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Ari bowed at the door and whisked herself out, wincing inside at how badly she’d messed that up—and to think she’d gone in thinking that Muin would hail her wearing girl robes as a brilliant idea. She knew that most of Muin’s ire was worry about her, and that he was scolding the mouse because he couldn’t get at the tiger—which, if she was the mouse, the tiger would be . . . pretty much everybody who was chasing after Firebolt.

On both sides.

She took the bowl down to the garrison kitchen, and wondered what to do with herself. The place was swarming with people. She discovered by listening to bits of conversation that the harbor town folk were apprehensive about returning home—everyone expected another attack, and rumors were flying everywhere. Including about Firebolt. But all the descriptions of Firebolt were of a huge man slinging fire from both hands.

The “huge” was probably due to her pack. She had been carrying it over her shoulder all this time, with wards on it to deflect attention, but when others squinted to see her, they surely saw a blurry dark thing.

She found a dank, ice-cold store room that had once contained stores of arrows, judging by bits of feathers and splinters of wood here and there. She swiftly changed back to her Ryu clothes, which were so much easier to fly in. She also bound up her hair in a topknot, then renewed the deflection charms on her pack.

She moved out cautiously, found a group of teens, and eased up behind them so she’d look like one of their number. They had stopped at a table where a woman set down a basket of hot fried breads.

“Are these for everyone?” asked a girl Ari’s age. “Where did you get the flour?”

“Take one,” the woman said, fists on broad hips. “My man sneaked down to Loving Ducks just now, to fetch up two bags of flour we hid up behind the ancestors. Those snakes and scorpions don’t know the back paths.” She spat noisily to the side. “If it’s true they’re on the run, why, we and Roreg from the Three Sailors and my second son’s wife, we can between us put together a feast fit to thank the gods for sparing us, and send a few curses after those demons, too.”

How to find out what was true? That was what Ari could do—find out truth from rumor.

She was aware of exhaustion dragging at her limbs. She needed sleep. But her mind was far too restless. Muin! After all this time! Muin, in the army—and the look on his face when she mentioned gallant wanderers . . . She had to talk to him again, to tell him about people like the Ki clan, and Madam Nightingale and her sister, and Lie Tenek and Oriole and the hermit and Reckless, and all the good people she had met on her wanderings!

She glanced toward the command building. There was Muin’s window. She saw a shadow cross it. He had company, probably more of the officers, or the physician to change those many bandages.

She grabbed a bread, stuffed half of it into her face, then slipped around corners until she found an empty nook between a stack of crossbows and the wall. She set Sagacious Blade down and signed deflections on herself, then brought up Essence from the fire below the island. Her body ached with the effort, as if she’d sparred too long.

She did Essence breathing as she rose to the rooftop, then whizzed into the cold night air, and arrowed toward the harbor town below. It was mostly dark, except for golden lights along the wharf, and on a row of navy ships—two more spear ships, and a pair of heavy deck ships with four cannon each.

She briefly closed her eyes and reached with her inner sense. She sorted the different blobby lights. From the orderly manner of clusters of light-blobs, the navy was conducting a determined search for any Shadow Panthers trying to hide in the town. Ari was fairly certain that last blast of fire from the harbor wall had kept them away, but a search was always a good idea. She hated the thought of some family of shoemakers or weavers coming back to find an angry Shadow Panther ready to pounce.

She drifted up higher, looking farther. She could no longer make out the Shadow Panthers on the run. Closer by, the watery blobs had to be undersea creatures. A huge crowd over there, in what looked like a warehouse. Another next to it. That had to be where the navy had stashed the prisoners they rounded up.

A promising gathering coming aboard the biggest ship. She approached, high overhead, looking down at the swinging lamps. Yes, officers. Coming aboard and going straight to the stern housing, where the captain had his rooms—and there was a messenger loping up the ramp.

She swooped down and around, careful to avoid lookouts, and hovered outside the frame of the oiled-silk windows.

“ . . . prisoners insist that Firebolt of the Redbark sect is here, and attacked with fire.”

“Firebolt? Where have I heard that name—”

“On the capital list. Raided a brimstone mine. Feuding with these scum—attacked one of their strongholds. Two of the prisoners swear they lived with Firebolt, who they curse as a traitor.”

“Get an exact description of Firebolt from them, and we’ll send it on to the imperials. Mind, keep them separate, so they don’t collude. Compare them. Like as not they’ll say anything if they think it’ll win them a lighter judgment by turning in one of their own . . .”

Ari shivered, and slowly drifted away. Muin was right about the capital list! And here she was, wearing the same outfit she’d worn when she escaped Screaming Hawk and burned down the Shadow Panther manor.

She let the wind blow her a distance from the ship, as she was afraid to move and catch someone’s eye. Then she flew straight back to the garrison, to the spot she’d found before. There, by starlight, she changed into her girl clothes again, shivering the while. She was not sure what else to do, except to keep her head down. Thanks to Muin, she would be known as Captain Muin’s sister. No one would think to point a finger at her and yell about Firebolt, as long as she avoided the warehouses where the navy was herding in those Shadow Panther prisoners. From the sound of it, some of them had been at that horrible training manor that she and Shigan had burned to the ground.

She wandered out between the buildings, unsure where to go next. Not ten steps later a swinging lantern caught her attention, and an older woman’s voice scolded, “Here’s another one strolling around as if it’s Kraken Boat Festival! Get inside, girl! It’s still not safe!”

Ari found herself swept into what smelled like a laundry room, where bedding had been laid along the walls. Whispers and giggles made it clear that this had been made into a sort of girls’ dormitory.

Some women handed out water and food. Another pointed out the area set aside as a privy, and then the girls were chivvied into the sleeping room and told to settle down and be quiet. Ari was very happy to do that; she fell profoundly asleep to the sounds of whispering and wondering.

She slept hard, and late. Exhausted from her exertions, she went right back to sleep three times, until she woke to more whispering. She turned on her side, suppressing a groan. She’d fought briefly but hard the previous day, after weeks of no chance to spar at all, and only intermittent drill. That was on top of the cumulative effects of that horrible flight. Every muscle in her body was protesting.

Without thinking she began to stretch, until silence abruptly fell. She looked up, seeing four faces more or less her age staring. She blinked, then realized she had pulled one leg to her face. She let go.

“Are you a dancer?” a girl asked. “I don’t remember seeing you? Who are you?”

“Ari is my personal name,” Ari said. “Ryu Ari,” she amended.

You’re Captain Ryu’s sister? Where did you come from?”

“I was traveling around, and it happened that I ended up here, just as trouble was starting,” she said vaguely, hoping to avoid further questions.

But the girls were not interested in her. One said in an eager whisper, “Do you know if Captain Ryu is engaged?”

Ari stared back, completely unable to cope with this kind of conversation. “You ought to ask him,” she said uneasily, her face burning. How Shigan would laugh at her if he heard!

“Oh, leave her alone,” the first one said. “What boy tells his little sister his love stories? And we all know if he’s got eyes for anyone, it’s Third Miss.”

The others began talking at once. Ari mumbled that she had to get to the privy, and grabbed up her pack before making her escape.

The older women had organized basins of hot water. After a year of living in a mountain cave, Ari had gotten very adept at basin bathing, consequently she was as tidy as she could make herself before she ventured out. Hot, weak tea and more fried bread seemed to be the only available meal. She was midway through getting these inside her when a young conscript appeared, saying, “Captain Ryu wants Miss Ryu.”

Ari finished her tea and crammed the rest of the bread in her mouth as she followed the conscript to the command center.

Muin sat up on his bed, at least half his body bandaged. He looked, and felt, terrible, but his eyes were alert. He dismissed the conscript with a flick of his eyes, and waited until the door was shut.

“Sit down, Younger Sister,” he said, nodding at a waiting mat beside the bed, which was on the floor. Papers had been stacked on the floor next to his bedding. The room had no furnishings other than that.

Ari sat, eyeing Muin, who sounded very much like an elder brother. That was even more pronounced when he said, “I don’t remember a lot of our conversation yesterday, but a few things stuck. Afan Arikanda, you are not going to the imperial city to attempt a rescue on Second Brother.”

Ari was ten again, scowling from the rooftop when First and Second Brothers were planning to sail their self-made boat all the way to the harbor. “Somebody has to,” she began.

“Somebody is not you. Listen to me, Ari. If Yskanda is still alive, and I really hope he is . . .” Muin looked away, his mouth tight and unhappy. “I really hope he is. And if he is, then that means the emperor is in no hurry to kill him.” Which gives me time to earn enough merit to free him. I hope.

But Muin could not say that out loud—it sounded too arrogant. And what if the emperor grabbed him, too?

He shook that dilemma off for later. “You’ve been here one night. After a battle. Yet everyone in this garrison is talking about my sister. We look a lot alike, and you know how much I’m said to resemble Father. If you were to go to that imperial city, there is no chance whatsoever that someone won’t recognize you as Danno’s child. I was there, and I saw the security measures. You won’t get past them. I wouldn’t have gotten past them, and I spent two years learning how to make and break security measures.”

“If you were there, why weren’t you recognized?”

“Because I smashed my face in to make myself completely unrecognizable. If you come up close and look at my nose, you’ll see the dent where I did it. It hurt worse than I feel now. I don’t recommend the experience.”

“Oh.” She sighed. “But Muin. We can’t just leave Second Brother there.”

“No. But we can wait. You know Father will be trying to get Yskanda free.” Muin wiped a hand over his tense forehead. “Which brings us to you. I was thinking. You ought to stay here. With me. It’s an excellent post. If you want something to do, we could make you bodyguard to Second Miss, that is, Falik’s wife. I think you’ll like her. Even if she’s a Yulin.” He smiled faintly.

Ari was sorely tempted—except she longed to be Ari of Redbark again, walking free, her staff in hand, and Sagacious Blade loose in its sheath on her back, not hidden away in her pack. Ryu Ari, Muin’s sister, would be a role. She didn’t mind roles for missions, or to hide from enemies. But living a role would be so confining.

And why should she?

She put her hands on her knees. “Is this offer to keep me from going back to the gallant wanderers?”

“Partly,” Muin said. “Partly because I’d like to have you here. One thing I miss is having a family, even a small one.”

“I miss that, too. But you’ve got the wrong idea about gallant wanderers.”

“I think you do,” Muin said. “The proof is out there, running away from the navy right now. I know you loved those hero tales, but life isn’t like that.”

“It can be.” Ari shook her head. “I mean the justice part. I know it, because I was there. Let me tell you about Master Ki, and Lie Tenek, and Benevolent Winds, and why I raided that mine . . .”

His expression was set, but he listened. Her heart leaped when she heard him mutter, “Nobles,” in a sour tone, when she got to the description of the wretches with no shoes in contrast to the expensive wedding and the pots of gold.

He listened all the way to the end—and it was clear to her that he was thinking about it like an army officer, not like a potential gallant wanderer. He said, slowly “I think I understand why so many of us were shifted around, and we ended up without a full complement. No, I’m not blaming you! I think you did the right thing—though maybe you went about it wrong. Because the fact is, you still have a price on your head.”

Instead of answering, Ari dropped a pack he hadn’t even noticed she was carrying, and in a few swift movements snapped together the most beautiful staff he’d ever seen. She glanced around, moved a few steps to the middle of the bare room, and then set the staff to humming. “Made for me by monks,” she said, snapping it apart again. “Monks! I’m sure there are evil monks out there, like anything else, but my point here is that martial arts monks are the local justice up north at Dog Leg Passage, because the imperials don’t bother patrolling up there.”

Muin sighed, his wounds aching badly. “That’s not true. One of the reasons we’re undermanned is a shift of people northwards to cruise the border up there, where the Westerners like to raid. It’s not just for the search at Benevolent Winds. But I don’t know any more than that—and it seems, neither do you. If you leave . . . do you even have a place to go?”

“I do,” Ari exclaimed. “My Redbark sister inherited an inn. She sent me a letter inviting me.”

“Redbark! You stay away from them,” Muin said.

“What?”

“There’s two ships of pirates down there in the warehouses right now, claiming that the Shadow Panthers were trying to recruit them. They all said they are Redbark, which already has a bad reputation—”

“Redbark,” Ari said, “is five people. Ayah, three now. But it was five. Including me.”

“But there was a report last summer—ah, it was after the mine raid.”

“Muin! I made Redbark up,” Ari said. “And those people in that warehouse are Shadow Panthers, not Redbark. I destroyed their rudder, and they took those traders.”

Muin pinched his fingers between his brows. “I hate to expose you to the questioners, especially as we’d better hide that you know anything about Redbark—”

“You don’t have to,” Ari said. “Shadow Panthers all have neck tattoos. They must be hiding theirs.”

Muin lifted his head. “Yuli!”

The door opened, and the conscript stuck his head in. “Captain?”

“Tell Dun to pass along to Captain Ing that those Redbark prisoners are probably Shadow Panthers. Check for neck tattoos.”

The door shut. Muin said, “In a way I envy you. . .” He shook his head. “What happened to the other two of your Redbarks? Dead?”

“No. Yaso . . . went wandering.” That was the best way to describe Yaso, who hadn’t been a martial artist at all. But still was Redbark. She hesitated. How to explain the truth about Shigan? She wasn’t sure she ought to, even to her brother. It was Shigan’s story to tell—and how much of a burden might it be for Muin to know? If Redbark was too dangerous for her to admit to being a part of, she had better keep silent, at least until they had a better understanding of each other. So much had happened while they’d been separated! “And so did the other,” she said.

Muin sighed, leaning back—his mind was already moving on to Lord Oru’s funeral. “Arikanda, please don’t do anything until the funeral—and as my sister, and a civilian, we’ll have to get you a mourning robe.”

He looked miserably down at his hands. “Falik is not yet awake, and they say he probably won’t be able to stand when he does waken. He took a bad stab in the back, all but severed his spine, along with the rest of his wounds. If I can’t convince you to stay here with me by then, I’ll get you onto one of the ships going north.”

Ari blinked at how her brother’s mind leaped from Falik to her, then the thought struck her that in their years together, Falik and the Duns had become like brothers to Muin. Of course they did. Didn’t she feel the same way about Redbark?

She suppressed a sigh. She did see the sense of his words about going to the imperial capital, though part of her decision to stay away was fear of discovering that Shigan had stopped being Shigan, and had turned into the emperor’s son, a white-eyed wolf. “I’ll stay. I’ll be glad to help until then.”

“Good.” Muin looked wearily around his bare room, mentally surveying the wreckage outside, the representatives from the duke, the prefect from the Ministry of Works who had come with the naval detachment, the Registry assistant from town, and even the tax people, all waiting to talk to him on Falik’s behalf. “I’d be grateful if you would stay. We could really use another pair of hands.”

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ThreeLeftFeet

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