Light footsteps woke Ashne from an uneasy slumber. She rose silently, brushing straw from her clothes. From the darkness outside the bamboo slats of her tiny cell window, she guessed that it was the hour of the rat, perhaps nearing the ox.
The footsteps padded closer, too swift and insistent to be the pacing of a guard. Right as they reached her door, they stopped. Ashne stood. The lock clicked, and the door swung open to reveal a grinning Zsaran, candle in one hand and string of keys in the other.
“You have straw marks on your face.”
Ashne raised a hand to her cheek. Dropped it. “You shouldn’t be here.”
Zsaran made a little huff of exasperation. “Neither should you.” She tucked the keys into her waist sash.
It was a relief, Ashne thought, to see Zsaran back to her normal self. But she said quietly, “What if they were right? What if we got the wrong b— the wrong person?”
Zsaran stilled and looked up at her.
Ashne bowed her head. “What did you come for?” she said at last.
“Silly. Isn’t it obvious? You’re in no condition to be lounging about in a place like this. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.”
Ashne ignored the mild chiding in her tone. “They’ll kill us both.”
“The lady would never allow it.” Zsaran reached for Ashne’s hand, but still Ashne did not move.
“Nor shall I,” announced a deeper voice from the hall outside. Ashne whipped her gaze to the door, but as Zsaran did not react, she stilled.
In strode the broad, sturdy figure of Minister Muntong.
“Earth Minister!” Surprise stirred within her, mixed with apprehension.
“The Minister’s on our side too,” Zsaran explained. “What, you didn’t think I beat up the guards again, did you?”
Muntong inclined his head, unsmiling. The candlelight deepened the lines of his face, highlighted the gray in his beard. “I have a mission for you,” he said in smooth but accented Awat.
Zsaran continued blithely, undeterred, “It’s that foreign sorcerer, isn’t it? And here I thought the Lord Speaker above such ‘superstitious nonsense.’”
“You would be correct. My lord is more cautious than he seems.” He hesitated. “But it is not for him that I come tonight.”
This seemed to catch even Zsaran by surprise.
“You have perhaps not heard of the inheritance dispute among the ruling family of Zhae.”
Ashne shook her head.
Zsaran frowned. “Zhae — ah, you mean Tai of the Court. Sure, what do the northerners have to do with anything?”
“Both parties seek an alliance with Awat. To strengthen their respective claims.”
“Huh! I suppose they wish for our dear Princess Sarabis’s hand in marriage.”
Zsaran must be right, Ashne realized. Perhaps that explained the princess’s presence at the summons that morning, and the staged atmosphere of the earlier proceedings. Still, the pieces refused to fall into place.
“But why us?” asked Ashne. “Surely an alliance with another domain of the Court would be of far more benefit to them?” She knew very well what those of the Court thought of them; that two lords of the Court now wished to be bound by blood to Awat seemed utterly inconceivable.
Muntong nodded again. “They grow nervous, now that my lord presses north. They fear his intentions.”
Zsaran made a face. “And I suppose they wish to placate him, with this... offer?”
“Correct. And my lord is inclined to accept it. But I do not believe it wise. And now this sorcerer...”
“I thought they were just rumors,” said Ashne, mind whirling. The apothecary had been a northerner, no doubt about it. But he had been alone, unarmed. Harmless. Just passing through.
“Perhaps. Yet in every rumor lies a grain of truth. The buffalo reports seem real enough. And one who can make others believe in his false powers may be more frightening, in the end, than one who truly possesses them.”
“If he even exists,” said Zsaran.
Ashne said, “But the northerners do not believe in the sorcerous arts.” The sorcerous arts have been lost, she did not say.
“We of the south still do.” Including the men of Khonua, he did not say.
Zsaran shook her head. “I see now. It’s another assassination you want, is it?” To Ashne’s surprise, she strode forward, chin tilted up, looking Muntong straight in the eye. “I’m sorry, but I decline. Ashne’s still recovering from the last one. And I don’t work alone.”
After a long silence, Muntong said, “It is the lady’s desire as well.”
“I’m fine, Zsaran,” said Ashne, reaching out to touch her arm. “I have been negligent in my duties for far too long...”
Zsaran turned to her, exasperated. “You look ready to collapse at any moment, and still you say such things!”
Ashne opened her mouth to protest, but the look on Zsaran’s face silenced her.
“I have known you both since you were children,” Muntong said then. “I have witnessed your skill firsthand. I understand your hesitation, but if the rumors are true...”
“Send the twins, then. They’re ready enough.”
He smiled wryly. “I do not think them willing to be parted from the princess.” Then he said, shaking his head, “I am sorry. The older I get, the more fearful I become. I have lived now among your people in my lord’s service for almost thirty years, yet I no longer know what my lord is thinking. I think even the lady perhaps does not know.”
“Minister,” said Ashne at last, the words spilling from her lips like a rushing river. “You don’t believe the heir of Khonua still lives, do you?”
At her side, Zsaran tensed. Ashne took her hand. Squeezed.
“Court divination has never lied,” replied Muntong, choosing his words carefully. “But diviners themselves are only human. Mistakes have been made.”
“The Lord Speaker —”
“Will take no risks.”
Zsaran let out a bark of laughter, startling both Ashne and the minister. “So what you’re saying is, not even you will be able to vouch for us if the Speaker is determined to have our heads for our supposed failure?”
“I am sorry,” he said again.
“You’re a damn cunning one,” she muttered, without ire. “Fine. Come, Ashne. Let’s go get ready.”
Bewildered by Zsaran’s sudden change of heart, Ashne followed without protest, the minister only steps behind.
* * *
They stepped out into the night. Scattered puddles glimmered in the lantern light. As the minister conferred with the guards on duty, Zsaran tilted her head back, offering Ashne a deceptively nonchalant grin.
“This sure brings back memories, doesn’t it?”
Ashne shivered. Her old injury twinged. She looked away. “It’s only been a year.”
Two years since the fall of Khonua. Two years since Woodcutter Mountain. One year since they departed on their last mission.
Mere weeks since their return.
“A year’s a long time.”
“If it’s true that we failed...”
“You don’t really believe that, do you?”
Ashne thought of the boy, and of the mercenary of Pra, and Zsaran’s urgent, aborted confession in the courtyard.
But the sword, she thought. The sword could not lie, and the sword was dead.
She said slowly, “I don’t know.”
This time Zsaran did not respond. Ashne studied her pale face, the light tan of her arms. Her dark luminous eyes and wild, darker mane. Without her tattoos she could easily pass as a native of the Court, western tribes, or riverlands alike. Unlike Ashne, whose tawnier coloring clearly marked her as a barbarian to the northerners even were she to utilize the rouge and face paint so favored by Dragon women.
And yet she was Zsaran. No more, no less.
“It was Kitzon, wasn’t it?” Ashne said at last, ignoring the thrill of unease that passed through her when she spoke the name. As if his second soul clung to her very breath.
They had met Kitzon of Pra during those first brief months in the Kingdom of Krengsra, when their search for the Khonua heir had led them west down the river. Kitzon had been a charming, pleasant man, fluent in the local dialects as well as the shared tongue of Awat and old Khonua, and so they had hired him to help navigate the odd trail of rumors and gossip.
They had not spoken of him since their return.
“What...” She hesitated. “What did he tell you?”
A smile spread across Zsaran’s face. But it was bitter and tinged with startlingly fresh grief. “Nothing. That’s the worst of it. He told me nothing we didn’t already know. Silly, isn’t it? I don’t know why I... And anyway he was probably just lying. How could he have known, after all?”
Ashne found herself comforted. The sword would have known if Zsaran were of Pashrai’s line. And if she were a bastard of one of his ministers or generals, what did it matter? Silver-tongued Kitzon had only been toying with them all along, flattering them with sweet words, infusing their hearts with doubt.
She should be a fool to believe in his poison.
“I should have gone to you earlier,” Zsaran was saying, so quietly Ashne almost did not hear. “I thought I had lost you. All because I...”
Ashne shifted uncomfortably. “The physicians...”
They would have barred anyone from entering the sacred healing space.
“Damn the physicians.” Zsaran shook her head, the sudden violence of the movement briefly transforming her, engulfing her in light. “I would have gone anyway, if hadn’t been for —”
“I should have gone. Should have been there. What if — if that had been —” Zsaran had never sounded this way before. Stumbling over her words. Filled with this curious unfamiliar mix of anger and regret. “I would have never been able to forgive myself.”
It frightened Ashne, in ways she could not articulate or comprehend.
“I’m here now,” she said. “I made it through.”
“But what if.”
She had never been one to comfort or be comforted in turn, and now she found herself at a loss, and aching with helplessness.
Doubt, too, had been foreign to her for many years. Until Kitzon of Pra.
If only they had never met him. But she could hardly tell Zsaran that.
“No matter what,” she said instead, “you are a daughter of Awat. As am I.”
A look of surprise blossomed on Zsaran’s face. Then she smiled again, this time genuinely, and reached up to ruffle Ashne’s hair.
Behind them, one of the guards left, and the others returned to their stations. Muntong strode over.
“I have already arranged for supplies,” said Muntong, having switched back to Court tongue. “You must leave as soon as possible.”
“The Speaker’s going to be furious when he finds out,” replied Zsaran in their own language, drawing away in a swift, light motion. “Aren’t you afraid he’ll demand your head in place of ours?”
Muntong chuckled. “I have lived with his majesty’s threats for many years, child! He will see reason in time, as he always has.”
“If you say so. What are your orders, Minister?”
“The rumors of the sorcerer place him last towards the western border, near Krengsra.”
“Krengsra again! You men of Sra certainly are troublesome!”
Ashne listened to Zsaran and the minister’s banter in silence, reassured, letting the contrast of rhythms lull her into a light doze until she was startled awake by Zsaran drawing near, peering into her face with an amused expression.
Tired? she mouthed. Out loud, she said, “I’ll go with the minister. Go on ahead to the stables.”
Ashne accepted her task with relief.
* * *
By the stables stood a small, haphazardly erected wooden shack, not unlike the healing hut in the city’s northwest quarter where she had been confined for weeks.
There the king slept, she knew — as all of Awat knew — upon a pauper’s pallet of bramble and straw, instead of within the royal chambers he was entitled to. Twenty years ago he had sworn to never forget the humiliations he suffered as a captive of Khonua. And even now that he had taken his vengeance, it was a habit he maintained. A constant reminder of all the struggles he had endured, and would surely continue to endure, though his enemies now had changed.
There were supposed to be guards.
But none stood at his door, nor by the stables.
The soft, whispering rustle of clothes. Ashne shrank into the shadows, slowed her breath. Swallowed a startled noise as the figure swept into view.
The queen. Fully dressed, unattended, picking her way carefully through the muddy streets.
She halted at the door of the shack.
“It is I, my lord.”
A beat later, the door swung open, and the queen stepped forward, swallowed into the darkness.
Ashne realized she had stopped breathing altogether, and exhaled. Her cheeks heated, but she shook her head.
Best not to think about it.
She crept past the shack and was just about to launch into a light sprint to the stable door when the sound of raised voices gave her pause.
“How many times must we go through this, woman?”
The murmured response was too low to make out.
“I have made my decision. Nothing you say now can change my mind.”
“I only want the best for our daughter!”
“As do I.”
“No. You care nothing for her. You never have. All she is to you is another sacrifice; all you think of now is war and conquest. Have you never considered —”
Ashne stilled, drew near to the door, worried by the sudden silence.
“You’re plotting something,” said the king then, in a low, dangerous tone. “You and your damned cripple.”
“My lord —”
“Don’t think I haven’t noticed!”
“If I do not protect our daughter, then who shall?”
“You would have me throw away her future in the name of protection! I will not have my daughter married off to a weakling!”
“But it’s all the same to you, isn’t it, whomever she weds?”
The king did not reply.
“My lord — I know what it is you plan. But the northerners will not look kindly upon us if you renege upon any agreement we make. They place great value on the bonds of blood. Retaliation will be swift and brutal. Is it not better, then, to forge peace between our people? Will you not lay aside your ambitions? For our daughter’s sake, if not for mine?”
“Who in these times knows peace?” the king replied sardonically. “Never forget! We are not one of them. We will never be one of them. One of their blood. You are too soft, woman! Do you think they will not renege upon their promises first? When all the Court quavers in terror of our rise?”
It was some time before the queen responded.
“You have changed, my lord.”
Ashne slowly let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. Closed her eyes. She shouldn’t be here, intruding on a discussion that was clearly not hers to encroach upon. And yet she couldn’t leave the queen.
Yet she had to. Muntong had claimed it was the queen’s will for her and Zsaran to track down the foreign sorcerer. The queen had hinted as much, both in this conversation and in the cryptic pageantry earlier.
She had to go.
“I know,” said the king at last, with an odd timber to his voice that Ashne did not have time to consider.
For just then, as if on cue, the distant frantic clang of alarm bells jolted through the night.
Ashne shifted, shocked. Her wound twinged again, but she ignored it.
She darted away, all else forgotten.
Far behind her, the king burst out the door, shouting for his men.