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The movements of that previous life came back in an instant. Shark didn’t register the appearance of the intruder before ze had subdued them, going in bent low and sweeping the legs out from behind before straddling the body with both hands going to the neck to snap it. The instant between Shark gathering force and completing the killing blow was when the enemy made to counterattack. It was a woman, Shark could see, or what ze assumed to be a woman, and she grinned before flailing faintly in zir grasp.

Her hand brushed the floor, and Shark braced to be hit with whatever magic was about to ruin zir day and possibly kill both ze and Cerid. Cerid, however, acted in the nick of time, hurling himself over the back of the couch to land hard on the floor and put his hands over her face. It didn’t matter where he touched her, really, only that he did. With that, her plan, whatever it might have been, was stopped in its tracks; such was the Creed family’s Thaw magic, able to nullify any other magic it came into contact with. With that, a life was taken into and ended by Shark’s hands. The unknown girl sputtered and gasped, and what sounded like a sob leaked from her gaping lips before her life ended with a sharp crack.

Shark found zirself shaking as ze drew back. What had just happened to zir? It had been just like the past, as if nothing had changed, as if ze had never even left Sacer in the first place. Why had the first instinct been to kill so violently?

“Mister Olyen… Shark,” Cerid croaked, snapping zir back to the moment.

“Are you alright?” Shark asked urgently.

“I am… I apologize for causing you concern,” Cerid replied, getting to his feet unsteadily. He held up his hand, in which a short blade had been embedded. “She was aiming for my neck as I slept, but, luckily, I woke up in time to defend myself. If you can call this defense.” He frowned. “By any chance, do you keep a key outside?” His teeth closed on his lip, and it seemed more than anything like he was trying not to cry out from the pain.

Yep. Right under the mat. Being in neutral lands had made Shark careless. “Come on. We need to get you to Thea and leave Sirpo before any more of them come.” The attacker had to have been a Ghurian soldier. It would be too much of a coincidence for a member of Sacer’s Creed family to be randomly attacked by a nobody on the same night he arrived in neutral lands.

Whether they liked it or not, the time to venture out of Sirpo had come.

*~*~*

Before being unexpectedly awoken long before her alarm had been set to split her skull, Dorothea dreamt that she had been talking to a fish while riding it across a lake that extended to make a line of pure blue on the horizon as it united with the sky. The fish wore a patchwork cloak and hat and had gentle eyes. It spoke cryptically, telling her to forget what she thought she knew to realize what she did know. After conveying this message, it had flung her off its back and then disappeared into the depths with one last flick of silver scales, glittering with purple and fiery blue sheens. Dorothea had drowned right before a rough shaking of her shoulder pulled her from slumber.

Shark stood over her, eyes and teeth flashing in the dark. “Time to go, Thea,” ze said, throwing the clothes she’d laid out the night before at her.

“Ah, Sharkie…” Dorothea yawned. “Life is so odd, isn’t it? What a marvel…” Then she realized how tense and urgent Shark’s voice and movements were. “What happened?”

Shark turned zir back while Dorothea stumbled through changing as quickly as she could. “An attack. Right in my house. Luckily, it doesn’t seem like there’s any other commotion in the village. But we can’t stay here, especially not with Cerid.”

“Are either of you hurt? And where is Cerid?”

“I’m fine. Cerid needs a little patching up, though. And the girl that attacked us… Well, since I’m still alive, what happened to her is obvious.”

Okay, okay. Their departure was going to be more frantic than expected, it seemed, but everything was still in order. A letter to Sil explaining the situation sat on her dresser, and she knew he’d find it within a day once questions of her location cropped up. She’d packed a few essentials the night before and had two bags to carry, one on her back and the other draped across her chest. The abridged guide was tucked into the latter, and it slapped her hip angrily as she bounced after her friend's much longer strides.

Cerid was waiting outside, grasping one of his hands in the other. “I am fine, really. It is a scratch,” he said by way of greeting. “And good morning, Miss Dorothea.”

“Show me.” Though she appreciated his efforts to be strong, it didn’t help them any for him to be injured. She put her own hands over his wound, his blood hot on her skin, and her magic flowed between them. The hole was sealed, seam by seam coming back together, until the hand was unmarred.

Cerid dipped his head gratefully. “I am sorry for the trouble. On both of your parts.”

Shark flashed a well-meaning but tight smile. “It’s no problem, and there’s no helping it. But a Ghurian attack on Sirpo’s lands… What could they be thinking? That’s pretty bold, not to mention low.”

“You know for a fact it was a Ghurian soldier?” Dorothea asked, lengthening her strides to keep up with them as the trio rushed towards the village’s entrance.

“What else?” Shark asked.

True, but these were implications they needed to consider carefully. If Ghurians had attacked Sirpo, it was a major transgression that couldn’t be ignored without punishment: a careless violation of a treaty between Sirpo and the other two territories that had been established at the end of the War of Blending. If they were wrong… Well, the bottom line was that they couldn’t afford to be careless in their accusations.

The answer waited, standing between them and their destination. The entrance to Sirpo was marked by two tall posts waving a simple green flag on either side. A woman blocked their way, wearing a graceful smile as if she were at a tea party rather than waiting with quiet menace. A pink and purple dress with an uneven hem swished around impossibly long legs wrapped in black boots, and dark hair covered her eyes. Hard to trust someone whose eyes you couldn’t see, even in the best of situations.

“Behind me, Thea,” Shark ordered softly, and she watched as ze and Cerid stood shoulder to shoulder in front of her.

A wide grin split the woman’s face. “Ahahaha,” she chuckled. “Johanna Marley. Well met. So, I’ll be frank. According to the Treaty of Blending, it’s illegal for undocumented soldiers of Sacer or Ghuria to be harbored in neutral territory. That said, we sent someone in to rectify this act of treason, but, hm, that didn’t seem to go so well, did it?”

Dorothea gritted her teeth. Not good. Not good. A Ghurian had been killed in Sirpo. Irregardless of the fact that the death had only happened because the Ghurians had instigated a fight, it was a situation ripe for a political fireshow. “We didn’t harbor a soldier, we took in an unidentified wounded man for the night. You can’t prove that we knew he was a soldier, and we didn’t.” Her internal pleas for her bluff not to be called meant that, naturally, it was called immediately.

“So you thought he was attacked by birds, then? Please. If someone’s not a Sirpoan, they’re a soldier. That’s the way of the world.”

Shark glared at her. “It was self-defense. You’ve got no ground to stand on in trying to start whatever shit it is you want to start. If you’d wanted to settle things calmly, you wouldn’t have tried to kill Cerid in his sleep.”

“Ahaha, yes, impeccable logic, sir.”

Shark stiffened and curled zir hands into fists. Dorothea put a hand on zir arm and stepped out to stand beside zir. “Of course,” she said as genially as possible, “we want to settle things here peacefully.”

“In other words,” Shark hissed, “what do you want?

“Thank you for being polite enough to ask! I travelled here looking for the Atlin family, I’ll have you know. Rumor has it that they’re living quietly up here while we all get killed down there. I just want to have a peaceful chat. It’s common knowledge that the Atlins moved here after the War of Blending, and, during the first year of the current war, one was seen running around on the Sacerian side causing much trouble for us. Then poof! Nothing. That’s suspicious, wouldn’t you say? Warrants investigation.” Her grin widened as she took a step forward. “And there’s no denying what’s in front of me, is there? Little Miss Atlin.”

Dorothea opened her mouth and closed it again, knowing she’d damned herself just by showing her face. Like many families with dominant magics, the Atlins had a distinctive hereditary appearance. Fear trapped words deep in her twisting stomach. Her throat was suddenly dry, so she cleared it as quietly as she could. “What’s the significance of this so-called Atlin family line to you?”

“Ahaha! Please don’t insult me like that.” The woman danced closer, and Dorothea put an arm out to stop Shark from moving. Cerid was casting her glances in his periphery, waiting to see how the situation turned. Johanna Marley’s pointer finger came to rest an inch away from her eye, and Dorothea’s breath stilled. “Lavender eyes and white or gray hair. The significance of your family? Turning back time. Don’t you think we’d wonder about that at some point? Ahaha. So, be straight with me. Mostly because I’m tired and impatient. It was a long trip here, you know. Don’t get me too irritated.”

“I wouldn’t dream of treating a guest so rudely,” Dorothea said slowly. That grin, that low laugh… This person was dangerous.

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About the author

Sara Mullins

Bio: Hi everyone! Hope anyone who reads this is doing well and taking care of themselves. I love storytelling and aim to become better and better as I continue to write and practice. In terms of what I like to write... In truth, though it's what I'm worst at, the goal is just to get to the fluffy romance scenes. The obstacle is only what lies before and between. Alas. Again, take care, all.

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