(Derkarya, Tonbom lands bordering Aizhou, 9 Stormwater, 1016.)
“So I’ll get to see real battles?” Jurnia demanded.
“From a safe distance, yes,” Chaiya said carefully. Her daughter’s studies had advanced to the point where taking her to observe live battlefields was a logical step, but the girl seemed to have an almost unhealthy fascination with the idea. This was probably the result of listening to as many stories as possible, except for the stories that old men told on their front steps. The real stories, where the blood soaked the dirt, and men watched their best friends die, and the screams of the suffering drowned out the cheers of glorious victory.
Chaiya knew that sooner or later, Jurnia would have to see all of it; she would have to understand that the real price of a victory was rarely laid out so clearly in those stories. The girl was precocious, and Chaiya hesitated to shatter her illusions. In a few years, she’d be old enough to marry, an adult in the eyes of society, but a mother’s desire to protect her child’s innocence is strong.
“Look! I see smoke over there—is that the camp?” Jurnia pointed toward the thick lines of smoke rising above the trees over the next hill.
“That’s the camp,” her mother confirmed. “It’s a small village that was evacuated when the battle line started moving this way. The army moved in and set up housekeeping, so it’s been fortified. Some of the locals have returned to act as support personnel and are drawing a small salary from the army payroll. The messenger I sent from the last town should have gotten here by now. We’ll be staying with the Ruby Dragons for a few days, then going on to the Emerald Phoenix camp—weather and conditions permitting.”
“I heard that the Derkaryan War Minister is here,” Jurnia announced. She was disappointed when her mother merely nodded, rather than being surprised.
“That’s correct. He’s performing an inspection of the army camps.” Chaiya said it very casually, as if it were a mere detail rather than a major factor in her decision to visit this particular camp at this particular time. Arjuna . . . it’s been such a long time since I saw you.
Oblivious to her mother’s mood, Jurnia urged her horse into a trot, impatient and eager to see a real army camp.
A real army camp wasn’t exactly what she’d expected.
She’d expected to find real soldiers, of course. She just hadn’t realized that real soldiers did exactly the same things that other real people did—like belch, break wind, pick their noses, spit, and practice a somewhat limited form of personal hygiene. They also didn’t have very sophisticated sanitary arrangements.
“This is disgusting,” she muttered to her mother, discreetly pinching her nose shut as they passed a latrine that had been set up outside the fort. It was unpleasant enough that the latrines for the rank and file were no more than rough wooden shacks put up over trenches, but the fact that they just had canvas flaps covering the entrances instead of actual doors just made it worse. The late summer heat contributed an extra dimension of “awful” to the experience.
“You get used to it,” Chaiya said absently. “I think that latrine might be in need of some maintenance—it’s a bit more fragrant than it ought to be.”
“How do they maintain a latrine?”
“Usually they get a few privates who are in trouble and give them shovels and buckets.”
“Ugh! I don’t remember hearing about all of this,” Jurnia complained. “None of the stories ever talk about a smell that’s strong enough to follow you down the street and knock you over.”
“That’s because they’re stories, not histories. Stories are intended primarily to entertain, not educate.”
“I’d have liked to be educated about this part in advance. Nobody ever told me that the place was going to smell like . . . like . . . fermented socks, and an uncleaned stable, and an old saddle, and a slaughterhouse—”
“We’re coming in from the downwind side. Things ought to be a bit less . . . thick the farther upwind we go.”
“—and it’s all been baking in this heat, and I want a bath, and—Mother, that man is . . . doing something rude!”
Chaiya barely glanced in the direction that Jurnia was staring. “He’s at least got his back turned. The air’s fresher out here than in the latrine, and I don’t think the palisade wall is going to mind. Besides, if he’s on guard duty, he isn’t supposed to leave his post.”
“He’s marking territory on his post!”
“I don’t think the watering is going to hurt it.”
In the fifteen minutes it took for the two Kaykolom women to ride from the palisade gate to the headquarters in the middle of the former village, Jurnia received a sort of crash course in the realities of army life that chipped steadily away at her tale-influenced preconceptions. By the time they actually reached their destination, she was slightly dazed by the wealth of small details that storytellers normally left out. Most of the troops occupied individual tents that were set up in neat rows radiating out from the more permanent buildings, which were reserved for the use of the officers.
Chaiya tied her horse’s reins to the hitching post next to a handsome bay gelding that wore an ornate saddle; Jurnia hastily secured her mount as well before skipping to catch up with her mother. The guard at the front of the building—probably the former mayor’s house—nodded politely to Chaiya, widened his eyes and bowed slightly as she introduced herself, and turned to announce the visitors to the inhabitants of the place.
The first room was fairly spacious, and served as the command center for the outpost. Maps had been hung up on the walls, marked with complex lines and symbols. A few tables held more maps and papers, but it was the desk at the far side of the room that Chaiya was walking directly toward. The man behind the desk was not what Jurnia had expected from the description of Captain Harasu; the fellow meeting that description was standing a bit stiffly off to one side of the folding stool. The man who was now rising to his feet as the ladies entered couldn’t be anyone other than Lord Arjunayazu himself, the Derkaryan Minister of War. The height, the silvery hair, and the deep green eyes would have been enough to identify him, but Jurnia could also “see” him as a snowy white fox; the sight made her draw a quick breath.
So it was true; at least one of the Lopayzom clan had survived the “cleansing” that Chieftain Iryasitru had ordered in his rage over his sister’s death. Survived, and evidently prospered—Arjunayazu was clearly in good health, and dressed in well-made, though plain, clothing. Jurnia bit her lip, but remained resolutely silent. A Herald was supposed to be strictly neutral when carrying out her duties. Clan enmities were not their concern.
Something made her glance up at her mother, and Jurnia felt her world shift a fraction. There was a look in Chaiya’s pale-green eyes that the girl had not seen there more than once or twice, and would never have expected to see directed at a Lopayzom, no matter how striking his appearance might be. Chaiya often seemed more somber than she ought to, almost sad; that look hinted at the reasons for it, and Jurnia felt strangely uncomfortable with that sudden flash of insight. The dark green gaze of the Minister of War was almost identical to Chaiya’s, and that troubled the girl even more.
She barely heard the conversation. It was just an exchange of empty pleasantries and obvious information, all very polite, but it seemed meaningless to Jurnia. It was nothing but a shallow veneer. She was astonished that nobody else in the room seemed to realize what burned unspoken in the air between her mother and the Silver Fox.
Jurnia endured it as long as she could, then finally tugged shyly at her mother’s sleeve—a child’s gesture, one that finally pulled Chaiya’s attention back to her daughter. “Mother, is there someplace I can go lie down?”
One of the captain’s aides was quick to step up. “Shall I show the Heralds to the guest quarters, sir?”
“Of course,” the captain replied after a swift glance at Arjunayazu, who nodded slightly.
“I’ll return after Jurnia is settled in and I’ve made myself a bit more presentable,” Chaiya said quietly. “We have business to discuss that she doesn’t need to hear.”
In other circumstances, Jurnia would have loudly protested such an obvious exclusion. This time, though, she wanted to be someplace else, and her mother’s absence from the guest quarters would give her some privacy to think.
The guest house wasn’t far from the command center. It was very clean, fairly quiet, and didn’t smell nearly as objectionable as other areas. There was even a very small bathing chamber, though the tub itself was currently empty. A small barrel near the chamber door held lukewarm water for washing, something that Jurnia was very happy to do. Her mother cleaned up as well, though she seemed distracted, and Jurnia was fairly sure that she knew exactly what that distraction was.
Taking the towel with which she'd dried face and hands, Chaiya carefully refolded it and set it on a low table next to the barrel. Her beautiful face showed no hint of her internal whirl of emotion. "Rest here. I won't be long."
"Yes, Mother," the dark-haired girl responded, still wondering about her discovery. She stared after her mother's elegant form as Chaiya slipped through the doop and pulled it shut behind her.
The elegant general looked up from the papers spread out over his desk's surface. The captain's office was empty now save for the tall man with the long mane of silver hair. Deep jade eyes glimmered at the sight of the Herald, though the warm and longing expression didn't touch his face. It never had, not since that long-ago spring evening. "Come in, Lady Herald," Arjuna said. He gestured toward the comfortable pillow set before his low desk.
Chaiya bowed, then stepped into the map-adorned room. She tugged the sliding door shut and walked across the mat-covered floor, the carpeting comfortable under her sock-covered feet.
"I've sent everyone away for a span of time," the pale-haired general murmured. He remained seated on his low stool. "My impression was that your message was meant only for me."
"Indeed," the Herald murmured, sinking to her knees on the thick pillow. "And I am honored you've agreed to meet with me. I wasn't sure . . ."
A faint smile crossed the Dragon general's thin lips. "You are the official envoy of His Grace, the Raven. Of course I'd agree to meet with you, though I am surprised that His Grace would have anything to say to me."
Chaiya gracefully inclined her head, strands of long hair sliding forward to enticingly frame her face. As always, the Kaykolom intelligence network had known the silver-maned general's whereabouts. It had taken little effort to send a lower rank Herald of the local clanlord to ask for a meeting at Arjuna's next point of inspection. That same youngster had proudly returned with a reply, pleased to have met such a well-known and high-ranking Herald. A few silver coins and instructions and the little Herald had run off to hire a messenger to advise the captain of the Dragon fort of the Kaykolom envoy's impending arrival.
Slender fingers reached into the sleeve-pocket of her linen traveling clothes. Chaiya pulled out the letter entrusted to her, the wax seal still intact on the folded paper creating an envelope. She held it out to the general.
Arjuna's face remained unreadable as he took the letter. What now, Iryasitru? the argent-haired man thought while breaking open the seal. Paper rustled as the letter was unfolded; deep jade eyes narrowed faintly as Arjuna scanned the Raven Chieftain's neat, almost artistic penmanship.
The Herald remained gracefully kneeling, pale green gaze focused on the center of the low desk made of varnished redwood. Though relatively certain of the contents of the letter, Chaiya couldn't be absolutely sure. There were times her chieftain surprised her despite how well she knew him.
Arjuna softly snorted. "How interesting. I suppose I should be flattered." Noting the question unspoken in the beautiful woman's eyes, the Fox held the letter back out to Chaiya. "Your illustrious chieftain has graciously 'gifted' me my life, for the moment."
The Herald quickly scanned over Iryasitru's familiar penmanship. Yes, the content was as expected, but the Raven's exact wording was insulting while being polite. Despite that, Chaiya found herself breathing a sigh of relief at seeing the official notice. Now he would be safe, for a while. Now he would be able to concentrate on this war. "The order extends to your son as well," the Herald responded, letting the letter fall to the desk.
"I saw. I'm glad my student won't have to worry about Raven treachery rearing its ugly head," Arjuna said.
"How fares your student?"
"Quite well. His skill's been improving, honed in battle as it's been."
"Battle?" Chaiya asked, momentarily suprised. "Oh . . . yes. He's fifteen now. Old enough--"
"Actually . . ." A faint smile, one that made Chaiya suppress a shiver, graced Arjuna's handsome face as his low voice cut through her words, "He's been a part of the Dragon Army since the spring before his fourteenth birthday. But I am pleased to know that His Grace has suspended hostilites between his clan and mine for the duration of this war." The odd expression faded. "Your daughter's growing up quite nicely. You must be very proud of her."
Chaiya's smile was bright, full of happiness. "I am. She's very dear to me. So tell me, where is your student stationed?"
Arjuna shook his head in a negative gesture. It had been apparent that the Herald had been startled to hear of Karavasu's presence within the Dragon's forces. And if she's unaware of that, then it's a given that Iryasitru's spies lost track of him when he left the palace. "Forgive me, Chaiya. You and I both know that once this 'gift' of your chieftain's revoked, you would have to report to him what you know of Karavasu. Let the boy remain in peace. Besides . . . What's the real story behind this?" he asked, pointing to the letter resting atop his desk.
It hurt, but the Herald ignored the pang in her heart. The Fox Chieftain was correct; she would have to report the younger Lopayzom's location once the ban was lifted. She focused her mind on the question. "His Grace the Raven had gotten a letter from the Tiger inviting him to comment on the ferocity of the border war between his brother princes. The letter also reminded His Grace that Zarya too has had trouble in the past with the Phoenix and that it would be a shame if the Dragon's Minister of War could not keep his mind competely focused on containing the Phoenix's threat."
I should write and thank the Tiger. That's one large concern lifted from me. "I see," Arjuna responded, suppressing his relieved smile. "Thank you, Lady Herald. I fear I must send you on your way now. I was to meet with Captain Harasu this hour."
Chaiya inclined her head again then gracefully rose to her feet. "It's always a pleasure to see you, Your Grace."
Arjuna's smile was genuine, and finally some of the old warmth was there, so easy to see. "As it is to see you, Chaiya. Feel free to stay here until you and your daughter are well rested."
The Herald responded with an equal warmth, "Thank you, Arjuna. May the spirits watch over you." She turned and walked over to the door, happy to have finally seen that smile.
"And you as well," Arjuna whispered as the paper and wood panel slid shut.
After her mother left, Jurnia paced for a few minutes. She was having difficulty organizing her thoughts; the unfamiliar surroundings and the closed-in feeling of the small, single-mat room bothered her too much. With a faint huff, she finally opened the lightweight sliding door and stepped out into the beaten-down earth of the street, heading for the gate. None of the soldiers gave her more than a second glance, her firm stride and purposeful air making her somehow unremarkable.
Once outside the palisade—and far enough off to one side to avoid the obnoxious odors—her head cleared a little. She walked without a particular destination now, part of her mind observing and recording her surroundings while the rest was occupied with its own thoughts. There was a broad clear-cut area surrounding the palisade, but the untouched trees loomed beyond that buffer zone. The late afternoon sun was broken into bars and lacework of light and shadow as she walked slowly into the treeline.
It wasn’t long before Jurnia realized her error, though by then it was a bit too late to do anything about it. She was a young woman, walking unescorted outside the palisade in a time of war, and it hadn’t occurred to her that this situation might be somewhat dangerous to life and limb. It only occurred to her when the undergrowth rustled and a dozen or so unshaven, scruffy-looking men emerged to encircle her.
It still didn’t quite occur to her to be afraid. She was, after all, a Herald—still in training, but a Herald nonetheless—and the short wooden sword thrust through her waist-sash should announce that status quite clearly.
“What’s this?” one of the men said, staring at her in a way that made the young woman's skin crawl without really knowing why she was uncomfortable. He was completely bald—natural or shaven, she couldn’t tell.
“It’s a girl, stupid. I know you probably haven’t seen one close up since the day you stopped sucking at your mother’s tit—” The speaker ducked underneath the first man’s angry punch.
“The camp followers are getting younger and younger, aren’t they?” said a villanous-looking fellow with a patch over one eye. “It’s almost sad when you think about it.”
“Sad? Bah . . . the young ones are fresher,” the first man disagreed. He turned his gaze back on Jurnia. “So what’s your price, darling?”
Jurnia blinked. “Price? What price?”
“Givin’ it away free, are you?” the bald man chuckled, moving closer. “I usually like to pay whores a little something, but if you’re free . . .”
Jurnia stared for a moment, astonished at the audacity. “I’m not a whore, I’m a Herald. Don’t you see this?” She pointed at the wooden sword hanging at her side.
“A Herald?” the patch-eyed man said curiously. “What’re you doing out here, then?”
“I’m observing,” she answered haughtily. “That’s part of a Herald’s duties. It’s very important that details be properly recorded for historical study.”
“So you’re callin’ yourself a Herald, eh? Carryin’ around a toy sword, even?” the bald one remarked. “That’s a bit dangerous, a whore tryin’ to pass herself off as somethin’ that far above her proper station.”
“Anythin’ upright’s beyond her proper station,” one of the other men sniggered.
“I said, I’m not a whore. Are you deaf?” Jurnia glared around at the men. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to finish my walk.”
“Well, we can’t be having you do that, little miss Herald,” the patch-eyed one said. “Can’t risk you telling anybody that we’re out here, after all. That’d be trouble.”
Jurnia looked around at them again, the light dawning. “You’re brigands!” She drew herself up to her full height, which still wasn’t much. “You’ve got a lot of nerve, lurking about this encampment!”
“It’s the battlefield, see,” the bald one said conversationally. “Once all the fightin’s stopped and the sun’s gone down, it’s not too hard to go see what all them fallen men might have in their pockets. ‘Course, sometimes we have to help one or two of ‘em into the afterlife—out of mercy, see?” He looked around at his men, who laughed as if this was some kind of marvelous joke.
“Well, I’m afraid your . . . good deeds will have to end,” she snapped. “I’m duty bound to report your presence here.” Some hint of self-preservation finally got through to her, and she added, “I’ll give you an hour to clear off before I tell the captain in command, though.”
“An hour, eh?” The bald man moved a bit closer; the entire ring had been slowly tightening around her, and now there wasn’t much more than an arm’s reach between them. “That’s right generous of you, missy, but we can’t take you up on that, see? We’re a bit more interested in something else you can offer.” He grinned. “And if you’re very nice to us, we’ll even let you live afterward.”
Jurnia finally realized just how dire her situation was. She was seriously outnumbered by grown men who clearly didn’t care that she was a Herald and therefore supposed to be untouchable. They also didn’t care that she was barely out of childhood. They wanted to . . . do things to her, and there was no way she could adequately deter them.
Well, almost no way.
The first man to reach for her snatched his hand back with a howl; his smallest finger was suddenly pointing in a very wrong direction. Jurnia’s little hand had intercepted his on the incoming swing, grabbed the digit, and snapped it at the base joint. It was hardly an incapacitating injury, but it was definitely a shock of sorts.
Jurnia was still moving, though. That tiny window of time wherein the men were staring in surprise was all she had to work with, and she was determined to make the best of it. The wooden sword came out of her sash with a hiss of smoothed oak on heavy linen, and she counterbalanced the draw by kicking another man in the knee with a swift, arcing strike. There was a faint, wet-sounding “pop”, and the brigand toppled over, howling and clutching at the wounded area. It was showing a definite tendency to fold forward, as such a joint often does when the kneecap is dislocated. The wooden sword didn’t quite strike where she’d wanted it to—she had been hoping to bash her third target either in the cheekbone or, with luck, break his nose. The blow landed lower than she had planned, which was still surprisingly effective as the man reeled sideways to the sound of a muffled crack.
She was an Avatar, gifted with a degree of speed and dexterity that even at this young age set her apart; she had been taught how to hurt people as quickly as possible, and in ways that would incapacitate them with a minimum of actual damage. She could do things with two fingers that would make most people start behaving almost at once. The only problem was that she had always assumed she would see trouble coming and be able to take command of the situation immediately. She’d also always assumed that she wouldn’t have to do any of this until she was at least a little bit older.
It was a credit to her training and to her natural talents that she had just struck at three grown men and opened up a fair gap for her to dash through. However, there were nine other grown men involved in the situation as well, and though Jurnia was brave and fast and well-trained, they still had the advantage of being bigger, heavier, stronger, and more numerous. She made it five steps before they caught her.
She was half-embarrassed by the scream that escaped her before one of the brigands clamped a hand over her mouth. She’d always thought that screaming was the habit of the helpless, fainting maidens that tended to annoy her in stories. However, it did give a small advantage in the fact that her mouth was open, thus allowing her to bite savagely into the man’s palm. She almost gagged at the foul taste, but the vicious blow he delivered with the other hand distracted her from that detail.
The men weren’t playing any more. She had seemed to be a defenseless little rabbit, safe to toy with before they moved in for the finale, but that was before she had broken one man’s finger, another man’s knee, and a third one’s teeth. They weren’t going to give her another chance to fight back, and they weren’t gentle in disarming her and pinning her to the leaf-strewn ground despite her struggling and kicking. Light-headed and dazed from the punch, she wasn’t very effective any more.
“I’m first,” the bald man announced, ignoring the grumbles of protest. “Who wants to go second?”
“Me,” growled the man that Jurnia had hit in the face; he spit out half of a broken tooth, bloody saliva spraying out with it.
“Fair enough, fair enough. Someone look after those two—the finger and the knee might need splinting.” He began to unfasten his belt as he walked toward Jurnia, who was still twisting and struggling as best she could with three men holding her down. “We don’t want her screamin’ and drawin’ attention, so—”
Whatever he might have said would never be known. There was a blur in the clearing, and it seemed a second mouth opened beneath his chin, speaking only in a dreadful gurgling and a sudden spray of blood. He let go of his belt and raised his hands toward his throat, a look of bewilderment on his face.
The other brigands were still turning to stare in shock when one of the men holding Jurnia let go and lurched sideways from his kneeling position. The blood seemed to start only after he’d landed, gushing from the diagonal slash that went from the juncture of neck and shoulder all the way to the middle of his chest. The man on her other side was flung back and to one side as a blow of inhuman force caught him across the side of the head just under the ear, breaking his neck. The one who held her hair in a tight grip, his other hand over her mouth, pitched backward with a sound like snapping twigs as another powerful blow stove in the side of his chest.
Jurnia couldn’t even see more than a blur of movement, an impression of red and orange, the flash of steel. Unable to react, still dazed, she could only stare as the brigands fell like wheat before the scythe, cut down one after the other without hesitation. There was a terrifying efficiency in evidence—it seemed that none of the men were dispatched with more than a single blow from the storm of swift death that moved through their midst.
Her dazed absorption was broken by pain. The patch-eyed man snatched hold of her by the hair, yanking her up in front of him; a dagger pressed against the side of her neck, forestalling any attempt she might have made to free herself. The cruel grip on her hair made her cry out again, an involuntary sound of protest, as her hands came up to grab for his wrist and forearm in an attempt to ease the pull.
The blur came to a sudden halt; a foot slid perhaps an inch or two on the damp leaves covering the ground. Where there had been blinding movement and speed, there was an abrupt cessation of movement, as startling and disconcerting as the whirlwind had been.
He wasn’t very old. Even groggy, Jurnia could see that. But it wasn’t really possible to tell in one glance just how old he was, because the youthful features were counterbalanced by the most dangerous eyes Jurnia had ever seen on anything that didn’t go on four feet. Golden as a wolf’s, literally glowing with power, they glared out from under clenched brows with a withering fury. Long red-orange hair was pulled back and up, with shorter locks falling around his face; they should have softened his appearance, but his expression was savage, harsh. He wore a red tunic over golden-brown trousers, a sword sheath bound to his side by a sash of yellow-gold. The only movement in him at that instant was that of his hair falling against his back, his clothing settling into loose folds . . . and the blood dripping from the edge of the sword he held.
“Let the girl go.”
The words were almost whispered into the sudden stillness, yet the tone was hard, unyielding.
The brigand stared, his mouth sagging open a little. “You . . . K-Khuradasu . . .”
“I heard her scream.” His eyes never seemed to move, locked on the brigand like the unforgiving stare of the sun. “I see the wooden sword on the ground. You would defile a Herald? A child?”
Jurnia would have been angry about the “child” part if she had time to think about it. She was staring at one of the most feared warriors involved in this war, and a man was holding a knife to her throat—there was much more to think about than for which she actually had time.
Patch-eye licked his lips nervously. “We thought she was just a camp follower out looking for some trade . . . carrying that thing as a toy . . .”
“Let her go,” Khuradasu answered in that soft, chilling voice. “Now.”
“I-if I let her go, you’ll . . . you’ll let me go, all right? I’ll be far away from here before the sun rises, I swear . . .”
“You’ve laid hands on a Herald.” The sword blade shifted, just a little; the dulling light of the setting sun glowed on the steel, reflecting almost the same color as Khuradasu’s hair. “That is a crime that cannot go unpunished.”
“Why shouldn’t I kill her, then?” Patch-eye demanded almost wildly; Jurnia had to lift her chin to avoid being nicked by the dagger, already balancing on her toes in an attempt to move as far away from it as she could. The brigand’s hand was shaking, pressing the blade harder against her skin. “If you’re going to kill me anyway, why shouldn’t I take her with me?”
“Because if you let her go, I will make it very quick.” That was the only mercy that Khuradasu’s expression, his eyes, would grant.
Jurnia stared at him. Her vision was still a little swimmy, but she stared at him with as much intensity as she could muster, silently willing him to see her. She stared until her eyes actually ached, then flashed her gaze downward before staring at him again. For a moment, she wanted to scream with frustration, thinking that he hadn’t seen; then only the tiniest movement, a miniscule twitch of his lips, hinted that he had seen—and that he understood.
Her hands were still raised, one clutching the brigand’s wrist and the other just brushing her cheek, arrested in its motion by the dagger. That free hand curled into a fist, and she slammed it back and up over her own shoulder. Cartilage gave under the blow, and Patch-eye lost his grip on hair and dagger as he reflexively began to grab for his broken nose. Jurnia was loose, dropping to her knees and folding down over her thighs to get as far down as she possibly could.
She heard perhaps two steps on the forest floor, and a breeze rolled past her. There was the almost silken sound of keen-edged steel meeting flesh and parting it like water, and a shriek that lasted hardly more than a few seconds. Then the dull thud of a body collapsing to the ground, which very nearly covered the far lighter step of the swordsman as he halted and turned.
“Are you all right?” he said, and his tone was still an almost-whisper, though the harshness had faded.
Unable to speak for the moment, Jurnia only nodded her head; her hands covered her face as she remained in that tightly-curled position.
“You were lucky that I was coming back from a patrol,” he added; she could hear the faint sound of cloth on metal, blood being meticulously wiped away from the weapon’s blade. “What did you think you were doing out here alone?”
“Observing,” she managed.
“You nearly observed yourself into a shallow grave. Among other things.” There was the faintest trace of awkward hesitation in those last words, as if he wasn’t even comfortable hinting at the awful fate that the brigands had had in mind for her.
For once, Jurnia could not argue. “Yes,” she answered finally.
The sound of running feet brought her head up out of her hands, turning toward the noise. Men were shouting to each other, evidently fanning out into the trees.
“That’s the rest of the patrol,” Khuradasu said from somewhere behind her. “They’ll take you back to the palisade. I’ll need to clean up this mess.”
Jurnia’s eyes fell on the body of the bald man, his hands lying limply on his chest. It was difficult to see details in the dim light of the setting sun—for which she was profoundly grateful—but it didn’t take close inspection to see that the slash which had opened his throat had very nearly taken his head off entirely.
“Yes,” she agreed lamely, then swallowed hard and turned her head to look toward the swordsman. Even in the poor light, she could still see his eyes, twin golden beacons, though their glow seemed to be fading. “T-thank you. For . . . for helping me.” Her pride wouldn’t let her say “for saving me”; only those helpless, fainting maidens really needed saving.
He was still for a moment, as if surprised, then bowed gracefully as he slid his sword back home in its sheath. “You’re welcome.” The faint snick seemed to emphasize his soft voice’s final syllable.
The final traces of adrenaline faded. The last sight Jurnia had before she fainted was those stunning golden eyes, set into a face that didn’t seem much older than her own.
Something in the girl’s aura shifted, turning Khuradasu’s thoughts from the logistics of the clean-up. The redheaded warrior swiftly knelt, catching the dark-haired girl’s limp body in his young, strong arms before she hit the blood-soaked ground. Slender, sword-calloused fingers reached up to gently brush aside the red-highlighted black strands that covered the young Herald’s face as Khuradasu stared down at her. Had she been conscious, she may have been surprised by the concern evident in his large, honey-hued eyes. She seems whole enough, he thought while carefully scanning over her body’s flow of spirit energy. Of course, he could sense her clan now, but blood feud be damned, he wasn’t about to let any girl—especially a Herald only a couple of years younger than himself—suffer the fate the brigands so obviously had in mind.
A faint blush tinged his cheeks, hidden in the ruddy light of the setting sun. Shifting his hold, he gathered up the rest of her by snaking a slender arm under her knees. “Come along then,” he murmured to the unconscious Raven. “Your mother’s probably frantic with worry by now.” Yes, he’d said the patrol would take her back, but that was before she’d fainted. With the young Avatar unconscious, he didn’t wish to take any chances. The last thing he wanted was more friction between Master Arjuna and himself. The patrol would have to deal with the mess.
He rose gracefully to his feet. Legs braced, he took a moment to better distribute the fainted Herald’s weight against his red-clad chest. Lifting his head, a stray breeze ruffled his orange-hued locks as he reoriented himself to his placement in regards to the Dragon army’s encampment. Just over that rise. It’s so close, but with the trees and the lay of the ground, so far away from help. Khuradasu frowned, sparing the girl in his arms a quick glance as he began to walk back to the camp. “I don’t know what possessed you to stray so far, but try not to do it again. Not everyone will be in awe of your status as either Herald or Avatar,” the redheaded swordsman muttered. “Though I must admit, you made something of a good accounting of yourself.”
Jurnia heard those words as if they were spoken a long distance away. With the danger now past, she was becoming aware of a certain amount of discomfort. Her head ached dully, her scalp was still stinging where Patch-eye had grabbed her hair, and various muscles complained of the sudden stress they had undergone. She had never actually fought anybody outside a training match before now, and she had been able to go through warm-up and cool-down exercises to lessen the chance of strains and cramps on those occasions. Despite the niggling aches and pains, she struggled up toward consciousness. Excitement seeped through the haze; she had actually seen Khuradasu with her own eyes, and maybe if she happened to be lucky, she’d get another look.
Someone was definitely carrying her. He had a very smooth gait, like a stalking predator; he seemed to flow over the ground, not jarring her in the slightest. For a moment, she stayed relaxed, rather enjoying the ride. Then her normal behavior took over.
“Put me down,” she said, and was annoyed by the faint, weak sound of the words.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” answered a quiet voice not far from her ear. “You’ve had a bad shock.”
“Not nearly as bad as the one I’m going to give you if you don’t put me down right now.” Her voice still sounded much too thin and feeble for her liking, but at least the words had more of her usual tone to them.
“Be nice,” her carrier murmured, sounding far more amused than troubled by the threat. “You’ve been hurt. I’m not a physician, so I don’t know how badly injured you really are. So I’m not going to put you down yet.”
“I’m a Herald—”
“That’s nice,” he interrupted in an infuriatingly calm tone, voice still as smooth as the silk covering the both of them. “I hold Heralds in high respect, which is why I’m not going to put you down.” Besides, you're Lady Chaiya's daughter and if anything happened to you, Master Arjuna would be very disappointed in me . . .
“With all due respect, I insist that you relax and let me get you back to the camp.”
“I am perfectly capable—”
“Of being quiet, calm, and ladylike, and letting me do the work here?”
“Are you implying that I’m not ladylike?!” she screeched.
“Put me down!”
“Are you listening to me?”
“Well, I think—” Jurnia started listening to herself, and realized that she wasn’t really going to have any fun or actual success in an argument with someone who refused to get mad and yell back at her.
“You think? Strange, I would have thought that anybody capable of thinking wouldn’t have wandered out here alone.”
“How dare you?!” She forced her eyes open and tried to focus on a very nearby face in the poor light. “Who do you think you—are . . .”
She realized who was carrying her. A number of emotions knotted up inside her head and made the last word of her sentence trail out in a kind of squeak.
“Who do you think I am?”
This close, she could see that he really wasn’t much older than she was. The muscles that she could feel in the arms that held her, and the chest that she was cradled against, had the wiry tone of youth rather than the bulk of maturity. The golden fire had faded from his eyes, and the deepening twilight made details difficult to see. She noticed that he moved as if the darkness was no obstacle, flowing onward through the falling night as if he were a part of it.
He had to be an Avatar—she had seen the flare of his raw power—but even concentrating, she couldn’t “see” him now. His aura defined no totem animal that would move with him like a translucent shadow. She could only pick up flickers and wisps of faint red-gold light out of the corners of her eyes.
“Khuradasu,” she murmured, resting her head against his shoulder. The stories that surrounded the name spoke of his relentless ferocity, his inhuman strength and speed, the windrows of dead men left in his wake on the battlefield. They never mentioned that he was so young.
“Yes.” He kept moving, that liquid gait eating up the distance between the trees and the palisade. A strong breeze swept through the forest behind them, sending dry leaves spinning, rippling their clothes and hair.
The shorter locks around his face blew forward, looking like flame in the last glow of the setting sun. Jurnia yielded to a sudden temptation and raised a hand to touch the strands, stroking them back out of his eyes. A muscle twitched briefly in his cheek, the only outward sign of surprise, and he turned his head enough to look at her as if she were something strange and unknown. The fierce hunter’s eyes were softer, almost puzzled.
She smiled drowsily. She would have laughed at his expression, but the ache in her head was a deep and throbbing hurt, and all she wanted to do was sleep until it went away. “Just because I’m letting you carry me doesn’t mean that I couldn’t walk back myself,” she informed him, wanting to make sure it was clear.
“I see,” he answered, sounding far away again now. “Next time, you can carry me, all right?”
She did laugh then, a faint giggle, and nodded once. Since her head was comfortably rested against his shoulder at the end of the nod, she opted to just go to sleep.
She's passed out again. A corner of Khuradasu's mouth twitched downward into a hint of a frown. The thought of her being seriously hurt after all left the youthful warrior chilled. Despite her obvious fire, she was still so very young and entitled to some protection from the harsh realities of life. If she's badly hurt, I swear on my ancestors I'll make every filthy brigand who dares come near this camp wish his father had pulled out early . . .
Torchlight flickered. Khuradasu emerged from the dancing shadows like a ghost, striding quickly and purposefully up to the guards stationed to either side of the palisaide gate. The men wore golden-brown, loose-fitting pants and shirts of various shades of red; the colors identified them as being part of the Ruby Dragon Army, the units of warriors assigned to protect the southern feifs of Derkarya. The moment the redheaded swordsman appeared, the Dragon warriors started, then quickly dropped into battle stances, weapons at the ready. The second they noticed they faced one of their own, they immediately stepped down--though the harsh expression and faintly glowing golden eyes of Khuradasu caused most of them suppress a shudder. The boy was known as the Demon's Claw, rightly so, and his skill and reputation made many of them thank the spirits he was on their side.
"What's happened? Is the girl all right, Khuradasu?" queried one of the watch, a tall, reedy man with dark brown hair cut short and narrow, sapphire blue eyes.
"Outlaws near the encampment," the orange-maned youth responded, soft voice once more carrying a harsh undertone. "They've been dealt with. The rest of the patrol's taking care of the garbage and making sure there's no more." Khuradasu halted just before the still-open gate, his attention on the commander of the watch.
"Good, good. Nothing more than they deserved," the brunette responded. Turning swiftly, he shouted, "Okitu! Run tell the Chief Medic he's needed!"
"Yes, sir!" The person in question was bright-eyed, chubby-cheeked--and young. At only thirteen, Okitu was more a messenger than a warrior. The boy jumped to his feet and executed an enthusiastic but perfect bow.
"She's the daughter of the Raven Herald," Khuradasu said. "I'd assume they would have been given the guest house."
"To the guest house it is, sir!" Okitu bobbed formally again, then smiled brightly and ran off.
The Demon's Claw faintly smiled. In reality, Khuradasu was no more than a regular warrior, one of the rank and file that made up units under a commander's control. He hadn't even been leading the patrol that had stumbled across the attempted rape. But skill and reputation had combined to give him something of an unofficial rank akin to the captains who oversaw the commanders; many were in awe of him, and even General Mizu had accorded him respect equal to the actual captains. "By your leave, sir, I'll take her to the guest house."
"By all means, do so," the sapphire eyed man responded, a look of exasperation crossing his somewhat plain face. "The encampment's in something of an uproar. The Lady Herald's been looking for her daughter, and what with the Grand General of the Dragon dropping in unannounced--"
Khuradasu paled, feeling suddenly lightheaded. His Highness's Minister of War? Here? "The Grand General?" the redhead snapped, interrupting.
"Y-yes. He arrived about half an hour after your patrol left," the watch commander responded, feeling his blood chill. The expression on the face of the Demon's Claw, and his faintly glowing eyes, scared him. Nearly every time the watch commander had seen Khuradasu like that, people had quickly and efficiently died.
Khuradasu didn't need the other man's words. Concentrating on sensing the surrounding beacons of spirit energy--long ago he'd mastered tuning out most auras, only paying attention to spikes or concentrated use--he quickly picked out the bright argent star that was the War Minister. Ancestors, save me, he silently plead.
Swallowing hard, the youth strode purposefully through the torch-illuminated gate and deeper into the military encampment. With the coming of nightfall, things were quieter than during the daytime hours, though soon enough the alcohol would come out and there'd be singing, arguments and loud snoring around the campfires among the tents used by the regular warriors. People scurried out of his confident, measured stride; many of the warriors and nearly all of the non-combatants bowed in respect as Khuradasu passed them. The orange-maned swordsman paid little notice this time caught up as he was with worry for the girl cradled in his arms and dread at being called into the Grand General's presence.
The tone of fright in the female voice pulled Khuradasu from his thoughts. Abruptly stopping, he blinked as the elegant form of the Raven Herald appeared before him, her delicate fingers brushing fine strands of the girl's hair from her face.
"What happened? Is she okay?" Chaiya asked, her pale green gaze focusing on the boy carrying her daughter. He was short, skinny-looking and pretty--but the faint glow of spirit energy in his eyes and his serious, worried expression offset his soft appearance.
"I think she's all right, but the Chief Medic's on his way to the guest house to confirm that," Khuradasu replied. "She'd been caught outside by brigands." He left the explanation at that, resuming his stride.
The Raven Herald fell into step behind the youth, her face pale. She knew the things of which outlaws were capable. A quick scan of her daughter's violet aura reassured her; weariness seemed to be the child's largest problem. "Thank you . . ."
"Khuradasu," the redheaded boy replied while gracefully stepping up onto the wooden walkway surrounding the guest house.
Pale green eyes widened in surprise. This is the Demon's Claw? This pretty, almost girlish, little youth is the warrior whom the singers claim could hold the balance of the war on his skills alone? Of course, singers were notorious at exaggeration--a ballad or epic was far more impressive and entertaining that way--but the rumors too had agreed that the warrior certainly had prowess worthy of such a name.
Khuradasu felt the shift in the Herald, her worry for her daughter changing to intense curiosity about himself. Stepping out of his sandals, he pushed open the door with a sock-covered foot while praying to his ancestors that the Avatar behind him couldn't see deeper into him than most others.
"Over here," another voice called out. Chaiya ignored that one--most likely that was the camp's highest-ranking medic--while she continued to focus on the youth. That he was another Avatar was obvious; there were hints at a golden energy, mostly in his eyes, though with his expression softening, even that clue was fading. Amazingly, she couldn't read him at all: no image of his clan's totem, no sense of his energy flow, nothing. Not even a normal human was such a blank, and she couldn't help but wonder why he chose to do so or how he accomplished it.
The redheaded youth knelt down and carefully laid the girl down on the bed indicated by the medic. You'll be all right now. They'll take care of you, he thought while taking a final look at her. Almost as if she could hear him, her eyelids fluttered then opened. Her eyes were the hue of flawless emeralds, set in a face that would one day rival her mother's renowned beauty. Slightly parted lips formed a dreamy smile.
Khuradasu gave the dazed-looking girl an answering smile. "You're safe now, and your mother's right here. Now behave for the medic," he murmured before rising to his feet. Turning, he bowed respectfully to the black-haired Herald and then strode out of the guest house.
The fort's commander would want a report, especially since the incident involved the Herald of a neutral clan. Mentally steeling himself, Khuradasu slipped back into his sandals and crossed the short distance between the guest accomodations and the house being used as the command center.
Once more in sock-clad feet--it was very impolite to wear shoes of any sort inside the neat and tidy houses preferred by Aizvaryans--the skinny youth carefully knocked against the wooden framework of the sliding door. The oiled paper that covered the framework was too fragile to withstand such force, and punching a hole in the paper was another embarrassing offense. The pair of red- and gold-clad guards to either side of the walkway ignored the youth's presence; they remained staring resolutely ahead, hands resting lightly on their formidable blade-tipped spears.
"Who goes?" called out a voice from inside the room.
"Khuradasu, sir," the young warrior replied, recognizing the baritone as that of Captain Harasu, the commander of the encampment. "I've come to report an incident that happened while my unit was on patrol."
A pause, then, "Come in."
Khuradasu tugged open the panel, stepped in, then closed it. Turning to face the others, he bowed low while doing his best to ignore the bright silver aura in the same room.
Arjuna watched the youth carefully, his relief and pride at seeing the boy so obviously well remaining hidden away. The large amber eyes flicked to meet the Grand General's deep jade gaze, but then the young swordsman stared straight ahead as discipline would demand. The Fox Chieftain noted that Khuradasu's pants and socks were splattered with drying muck and blood spattered most of him.
"You believe this something so urgent you forego getting cleaned up?" Captain Harasu barked, stepping toward the young warrior. The commander of the fort was of average height and build, his short hair deep brown in color and his eyes turquoise in hue. Despite his rather average appearance, he was a forceful spirit and knew how to command.
"Yes, sir," Khuradasu replied. "The incident involved the Raven Herald's daughter so--"
"Is she all right?" Arjuna interrupted, quelling an ill feeling in the pit of his stomach.
"Yes, Your Grace. Perhaps some bruises, but I doubt anything more. The Chief Medic's attending to her now, Your Grace."
"Good," the silver-haired general responded, deeply relieved.
"You stink to high heaven and you look like a pig just finished rolling about in the mud, warrior," Harasu growled while taking a step back from the shorter man. "However, you were correct in notifying myself and His Grace of this immediately. Any news of lesser import and you'd be disciplined for offending your superiors. Is that clear?"
"Yes, sir," Khuradasu responded, still staring straight ahead. The subtext was obvious: despite his skill, his reputation and the respect most of the other warriors gave him, the orange-haired youth was still a regular warrior like any other of the rank and file.
"Yes, Your Grace?"
"With your permission, I would like to hear Khuradasu's report myself--once he's made himself presentable, that is. Any objections to hearing about this from me later on?" Arjuna asked.
"Of course not, Your Grace," Harasu replied, giving the Grand General a bow. "I will be honored to let you handle this report."
"Thank you, Captain," the silver-haired chieftain said, returning the bow with a grceful incline of his head.
Harasu turned his gaze back to the skinny youth. "You heard His Grace, warrior. Get out of here, get to the officers' bath house, get cleaned up and await His Grace's call. You're dismissed."
"Yes, sir." Khuradasu gave his superiors a deep bow, then swiftly turned. He marched out, shaggy topknot swaying behind him.
Once the door was pulled shut, the brunette commander turned to the elegant general. "As you can see, his own discipline is quite good. It's just he's so damned talented, the others are in awe of him. He's literally saved hundreds in the most pitched of battles."
"What's the old saying? 'The truest of actions lie in the blood'?" Arjuna responded, expression thoughtful.
"It would be much easier on all of us if he quit pretending to be something he's not," Harasu grumbled, shaking his head. "He's not your average warrior. And the true average warriors can sense it. He's noble, and his swordsmanship's better at fifteen than most of the rank and file will ever be at twice his age."
"Let me talk to him. I'll see if I can't get him to change his mind."
"Thank you, Your Grace."
For once he was grateful for his actual rank among the Aizvaryan nobility. Though he had insisted on being treated no differently than any other warrior in the Ruby Dragon army -- something he'd done to keep a low profile -- he felt no shame at all in being ordered to use the officers' bath house to clean up. As the adopted son of the province's war minister, he was certainly entitled.
Muscle rippled smoothly under his fair skin as Khuradasu elegantly stretched. Though still nervous at discovering the war minister here, he was glad he'd been swiftly ordered to wash the stink off himself. Bad enough marching about in the muck of the forested swamplands and skirmishing with bandits and Phoenix without having to explain why I was dragging the Raven Herald's daughter back to camp while reeking to the heavens, the orange-haired warrior thought. His Grace is disappointed in me enough without offending his sense of smell.
The nude teenager glanced down, noting the pile of clothing he'd shed. It lay there, bloodstained and smelly, on the sturdy bamboo lattice-work floor of the bathhouse. Wrinkling his nose in disgust, he bent over and picked up the red and golden-brown material. Khuradasu swiftly opened the door and tossed the pile out. "Get someone to wash those for me and bring me a robe and towel," he shouted, confident that the servants hired to see to the officers' needs would take care of the matter.
The door shut firmly behind his hand. Looking the inviting metal tub over, he reached up and untied the leather thong that held shaggy locks back in a proud topknot ponytail. Like bathhouses almost everywhere, the tub was large enough to hold four people comfortably and rested against one of the exterior walls. A stove-like fireplace was built into one of the room's walls, the access to the firebox located near the ground outside. The whole was composed of a stone maze covered with fire-resistant ceramic tiles which allowed the heat to warm both the comfortable room and the water in the metal tub while letting one set towels and clothing on the surface within the room without burning. The other walls were lined with sturdy wooden benches polished smooth and finished with linseed oil. Off to one side of the sliding door sat two wooden buckets, metal bindings gleaming faintly in the light that came through the paper covering the sturdy framework of the walls. In another corner the wooden three-legged stools used to sit in the metal tub were casually grouped together, their thick lacquered finish rendering them essentially waterproof.
Ruddy locks darkened by sweat, grime and blood fell gracefully to hang midway down Khuradasu's back. He grabbed one of the buckets and walked over to the tub, dipping the container into the heated water. Stepping back, the teenaged warrior closed amber-hued eyes and took a deep breath. He poured the water over himself, the clear liquid sluicing over his slender form and splashing against the lacquered bamboo flooring. It then seeped through the holes in the lattice to drip onto the tilted subflooring of stone. From there, the water was pulled down by gravity to the drain to sink into the earth below.
A spray of droplets floated in the air as the young warrior exhaled. The wooden bucket clunked against the floor. He shook his head and ran his hands over his drenched mane, making sure it was thoroughly soaked. Opening his eyes, Khuradasu reached for the jar of goopy, liquid soap that was used on body and hair alike.
Baths were considered essentially common property, so it was the height of rude manners to actually soak in a tub without being already clean. One did their washing -- alone or with the help of some friend, family member or servant -- standing outside the metal container of heated water, making sure to rinse off all traces of dirt and suds with liquid taken from the tub with the buckets. Even in the great public baths where hot springs were harnessed for the comfort of many people at once, Aizvaryans wetted down, scrubbed up and rinsed off in relatively private stalls before sinking into the large pools.
Once the redheaded youth’s scrubbing was complete, he then lifted the lid of the squat, round earthenware jar again and scooped out another handful of the contents with the fingertips of his free hand. The glazed lid settled back into place with a scraping sound. Khuradasu took a step back, piled his soaking mane on top of his head and began rubbing the lightly perfumed, gel-like soap into the red-hued mass. Keeping his eyes tightly closed, the teenaged warrior fumbled around. The sound of the door sliding open caught his attention as he picked the wooden bucket up and filled it with warm water from the metallic tub once more. Ah. The towel and robe. Good.
Liquid splashed onto the bamboo lattice floor again, this time in waves as Khuradasu made sure to rinse off every last trace of soap. A vigorous shake of his head sent water flying from his long hair. He then gracefully turned and picked up the wooden container’s twin in his other hand. A quick glance to the benches to either side of the sliding panel forming the door confirmed the presence of the cloth items he’d earlier requested. The youth carefully pushed open the door with a foot just enough to allow him to shove the buckets out onto the wooden walkway surrounding the bathhouse. A servant would come by and fill the containers with fresh water soon enough.
Wood scraped against wood as Khuradasu closed the door. No need to toss the towel and robe onto the heater to warm up today, he mentally commented. The weather had remained sunny and warm, even if he’d spent most of the day mucking about in the swamp-like forest chasing down Phoenix patrols and outlaw scavengers alike. Letting the two items remain on one of the low wooden benches, Khuradasu grabbed one of the bath stools and tossed it into the tub. As it dropped to the bottom, he clambered up onto the nearest bench. Too short to just step over the metallic sides, he climbed down from the wooden seat into the warm embrace of the waiting water. He then sank into the liquid with a sigh of bliss. Now I feel human again . . .
Seated firmly on the three-legged bath stool, his legs stretched out straight before him, the youth crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the side of the tub. Though the metal was warmer than the bath water, it wasn’t uncomfortable. Where most would have the water come up to their armpits, the teenager’s lack of height made the water cover him up to his chin. Another blissful sigh slipped past his parted lips as he closed his large, amber eyes and just relaxed.
Soon enough his mind turned from merely enjoying the simple pleasure of the moment and concentrated on how to best report his patrol’s actions to the Grand General. A frown marred the youthful beauty of his face as he recalled the girl-Herald’s scream and the sight that had greeted him. At least she’s whole and merely shaken up. Thank the spirits we were in the area at the time. He shuddered, not even wanting to contemplate what would have happened had his unit not been close enough to render aid.
Then his thoughts turned to the memory of her large, verdant eyes. Whether flashing with passion and anger or filled with worry or fear, they were like flawless emeralds, beautiful windows onto her soul. Khuradasu’s frown deepened. The girl was a mortal enemy, the member of a clan sworn to kill any Lopayzom on sight. All that had kept her from spitting on him in contempt was her status as a Herald and his careful concealment of any trace of his aura. Had she known my clan, I’m certain I would have seen only hatred gleaming in those eyes . . .
And me . . . Did I do wrong saving a Raven? The redheaded teen immediately shook his head in the negative, knowing instantly the answer to that. No woman deserved to be used like that, no matter who she was. That she was also a girl who could have been his sister save a cruel twist of fate only strengthened his conviction.
The sound of the door sliding open intruded upon Khuradasu’s musings. Either it was a servant returning with the new water to replace what had been used or it was one of the officers wanting a turn. In the latter case, the youth would either have to share space in the tub or abandon it altogether depending on what the officer ordered. Large, honey-colored eyes opened to see who it could be; the young Avatar was too lost in thought to pay attention to reading auras. Besides, with this many people gathered around, it was easy to ignore all auras as background “noise” in such a safe location and concentrate instead on picking up spikes of energy that could herald approaching danger.
The newcomer was tall, silver-haired--and the last person Khuradasu wanted to see. Gulping hard and his heart suddenly pouding, he jumped upward. Protocol demanded he salute the general, no matter where they were. But the stool under him shifted with the violence of his rise, and the redheaded warrior stumbled over it. Suddenly off-balance, Khuradasu wheeled his slender arms about while trying to stay upright. He lost the battle. Water sloshed over the sides of the tub as the youth fell and went completely under.
Arjuna patiently waited as the warrior came spluttering back up and shook the water from his long red hair. The tall general had hoped to catch the other man unaware. He knew from experience that doing so ensured that Khuradasu would actually pay attention. Noting that the youth was once again trying to stand up to bow, the Fox Chieftain ordered, "Don't bother. At ease, warrior. I've seen enough of those parts of you to last me a lifetime."
Khuradasu blinked up at the tall general from behind water-soaked bangs. "Y-yes, Your Grace," he sputtered, then made the mistake of trying to sit on the tub's bottom without the wooden stool. Under he went again, his long hair floating in the warm water like rust-covered seaweed. Thrashing about, he managed to grab hold of the stool. Coming up for air, he shook the water out of his mane again and finally managed to perch atop the stool once more. Cheeks red with embarrassment, he peered up at the Grand General. "I thought you would send for me, Your Grace."
Arjuna shut the door. Taking a seat on one of the low benches to either side of the doorway, he stretched his long legs out before him. "Since it's just you and me, let's drop the formalities. And before you decide to insist on politeness and protocol, that's an order."
Khuradasu gulped. He'd always known when the silver-haired man was serious. "A-as you wish, Master Arjuna," he acknowledged while suppressing an urge to submerge himself into the water and hide.
"That's better. Now, Kara," Arjuna said, being sure to keep the youth's true name low so that none could accidentally overhear, "tell me exactly what happened to Jurnia."
The redheaded youth did so, his narrative to the point and free of embellishment. Arjuna had wondered why his student had been the one to attempt the report instead of the commander of the patrol, but the story made it clear the reason for it. "I see. You did very well, Kara. I'm quite proud of you."
Large honey-hued eyes blinked in momentary surprise. Then Khuradasu hesitantly smiled. "Thank you, Master. That means a lot to me."
"I do hope you've been staying out of the rice wine."
The youngster's blush deepened. He hadn't forgotten the last lesson his master had given him. "Of course. I didn't like feeling out of control, or the hangover afterwards."
Arjuna grinned. "Good. You always were a quick study when it came to the important things."
The boy's expression shifted to one of exasperation.
"Well . . . You've spent a season as a non-combatant apprentice, and a year and a half as a warrior among the regulars. Perhaps it's time to drop the charade?"
Khuradasu paled and lowered his head, water-soaked bangs hiding him. "I can't do that. You know why I joined in the first place--"
"Yes, yes," Arjuna interrupted, his voice holding a note of impatience, "Why should you remain safe and happy while many subjects of the Dragon Throne are risking their lives for the good of the realm? Why should the swordsmanship that's been the pride of the best warriors of Derkarya be shut away and not used for the good of the realm? The Dragon needed your skills, you wished to experience true battle for yourself, and what sort of subject would you be if you didn't assume the same risks as those of lower station? Have I got it right?"
The youngster merely nodded in affirmation.
"You've done all that, Kara. You've also saved many of those souls through your skill. But no matter how hard you try, you are not just a common warrior. You're an Avatar, and a noble, and the rank and file sense it."
"I've been careful!" Khuradasu protested. He lifted his head, amber eyes full of outrage.
"I know you have," the silver-haired general responded, raising a hand in a gesture meant to soothe. "Captain Harasu's been quite impressed, and if I hadn't told him long ago, he would never have known. But you have to admit, you're accorded a measure of respect no ordinary rank and file would receive. They sense what you really are, and they act accordingly. It would be much simpler for everyone if you would just reveal yourself to everyone and step into a position worthy of your station."
"I do that and the next thing I'll have to worry about are Raven-hired assassins--"
"Actually, that's why the Lady Herald is here. Seems as if His Grace the Raven has ordered his clan to stand down for the duration of this border war."
"That's good news," the redheaded youth responded. He leaned back against the tub, visibly relaxed. "But you know what'll happen if I openly declare myself. I'll be shoved into the officers' ranks, my effectiveness limited because I'd be away from the actual battles. Here, at least, I can use all of my skills to help protect the warriors of the Dragon."
"The skills of a leader can save as many lives, whether at the battle or behind the lines," Arjuna said.
Khuradasu shook his head in the negative, the ends of his long mane swirling in the heated water. "No. No offense, Master Arjuna, but I have no desire to lead or wither away in middle management. I'm well aware of my limitations. Whereas you have the aptitude for commanding, I don't. My talents lie on the battlefield, and there's few who would believe that Karavasu, student of Fox Swordsmanship under the Grand General Arjunayazu, belongs in the thick of battle with the rest of the ordinary warriors." The youth sighed in resignation. "Khuradasu I am, and Khuradasu I shall remain."
The silver-haired man frowned. "You won't be turned from your path?"
"Please try to understand, Master. I can save lives this way, lives of people who are just as loyal and as worthy subjects as I am. My swordsmanship has only improved, and truly, I'm one of those who have accounted for our advancements in retaking Dragonfly land from the Phoenix."
Arjuna closed his eyes and folded his arms over his chest. True enough, he mused. The feared Demon's Claw had indeed made the Derkaryan advance easier. "Tell me then . . . If something were found to allow you to continue to save lives, but behind the scenes . . . Something that allowed you to use what you're good at without tying you down in some office away from where your comrades were risking their lives, would you consider it?"
The youngster sighed again, closing his eyes as well. "Perhaps. I don't know. I wouldn't know for sure until something was offered." He paused, the silence hanging tense between them. It hadn't just been to risk his life as other did, to hone his training through the pressure of true fighting, that had sent him to seek out the Dragon Army and join it. As far back as he could remember, Arjuna had wanted him to become the best warrior he could. He longed for his adopted father's approval, which had almost always come whenever Kara had excelled in his swordsmanship. "Am I really that big of a disruption?" he finally asked.
"Not yet, but your captain's worried. Most of the units don't treat you as just another warrior. I know you wouldn't countermand your leader's orders, not normally, but there may come a time . . ."
"All I wanted was to do my duty as a loyal citizen . . ."
"I know, Kara," Arjuna assured the teenager. "Let me see if I can find something that both suits you and the organization of the army."
"Thank you, Master."
"Now enjoy your bath," the silver-haired general said, rising to his feet. "I'll see you on the morrow."
Amber eyes opened to stare after the retreating man. "Good night, Master."
The door slid shut, but it didn't keep out the other's low voice. "Good night, Khuradasu."
A low excitement thrummed through the encampment as the fiery fingers of dawn streaked across the sky. The change in atmosphere was enough to rouse the elegant Raven Herald from her sleep.
A battle comes . . . Having witnessed many such conflicts in her career, the willowy woman recognized the emotion in the surrounding auras. She rose to a sitting position, the covers falling to her waist and her long, sleep-tangled mane sliding over her bare back. Pale green eyes flicked to where her daughter lay hudded in the nearby bed. Should now be the time to show her the reality? Or should I wait longer, let her remain that much innocent for a while yet?