that is ill." The Priest said this not as question, but fact. Teo found the intensity with which the man was studying him even more alarming.
Lidiya said something and the Priest nodded. "He seems well enough favored."
Teo wanted to ask about Elya, and whether the Priest could cure her, but he feared the answer. Priests wielded magic, but would it be sufficient to heal Elya?
As though in answer to his unspoken question, the Priest said, "Your sister will be fine." He waved Teo off. "Go and play, boy. We'll speak soon enough."
Speak about what? But Teo was ready enough to leave. He didn't understand that look in Lidiya's eye, the trace of pity and envy.
He would go home and see how Elya was, he decided. Rounding a corner, he found himself in the midst of a clot of children planning some hunt. They had cleared the ground in a smooth patch. Nika, the oldest, was sketching out a plan on it with a twig. She glanced up, saw it was Teo, and went back to her drawing, but Biort, who loved bullying Teo, couldn't resist a taunt as Teo pushed past.
"Look, it's the Lord of No Shape!"
"Better no shape than a shape like you," Teo snapped and regretted it immediately. Biort's form was that of a musk-ox, which some said was a sign of slow-mindedness. Biort was quick enough to take offense though, rising from where he knelt beside Nika.
Teo raised his fists, resigning himself to the fight. He knew the older, bigger boy would beat the snot out of him, but at least he might be able to land a blow or two of his own. His heart hammered in his chest.
A hand landed on his shoulder from behind, even as he saw the older boy's face fall.
She was the first to meet his eyes, but the expression there did not reassure him. Love was there, yes, but a regret that he couldn't understand.
"Come home, Teo," she said. "We need to talk to you."
With a last scowl in Biort's direction, he followed in her wake. His heart still hammered as nervously as it had for the fight, as though sensing that what was to come would be no better.
O O O
"Why would you do this to me?" Teo demanded. He hunched on the opposite side of the table from his parents. His mother sat, palms flat on the wooden surface, brows furrowed, while his father stood behind her, his hands on her shoulders. Teo wondered that they felt comfortable leaving Elya's sickbed long enough to break this news to him. The air smelled of broth and burned roots. The Priest was staying elsewhere and they hadn't even gotten a whiff of grouse.
"You've promised me into slavery! I'll belong to the Temples for life!"
"It's not like that," his father said. "It's a profession, and you can progress in it while always having food and clothing and shelter and a direction in life."
"They'll realize I'm a Shifter and burn me alive!"
His mother shook her head. Her eyes were red from crying, but her face was calm. "The alta says that since you have never changed, you never will. She swore it to me, beyond any question. You will be perfectly able to pass as Human."
"So you are sacrificing me so the village can continue to pretend we are all Human?"
"I know you do not want to go, Teo, but this will be a better life for you than here."
"Better how?" he demanded.
"You will find more reading material in Tabat, for one," she said with a chuckle. She leaned forward. "Think of all that Tabat will offer you! You love reading the penny-wides, now you'll be where their heroes walk and talk. What's the name of that Gladiator you like so much?"
"Bella Kanto," he said, swallowing tears. He stared at his father. "Do you really think I'll do so badly in life that you had to lock me into something like this?"
"Oh, son." His father looked pained. "It's not like that at all. The more one sacrifices, the greater the gift. And we were at our wits' end; we didn't think Elya would recover any other way. So we swore that if the fever broke we would send you to the Temple."
The hurt remained, a pain that centered in his chest like the bruise after a powerful blow. "You chose her over me."
"Perhaps she would have recovered anyway and we made a choice we shouldn't have," his mother said. "Perhaps we made a mistake. Is that what you wanted to hear, that we are fallible? You are still promised to the Temples, due to be taken to Tabat by the Priest, no matter what, no matter how fallible we are. Your name is recorded in his rolls."
He'd seen her like this before. Sorrow made her angry, made her ready to lash out. He stared at his fists. "Like a slave," he said again.
"Not so," said his mother. "Like someone whose family has pledged him; like someone who understands his duty." She looked at him.
Anger wouldn't let him stop. "The real reason is because you think I'll be better off than in a village where I'm a failure."
"No one thinks you're a failure, Teo," she said. "There have been those who could not shift before."
"None alive except me," he said.
His father left her and came around the table to ruffle his hair. Teo held very still under the gesture. He was still sorting out his feelings, but anger weighted the mix.
"Is it because I can't Shift?" he asked.
His father touched his hair again. "Some think it unlucky."
"A few? Or many?"
"Most." His father sighed and returned to his mother's side. Elya's broth bubbled on the fire, setting the pot lid clinking as wafts of steam escaped.
"I will pack food and a change of clothing for you," Teo's mother said. "The Priest will stay a few days yet, but then you must be ready to go."
O O O
Springtime would come soon, but not yet. Ice shielded the stream, and the thin branches of the scrub trees along its bank drooped with snow.
Teo had come to the riverbank to think. Settled on a boulder, its cold weight beneath him, he could barely hear the rush of the water beneath the ice, only the faintest whisper. He imagined it talking to him, giving him advice, telling him to give in to his parents' plans.
But he didn't want to be a Moon Priest. Giving his life over to serve the three moons. Giving up everything, including his name.
He had to flee.
But to where? Northward the land was more perilous, and westward, even wilder. South was the direction he wanted to avoid as well, for at the end of that road lay Tabat. No, he would have to strike eastward, make for the coast and Verranzo's New City, where all were free. Rumors said that Beasts walked with Humans there and even held land and other properties. Like anywhere else, they didn't tolerate Shifters, but Teo was no Shifter, was he? He'd have no worries there. The alta had told his mother he'd never shift. He must put that dream away.
Drops of water rolled down a tree branch, falling on the snow. Two squirrels chased each other, chuckling or scolding, he couldn't tell which, through the branches overhead.
Leaving had to come soon, before the Priest decided to start off. How long did Teo have? Two days, perhaps. At most.
He needed to consider his course carefully. The Priest would make for Marten's Ferry next. And everyone would hunt for Teo, and all of them were skilled hunters. But if he went along the creek, eventually he would find the road, and there his tracks would simply mingle with all the others.
He reached out and scooped up snow in his mittened hands, packing it into a ball. He threw it across the stream at the largest tree, and hit it squarely, with a satisfying thunk and a shower of dislodged snow.
He was young and strong and smart. He'd have no trouble finding work in Verranzo's New City. Think of all the things he could do!
He might become a Merchant or a sailor or even a man of great learning. He knew how to read and write when many in the village didn't. He had taught himself in order to decipher the penny-wides and other newspapers that traders used to wrap their goods. No, he would be fine, once he got there.
He couldn't wait. He glanced up at the sky, clear of clouds and blue as the little flowers, primaflora, that would cover the riverbank, come full spring.
There was no time like the present. Tomorrow. He would leave tomorrow.
O O O
That night while they ate, Teo tried to provoke his father and mother to conversation. He wanted to hear them laugh and tell stories, things that he could remember later.
But his mother was sullen with lack of sleep from nursing Elya, and after a long day of fruitless hunting, his father was not inclined to light talk either.
Finally Teo stared into his bowl. He thought that he should eat all he could, for surely meals would be scarcer on the road. There wouldn't be good hot lentils cooked the way his mother always did, with garlic and onions and a shake from the spice bag she kept near the stove, savory and redolent. The smell always reminded him of his mother, for she swore by her spice mix, said it made the food more digestible.
Maybe he'd take a pinch or two with him. He could hunt rabbits and roast them in a fire, and a little spice would not go amiss there. He forced down a few more bites and drained his cup of water.
After dinner, he sat by the fireside and carved. He wanted to leave a last gift for Elya. He chose a Shifter's form, that of a great cat of the sort his father could become, and imagined it was his own. When he finished it, he showed it to his mother.
She turned it over in her hand and a rare smile crept over her face.
"It has your look," she said.
"What do you mean?"
She studied it. "I can't tell where it comes from—perhaps the way you've shaped the eyes or the set of the ears, but it has the same look that you do when you're asking questions."
"Then perhaps it will help Elya remember me." The words came out with an anger that surprised him.
She set the statue on the mantle and reached to touch his cheek. He pulled away just as her fingers were about to graze his skin. Her face fell.
"Perhaps with time, you'll understand," she said.
He looked her full in the eyes. "Perhaps."
The anger lingered with him when he went to bed. Once everyone else was asleep, he slipped to the cupboard and filled a leather bag—a round of bread and curls of dried meat filched from the back of the food cupboard, and three dried plums, as hard as rocks, that had fallen behind another bag and would not be missed.
His mother was not a particularly diligent housewife of the sort given to counting her inventory, but by this time of year most of the food was gone already, so Teo didn't dare make the inroads he wanted to.
How long would it take his mother to realize he was gone? In the morning all she would do was dip oats out to cook and think that he'd gone out hunting or scouting. Perhaps at lunch, she'd think him still afield. But by dinner, she would know. Would they send someone after him then or wait till morning? Morning, he thought, because then his tracks would be easier to see.
Once he was on the main road, though, his hunters wouldn't know which way he'd gone. They'd think north or south, not realizing he intended to cut across it there and continue on through the pine barrens, despite their perils.
No, if she didn't realize till dinner, that was best.
He went to the cupboard where their most precious things were stored. Sorting through it, he found what he sought towards the back: a wooden box, barely palm-sized. He took it out and opened it.
Twin to the pierced coin around his own neck. Both bore the smallest moon, Toj, now in quarter-moon on one side, the full trio of moons on the other. The coins given by the Priest when registering a birth for the Temple rolls. While the villages were converts within the last two generations, they had embraced the faith, which kept the occasional Moon Priest from suspecting they were Shifters, as well as letting them trade with Human settlements.
Teo removed his own coin from the leather thong and exchanged it for his Shadow Twin's. They were identical, after all. No one would know he'd made the swap. And this way he would have something to remember his sister by. Supposedly the coin held his luck. Well, it'd be safer here than out in the world.
And his luck had been bad enough so far. He had no objection to leaving it behind.
His father snored and muttered something in his sleep. Teo took a last look around at his home of the last fourteen years, squared his shoulders, and moved to the door.
In the moonlight, the trees looked still and motionless, as though carved of white and black stone. He went along the river, knowing that it would lead him to the road eventually.
When morning came, he kept walking. He would not sleep till he crossed the road, not until he was safe. The footing was bad and treacherous, slick with ice. Cold crept up his legs and bit at his ears, while his nose began to run.
He could have cried for joy when he finally saw the road, a glimmer through the trees. When he got to it, it was rough and full of frozen mud. Now his new life would begin.
Then he spotted the Priest and froze.