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Present

When Koida returned to awareness once more, she was sitting beside a waterfall’s pool, leaning against Pernicious’s muscled side. The sun was high overhead, and though she was sitting in the shade of the cliff, she felt the beginnings of a sunburn tightening the skin on her face.

At first, she thought she and the half-demon had spent another night out by the twin waterfalls that gave the Horned Serpent River its name. Batsai would be furious.

Then she saw Shingti run Batsai through, impaling him on her Dual Swords.

This wasn’t the Horned Serpent River. There was only one small waterfall here, and the stream at the base was too shallow. She didn’t recognize this place, but she found that fact barely mattered to her.

Everyone she loved was dead. Shingti, Batsai, Father, Raijin…

I’m the only one who can stop them. Please forgive me.

Koida pulled her knees up to her chest and hugged her arms around them. She was shivering as if she were the one encased in ice rather than her betrothed.

She focused inward, into her heartcenter. There Raijin’s dark jade Ro and her sizzling amethyst Ro cloud surrounded by its lilac rings were circling one another like panthers trapped in a pit together. Koida had never before seen an advanced Ro that wasn’t as red as blood, and now she had one in her heartcenter. With the bright, flickering streaks shooting through it, Raijin’s Ro looked like a deep jade pool that was being struck by lightning.

He’d meant for her to absorb it. The first Ro she’d ever absorbed. Now that she had it, what was she supposed to do with it?

Splashing and a litany of curses dragged her attention outward. Lysander stood in the stream with his pants rolled up to his hairy thighs, slapping at the water.

Koida watched this for a while, then went back to looking inward at the two different types of Ro. How was she supposed to navigate this new development with her master dead? She hadn’t even had enough time with Raijin to learn how to stand the right way. They had barely talked about Ro.

The gentle thump of hooves brought her back to the world outside her heartcenter. Koida searched for the source of the sound.

The sun had moved an hour closer to its bed in the western sky, and Lysander’s clothing was soaked all the way up to his chest. Time, it seemed, had passed without her notice. No fish lay on the shore, however.

Hush rode out of the tree line on a handsome chestnut stallion stolen from the palace stables like Lysander’s.

The yellow-haired man looked up from his splashing. “Just in time to scare the best prospect I had away. I assume you released the rest of the horses?”

Though Koida didn’t care about the conversation, she looked from the very wet foreigner to the silent woman with the cloth over her nose and mouth.

Hush nodded. She gestured to the water, then made a sign Koida didn’t understand.

“In my guest room with the rest of my things,” Lysander said. “I’ll get another one when we get back to town. Meantime, I’ll catch us a little dinner by hand.”

With that, Lysander’s arm shot into the pool up to his shoulder, but he came up with nothing more than a handful of rocks. When he saw Hush and Koida staring at him expectantly, he threw the pebbles at the far shore in disgust.

“Well, I don’t see either of you filling our bellies,” he growled, turning his back to them.

Hush rolled her dark almond eyes and went to Koida’s side.

Pernicious gave a warning whinny, a sound halfway between a whicker and a Petrifying Shriek of Legions. Koida pressed her face into the warhorse’s thick black coat, breathing in his familiar musky brimstone scent. She didn’t know how she had gotten the half-demon to come with her—she was certain they hadn’t stopped for a pocketful of candied blood oranges on the way out of the palace—but she was glad to have him there. She wished she could follow his scent back through memory twenty-four hours and stay there forever.

A soft touch on Koida’s shoulder made her jump.

Hush sat in front of Koida as if she would suggest practicing Resting Meditation. Instead of encouraging Koida to get into the meditative position, however, Hush took both of Koida’s hands in hers and looked at her. No, looked into her. The woman’s dark almond eyes plumbed hers with a compassion and kindness that made Koida feel strangled. Numbness and shock melted away like snow under a warm wind, and in its place some small measure of the horror and loss of the past day tried to peek through.

Koida ripped her hands away and sprang to her feet. She couldn’t feel that pain, couldn’t hold that huge awfulness inside her. No one could. It would kill a human.

Hush didn’t grab her hands back or force her to sit down, only sat patiently. After a moment, the silent woman got up and drew closer to the shore. There she sat on a large rock, watching Lysander slap ineffectually at the water.

“We’re all impatient to get on the road, but you don’t hear me complaining about it,” Lysander huffed. “We need food or we won’t make it much farther.”

As usual, Hush said nothing.

Lysander threw up his hands in irritation. “Well, if you’re so sure you can do better, by all means.”

The silent woman slipped off her boots and waded into the water.

Koida let their one-sided bickering roll over her mind like the river over stone. It was nothing but meaningless noise to her. She kept coming back to the same few thoughts—slaughter, poison, Ro, murder. None of it made any sense.

The memory of Yoichi pointing at someone and shouting, Murderess! surfaced. His plum-colored eyes, so like their father’s, had locked on hers. She conspired to poison our family!

A wet, wriggling mass of slime and spines flopped onto Koida’s lap. She jumped, and the slippery creature went slapping across the grass. Pernicious leapt to his hooves and triggered Darting Evasion, spooked by the sudden movement.

It was a fat mudcat. A second landed at Koida’s feet, then a third to her right.

Hush slogged out of the water and gave Koida an apologetic bow. The silent woman picked the closest mudcat from the grass and faced the water, holding the fish’s wriggling body up for the yellow-haired foreigner’s inspection.

In the river, Lysander shook his head. “Beginner’s luck. If I had a drink or two in me, you’d see who the real fisher was in this group.”

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elfshanx

Bio: I read, write, practice martial arts, and live in a pineapple under the sea. I'm ready.

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