“Is there anything you’d like?” Kara murmured, glancing sideways at Jurnia’s face. “You didn’t seem to have much appetite for breakfast.”
“Maybe some melon,” she mumbled. “Or raspberries. Something sweet. I saw a vendor a few minutes ago.” She started to turn, and he stopped her with a gentle hand on her elbow.
“I’ll go find something for you,” he said, a glimmer of the wanderer’s cheerful smile on his face. “Stay here.” He moved easily through the crowd back toward the small fruit stand, hoping that he could indeed fetch something sweet and fresh for Jurnia.
He was only out of sight for a moment, but that was when the move was made. Rough hands grabbed Jurnia’s arms, yanking her back into the nearby alley; another hand clamped over her mouth to stifle her shriek of outrage. She fought like an angry wildcat, making it as difficult as possible for her assailants to move her, but they outnumbered her six to one. It was obvious that they knew this town, or at least this area of it, very well—even with a struggling, kicking burden, they moved quickly away from the market and deeper into the maze of narrow alleyways.
The passage they chose finally debouched into a sort of small courtyard, no more than fifteen feet on a side, formed by the walls of the buildings that crowded close and blocked out most of the sunlight. It reeked of dampness and moldering garbage and animal leavings. One of Jurnia’s handlers threw her bodily against the back wall, rubbing at his knee where she’d managed to kick him. “Stubborn little bitch!” he swore, glaring at her as she slammed into the wall and stumbled, barely managing to stay on her feet. “She’d best be carrying enough money to make her worth all this trouble!”
“I tell you again, I saw her yesterday,” one of the other men insisted. “Flashin’ around gold and silver as if she were a bloody princess.”
The apparent leader, a whip-thin man with the dead black eyes of a hardened killer and the impression of a venomous serpent in his aura, made an impatient gesture toward Jurnia. “Let’s have the purse, darling,” he said, sounding bored.
Jurnia ignored him for a moment, straightening her clothes, and then turned a cold green stare on him. “I’m not carrying a purse.”
“Don’t make this more difficult than it has to be.”
“I’m telling the truth,” she insisted. “Khuradasu has the money.” She grinned without humor, seeing two of the men flinch. “He’s going to be very angry about this, you know,” she added.
The dead-eyed man laughed outright, then spat on the hard-packed dirt of the alley floor. “He can be as angry as he likes. I’m not afraid of Khuradasu. He’s no more than a half-grown pup—no matter how fearsome his reputation might be, I don’t see anything about him that warrants caution.”
“Then you’re a blind idiot,” she retorted.
He fetched her a slap across the mouth that echoed in the confined space and made her stagger. “Mind your manners, darling,” he warned her. “It wouldn’t bother me at all to cut your throat.”
“You’re making a serious mistake,” she shot back, tasting blood; the blow had driven her inner cheek against her teeth hard enough to cut the tender flesh. “If you all start running now, maybe he’ll let you go. If you hurt me, he won’t stop until he’s hunted the lot of you down and made examples of you.”
The two men who had flinched at Khuradasu’s name were looking much more nervous now; they’d backed up toward the narrow passage entrance that was the only way in or out of the courtyard, unless one could get in over the roofs. The Sarpom looked at them with unconcealed contempt. “Are you afraid of the bogeyman too? You saw him. Mighty Khuradasu’s only a boy, hardly old enough to have hair on his scrote.”
“He didn’t come by his reputation lightly,” another man muttered. “I don’t know if this game’s worth the risk. If the wench hasn’t got the money on her, I say we leave her here and scatter.”
“Let’s be sure she hasn’t got it first,” the Snake said, and grabbed Jurnia without further ceremony. He trapped both of her hands behind her back with one of his own long, spindly-seeming hands and frisked her with the other, checking her quite thoroughly. Jurnia called him a rude name and received another casual slap across the face before he ran the hand casually between her legs—presumably just in case she had stashed her money purse in the crotch seam of her pants, or something of that nature. “I’ll be damned,” he said finally, turning her loose and shoving her away before she could hit him. “She really doesn’t have it.”
“That’s that, I’d say,” the man who’d mentioned scattering said with an air of finality. “No reason to stick around now.”
“Actually,” the Snake answered slowly, “there’s certainly a good reason. If you want a turn at her, that is.” He eyed Jurnia in a way that made her shudder with disgust; it might have been better if there’d been open lust in his gaze, but she saw only a cold, calculating stare. “I have a sudden interest in knowing what kind of woman could keep Khuradasu under her thumb.”
“She’s pretty,” one of the bigger, slower men ventured. “That could be it.”
“There’s got to be something else,” the thin man disagreed. “A man with Khuradasu’s reputation wouldn’t settle for a pretty face and nothing else. She’s got a certain spirit, I’ll say. I’m curious to try her.”
“If you touch me,” Jurnia said in the lowest, coldest tone possible, “you will regret it for every second of the rest of your assuredly short life.”
“Is that so?” he mocked her, reaching out with a lightning-quick hand and yanking the front of her blouse open, tearing it; she gasped and crossed her arms over her front. He grabbed one wrist and pulled her to the middle of the courtyard. “I’ll go first,” he said, his other hand dropping to his belt. “The rest of you can work out the order among yourselves.”
The Raven fell back on her favorite maneuver and kicked him in the groin hard enough to raise him onto his toes. Using his own grip on her wrist, she wrenched him toward her and punched him in the mouth with that fist even as her free hand dove for the sheath on his belt and came back holding his own shortsword. Even with his eyes watering from her initial attack, he retained the presence of mind to skip backward out of the blade’s reach as Jurnia dropped into a surprisingly competent-looking fighting stance.
“The first man who wants to bleed can step forward now,” she said in a deadly voice, inwardly cursing. She was surrounded, with no opening to get her back against a wall. Her one advantage lay in the fact that she was an Avatar, a strong one; the Sarpom who stood half-hunched over had echoes of Avatar power, but it was comparatively weak, definitely untrained. The rest of them were essentially ordinary people.
Ordinary people who’d apparently worked together often enough to coordinate well. They came at her all at once, from every side, with knives and short blades. She fought with increasing desperation, parrying and dodging and blocking as best she could. She seethed with rage and humiliation, hating herself for being so weak and useless as to constantly be in need of rescue, hating the ones who had attacked her and exposed that weakness.
Kara, help me! she cried mentally, twisting to avoid a knife and nearly stumbling right into another one. Six against one weren’t good odds at the best of times; when she only had a shortsword to defend herself with, the odds got worse.
Ara? Amber eyes blinked; for a moment the assassin’s harshness was gone from their depths, the cold light supplanted by surprise. The little swordsman lifted his head up from where he’d been inspecting a small box of nice raspberries coaxed into fullness out of season by some talented plant-attuned Avatar. Something wasn’t right, a something that came into sharper focus as he cast outward with his own senses. Jurnia’s familiar aura wasn’t nearby in the market’s center but rather elsewhere—and at battle strength.
“Excuse me,” he said to the vendor. “Hold onto that box for me. I shall return.” His soft voice held none of the growing panic within; behind the seemingly emotionless mask of Khuradasu, Kara felt both fear and anger at being so sure no one would dare act against himself or the Raven Herald on the strength of Khuradasu’s reputation. Left hand clenching around the cherrywood sheath at his side, the Lopayzom hurried through the crowd in the direction he could sense Jurnia’s violet power. If anyone’s hurt her, they’re going to regret it. A surge of fierce possessiveness flowed through him, the emotion further strengthening his focus as he prepared for battle. She’s mine.
It rapidly became obvious that she hadn’t left the market by one of the normal streets, which certainly meant she hadn’t left of her own will. He couldn’t imagine a situation wherein the fastidious Herald would voluntarily go into one of the narrow, filthy alleys, yet the faint sense of her trail led him into one of those cramped passages. He moved quickly, though without making a sound, relying on both the current location that he could sense and the trail to guide him.
The sound of a scuffle echoed in the stiflingly close maze of passages; he paused a moment. If he kept following the trail, he was risking a loss of the element of surprise. Stumbling across his quarry before he expected to would be very dangerous, especially if Jurnia was caught up in the fight. Thoughtfully, his golden gaze drifted upward toward the overhanging roof-edge of the building on his left.
It was easy enough. Underneath it all, a fox is a predator through and through; though the Lopayzom had long embraced the path of the Sun Goddess, the hunting instincts still remained. As he had in days thought long past, Kara gathered up his spirit energy—and jumped. Boosted by the force of his power, his lithe form shot upward. Grasping onto the decorated edge of the gutter, he then gracefully flipped himself up and over. Sandal-clad feet landed noiselessly on top of the roof’s ceramic tiles. Crouching low to keep his profile from showing up against the sky, Kara silently made his way across the top of the building toward Jurnia’s blazing aura. He would need to scout out the situation first; as much as he desperately wanted to keep her from harm, he had to remain calm and in control.
No one in the tiny courtyard was looking toward the sky. The half-dozen men attacking Jurnia were pressing her hard, but they were hindered by the close quarters. Jurnia could fight back with greater ease because she didn’t have to worry about striking a comrade, but the men had the advantage of numbers. From the look of things, she had still made a good accounting of herself; it didn’t appear that a single one of her assailants had gone untouched by the short blade she was wielding, though none of the wounds looked serious enough to make a difference in fighting strength. Blood loss might weaken some of them in time, but Jurnia had no time left.
The thin man closed from her right as she spun to fend off an attack from the other side; she saw him coming, but could not evade him. Without a sound, his eyes narrowed into harsh lines, he drove a fist in and up under her ribs. She gagged, folding involuntarily, and his other fist crashed down at the base of her neck. She crashed to the ground, choking for breath, barely retaining her grip on the shortsword. One of the bigger men laughed crudely and drew back a foot to kick her in the side.
Sunlit fire began to glow within the watching Lopayzom’s eyes as a corner of his mouth curled up in a silent, feral snarl. Silent as a ghost, swift as the wind, he leapt from his rooftop perch into the filthy courtyard below.
Kara was standing protectively over the fallen Herald before the big thug could even start his foot’s forward swing. The little warrior, his expression harsh and unyielding, drew his weapon; in the blink of an eye, the faintly glowing steel was embedded in the ground. The big man’s foot rebounded hard off the immobile metal of the edgeless sword, the blade taking the hit meant for the prostrate woman.
An instant later, the blade was free of the dirt. Holding it parallel to the ground, the redheaded swordsman swept his fierce, golden gaze over the group huddled around Jurnia. “Retreat now,” he ordered, his voice barely above a whisper but cutting through the entire courtyard with ease.
The two men who’d been uneasy to begin with backed away at once, fear plain on their faces; the others drew back a few steps. Jurnia regained her feet, one arm banded tightly around her ribs. From the way she moved and the labored sound of her breathing, it was obvious that she was in pain, but there was no submissiveness in her expression. Though she knew that she was apt to be far more a hindrance than a help, she was reluctant to retreat, and the men were blocking the only passage.
“Kill him,” the Snake said, his voice flat and unemotional. He glanced at his comrades, who were obviously not much inclined to do as they were told. “He’s one man—one boy. Look at him, dainty as a girl and all by himself.”
“You kill him if you want,” one of the two uneasy fellows blurted, throwing his sword down. “I’ll have no further part in this.”
“Coward,” the thin man snarled, snatching up the weapon as his erstwhile ally bolted. “She said that he’s carrying the money. Take him down, and we’ll not only have the purse, we’ll have the privilege of being the only men to defeat ‘mighty Khuradasu’ in a fight.” He spat on the ground. “And then we’ll have the woman, too.”
Whatever motivated them—money, fame, or sex—three of the remaining men moved to flank Kara. The fourth one hesitated until a sharp glance from the Snake spurred him to reluctantly join the advance.
Those cold amber eyes focused for a moment on each of the thugs. There was nothing at all girlish or dainty in the expression on his youthful face. It was truly Khuradasu now who stood before them, the little swordsman fully centered in the profound stillness deep within. Here it was observe and react, with no room for mistakes or hesitation. The assassin let his gaze linger on the reluctant one. “Go now, like the other. No one will fault you for fleeing a superior foe. It can end here, if you allow it.”
One of the flanking men made a grab for him. Khuradasu stood completely still until the last moment. Then he dodged the strike and used the momentum to twist into a counterstrike. The edgeless blade slashed through the air in a golden arc, catching the thug just under the jaw. Bone cracked as the thief’s mandible took the brunt of the force. Just like that, one of the men lay flat on his back at Khuradasu’s feet. The sword came up again into a guarding position.
That was enough for the reluctant fellow to make his decision; he turned and ran like a rabbit. Now the odds were three against one—or three against two, by Jurnia’s reckoning. But the remaining men were hard and ruthless, and one of them was a man who enjoyed the business of causing harm and death. They attacked in concert, seeking to present him with too many targets to defeat easily.
Again the little swordsman seemed to tempt fate, standing utterly still as the three bandits lunged forward to subdue him. Just as it seemed they would have him, Khuradasu leapt high into the air. The sword swung skyward as the trio was suddenly faced with pulling back or crashing into one another. The thin man backed clear easily, but his two cohorts skidded and backpedaled with a certain lack of grace to avoid the collision. Jurnia slashed at the Snake, who dodged aside without seeming to look at her.
From above, Khuradasu’s chilling voice cut through the air like the disapproval of Heaven. “Hammer Strike!” The blur of green clothing, orange hair and golden power landed hard atop one of the hapless men, the edgeless blade slamming down flat against the top of his head. Khuradasu landed gracefully on his feet, lithe body already on the move to slash out at the trunk of the other man who had been trying not to collide with his comrades.
The man went down like a poleaxed steer, his entire body seeming to buckle at once from the ankles up to drop him into a senseless heap. The other man sought to interpose his shortsword and block the incoming strike. Steel grated against steel as the shortsword parried. Khuradasu stepped back, then lunged forward again, cutting first low and then pulling his weapon back in an upward-cutting strike intended to slip past the bandit’s guard. The outlaw moved automatically to block the first strike before realizing that it was a feint; his eyes widened in resigned horror as the second strike went exactly where Khuradasu had intended.
The slash of the edgeless sword in and of itself was hardly enough to do more than give the bandit a jarring sensation and perhaps a bruise in the near future. Had there been an edge, the steel would have cut deep across his torso from hip to armpit. But the strike was more than a blunt piece of steel hammered into the shape of a sword. Sunlit fire exploded within him, setting his nerves aflame. The full force of an Avatar’s power sharpened into a subduing focus and fueled by deep need to protect overwhelmed him. Perhaps had he been an Avatar himself or someone of sufficient force of will, he would have remained conscious. As it was, his mind blessedly shut down in order to avoid the burning sensation that overwhelmed him.
One left. Khuradasu turned his attention to the Sarpom seemingly in charge of the group, sword coming up in a guarding position again. The man showed his teeth in what could have passed for a smile in very bad lighting. The point of his sword flicked back and forth, seemingly at random. “Perhaps your reputation is founded in truth after all. Nevertheless, I think I might leave you alive just enough so you can hear your woman scream when I take her.”
The golden eyes narrowed dangerously. “You’ll not lay a hand on her.”
“It’s far more than a hand I intend to lay on her,” was the callous reply, that ugly grin widening. “She’s a fine-looking creature, but I think that once I’m done with her, I’ll render her a bit less so. Perhaps I’ll cut off her nose and her ears and relieve her of that sharp tongue she’s got.” He smirked, hearing Jurnia’s faint gasp.
“You have to go through me first.” Though little seemed changed about the redheaded warrior to the naked eye, to Jurnia his aura seemed nearly white hot, feral, a carefully contained explosion just waiting for the right moment of release.
“Gladly. It’ll whet my appetite for the entertainment to follow. I’ll see you broken, little boy,” the Snake hissed, still flicking his blade in seemingly random patterns, “and then I’ll see her writhing under me.” He circled to one side, his harsh voice taunting as he began listing all of the things he might do to Jurnia; the young Raven’s face went pale at the litany of horrors he recited.
Khuradasu remained seemingly unmoved, impassive. His only reaction was to shift to the side, keeping his guard up as the Sarpom circled. Inside, however, he seethed with a fury unlike anything encountered before. No longer content with subduing the thief and ending the threat, the Lopayzom found himself wanting to see his opponent broken and hurt for daring to threaten not only a Herald but Khuradasu’s woman with such filth as he was hearing.
The Sarpom followed up a particularly revolting comment with a swift, sudden lunge, aiming for the smaller man’s midsection. He was very quick—dangerously so. Khuradasu twisted to the side, reacting to the flow of energy he sensed within the Snake. Using the momentum, he spun around, intending to slam his blade against his foe’s flank. He only landed a glancing blow, the agile man leaping aside to avoid the full impact. Even that light stroke should have had some effect, but the Lopayzom could sense a tightly channeled power in his opponent. He was an Avatar, but all of his energy seemed focused on combat, with little or nothing given to other uses.
Khuradasu pressed his attack, his blade taking on a brighter golden glow. The empowered sword cut through the air, arcing from near the ground upward toward the armpit of the Sarpom’s weapon arm. The thin man dodged, coming close enough to Jurnia that she dared another slash, nearly catching his arm. With a snarl, the Sarpom backhanded her, keeping most of his attention focused on Khuradasu.
The little assassin lunged forward, determined to beat the Snake to the ground. Feinting low, he cut back towards his foe’s head, grim determination in his amber eyes. Though he was able to deflect the blow enough to avoid a direct hit, the Sarpom couldn’t evade it completely. He caught the stroke across the side of the head.
Still full of white-hot fury, still wanting to see the man hurt, Khuradasu followed his successful strike by launching his lithe form at the man before he could recover. The Lopayzom’s Avatar power made him slam into the other’s form with a force far stronger than one would expect from a short and slender-framed man. A silent snarl on his normally pretty face, Khuradasu intended to pin the Sarpom under him, free hand reaching to wrap steel-strong fingers around the other’s throat. The larger man went over backward under Khuradasu’s rush, hitting the ground hard enough to knock the wind out of himself. He gagged as the slender swordsman’s hand closed on his throat.
“I should put an end to you here and now,” the redheaded warrior hissed. Golden energy crackled around his form as he kept the larger bandit pinned to the earth with weight and Avatar power both. “You are an affront to civilized society. But even one such as you may turn to a better path if you yet live.” The amber eyes, blazing with fury and energy, glared down at the assassin’s prey.
“You’d be better off killing me,” he spat back. “Wherever you go and whatever you do, you’d best always be on your guard, because I’ll be watching you . . .”
“No. You won’t.” Khuradasu released his hold on his sword. The weapon hit the dirt with an ominous thump. Left hand still clenched about his foe’s throat, he brought his right hand up. Sunlight danced along his fingers as he curved them into a claw-like shape. “The last thing you will ever see is the face of divine justice. After that, all you will watch is the darkness.”
The cold black eyes widened in horror, the enemy struggling to escape his grip with a renewed vigor and desperation. Jurnia took a half step forward, but made no attempt at all to stop the golden-eyed assassin—no hand reached out, no word spoken to stay him.
The movement was fast, a blur of bright gold that suddenly became stained red. Blood and gel-like gore spattered Khuradasu’s hand, his clothing and the face of the man pinned beneath him. Never again would the man see; his eyes were ruined beyond even what an Avatar healer could mend from a combination of brute force and searing energy. Khuradasu straightened, lifting his left hand from the man’s throat. He stared coolly down, right hand dripping crimson onto the ground.
The scream echoed terribly in the enclosed space; the Snake tried to roll aside, his hands automatically reaching up to his face, blood and fluid smearing across his skin. Jurnia let out a tiny gasp, going very still, frozen to the spot.
Khuradasu gracefully rose to his feet while picking up his sword, nimbly jumping to the side and allowing the wounded Snake to writhe as he wished. Only a momentary glance was spared to the disfigured man. “You would be wise to learn humility and respect both. You will probably have to rely on the charity of others to preserve your miserable life.” The redheaded warrior then turned his gaze to Jurnia. The amber hardness warmed slightly with caring and concern as he knelt down before her. “Are you harmed?”
Jurnia remained where she was, staring at the Sarpom as he curled onto his side, howling in pain and clutching at the ruins of his eyes. Her blouse was torn, showing far more of her fair skin than usual, and the first shadows of bruising were starting to appear on the side of her face; a little blood showed at the corner of her mouth. Red spattered her clothes, but none of it appeared to be hers. Her forearms bore a few shallow cuts, hardly more than scratches, which spoke rather well of her defensive skills.
“Jurnia?” This time his voice was hesitant, worried—and much more like the silly wanderer she’d first encountered. Slipping his weapon back in its sheath, he gently tugged her blouse as closed as possible with his left hand while he reached up and attempted to wipe the blood from the corner of her mouth with his right thumb. But the caress only made more blood smear her fair skin—a sight that made him freeze as the echoes of his dream came flooding back. Still staring past him at the Snake, she flinched involuntarily, a tiny movement that struck him like a blow. She was far more repelled by the jellylike humors than by the blood or his touch, but all he saw was the red stain he’d painted on her cheek--and her flinching away from him.
His eyes grew huge, his hand dropping limp from her face. The assassin’s fury evaporated like dew in bright sunshine, leaving Kara suddenly so very aware of the man’s screaming, the scent of blood, the stickiness of the gore on his hands—and the woman he loved flinching in horror at what he’d done. He suddenly felt dirty, like his very presence near her defiled her, and guilt hit him as hard as any punch in the gut. Nauseated, he swayed to his feet. How utterly foolish it had been of him to even pretend he deserved such an unsullied devotion.
It was barely a whisper, a tiny thready sound that was nearly lost in the Snake’s howls of pain. Jurnia’s eyes were huge, her face too pale, her hands clutching the torn blouse closed over her chest. The full impact of the entire situation had finally hit her as the adrenalin ebbed, leaving her shaking and dry-mouthed. “Don’t go. Don’t leave me.”
Kara clenched his eyes closed for a moment, fighting back the nausea. He hadn’t killed—therefore his vow was intact—but he had become brutal through an almost insane anger, exposing his darker side to the woman he’d come to love. No matter how much he tried, the violent darkness was a part of him. But he couldn’t leave her. How could he? As long as she remained in this town—as long as her chieftain remained in danger—she needed his protection. He could not abandon her, not until she was safely home.
He wanted very much to kneel down again and hug her, but all he could do was hold out his unstained left hand to her. “I’m not going to leave you alone. Come on. We should go back to the inn.”
She stared blankly at his hand for a moment, then reached up and let him help her to her feet. In an odd reversal, she left a bloody mark on the back of his hand, her fingertips damp with blood from one of the shallow cuts on the other forearm. Her hands clenched white-knuckle tight on the front of her blouse, holding it closed; she looked disheveled and hurt and frightened, almost childlike.
“I’m sorry.” Those little words were all he could manage to say as he held onto her hand and gently tugged her away from the unconscious and wounded men. He didn’t want her to stay here, where fear and anger had spoiled what had been an otherwise relaxed and cheerful day.
She followed him as docilely as a kitten, unresisting, clinging to his hand as if it were her only lifeline. “They wanted my purse,” she said, her gaze fixed on the ground just ahead of her feet. “I meant to stay right where you told me to, but they were too strong . . .”
He gently squeezed her hand, responding to the tone in her voice. “It was my fault for leaving you there,” he replied, walking with her down the narrow alley. It’s all my fault, he morosely thought, unable to shake the image of the blood he had spilled staining her fair cheek.
“Did that fruit stand have raspberries?” she asked, as if it were something terribly important. Her hand felt cold in his, and she couldn’t disguise the fine tremors that rippled through her. She’d come fairly close to danger before, but at least those few times had seemed to promise a clean death; the Sarpom’s hideous threats had made it clear that she would not have had such a mercy if things had gone differently.
“Actually, yes, they did.” He paused for a moment, looking down at her as they emerged from the stifling alleyway. She looked so lost, so stricken, and he couldn’t help but feel like his brutality had made an otherwise horrible experience truly unbearable. “Are you . . . up to going with me to get some right now?” If he took her back to the inn room and made some appropriately dire threats, the servants and innkeeper would probably fall all over themselves rushing to keep her safe while he went to fetch her requested raspberries. But even through his self-disgust, he realized that he didn’t want to risk leaving her alone.
“Yes,” she murmured, which at least freed him from the dilemma of whether to take her with him or not. “Can we hurry?”
“Of course,” he answered. Gently tugging her along, he unerringly made his way back to the stall, right hand wiping the blood and gore off against the side of his loose-fitting pants.
The merchant looked up and smiled, seeing his customer return as promised. Then the smile faltered somewhat as the state of the man and his female companion became obvious. Even so, the box of raspberries Kara had been about to buy was presented once more. The Lopayzom fished out his pouch and pulled out the agreed-upon price, being sure to stand close to Jurnia since he had to release her hand in order to pay the man. Even when he let go of her hand, she took hold of his sleeve like a child told to stay close by a guardian and wanting to demonstrate her obedience. The merchant looked rather troubled, but wisely minded his own business.
Still feeling guilty, and mindful of the merchant’s expression, Kara slipped in an extra couple of coppers before handing the coins to the man. Claiming the juicy red berries with his bloodstained hand, the redheaded swordsman once again took Jurnia’s hand in his grasp. “I hope these meet with your approval,” he murmured as he began threading his way through the market’s crowd toward their inn. “Is there anything else . . . ?”
She managed a feeble smile. “I’d . . . I’d just like to have a bath now.”
“All right,” he said, giving her a slight smile in return, though his heart definitely wasn’t in it.
A wide path opened for them, and people very carefully avoided looking directly at the sight of a bloody-handed Khuradasu and his obviously shaken companion; the word was already spreading that someone had attacked the woman and been suitably chastised by the dreaded assassin. The story wasn’t more than ten minutes old and already it was developing the sort of exaggeration that seemed to follow his legend—apparently he’d been locked in combat with a dozen men and had left them all for dead. That fight sounded a lot more complicated than the real one.
Back in the inn room, Kara looked at Jurnia, taking in the sorry state of her clothes. “I hope the laundry can get the stains out and mend those tears,” he remarked, gathering up the things she’d need in the bathhouse. “I’ll definitely ask them while you’re cleaning up.”
Her head came up sharply, her eyes showing white all around the vivid green irises. “You’re going to leave me by myself in the bathhouse?” she asked, sounding panicked.
He mentally backpedaled, seeing her startling reaction. “Would you prefer me to stay?” he inquired carefully.
“Yes,” she whispered, then seemed to really look at him for the first time since the attack. “You need to clean up too,” she pointed out.
“That I do,” he agreed, looking down at his stained clothing. “But you go first.”
She did not argue; she just took the linens away from him, evidently wanting to leave his hands as free as possible. He led the way to the bathhouse, more watchful than usual. After putting her clothes just outside for the laundry to take care of, he pulled a bench over in front of the door, sitting down with his back to her, clearly intending to guard the door for her peace of mind.
Jurnia washed herself in a sort of daze, going through the familiar motions without needing to think about them. She flinched several times while washing her face; the bruise left on her cheek was darkening readily, exacerbated as it had been from more than one blow. She hardly noticed the sting of the soap in the light wounds on her forearms, which had long since stopped bleeding and only oozed a little red when the drying blood was washed away.
Rather than soak in the tub, she simply toweled herself down and slipped into the robe. Kara was sitting exactly as he had been from the start—facing the door, sitting on the bench, his sheathed sword propped against the front of his shoulder where it could be quickly drawn if there was need for it.
“Your turn,” she said quietly.
“Are you sure you’ll feel all right with me washing up instead of watching the door?” he asked carefully.
“Yes. I’ll sit over here by the stove. I’m . . . still very cold.”
True to her word, she huddled close to the soothing warmth of the brick firebox, her eyes closed and her chin propped on her chest. She could identify what he was doing by the sounds—a series of quiet rustles to indicate that he was disrobing, the quiet click of the door sliding shut after he put his clothes outside, the hollow wooden thumping of the buckets and the slosh of the water. She was slightly tempted to peek, but she couldn’t seem to work up enough interest to actually do so. Against her will, her mind drifted back over and over to that terrible little closed-in courtyard, its tiny square of sky a cruel hint of freedom denied, the sour smell of the men’s bodies as they crowded her, the terrible black eyes—which had been so thoroughly destroyed, blood and fluid oozing from the sockets.
“Jurnia?” Kara’s voice said worriedly from a hundred miles away; she opened her eyes to see him crouching in front of her, dressed in his robe, one hand half-lifted toward her face. “Does it hurt?” he asked gently, his eyes shifting to the bruise on her cheek. “I can ask the innkeeper if he’s got anything that could help.” His hand—his clean hand, no longer stained with gore—moved a little closer, then fell away as if he were still afraid of tainting her flesh with spilled blood. She became aware that tears had been sliding down her face, and wiped at her cheeks with the sleeve of her robe. The pressure on the bruise made her grit her teeth as it throbbed, a large dull ache that seemed to consume half her face.
“Some ice, maybe,” she mumbled. “It hurts, but I’ll live.”
“I’ll see what can be done,” the little swordsman murmured. “But for now, let’s go back to the room.” Kara gracefully rose to his full height and beckoned her to follow. A quick glance showed that at some point, he’d returned the bench to its usual place.
Jurnia nodded. Hand coming up to make sure the neckline of her robe remained closed, she followed close on Kara’s heels. He made sure to take the back way. Not only would the traumatized Herald want to keep away from strangers, but he didn’t wish to be near others either. He had little desire to taint anyone else with his bloodstained presence.
The short journey was achieved in almost complete silence; the only interruption had been the little Lopayzom barking out to some hapless staff member who happened by his request for some ice to be brought to his room. Underneath the imposing mask of the assassin, Kara’s amber eyes took on a note of sadness at how fast the servant paled and practically fell all over himself in haste to get away and see to the request. In this town now, his harmless act was shown to be the true sham it was.
The ice came quickly enough once the two of them returned to their room. Tying some up in a cloth, Kara handed it to Jurnia. Leaving her to tend to her injury, he walked over to the door and sat down in front of it, pulling his sword free of his sash. As he’d done in the bathhouse, he rested it against his shoulder. For now, he would remain on guard—just in case.
“Aren’t you going to get uncomfortable sitting there on the floor for too long?” Jurnia inquired, wincing as she gingerly put the cloth to her cheek.
“I’ll be fine,” he said. Hearing the snap in his own voice, he drew a breath and repeated the words in a far gentler tone. “I’ll be fine, Lady Jurnia. If it helps your peace of mind, I can stay right here all night.”
“I won’t have much peace of mind knowing that you’re getting cramps in your back and a numb behind from sitting on the floor all night,” she said crisply, sounding a bit more like herself, as she sat down on her bed.
He inwardly sighed. Shifting his sheathed sword to rest against the floor, he used it like a cane and gracefully pulled himself back up to a standing position. He could already tell debating her would probably be a losing proposition; he didn’t have the will to further upset her. Settling down on the foot of his bed, he once again arranged himself in a sitting position; legs crossed, sword resting against his shoulder, the redheaded swordsman played sentinel while seated on something far softer than the mat-covered floor.
Jurnia only smiled fleetingly in approval rather than looking totally smug at having gotten her way. She laid the cold cloth aside so that she could comb her hair, the dark fire muted by its lingering dampness—though sitting beside the firebox had certainly taken much of the damp out of it. For several minutes, that was the only sound in the room.
“Are you going to just let your hair dry like that?” she said finally, looking across the small space between the beds. Uncharacteristically, he answered with a sort of idle grunt.
The next thing he knew, Jurnia was sitting just behind him, her hands careful as she started combing out his hair. “What are you doing?” he mumbled, surprised.
“What do you think I’m doing? I’m fixing your hair. If it gets all knotted up, it’ll look terrible.”
“I can live with that.”
“Well, I can’t,” she shot back irritably, though she didn’t yank on his hair to emphasize her point. “Just be still and let me concentrate on this.”
He submitted grudgingly, still unwilling to argue with her. If it made her a little happier to play with his hair, he would permit it, even though he was reluctant to let her pure body and spirit come too close to his own indelibly stained self. The stroke of the comb was soothing, a simple and repetitive thing that relaxed him a little.
“There,” Jurnia said finally, and he felt an odd sense of loss as she moved away, back to her own bed. “That’s much better.”
“Thanks,” he murmured. For a long moment, he kept his eyes on the door—though his Avatar senses were on the alert, the auras of the nearby people a shifting kaleidoscope of color and movement. Sensing no further threat, he finally shifted his gaze to his companion. “It’s still afternoon, but perhaps a nap will help?” he suggested, while doing his best to forget about how nice it felt with her combing through his hair.
“It’s late afternoon,” she pointed out with nit-picking precision, scooting around to lie down and pull up the covers, “but yes . . . I think a nap would be nice.” She had the cold cloth against her face again, half-hiding the ugly bruise. Just looking at the purplish mark on her fair skin filled his mind with flames. How dare that maggot hurt her. How dare he even touch her. His fist clenched on the cherrywood scabbard.
Some flicker of his aura made Jurnia glance at him. His amber eyes were fixed on her face, specifically her cheek; though his expression was mostly neutral, tiny lines at his brow and the corners of his mouth suggested a towering rage. His voice was very low and very much Khuradasu when he said, “I am sorry, Lady Jurnia. I failed to protect you.”
She sat bolt upright and very nearly threw the cloth at him by sheer reflex, but managed to keep her grip on it. “No, you didn’t. You got there in time and saved me from serious harm.”
“And if I had not?” he asked softly. “If I had not been careless, you would not have been in need of saving.” He reached out toward her face, but his hand stopped well short. “And you would not be hurt at all.”
“It was my fault,” she argued. “I should have gone with you. You told me at the outset that this was a dangerous town, no matter how ordinary it seemed on the surface.”
“If I had been doing my duty, I would not have let you out of my sight even for a moment.”
“You were trying to do me a favor.”
“I did you the ‘favor’ of getting you dragged off, hurt, and very nearly raped or murdered.” His eyes glittered with restrained anger. “I will not make another such error.”
“I’ll stay here even if it drives me insane,” she promised. “I won’t set foot out of the inn unless you’re with me, and I’ll be careful even if you are with me.”
“The only way to make certain that you’re safe is for me to remain with you at all times,” Kara pointed out.
“Well, you can’t. You have to go out and search for information, remember?”
“Doing so would put your safety at risk.”
“Not doing so would put my chieftain’s life at risk!” she snapped.
“You’ve sent a message to the Rookery, haven’t you?” Kara nodded at Jurnia’s mumbled reply in the affirmative. “Iryasitru is safe within its walls, among his people. You, on the other hand, are not enjoying the benefits of such an environment.”
“You promised,” she said coldly. “You promised you’d do anything you could to make sure this assassination attempt never takes place.”
“Your safety is more important.”
“No it’s not!” she exploded. “How would you feel if it were your chieftain’s life in danger? Iryasitru’s death will have consequences that reach all across Aizvarya! Protecting him is far more important than hovering over me!”
“Not to me, it isn’t,” Kara answered flatly, his eyes flickering with golden light.
Frustrated, Jurnia stared at the aggravating Lopayzom, her fists clenching on the covers. He loved her; he’d confessed it freely. He had no reason to care nearly as much for the rest of the Kaykolom—especially not the proud, stubborn chieftain who had nearly destroyed Kara’s entire clan. His anger at himself for his perceived failure was almost a palpable third presence in the room.
“You promised,” she whispered.
“I also promised to keep you safe, Lady Jurnia,” he said implacably, and her heart turned over heavily in her breast at the formal address. “Your danger is more immediate than the Raven’s.”
“Do you think I’m upset with you for what happened? I forgive you, Kara, I never even blamed you in the first place—”
“But I won’t forgive myself,” he cut her off.
In desperation, she played the only other card she had. “If you love me,” she whispered, “you’ll keep your promise to protect my chieftain.”
He continued to glare at her for what seemed to be an eternity. Then, slowly, the heavy atmosphere in the room lightened as the golden glow in his eyes began to dim. It’s as clear as unpolluted water that Iryasitru means much to her, he thought, though that notion grated on his nerves. And she is correct in pointing out that deflecting the danger to the Raven has consequences that reach further than the Kaykolom alone. I can’t be selfish, even in this. It’s just not my place . . .
He sighed, his gaze straying back toward the wood and paper door. Resting his hand lightly on his weapon, he continued, Father, even at his most protective, never hovered over me every moment, and we were actively hunted. Perhaps I’m overreacting. She’s stronger than most women, and skilled—but even the best among us . . . He let the thought fade away, feeling the anger rise again at the idea of her becoming hurt or worse. Yet when all was said and done, the fact remained that far more lives would be disrupted if the assassination of the Raven Chieftain was allowed to happen. “I can’t allow my selfishness to cause more sorrow in this world. I’m responsible for enough already,” he said, his voice having lost its steely edge. Amber eyes glanced back at the garnet-haired maiden. “I will continue to do what I can to disrupt the assassination, Lady Jurnia. And then I will see you safely home to the Rookery.”
Even with the bruise marring her face, her smile was a lovely thing to see. “Thank you, Kara,” she murmured. Before he quite knew what she was doing, she stepped into the small aisle between the beds and kissed him—a light, sweet touch that lasted only a moment.
She slipped back into bed, tugging the covers up as she settled in for her nap. “Wake me if I sleep past sundown,” she directed. “I’ll stay awake while you’re out. That’s probably safest.”
He barely nodded, golden gaze staring at her, free hand lifted up as if he were frozen trying to stop her. Then he lowered his hand and turned his attention to the doorway, his presence withdrawing into himself.
A few moments later, she said, “Kara?”
“Yes, Lady Jurnia?”
“You said something odd just now.”
“You said that you’d see me safely back to the Rookery.”
“Yes?” he said in a tone that indicated he was hoping she’d explain what she meant.
“You wouldn’t have been intending a silent addition of ‘and then I’ll continue on my way alone’, would you?”
“I know you just wouldn’t,” she said with a note of brittle cheer, “because you said you love me and you want me to be happy. I wouldn’t be happy if you left me at the Rookery and disappeared. Wouldn’t be happy at all. In fact, I think I would be very sad.”
He watched her out of the corner of his eye. She was lying on her back, gazing at the ceiling, with Lopzu hugged to her chest. Her expression was quite calm, almost detached.
“Do you know what would happen if you made me sad like that, Kara?”
He recalled talking to mountain folk in Aizkaur about the road conditions, because he was concerned about avalanches. One of them had told him that nine times out of ten, someone who saw an avalanche starting above them would be frozen to the spot, unable to do anything but watch the rocks or the snow coming toward them at high speed, because there was a deep primal sense that there was nothing they could do to evade or stop it. In exactly such a way, Kara was seeing a conversational boulder speeding down the slope of communication directly towards him, and just like those poor souls in the mountains, he was unable to think of anything to do which could convince it not to hit him.
“I would track you down,” Jurnia said sweetly. “I would call on all the resources of my entire clan and anything else I could think of and run you to ground, and once I caught you, I’d drag you straight to the Dragon Palace—kicking and screaming, in chains and slung over the back of a horse if necessary—and have His Grace the Fox order you to marry me.”
That doesn’t sound too bad, a little part of Kara’s mind remarked—a part quickly smothered in self-recrimination and guilt.
“And then,” she said, turning her head and fixing him with a deadly stare, “I would make you regret you’d ever even thought about leaving me.” She didn’t have to go into details. He looked into those gem-green eyes and his own imagination supplied a list of possibilities, each worse than the last.
Eeee. Finally, at last, all Kara could do was give her his sunniest smile. “Heh.”
Those verdant eyes only remained staring at him.
“Why would I be planning to get you to the Rookery and then leave you?” he asked finally, his voice the wanderer’s cheerfully confused tones as self-preservation leapt to his defense.
“Because you’ve been wallowing in your self-imposed miserable exile for so long that it’s gotten comfortable, I suppose,” was the tart reply.
“I wouldn’t—” he began, looking startled—and perhaps a bit hurt.
“If you even try to lie to me, Kara,” she murmured in those honeyed tones, “you won’t like what happens next.”
He shut his mouth. She nodded slightly as if in approval, then pulled the covers up to her chin and closed her eyes. Knowing that he was close by and watchful soothed her, made it possible for her to relax enough to sleep, dreamlessly.
“The sun’s going down. You wanted me to wake you, that you did.”
Jurnia opened her eyes. The light coming through the shutters was a deep red-orange, much the same color as Kara’s hair. Sitting up, she yawned and stretched, the covers sliding down to her waist. Her robe was open just enough to be distracting, until she noticed where his eyes were fixed and blushed, pulling the garment firmly closed and re-tying the belt.
Kara went to the door, then hesitated. “Are you certain you don’t want me to stay?”
“I would rather have you with me for the rest of my life,” Jurnia said forthrightly, “but there’s danger to my chieftain that has to be averted.”
For a moment, the Lopayzom stared back at her with as vacant and clueless an expression she’d ever seen on his pretty face. Then he brightly smiled, tugging open the door. “I did promise to do all I could to see this plot against His Grace the Raven fail, that I did. So you’re right. I really should be going now, Lady Jurnia.”
“Doesn’t it hurt your face to do that sometimes?” she inquired sweetly.
“Oh, no, not at all, Lady Jurnia. But thanks for the concern.” He stepped through the door, obviously working on a rapid escape.
“I love you, Kara,” she said, just loud enough for him to hear.
Those three simple words made him freeze in place. Amber eyes stared at her for a long moment, not clueless or frightening—just unfathomable. Then they closed as Kara sighed; he shook his head ruefully. “Your love is too precious a thing to waste on someone like me, that it is. And with your chieftain in danger, you have an obligation to remain focused on that. You are Iryasitru’s Chief Herald, after all.”
“Are you implying that I would have the poor judgment to love somebody who isn’t worthy of me?” she asked sweetly.
He opened his mouth to say something, then shut it, thinking better. Obviously nervous, he only smiled at her with the same sunny smile he used when playing his clueless role to the hilt.
“Well?” she inquired, even more sweetly, as she swung her legs over the edge and stood up.
“I really should be going now, Lady Jurnia, that I should,” Kara yipped. He stepped back and slammed the door shut.
Jurnia’s “I love you!” was audible through the door even after he’d closed it. She was nothing if not persistent.
Eeee, he thought to himself as he dashed down the hallway, his sock-clad feet making barely any sound at all on the reed-mat-covered floor. She unsettled him like none other; he was certain all his old comrades in the Dragon Army would be howling in laughter at how scary Khuradasu found one young Raven girl. They might also be somewhat confused by his own hesitation and reluctance to avail himself of Jurnia’s obvious affection. She was beautiful and willing, which would have been more than enough for most soldiers to happily take advantage of.
But that’s where he differed. He loved her as well, and part of that included a need to protect her from anything which would harm her. She wasn’t just any woman; she was of the Raven nobility, and a Herald and deserving of the fullest measure of respect. She was also the daughter of Chaiya, a woman he’d long known had been very special to his father. Too many were the reasons to not take advantage of her, both by his own choice and by what was truly proper. His old comrades might have called him crazy for refusing to do what both she and he clearly wanted, propriety be damned.
Kara sighed, shaking his head. He’d need to focus on his task, to play the menacing assassin. Dwelling on his internal confusion would only make things worse. He paused in his retreat from his room long enough to take a few deep, calming breaths, falling back on his training to center himself. The agitation quickly gave way to a menacing stillness as Kara drew around him those aspects of himself that made up the fearsome assassin lurking within.
The small room was L-shaped, the door in the corner at the bottom of the short side. The alcove that this arrangement created was just big enough for a small table and a plain chair. Jurnia had moved the small lamp to the table and settled in the chair to read a book. Passing the time while Kara was out promised to be boring, which was probably quite preferable to the kind of excitement she’d had lately.
It was very quiet, aside from the whisper-faint rustle of pages, so when a new sound became evident, Jurnia looked up at once. She frowned, glancing at the baseboards; the tiny scratching sound resembled that made by a small rodent, but she could see no movement in this area of the room. Cocking her head, she listened more carefully, then leaned forward to look around the corner of the wall. The movement was so tiny that she would have missed it if she hadn’t been alert—something was moving on the shutters over the window. Remaining still, rather than picking up the lamp or walking over to the window, Jurnia used other options available to her in order to see what most people couldn’t have seen.
Five points, she thought calmly. The lamplight probably can’t be seen, or the fact that nobody’s moving near the beds could be misleading.
The source of the sound and the flicker of movement was not some mouse or large insect. A stiff piece of thin wire, its end bent into a U-shape, wriggled through the crack between the shutters and slid upward very, very slowly. As it went, Jurnia rose just as slowly, snuffed the lamp, and picked up the chair, walking on catlike feet to set the chair down again with its back to the window. Sitting astride it, her elbows propped on the back rail, the young Herald rested her chin in her hands and watched with great interest as the bit of thin wire probed a moment, snagged the latch-hook, and tugged it gradually up out of the eye that formed the other half of the shutter’s fastening. The whole process took a good fifteen minutes.
Five points for patience.
Unhurried, Jurnia stood up again and picked up the chair by its two back legs, padding silently toward the window and finally stopping about three feet away.
With the latch freed, the wire hook eased back through the crack in the shutters. A few moments of near-silence passed; when the shutters began to swing slowly inward, the freshly oiled hinges didn’t make a sound.
Ten points for attention to details. She hoisted the chair up.
There was almost no light. The moon was dark, the stars mostly hidden behind a blanket of clouds, and the few lamps were down at ground level, offering very little illumination to the second floor of the inn. Nevertheless, there was more light outside than there was in the small room, and the man who clung to the window frame needed a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness.
Those eyes widened in a very satisfactory fashion as Jurnia smiled cheerfully at him, then brought the chair down.
The stillness of the night was broken by the very distinct sound of a cheap chair-back splintering over a man’s head, followed an instant later by a ferocious haranguing delivered in a voice well-accustomed to public speaking. It was possible that Jurnia could be heard on the far side of town as she bawled out the dazed, startled thief who was now dangling from his housebreaker harness. He yelped repeatedly as she punctuated her words with thwacks from one of the broken chair’s slats, drubbing him generously about the head and shoulders; he desperately raised his arms to protect his head from further blows, which had the additional effect of keeping him from grabbing hold of the window frame or scurrying back up the line that hung over the edge of the roof and secured his harness. He swung and twirled helplessly like a child’s toy, starting to yell in earnest as the terrible woman continued her tirade.
A small crowd was forming on the street below the window, a dozen or so fascinated pairs of eyes fixed on the remarkable scene. Watching a burglar get caught by his intended victim was often amusing, albeit very brief and somewhat gory. Watching a burglar get caught, scolded, and soundly thrashed was an entirely new form of entertainment.
The end result of the whole situation was talked about for years afterward, often embroidered. When Jurnia’s arm got tired from swinging the makeshift club, she drew back her other arm, violet light racing up to gather in her hand. The hapless thief, peering out from between the forearms he’d crossed over his face, yowled in terror before the Herald thrust her hand forward and released the concentrated energy.
With a pop like a bowstring breaking, the thief’s line snapped cleanly as Jurnia’s tightly focused and controlled force struck him, a bright comet of purple-blue light exploding against his chest and showering radiant sparks to the street below. A despairing, resigned wail followed him all the way across the street, where the front wall of the building opposite the inn impeded his further progress. He slid down the wall and crashed into the rain barrel, rear end first, limbs and head sticking up like an awkward flower arrangement as water splashed out of the barrel.
“And stay out!” Jurnia shouted, leaning out of the window and shaking her fist emphatically. She was startled by a round of applause and scattered cheers from the onlookers, but gave a gracious nod in acknowledgement of their admiration before closing the shutters and fastening the latch again. Giving the ruin of the sacrificed chair a wistful look, she went back to the table to fetch her lamp and her book. She’d have to read in bed after all.
The little swordsman grimly smiled, amber eyes glaring over the faintly glowing steel of his defensively-held blade. Whatever was going on to make Jurnia’s aura feel battle-ready and focused, it seemed to be well in hand. There was no sense of panic from the distant violet star, just anger and satisfaction. She is a strong one, he reminded himself, a sense of relief sweeping through him. Now I can concentrate on this.
The thug stared back, his small brown eyes burning with confidence and determination. The lower half of his coarse visage was hidden behind a veil of dark cloth. The rest of his clothing was black as well, blending into the stormy night. His tall and rather bulky form filled up the narrow alley a number of paces away.
Kara eased his lithe form into a battle stance, hand hovering over his weapon’s hilt. Interrupted in his rumor-gathering at one of the nearby tavern—even with Jurnia awake and promising to be alert, he’d felt uncomfortable going too far from the inn—by the sensation of her aura flaring, the Lopayzom had hastily paid his bill and left. Slipping into a back alley that was a more direct route to the Fighting Fish Inn, he’d had his way blocked by a somberly-clad warrior with drawn weapons. The assassin’s off hand clutched a deadly-looking long dagger while the other hand bore a mid-sized blade from the pommel of which dangled a long length of iron chain.
Golden energy glowed within Kara’s eyes as he settled fully into the almost trance-like state at the heart of his sword-art; here, all was observation and reaction, a fluid dance revolving about the flow of spirit energy around him. His challenger was poised, ready, just waiting for the right moment to strike.
A heavy cloud high above the Shadow Clan town found its burden of water too much to bear any longer. Heavy raindrops began to fall, few and scattered; the gentle sounds as they splashed against the earthen alleyway appeared to be a signal for which the heavyset killer was waiting.
He rushed forward a couple of steps, adding momentum to his throwing of the dagger. Kara’s edgeless weapon was drawn in the blink of an eye; the slim projectile spiraled off with a clang as the Lopayzom intercepted the knife’s path. The black-clad warrior’s free hand instantly grasped the length of chain. A few snaps of the wrist and the iron links whistled through the air in a circle, centrifugal force being added to their mass. Before his redheaded opponent finished his follow-through, the chain was sent rushing at the target.
Iron wrapped itself like a python around Kara’s slender form. Having sensed the attack, he’d jammed his left hand up towards his neck; though he kept himself from being choked or having his neck snapped by a yank on the chain, the Lopayzom was hindered by his off hand being pinned against his chest, though his sword-arm remained free. He glared coolly at his attacker. “A mid-ranked assassin of Zarya, I assume,” Kara murmured. Since this was a situation where the Lopayzom himself was the prey, the other manhunter wasn’t obligated by custom and professional honor to introduce himself to his fellow warrior. Noting only a smirk in reply, Kara continued, “So which are you? Brave or foolish? I assume you know your prey.”
At the mention of his target’s identity, the bulky warrior’s expression took on overtones of satisfaction and greed. Grunting, he yanked back hard on the chain.
“Both, then,” the redheaded swordsman said in answer to himself. His foe was obviously looking forward to not only the money involved but also the glory at besting the Demon’s Claw. Focusing his energy with a shout, Kara severed the iron chain the moment it reached maximum tautness without pulling him from his stance. His gleaming sword blasted through the metal links like a hot knife through butter; as the chain around his arm and neck relaxed and clattered to the ground, the bigger assassin tumbled backwards from the abrupt slack.
The Lopayzom rushed forward, taking advantage of the situation. But the other warrior was faster than his bulk would imply; metal clanged out into the night as the Zaryan assassin blocked Kara’s downward swing. A backslash attempted to lacerate the redhead’s lower legs; Kara nimbly leapt back, jumping over the weapon, then fluidly settled into a battle stance the moment his feet touched ground.
The big assassin grabbed what remained of the chain. Using it like a whip, he lashed out at his target. As the boyish redhead leapt nimbly aside, the black-clad man rushed forward like a bull.
Sunset hair swirled as the Lopayzom first dodged the skewering attempt by the smallest of margins then spun in a fast, tight circle. The ominously glowing edgeless blade connected hard just under the Boar-blooded assassin’s armpit. The man’s large bulk went sailing as if he weighed far less; he smacked hard against the wall of one of the surrounding buildings. Paper ripped and wood splintered as the big man crashed through.
Golden eyes faintly gleaming in the stormy night, Kara settled smoothly into another ready stance. Rainwater trickled down his skin and dripped off clothing and hair as the Lopayzom waited, defensive. The Boar at first attempted to struggle out of the mess, but then he groaned and collapsed. Must not be as pure-blooded a Boar as some, Kara mused, well aware of that northern clan’s reputation for stubborn violence.
The sound of polite clapping pulled Kara from his thoughts. Instantly he turned to face the noise, sword coming up at the ready even though the observer’s aura showed no sign of hostile intent. If anything, the Weasel seemed amused. “Not bad. Not bad at all,” the man said, his smarmy-looking face looking quite pleased. “Though I’m surprised Khuradasu allows people to live these days. I never thought you’d be the type to just settle for a maiming.”
The Fox swordsman glared. The other man was obviously referring to the incident earlier that day. “And you are?”
“Vashtu. I’m the field agent.”
Kara relaxed slightly. “So this was a test?”
“More or less,” the dark-haired man admitted. “Standard procedure, you know.”
“I’m interested in the job.”
“So it’s been said. However . . .” The field agent gestured towards the hole in the building.
“Indeed. So where shall we meet for the details?”
The Weasel rummaged around in one of his sleeve pockets. Pulling out a folded piece of paper, he tossed it toward the red-haired warrior. “I should be going,” he added as Kara deftly caught the object. “I need to report in.”
The Lopayzom nodded in silent agreement. Sensing people beginning to stir in earnest within the ruined structure, Kara stuffed the note into a pocket and quickly sheathed his sword.
“A pleasure to meet you, Khuradasu,” Vashtu smirked. He then waved and disappeared into the rainy night.
Frowning faintly, the little swordsman hurried on toward the inn. He wanted to assure himself that Jurnia was all right.
Jurnia. The name evoked a number of images: her smile, the sound of her voice and her laughter, her graceful beauty and indomitable spirit. He loved her, of that there was no doubt. But he was torn between his very carnal desire for her and his need to protect her. Rain soaked through his clothing, plastering his hair to his head and ran down his skin in thin rivulets—but his mind remained focused on his thoughts of the dark-haired Herald.
She deserved so much more than the attention of a man who had thrown away his social status and lived as a homeless wanderer. Her attraction was based solely upon the memory of an impressionable youngster; that she apparently still desired him even after seeing so much of the darkness within him just that afternoon puzzled him. She just doesn’t know any better, he told himself as he entered the inn’s walled grounds.
He started heading for the room where she’d be waiting, but two images made him hesitate. The first was the thought that she was there, dressed in a thin sleeping robe with the neckline gaping in an innocently provocative manner. The second was the sight of her agitated at his coming back wet from the rain; she’d immediately be there hovering near him, making sure nothing worse had happened while telling him at nearly the top of her voice how silly he was not getting out of the rain. The twin pictures combined in his mind into the thought of her agitated by desire, her skin blushing while her sleeping robe slid down—
He shook his head suddenly, doing his best to shove the arousing images aside. He wanted her, badly; he wasn’t worthy of her, not being the bloodstained vagabond he’d become. Feeling both lightheaded and flushed, he paused for a moment in his tracks. He couldn’t return to their room, not like this.
Kara took a deep, shuddering breath, trying to cool his heated blood. This won’t do at all, that it won’t . . . He lurched forward, heading to the courtyard in the center of the inn’s complex. The well was located there, a convenient source of fresh water for the staff and patrons. At the moment, he needed some.
The little swordsman stopped under the eaves sheltering the wooden deck surrounding the main building. He shrugged out of his rain-dampened clothing and set the garments aside. His sleek form clad only in his loincloth, he stepped out to the well and worked on pulling up the bucket by its strong, rough rope.
With a splash, he dumped the contents of the bucket over his head. The cold water helped some with his almost frightening desire, taking the edge off the heat. He let the bucket fall back into the depths of the well; making no attempt to shake off the excess, he let the wooden container fill and then started pulling on the rope again.
He concentrated his mind on the simple action of drawing more water. Once again he’d let his bloodlust get the better of himself and someone had lost their eyesight as a result. And now he couldn’t rid himself of his desire for his traveling companion. Love was a frightening thing, stirring depths never touched before within. His affair with Ziraisha had been the excitement of the new fueled by teenaged lust, but this was something else entirely.
Splash. More almost icy cold water sloshed over him as he emptied the bucket over his head. Rain still fell on him, the drops feeling just a bit warmer than his now chilled skin. The bucket fell back into the well’s depths as he stood there exposed to the storm.
She deserved so much better. She deserved the love of someone who could take care of her and pamper her, not some vicious assassin living in self-imposed exile. She needed to stop being blinded by her idealized image of a warrior that never existed and move on to someone who could truly make her happy. Her words from when they parted hung over his head like a bared sword. How could she think of settling for someone as unworthy as I? I don’t understand.
He stood as still as a statue, ignoring the rain and the cold night air. Head bowed, wet hair plastered to him, he remained internally focused. I love her and I want what’s best for her—and I’m not it. No, the best thing for her is to save her chieftain, take her home and then let her go. She’ll be hurt at first, and furious, but in time she’ll see the truth. I’ll always love her, but I’m not the one for her. I’ll only disappoint her when she discovers the true person lurking within.
He was so wrapped up in his thoughts that he didn’t hear the light step on the deck behind him. There was a faint, steady tapping that went on for some time, which he also ignored. His first realization of someone else’s presence was a touch on his back—compared to his icy hide, it felt like a burning brand.
“What in the name of the Goddess do you think you’re doing?!” Jurnia inquired, her voice going from a too-sweet murmur up to the top of her lungs as she progressed through the sentence.
He jumped. The best assassin in living memory, a man who scared the hell out of the forces of an entire province, figuratively leapt out of his chilled skin because he’d been taken so completely by surprise. Amber eyes huge, his face drained of all color, he whipped around to face the source of the intrusion—but he was so rattled he stumbled over his own feet. Arms suddenly flailing wildly, he tried in vain to regain his balance. With a soggy thud, Kara hit the water-soaked grass blanketing the courtyard. Rendered mute by his astonishment, he could only gape stupidly up at the obviously agitated Kaykolom maiden. Jurnia seemed to tower over him from his sprawled position, her fists on her hips, feet planted apart. Rather than a sleeping robe, she was again dressed in normal clothing, her hair tumbling loose down her back to frame her face as she glowered down at him.
“It’s pouring rain out here and you’re standing in the courtyard dumping water straight from the well over yourself! Have you utterly lost your mind? Are you looking to catch your death of a lung fever?” She reached down and grabbed him under the shoulders, hauling him upright, scowling at him. “If you were any colder, I’d be looking for an undertaker!” One slender hand caught his upper arm.
Jurnia pushed, hard.
Ignoring his yelp, she propelled him to the deck and into the shelter of the overhang. Touching his clothes, she gave a disgusted snort, then ungraciously thrust his trousers into his hands. “Put these on and go down to the bathhouse,” she ordered. “I’m going to fetch the towels and your robe.”
He opened his mouth. She stepped so close that her nose was almost touching his, green eyes blazing. “Don’t. You. Dare. Argue,” she said through her teeth, so quietly that even he could barely hear her.
“Yes, milady,” he meekly said and started struggling into his pants, the wet cloth sticking to his skin and hindering the process. Jurnia whirled with a fine flare of her unbound hair and marched down the walkway toward the door.
A few minutes later, he was standing in the bathhouse, cold water dripping off him, his wet shirt dangling from one hand and his sword’s scabbard in the other. The expression on his face was similar to that of a man facing his executioner. The door banged open and Jurnia strode in, a pair of towels and a robe over one arm, the soap jar in the other hand. She scooted the door shut behind her with one foot and stalked over to the firebox, laying the towels and robe down carefully on the warmed tiles before turning back to him.
With a scalding look, she snapped the shirt out of his hand. “Pants off. What is the matter with you?”
Ignoring his attempt to answer, she swept onward, “What kind of idiot walks around in the rain and then tries to have a bath in the well? Do you want to get sick? And what are these—” Her tone abruptly changed from aggravated to concerned as she tossed his clothes aside and took hold of his left forearm, looking at the red indentations the chain links had left in his flesh. “What are these marks?”
Kara’s gaze shifted to whatever it was that had caught her attention. Noting the marks, he hoped his long red hair hid the other ones around the back and sides of his neck. “Heh,” he nervously laughed, giving her a bright, clueless smile. “Nothing really. You don’t need to be concerned about those.”
“I didn’t ask if I should be concerned about them, I asked what they are.” She glanced up to glare at him. If his hair hadn’t been tied in its usual topknot, the rain might have plastered it closely enough to conceal more of his neck, but as it was, her eyes dropped from his face to his throat. Unceremoniously, she caught his chin with her free hand and turned his head first one way and then the other to get a better look at the sides of his neck. “What happened?”
Again the nervous laughter as he tried to retreat from her grasp on his chin. “I, uh, ran into a little trouble with a chain on my way back here.”
“A chain? What kind of ‘trouble with a chain’ would put marks like this—” She swiveled his head to face her again, her eyes wide. “Did someone attack you?”
He gave her a bright, nervous smile. “If you must know, yes, someone did. But it’s nothing to worry about, that it is not.”
“Are you all right? Are you hurt? Who did it? Was it one of those thugs from earlier today? Did you have to hurt them?” In the middle of her rapid, distracted delivery, she soaked a washcloth in one of the buckets of cool water inside the door and started dabbing carefully at the marks to wash the dirt away from the reddened flesh. The change from righteous outrage to solicitous concern was startling, if at least a little less embarrassing.
Eeee, he could only think as her barrage of questions hit him. Staring at her a bit glassy-eyed, he watched as she wet down the washcloth, then closed his eyes at the cool touch on his neck. “I’m all right and you’re looking at the worst of the hurt,” he murmured. “And no, it wasn’t any of those men from earlier, that it wasn’t. It was someone else entirely.” He couldn’t help but relax a bit; it felt nice in a way having her obviously concerned and hovering over him.
“I hope you taught them a lesson,” she said fiercely, her hands still very gentle as she worked. “One they won’t soon forget. What exactly happened?”
“Well, I did send him crashing through the side of a building, so I don’t think he’ll quickly forget,” Kara responded, his soft voice sounding a bit amused. “I was challenged in an alleyway, so there really wasn’t much room. A shame about the building, really.”
That made Jurnia hesitate for a fraction of a second. Kara was nearly naked, his body plainly visible to her, and he still didn’t look like the sort of man who could put another man through an exterior building wall. He was definitely muscular, but he wasn’t some massively-built hulk. He was lean and graceful, almost delicate-looking, but the shoulder under her hand felt as solid as a stone. It was another reminder that he wasn’t entirely what he seemed to be—not harmless airhead, not girlish weakling . . . not murderous monster. She was looking into his eyes from only a few inches away, her breathing quick, her cheeks taking on a rosy hue, and she couldn’t manage to answer if her life had depended on it.
“But there’s nothing to worry about. The whole thing was more or less the calling card of the person wanting to hire the Demon’s Claw. Such a test of strength is typical.” He paused for a moment, the amber eyes staring at her quizzically. “Lady Jurnia? Is everything all right?”
“You could have been badly hurt,” she managed to whisper. Without her quite knowing how it had gotten there, her free hand was touching his cheek now, her fingers just brushing his skin.
“But I wasn’t, so you shouldn’t be looking like it’s the end of the world.” His cheeks were pinking nicely with a blush. “You’re much prettier when you smile, that you are.” He gulped, feeling all his hard work at the well disappearing. “And since you’ve dragged me in here, I feel like warming up now, that I do.”
Before she could blink, he was backpedaling away from her. Obviously in something of a panic, he efficiently stripped off his clothing and almost dove into the tub. Of course, doing so without tossing a stool in first caused him to go almost completely under the steaming water when he tried to sit.
It took a colossal effort to hold still, when what she really wanted to do was throw her arms around him and kiss him until they were both out of breath and then—
She gave a tiny gasp, shaking her head slightly as if to clear it. “Y-yes, you should. You’re much too cold . . .” Her voice trailed off in a little squeak as he divested himself hastily of his loincloth and jumped into the tub. “Well,” she heard herself say inanely, “you got mostly washed off by the rain and your silly stunt at the well, so you aren’t going to get much dirt in the tub, at least.”
He came back up spluttering for breath, shifting himself so that he was actually kneeling against the bottom. Her dreamy, wonderful warrior looked even more silly at the moment, his topknot soaking wet and plastered over his face while he waved his arms in the bath and tried blowing the wet hair away from his nose and mouth. So much for the scariest assassin in Aizvarya.
Even in the middle of her emotional confusion, that couldn’t help but make her laugh. He really did look terribly silly flailing around like that. Giggling, she picked up a bath stool and walked over to the edge of the tub. “Would this help?”
“Would what help?” he innocently asked, reaching up with a hand to scrape his wet hair away from his eyes. Noting she held a stool, he smiled. “Oh. Yes, I think so. Even as an adult, I seem to be a bit short for most baths.”
“I’ve noticed that.” She dropped the stool in the water next to him, suddenly blushing again. The water distorted the lines of his body, but certainly didn’t hide them completely.
“You know . . .” He fumbled around a bit, getting himself perched comfortably, then looked up at her with a wide-eyed, innocent expression. “If you’re cold too, you could sit in the tub as well. I promise I won’t bite or anything. Or you can go back to the room. I’m only going to warm up and then go there myself. I’m not going to go back out.”
If I sit in the tub, she thought wildly, we’re both going to wind up much warmer than we’d originally planned. “I’m—I’m all right, really. I’m more worried about you.” She paused. “Why in the world were you dumping ice-cold water over yourself, anyway? You haven’t answered that question yet.”
He stared up at her for a long moment, then merely gave her one of his infuriatingly sunny clueless smiles.
“Stop that. Just answer the question.”
“You won’t like the answer, that you won’t,” he warbled.
“I don’t like not knowing the answer either, so what’s the difference?”
“It’s safer for me?”
She studied him for a long moment, then reached out, took a double handful of his hair, and dunked him firmly underwater. “It is?” she inquired sweetly, hoisting him back up.
“Arara,” he yelped once she hauled him back out of the water. Of course the sound was a bit on the soggy side, what with bathwater running over his face. He sputtered a moment, catching his breath, before staring up at her with a whipped-puppy expression on his pretty face.
“Oh, don’t do that!” she half-groaned. “Just answer me, already!”
“If you must know, I was both trying to cool my ardor and punish myself.”
She stared at him for a few long moments. He could almost read her mind right through her eyes, which at least meant that he had just enough forewarning to take a deep breath before she ducked him again, green eyes ablaze. “You what?!” she railed. “Punish yourself? Punish yourself? What for? And exactly how did your . . . your ardor become a problem?!”
He flailed about while she held him under, then came up sputtering again once she deemed fit to release him. “I told you you’d not like the answer, that I did!”
At least she wasn’t holding him down until he stopped bubbling. “What were you punishing yourself for?” she demanded.
“For being myself, that’s what,” he shot back. His amber eyes lost some of their softness as she caught a spark of the frigid temper usually shown when he was playing his Demon’s Claw role to the hilt.
“What a stupid thing to do. Why punish yourself for being who you are? There’s nothing wrong with you!”
He looked at her like she’d suddenly sprouted an extra head. “There’s plenty wrong with me. I’m a bloody murderer, Jurnia.”
“I seem to recall that you’ve only ever really killed people in wartime. Yes?”
He started to say something heated, then thought better of it. Slumping back against the side of the tub, he reluctantly agreed, “Yes. I made my vow to not intentionally kill again before the Dragon-Phoenix War was over.”
“Things aren’t normal in a time of war. So you’ve killed soldiers, who know the risk they’re taking, and assassinated people whose removal might have saved the lives of hundreds of other men. Yes?”
“Yes.” He crossed his arms over his chest, still sullen.
“So how does this make you such a bloody-handed maniac?”
“What about innocents caught in the middle? Some poor soul who happened to get in the way of an assassination target and gets cut down as well? What then?”
She looked at him for a long moment. “You’re human, aren’t you?”
He glanced down at himself. “Last time I checked. I think. I’m not furry enough to be an actual fox.”
“Human beings make mistakes. Accidents happen. Have you ever deliberately killed an innocent person when it wasn’t necessary?”
He stared at her for a long time. “That depends on how you define necessary,” he finally said, voice hardly over a whisper.
She stared back, then hooked a stool over and sat down on it, folding her arms on the edge of the tub and propping her chin on her hands. “Tell me.”
“Ara?” He blinked at her in astonishment, suddenly confused.
“Tell me what happened,” she said, very gently. There was nothing ominous or challenging in her eyes now, just a sort of open calmness.
“When you started wondering how to define ‘necessary’.”
“I meant, how do you define ‘necessary’? I was following my orders. That’s how I knew what needed to be done.”
She reached out and caught his chin gently on the edge of her hand. “You did something that wasn’t ‘necessary’, then? You killed a person that you weren’t expressly ordered to kill?”
“Not . . . exactly,” he replied, golden gaze taking on a haunted look. “My orders had always been ‘no witnesses’. But, Jurnia, they were only children; they should have been safe and happy being home instead of being terrorized and then slaughtered by a bloody-bladed monster in their midst.” Kara’s sunlit aura felt odd in the Kaykolom maiden’s Avatar senses, taking on an agitated flux usually associated with raving lunatics. Outwardly, however, he remained somber, calm and grave; only his eyes reflected the deep reaction the memory invoked.
“Oh, Kara,” she whispered, closing her eyes in horror for a moment. A wave of sorrow swept through her—not only for the unnamed children, but for Kara himself, who was as much a victim as they for all that he still breathed. “Mother always said that war exacts a harsh price from everyone touched by it . . .”
“Yes, well, what does it matter?” he replied, voice suddenly the assassin’s soft but steely tones. He shifted slightly, unconsciously pulling back from her; his aura faded out to near-illegibility and his expression became unreadable. “Weapons don’t care about their future. They know only their purpose and the pauses between the bloodshed.”
“You’re not a weapon!” she flared, sick at heart. “You’re a person, a good person. You should never have had to do something so much against your nature. But what happened . . . you were trapped by your orders into doing it.” She reached out again to touch his face. “There was no good way out of that situation.”
He refused to look at her, his mouth tightening slightly at her touch. “I am a weapon,” he said, voice still far too quiet. “As for the children . . . there were a hundred little things I could have done to even keep it from happening, but I didn’t. And I slaughtered them as a result. Even their mother’s blood is on my hands; I heard she suicided within days because the pain of losing her daughters and husband all at once was too much for her to bear.”
He suddenly shook his head, pulling away from her touch. “My nature is to be a killer, Jurnia. Nothing will ever change that.” He turned his head away, staring off to the side.
“It was her decision not to cope. She could have chosen another way, but she didn’t, and that wasn’t something you had control over. You may have killed, but you’re not a killer at heart. I’ve seen people like that, and you’re nothing like them at all.” She tried to touch him again, aching with grief for what he’d endured.
“You’re naïve, Jurnia,” he said flatly, without looking at her as he caught her wrist and pushed her hand away. “And this conversation is getting us nowhere. I know what I am, and all your well-meaning platitudes can’t change that knowledge. Go upstairs. I’ll be along shortly.”
Jurnia stared at him in shock for a moment. “I will not be sent to my room like a misbehaving child!”
“That’s true. You’re certainly not a child. But you will be sent to your room nevertheless, and you will stay there.”
She could hardly believe what she was hearing. He’d . . . switched off, somehow, going so far into the assassin’s persona that she couldn’t glimpse the real Kara in there. “I don’t take orders from you,” she said, knowing even as she said it that the words sounded weak and foolishly defiant.
“Go upstairs, Jurnia.”
“I love you,” she whispered, hurting inside.
He closed his eyes without turning his head. “I will protect you from anything that threatens you,” he said softly. “Even myself.”
“But you don’t—”
The tone struck her like a whip, making her flinch and pull away, getting to her feet. She wasn’t afraid of Khuradasu, but it was suddenly obvious that she had made a terrible mistake, that she’d torn open a scar in his memory and reawakened a deep, painful wound. He wanted her to go; after her disastrous error, giving him his privacy was probably the only thing she could do. She felt almost queasy as she crossed the latticework floor and opened the door to step outside.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered before closing the door behind her.
She was still awake when the door of the room opened quietly. She was lying on her side, facing the wall, with the little stuffed fox cuddled tightly against her and the covers pulled up almost to her chin, trying to make herself as small as possible. The pain she’d inadvertently caused him had been hanging in the room like an unwanted guest; it had followed her from the bathhouse all the way up the stairs and through the hallways. Hearing the door slide open and Kara’s soft steps entering the room seemed to crowd the place, and Jurnia curled up even smaller. She’d stopped crying by now, though part of her pillow was damp.
She was obviously miserable and tears had fallen. Upset and sadness clung accusingly to her dark purple aura, causing an ache in his heart worse than that the bloodstained memory had invoked. He inwardly winced, unable to ignore her pain or maintain as far a distance as he’d resolved. Though he tried to tell himself her shifting in the bed was due to fear of him, he couldn’t convince himself of it. No, what she feared was hurting him further.
The soft sounds against the reed mats continued until they were right next to her bed. His presence was right there, within touching distance physically but so far away by Avatar senses. He remained silent, unreadable, watching her for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, however, he knelt down before her bed.
The touch of his fingers upon her cheek was gentle—perhaps even affectionate. No trace remained of the harshness that had forced her to retreat. He ran his fingertips over the tracks of her tears. “There’s no reason to cry for me, Jurnia,” he murmured.
“Yes, there is,” she mumbled into the pillow. “They just died. You had to live with what happened, and it’s been eating at you all this time. You didn’t deserve that.”
He gently sighed. “I deserved it. I should have been more careful, and so I paid the price of my stupidity.”
“Are you planning on letting what happened tear you up for the rest of your life?”
His hand kept stroking her cheek; he seemed to be doing so without thinking—confirmation that underneath it all, his desire to be close to her was genuine, natural. “I drift from place to place. I no longer plan. If anything, I expect a very short life.”
“Why?” The question was almost childishly direct, underscored with a trace of Jurnia’s frustration. She was trying to understand, one had to give her credit for that, but she had never been in a position like his.
A flicker of a smile graced his lips. He shifted position, sitting tailor on the mat-covered floor and staring up at her. “Because I’m a warrior, born and bred from a long line of warriors. Even should I not someday fall on a battlefield somewhere, my techniques burn large amounts of spirit energy. Some day, I may burn too much for this flesh to support. I live homeless now, constantly exposed to the elements, which is a lifestyle harsh on one’s body. I grew up hunted, always expecting to die young. I’m comfortable with that fact.”
She rolled over abruptly, pushing herself up onto one elbow and glowering at him, her rumpled hair falling around her face. The imposing effect was slightly ruined by the small stuffed fox that she was still hugging against her. “I’m not!”
“Why?” He tilted his head, regarding her quizzically. “You hardly know me when you get down to it. And a bloody death when one’s full of life is something every warrior must accept as a possibility.”
“Why? Why? You have to ask?” She shook her head angrily. “It shouldn’t be that way.”
Still the faint smile remained on his face. “Then how should it be, Lady Herald?”
“It . . . just shouldn’t be like that.” She huddled down into the blankets, hugging Lopzu against her.
“What? You don’t think those warriors who put their very lives on the line for honor, loyalty and the defense of those in need should be prepared to end their lives on the battlefield?”
“This isn’t a battlefield!” she shouted at him. “This is the rest of your life we’re talking about!”
He blinked at her, the stony, faintly amused expression shifting to the utter and absolutely adorable cluelessness of his wanderer persona. “Ara?” he chirped. “We are?”
“Um, okay . . .” He blinked a couple of more times, certainly still confused, his tone inviting her to explain a bit more.
“Do you know what really gets to me?” she asked, apparently talking to Lopzu. “When we’re having a perfectly normal conversation one minute, and the next minute, the bottom falls out of his head.”
“Ara?” Kara yelped, looking faintly insulted.
“You are nowhere near as horrible as you seem to think you are.”
“You seem so certain about someone you’ve only really known a few weeks,” he pointed out.
“That’s because with some people, you just know,” she answered haughtily.
That caused him to raise an orange eyebrow up questioningly. “Oh you do, huh?”
He shook his head slightly, then reached up and brushed her cheek once more. “I’m sorry.”
“For being the cause of your tears.”
“I’m sorry for . . . for making you think about the past, I suppose.”
He elegantly shrugged. “It’s all right.”
“No, it’s not all right. You were upset.”
“It is all right. Honest.” He gracefully rose to his feet, seeming less closed, more like his normal self now. “But we both should get some sleep.” He walked over to where his clothes lay neatly folded and began rummaging around in the pocket of a sleeve.
“I don’t suppose you found out anything more tonight?” Jurnia inquired, watching him curiously.
“Actually . . .” He pulled the folded paper from its cloth confines. “The field agent was satisfied with my demonstration, and gave me this.” He waved the piece of paper in Jurnia’s direction.
“Field agent? Demonstration? What in the world—wait, the man who attacked you was just . . . testing you or something?”
“More or less,” Kara replied, smiling a bit. “Assassinations are a profession, like any other, after all.”
“It seems like a rather odd sort of . . . of interview. Though I suppose it does make sense.” She rubbed the sleeve of her robe across her face, wincing slightly as she put pressure on the bruise, then settled down again. “What are you going to do next?”
“Read this,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. Dropping his shirt to the floor, he walked over to his bed and sat upon the edge. He unfolded the paper, amber gaze scanning over the writing neatly penned there. Jurnia stayed in bed as long as she could stand before leaning precariously over to try getting a glimpse of the paper.
The calligraphy was even, precise, the hand of one used to communicating through writing. The instructions were much what he’d expected, and he felt a slight sense of relief that there were no surprises there. Aware of the violet aura attempting to shadow him, Kara inwardly chuckled. Just like a Raven to be curious.
He shifted toward her, gaze lifting to her slender form. “An hour past sundown, I’m to go to the location listed here and meet with the field agent whose assassin tested my skills earlier. He’s to give me half the fee and the details of the assignment then. I am, of course, to meet with him alone,” he said, voice stressing the final word.
“Alone?” she said sharply. “Isn’t that dangerous? I think I should go with you. I’ll stay out of sight, but I don’t think you should go alone.”
He stared at her for a long time, blinking in astonishment. “You just don’t get it, do you? And after what happened today, you want to trail along after me to a meeting where you can’t be there next to me every moment?”
She glared. “I don’t get what, exactly? And I’ll be much more careful this time.”
“You’re a Herald. Your profession often means you have to go, alone, to meetings with hostile parties. How would you feel if suddenly I was always insisting on being there, even at those meetings where protocol dictates you go alone?”
“I won’t be hanging off your arm. I think I should be somewhere nearby, just in case.”
“Do you honestly think I can’t take care of myself?”
“I didn’t say that!” she flared. “I just . . . don’t think it’s a good idea for you to go do this alone.” Her pride would not let her say what she was truly thinking—I don’t want to be alone. I’m afraid. I don’t feel safe in this place without you.
“And I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to come along.” He frowned, the amber eyes faintly glowing. “What happened to that promise about staying here in this room? I feel you’d be safer here than coming to a meeting I don’t think will take long in the first place. Remember, these people are working to arrange a hit on your chieftain. What if they should recognize who you are?”
She made a face as he reminded her of the promise. “Where is it supposed to be? Is it nearby?”
“Relatively. Not far from the main path to the town from the heart of Zarya there’s a clearing in the forest that has a single tree growing at the foot of the pond in the center of it. It’s one of five established so-called secret meeting places where the Shadow Clans get together for such business, and just out of earshot to the path and the main gate of the town.”
“How long should this take?”
“From leaving here to returning to the room? No more than an hour, probably closer to three-quarters an hour. It’s not like we assassins sit back and talk one another’s ears off with the latest gossip.” He softly chuckled, a bit of his wanderer persona shining through.
“So I should wait at least an hour before I get worried?” The look in her eyes suggested she was already worried.
He sighed, folding the paper back up and setting it aside. Turning to face her, she could see that she had his full attention now. “I don’t anticipate trouble, especially after the rampages Khuradasu has been on today. If anything, most people would be nervous about what I’d do to them. But if I don’t return in an hour, then you’ll know something’s not right. I would never leave you here, alone, Jurnia. You know at the least I would insist on seeing you safely home to Kaykolvayshti.”
The young Raven reached out to touch his hand. “That makes me feel better, except for the part that implies you’d take me to the Rookery and leave me there.”
He gave her one of his superficial, sunny, clueless smiles even as he turned over the hand she touched in order to gently grasp hers. “I did say that would be the least, not the most . . .”
She pulled his hand up and feathered a kiss across the back of it. “Be careful.”
He blushed, then carefully pulled his hand from her grasp. “I shall, but that’s not until tomorrow night. Right now . . .” He patted the bed. “I’m going to get some sleep. You should too, that you should.”
“What, together?” She gave him a wide-eyed look of exaggerated innocence that was somewhat ruined by the wicked glint in those emerald depths.
He blushed even more, a slightly wide-eyed panicked look on his face. “Yes, but in separate beds, of course.” He glanced toward the door, wondering if perhaps he should make a dash back out to the well for a couple more buckets of water to douse over himself. Vixen . . .
“Well, that takes all the fun out of it,” Jurnia said with a little pout.
He swallowed hard at the word “fun”. “Of course it does. It’s just not right, us having that sort of fun. It’s just not proper, that it most certainly is not.”
Driven by some devilish little urge, she reached out and trailed a finger down his chest, over the small triangle of skin exposed by the robe. “Proper? No. Pleasant? I’d hope so.”
“Jurnia,” he squeaked, even more nervous. Quick as lightning, he snatched her exploring hand in his, then held it captive in his surprisingly strong grasp. “Please. I really need to get some sleep so that I’m fully alert and awake for that meeting tomorrow dusk. Or would you rather have me fuzzy-headed and addlepated when I’m trying to get the details of this attempt to murder your chieftain?”
“No. But you’ll have all day to sleep,” she pointed out sweetly.
And all night to try. He frowned, turned her loose, and rather pointedly began burrowing under the covers of his bed.
It became difficult to get away when she snagged a handful of his damp orange hair. “Don’t I get a good-night kiss?”
“Ara!” he first yelped the moment he felt his hair yank back on his scalp. That was swiftly followed by an even more plaintive “Ararara.” Limited in his movements by her hold on his sunset-hued mane, he flopped back to lie prone as best he could without causing more pain to his abused skin, then pouted up at her. “Because it’s really not a good nor a wise decision to give you one, that it isn’t.”
She grinned and scooted over to sit on the edge of his bed. Her robe was just loose enough that he could catch a glimpse of the soft curves of her breasts as she leaned over him. “I want one anyway, Kara . . .”
For a moment, it looked like the scary, legendary Khuradasu was going to pass out. Then the glaze in his eyes gave way to a spark of golden fire. For just a moment, she could see mirrored in their amber depths a desire as far-reaching as her own felt. Though the raw emotion was quickly shuttered away, like the flame of a candle becoming concealed, some echo of it remained in the expression she’d come to associate with the assassin aspect of the redheaded warrior. “Those who play with fire are apt to be burnt, Jurnia . . .”
“This is worth risking a little burn,” she murmured, her lips so close to his that he could feel her warm breath on his skin.
“Swear to me you’ll ask nothing more from me,” he insisted, his voice once again the assassin’s steel-in-silk tones.
“Just a kiss . . . this time.”
The look in his eyes just before he closed them conveyed to her as fully as if he’d said it that he took her words as a promise—and he would expect her to keep her word. He lifted his right hand from where it rested on the bed; cupping the curve of her skull, he threaded the slender digits through her black-red tresses. He tugged her down then, closing that tiny distance between them, his lips pressing against hers.
She gave a tiny sigh, sinking her fingers into his hair where it lay across the pillow, relaxing into the kiss with a sweet, welcoming ease that made it a bit difficult to contemplate restricting himself solely to such limited contact.
He’d intended for the kiss to be somewhat chaste and brief, but desire and a slight need to leave her as frustrated as he was getting made him lengthen the contact. Fingertips lightly caressing her under his hand, he teasingly rubbed his lips against her petal-soft ones for a breathless moment before breaking the contact. Scooting just a bit to the side, he opened his eyes and stared up at her, the faintest of wicked grins on his face. There was a faint blush on her cheeks, her eyes dark and hungry-looking. If he’d thought that she wasn’t feeling frustrated, that look alone proved otherwise.
Her expression made him pause as it began to sink in on him just how much what she felt meant to her. What he caught was no mere physical frustration but rather one of the soul, as if the being before him had found all that was missing within him and faced the possibility of forever losing that one source of contentment. That part of him he called Khuradasu could sympathize; the assassin too felt much the same even though the rest of Kara didn’t think he deserved such contentment after all he’d done. But she deserves to have such peace, he couldn’t help thinking. And I love her and want her to be happy.
He stroked the back of his hand against her cheek, staring up at her in silent contemplation.
She made some small motion, as if to kiss him again, but evidently remembered her promise and stilled, half-closing her eyes at the light brush of his hand on her cheek. The sweep of her lashes veiled, but didn’t entirely conceal, the swirl of emotions in those jewel-like eyes; there could hardly be a question but that the Herald wasn’t toying with him, unless she was an actress of unbelievable talent.
“Good night, Jurnia,” he softly murmured. “Try to get some sleep now. When this sordid affair involving your chieftain is over . . . perhaps then we should discuss things.” He softened his dismissal by giving her another kiss, this one short, butterfly-soft—but holding the promise of so much more when the right time would come.
It took real effort for Jurnia to move back to her own bed; the warmth of his skin, the silky glide of his hair through her fingers, and the gleam of those golden eyes added up to some serious temptation. She settled down into the mattress, pulling the covers up over her shoulder, but she couldn’t seem to take her eyes off him.
He smiled back at her, still watching her as well. “When the time’s right, I promise,” he said, soft voice sincere.
“I hope it’s soon,” she answered, very softly.
“Let me see to your chieftain’s safety. After that . . . we shall see.”
She extricated Lopzu from a tangle of the covers; one could swear the stuffed fox was smirking at Kara as the young woman cuddled him against her chest.