The_raven_and_the_dancing_tiger_cover_final

Leah Cutter sold her first short story back in 1997, and continues to write and sell her fiction. She currently runs three business in Seattle: her fiction writing business, a small press, and a vacation rental. She's also lived all over the world and held the requisite odd writer jobs, such as doing archaeology in England, teaching English in Taiwan, and bar-tending in Thailand.

Her fiction includes literary, fantasy, mystery, science fiction, and horror fiction. She has a number of novels in print, plus she's been published in major magazines and anthologies.

Read more books by Leah Cutter at www.KnottedRoadPress.com.

Follow her blog at www.LeahCutter.com.

The Raven and the Dancing Tiger by Leah Cutter

Peter is interested in just three things: dancing, finding a girlfriend, and hiding his raven soul.

Peter is a raven warrior, an ancient race known for their assassination and fighting skills. Through secrecy and strict teaching, they've learned to cope with the modern world.

When Peter meets Tamara, he knows she's different. Special.

He doesn't learn until too late that she has secrets too.

Tamara is a tiger warrior.

And her kind are only interested in killing his kind.

CURATOR'S NOTE

No matter what she writes, Leah Cutter always manages to surprise me. From mystery stories set in China or the old West to fantasy stories set in New Orleans to this marvelous series called Shadow Wars, Leah's imagination takes a sideways direction that's always entertaining. In this bundle, you'll find the first book in the Shadow Wars series and a short story in Hex in the City that comes from another of Leah's series. If you've never read her work before, you're in for a real treat. If you have, then you know what I mean. – Kristine Kathryn Rusch

 

REVIEWS

  • "Cutter knows just what she's doing."

    – Locus Magazine
  • "An exceptional tale by an exceptional author…It doesn't get any better than this."

    – Dennis L. McKiernan
  • "An enchanting novel, skillfully rooted in Chinese history and myth...mythical, unusual, and thoroughly convincing."

    – Terri Windling, Editor of "The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror"
 

BOOK PREVIEW

Chapter One

Peter held his cell phone at arm's length, staring at it, afraid to bring it closer, afraid it might turn into a snake and swallow him whole. Early spring sunshine dappled the rough, red-wool blanket covering the futon-couch he sat on, not enough to warm it, but the light was still welcome.

He'd just made reservations at Poppy's.

Holy Wings of Wynne. He'd always wanted to eat there, especially since he'd seen the head chef on Top Chef Masters. Their menu this week included carrot soup with cinnamon and star anise, and lavender-rubbed duck breasts.

But now came the hard part. He had to tell Tamara. Invite her along. Take her on their first date there.

He told himself that it shouldn't be that difficult. They'd met at a dance class. He knew they moved well together. They looked good too, and he liked the contrast between his darker color and her pale Irish skin.

She warmed his raven soul as well.

Cai gave a soft caw. When Peter thought of Tamara, Cai often replied with the image of the bowl of glass marbles Peter kept next to the bed to keep Cai entertained. Peter assumed that meant Cai thought Tamara was shiny.

Now all Peter had to do was call her.

Peter stretched out his legs, resting his hand on his jeans. His raven soul stirred restlessly as he thought about dinner with Tamara.

Of course, Peter would never tell Tamara about Cai. At Raven's Hall he'd learned his recitations too well to ever break them. Don't tell, don't even hint. Fit in. Fly when you must, but walk. Stay human.

Maybe Peter should go out. He looked toward Cal Anderson Park. The trees outside his apartment windows were just starting to bud so he still had a clear view of the park. The rain had finally stopped, and after two days of sunshine the ground had dried out and it looked like the grass had grown two inches. There might be a pickup game of Frisbee he could join. Or maybe—

Cai's not-so-gentle caw brought Peter back.

Peter swiped his phone on, unlocking it and tapping in Tamara's number before he could have any more second thoughts.

Maybe it would go to voice mail and he could just—

"Hello?"

"Hi, Tamara. This is Peter."

"Hey, Peter. Whatcha up to?"

"I, um, just made reservations at Poppy's. Next Friday night. Would you like to go?"

"I'd love to! What time?"

"Seven."

"That sounds great."

"Um. Okay. See you there?"

"Sure thing."

Peter knew if he could see Tamara right now, she'd be laughing at him. Then again, Tamara was always laughing.

"So. Bye?"

"Bye, Peter."

"Bye."

Peter looked at his phone again. Had that just happened? He'd called a girl and asked her out. He had done it before. But this time felt—different.

With a loud woop, Peter dropped his phone on the end table and jumped to his feet. He did a two-step, then broke into some Tacky Annie steps, shimmying his shoulders forward and back before jumping up and snapping his fingers.

He knew he was annoying his downstairs neighbors with his loud thumps—the building was old and they could always hear him, no matter how quietly he tried to land.

He didn't care.

Tamara had said yes.

Spinning on his heels like a break-dancer, Peter grew aware that feathers pricked the tops of his shoulders. He collapsed to the ground, automatically falling into lotus position. He took a deep breath, then another. His racing heart slowed as he consciously relaxed his neck. He sure as hell didn't want to lose another vintage T-shirt to Cai's sharp beak and talons.

Blue sky, he thought, seeing the endless miles of open air in front of them when they flew.

Soon, he added.

Then he added the image of the glass marbles, and how the sunlight would splinter and bounce off the walls as they rolled through it.

Finally calm again, Peter drew his knees up and rested his forehead against them. He had more control than this generally, at least since his early teenage years when anything would set off the change.

He sent a brief prayer to Wynne, the goddess of the ravens, asking for understanding and restraint.

He just wanted this one date.

He wondered if he should send a prayer to Tasmin instead, the god of lost causes.

* * *

Peter looked in the bathroom mirror one last time. He was tempted to dunk his head under the faucet, wash his hair, and try setting it again, but he didn't have time. Instead, he used both hands, scrunching the hair on the top of his head, then drawing it out as he let go.

The result just made him sigh. It should look artfully messy, not like he'd just rolled out of bed.

Cai was no help. The mirror was bright and reflected all the shiny things in the bathroom.

"I swear you're part magpie," Peter muttered.

In reply, Cai suddenly surged forward.

Peter's gray, nearly colorless eyes turned black.

"Stop that," Peter said, his voice coming out in a birdlike croak. He ruthlessly pushed back at his raven soul.

Cai shifted uncomfortably, his wings brushing against Peter.

"I'm sorry," Peter told Cai out loud as the color in his eyes faded. "It's just—she's special."

The raven shivered and settled down, a warm familiar weight at the back of Peter's mind.

He took one last look in the mirror and decided it had to be good enough. Besides, Tamara had seen him at the end of a night when he'd been dancing hard, all sweaty and wrung out.

Though the walk up Broadway to the restaurant didn't take long, Peter was still glad of his heavy leather jacket. Cai never liked to be cold. Peter turned the spinning prayer wheel outside the incense and mystic shop, while sending his own prayer to Wynne. Cai approved.

The heavy, rusted iron door to the restaurant resisted Peter's initial tug. Warm conversation and the smell of freshly baked bread spilled over him when he succeeded after a second pull.

Peter decided he liked the style of the restaurant; liked its sleek modern feel with the blond wood tables, concrete floor, and bright splashes of orange along the back wall and the menu stands. He looked around the restaurant eagerly, but he didn't see Tamara's familiar red fuzzy hair.

The waitress led Peter to a table next to the window in the main dining room. Peter looked over the entire menu without actually reading a word.

Where was Tamara? Had she decided to not show?

She would have called him, though, right?

Peter scowled at his phone. No missed calls or texts.

A large party of diners followed the waitress from the bar area to the long table set up next to Peter's. They all laughed and talked while Peter still sat alone. He checked his phone again as his nerves built.

Cai poked at him, trying to get his attention.

Peter choked down the caw that tried to force its way out of his throat. He felt the sudden pricking of feathers.

This was bad. Peter had never been this close to changing in public. He knew he had to calm down. Now.

Peter reached into his pocket and drew out one of the brand-new golden dollar coins he always carried. He flipped the coin over his knuckles one at a time, the action smooth and practiced. The shiny coin disappearing and reappearing between his fingers soothed Cai, and the habitual motion made Peter relax as well.

"That's really cool," Tamara said.

Peter startled and dropped the coin. It rolled after it struck the concrete floor. Peter dove after it.

"Excuse me," he told one of the women at the loud table. She gave him an amused look and shifted her shoe so he could pick it up.

Mortified, Peter stood and turned back to Tamara.

"Um. Hi."

He held out his hand while she opened her arms for a hug.

Even more embarrassed, Peter leaned forward without moving his feet for an awkward embrace.

"So. We're here," he said, showing her the table with two hands.

"I see," Tamara said, grinning at him.

Peter sat when Tamara did, kicking himself for not pulling out her chair first. He could hear Prefect Aaron scolding him.

"What were you doing when I got here?" Tamara asked.

"Flipping this."

Peter handed her the coin. "See, the one side, that's Sacagawea. The other—"

"Shows two hands holding a peace pipe. Very cool. Where did you get it?"

"Bank."

Tamara looked at Peter and he shrugged again. He knew he couldn't tell her the real reason why he liked it so much: because it was shiny.

"Have you ever been here before?" he asked, pleased that he'd managed a full sentence.

"No, never. But I always wanted to."

In the background, a jazzy saxophone started playing.

"Zoot Sims!" Peter said at the same time as Tamara. He grinned. "Have you ever tried to Lindy Hop to this?"

Tamara nodded. "The chorus changes a bit. I ended up doing more shuffle than hop. How about you?"

"Yeah. I switched to a swing. Da-daa-da-da-daa."

"That's a great idea. What's your favorite song to dance to?"

Peter suddenly felt as though he could take a deep breath.

The gods were smiling down at him. At last.

* * *

When Tamara went to the restroom, Peter picked up the coin again. Cai had been mostly settled through dinner but was growing restless again. They'd taken a long flight that morning, so Peter didn't know what his problem was.

Blue skies, Peter promised Cai.

Now now now now, Cai chanted back.

Peter glanced at the night outside. After sleep, he said.

Cai's feathers stayed ruffled. Peter smoothly moved the coin from one knuckle to the next, but Cai refused to settle down.

Peter stood when Tamara came back. He helped her on with her coat and held the door for her while they left. Then he shoved his hands into his pockets so he wouldn't be tempted to reach out and take Tamara's.

It was too early, far too early for that, no matter how well dinner went. No matter how much Peter wanted this to work.

"I didn't know you were such a gentleman," Tamara commented.

"My parents were very old fashioned. Victorian, even. They sent me to a boarding school for a few years." That was the best explanation for the time he'd spent at Raven's Hall, when he'd learned how to live with Cai in a modern world.

"It was my aunts and great aunts who taught me everything important," Tamara told him.

Peter nodded. She'd already explained that she'd come from a huge family, the oldest daughter among seven kids, mostly girls.

When they reached the first set of golden footsteps embedded in the sidewalk, a dance lesson in still life, Peter pointed to them, then held up his arms. Tamara laughed and flowed into them.

Peter took a deep breath, trying to catch and hold Tamara's scent, warm and more musky than most girls.

Cai puffed up more, cawing softly.

Peter turned Tamara only one time before spinning her out and letting her go. He grinned at Tamara, although he was unsettled.

What was bothering Cai so much?

"Are you going to the social dance tomorrow?" Peter asked as they started walking again.

"Naw, my cousins are in town. I have to entertain them for the rest of the weekend. And they don't dance," Tamara said, making a face. "Any ideas about what to do with them?"

"Museum?" Peter guessed. He gestured to the clothing shop they passed. "Shopping?"

Cai thought again of blue skies.

"Helicopter tour of the city? Hiking in the mountains? Or the Space Needle?"

Tamara laughed and shook her head. "Only you."

"Only me, what?" Peter asked, puzzled.

"You like high places," Tamara said. "You always talk about the mountains or plane rides."

"Oh," Peter said, feeling as unsettled as Cai. It was something he was going to have to watch.

Fit in. Be human.

A black cat suddenly meowed at them from the top of an electrical box next to the light. Peter jumped and bumped into Tamara.

Cai puffed his feathers up more.

"I don't like cats, either," Tamara told him.

Cat. Cat. Cat, Cai kept chanting.

"I know," Peter said. "Always sneaking up and surprising you."

Tamara looked at him funny but didn't say anything. When they got to the next corner, Tamara stopped and said, "This is where I turn off."

"Can I walk you home?" Peter asked.

"No," Tamara said, shaking her head.

"Okay," Peter said, surprised to be cut off so abruptly.

"It's not you, it's me," she assured him. "I'm just really private about where I live."

Peter nodded, not understanding. "So—can I ask you out again?"

"Wait, this was a date?" Tamara asked with a sly grin.

"Yes?" Peter asked. He'd called her and everything.

Wasn't it a date? When Tamara didn't say anything more, Peter asked again.

"Would you like to go out on another date? With me?"

"With you?" Tamara teased. Then she turned serious. "Are you sure?"

"Yes," Peter nodded, though Cai shook his beak at him.

"All right," Tamara said, looking puzzled. "Call me." After a pause, she added, "You can take me out for Indian."

"So maybe it'll be our first official date, since we'll both know we're on a date, next time," Peter babbled.

Tamara laughed and shook her head.

Peter got another hug, a quick embrace before Tamara turned to go. He shivered against her warm body; she was so much warmer than he was.

On the walk back home, Peter remembered the funny bits of conversation from their dinner, playing them through his head. Tamara had been teasing and charming and he hadn't stumbled over his own tongue too badly. His human soul felt warm and happy.

His raven soul kept chanting Cat and sending him images of the glass marbles.

Peter turned his thoughts toward Cai, settling him as much as he could, putting his own happiness to the side, still uncertain what was wrong. He checked the weather on his phone: It was supposed to be warm and sunny tomorrow, and he didn't have to work.

Blue skies he promised Cai.

It didn't feel like enough.

* * *

Peter got a Zipcar and drove high up into the mountains early the next morning. He drove with the sedan windows open so they could both smell the fresh air. It had been hard that winter; so much rain had meant not as many trips, not so much flying for Cai. Many of the trees weren't yet budding, but the evergreens provided good cover.

Though the terms of service for all Zipcars stated that the renter couldn't take the car off-road, Peter turned up the dirt trail without a twinge of guilt. Cai needed this.

It didn't take long to get to their favorite spot, high in the mountain pass, the car hidden on a desolate stretch, camouflaged by bushes on either side. Peter stripped quickly, even tossing his shoes into the car before slamming the door.

Shivering in the cold mountain air, Peter stepped into the sunlight, arms spread wide, face lifted.

Come.

Cai didn't need a second invitation. The raven soul surged forward, sprouting feathers, wings, beak, and claws, launching into the air mid-change.

Peter folded himself up, tucking himself away as Cai took off.

Peter never remembered much on these trips. Today it felt like they swam through rich blue sky, basking in sunlight and cruising on thick winds. Sunlight glinted off the higher peaks. Cai stuck to the valleys, spiraling on thermals and singing to the spring.

Peter came back sitting on the roof of the car. "Cai," he muttered. His raven soul knew better.

The flight hadn't been enough.

Peter dressed quickly, chilled in the afternoon breezes. He blasted the heat as they started down the mountain. He poked at his raven soul.

Blue skies?

Cat.

Then Cai curled up further on himself and Peter drove the rest of the way home alone.

* * *

Peter hefted his shopping bags higher on his shoulders as he walked off the main drag, Broadway, and onto the quieter neighborhood street. Though it was a bit out of his way, he preferred to walk the side streets, away from the homeless kids shamelessly begging, the construction, and the traffic on the main streets.

The afternoon was cool, with long shadows already reaching out from the old houses. Peter stopped just past the corner, in front of the courtyard of an old apartment building, and changed the bags around, switching the heavier one he'd been carrying with his right to his left. Just as he was about to go, he heard someone behind him.

Tamara was talking on the phone as she crossed the street, laughing.

Peter's heart warmed, though Cai didn't seem happy to see her.

She turned down the street, walking toward Peter. She seemed startled to see him, and quickly ended her phone call.

"So you found me," she said as she came up.

"Huh?" Peter asked, then pressed his lips together. So smooth, Romeo.

"What, did you follow me?" Tamara asked, angry now, indicating the apartment buildings.

"Wait, you live here? Really? I didn't know, I swear," Peter said. "I was just walking home from the store." He hefted his bags at her. "With my groceries."

"You weren't waiting here for me?" Tamara said, eyes narrowed, still glaring.

"No! I wasn't! I swear!" Peter assured her.

Cai grumbled louder, pushing forward images of nest, home.

"Look, I know you said you were sensitive about where you lived. I'm sorry. I really wasn't trying to find out," Peter added. "I gotta get going before the ice cream melts. I'll see you later."

After Peter had turned to go, Tamara asked, "Did you buy dinner?"

Peter looked over his shoulder at her. "Nope." Hope pounded in his chest. Maybe he hadn't screwed everything up completely.

"Wanna take me out for Indian food?"

"Sure!" Peter said enthusiastically. "Should I pick you up here?"

Tamara stilled at that. "Okay," she said after a pause. "6:30?"

"I'll—I'll be back then. See you."

"Laters."

Peter picked up the pace as he started walking home again.

Cai sent the image of marbles.

"Later," Peter said.

Marbles.

After food.

Cat.

"There's no cat," Peter mumbled, rolling his eyes.

After Peter got back to his apartment and put away his groceries, he went and got the bowl of marbles and rolled them, one by one, through the late afternoon sunshine. The light refracted off the centers, and bright splinters danced around the room. Cai cawed and swung Peter's head around, following them.

But then Cai made Peter pick one up and rub it between his fingers.

Shiny. Smooth.

Hard, came Cai's response. Cold.

Shiny, Peter said, rolling it through the sunshine.

Cai fluffed up his feathers and retreated again.

* * *

Peter had expected Tamara to be waiting for him outside her apartment building, but she invited him upstairs when he rang the door buzzer. Her building was nicer than his: The front entranceway had a chandelier and marble floors, and taking up one entire wall was an old photograph of the building, from 1909, when it had just been built.

The stairs going up were wide, covered in navy blue carpeting. The banister gleamed as if it had just been polished, and smelled like lemon oil. Tamara's hallway had huge ceilings and showed a bit more wear from people moving in and out, a few scuffmarks on the ivory paint.

Tamara's apartment was like out of an old-fashioned movie. Rich red and blue drapes hung from the ceiling and were tacked up on the walls, like a tent. Fat pillows of all colors covered the couch, the floor, the chairs, and even the kitchen counter. Instead of lamps, votive candles burned on the table and along the windowsill, making the rooms seem even more closed-in. The smell of patchouli incense lingered in the humid air. Though it was as warm as Peter's apartment, he left his heavy leather jacket on.

"I'll be just a minute," Tamara told Peter, leaving him in the living room while she went into the back.

"I was thinking maybe we could go out dancing afterward," Peter called. "If you want to. Since it's our second date and all." He grinned.

Cai just buried himself further down, curling in on himself, turning his back toward Peter, as if he was mad about something.

Tamara came out after a moment. "You do realize that you and I, we can't be boyfriend and girlfriend."

"Why not?" Peter asked, startled.

Cai suddenly unfurled and stirred.

"You really are so young," Tamara commented.

"So?" Peter asked, stung. What did that have to do with anything?

Suddenly, Tamara was right there, in front of Peter. Peter stumbled back, tripping over the pillows. He caught at the fabric, feeling as trapped as a fly in a spiderweb.

Tamara slinked closer. "Don't you know, little boy?" Her voice was low and throaty.

"My kind eat your kind."

She rumbled a deep growl and her eyes turned golden and cat-like.

Not shiny. Hard. Cold.

Peter squawked and slid to the side. "No!" He stumbled again, this time falling.

Claws swung and missed.

"Don't you want to dance, little boy? We're still going on our first date, right?" Tamara teased.

Cai crouched inside Peter, his feathers puffed up. The room had already lost its color.

"No," he croaked. He shivered, aligning himself further with his raven warrior soul, then slipped out of his leather jacket.

"And you know what my kind do to yours? We pluck out your eyes."

With a great screech, Peter launched himself forward. He'd already lost his hands to feathers. He batted at Tamara with one of those while kicking out hard with a foot, surprising her with a hit to her shin.

Then he kept running, throwing himself through the hard glass of the window and out into the night.