People milled out into the streets, rubbing their eyes and looking at each other, bewildered, as lanterns flickered to life. Few paid Ashne any heed as she splashed past the barracks and through the marketplace, towards the palace grounds.
“Fire?” Ashne heard one curious bystander ask.
“An attack?” muttered another.
Ashne smelled smoke, but saw no blaze, and the city walls were silent. But there was no time to stop and think. The bells echoed on, ringing in her ears.
Zsaran. Ashne turned. Their eyes met; Zsaran sped past her, sword drawn, and Ashne lengthened her stride accordingly, ignoring the dull ache that throbbed at her side.
Before long, they reached the palace’s outer perimeter.
Ashne saw the assailant first, a dark blur of motion hurtling towards them from above. But Zsaran moved faster. The flash of a blade, a strangled cry. Ashne held back, watching the shadows, listening for the wind against the bells and the now audible shouts of panic.
She gathered her internal energy, half-dashing and half-leaping up the damp wall before landing on the other side with practiced grace. The effort took more out of her than she had expected; she steadied herself with a hand, catching her breath, recirculating the flow of energy within her. Moments later, Zsaran fell into step beside her.
“Here,” said Zsaran, handing her the sword that had presumably belonged to the fallen assailant.
Ashne accepted it. The grip was comfortable and familiar, though no maker’s origin or name marked the blade.
“One of ours!” And a new one, too: sturdier than the bronze of the wars with Khonua.
But there was no time to consider the implications, if indeed there were any. The swordsmiths of Awat were famed far and wide.
Zsaran took the lead again, much to Ashne’s relief. The scent of smoke had gotten stronger, the sounds of battle louder. Lights flickered in one of the courtyards nearby.
They entered the enclosure side by side. Old Shranai whirled into sight, maneuvering both staff and good leg against three assailants. She was just barely managing to fend them off, but the wary movements of her opponents showed that they had not expected a crippled old woman to prove their match. They could not, of course, have known the years and years Shranai had spent honing her skills in order to make up for her crushed leg; the unusual rhythm of her movements threw them off their own.
Ashne and Zsaran exchanged a look. Sprang into action. Within moments, the three men slumped to the ground, two with their throats slit, one bleeding from his forehead.
“What’s going on?” demanded Zsaran. She kicked at one of the bodies, then sliced away the cloth and straw cap that hid his face. The man did not bear the symbols of protection, the old marks of adulthood. Yet his hair was cropped short, and he was dressed in a plain dark tunic of the south, almost eerie in its lack of embroidery or any other ornamentation.
Shranai, who did not seem at all surprised to see Ashne there as well, smoothed her graying hair back into place with a sneer before replying. “What do you think? Another assassination attempt, most like.”
Zsaran snorted. “A quieter attempt I have never seen.”
“Must be desperate,” said Shranai, between sharp, unsteady intakes of breath.
“Yes,” replied Zsaran, in a breezy but pointed manner. “I suppose only desperation could result in such incompetent fools.”
“But who?” murmured Ashne. The king, respected if not quite loved by his people, had many enemies. And these men had not only clearly been trained, they had taken great pains in disguising their true origins. Despite their seeming incompetence, the evidence spoke of calculation, rather than desperation.
She looked up. Zsaran’s eyes were grave, despite the irreverence in her words. Ashne knew she must have arrived at the same conclusion.
The queen. They must go to the queen. Ashne should not have left her with the king unattended, safer though she might be outside the palace grounds, so far from the site of this attack. Zsaran could not have known; perhaps even Shranai did not. Only Ashne had. Yet she had panicked, and in a single moment, unthinking, come flying here to face the unknown instead.
“We have to go back,” she said. “Now. The lady —”
But before she could finish, shouts of alarm sounded nearby. All three of them tensed, swords and staff at the ready.
Two familiar figures tore into the clearing, blue robes fluttering behind them like wings, faces pale with fright.
“She was right there —”
“We were right there —”
“She was having nightmares, she said. Told us take her out for some fresh air —”
“Then the bells —”
“I told her to wait with Lum while I investigated —”
“But then something attacked us —”
“We tried to fight back —”
“It all happened so fast —”
“Stop!” barked Shranai, glaring from one twin to the other. “You foolish children!”
She ran off in an unbalanced lope, in the direction of the princess’s quarters.
Zsaran said, voice lowered, expression focused but calm, “You said something attacked you. Do you mean your assailant was not human?”
Ashne turned, startled.
Nalum, whose hair flew about in greater disarray than her sister’s, replied meekly, “I don’t know.”
“We couldn’t tell. We couldn’t see,” offered Jenhra. “It felt like something big and heavy held us in place. It was hard to breathe. Everything seemed so loud...”
Despite their training, the girls were inexperienced. Small wonder that they should freeze up now. Ashne had no such excuse.
“We have to go,” she said again. She turned to Zsaran. “The lady — she went to see the Lord Speaker. I saw her when I was heading to the stables. I should have stayed with them. I —”
Zsaran silenced her with a firm but gentle grip on her shoulder. “It’s all right.” To the twins she said, “Go help Shranai!” before turning back to Ashne with a nod. “Let’s go.”
But even as she spoke, a pack of soldiers rushed in, spears clattering.
“What’s going on?” demanded the one at their head.
Zsaran gestured impatiently at the bodies. “Intruders.”
“We know that. But who —”
There was a disturbance among their ranks as another newcomer shoved past and strode out from the shadows.
Thin but wiry Minister Aorang, hair rumpled, robes askew under hastily-donned armor.
He took one sharp glance at the gathering, muttering, “Where is that useless son of mine when you need him?”
Then he swerved to face Ashne and Zsaran, eyes glinting dark gold, expression suddenly wild, frightening. “Where is the lady? Should you not be with her?!”
Before either of them could reply, someone screamed. From the skies dropped a flailing man, his body rent and broken. Blood and entrails spattered across the walls and the ground. A blustering wind arose, sweeping past, tearing at hair and clothes. Several soldiers stumbled and fell; others grabbed blindly at their weapons.
The winds died. Silence enveloped the gathering.
And Ashne slowly comprehended what her eyes had already seen.
There, in the center of the courtyard, loomed a tiger, a massive beast more than thrice the height of a wild buffalo, terrifying yet unspeakably beautiful: sleek coat white as a cloud on a bright autumn morning, sinewy frame lined in charcoal-dark stripes, eyes pale and cold as frost.
From the beast’s jaws dangled the limp, bloody body of the princess.
No one moved. No one spoke.
Then someone shouted, “The Ghost Tiger of Khonua!”
One of the twins — Jenhra, Ashne thought — rushed forward with a shrill cry.
The tiger dropped the princess to the ground and tossed Jenhra into the wall with a single swipe of its paw. Aorang shouted orders to the soldiers, but two others immediately went flying as well, landing with the crunch of bone. The beast roared. Ashne did not wait to see what happened, could not wait. Zsaran and Nalum were already closing in, dancing in and out of its claws’ reach, trying to reach the princess. But the tiger paced a tight circle around its prey. Ashne approached from the other side, watching for an opening, hoping against hope that the terrain, still slick from the earlier rain, would be of equal disadvantage to the beast.
But the tiger was not the first to slip. A sudden swipe from an unexpected angle caught Nalum by surprise. Zsaran leaped over, blocking the hit. The force of the blow knocked the blade from her hand and sent her rolling to the side. Ashne ran, feet already moving of their own accord. But too late.
With a great roar, the tiger pounced. Nalum screamed. The tiger closed its jaws on the girl’s arm. Her sword clattered useless to the ground.
Jenhra’s voice. Ashne spared a brief moment of relief for her survival. The princess — the princess lay there, still and unmoving. But already the tiger had tossed Nalum aside, was even now already turning to Zsaran as she clambered back upright. Fearless Zsaran, who glared back, teeth bared at the creature as if she were a beast herself, though her weapon was lost.
As if they were children again, alone and defenseless in the marshlands.
“Ashne! Remember what Kitzon said?” shouted Zsaran, shattering the illusion.
The spirits. They’ve returned, breached the gap, he’d said. They hadn’t believed him.
Was this, then, what the diviner had foreseen?
Ashne looked from the princess to Zsaran. No time. There was no time.
Ashne sprang forth at the same moment as the tiger. She and Zsaran tumbled to the ground together, hot breath at their backs. Ashne raised her arms to shield them, sword gripped at an awkward angle: a futile, reflexive gesture.
But the blow never came. Ashne looked up to see silvery blue light snaking around them in a complex weave, and the tiger watching them quietly, considering.
As if in a dream, she saw the boy. As he had been in life — on the brink of manhood, and yet naught but skin and bones, wasting away from disease or starvation, or both.
Finish me, he had said then. End this. Let my people rest.
But this vision only stared at her, transparent, silent, accusing. The tiger’s pale eyes glowed behind him, judging her, as the king had judged her earlier.
Zsaran clutched Ashne’s arm, and for a brief frantic moment, she remembered their oath.
Though we were not born on the same day, in the same month, or in the same year...
An arrow whistled through the air, missing the tiger by only a hair. The vision dissipated. Ashne saw, to her surprise, Shranai, perched precariously on top of a wall, notching another arrow to a bow she must have confiscated from a fallen soldier. This time, the arrow hit its mark, but the beast shrugged it off, unharmed.
It turned and scooped up the princess. Then, in a single bound, it hurtled over the walls and disappeared into the night.
Ashne pushed herself upright, legs still trembling. Guilt and confusion overwhelmed her as she watched the fading net of light. She lifted her sword arm, staring at the tattoos traced across her skin. The markings seemed to writhe and pulse before her very eyes.
A shout arose in the sudden silence.
“They were working with it all along!”
“No — the pattern! It’s —”
“Not now, you fools!” yelled Minister Aorang. “Send men to the gate! Follow that beast!”
There was a gentle touch on her shoulder.
Zsaran. Already standing, tattoos glowing dark against her ashen face, but unhurt.
“Go!” said Zsaran. “I’ll catch up with you later!”
Ashne hesitated, stared blankly at her, uncomprehending.
Zsaran pushed her away. “Just go!”
The tiger had headed south; she followed.
* * *
The tiger’s pale form flitted in and out of her vision.
We of the western tribes have not yet forgotten the true power of the other world, Kitzon had said.
Nor have we, Zsaran had argued, cheeky grin playing about her lips. We honor them, ask blessings of them. We ward ourselves against the less benevolent dragons and spirits of the river. It is only those of the Court who have forgotten. They pay honor only to their dead.
Kitzon had only laughed in response.
But Zsaran had been right. The children of the Golden Turtle could not have so soon forgotten. Not with the memory of the Tiger still fresh on all their minds.
The Ghost Tiger of Khonua. Another lost legacy of Khonua’s illustrious Prince of Light, now dead twenty-six long years, killed in battle against their own King Khosian’s troops. Three days after the Prince of Light was buried, a great white tiger was sighted atop the hill, guarding his tomb. An omen of vengeance, perhaps: the Awat capital at Mount Kuehgei had fallen but two years later, to the Prince’s son, King Pashrai. And Awat might very well have come to an end then, had Pashrai possessed half the wits and courage his father did.
Kuehgei had been long since retaken. Pashrai had taken his own life. His young heir lay dead at Ashne’s hands. The tiger, too, had never been witnessed again. Until now.
The tiger’s legacy endures.
The south gate loomed into sight. The stationed guards rushed forth, but at the sight of the tiger and the princess, they all froze.
The tiger leaped, soaring far above the vast heights of the fortifications.
“Open the gate!” screamed Ashne. And perhaps the guards recognized her, or perhaps they were simply too stunned, for they obeyed without question.
But it was too late. Even as the heavy doors creaked open, Ashne could only watch the tiger fade into the distance, leaving nothing but wild wind in its wake.
She dashed after it, but pain stabbed through her side. She stumbled, doubling over. Behind her, the soldiers shouted back and forth, trying to make sense of what had just happened.
They would remember soon enough that the king had ordered her imprisoned. They would take her back to the cells. The princess, if she were not already dead, would be lost forever.
Ashne forced herself back to her feet, clutching at her side as if she could rip the pain away, and continued to run.
Wetness seeped through her clothing, trickling through her fingers.
She stopped. Crouched down, trying not to scream. No longer thinking, she loosened her waist sash and unfolded the outer layer of her robes. The bandages underneath were soaked through. She unraveled them. Drew her sword and sliced off her sleeves, tied the fabric snugly around her reopened wound, readjusted her clothing over it. Staggered in the direction of the nearby hills.
The tree. The crooked pine tree she and Zsaran had established as a meeting point. She scrambled up the slopes and collapsed beneath its bare twisted branches.
She had always felt safest on high ground.
She huddled under the tree, in the mud, drifting in and out of sleep, haunted by visions of winged hounds and horned, cloven-hoofed felines, truth-sayers of the heavens. She thought of the tiger. Of the dead buffalo, the missing children. Of what significance it might hold. (The princess, the princess was no child!) Slipped back into a memory of childhood.
That distant blazing summer’s day, so many years ago. The Speaker-Consort, cool and elegant in her elaborate color-drenched robes, reclining upon a pile of silk cushions. Ashne could still remember the smell of flowers and perfumes enveloping the air around them, and the raucous din of the marketplace far behind them.
“What do you want from us?” Zsaran had demanded, bold and blunt even then, and Ashne had seen the guards reaching for their weapons. But the lady only laughed.
“What is your name, girl?”
After a moment’s hesitation, during which she seemed to consider the woman before coming to some sort of decision, Zsaran said, grinning, “I am called Zsaran, lady. And this is Ashne.”
“Is that so?” the lady replied, and Ashne remembered her heart beating so quickly she thought her chest would burst. She remembered the hostile stares, Zsaran glaring back in defiance.
She remembered the queen’s smile.
Why had she hesitated? Zsaran was more than capable of taking care of herself. And the princess had been close. So close.
Everything she had done that day, it seemed, was a mistake.
Light began to bleed into the sky, a cooler tone than the glow of fire that had illuminated the capital earlier that night. There was a murmur of voices.
Not Zsaran. Dread and pain drew a noose about her as she rose, sword in hand. The approaching footsteps were loud, unsteady. Three men, four? But then the figures loomed above the slope of the hill and Ashne sank to her knees in what was perhaps relief.
Shranai and the queen.
“My lady!” she murmured.
“Rise, my child,” said the queen, in a reedy, tremulous voice that made Ashne look up in shock.
The queen’s expression frightened her.
“My lady,” Ashne repeated, throat dry. Zsaran, she thought, but the words would not come. She swallowed. “Forgive me. I tried to follow the tiger, but I lost its trail. I have failed you.”
She noticed, then, that Shranai held a lead in her free hand. Ashne started, recognizing the golden creature that followed them. It was a kammrae, one of the precious spotted, black-horned deer they had brought north, prized as mounts for their speed and tall, quiet grace. The royal envoys’ mount.
“My daughter...” murmured the queen, staring at something beyond Ashne’s shoulder. “My only child!”
Ashne stole a glance at Shranai, but Shranai only scowled, and after a moment the queen’s eyes focused again.
“You must go.”
“Go. Bring back my daughter.” The queen raised a trembling hand, gesturing out into the distance. “Bring her back to me!”
Shranai spoke then. “You are the best tracker among us. Take the kammrae. You, at least, may have some hope of retrieving the kontua.” The Court’s term for a nobleman’s daughter was jarring against the soothing familiarity of Awat tongue, making the princess sound like a vessel, a relic.
Ashne shook her head frantically. “Zsaran —”
“Zsaran,” said Shranai, “has been seized. Seized and imprisoned, in your place.”
“No,” said Ashne, backing away, knowing immediately what such a development portended. Already the king had suspected them; now he would name them both traitors and criminals, conspiring against the throne, against his blood and kin.
How could she blame him for thinking so? The Tiger itself had acknowledged them.
She had to go to Zsaran. She had to —
“The two of you are utter fools,” Shranai hissed, stepping into her path. “That girl has never known fear, and you! You have never had the sense to stop her.”
The king’s justice was swift and remorseless.
It was useless. Even if she went now, what could she do?
She would not commit any more mistakes. Not tonight.
“Enough, Shranai,” said the queen, and the unexpected firmness in her tone arrested them both. “Of course I shall vouch for their innocence. Ashne is now the only one left I can trust.” She turned again to Ashne, voice already beginning to quaver once more. “I always knew I made a good choice in you. If only you had not been recuperating from your injuries these past weeks! If only you had been at my daughter’s side, then surely none of this would have happened!”
To that, Ashne could not bring herself to respond.
In the end, she said only, “I shall do as my lady commands.”
Shranai drew out a woven emblem of gold and dried reeds in response. The Nesting Bird in Flight. The Speaker-Consort’s sign.
Ashne accepted it. Mounted the kammrae, nudged it into a walk as the queen and Shranai watched on like silent sentinels.
As she descended the hill, she looked back at the capital. Far in the distance she could see the misty outline of mountains and fortified walls that separated Awat from Tai to the north.
In the shadow of the mountains, the capital seemed suddenly small and vulnerable.
“Be safe,” Ashne whispered, and did not turn again.
* * *