It was already too late.  The moment of no return had passed; the arrow was loose from the bow and speeding toward its target deadly and true.  Yes, there’d been other auras about, but they had all been of little significance and even less threat.  Certain he’d found his prey alone, he’d launched himself in a finely-tuned fury of focus.

Happy shouts of “Daddy! Daddy, we wanna hug!” died in a terrified gulp.  Frozen in horror, the two little girls stared wide-eyed as a dark shadow descended like a hawk on their father.  The tall man had only enough time to start as he sensed danger, turning and looking up in time to catch the edge of a longsword on top of his head.  A resounding crack filled the chamber, ominously.  Light as a cat on its feet, the little redheaded hunter landed in a graceful crouch, eyes closed and golden-glowing sword faintly smeared with blood.

For a seemingly endless moment, the four in the room were frozen in time: the little girls standing in wide-eyed horror, the tall brown-haired man standing slightly braced for an impact he just realized was coming, and the coiled stranger with the crimson-stained blade.  Then blood began to trickle down the man’s forehead, the light fading in his light-brown eyes.  The cloth headband around the victim’s head fell apart, sheared neatly into two halves.  The thong keeping his long hair pulled back in a warrior’s topknot also burst apart, just as neatly severed.  Blood exploded outwards, betraying the devastating extent of the assassin’s strike; chestnut-hued hair fell loose as the man’s body began to tumble to the floor.  That same blood sprayed the crouching manslayer, spattering his dark-hued clothing and black-dyed, lightweight leather armor, making a rivulet of red run down his deceptively soft and boyish face.

The older of the little girls gasped in utter horror, reaching out to grab her younger sister in a hug as their father’s blood splashed warm and sticky on them.  The smaller, darker-haired girl sucked in a deep breath, obviously distressed and about to cry.

The assassin opened his eyes then, ignoring the coppery-scented fluid running down his face.  Amber and full of golden power, they were as feral as any wild animal’s and as dangerous as any tiger’s.  For a moment he looked at them, an untamed beast sizing up prey or foe.  Then those eyes widened in a horror as great as that which ensnared the girls.  The slender redhead lurched to his feet, right hand going white as he gripped his sword tighter while his left came up to clutch at his head.  He staggered back as if his unarmed target had struck him an equally telling blow.  “No.  No!  I can’t . . .” he gasped, seemingly in agony.

The children couldn’t have been any older than eight and six, so full of hope, promise and potential.  War of any sort was often waged in order to ensure that children like them could have a better world, yet these two were old enough to tell the adults in their lives what they’d just seen and could identify him in the future.

His orders had always been clear and absolute:  no witnesses.

They screamed then, finally giving voice to their terror.  The shrill sound filled the otherwise empty chamber, certain to bring the rest of the household running.  “No,” the assassin sobbed, recoiling.  For a moment it looked as if he’d drop his sword and collapse to the bloodstained floor.  Then he abruptly straightened, his composure regained—and his eyes were once again the impassive orbs of a stalking predator.

Spirit energy crackled golden around him, making his blade glow as if it had suddenly swallowed a sliver of the sun itself.  Moving almost too fast for the eye to see, he closed the short distance between himself and the huddled, screaming girls.

The strike was too swift, too fast to even make a sound—though the shrill, echoing screams instantly, ominously stopped.  The assassin came to a halt, sword poised two-handed and outstretched to his left; he’d obviously powered a slash parallel to the ground through the children.  A tear rolled down his cheek, diluting the blood staining his skin; after a seemingly long moment, the girls collapsed to the floor in much the same manner as their father, their heads rolling across the crimson-stained matting.

Knowing he was short of time, the assassin sheathed his sword without bothering to wipe the blade.  He could sense alarm sparking through the household; more auras were swiftly approaching, intent on investigating.  Unless he wished to stay and slaughter more innocents, he had to retreat.  Regardless what part of himself thought about his actions and motivations, the manslayer wasn’t lusting after the destruction of more innocents.  The mission objective had been achieved; there was no reason to linger about the scene of his bloody handiwork.  He walked over to the room’s exterior wall, then tugged aside the sliding panel that served as the shutter to the glassless window.  Silent as a ghost, he leapt gracefully through the opening into the still night.

He hit the ground running, intent now on making his escape unseen.  Spirit energy swirled about him before fading out and obscuring his slender form.  Recalling the mental image of the plush estate’s layout, the dark-clad manhunter sprinted for the boundary wall.

In the growing distance shouts of horrified anger and terrified anguish heralded the discovery of the carnage.  The auras of those now alarmed and preparing to fight remained behind him; ahead lay peaceful, unsuspecting presences as yet ignorant of their lord’s violent demise.  The assassin used the shining beacons of spirit energy as lighthouses, warning him away of the danger of more innocents who would be better off not becoming involved.

Even being cautious while swiftly approaching the wall enclosing the estate’s sumptuous grounds, his hesitation while scanning the section of wall he’d approached was enough for an unlucky guard to spot him.

“Hey there!  Hey you!” the warrior clad in the household’s colors of red and gold shouted.  Having paused in his assigned patrol to look up at the sky in order to better judge the immediate threat of inclement weather, a movement at the corner of his eye had caught the guard’s attention when he’d returned his gaze to the ground.  Noting the presence of a dark-clad, redheaded stranger, the guard became alert, challenging.

The short, red-haired man halted his inspection of the outer wall.  Seemingly unsurprised by the guard’s shout, the redhead turned his gaze to the increasingly-nervous brunette warrior.

The guard hissed in fright, instinctively pulling his sword free.  Those amber eyes were menacingly golden, full of the promise of death as they stared coolly back from a face the guard could now see was spattered with blood.  “Whatever you’ve done, I won’t let you get away with it!” the brown-haired guard shouted, finding his warrior’s courage.  Something terrible must have happened in the estate he was charged to protect; honor demanded he make the stranger pay—or die in the attempt.

The redhead slid a foot back while gracefully turning to face the red- and gold-clad warrior.  Settling into a quick-draw stance, his slender hand came up to hover over the sword’s twine-wrapped grip.  “Come then, and die,” the manslayer said, his soft voice deceptively casual.

With a rousing battle cry, the guard charged forward, intent on slashing the blood-flecked stranger.  The assassin drew at the very last moment, his glowing sword spilling gold light into the darkness as he made his sweep.  Steel sang out as the guard’s blade shattered under the force of the assassin’s blow.  The brunette warrior staggered back, face registering shock and pain before the expressions faded into oblivion.  Blood sprayed outward from the massive gash from shoulder to hip as the household guard fell, painting the stone surface of the wall, the verdant grass and the redheaded assassin with its sticky wetness.  Hearing more shouts nearby as the man’s companion warriors reacted in alarm to the dead man’s battle cry, the manslayer sheathed his sword again and lifted his amber gaze to the top of the wall.  Concentrating, he leapt up into the air.

Even empowered by spirit energy, the jump wasn’t quite enough to allow the red-haired assassin to clear it.  It was, however, enough to allow him to grab onto the top of the stone wall.  Using his hands as a fulcrum, he vaulted gracefully up and over; orange hair fluttered as he performed first a momentary handstand then an elegant flip.  He landed light on his feet on the other side; in an instant he was sprinting again, disappearing into the night-shrouded forest surrounding the estate.

Swift as a deer, the little swordsman dashed through the underbrush.  Gracefully weaving between the rough trunks of ancient trees, he left behind the blood and chaos, unerringly making his way to the agreed-upon place.  His field agent, Sidhu, had supplies waiting there, and he needed to leave a sign for the agent to find.

The place was a peaceful clearing at the edge of a pond far enough away from the Phoenix estate it would take any pursuers some time to discover.  The redheaded manslayer slipped quietly into the chapel-like stillness, his breathing harsh from the run.  No auras greeted him; he was truly alone.  No one else would have to die this night.

His gait changed to a graceful, walking stride as he made his way to the crumbling boulders at the edge of the still pond.  Squatting down, he reached deep into a cleft formed by a crack that had long ago broken the stone into two rough halves.  The bag was there as he knew it would be; Sidhu was nothing if not reliable.  He grasped it tightly and dragged it out into the open.

The bag was sturdy canvas dyed black, a typical container used to store items while traveling.  The assassin knelt on the detritus-strewn forest floor.  Nimble fingers worked open the knots, then pawed through the contents, pulling them out.  A set of clean clothing was present, as was a pouch with some coins appropriate for the local area.  No folded paper awaited him, so the manhunter was safe to assume that he was to proceed as usual after a mission attempt.

He kept his senses on the alert; given how wrong his mission had gone, he was loathe to make the same mistake twice.  But no human auras were in range; with luck, the men given the duty to guard the Phoenix estate were too busy trying to secure the grounds to try to hunt down the one responsible.  Even so, he wanted to make quick work of cleaning up.

He efficiently stripped off the lightweight leather armor covering his lower arms and tossed it into the dark, canvas bag.  Shaking out the loose sleeves of his deep royal blue shirt and the pleated legs of his black pants, he swiftly unknotted the black sash around his slender waist and began unwrapping the long piece of cloth.  For a moment he fished into the left-hand sleeve pocked of his crimson-stained shirt; his slender-fingered hand emerged holding the small leather pouch containing his personal items.  He then dropped the plain pouch to the ground at his feet.

As he tossed the sash into the bag, he carefully set his sheathed sword on the ground.  The sash was quickly followed by the blood-spattered shirt and pants, revealing the form-fitting, black leather armor he wore under his clothing.  From neck to waist, a supple, sleeveless jacket covered his slender form, while more of the same material encased his legs from the knees down; his fingers quickly undid the ties at the seam under his left arm with practiced ease.  After he slipped out of it, the torso armor joined the rest of his blood-stained clothing in the bag.  He knelt down then, pulling free the ties securing his leg armor—first from the right, then the left—and then kicked off his sandals.  Pulling his legs through the armor, he tossed the matched pair of leather leggings into the bag.  Last were the thick, dual-toed socks; they were yanked off and stuffed into the canvas sack as well.  Stripped down to only his loincloth, the redhead reached up and yanked off the leather thong holding his hair up in a proud topknot.  Shaggy orange hair, the strands ending just above the small of his back, fell to cover his dorsal side as he turned to face the mirror-like surface of the pond.

He splashed into the water, ignoring its chill embrace.  At its deepest, the pond was only waist high.  Falling to his knees to submerge himself to his neck, he took a deep breath and ducked himself under.

Even there, in that pristine setting with night-chilled, clear water surrounding him, he could feel the hot stickiness of the blood that had covered him, could still smell and taste its coppery tinge.  This time, nothing would ever wash it away.

He came up gasping for breath, fighting back the overwhelming urge to break down into sobs of profound grief.  Shaking his head vigorously from side to side to both fling off the excess water from his orange-hued hair and to negate the wellspring of emotion within, the assassin murmured, “No.  Not yet.  Stay back there and be miserable if you must, but we’re not free and clear just yet.”  Breathing still harsh, he stood up; water trickled off his fair skin as he settled into a listening stance.  “No.  I’m not about to throw away our lives just because we screwed up.”  Another pause, as if he were hearing a reply from the night-shrouded forest surrounding him.  “Blame me if you wish.  I chose to follow orders; it would be dereliction of duty otherwise.  Hate me if you must because I urged you into getting it over with without being absolutely certain he was far enough away from everyone else for there to be no interference.  But I will not allow myself to die just to please your sense of guilt and despair.”

He strode out of the pond, ignoring the cold-induced shivers that jolted through him.  The clothing left inside the canvas sack was garb commonly associated with the peasantry:  coarse-woven linen in common coloring, sturdy with little decoration.  He began donning the humble outfit, muttering, “Yes, I know if we go back we’ll just be sent out again.”  He suddenly stiffened, frozen with the light tan shirt half on, left hand in the process of pulling the cloth over his shoulder.  What?” he asked, apparently astounded.  “Do you realize—?”  He shook his head, wet red strands still dripping water, as if he couldn’t understand what he just heard.  Suddenly dropping to his knees, he clutched his head in apparent agony.  No!  I won’t . . . Too many . . . will still die . . . Do you really want that?  Listen to me!”

Whatever pained him seemed to lessen its hold.  Lowering his hands slightly, the assassin murmured, “What about all those young men still dying on the battlefields?  There’s only one way to stop the slaughter on both sides, and that’s to end the war.  One man is responsible for all of this.  Let me stay long enough to bring the war to him.  After that, I’ll accept whatever you want.  If what you truly want is no more killing, then ending it any other way will only make even more innocents die needlessly.”  He took a deep breath then, seemingly waiting; with a sigh of apparent relief, he pulled the tan shirt on the rest of the way and continued to dress in silence.

When he was finished, it seemed as if the night-shrouded clearing held within it only a humble farmer, not a blood-smeared manslayer.  His dark brown pants were closer fitting, the socks and sandals nondescript.  A belt made of a length of rope encircled his waist; over his clothing he wore a cloak of woven reeds.  A wide-brimmed, pointed, round hat also made of woven reed shadowed his head; he’d tucked his hair up under it to give the illusion of having a close-cropped mane.  Securing the black canvas bag, the assassin stuffed it back into the cleft of the ancient boulder.  Reaching into the right sleeve pocket of his simple tan shirt, he fished around and finally pulled out two lengths of yarn.  One was dyed crimson red, the other was plain, still the natural hue of the fibers forming it.  Selecting the red one, he stuffed the other back into his sleeve; he then tied the red yarn to a bush next to the weather-split stone.

The signal was set.  Sidhu would return here soon and know that the assignment was successfully completed and that the bag was filled with items that needed to be cleaned or destroyed.  The field agent and the assassin were then to meet in the morning at a pre-arranged inn—but the orange-haired manslayer had other plans this time around.

Golden eyes narrowing in determination, the assassin slipped his sword through the rope belt at his waist.  After picking up his leather pouch and dropping it into his left-hand sleeve pocket, he gracefully rose to his feet.  Making sure to conceal the fine weapon under his reed cloak, he glanced upward at the star-speckled sky high above.  Then he faced south-southeast, and with a purposeful stride, he walked deeper into the wilderness.

Onward he traveled as the stars wheeled slowly above the canopy of the ancient forest.  Even after dawn’s rosy fingers touched the eastern horizon, he pushed forward, golden eyes as determined as ever.  Determined to stay unseen by the unsuspecting citizens of Aizhou, he kept to the forest and followed the faint trails made by the wild animals.  It wasn’t until a couple of hours after the sun had risen that exhaustion finally settled in and drained him of his ability to continue deeper behind enemy lines.

Eyes sticky and hurting slightly, he was rubbing one with the back of his left index finger to ease the itchy ache when a dragging footstep caught on a tree root.  “Ara?” he yelped, suddenly transformed from a graceful, coordinated predator to a silly, clumsy oaf.  The redheaded man stumbled about, trying to regain his balance, but lack of sleep robbed him of his natural grace.  Tripping over his own feet, the disguised assassin crashed to the forest floor.  “Arara . . .” he softly warbled, not even realizing he’d uttered a sound.

Sighing in exasperation, he pulled himself up from a sprawled mess to an upright position.  Too tired, he reluctantly admitted.  Noting that he’d come to rest against the trunk of an ancient tree, he slid back across the ground and nestled in the sheltering fork between two large roots.  He pulled his sword free; resting it against his shoulder, he settled back against the tree and closed his eyes.  Just a short nap, and then we can continue . . .


Noon had come and gone and still no sign of Khuradasu.  Sidhu took another sip of his tea, scowling in worry as his dark brown eyes scanned the inn’s common room once again.  This isn’t like him at all.  He’s usually right there, waiting for me in his room when I return with the bag.  The sandy-haired field agent wasn’t sure what to make of the situation so far.

That the little redhead had returned from the Phoenix estate was certain.  The red yarn had been present, indicating a successful neutralization of the target.  The bag had been tampered with, and the contents had been exchanged for Khuradasu’s favorite armor and working clothes.  So why isn’t he here, sleeping or something?  I can’t imagine the guards of the estate recovering that swiftly, fast enough to catch him between the pond and here after realizing that “farmer” is really the man who killed the general.

Sidhu’s scowl deepened.  Something was obviously wrong, but he couldn’t figure out—even with his detail-focused mind and his love of mysteries and puzzles—what precisely had gone wrong.

The door to the common room slid open; the movement caused the field agent to look in that direction.  A group of local villagers came in, mostly young male shopworkers, crafters and artisans who had no wife or mother hanging about to see to having a lunch ready for them.  The motley crew was abuzz about something; their body language punctuated their horrified but excited voices.  As the inn’s staff hopped to attention to serve the lunchtime crowd, Sidhu kept his focus on listening to the locals’ conversation.

“It’s just absolutely horrible!”

“I can’t believe it!  Not only Lord General Yazbaratu but also those adorable girls of his?  What did they ever do to deserve that?”

“Maybe the Lord General—”

“Don’t be absurd!  He loved his daughters.  Besides, I hear there was a guard killed by the perimeter.”

“No?  Really?”

“Probably means someone from outside—”

“Or some thing!  Rumor has it they were all ripped viciously to shreds!  Blood all over the place!”

“Could there be a demon lurking about?”

Sidhu snorted in derision.  Always the talk of a demon.  Though I shouldn’t be surprised by now.  There’s a reason why his comrades called him “The Demon’s Claw”.  Still . . .  The blond field agent frowned, mind latching onto something overheard.  They’re speaking of the general and his daughters being murdered.  His daughters?  They’re only children; the oldest is eight if I recall the intelligence correctly.

The field agent’s dark brown eyes widened in astonishment as things began clicking into place.  He’d sensed a growing dissatisfaction within the famed Khuradasu, something so deep Sidhu wasn’t sure if the young redhead even knew it was there.  As time had gone on and each mission was successfully concluded, the teenaged assassin had returned just a bit more colder, a bit more distant—yet each time he was sent out again, he accepted the orders without comment and proceeded to execute the mission with a skill rarely seen.

This time, however, something had happened—and children ended up dead.  Though Sidhu couldn’t for a moment believe that Khuradasu had intentionally targeted the girls as well, the field agent was sure the assassin had believed their deaths were somehow necessary.  So why isn’t he here to explain to me what happened?  Has he snapped? Sidhu wondered.  Finding that thought disturbing and frightening, he quickly downed the rest of his tea.  This has to be reported right away.  I have no idea what he’d be doing if he has snapped—but Lord Grand General Arjunayazu may know . . .


The coppery smell and taste of blood, and the oppressing atmosphere of terror—his intended targets’ fear—closed in around him.  Sword glowing with deadly power, he lashed out as he was always expected to do, trying not to care.  It shouldn’t matter; he was merely a weapon, yet another tool that did its job with no remorse, no compassion, nothing.  A sword felt nothing as it slashed through flesh and bone, severing body and spirit, leaving behind cooling meat, heartbreak and sorrow.  Then came the screams of children, breaking through his concentration; he had to lash out, but the following silence seemed to shatter his own soul—

Gasping for breath, the redheaded assassin abruptly awoke.  His amber eyes gleaming with golden Avatar power, he was on his feet with his sword half-drawn before he came completely to his senses and realized he was safe and alone in the middle of an ancient forest.  He frowned in annoyance at himself as he relaxed and let the blade slide home in its sturdy, wooden sheath.

Khuradasu then sighed, glancing about.  From the amount of light filtering through the canopy high above and the few stray sunbeams striking ground, he estimated it was about halfway between noon and sunset.  He lowered himself back to the ground, arranging the straw cloak comfortably around his slender form.  So here I am, somewhere in the middle of the forest deep behind enemy lines, he mused, a thoughtful expression on his youthful face.  I need to take this fight directly to the one responsible for everything . . . but how do I find him?  He could be anywhere in Aizhou . . . Wait a moment.

Sitting tailor on the ground, head still shielded by the large, round hat, Khuradasu pulled his sword out once more.  This time he freed it completely, setting the sheath down on the detritus-covered earth.  Resting the deadly blade across his knees, he stared down at the well-honed steel.

The sword was a masterwork of the smith’s art.  He’d carried it with him since he was given it at the age of twelve—though now at seventeen, the blade was becoming just a bit too short to be properly balanced to the assassin’s height.  Not that that overly matters.  I don’t think I’m going to be getting much taller, Khuradasu wryly thought, knowing quite well he was no taller than the average Aizvaryan woman and had been so for a while.  But it may be time to get a new sword.  I’m fighting at a slight disadvantage now.

No more killing.  Ever, whispered another voice in his head.

“Not this again,” Khuradasu muttered out loud in response.  “We can’t stop just yet, not if we’re going to end this war once and for all.”

There’s no guarantee we can even stop the war.

“We have to try.  At the worst, Aizhou will be tossed into the politics and internal dissention of replacing a sitting prince unexpectedly.  At the best, the prince will be so scared, he’ll seek to end the war.”  When nothing more but a frustrated silence met Khuradasu’s reply, the redheaded assassin growled, “Do you want to let the bloodshed continue on both sides?  That’s what will happen if we don’t even try.”

Of course not.  There’s been too much death already.

“Then we continue to make the attempt.  Who knows?  Maybe you’ll get your wish and we’re the ones that end up dead.  Though I have little desire myself to die simply because I did the job we were assigned.”

They were children!

“They were also witnesses,” Khuradasu responded, his voice harsh but his eyes haunted.  “And the orders are clear:  No witnesses.  So . . . no witnesses remained.”

You . . . are a monster.  Is this what I’ve truly become?

“If you want to blame anyone, blame me.  And the war.  But by the spirits, I will try to make this senseless conflict end—or die trying.  Now, let me concentrate here.  I need a way to home in on the one responsible, and I have a way here on my blade.”

The other voice fell silent, though Khuradasu kept getting the impression it was one of horror.  Sighing, he turned his amber gaze to the blade lying across his lap.  He’d fled before having a chance to wipe the blood off the keen-edged sword; the fluid remained on the steel’s surface, a dried, reddish smear dulling the metal’s normally bright finish.  The general, his daughters and one guard of the estate had all met their end by encountering this blade; their traces were left behind on the blood, and three of those four were not only members of the same clan that ruled Aizhou—they belonged to the same royal bloodline.

He held the sword by the grip in his right hand; his left hand rested, palm-down, against the flat near the tip of the blade.  Bowing his head and closing his eyes, Khuradasu began to concentrate on the psychic essences trapped upon the surface of his sword.  Golden light flickered around his still form and glowed within the heart of the steel.  He willed the remaining blood to speak to him, to tell him where he could find the one who embodied the Source of their bloodline:  Where is the Phoenix?

Slowly, reluctantly, the blood responded to the Avatar assassin’s demands.  Red light gleamed faintly in the heart of the gold, then shot forward like an arrow to the west and slightly south.  Stretching his awareness out with the guidance of the blood, Khuradasu found what he sought.  He latched onto the sensation, burning it into his mind, engraving it on his soul.  Far away, miles yet distant, he could see the tiny image of the fiery Bird of the South—and he knew the one that held the Phoenix power would be there.

Under his hand, the traces of General Yazbaratu and his daughters took on a sense of profound dismay.  Khuradasu flinched at the unexpected sensation, his golden aura wavering slightly.  Please, go in peace, all of you.  I intend to seek the prince out merely to stop the war.  I don’t wish him harm, but harm him I must if it means the fighting between our lands stops.  Even when the faint presences of the royal Phoenixes were gone, burned up in the magic that had allowed him to home in on their essences, the redheaded assassin continued to get the sense of their disapproval—that not only had he stolen their lives, he had, at the last, forced them to betray to the enemy their Source’s location.

The manslayer’s golden aura faded away.  The rust-hued smears dulling the sword were now gone, the blood completely consumed by Khuradasu’s working of Avatar magic.  In the back of his mind, the assassin could still sense the Phoenix’s location; the presence would remain like a guiding beacon until the deed was done, one way or another.  Khuradasu closed his eyes, suddenly weary; unnoticed, a tear ran down the assassin’s cheek.


Twilight was stretching dusky fingers across the sky, embracing the forest in deepening shadows, when Khuradasu jolted awake again.  Gasping softly, startled, he looked about with a wild-eyed, amber gaze before it finally dawned on him that he had once again fallen asleep and was just now awakening. His lean form clad in peasant farmer’s clothing was still parked cross-legged on the ground, his bared sword lying across his lap.  He frowned, taking a deep breath.  That must have taken more out of me than I realized, the redheaded assassin mused while picking up his weapon’s sheath.  Sliding the blade home, Khuradasu gracefully stood and slipped his sword back in place at his side.

Well, now . . . On to business.  Golden eyes scanned over the surrounding woods as Avatar senses cast about both for nearby dangers and for the current location of the Phoenix.  Nothing in the immediate area caught his attention, but far and away he could see the flame-red star guiding the way to the one that ruled the whole of the Southern Province.

Expression grim, Khuradasu settled his reed cloak about himself and broke into a fast-paced, almost loping walk.  No matter how long it takes, I will find you—and then I will make you stop this war once and for all.

He traveled far into the night, following the distant red star of the Phoenix’s spirit energy while traversing the increasingly unfamiliar territory of the Southern Province.  Determined to keep his presence unknown to everyone, he remained in the forests and wilderness, keeping off the roads and well-worn footpaths.

Even being cautious—staying off the beaten path and steering away from where he felt various human auras deep in slumber—it wasn’t quite enough.  The rosy fingers of dawn were staining the sky when Khuradasu sensed the active aura of a small group of people steadily drawing near.  Though somewhat curious, the assassin still attempted to avoid them—until it became clear they were tracking him, if not by his faint corona of spirit energy then by the few physical signs of his passing.

He stopped then, wondering why the quartet was so persistent in seeking him out.  Have they somehow guessed who I am and what I’m doing?  Or do they merely seek out some poor peasant and believe I am one?  Being certain to conceal his sword under his voluminous reed cloak, Khuradasu tugged his broad-brimmed hat down a bit to further obscure his face.  Pulling his Avatar power close, the orange-maned assassin concentrated on projecting an aura of humble helplessness, one similar to the one often sensed about the folk who worked the earth for a living.  He started forward again then, acting as if he were lost and looking for the way home in the growing light of day.

“Well now, what have we here?” called out an unfamiliar voice.  The tones were deep in tone and harsh, mockingly amused.

Khuradasu made himself jerk to a stop, as if the call had startled him.  Underneath his charade, the assassin eased into combat readiness.  The auras of the four stank of cruelty, having the sense of bullies who’d grown up to find sadistic pleasure in harming those weaker than themselves.  Feigning surprise, the disguised warrior turned to face the one that had called out.

They were a group of Phoenix Army, their status betrayed by their clothing.  Their deep red pants and brighter red sashes were of the same hue—as was standard throughout the armies of the empire—while their shirts of varying hues of green marked them as being of the Emerald Phoenix:  the units charged with the protection of the northern estates, and the units currently involved in the fighting with Derkarya.

“Looks like some silly peasant got himself lost or something,” one of the other warriors responded to the first.

“Just like a commoner,” muttered a third, a smirk settling on his face.

“Please, kind sirs,” Khuradasu said, his deceptively gentle voice taking on the plaintive tones of an inferior addressing more powerful superiors, “I only wish to find my way back home.  You see, one of the cattle got lost and I went looking—”

“Shut up!” barked the leader.  Nearly in the blink of an eye, the bigger man was next to the peasant; his resounding backhand flung the little commoner right off his feet and made him tumble to the ground in a heap of hat, cloak and clothing.  “Your betters haven’t given you permission to speak!”

Khuradasu tumbled with the blow, being certain to keep his sword hidden.  Ignoring the sting on his cheek, he made himself seem dazed while inwardly growling in rage.  These are among those charged with the protection of the weak and helpless here in northern Aizhou?  Before anyone of lesser skill could react, the four Phoenix soldiers ganged up on their seemingly helpless victim.  The orange-haired assassin endured their vicious kicks while huddling to keep his weapon undiscovered.  Giving them the impression they continued to bully someone far under their warrior’s skill, he inwardly marshaled his own power.  All the while begging and pleading with “the great masters” for them to stop, Khuradasu grew more incensed.

The kicking went on for seemingly an eternity.  Any true peasant would have succumbed, or been close to death by the time the Phoenix warriors were finished.  Laughing and mocking their crumpled, beaten victim, the quartet stood back and began discussing how best to be certain there would be no witness remaining to their cruelty.

“Well, he’s not twitched for a bit,” the leader finally said as they turned their attention back to the battered pile of clothing that was their victim.  “But just to be sure . . . Steel whispered against wood as the smirking warrior drew his sword.

Slowly, gracefully, the seemingly beaten and wounded peasant rose to his feet.  “I had wondered why four were determined to follow a lone farmer through the woods,” the victim’s voice said, holding within it no sound of hurt or fear.

The quartet gasped, instinctively stepping back from the seemingly inhuman peasant.  The little man should have been seriously hurt if not dead or close to dying, yet here he was, moving as if he’d taken no injury at all and his voice full of a menace heard only on the battlefield.

“Now I know why,” Khuradasu continued, reaching up to strip off the concealing hat.  Flinging it to the side, he glared at the four enemy warriors.  “For your own sport, you sought out someone far beneath your skills—someone you’ve pledged to protect—and wished to make a game of his death.”  Slender fingers next undid the ties holding the reed cloak in place.  That too was tossed aside by the angry assassin, revealing the sword at his waist.  “Such cruelty cannot go unanswered.”

“A sword?”

“He’s actually a warrior?”

“Just who the hell is this guy?”

More steel rang out in the forest clearing as the remaining Phoenix warriors drew their weapons.  As they took on a ready stance, the leader pointed his blade at the transformed peasant.  “Yes, just who the hell are you?”

“It matters not who I am.  It’s enough to know you face divine judgment,” Khuradasu calmly responded.  Though inwardly ready to lash out in mortal combat, the slender redhead remained apparently at ease.

“Insolent bastard!” shouted the Aizhouan leader.  With a growl, he charged toward the redheaded stranger.

Khuradasu held his ground, remaining at ease until the very last moment.  Then, in a blinding flash of movement, he dropped into a quick-draw stance.  He effortlessly dodged the Phoenix warrior’s incoming thrust, twisting his lithe body with the movement.  Momentum added to his draw as Khuradasu pulled his weapon free of its sheath.  Golden light gleamed in the heart of the steel as, with an apparently effortless strike, the assassin’s well-placed blow sheared through the other’s neck as the bigger man stumbled past him.  The warrior’s momentum carried him another couple of steps beyond before crimson suddenly burst forth from his body.  The other three gasped in horror as their leader crumpled to the ground, head rolling off a short distance.

Digging a foot into the soft earth, Khuradasu pivoted hard and launched himself at another of the remaining three.  Steel sang as the one attacked managed to parry, but the redheaded warrior pushed upwards with a spirit cry.  The blocked sword was forced back higher, up over its owner’s head.  Taking advantage of the opening he created, Khuradasu dropped to a kneeling position and thrust viciously forward.  Before his victim could even lower his blade to block, the Derkaryan assassin’s sword impaled him.  The wounded warrior dropped his weapon then, hands instinctively reaching toward the source of the agony.  Golden light glowed brighter in Khuradasu’s sword as the redheaded assassin used both hands to power his sword to the side and rip through the other’s torso.  Blood splashed outward, flung into the air off the now-freed, golden-gleaming blade.

The remaining pair recovered from their shock.  With resounding battle cries, they struck in almost perfect unison at the peasant-clad warrior kneeling upon the ground.  Metal grated against metal as the two Phoenix blades hit one another; where they clashed, no one could be seen.  The two gaped; it was as if their intended victim had vanished like a ghost.

“Hammer—strike!” intoned a youthful voice from above.  A sick-sounding crack echoed through the clearing as a streak of orange and muted dark colors seemingly dropped from the skies above.  The blur resolved itself into the little redheaded swordsman; light as a cat, he landed on his feet and turned to face the one remaining warrior.  His latest victim stood there a moment, the light of life swiftly fading from his horrified eyes.  Before the still-living swordsman could do more than stagger back, Khuradasu sprung forward like a tiger.  Blood started as a trickle, then exploded outward from the now-dead warrior with that same eerie delay that particular attack almost always caused; the body slumped to the ground like a felled tree as the swift assassin swung his glowing sword at the final warrior remaining.

Steel screamed into the dawn as the Phoenix warrior desperately parried the incoming attack.  “Put down your sword,” Khuradasu calmly ordered, glowing eyes staring at his foe like a predator focused on its prey.

“You’ll only slaughter me where I stand,” the warrior responded, clearly frightened.  He knew he was in over his head; his three friends had been cut down in a matter of heartbeats.

“No,” the redheaded warrior said, stepping back but remaining in a ready stance should the other rashly attempt to press an attack.  “Put down your sword and swear you’ll never again try to harm anyone you are sworn to protect, and you’ll live.”

For a long moment the two warriors stared at one another.  Trembling, the Phoenix swordsman decided that taking a chance on the other’s word was better than a certain death.  Slowly moving his arm out and away, the lone survivor let his weapon drop to the ground.  With those seemingly inhuman golden eyes still focused on him, the defeated warrior added the sheath; he pulled it free from his red sash and tossed it to the forest floor next to the bared blade.

“Swear,” Khuradasu growled.

“I so swear,” the other man said, voice still breaking in fright.  “Never again will I try to harm another in my keeping.”

Another long moment passed as the orange-haired assassin swept his gaze over his defeated opponent.  The other’s aura betrayed no deception, no intent to strike back.  Clearly frightened for his very life, the Phoenix warrior was sincere in that moment.  But what of the order of no witnesses?

You gave your word! shouted that other voice in his mind, and we’re not on a mission.  He may indeed be an enemy warrior, but he has no idea who stands before him.

True.  He’s well and truly beaten; it would be somewhat senseless to cut him down.  Khuradasu pointed toward the far side of the clearing with his blood-streaked sword.  “Begone!” he growled at the other man.  “Get back to your unit before I decide you’re not worth the effort to keep my word.”

Gulping, the Phoenix warrior took off like a shot.  Certain he would have this one chance only at remaining alive, he was eager to take it.

Khuradasu kept his gaze on the other man until his form had disappeared into the forest.  Even after that, he kept his senses focused on the other’s aura for some time while wiping clean his sword on the unstained clothing of one of the fallen warriors. Re-sheathing his weapon, the Derkaryan turned back toward the distant red star and began traveling once more.  He would need to put quite a bit of distance between himself and the slaughter in order to remain moving among the shadows of Aizhou.


“Mister!  Mister, are you all right?”

Amber eyes snapped open; startled from his sleep, Khuradasu reached for his sword.  Even as his hand closed over the grip and tugged the blade free, his rapidly awakened mind registered the voice’s youthful concern and the non-threatening aura.  The sword slid back home in its sheath as the redheaded assassin lifted his head, allowing him to peer from under the reed hat’s wide brim.

A girl stared back at him, a worried expression on her young face.  Probably no older than twelve, her large blue eyes widened a bit as she got a good look at his face.  “Oh dear!  You’ve been hurt,” she gasped, kneeling down and reaching toward the stranger’s bruised cheek.

Khuradasu frowned.  He lifted a hand, intercepting the dark-haired child’s fingers.  “It’s nothing.  I’m fine.”

Amazingly, the girl firmly pushed his hand away and gingerly touched his cheek.  “That doesn’t look like it’s ‘nothing’, nor does the blood staining your clothing.  Did the bad warriors catch you out in the open?”

“Bad warriors?”

“Yes,” she responded, glancing about for a moment.  Her expression turned wary, as if she thought more such people could suddenly appear at any time.  “They seem to think that because they are defending Aizhou from the dreaded Derkaryans, they can do anything they like to us village folk.  There’s been beatings, robberies . . . and worse.”

“Yes, but the ones that marked me are not going to be hurting anyone else,” the orange-maned assassin responded.  He flicked aside the reed cloak just a bit, enough to give the child a quick look at the hilt of his sword.

Blue eyes grew even wider.  “Oh,” the girl gasped, looking at him.  “W-who are you?”

Khuradasu gave the child what he hoped was an encouraging smile.  “Just a wanderer, nothing more.”

For a moment, the Derkaryan warrior couldn’t tell if the brunette girl would bolt like a frightened fawn or stay put.  Suddenly she reached out and grabbed him by the wrist.  Tugging back with all her strength, she valiantly tried to pull the redheaded, sword-bearing stranger to his feet.  “Come on!  You look like you can use a meal and a bath,” she insisted.

“You really shouldn’t be so friendly toward people you don’t know,” Khuradasu warned.

“Nonsense!” the girl chirped back, still tugging on him.  “You’re not a bad man.  I can tell these things.  And my sister would be glad to help out a traveler.”

Sighing in mild frustration and amused disbelief, Khuradasu pushed himself off the ground.  Standing gracefully, he had only enough time to catch his balance before the girl began dragging him off by the arm through the somewhat sparse forest.

“My name’s Maia, by the way,” the child cheerfully chirped.  Still leading him by the wrist, she made her way to the edge of the forest with the ease of one familiar with the territory.

“Nice name,” the assassin responded.

“And you are?” the dark-haired girl insisted.

“Just a simple wanderer.”

“Hrmph.  Even wanderers have names.”

That made the redheaded Derkaryan softly chuckle.  The persistent sprite reminded him of another girl just as headstrong and confident.  “Kara,” he replied.

“That’s a girl’s name,” Maia huffed.  Without stopping, she glanced over her shoulder up at her reluctant guest.  “Though I guess I can see why your mother would have given you a girl’s name.”

Khuradasu frowned, his cheeks reddening in embarrassment and pique.  Continuing to follow the girl across what had to be her village’s plowed land, he softly growled, “It’s a nickname.  It’s short for—” he stopped himself, still obviously in a huff.  “Never mind.  It’s enough to know my full name’s twice as long as the short form—and it does end with ‘u’.”

“Whatever you say, Kara,” Maia responded, her youthful voice taking on a tone of superiority.  She suddenly giggled.  Picking up her speed, she tugged harder on her “captive’s” wrist.  “Come on!  We’re almost there!”

“Almost where?” Khuradasu inquired.  He glanced about, amber gaze taking in the details of the approaching village.  The collection of homes and barns were much like any other in the Empire; simple buildings of wood and paper walls perched atop raised wooden floors, most of the peaked, woven-thatch roofs covered single rooms normally partitioned by simple wood screens into multiple areas, they huddled around a common bathhouse and well.

“Sukishetrah, my home,” Maia answered, cheerfully.  “Most everyone’s out at the other fields right now, or hard at work in their house, so you’ll have the bath all to yourself.”

“If everyone else is out working, why were you walking about in the woods?”

“Silly.  I was out looking for medicinal herbs.  Sister needs them now while they’re growing so there’s enough through winter.”

He gave the child a look of mild frustration.  “I’m not exactly an herb, now am I?”

Maia laughed, clearly amused.  “Of course not!  But you looked hurt, and even with a sword, I just know you’re not like the bad warriors.”  She turned loose of him then; he sensed her aura shift around to behind him as she dashed to his rear.  Next thing he knew, the little tyke was trying to shove him toward the bathhouse with all her strength.  “So you just get cleaned up and relaxed, and I’ll see what can be done about those clothes.  You’d look funny wandering about all bloody, Kara.”

She has a point, Khuradasu sighed, allowing himself to be casually shoved along.  The bathhouse was much like any other, if perhaps a bit more rustic and well-used.  Like the other buildings in the village, there seemed to be a general state of disrepair; it was almost as if the people didn’t have enough energy to keep things as well as they should.  Other impressions impinged upon his Avatar senses as he kicked off his reed sandals.  There seemed to be an undercurrent of desperation and wariness, as if the people surrounding him were doing their best to continue on with their simple lives while dreading some future event.  Inwardly frowning, Khuradasu turned to address his little guide, only to find her stepping back down to the ground with a giggle.

“Now you get in there and get cleaned up!” she cheerfully ordered, her youthful voice holding a note of utter command.  Before he could say anything—let alone ask her about what could be filling the village with dread—she was gone.

The Derkaryan sighed again, shaking his head slightly. Why did I let myself get talked into this?

What would you rather have done?  Take her head off like you did those other girls? responded the other voice in his head, the mental tone scathing.

Khuradasu reached up, rubbing his forehead in an attempt to assuage the splitting headache that accompanied the voice.  I’m not like that.

You are.  How many more are you going to slaughter anyway?

Do you really think I should have let all those warriors go untouched so they could continue on to beat some true peasant to death? Khuradasu snarled in response.  And if I’m the monster you claim me to be, why would I let that last one go?  Silence only greeted his internal query, but the headache remained.  Growling under his breath, Khuradasu started stripping out of his commoner’s garb.  The sword of a Lopayzom is to be used for the defense of the clan, for the helpless and the weak, and for those who have not the strength to defend themselves.  The nobility of the Fox are forever pledged to the protection of those under them and those they meet who have no other protection.  We who are born noble and trained in our sword-art have an obligation to risk our lives in the stead of another, to shed our blood in place of those beholden to the land, the assassin recited, throwing the words of their sacred pledge back at the other voice.

The silence deepened and the headache lessened.  Khuradasu sensed he’d scored a point against the other, disapproving voice.  Finally, it whispered back before subsiding completely for the moment, There must be some other way to protect without killing . . .

Swords are inherently lethal, Khuradasu replied by way of a parting shot.  Shaking his head to rid himself of the remaining effects of the headache, the assassin began concentrating on washing his lithe body off before stepping into the inviting tub.

He’d been soaking for a while, eyes closed and nearly lulled to sleep from the heat and relaxation, when a knock on the door caught his attention.  Immediately awake, he sat up; the auras beyond the wall were that of Maia and another similar—and both were no threat.  Before he could say anything, the door opened and two villagers stepped inside.

“Hey, Kara!  This is my big sister, Izura.  Sister, this is the wandering swordsman I was telling you about,” Maia announced, cheerfully, as she burst into the bathhouse.

The sibling in question was obviously an older blood relative of the enthusiastic girl.  They shared the same large blue eyes and chestnut-hued brunette hair, though the older sister had a more delicate, ethereal quality to her appearance.  Bowing slightly, her cheeks taking on a light blush of embarrassment, Izura said, “A pleasure to meet you.  I do hope my sister hasn’t been an annoyance.”

“Not at all.  I appreciate the bath, to be honest.”

“Sister, he got a bit hurt fighting off some bad warriors.”

Khuradasu frowned at the twelve-year-old.  Lightly touching his cheek, he insisted, “This bruise is nothing.”

The older sibling walked over to the tub and knelt down.  Her azure gaze swept over the stranger’s face, then down to what she could see of his body above the water.  “It seems to be just a trifle, as are the other marks I can see.  Still, once you’re done here, I can put a salve on them if you come over to my place.”

“You’re too kind,” Khuradasu murmured, sinking a bit into the tub.  He hated being fussed over, and the attention was quite embarrassing.

Izura gracefully stood, then gestured at her younger sister.  “I’ll take your clothing down to the stream to wash it.  In the meanwhile, you can wear these.  I’m afraid they may be a bit large for you, but they’re all I have.”

“Won’t their owner be upset?”

As Maia set the green and brown clothes down in a neat pile on one of the benches, Izura gave her unexpected guest a sad smile.  “My brother won’t be needing them any longer.  He fell in battle almost two years ago now, fighting against Derkarya.  He was killed, they say, by the warrior known as Khuradasu.”

It took all of the redheaded assassin’s self-control to keep his surprise from his face.  Sinking a bit lower into the water, he asked, “Are they certain of that?”

Izura’s sad smile remained.  “They brought him home then, his body shorn in two by a sword.  He’s buried in the village graveyard.”  Noting the slightly stunned expression in the wanderer’s golden eyes, she did her best to shake off her melancholy.  “Iaru was skilled and confident.  He had always hoped to gain glory, and he died a warrior’s death.  Everyone knew how dangerous it was to challenge Khuradasu, but he attempted it anyway.  I guess he thought he’d be glorious indeed if he’d been the one to stop that Derkaryan warrior.”

“I’m sorry,” Khuradasu said, voice soft.  So many fights, so many challengers—and I can’t even bring to mind who this warrior must have been . . .

“It’s all right,” the older villager assured her guest.  “And I don’t think my brother would mind you borrowing his clothes, Kara.  When you’re done, Maia will show you to our house.  It’ll be nightfall soon; you’re welcome to eat supper with us.”

As the urchin mentioned beamed a smile at him, Khuradasu managed an answering smile.  “A meal sounds very nice, if you’re willing to extend such hospitality.”

“Not at all.  Take your time and relax,” Izura encouraged.  “Maia will be waiting outside.”  She waved at her sibling to follow her out.  “Come along.”

“Sure thing, Sister!”

Amber eyes watched the two of them go until the door slid shut, leaving the red-haired warrior alone once more.  For some reason, Khuradasu couldn’t shake the feeling that the girls had some ulterior motive for inviting him to their place.

Sure enough, the little urchin ran up to him the moment he walked out of the bathhouse.  Blue eyes sparkling, Maia giggled at her unexpected guest.  “They are pretty big on you.”

Khuradasu wryly smiled, lifting his arms up.  The grass-green shirt hung a bit baggily against his slender frame, gaping open almost all the way down his front.  When he held his arms straight down, the ends of the sleeves covered over his hands fully.  The dark brown pants were just as loose; he had to be careful walking or risk tripping over the hems.  “Beggars shouldn’t be choosers,” he murmured.

“Well, you look even more harmless now,” the girl giggled.

If only you knew . . .  Khuradasu just smiled more, ignoring the slight ache between his eyes.  “You were going to show me your house?”

“Sure was!  It’s right over here,” Maia confirmed.  She turned and dashed off.

The sun was low in the sky as they walked across the village commons.  The people he saw coming in from the fields were mostly older men and younger boys; there seemed to be a lack of warrior-age men.  Women were present in the entire range of ages, many of them greeting their men-folk coming in from the fields.  And all of them seemed nervous or wary.

Maia lead him to a cottage much like the others.  In a similar state of slight neglect, there was nothing that made it stand out from its wood, paper and thatch neighbors.  Stepping up onto the wooden deck surrounding the one-roomed structure, Khuradasu leaned forward and gently put a hand on the girl’s shoulder.

“Tell me,” the assassin ordered, voice soft.

The brunette child jumped.  Twisting slightly, she stared up at her guest, her blue eyes huge.  “Tell you what?” she chirped, cheeks pinking faintly.

“Why you really wanted me to come here.”

The blush on the girl’s face deepened.  She glanced swiftly at the door of her house while kicking off her sandals.  “Tonight there’s supposed to be more bad warriors coming.  I don’t want my sister hurt again, like they always do when they come.”

“Again?  This has happened before?”

Maia nodded, her child’s face serious.  “The warriors from the camp nearby go from village to village, and tonight’s the night they come here.  They make all of us feed some of them dinner.”

From the way the girl’s voice trailed off, Khuradasu could guess that far more happened at each village than them just eating.  A frown settled on the assassin’s face as he tugged the door opened.  His sock-covered feet were silent on the reed-matted floor as he stepped inside.

Izura was there, putting the finishing touches on setting dinner on the table.  Noting the movement out of the corner of her eye, she straightened up and smiled at her guest.  The moment she got a good look, she softly chuckled.  “Oh my.  They really are loose on you.  Well, your clothes have been washed and they’re hanging near the hearth to dry off.”

“I appreciate the effort,” Khuradasu responded, humbly.  Though I don’t deserve such kindness from you, not after ending your brother’s life.

“It’s no trouble at all,” Izura assured.  She gestured to the table.  “Have a seat.  I hope it’s to your liking.”

“I’m certain it will be,” the redheaded warrior replied.  He gracefully sat down on one of the large, comfortable pillows gathered about the low wooden table.  “But what is this your sister says about ‘bad warriors’ are due to come here tonight?”

The older woman gave her younger sibling a look.  As Maia blushed and flopped down on another of the pillows, Izura turned her azure gaze back to her guest.  “The local commander has been bringing his troops to the villages for the past year or so.  He follows a schedule, staying here one night, then going on to the next village for the next night and so on until all have been visited in turn and the whole starts over again.”

“So he’s been quartering his troops among the villagers?”

“Yes.  He says that his men are low on food, that the supply lines are unreliable since everything’s being given to those on the front lines.”

“That’s a lie,” Khuradasu growled.  Noting the sisters were staring at him, he frowned and gestured for Izura to sit down as well.  As she did so, he continued, “It would be foolish to divert everything to the front lines.  Derkarya’s never penetrated this far, so the supply lines are not in danger here, and it’s to here that wounded and exhausted men would be transferred in order to recuperate and recover.  It’s from here that fresh warriors would come to replace those.  Keeping supplies low here means that you’d have less than ready men transferring into the thick of battle while those who have to transfer out would not be ready to return in a swift manner.”

“Then he’s just taking advantage of us,” Izura sighed, starting to serve herself from the dinner she’d made.

“That’s what I suspect,” Khuradasu replied.  “And it’s been happening for a year?”

“Not quite a year, but a while now, yes.  The commander before this one was a good man.  He kept his men under control, but then he was cut down in the middle of the night—and it’s his replacement that’s been doing this.  They say that there’s been so many having to be replaced in the chain of command that the armies are losing discipline.”

Which means the blame for that can be put on my head as well as on the other Shadow Warriors of Derkarya.  Is there no tactic that doesn’t involve the harming of innocents? Khuradasu mentally sighed, spooning up a small pile of rice onto his plate.  That was swiftly followed by some of the simple beef and chopped vegetable topping.  “They do more than just eat dinner with you and sleep in the house?”

Izura fell silent, her shoulders drooping some.  Instead of answering, she concentrated on eating her meal.

Maia too remained quiet, her big blue gaze shifting from first her sister to the shaggy-haired swordsman while she ate.

He could sense shame clinging to the older sibling, and fear in both their auras.  With a sinking feeling, he realized what their suddenly subdued mien must signify.  “They do more, don’t they?” he coaxed.

The older girl sighed.  Lifting her head, her expression bordered on bursting into tears.  “Some of the warriors insist on . . . ‘entertainments’ as well, and they seem to goad one another into horrid behavior.  For some, they leave people half-beaten, for others . . .

“If I hadn’t, they would have hurt my sister as well.”

“So to protect your sister—?”

“But you can stop them this time, can’t you, Kara?” Maia blurted.

Khuradasu blinked in surprise, amber gaze shifting to the younger girl.  Her big blue gaze met his, full of a child’s hope in a hero who she believed could keep the bad things from happening again.  “If your brother hadn’t have been killed—”

“No,” Izura responded, interrupting her guest.  “Alive or dead, he would still be gone, off fighting on the front lines.  Just as the other warrior-age men are right now.  The war’s to blame for all of this.”

And that makes all of this ultimately the Phoenix’s responsibility, Khuradasu thought, his resolve to make the Prince of Aizhou end the senseless conflict strengthening.  But I too bear guilt in this, both as the one who killed her brother on the battlefield and as one of the assassins who’s been striking down the leaders of the Aizhouan army.  I’ve already shed so much blood; what’s some more when it can keep hope alive in a child’s eyes?  “I will stop them, Maia.  It’s the least I can do.”

While the younger sister instantly brightened, looking quite cheerful as she began eating again, Izura smiled uncertainly at the redheaded warrior.

The manslayer noticed the older girl’s expression.  His answering smile was warm, untroubled.  “One against twenty-one, yes, but don’t despair.  I will stop them, Izura. I promise.  Now eat and try to think of better things.”

The pretty brunette silently nodded.  As the three of them turned their attention back to finishing their simple but filling meal, Khuradasu kept his senses on the alert, watching for the auras of the Phoenix warriors expected to come.

The orange-maned manslayer had nearly finished when the menacing auras slipped into range.  He stiffened slightly, slipping into the mental state needed to wield his Avatar ability in battle.

“What is it?” Izura asked, noting the change in her guest’s manner.

“They’re coming,” Khuradasu replied.  The siblings glanced at one another in worry as the slender youth pushed himself up off the pillow.  “It would perhaps be best if you stayed in here, away from the conflict,” he suggested while striding over to the door.  Picking his sword up from where he’d rested it against the wall, the redheaded warrior slipped the weapon home against his waist then tugged the wood and paper panel open.

“Please, be careful, Kara,” Izura called after him as he stepped through.

Khuradasu paused, and for a moment the sisters thought their guest would glance over his shoulder for one last look.  But he didn’t, merely pulling the door shut without turning around or a word to the girls within.

He quickly stepped into his sandals and then walked off the wooden deck to the ground below.  Senses on the alert, he crouched down and sprinted from shadow to shadow as he made his way toward the grouping of spirit energy new to the village.  Wrapping his own aura close, he pressed against the side of one of the rustic houses and watched as the unit rode into the commons.  Around him, he could sense the villagers’ dread; here and there a number of doors could be heard opening as the people living in Sukishetrah peered out in fear at the warriors.

They were, indeed, a full unit of twenty under the command of a leader.  Loud and boisterous, they rode in on spirited horses outfitted in what amounted to dress-parade tack:  long tassels of red and green swayed from reins and a swath across the mounts’ fronts, gold glittered here and there at joints of bridle and points of saddle, and the saddle-blankets were woven in intricate designs that again showed off the red and green motif of the Emerald Phoenix army.  Through the village they rode towards the bathhouse in the center of the settlement, as proud as any overlord while commenting on the innate cowardice of the peasantry; from his observation so far, Khuradasu could tell these were more of the same sort he’d encountered the night before.  Egos swollen with their power, they were out to impress others and abuse the strength and influence they had for their own twisted ideas of fun.

Amber eyes narrowed in disgust.  Even if some of the men were of the common class called up in time of war, the officer in charge was most certainly of the nobility.  As such, he had an obligation to see to the protection of those who worked the land; far too often, Khuradasu had come to find, nobles took freely without a second thought to the give inherent in the divine contract between lord and peasant.  Their commander should be the one keeping them in line; instead he seemed to be one of the major instigators.

As the Phoenix warriors traveled deeper into the village, Khuradasu warily flitted from shadow to shadow.  He wished to bide his time, waiting for the warriors to dismount and therefore take away their advantage of height.  All the while, their somewhat crude conversation recounting the types of entertainment they would have that night at the villagers’ expense and retelling of past nights in this settlement and others did little more than make Khuradasu’s righteous anger burn fiercer.

“All right, men,” shouted out the apparent leader—a barrel-chested, shady-looking character with dark red hair and blue-violet eyes—as he signaled his chestnut mount to stop before the bathhouse.  “Let’s get the travel dust off us and while we’re doing that, we can discuss how we’re going to divide up the village for the night.”

With various yells of enthusiastic glee, the equally motley crew of brown- and red-maned warriors stopped in the village common and dismounted.

“Taru, Aiku!  You two go put the horses in some poor sod’s barn,” the commander called out as he swung himself down off his mount.  “And make sure to give them the guy’s best feed.”

A couple of the youngest of the group acknowledged the order, one of whom caught the spying assassin’s attention.  Flame-haired and grey-eyed, the youth’s blue-green aura held uncertainty and hesitancy.  Khuradasu couldn’t shake the impression that under it all, the youth was as scared of his unit as the villagers were and he was merely putting up a good front to keep their ugliness from turning on him as well.

A frown settled on Khuradasu’s face as he watched the two so ordered gather up the horses by their long reins and begin leading a few off out of the manslayer’s field of vision.  That one may deserve sparing . . .

The redheaded assassin continued to watch, hidden in the shadows, as Taru and Aiku returned to lead off the remaining horses.  The warriors left behind stood around in front of the bathhouse, still carrying on their somewhat crude conversation.  They were discussing amongst themselves who would impose themselves upon which village family, and Khuradasu noted that a point of contention had come up between a couple of the men over who would be assigned to Izura’s home.

Jiru says the wench is really hot.  I want to give her a try,” one of the older, more loathsome warriors was complaining, getting up in the face of one of his compatriots.

“She’d take one look at you and claw your face off.  Besides, I was told I could have a go at her this time around,” the other, brown-haired swordsman growled back.

The conversation made Khuradasu feel ill.  In his mind’s eye, he recalled Izura’s fear and shame—and here were a couple more fully intent on adding to her humiliation.

“Well, maybe you can both go there and share.  Or at the least, one of you take the wench and the other can break in that little brat sister of hers,” cheerfully suggested one of the others.

No, Khuradasu thought, face paling slightly in dread.  That absolutely cannot be allowed.  He peeked around the corner of the building again in time to see one of the two assigned to see to the horses return.  The youth with the blue-green aura was still somewhat distant.  Now would be the time.  “If anything’s going to be broken around here, it will be your heads,” the angry manslayer called out as he stepped away from the house and out into the open.

“What the hell was that?”

“Who said that?”

“The hell—?”

“Who’s there?”

Clearly startled by a soft, menacing voice from out of nowhere, the Phoenix warriors gathered on the green before the bathhouse glanced about the immediate area, some shifting into a slight battle stance, their hands coming close to their swords.

Khuradasu took another step forward.  He projected spirit energy outward while drawing his sword; the increased presence and cold whisper of steel caught the attention of the twenty thuggish men gathered together.  Almost as one, their focus fell on the redheaded assassin, even more of the warriors obviously preparing for a fight.  “Which one of you is in command?” the manslayer softly demanded, narrowed amber eyes flicking to stare at the one he’d deduced was their leader.

The burly, dark-red-haired man seemingly in charge stiffened slightly; though the involuntary gesture was subtle, easily missed, the momentary spike in the man’s spirit energy was enough for Khuradasu to know he’d guessed correctly.  That one then stepped forward slightly, mouth twisting into a snarl.  “Well, what do we have here?  Looks like a pathetic puppy trying to pass himself off as a guard dog.”

Khuradasu ignored both the jibe and the soft laughter from the other warriors.  “Take your unit and leave this place.  You have no business here.”

“You’d best stop your yipping and get your nose out of things that don’t concern you, girly-man.”

“The wanton abuse of strength and power always concerns me,” Khuradasu snarled softly.  “With guardians such as you, what does Aizhou need with enemies?  No, what she needs,” he said, raising his sword slightly into a defensive stance, “is someone to protect her people from the very ones sworn to defend them.”

The unit’s leader suddenly burst into laughter.  “You?  Boy, you’d be better occupied sucking cock than wielding a sword.”  He turned and gestured at his surrounding men.  “A couple of you shut him up.”

“Yes, sir!”


Two of the gathered men rushed forward, pulling their swords free.  A couple of the larger, older men, they were certain the pretty little teenager in the baggy peasant clothing would be no match for their skills.

Amber eyes flicked their gaze from one to the other and then back as Khuradasu readied himself.  The one on the left was slightly faster; the first attack would probably come from there.  As the swifter of the men stopped and raised his sword for a blow, the lithe assassin darted to the right.  Ducking under the second man’s wild swing, Khuradasu slashed viciously upwards under the other weapon’s path.  Avatar energy made Khuradasu’s blade glow with sunlight as it slashed through the warrior from waist to rib cage.  The body fell to the ground in two pieces as Khuradasu whirled and thrust toward where he sensed his other opponent’s aura to be.  A horrible gurgling sound filled the village’s commons as the Phoenix warrior dropped his weapon.  The sword bounced off the ground as the man’s hands came up to pull in futility at the blade impaling his throat.  Khuradasu’s cold amber glare stared along the length of his weapon at his stricken enemy; a violent twist by the teen’s hands caused the razor-sharp steel to snap the thug’s vertebral column.  The assassin pulled his sword free; blood soaked into the ground as he whirled to face the remaining warriors and the next threat.

For a heartbeat, all was still in the commons.  Khuradasu stood ready to react; the Phoenix warriors stared in shock and horror.  Just like that, two of their number were dead.

The commander’s expression shifted to one of pure fury, his face turning red.  Pointing at the bloody-bladed teenager, he snarled, “Cut that bastard down!”

With a shout, the seventeen remaining warriors brandished their weapons and charged.  The commander stood smirking as he watched his men run to engage the short stranger.

In the stillness at the center of his warrior’s focus, Khuradasu bided his time.  He sensed the approaching wave of multi-colored auras, ready to react in an instant.  The second one of the others’ came near, he burst into movement.  He dodged the incoming thrust, then lashed back.  His sunlit sword ripped through the torso of one as easily as it swung through air.  Khuradasu whirled, piercing another of the warriors through the heart before the body of the first hit the bloodstained ground.  A swift, forceful kick dislodged second, now dying, man from off the assassin’s blade; a few of the remaining Phoenix warriors were forced to scatter from the short flight of their comrade’s bulky form.

Pain stung the assassin then, a thin line of fire across the top of his left shoulder.  Hissing, Khuradasu slashed upward; steel rang out as swords collided.  Another couple of auras crowded closer; the redheaded teenager stepped back, parrying desperately.  Another slash got through his defense; blood trickled down Khuradasu’s leg from a glancing wound to his thigh.  More of the other auras crowded close, threatening to overwhelm even the extraordinary assassin from the sheer numbers alone.

He had to have more room, to force more one-on-one situations.  Reacting to the multiple attempts at wounding him, either dodging or parrying, he used his strength to push the others back by the sheer power of his parries.  Gathering his Avatar energy, he called into being his sword-art’s most impressive defense.  “Heaven’s Shield!”

Golden light crackled into existence around him, creating a bubble of sunlit radiance that lit up the deepening night.  A technique that could only be mastered by Avatars since it took the ability to manipulate spirit energy to even create it, the shield was impenetrable to all attacks, but it also left its wielder unable to strike as well.  The shield effectively sealed its bearer off from the rest of the world; its intent was to give the warrior a moment’s respite or to push away multiple foes at once.

Shouts of wonder, dismay and surprise came from the Phoenix warriors as a number of them were forced back by the sudden wall of golden spirit energy.  Some staggered back while others were pushed clear off their feet by the force of the solidified energy.

The moment the others were pushed away from him, Khuradasu dropped the shield.  The gloom of night wrapped itself around the short teenager again as he bolted from the men.  He needed to take them on in smaller groups; for that, he would need to turn this into a running battle.

“He’s getting away!” one of the warriors yelped.

“Well, just don’t stand there—” began the commander.

“Sir!  I know that defense!” shouted one of the remaining older men, his dark eyes huge in frightened realization.  “That’s Khuradasu!”

What?” the thuggish leader roared, attention fully on the one that spoke.

“That’s the Demon’s Claw!” insisted the one that had spoken.  “It’s been nearly two years since I faced anything like that, but I’ve seen that defense before on the battlefield.”

“So that’s the dreaded killer from Derkarya?  No wonder he seems able to slip in and out of places like a ghost.  Well, then . . . A huge reward for the one that brings me the demon’s head!  You know what a victory for Aizhou that would be!”  Seeing his men’s hesitation, the commander shouted, “Go get that little murdering bastard!  That’s an order!  Just stick together and even Khuradasu should fall.”

Damnation! the redheaded assassin mentally swore.  They’d figured out his identity; they’d be even more cautious now.  Even so, they can still probably be lured into situations where they are in smaller groups, he mused while running.  Swiftly approaching another of the village houses, he concentrated and focused his spirit energy.  So empowered, his leap allowed him to land lightly on the peaked thatch roof.  Crouching low, he kept his attention on the various battle-ready auras scattering throughout the rustic settlement.

They ran past in a pack, but a couple stragglers were left slightly behind.  Khuradasu shifted his position and peeked carefully over the edge of the roof.  Noting the two jogging a bit behind the rest, the redheaded assassin smiled grimly.  He struck the golden guard of his sword with the middle finger of his off hand as if he were flicking a fly from the sword’s gilded surface.  The resulting ping was enough.  The pair of Phoenix warriors halted in their tracks, each glancing warily about.  The rest of their comrades hurried on in the direction they’d seen the redheaded manslayer run.

Khuradasu leapt off the roof, silent as an owl, as his body gracefully settled into the position needed for yet another Hammer Strike.  Sensing danger, the assassin’s target moved slightly, then glanced up and froze in sheer terror.  The change of position wasn’t nearly enough to save him; the glimmering sword crashed down where neck and shoulder met.  A sick, wet, splintering sound followed by a gurgling scream shattered the night; shorn from shoulder to hip, the Phoenix warrior’s body fell to the ground in two gory, bleeding pieces as Khuradasu whirled and slashed at the other man standing there.  Though utterly stunned and horrified, the remaining warrior managed to block the redheaded assassin’s incoming slash while stumbling back.  Amber eyes glared back, their glowing golden depths promising death, as Khuradasu pressed his attack.  Steel rang out into the darkness as the Phoenix warrior desperately parried.  An opening appeared, a moment where the thug-like warrior’s blade was pushed away from his body by the force of a block.  The golden light within the assassin’s sword shifted, concentrating on the leading, cutting edge as the other, dull side shifted to darkness under Khuradasu’s expert command.  Gripping the hilt tightly with his right, the redheaded assassin stretched his left arm out and laid his off hand flat against the dull edge near the tip of his weapon.  With a spirit cry of “Hurrya!” Khuradasu sprung upward, arms bracing for impact.  His victim couldn’t block in time; the gleaming edge slashed upwards against the man’s throat and then through, shearing the warrior’s skull in two.  Light as a cat, Khuradasu landed on his feet, every sense straining for evidence of the other warriors’ whereabouts.  Noting they were returning to investigate the sounds of conflict, he ran nimbly into the night.

With hue and cry, the pack of sword-bearing men chased after him.  He led them away from the heart of the village, then jumped up onto the roof of one of the barns.  Crouching low, the assassin lay in wait once more.  Sensing the pack of battle-ready auras hesitate as they approached, Khuradasu pulled out his money pouch from the sleeve pocket of the borrowed shirt. Inching over to the corner of the roof closest to the other men, he silently drew out a single coin.  Copper glinted dull red in the twilight; he stood and threw the coin all in a single, graceful motion.

The pack of warriors were already on edge.  Knowing they faced the one Derkaryan they’d all come to utterly fear during the course of the war, they remained on high alert even as they chased after the Aizhouan nemesis.  Hearing a sound from behind, they halted; swords ready, they turned almost as one to face the threat.

Nothing greeted their wary stares.  All that surrounded them were rustic buildings devoid of any sign of life and the deepening twilight.

“Where’d he go?”

“I don’t know.  He’s so fast.”

“I swear he’s not human,” complained a third in a voice filled with nervous fear.

“Well, no sign of him now.  Let’s get back to the commander.”

“What are we going to say?” asked the first warrior to speak.

“Simple.  We lost him,” responded the third.  Noting the others were willing to break off the pursuit, he breathed a sigh of relief and turned toward the center of the village.

Above them, the predator watched.  As the pack of swordsmen began to walk away, the redheaded assassin dropped silently down from the roof.  He hit the ground running, blade already gleaming with deadly sunlight.  He powered his sword through three of the warriors in a single swing; the glimmering edge hacked through their unprotected backs as easily as scissors through paper.  A fourth was decapitated even as he turned around to react to the horrified screams.  Another of the Phoenix warriors fell back on his training even as his terrified mind registered the brutal slaughter taking place; he lashed out with his sword at the redheaded blur ripping through his fellows.

Khuradasu dodged, leaping upward.  Twisting slightly, he came down—sword-first—on another of the Aizhouans, cleaving the warrior asunder from shoulder to crotch.  Spirit energy flared to either side; even as steel rang out into the twilight with Khuradasu’s block, another of the warriors managed to score a telling strike.  Khuradasu hissed in pain as his flank was impaled a couple of inches from the side.  He pulled back, getting himself off the blade before the other warrior could do more damage, then rushed forward with a shout.  The pain only added to his focus; his sword glowed even brighter in the twilight.  The hapless Aizhouan stumbled back in fear, raising his weapon to parry. Khuradasu’s attack shattered his foe’s sword; pieces of now-useless steel fell to the ground as the warrior was cut from armpit to opposite shoulder.

The remaining Phoenix warriors broke and ran, utterly terrified for their lives.  With a fox rampaging at will in the henhouse, the chickens scattered; screams of “He’s not human!” and “Demon!” filled the deepening night as the commoners called up to war fled the scene.

Khuradasu came to a halt, blood-smeared sword pointing to the ground.  Standing among the slashed corpses of his latest victims, he glanced about for any further threat.  Eyes gleamed with Avatar power as he took in his surroundings; without thought, he pressed his off hand against the wound in his side.

No further danger remained in the immediate area.  The only auras he could sense now were those of the villagers huddling scared in their homes.  The redheaded assassin frowned.  I should hunt each and every one down since they recognized me, but their commander remains.  By the time I deal with him, they will be long gone.  Khuradasu turned, gaze shifting toward the center of the settlement.  As the one most responsible for this, I cannot just let him go.  No, the others are of little account.  By the time word can reach the Phoenix command that I am here, I will be far from this village.

Eyes gleaming with resolution, Khuradasu wiped the blood from his blade.  Re-sheathing it for the moment, he stalked back toward the bathhouse.

Reaching the center of the town once more, Khuradasu pressed against the corner of one of the rustic houses.  Careful not to reveal his presence, he leaned over and looked around the corner at the green before the bathhouse.  The commander was still there, pacing and muttering in a fury.  Near him stood the youth with the blue-green aura; the young warrior had his sword out and was glancing nervously about.

“I tell you, it’s the will of the spirits that he’s here,” the flame-haired youth said.  “You’ve allowed the unit to abuse the peasants and now we face divine judgment!”

“Shut the hell up, Taru!” ordered the barrel-chested leader.  “Once the men catch up to him, no more Demon’s Claw.”

“You’ve sent us all to our dooms,” Taru insisted, his attention focusing on his leader.  “That’s Khuradasu out there, you say.  If that’s true, then not a single man in this unit will live!”

“Bah.  He’s one man, and a skinny, girly one at that,” the dark-red-haired commander spat, though it seemed to the lurking assassin that the Aizhouan warrior was trying to convince himself that there was no imminent danger.  “Every single one of you have survived on the battlefield.  Even the Demon’s Claw would have trouble against nineteen warriors.”

“They’ll be cut down like wheat!”  Taru whirled and gestured to the still bodies lying on the bloodstained grass.  “Four gone in a matter of heartbeats!  I tell you, he’s here because the spirits will it.  You ordered us to rape and plunder our own people, and now Khuradasu’s here?  Divine judgment!”

“I said shut up!” the commander roared.  He darted forward, smacking the youth hard across the face with an open palm.  Taru landed in a heap on the ground, the wind knocked out of him and his sword slammed from his grasp.  The leader stood menacingly over his fallen man.  “And that’s an order!  Soon enough they’ll return with Khuradasu’s head and all your bleating will be for naught.”

Struggling for breath, Taru pulled himself up to a sitting position.  He had just enough time to glare up at his imposing commander before the man’s entire body stiffened in pain.  A scream of agony shattered the stillness of the early night.  Taru felt sudden terror as the point of a sword seemingly materialized from nowhere through his commander’s heart.  Sticky drops of red, copper-scented blood spattered the still-winded youth as he watched the sword viciously twist, then withdraw.  The dying body of his commander fell, revealing the short, slender form of his killer.

The dreaded Derkaryan ordinarily wouldn’t look dangerous or imposing.  Only a teenager, of delicate build and more pretty than handsome, Taru could see how the assassin could be overlooked.  But with his deadly serious expression and golden Avatar power gleaming in eye and blade both, the Aizhouan knew he was looking upon something far beyond ordinary warriors and mortal man.

Shuddering in terror, Taru made no move for his sword.  Instead, he stared up at the assassin hardly any older than himself.  “Please, I beg you!  Have mercy!  I never abused the peasants myself, just pretended to do so!”

Khuradasu’s expression remained hard, impassive.  He pointed his sword at the youth huddled on the ground.  “Why should I believe you?  This unit’s been doing the unthinkable, bringing the worst of wartime activity to its own people.”

“Yes, and when I first was transferred to this unit, I spoke against it, only to be beaten or put in chains.  In the end, my spirit was broken enough to remain silent; I have a mother and younger siblings back home that need me to survive.”

“And so, you no longer fought the tide but went with it?”

“Only on the surface,” Taru clarified.  “I swear on all that’s holy that I never abused my stay at any of the villages.”

The blue-green aura never wavered.  The youth was terrified at facing the nemesis of the Aizhouan army, but other than that, his spirit energy held no ripples that would indicate deliberate deception.  At long last, Khuradasu turned his sword to the side.  “Then go in peace,” he murmured, “and hopefully the spirits will see you assigned to a better unit and then safely home.”

Taru blinked up at him in confusion.  “You’re letting me go?”

“Yes.  I see you speak truthfully.  You’re not like the others.”

“The others!  Are they all—?”

“Seven remain, having fled before me.  I wished to deal with the one most responsible for this outrage, so I returned here rather than hunting them down,” Khuradasu responded, interrupting the flame-haired warrior.

Taru shifted into a kneeling position then bowed low before the assassin.  “Thank you.  I’m forever indebted to you.”

“Return to your camp.  I’m certain the others will return there unless they decide to desert completely and return home,” Khuradasu said while casually wiping his sword off on an area of the commander’s clothing not already stained with blood.  “I should be far from here before the Phoenix High Command hears of my presence, so report as you must.”

“Y—y—yes sir,” Taru stammered. He began to reach for his sword; from early on, swordsmen were taught it was dishonorable to leave their weapon behind or lose it. Pausing, he glanced up at Khuradasu. “My sword . . .”

“Go ahead,” the redheaded assassin responded. He kept his gaze on the Aizhouan, ready for a sneak attack he didn’t truly expect.

Slowly, carefully, the flame-haired warrior picked up his weapon and sheathed it. The last thing he wished was to accidentally make Khuradasu think Taru intended the assassin harm after all. He breathed a sigh of relief; standing, he bowed once more to his province’s dreaded foe. “Again, I thank you.”

The youth was eager to run. Khuradasu could sense his continued nervousness and increasing anxiety. Waving dismissively at the other warrior, Khuradasu snapped, “Go on. Get out of here.”

Taru didn’t hesitate. He took off like a shot, fleeing from the village green.

Khuradasu let his own weapon slide home in its sheath. Whirling, he stalked toward the house of the two girls who had offered hospitality. Around him, he could feel the other villagers; while most were hiding out in their homes hoping that the chaos outside would sweep past them, a few bold ones were peeking from behind cracked doors. The moment he reached the area before the humble structure, the wood- and paper-paneled door slid open. He halted, looking up at the sisters as they stepped out onto the porch.

They were both nervous now, uncertain, as they faced their now-bloodied guest. Though Maia’s huge blue eyes still held awe and a bit of delight, Izura’s azure gaze stared at the youth with trepidation and determination. As her eyes met those of the Derkaryan, the elder sister subtly stepped between him and her younger sibling.

“You heard, didn’t you?” Khuradasu asked, voice mild.

“Is it true?” Izura responded with a inquiry of her own.

The redheaded swordsman found himself unable to meet her gaze after that. The amber eyes flicked to the ground. What more can I say? I caused the death of her brother and helped create the situation which has seen to her utter humiliation—and I cannot even recall the details of her brother’s death because there’s been so many. “I’ll not impose myself upon your hospitality any longer,” Khuradasu said, turning away.

“But your clothes are still here,” Izura protested.

The assassin paused. Head bowed, back to the girls, he replied, “They don’t really matter.”

Footsteps sounded against the boars of the porch. The aura of the little girl pulled away, coming closer. Even knowing who he was now, Maia seemed to hold no fear of him. She halted in front of the redheaded warrior, glaring up at him in frustration. “You’re not going anywhere yet, hear me? You need your clothes.”

“I have to be going,” Khuradasu growled at the girl. “The Phoenix High Command will soon hear of my presence here.”

“Kara,” Izura called out, then fell into an uncomfortable pause. “Kara . . . is that part of your real name?”

The assassin hazarded a glance over his shoulder, amber gaze peering through his shaggy hair. “It is. It’s what I’m known as to those I left behind back home,” he admitted.

The older sister stepped down off the porch. She halted, uncertain about coming any closer, the moment her feet touched the ground. “Kara, please stay at least until your clothes are dry again. The hospitality of my house is still open to you.” She lowered her head. “I’m certain it’s what Iaru would want.”

“Why? I ended his life and helped contribute to this entire situation.”

“You met on opposite sides of a battlefield, Kara. You both did as you were expected. You’re both warriors, and that day, Iaru met his match. But you can’t blame yourself.” Izura lifted her head, azure gaze steady on the slender teen spattered with blood. “My brother was a commoner. It had been his fate to be just a simple farmer, but he’d always had a warrior’s spirit. When he was called to duty because of the war, he was thrilled. He finally was able to live—and die—the way he truly wished. Every warrior risks his life on the battlefield. He sought glory, and failed, but he was also spared worse things. And you risked yourself for his sisters’ sake, even though this war has technically made us enemies.”

“No proper nobleman could allow what was happening to continue.”

“It wasn’t your concern, but you still risked your life anyway. So please, at least allow me to be certain your wounds aren’t serious before you go.”

“I have to go. If you aid me, you’re aiding the enemy and could get in serious trouble.”

Maia snorted in contempt. “For Heaven’s sake, Kara, the ‘good guys’ were the ones causing trouble here, and the ‘bad guy’ saved the entire village.” The little girl reached up and began pushing the assassin back toward her house. “And once again you’re all bloody. That’s going to make people wonder, you know.”

As Khuradasu’s sandaled feet scraped marks into the earth, Izura added, “No one here will say a word to the authorities, Kara. You saved us, and we’re eternally grateful. So fear not for us, but please, let us be certain your wounds are tended and you’re prepared for wherever else your journey takes you.”

With a long sigh of resignation, the orange-maned manslayer bowed his head. Turning toward the older sister, he murmured, “All right. But I truly must be going soon.”

“You shall, Kara. Trust me.”


Divaksina, regent of the East and heir to the throne of Derkarya, was bored.  It seemed as if she’d been listening to the endless droning of the fussy secretary for days, rather than a mere hour.  It wasn’t really that she detested the man himself—he was a dedicated servant of the court, with a talent for organization and great attention to detail.  It was just that Diva had been getting the war reports at least once a week for a stupidly long time, and if she had to hear about some of those details any more, she might be tempted to scream.  There was only so much she could endure when it came to the supply lists.  Only Kerza’s gently reproachful glance kept her from sighing noisily.

A name leapt out of the never-ending monotone.  Diva’s chin came up out of her palm, her gaze sharpening.  “What was that?”

The balding man looked up over the rims of his spectacles.  “Hm?”

“What did you just say about Khuradasu?”

“He has not reported in to his field agent, though the successful completion of his last mission was confirmed over a week ago.  There is no evidence yet that he might have met with a violent end, however.”

“Khuradasu has disappeared?” Kerza asked sharply.

“Er . . . yes, my lady,” the secretary confirmed, a little confused.  “There was evidently some complication encountered, but nothing as yet that suggests he might have sustained injury.”

“What kind of complication?” Diva demanded.

The man cleared his throat.  “It seems that there were unavoidable witnesses present when the commission was carried out.  Quite unusual for Khuradasu, really.  He has had a consistently clean record of evading detection and neutralizing his targets without complication.”

“You’re going to need to be more explicit,” Diva said, her nails suddenly tapping on the arm of her chair.  “What happened during this . . . mission?”

“It would appear that the target’s two daughters were either present at the time or happened upon the scene immediately after Khuradasu removed his target, and as per normal procedure, they were also neutral—”

What?” the regent said in a low, eerily toneless voice.

Assessing her dangerous expression, the secretary swallowed hard.  “Khuradasu had to kill them.”

“He had to kill two children on this mission?”

“He had to kill two witnesses,” the secretary corrected, even though it was difficult for him to say it.  “The fact that they were children was a secondary concern.”

He was forced to kill two children?  Her voice had gone up sharply, and she was on her feet.  Kerza, her face reflecting her shock, had also risen from her seat.

A sense of self-preservation had the man backpedaling toward the door.  “Yes, your Highness.  It’s always been made clear to the shadow division that there are to be no witnesses left behind, under any circumstances.”

She pointed to the door with a hand that shook visibly.  “Get.  Out.”

Some other man might have protested or tried to make some comment.  The secretary looked into antique-gold eyes that had gone as pale as straw with barely-restrained power, and was out of the room in three long steps.  He closed the door behind him and leaned against it, aware that his heart was pounding.  The guards looked at him curiously; one of them reached for the handle as a loud crash echoed from the room, but the secretary grabbed his wrist and shook his head.

Kerza stared for an instant at the shattered fragments of porcelain lying against the wall, and caught at Diva’s arm before she could throw a second vase after the first. “Diva, no!  Calm down!”

“You heard it,” the Dragon hissed.  “You heard what he said!”

“Yes, Diva, and it’s terrible . . . but there’s no way to somehow undo it.  Breaking things and screaming won’t help.”  Kerza met the pale-gold eyes without fear, though her own blue eyes were dark with sorrow.

“They made him kill children, and now he’s disappeared.  They did that to Kara.  You know him!  It’s bad enough that he went off to war in the first place, and wound up as an assassin, but children?  No, Kerza, this isn’t right!”

“It sounded like it was an accident of sorts,” the Swan murmured.  “The children weren’t his targets, Diva.  It’s always been the rule that there should be no witnesses, unless it’s determined that having witnesses will make a greater impact than just the slaying itself.”

“I can’t believe it,” Diva mumbled.  “Kara, killing two little girls . . . I can’t believe it, Kerza.  That’s not the sort of person he is.”

“People change,” the white-haired woman said softly, but there was an edge of uncertainty in her voice.

“Not that much, they don’t.  He wasn’t so different when we saw him only a couple of years ago, when we arrived at that camp after Arjuna had already—Arjuna!  There was a visible flare of brighter gold in the depths of her eyes, and Kerza’s skin ached at the press of Avatar power building in the room.  “Arjuna put him into the shadow division; this is Arjuna’s fault—”

“Diva, no,” Kerza said almost desperately.  “Arjuna wouldn’t do this to his son on purpose!”

“He wouldn’t?  Are you forgetting everything we saw growing up?  He doesn’t treat Kara like his son, he treats him like a weapon!”

“That’s not true—”

“When was the last time you saw him hug Kara?  Or smile at him without that tight cold look in his eyes?  Or even call him ‘son’ when it wasn’t a passing reference to some third party?”  Diva was already storming toward the door.  “This is intolerable!”

Kerza followed, wringing her slender hands.  The Swan could often calm her tempestuous friend, but she was quite able to sense it when Diva’s rage burned too hot to soothe.  “Diva, please.  Arjuna wouldn’t do this on purpose.  You know that.  He’s not an evil man.”

Diva turned that blazing stare on Kerza.  “You’re biased.  You’ve been in love with him for years.  Years, and he’s never noticed you.”  If she had not been wrapped up in her fury, Kerza’s tiny flinch and stricken glance might have caused her to back down; as she aged, however, the Dragon’s power grew with her and sometimes seemed too strong for her to contain, affecting her as much as adolescent hormones ever had.  “I’d be angry at him for that alone, but this happening to Kara . . . it’s too much.”

“What are you going to do, Diva?” Kerza asked, pushing her wounded feelings aside.  “You can’t make it not have happened, even if you scream at Arjuna until the roof falls in.”

The young Dragon stopped at the door.  “I can’t undo what’s already done, but I can try to make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen again.  And I want to make it clear to Arjuna that I don’t want Kara to be forced to kill anyone else like that.”

“You know why we have assassins in the first place,” the Swan said, very softly.

“Yes,” Diva snapped, “but if there’s something else Kara can do that doesn’t involve sneaking around cutting people’s heads in half, I’m sure we’ll be able to arrange it.”

Kerza remained close on her heels as the regent stormed down the hallway, ignoring the guards and servants who hastily cleared a path for her.  The Swan knew where Arjuna was; she would have been offended by anybody making some comment about her “spying” on him, but the fact was that any time the Fox was in the palace, Kerza kept track of him.  It was a habit that she’d had for so long that she almost didn’t realize she was doing it any more.

Diva banged on the door of Arjuna’s quarters, hard enough to rattle it in its frame.  The guards who would normally have been standing at the door had discreetly withdrawn about ten feet away upon seeing the approach of the furious young woman.

No sound emerged from the Lopayzom Chieftain’s quarters, but the princess could sense her father’s Minister of War in there, his silver aura bright in Avatar senses.  The long pause continued, the atmosphere remaining tense, but just as Diva was ready to literally kick down the door in her righteous anger, the paper-paneled door slid open to reveal the tall, silver-haired man.

Jade-green eyes swept over the unhappy royal’s figure; Arjuna seemed tense, prepared for a battle, yet it was also obvious that he was tired, worried.  The normally elegant and aloof general seemed haggard and weary, an impression that was strengthened by his weak gesture for them to enter and his equally soft voice.  “I assume you’ve heard about Khuradasu.  Let’s not entertain the entire palace with this matter.”  He turned away, walking over toward his favorite chair in the comfortable office.

Diva strode in, letting Kerza shut the door behind them both.  “Yes, I’ve heard about it,” she said, her voice edged with ice.  “Specifically that he had to kill a pair of little girls, and now he’s disappeared completely.”

The tall general sat down, then waved toward another couple of chairs.  “Yes.  That’s the reports I’ve received as well.  Sidhu, his agent, reported in right away the fact that Khuradasu didn’t show up for the debriefing.  I’ve had people looking for him, but so far, nothing.”

Diva threw herself into one of the chairs, glowering.  “No idea yet if he’s hurt or captured?”

Arjuna sighed, rubbing a hand against his forehead.  “Through normal channels?  Nothing.  It’s like he dropped off the face of the Empire.  However . . . something’s happened to him, but I’m not sure what.  I get the impression he’s free and moving, going deeper into Aizhou, but as for hurt . . . Physically, he’s probably all right, but mentally . . . Arjuna just shook his head, expression even more worried.

“I expect that killing children might have a somewhat negative effect on his mood, yes,” Diva said far too sweetly.

The general lifted his head, green eyes staring straight back at the heiress to the Dragon Throne.  “I’m sure you know he wasn’t ordered to kill them, just their father.  Something must have happened.”

“Ten minutes ago, I wasn’t aware that my military thought it was all right to kill children, if of course they were ‘witnesses’.”

“It’s a standing order, Your Highness.  ‘Witnesses’ means someone who saw the assassin and had a reasonable chance of relating what happened and identifying the one responsible.  The entire point of the Shadow Division is to not only lessen the threat to the province by eliminating key military targets but also to sow uncertainty within the enemy’s command core.”

“If we’re murdering children, Arjuna, it stops here.”  She was enunciating very carefully, a sure sign that her temper was nearing its limit.

The silver-haired Fox frowned.  “Just how exactly does it stop?  I already told you, the Shadow Warriors are not intentionally targeting children.  What about those few warriors on the front lines that are thirteen, fourteen, fifteen?”

“They’ve at least reached the point where their voices are changing and they have to start shaving.  And they’ve chosen to join the army.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.  How does it stop, Your Highness?” Arjuna asked, still meeting the princess’s glare.  Despite hating the circumstances that caused so much hurt to his son, he was still the minister in charge of the military operations of the province, and had to focus accordingly.

“No more killing children.   Is that succinctly phrased enough, Your Grace?”

“Not as clear as I would wish.  Where do you draw the line, Your Highness?  What constitutes a child?  I assume, given your displeasure, that eight years old and under does, since that was the age of General Yazbaratu’s eldest daughter.”  He paused, rubbing his eyes for a moment.  “And you know that if they were younger, Khuradasu would never have touched them.”

“Why did he do it at all?”

“Since I wasn’t there, I couldn’t be certain what happened.”  Arjuna leaned back, closing his eyes.  “My best guess is that he caught his target alone, thought he could execute his mission and started to do so, and the girls stumbled across him in the act.  So now he’d have two people who saw him and had a reasonable chance of identifying him.  And he knows there’s orders for no witnesses.”

“Two people whose ages aren’t even in double digits are considered a threat?”

“They could have told the adults around them what happened and could have identified him later, I would assume.  They would have been, technically, witnesses under the standing orders and would have to be dealt with accordingly.”

“Arjuna, I don’t want children dying because they’re in the wrong places at the wrong times.”

“Then how would you like the order changed, Your Highness?” he asked, opening his eyes.  “It can be rescinded entirely, so that no matter who sees the assassination take place, the only one the Shadow Warrior is authorized to kill is the target alone.  Or it can be changed so that ‘witness’ does not include anyone under a certain age.  I assume if a child is fighting as an enemy soldier or trying to hurt the assassin, the assassin is allowed to defend himself?”

“The second option sounds reasonable.  If the child’s an actual threat to the assassin, yes, he can defend himself.  A ten-year-old trying to stab him in the ass with a paper knife, however, isn’t exactly a threat.”

Arjuna softly snorted.  “May not be a threat but certainly worth a spanking.  Rules of engagement would still apply, so in defense, it’s only the force necessary to defend oneself.  I’m glad you agree with the second option.  There are some in the Shadow Division who would see the full rescindment of that order as an invitation to push their luck.  This way, they still need to be careful keeping the number of people involved to a minimum.

“So what age is the limit?  Fifteen and under since sixteen is the age of majority?”

“What’s the minimum age for military service?”

“Thirteen, as you should well know,” Arjuna responded, calling to mind it was right after Kara’s thirteenth birthday that the youth had run off from the Dragon Palace.  Now he was somewhere deep in Aizhou, on the edge of a breakdown but continuing to refuse to allow Arjuna to get through with Avatar abilities.

“Seems like a logical cut-off point.”

“Diva, a twelve-year-old is quite capable of describing an attack by an assassin,” Kerza murmured.

“It’ll give the Shadow Division an extra reason to do the job right, then, won’t it?” Diva snapped.

Arjuna nodded.  “I’ll see to it the changed order’s passed on immediately.  Now . . . He sighed, his gaze remaining focused on the Dragon.  “Anything further you’d like to discuss?  There seems to be too much anger here for it to be just because of an assassination going wrong.”

How could you do this to Kara?!” she replied at the top of her voice; Kerza jumped, startled by the abrupt change of tone.

Arjuna winced slightly, but didn’t turn away from the angry princess.  “Do what, exactly, Your Highness?”

“How could you put him into a situation like this?”

“This particular situation is of his own making.  Other targets he’s been sent against have had families and children—and he’s performed superbly, eliminating only the target and no one else, not even a guard.  I don’t know what went wrong this time, and he won’t talk to me about it, nor has he reported in to explain to anyone in the chain of command what exactly happened.”

“That’s not what I mean!  How could you turn your own son into an assassin?”

Arjuna sighed again and rubbed his forehead with a hand.  “Because I could not talk the foolish boy into coming off the battlefield, Your Highness.  I tried to get him to reveal his noble status and get into the officer corps, but he would not do so.”

Staring back at the princess, he continued, “We’ve all heard the stories about lowly warriors becoming great generals on talent and bravado alone, but in this day and age, one emerging like that actually becomes a threat to the cohesion of a unit.  What worked when armies were merely a clan’s warriors defending home territory doesn’t always work when the whole of a province is at stake.”

“So to keep Kara from actually rising on his own merits, you put him into the Shadow Division?”

“That’s not correct,” Arjuna immediately growled.  If anyone could understand the intricacies of state affairs, it should be the one who would soon rule from the Throne.  “If he would have just dropped the farce of being a simple commoner and entered the officer corps, he would have been able to rise on his own merits as far as the system would allow.  You tell me, Your Highness, what someone should do if a common warrior performs so well on the battlefield not only does his unit turn to him as an unofficial leader, but so do all the units stationed in his base.  A warrior who refuses to take an officer’s rank because he thinks it would take him off the front lines and he wouldn’t do that because he didn’t want to remain safe while so many other Derkaryan citizens risked their lives.”

“He really refused an officer’s rank?” she said in disbelief.  “I can see him not wanting to take it solely on the basis of his nobility, but if he earned it, that should be different.”

“Earned it?  Your Highness, he’s been almost single-handedly responsible for three victories where the Phoenix tried to take back territory by overwhelming our forces in the area.  Not only on his skill at forcing the enemy back, but also by his presence rallying those with him.  He’s refused every commendation reward his commander’s tried to give him as well as telling me he would not become an officer—to my face.”

“All because he didn’t want to leave the front lines?”

Arjuna nodded.  “All because he did not want to be in a position where he was not risking his life when other Derkaryans, just as worthy as he is, were risking theirs.  It was starting to cause problems in the ranks, so I offered a move to the Shadow Division instead.  He could still risk his life and save others by doing so without being on the front lines causing even more of a disruption.

“I offered the move, Your Highness.  He accepted.  It wasn’t like I forced him into it.”

Diva shook her head.  “I just don’t understand it.  Kara’s such a gentle person . . . I can’t see him wanting to go on killing people.”

For a moment, Arjuna’s eyes flicked over to the gentle Swan, who was staying out of the conversation.  Kerza’s expression was worried, a little sad; she blushed and dropped her gaze as Arjuna caught her looking at him.  His attention turning back to the princess, he shrugged slightly.  “He was raised as a warrior and a swordsman.  It’s what the Lopayzom are about.  It’s an unfortunate fact that swordsmanship often involves killing.  However . . . you can probably lay some of the blame on what he’s become on me.  And if you think your anger can make me feel worse than I do already, I can assure you, nothing can make me feel worse.”

“Do you care to lay a wager on that, Arjuna?” Diva said ominously, tapping a finger on the arm of her chair.  “Kara ran away to join the army because he wanted your approval as well as a chance to protect and serve Derkarya.”

“Yes, and now he’s out there somewhere deep in a province that would kill him if they should discover who he is, and is in deep emotional pain.  I’m worried about him, and I know that his trying to meet my approval’s lead him directly into this.

 “I haven’t slept well for days, Your Highness.  I’d like nothing better than to see him home and safe.”

“Is that so?  Goddess knows you haven’t been—”

“Diva, that’s enough,” Kerza interrupted, which was drastically uncharacteristic of her.  “Upsetting Lord Arjuna isn’t going to help anything.”

“Yes, it’s so,” the Lopayzom Chieftain responded, his eyes flashing with faint silver fire.  “I want him back safe and sound, and if that means retiring him because something’s happened to break his warrior’s spirit, so be it.  He’s still Karavasu, a Fox and my student no matter what’s happened.”

“A Fox, your student, and your son, in case you had conveniently forgotten—”

Diva! Kerza said sharply.  “Stop it.  It’s not your place to criticize Lord Arjunayazu’s personal life.”

“Then whose place is it, exactly?  Yours, Kerza?”

The Swan’s cheeks reddened again.  “I didn’t say that!”

“Yes, my son,” Arjuna sighed, rubbing his forehead again with his hand.  “Which is why I’m worried and I want him home.”

“Amazing,” Diva said dryly.  “At long last, you show something resembling fatherly concern.”

“Diva,” Kerza said again.  “If it’s not obvious to you that Lord Arjuna’s in need of rest, you’re being deliberately blind.  This isn’t helping anyone.”

The Fox raised a hand.  “It’s all right, Kerza.  She has every right to be angry at me.  After all, what’s going to happen when word gets around that Khuradasu is missing?  Nothing good, I’m certain.”

He turned his attention back to the princess, but fell silent.

Diva stared at him in slowly dawning horror.  “This is going to be bad, isn’t it.  He’s very popular.”

“Possibly.  The same reasons I wanted him off the front lines still apply, especially since it was passed on to the rank and file that Khuradasu was moving to the Shadow Division in order to use his skills to try to shorten the war and allow them all to go home or return to peacetime duty—which is simply the truth.  And now he’s missing, though he did complete his mission.”

Her nails tapped rapidly on the carved wood of the chair.  “Who knows that he’s missing?”

“Right now the only ones who know for certain are his field agent, his commander, a couple of the other Shadow Warriors and their agents—they’re under the same commander—the division head, and myself.  And you and whomever has been notifying you—as well as Lady Kerza.  The other Shadow Warriors are the ones I have out looking for him.”

“I don’t want another living soul hearing about it, Arjuna.  We can’t afford to have the army fall apart.”

“I’m not planning on parading my failures in front of everyone, Your Highness,” he growled in response.

“I’m not talking about it from that angle, Your Grace.  I’m thinking about the troops’ morale.”

“So am I.  It’s not completely personal here.  I don’t want the armies falling apart either since the one person the regular folk looked up to has gone missing.  To them, Khuradasu’s become a heaven-sent warrior who showed that Derkarya had the right of the conflict.  You and I both know the truth, that the so-called Demon’s Claw is nothing more than a very talented Avatar, but they never did.  Kara kept all that from them, wanting to be nothing more than what they themselves are.”

“Right.  And if they hear that their celestial hero’s disappeared . . .”

“Morale will go to the bottom.  The more superstitious will believe they no longer fight on a side blessed by Heaven.  I realize all this,” Arjuna sighed.  Which has only added to my worries, of course.

“But the number of people who know about this is less than ten, right?”

“Around ten or so right now, yes.”

“Let’s keep it that way.”  Diva leaned back, a thoughtful look on her face.  “The rank and file don’t know where he is at any given time anyway, yes?”

“Correct.  Even I don’t know for sure where any of the Shadow Division are most of the time.  The only ones that do know are the field agents and the commanders as well as the assassins themselves.  It’s a given the regular army has no idea where the Shadow Warriors are or from where they operate.”

“So letting it be known—through the ‘grapevine’, of course—that he’s doing some deep undercover work, handling some enormously important task . . .”

“Will buy us a bit of time, yes.  Though I don’t know what can be done if he remains away.”

“We’ll get inventive if we have to.”  She banged her fist down on the arm of the chair with a snarl.  “I wish this stupid war was over already!”

“We all do, Your Highness,” Arjuna agreed.

“What is Baysitu thinking?  Is he thinking?” she demanded rhetorically.  “This has been going on for almost five years, and he’s accomplished precious little!”

“At this point . . . it’s probably royal pride more than anything else.  The Dragonfly are still adamant about remaining part of Derkarya and they’ve come to hate His Highness the Phoenix for not leaving well enough alone.”

“He’s being an idiot.  I’d give ten thousand hiranya and five pounds of jewels to whoever could shake some sense into his pretty platinum head.”

“Would you indeed?” Arjuna murmured, raising an eyebrow.

“I definitely would.  Stopping this mess as soon as possible would make me very happy.”

“I would be happy with that as well, but honestly, what I most want now is Kara back here, safe.”  Rubbing his eyes again, he added, “Anything more, Your Highness?”

“No, I think I’ve gotten it all out of my system.”

Kerza took a few shy steps toward Arjuna, then stopped.  “Are you going to be all right, my lord?  Have you eaten anything?”

He glanced up at the gentle Swan.  “Probably, and no,” he replied.

She gave him a look of gentle disapproval.  “It will do no one any good if you over-tire and starve yourself, my lord.”

“Perhaps, but it doesn’t overly matter, does it?” he growled, then immediately glanced at the princess.  “Actually, it probably does, though I think Her Highness there would be somewhat happier should I just suddenly keel over.”

“With all respect, my lord, it certainly does matter.  You need to be well-rested and fed to properly carry out your duties.”

Diva gave Arjuna a sugary smile.  “If you did that, Arjuna, I wouldn’t be able to yell at you any more.”

“You’re all heart, Your Highness,” Arjuna murmured, then he flicked his jade-green eyes to the Haesom woman.  “‘Fed’ is easily taken care of, but ‘well-rested’ . . . He elegantly shrugged.  “As I’ve mentioned, I haven’t been sleeping well at all since I’ve felt Kara’s distress.”

Diva studied Kerza for a long moment, then glanced at Arjuna.  “Kerza could help you sleep,” she said casually.  “Song magic, you know.”

“I know, but I wouldn’t want to impose,” the Lopayzom responded.

“I think she’d be glad to help,” Diva said blithely.

“I won’t stop her, if that’s her wish.”  Arjuna glanced back over at Kerza.  “In fact, if you’ve not eaten yet, I’d be honored if you stayed and dined with me here.”  He faintly smiled.  “That way you could be certain I ate, and then send me off to bed.”

Kerza was blushing, her eyes wide.  “I-I would be honored, my lord.”

The smile he gave her seemed to make a lot of the weariness disappear for a moment.  The lines returned, however, when he looked over at the princess.  “You as well, Your Highness.  You’re welcome to stay.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of intruding,” Diva protested, all suspiciously wide-eyed innocence.  “I really ought to get the rest of the reports from the secretary.”

“You certain?”  Arjuna asked, giving the princess a look of curiosity.  “I’m sure they can wait, and I don’t think Lady Kerza will let me stay awake much longer than it takes me to eat.”

“Having me heckle you during dinner is probably bad for your digestion, Old Fox.”

“Perhaps, but I don’t want to be feeling like I’m depriving you of your companion either.”

“No, really, it’s all right.”  If Arjuna had had any idea what that particular gleam in Diva’s eyes meant, he might have started feeling uneasy.

The silver-haired general gave the princess a long look before finally saying, “If you insist.”  He then glanced over at Kerza and then back at Diva.  “Perhaps someone can go tell the staff to send something here?  Unless we have something further to discuss, Your Highness?”

Diva trained a gleaming grin on him.  “I’ll be glad to send a message along on my way out.”

His expression turned wary then, jade-hued eyes narrowing slightly.  “Much appreciated, Your Highness.”

“Quite welcome.”  She rose from her chair, smoothing down her skirt, still grinning.  “Have a nice evening, Your Grace.”

“You as well.  Sorry to have caused you so much anger and concern, Your Highness.”

“I’m just glad we could resolve it.”  If she grinned any harder, the top of her head might come off.  Kerza’s expression was mostly calm, but there was the faintest wild look in her eyes—readable by those who knew her very well, which only made Diva grin even more.

The Lopayzom Chieftain waited in silence until Diva disappeared behind the closing door, his eyes remaining fixed on the royal girl until the paper-paneled door hid her form.  Without moving, he murmured, “No need to be so nervous, Lady Kerza.  It’s not like I’m going to eat you for dinner.  But why on earth was she grinning like that?”

Kerza attempted to answer, had to cough, and managed, “It’s . . . sort of a private joke, I think.”

“Ah, I see.”  Arjuna leaned back again in the chair, once again rubbing his forehead, trying to make the headache he’d been feeling for hours go away.  “She’s really not happy with me, is she?”

“No, but at least she’s not screaming any more.”  Kerza stepped over to the chair and touched his temple fleetingly.  “Headache, my lord?”

“Sadly, yes.  And a persistent one.  I think it’s some sort of effect of my psychic tie with Kara and he being in such an extreme crisis.”  He sighed, somehow looking much older than usual.  “Had I known it would have lead to this, I would have insisted he take an officer’s post somewhere.  Anything to have spared him this.  But of course, Her Highness wouldn’t believe that.”

She gently pushed his head forward, swept his silver hair to one side, and began massaging the wire-taut muscles of his shoulders and the back of his neck.  “I believe it, my lord.  There was no way to know that this would happen.  It isn’t your fault.”

He sighed, both in depression and in reaction to her skilled fingers.  “It is, though.  She’s right, pointing out that Kara’s always tried hard to earn my approval.  He’s a good boy—too good, sometimes, I think.”

“Perhaps.  But many people would envy you a clever, skillful, good-natured son, my lord.”

“One that I insisted become a killer.  Though, again, swordsmanship sadly involves such things.”

“I believe that you never tried to hide the fact from him.”

“Regardless, something’s happened to nearly break him—and it’s probably the death of those girls.  Though he probably viewed it as necessary, it goes against what he was taught, that our sword art was to be used in the defense of the helpless and weak.”  Under her fingers, he was beginning to truly relax; she could feel the tightness in his muscles fading, and knew that with the easing of that tension, the headache would lessen in turn.

“I hope that someone is able to find him before something worse happens.”

“So do I.  I also want to help him recover from the shock.”  He sighed again, head dropping forward a bit further.  “I just hope he’s all right, wherever he is.”

“With luck, he’ll be all right.”

“We shall see,” Arjuna muttered, eyes closing.  He was so tired, and the Swan’s soothing presence was somehow allowing him to finally relax enough to sleep.  Still, he was also hungry—he was certain Kerza would be angry to know he hadn’t bothered eating anything at all the entire day—so he made an effort to stay awake.  Despite that effort, he started out of a half-doze at the unobtrusive knock on the door; without ceasing the gentle, skilled massage, Kerza directed the two servants who had arrived with dinner.  Just their presence suggested to Arjuna that he truly had nodded off, or otherwise lost track of a stretch of time long enough for Diva’s instructions to reach the kitchens.  The smell of the hot food reminded him pointedly that he hadn’t had anything more than tea through the entire day.

“Dinner is here, my lord,” Kerza murmured, which definitely proved that she knew how drowsy he was.  At least she was being diplomatic about it.  She left off the massage, which was rather disappointing; she had good hands and a thorough awareness of the pressure points that could bring or ease pain.  She remained at his elbow, however.

He began to eat in silence; the moment he got a few swallows down, he began to notice just how truly famished he’d allowed himself to become.  The past few days—ever since he’d gotten word from Sidhu confirming something untoward had happened to the younger Lopayzom—not only had he not been sleeping well, he’d hardly eaten.  Instead, he’d spent long moments trying to break through the blockade Kara had on their mental connection as well as try to figure out just what his adopted son could be doing.

“Don’t rush, my lord,” Kerza murmured.  “You’ll regret it if you do so.  I’ve heard that you haven’t been taking regular meals at all in the past few days, but the food’s hardly going to leap off the table and try to escape.”  She took a seat as well, pouring out hot tea for them both.  “I presume that you have been quite concerned about Karavasu, and rightly so, but going without sufficient food or rest is hardly going to help sort the situation out.”

Arjuna responded with a noncommittal grunt rather than rush his chewing or talk with his mouth full.  The sound might be a bit ungracious, but nowhere near as ill-mannered as the latter option, and less likely to get him scolded than the former.

“Kara will be all right—I’m certain of it, my lord.  There were no indications of foul play, correct?”

“His agent reported that he found everything as he would have expected to find it after a successful mission—minus Kara’s actual presence,” Arjuna confirmed, picking up his teacup.  “No signs of a scuffle, nothing that suggested someone else had either been forcing Kara to go through the motions or posing as him directly.  There are means of communication, identifying signs and such, that are known only to the Shadow Division—and most agent-assassin pairings develop their own private signs as well.  An impostor would not have known them, and if he were being coerced, Kara could easily have used such a sign to alert his agent to the situation.”

“Then he’s cut off communication of his own will,” she said gently, “for whatever reasons he might have.  I trust that he’ll reopen communication when he’s ready.”

“Warriors under anyone’s command can’t pick and choose when to communicate,” the silver-maned general groused before taking a sip of tea.

“If something has . . . affected him so greatly, he may not be thinking in any organized manner,” she murmured.  “A good healer can tell you that a serious shock can greatly disorder the mind and lead to actions which make no sense to others, but seem perfectly logical to the victim of such a shock.”

“I know,” he sighed, setting the cup down. “But I can’t stop thinking about how all of this is my fault. I should have insisted on his becoming an officer, the idealistic child.”

“Perhaps.  But you did not know this would happen, my lord.  Kara is . . .  She looked thoughtful for a moment.  “Kara is uneasy with the trappings of leadership and command.  It is one thing to be an informal leader in a group of peers, and quite another to be a commissioned officer.  Though the soldiers around him may have looked to him, I do not think he would have done well in an official position of authority.”  She waved a hand slightly, suddenly.  “Let me rephrase that.  He would not have been happy in such a position.  He would have done his best, and he is certainly gifted enough, but he would do so to gain your approval.”

“Hrmph,” he muttered. Though about to say something, he closed his mouth as she continued, his expression shifting to a deeper frown. “The boy’s done much to please me. Even his rebellion was influenced by that. And look at what it’s led to.”

“Does he know that you are proud of him?” she murmured, sipping her tea.

Arjuna remained silent for a long moment, jade eyes staring at the table. He sighed, shaking his head gently in a negative manner. “I always assumed he knew, but perhaps I assumed too much.”

“You are a very private man, my lord, and one possessed of great self-discipline and restraint.  These are admirable traits for a warrior, but not necessarily as desirable in a father.”  She gave him a small smile.  “Or at least, not to such a degree.”

He shook his head again.  After taking another sip of his tea, he murmured, “I intended to make him into a warrior, nothing more.”

“Plans which may seem perfectly functional on paper, my lord, are often thrown askew by the human element.  As a general, you surely know this--the phenomenon has a distressing tendency to turn up in battle.  One cannot ever be absolutely certain what another person will do.”

He raised an eyebrow, giving her a look of curiosity.  “And that’s supposed to be encouraging?”

“In the sense that you are not exclusively responsible for what’s happened to Kara, yes.”

“No, Kara himself does bear some of the burden, but I should have done better by him.”

“It’s easy enough to look back on what has already happened and say that you should have done things differently.”

“It’s also easy to look back and condemn oneself for what was done.  Though it wasn’t my intent, I’ve ended up truly caring for him as my son.  And right now he’s off somewhere in enemy territory, wounded deeply in spirit if not in body.”

“He’s a survivor, my lord,” Kerza pointed out.  “I think that he will survive even this trauma.”

“Perhaps.  I just wish he’d finally take down the barrier he’s erected between us.  I’m tired of his anger, and I’m worried about him.”

“Give him time,” she murmured.  “You can tell that he is still alive, correct?”

He nodded.  “Yes.  At least I have that much.”

“That may be the best one can hope for at the moment.”

Sighing, he pushed himself back from the table. Rising to his feet, he gave the gentle Swan a faint smile. “For the moment, I should probably try to sleep. Things seem to be catching up to me at last, and as Her Highness pointed out, I’ll do no one any good making myself collapse . . . as much as I deserve it.”

She rose as well, looking concerned.  “If you find yourself unable to sleep, my lord, please do not hesitate to send a message to me.”

“Actually . . . Just stay for a short while. Long enough to sing me to sleep.” Noting a slight blush bloom on her cheeks, his smile brightened just a bit. “I’ll be comfortable enough just lying on top of the bed with my pants on. I think that’s not too improper, is it?” he asked, tugging his silken shirt out while heading toward the inner chamber of his suite.

“N-not at all, my lord,” she said quickly, suddenly aware that her heart was pounding as she followed along in his wake.

“Good,” Arjuna responded.  He pulled the soft silvery-blue material off the rest of the way.  It floated through the air as it landed in a huddled pile of silk on a low table next to the paper-paneled door.  He strode over to the bed and just as casually flopped onto it, face down.  Silver hair flared out around him, a shining corona.

Without a word, indeed without appearing to consciously think about it, Kerza paused to pick up the shirt, fold it neatly, and put it down on the table.  She was definitely doing it automatically, because her eyes were riveted to Arjuna.  He had the build of a man who kept himself in peak condition, sleek and muscular, the long silver mane veiling, but not concealing him.

“You’re too kind, you know,” he murmured, shifting his arms so that they lay crossed under his head.  His face was turned toward her, but his jade-green eyes were closed.

Embarrassed by the thought that he might catch her staring at him, Kerza shut her eyes for a moment to regain her composure before walking over to settle in the chair beside the bed.  Howso?”

“Putting up with a crabby old grump such as myself, and doing so cheerfully.”

“You are not crabby, my lord--you are tired, and very worried about Kara.  Perhaps you’re a bit more curt than usual, but it’s quite understandable.”  She swallowed against a dry throat before adding, “And you are certainly not old.”

“Hmm.” His voice held a note of amusement. “And you’re certain about that?”

“Indeed,” she said firmly.  “For an Avatar, you are just entering early middle age.”  And you’re the most magnificent man I’ve ever seen.

He softly chuckled.  Already the Haesom’s presence had made quite a difference; he’d managed to find something of an appetite and now he was truly drowsy for the first time in days.

“Perhaps you’ll fall asleep without my assistance,” she remarked wryly.  “You seem quite ready to drift off as it is.”

The curtness of her remark caught his attention.  Jade-green eyes opened, staring at her in slight confusion, the amusement fading.  “And that’s a bad thing?”

She blushed.  “Oh, no.  Not at all, my lord.  I intended no offense.  I was merely remarking on the fact that you seem much more relaxed than you were when Diva and I first arrived.”

That intense verdant gaze remained focused on her.  Somehow, I think that’s not the entire truth, he thought.  He got the impression that she’d been staring at him—and for some reason that made him feel like blushing as well.

The continued stare made her blush even more.  “I trust you feel a bit better after a good meal?”

“Yes,” he replied.  He frowned slightly.  “Is there something wrong?”

“Not at all, my lord,” she assured him, while thinking, Except that I can’t share the bed with you.  Her imagination seized that idea and rushed off into explicit visions.  She coughed delicately behind a hand, hoping to conceal at least a little of the ferocious blush she could feel heating her cheeks; the Haesom fairness of complexion could be a bit of a hindrance at times.

Arjuna kept his gaze on her for a moment longer.  Then, slowly, a bit of a sly grin settled on his lips.  Just like that, all manner of little things about the gentle, beautiful Swan settled into place—things noted without truly seeing the significance, but now so obvious.  Perhaps, sweet lady, had circumstances been different . . . but I’m too old to change my ways, and death still beckons sweetly.

He’d been eyed admiringly by any number of women from sixteen to sixty, sometimes quite openly, but he had taken no particular notice.  He was, of course, aware that he was considered quite a handsome man, but the knowledge seemed trivial, unimportant.  Not prone to short-term affairs or tumbles with paid professionals, and unable to consider any longer, more permanent arrangements due to the plans he’d had for nearly twenty years, he had been able to turn down a number of bold offers.  The white-haired maiden’s admiration was flattering and held overtones of some deeper meaning, but his acting on the knowledge would be inappropriate in the extreme—not to mention potentially life-threatening, given that Diva was very protective of Kerza and would no doubt go into a thundering rage if he did something the Dragon disapproved of.

“Are you ready, my lord?” the Swan murmured, the rosy blush fading as she regained her composure.

But that didn’t mean he couldn’t be just a bit playful; he was relatively certain she’d appreciate it in the spirit that was intended.  The sly smile remained on his lips, joined by a merry twinkle in his eye.  “That depends on what you have in mind, my lady.”

She reddened again immediately, but managed a rather prim expression to conceal the fact that she was about to melt.  “Your need for sleep, my lord.”  I’ve never seen him smile like that.  He’s even more handsome when he smiles . . . as if he needed the help . . . oh, Swan save me.

“Ah, yes, that,” he replied, his voice hinting at a rather carnal way she could help.  Then he closed his eyes, the teasing over.  “Yes, I’m ready for your song.”  He paused a moment, then added, “Sometimes . . . I wish my path in life had been a different one.”

Kerza longed to reach out to him, just to touch his hand or his shoulder in comfort, but the gesture would have seemed overly familiar.  She settled for answering gently, “No one has total control over the whims of fate, my lord.  The best anyone can do is make the choices that they feel are right.”

“If that’s the case, I sometimes wonder if I’ve even done that much.”

“I think you have tried to do the right thing in most situations, my lord.  Not all, perhaps, for no one is perfect, but most.”

“Perhaps.  I wish I was as certain of that as you seem to be.”

I could not feel this way about you if you were anything but a good man at heart, she thought, and half-wished that she dared to say it out loud.  “I trust you’ll feel better after a good night’s rest, my lord,” she murmured as she made herself relax, concentrating on the task at hand and doing her best to block out her acute awareness of him.

“I’ll do my best,” he said, nestling his head against his crossed arms.  His next words were a whisper, barely heard, “For you.  You don’t deserve to worry as I’ve been worrying of late.”

The faint words brought a blush back to her cheeks and totally unexpected tears to her eyes; she had to blink rapidly, swallowing hard, to force them back and clear her throat.  Unable to think of anything to say in return, she settled for going through a brief set of scales to warm up her voice, then drew a deep breath and began to sing.

The words were elusive, difficult to make out, which was part of the entire idea.  As he tried to catch the words, his mind was drawn inevitably into the soothing, regular rhythm.  It was partly a simple exercise of hypnotism, and partly the exercise of Avatar ability; with a patient distracted and caught up by the song, it was easier to work with their spirit energy, shaping and directing it.  All of the Haesom clan’s magic was bound intimately up in music, making full use of the effects that sound could have on the mind and body.  Even non-Avatars received instruction in the theories behind the clan’s favored art, but it was in the hands of the Avatars that centuries of study and refinement became a subtle tool of astonishing power.

That power worked quite effectively in this case.  Arjuna had been close to his body’s limits, needing to sleep and yet prevented from doing so by his concern and self-recriminations.  With Kerza’s song drawing his conscious mind away from his worries, she scarcely needed to do more than nudge his energy a little.  He was asleep within minutes, but she continued the song, urging him gently along into the deepest stage of sleep.  His exhaustion made it easier, his mind and body craving the most restorative sort of rest, which in turn made it a lot easier for her to get him settled more normally into bed—stripping him down to his loincloth, getting him under the covers, and finally untying the warrior’s topknot and combing out his hair, which she took her time with.  It was too much temptation for her to ignore, the chance to play with that glorious silver hair.  For most people, silver hair was just white with perhaps a tint of grey, but Arjuna’s had a luster that truly made it shine like silver wire.  He looked spectacular with it spread out across the pillow, framing his handsome face.  In deep sleep, totally relaxed, he looked quite different than usual . . . gentle, peaceful, more open than she had ever seen him.

Kerza’s heart clenched painfully in her chest, her song ending, and she laid a hand on the silken wave of his hair.  She was happy to be near him, feeling such a warm wave of tenderness, and yet filled with a soul-wounding despair that she had to “steal” the nearness, taking advantage of his weariness to snatch a handful of moments like jewels from the river of time.  Tears welled in her eyes once more; she was close enough to touch him, to feel the soft texture of his hair, the warmth of his body, and yet she still felt as though she stood on the far side of some unimaginably deep chasm, forever reaching out, forever denied what she longed for the most.


“His Grace is not to be disturbed unless the matter is of extreme importance,” Kerza instructed the guards.  Everything should go through his aide.  His Grace is exhausted and overstressed, and his health may be at risk if he is not permitted to rest.  He’s to be left alone until he wakes of his own accord, understand?”

The guards nodded intently.

She maintained her usual calm expression as she went down the hallways to the royal quarters, feeling more than ever that she wore a mask of thinnest porcelain that could shatter at any moment.  As the doors of the double suite she shared with Diva closed behind her, it did finally shatter.

Diva had been sitting in a chair, calmly reading a book, a pot of tea on the small table at her elbow.  When Kerza entered the room, Diva didn’t even look up at first—she simply put a bit of ribbon between the pages to mark her place, put the book down, and got out of the chair.  She was there to catch the older girl as Kerza almost literally dissolved into helpless sobs; the red-haired princess was stronger than her delicate build suggested, not buckling in the slightest as she took Kerza’s weight.

Unlike Diva, the Swan was not prone to loud, dramatic wails.  Aside from the soft sobbing, she wept rather quietly, her face buried in Diva’s shoulder, the dark green silk of the Dragon’s dressing gown getting darker as it soaked up Kerza’s tears.  In a reversal of their usual circumstances, it was the flame-haired girl who rocked and whispered to the white-maned maiden—not trying to cajole her into ceasing her tears, but simply giving her comfort.

“It hurts,” Diva caught out of Kerza’s soft, incoherent cries.  “It hurts so much . . .”

For only the very briefest of seconds, she wondered if Arjuna had done the unthinkable, the inexcusable, and laid hands on Kerza in a way that had harmed her.  The thought was gone as soon as it arrived; she knew that the true source of Kerza’s pain was the fact that Arjuna didn’t lay hands on her at all, didn’t seem to see her as anything more than the princess’s foster sister, a playmate and nursemaid to his son.  The Swan’s distress had only gotten worse and worse as the years went by, her longing intensified rather than faded by the passing of time.  Diva knew that her own unsatisfied longing was nothing, nothing, compared to Kerza’s—she didn’t have her heart’s desire constantly nearby, every moment both joy and agony at being near him and yet going unnoticed.

Unseen by the gentle girl weeping into her shoulder, Diva’s face hardened briefly into a mask of fierce rage, her cool amber eyes turning molten gold, hot and dangerous.  Only her sense of honor kept her from storming to Arjuna’s rooms, kicking his door in, and ordering him to get dressed for his own wedding—at sword point, if necessary.  She had promised Kerza that she would say nothing to Arjuna, that she would not use her rank or her power to force the issue, and so she would not.  Still, there were times that she half-wished she were less concerned with her own honor and could ignore the promise in favor of beating Arjuna over the head with the fact of Kerza’s love.  Or with the nearest piece of furniture.  In all other things, Diva’s power and status could shield and protect Kerza if she were unable to protect herself, but the Dragon was helpless when it came to this one critical point.

Diva did not like being helpless.

But though she could not cure Kerza’s deepest wound, she could at least do whatever she could to soothe it, to quiet the pain and give her sister a little peace.  They were on the floor now, Diva looking rather like a rose with her green robe and flaming hair, Kerza like some delicate lily in her paler green gown, half sitting in the taller girl’s lap, as though she were the younger of the two.

And yet, such agony was often the lot of the delicate children of Haesa the Swan.  Sought out for their magic-laden songs, they were also often shunned or feared because they also had seemingly intimate ties with death.  Many a life’s ending or tragedy were heralded by a Swan’s words; a sense of sadness often surrounded many of the clan, who tended toward deep emotions and a great deal of sentimentality.  More often than not, a Haesom ended up sharing their lives not with one who had captured their gentle heart’s passion but rather someone convenient—a situation that often never made such pain completely fade.  Like her royal “sister”, Kerza was an Avatar of rare ability and talent; so deep was her desire, she chose the harder, longer path rather than give up such delicate dreams and find a small measure of happiness in convenience.  Such Haesom became the protagonists of clan legend, whether their tale ended in joy or tragedy.  Haesamzu, her father and clan chieftain, had agreed not to seek some other arrangement for Kerza, rather to let her follow her heart.

Underneath the hurt, the frustration, and the desire, one memory stood out as Kerza sobbed against the princess’s shoulder.  Arjuna had smiled at her, one of those playful, slightly wicked ones so often attributed to Lopayzu at his most amorous.  For the first time she could remember, he had actually noticed her not as a child, or as his son’s nursemaid, or even as the foster sister of the Dragon’s heir, but as a woman and potential mate.  He’d said he’d try to rest so that she wouldn’t suffer the same sort of worrying that had made him so exhausted in the first place.  He’d noticed her concern over his life—a life he himself considered worthless, good for only throwing away at the right moment in a frenzy of vengeance—and had responded in a manner to please her.  His smile, his words, were like a soothing balm on her grief, bringing her tears to an end much sooner than might have otherwise been the case.

“All right now?” Diva murmured.

“Y-yes,” Kerza whispered, and gave the other girl a shaky smile.  When Diva quirked an eyebrow, obviously wondering why she was recovering so quickly, the Swan simply told her.

“It’s an improvement,” Diva conceded.  “But why didn’t you crawl into bed with him?”

Diva!” the Swan gasped in horror.

“What?  Nobody in the palace would dare make a comment on it, so your reputation isn’t likely to suffer.  Besides, his sense of honor might make him offer to marry you.”

“I don’t want that,” Kerza said sharply.  “I don’t want him to offer out of a sense of honor, or because someone else has forced him into it, or anything like that.  If he ever does ask for my hand in marriage, I want it to be because he wants to do it.”

Diva sighed, shaking her head as she got to her feet, helping the pale-haired woman up with her.  “He’d better ‘want to do it’ soon, then.  There’s only so long I can let this go on.  If I thought that he had any notion of what he’s putting you through, I’d have him hung up by his toes for deliberately tormenting you.”

“That reminds me.  You did have that soldier taken down eventually, didn’t you?”

The Dragon looked a touch vague.  “Which soldier?”

“The one who made the rude comment at the banquet?”

“Oh, that soldier.  Yes.  He’ll be a bit wobbly on his feet for a few days, but maybe it’ll remind him to have better manners.”  Diva steered Kerza toward the bathing chamber that their suites shared.

“I wish you hadn’t done that to him.”

“I’m sure he wishes that, too.”

“Diva . . .  Kerza frowned at her friend.

“I didn’t have him flogged or beaten senseless or impaled, Kerza,” she pointed out reasonably.  “I just had him put into a situation where he’d have plenty of time to think about his poor conduct.”

“Isn’t that what the dungeon is for?”

“I wanted other people to take notice and pay attention to their own manners.  Object lessons are wonderful educational tools, aren’t they?”

“What are you going to do to Kara if he returns?” the Swan asked suddenly, letting Diva help her out of her clothes.

“I’ll probably give him an honorable discharge from military service.”

Kerza looked at Diva in eloquent silence.  The Dragon finally scowled at her.

“And then I’ll get a birch rod and stripe his ass like a tiger’s for running off to join the stupid army in the first place!  There, is that what you expected?”

“It’s more in keeping with your temperament, Diva,” Kerza pointed out, stepping onto the latticework as she began unbraiding her hair.  “But you know that he wasn’t rejecting you.  He was just trying to do the right thing for his homeland, and hoping to gain Lord Arjuna’s approval.”

“Nevertheless,” the Dragon muttered ominously, her hands full of Kerza’s snow-white tresses and an ivory comb, “he decided to sneak off right as things were getting interesting.”

“And a good thing he did.  ‘Experimenting’ is one thing, but anything else would have been very inappropriate.”

“Are you saying that I’d have done something inappropriate?” Diva huffed.

“Yes, and you know that I’m correct.”

Diva snorted.  “You might be right.  He was terribly cute.”

“What about your other interest?” Kerza teased lightly.

“I was practicing for him,” the younger girl protested.  “If he’s interested in me, that is.”

“I don’t know if Kara would have made you a good consort, though, and you were risking that arrangement.  He’s a little too eager to follow orders.”

Diva leaned forward so that she could look Kerza in the face, a bit confused.  “How is that a bad thing?”

The Swan couldn’t help but laugh softly at her domineering friend.  “I suppose you wouldn’t see it as a bad trait . . .”