“Yes, you!” the slender woman repeated, pulling the stout “sword” made from a single piece of solid oak from the layers of the sash around her waist. Emerald eyes remained focused on the young man whose golden aura held within it the image of a red fox.
He was short, not much taller than most women, and his skinny frame and fine features gave him an air of prettiness without making his sex ambiguous. His hair was orange in color, shaggy and pulled up in a topknot that made it look like he had a red fox’s tail attached to the back of his head. Huge, honey-colored eyes stared back at her in complete confusion. “Surely you must be mistaken—”
“Oh, there’s no mistake here,” the woman insisted, pointing the tip of her wooden sword straight at the man’s nose. “For weeks now, His Grace the Raven’s people have been stolen from and harassed by a band of outlaws all claiming to be Lopayzom under the leadership of the Demon’s Claw himself. People have been killed and children have starved to death in the depths of winter,” the woman growled in anger, pressing forward.
As expected, the young man backed away from her advance, hands raised between them in a gesture of placation. His expression remaining absolutely clueless, he offered the angry woman a sunny smile. “That’s terrible indeed, but what makes you think I—” His soft voice—quite the pleasing tenor, the woman noticed—abruptly stopped as his back slammed up against one of the massive gateposts forming the main entrance into the walled trading town.
The woman’s answering smile was cool and triumphant. She kept the point of her weapon directed at the man’s delicate-appearing nose. “Like I said, those bandits claim to be Lopayzom—and you reek of Fox.”
Amber eyes stared back at her cluelessly. Inwardly, however, the man was doing his best to formulate some sort of plan to get him out of the confrontation. He recognized the woman accosting him as Jurnia, Chief Herald of the Raven Clan; the wooden sword, the symbol of her office, gave away her job, though it was her long hair of deepest red and large emerald eyes that told him which Herald stood before him. Eeee . . . She’s quite beautiful now that she’s all grown up, he thought. And scary, he added as the Herald impatiently waved her oaken sword at his face.
“Well?” Jurnia demanded, trying to stem the tide of frustration within her. Is he really this slow-witted? “What do you have to say for yourself, Fox?”
“Heh.” It was a sound of nervous laughter. The huge honey-colored eyes stared down the length of the weapon to meet her challenging emerald gaze. “Please, Lady Herald,” the redheaded man implored, “it’s quite impolite to be waving a weapon in someone’s face, don’t you think? Makes it hard to formulate any thought at all.” He carefully reached up with his right hand and gently pushed the sword to the side.
Jurnia suppressed a growl of frustration. Lowering the sword, she wordlessly dared the shaggy-maned man to continue.
“What I have to say is this: in all the world watched over by the Jade Lotus Throne, there are only two Lopayzom that remain. It’s easy for anyone to claim anything.”
“Well, you certainly aren’t Lord Arjunayazu,” the dark-haired Herald spat. She’d seen the Fox Chieftain a number of times, and this little man wasn’t anything like the tall, silver-haired general. “So just who are you?”
The redhead brightly smiled. “No one of any consequence.”
Jurnia fumed. He’s obviously a Fox. He’s equally obviously not the one Fox I’ve seen before. So he has to be Lord Arjunayazu’s adopted son, but I never learned that one’s name. “So does ‘no one’ have an actual name?”
“Ara?” the amber-eyed man interjected, looking clueless once more.
“Look, if it’s true there’s only two Fox left, then you have to be His Grace the Fox’s adopted son, yes?”
“Oh, yes. I am. And I’d bow if you didn’t have me pinned here against this wooden post.” Noting the thunderous expression on the Herald’s beautiful face, the redheaded man once again placatingly held his hands up between the two of them and brightly smiled. “Not that I’m complaining, mind you. It’s a very comfortable post . . .”
“So what’s your name?” Jurnia insisted.
“And you’re certain, Karavasu, that there are no more Fox?”
Something shifted in his amber gaze. Where before there had been an airheaded mildness, a deep melancholy stared back, making Jurnia suddenly uncomfortable. “It’s just as well that His Grace the Raven has ended the feud.” The sadness disappeared, though the clueless expression didn’t return. “For those who like to cause trouble, isn’t it far easier to lay the blame on someone who can’t defend themselves or their honor?”
“True . . .”
“So, isn’t it reasonable to expect that perhaps these men are trying to benefit from the frightening reputation of the Lopayzom?”
She glowered at him. “It’s . . . not unreasonable.”
He smiled that bright, sunny smile again. “There, you see?”
“I’m not entirely sure that I do see,” she grumbled, “but you don’t strike me as being a terribly dangerous sort.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t strike you at all,” he said reassuringly. “It’s not nice to hit women.”
“No, I meant . . .” Jurnia shook her head in disbelief. Who would have ever imagined that the elegant, brilliant Lord Arjunayazu would have ended up saddled with a fluff-headed piece of work like this for a son?
“Meant what?” He continued to smile in that cheerful, vacant way.
“Never mind,” she muttered, slipping the oak sword back through her sash. “Be about your business.” I really need a bath—I’ve been on the road for days. I’ll feel much better after a good hot bath. “And don’t make trouble,” she added sternly.
“I’ll be certain to avoid it,” Karavasu replied with a courteous bow.
“You do that,” Jurnia muttered to herself as she briskly walked away. It still felt strange to leave a Lopayzom free in a Kaykolom town, given the dark history between the two clans. But the youth seemed harmless enough, even if he had a sword strapped to his waist like most warrior-class men.
Amber eyes narrowed slightly as Karavasu watched the slender Herald stride deeper into the walled trading town. Just like dew evaporating under sunlight, the vacant expression disappeared. He glanced about, thoughtful now, as he stepped away from the post. Must be pretty bad if His Grace the Raven’s sent his Chief Herald out to investigate. Spirits take them all for further maligning my clan and my name. Let’s see . . . Need to arrange a room at the inn, take a bath, and then—whoops!
He felt the emerald gaze on him, boring into him. Flicking his own amber gaze to her, he dopily smiled back at the still-scowling Herald. Jurnia was quite a distance away now, apparently still uneasy about leaving one of his clan running free. Karavasu waved at her, then stumbled over his own sandaled feet. “Arara!” the redheaded man protested, slender arms wildly flailing as he stumbled forward only to careen off the stout form of some hapless, overweight merchant.
“Watch where you’re going, you little snot!”
“Sorr—ara!” Karavasu chirped as he staggered back from the portly man then tripped over his own feet again while attempting to bow in apology. His rear hit the ground hard, stirring up dust from the packed-earth path. “My deepest apologies,” the Lopayzom offered the scowling merchant. “I’m so very sorry, that I most certainly am.” Even as he bowed low while sitting in the dust, Karavasu peered out from under shaggy orange bangs to judge the Herald’s reaction.
Like most who’d seen his bumbling, uncoordinated act, Jurnia appeared as if she couldn’t quite believe anyone was that clumsy. The pretty Herald rolled her eyes and then shook her head before stomping off toward the heart of the town.
See? I’m perfectly harmless, Karavasu thought. A faint smile crossed his lips as he stood, suddenly graceful.
“Apology accepted,” the overweight merchant growled, still not pleased about being bumped into.
“You’re so very kind,” Karavasu responded, bowing deeply. He then walked off, softly humming a happy little tune.
Just walking into the inn’s bath chamber made Jurnia sigh in relief. She typically made do with sponge baths while traveling, but she was looking forward to having a real bath. Laying her towel and robe on the warm tiles of the firebox, she quickly doffed her tunic and trousers. Folding them a bit haphazardly and tying them together with her sash, she slid the door open a few inches and laid them on the floor outside for the attendants to pick up for laundering.
The big tub was steaming gently, adding a soothing dampness to the warm air and filling the room with a slight fog. Though the nights still held a trace of winter chill, the room was definitely at a comfortable temperature, even without clothes. Jurnia dipped a bucket into the tub, closed her eyes, and overturned the bucket above her, letting the hot water pour down over her, plastering her hair against her head and back. Already feeling better, she set the bucket down and opened the soap jar to start the business of serious bathing.
Scrubbing her hair, she let her mind wander. The face of the strange, silly little man—Karavasu—had seemed somehow familiar, which was ridiculous. She certainly would have remembered anyone who acted like such a . . . a . . . well, like his head was filled entirely with dandelion fluff. Come to think of it, he’d looked vaguely like a dandelion himself, with that shaggy hair pulled up into a topknot. And the color was a bit startling—she had seen red hair ranging from light strawberry-blonde all the way to her own nigh-black shade, but that shade of red-orange was far from common.
Not a bad color, really. Sort of like a sunset sky. Or a red fox, she noted. It reminded her of another red-haired swordsman, though she felt faintly guilty comparing the dazzling Khuradasu to the comical buffoon who certainly refuted the idea that Lopayzom were fierce, deadly, and downright evil. Karavasu seemed harmless enough, and rather cute in much the same way that small furry animals were cute. Not at all like the vicious ravening ogres that Kaykolom stories claimed they were, or the capricious and otherworldly fox-spirits that abounded in folklore.
Jurnia dunked her washcloth in her second bucket of hot water, wrung it out, and tossed it lightly over the edge of the tub. Hoisting the bucket, she emptied the water over her head, sluicing away the suds; as usual, she had to use about half of another bucket’s worth to get her hair completely rinsed out. Her thoughts wandered to the rumors she’d heard of some ingenious Zaryan fellow who was trying to build a new sort of bath—a cistern on the roof with a pipe leading down into the bath chamber, and a special spout with a valve that would let a person wash without needing a bucket. It would be nice if the idea actually worked, though she wondered how anybody could get water up into the cistern without waiting for a good rainstorm, or trooping up and down a ladder with buckets, or maybe using a pulley. It all seemed kind of complicated to her.
Picking up a bath stool, she clambered over the edge of the tub, her skin prickling at the heat as the water reached her thighs. The stool fell over when she tried to sit down, and she had to turn and crouch down to get the stool upright.
She was still crouching in the water when the door slid quietly open. Distracted by the stool, she only heard the door click softly against the jamb as it closed again, and lifted her head to see what was going on—perhaps the attendant had brought an extra towel?
She was startled to see that it wasn’t the attendant, unless Karavasu had just gotten a job with the innkeeper. He had his back to her at the moment; after a few seconds, he finished untying his belt and laid it carefully aside, the sword propped against the wall next to the door. Jurnia was sufficiently shocked by this behavior that she couldn’t make a sound, just stare in growing outrage at the obvious intent of the little man to strip down.
He pulled his ponytail forward to untie the cord which held it; then his unfastened tunic slid away from his shoulders. The first thing Jurnia noticed was that he was more muscular than she would have expected, though it more resembled the lean, wiry muscle of a dancer than the bulkier form that most warriors would boast of. His skin was quite fair, almost girlishly smooth—where it wasn’t striped with pale, shiny lines of scar tissue. Jurnia had seen enough old wounds to recognize sword-cuts, and she saw at once that he had been wounded several times, mostly on the shoulders and arms. Obviously none of the injuries had been severe; the scars were thin and shallow, not warping and ridging the skin.
The tunic was dropped to the floor, and it suddenly hit Jurnia that he really was going to be taking off all his clothes. Her level of outrage finally hit the point where it triggered her voice.
“What do you think you’re doing?!” she screamed in a voice that would wake the dead.
The effect on her unexpected visitor was immediate and dramatic. He literally jumped, his feet leaving the floor, and spun around in midair. His honey-colored eyes were absolutely huge with surprise, which suggested he really hadn’t realized she was in the room, but Jurnia was at full steam pressure and not about to back down.
“What kind of idiot are you, anyway?” she demanded, rising to her full height and waving the stool at him threateningly by her grip on one of its legs. “Do you make a habit of just walking in on a lady in the bath and making yourself at home or something?!”
“Honestly! Did you think the door was closed because the bathtub is shy or something? A closed door normally means ‘keep out’ or at least ‘please knock’! Do they have doors where you’re from? They were only invented a few thousand years ago, I’d think that the news would have gotten around by now!”
“Um—” His eyes were even bigger than they had been before, but he wasn’t actually looking her in the eye. His cheeks had gone a bit red.
“Well, what do you have to say for yourself? And look at me when I’m talking to—” A horrible thought occurred to her, and she carefully followed the line of his stare.
She was standing in the bathtub. The water came up to mid-thigh. The edge of the tub was perhaps waist-high. And she was standing bolt upright. And, of course, Jurnia had no clothes on whatsoever.
“You pervert!” she shrieked as a blush of embarrassment heated her face. She hurled the stool at him, and the little rational part of her mind that was currently buried under the weight of outrage noted that he dodged it with amazing dexterity; it clattered noisily off the doorpost. Her other hand had already grabbed the next available object, and so he received the wet washcloth squarely in the face with a faint splatting sound. She dropped straight onto her backside, trying to cover herself with her arms and the blessed hot water. “Out!” she exploded.
“Yes—yes ma’am—I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to—I’m going right now!” He spun around to put his back to her again, wildly grabbing up his clothes with one hand and yanking the door open with the other. He dove outside, nearly crashing into the startled bath attendant, and hastily banged the door shut behind him.
The door slid open again a moment later, and Jurnia’s washcloth arced neatly through the air and into the tub, accompanied by another spate of apologies.
Eeeee. Scary woman. Kara stumbled down the wooden walkway, his heart still pounding. The hallway was cooler than the bath chamber; the air felt good against his flushed skin.
He’d been such a fool, too caught up in his thoughts to pay attention to anyone’s aura. He should have checked—or guessed that she’d hop into the bath at the first moment. Ah, but then he’d have missed the sight of her.
His heart skipped and he nearly stumbled across his own feet. Emerald eyes stared at him from his memory, full of defiance and gratitude. Those same eyes had bored into him, glowing with angry embarrassment over a body matured by time. The Fox-blooded warrior suddenly felt even more flushed and he stopped. His shaggy hair flowed loose around his face as he swallowed hard; the orange mane felt soft against his back.
The slender, brave girl he’d once saved had turned into quite a woman. Had there been any doubts, they were long gone with the sight of her smooth, water-beaded skin and taut breasts. He closed his eyes with a shudder . . . then suddenly his amber eyes flew open.
He spun around, all hints of clumsiness gone. His cheeks reddened more as huge eyes stared down the hallway. He couldn’t leave his sword there; he had to retrieve it right away. Gulping, he padded lightly back the way he’d stumbled.
The attendant, who was walking back up the hallway, gave him a sympathetic sort of look and a wink, which he didn’t quite understand. Seeing his blank look, the attendant paused and murmured, “I’ve been in the soup with my wife before. I’m sure she’ll calm down after she’s had a good soak.”
Kara blinked and opened his mouth, intending to say something like “She’s not my wife.” His brain overrode the impulse and dropped in a few pictures of what might happen if the attendant thought that he really was some kind of deranged pervert. He managed a weak, slightly wild-eyed smile, and the attendant chuckled as he went past.
Jurnia clambered out of the tub, saying a few unladylike things under her breath. Stomping across the room, she picked up the bath stool, then paused at the sight of the sword in its cherrywood sheath, leaning against the wall. In the wild scramble to get out the door, the silly little man had left the weapon behind—a rather unusual thing for a swordsman to do. Then again, he surely couldn’t be a real swordsman. The art normally required a certain degree of coordination.
Curious, she set the stool down and picked up the sword. The sheath was smooth and glossy, tastefully accented with gold. Tilting her head, Jurnia took hold of the grip and drew the weapon in a single smooth motion. Then she blinked in surprise.
It didn’t have an edge.
It wasn’t that the weapon was dull or badly cared for. It appeared to be a masterfully crafted weapon, its blade highly polished, but there wasn’t a cutting edge on it at all. The only swords Jurnia had ever seen like this one were the blades that had just been finished at the forge, right up through the careful shaping and smoothing to create the “body” of the blade, but before the actual edge was honed into the steel by hours of work with draw knives and sharpening stones. She prodded the forward edge of the blade in case her eyes were playing tricks on her, and failed to receive a nasty cut on her finger.
There was a cautious tapping on the door. She jumped, hastily re-sheathing the sword. “Yes?”
“Um . . . I beg your pardon,” a timid-sounding voice began. “But I seem to have left my sword in there when I, uh, made my exit. May I have it back, please?”
She glared at the door. “What?”
“My sword?” Karavasu sounded a bit plaintive now. “I would like to take it and go away, please.”
“You came bursting in on me in my bath, and you expect me to do you a favor?” She ignored the fact that he hadn’t “burst in”. She hadn’t even heard him at all until he closed the door.
There was a long pause. “Not a favor as such, no. If you would, uh, like to just cover up, I can open the door a few inches, reach in, and grab it. I won’t even look in, I swear.”
“It hasn’t got an edge on it, you know?” Jurnia winced as she heard the idiotic words fall out of her own mouth. Of course he’d know it didn’t have an edge on it.
“Er . . . yes. I was aware of that.”
“Why hasn’t it got an edge?”
“I asked the swordsmith not to put one on it, if you must know.”
“What?” She pushed the door open just enough to let her look out, keeping the rest of her body concealed behind the wall. “Why in the world would you do that?”
Red-faced, he stared resolutely at the door rather than look directly at her. “I didn’t want it to have an edge.”
“Well, that’s obvious. Why didn’t you want it to have an edge? I mean, what can you do with a sword that hasn’t got an edge?”
“More importantly, it’s what I can’t do with a sword that hasn’t got an edge.” He was still staring fixedly at the door, as if afraid she’d hit him with something more substantial than a washcloth if he even dared peek at the few inches of open doorway. She noticed that his shirt was hanging over his arm, and his bare torso had a few scars on the front to go with the ones on his shoulders and back. There weren’t very many scars, though.
“What’s that supposed to mean? You can’t cut anybody or anything with it—”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Why carry a sword that you can’t do anything with?” Jurnia demanded.
“Why do Heralds carry wooden swords?” he shot back, mildly.
She blinked. “They’re mostly symbolic. We’re not supposed to ever have to really fight, since nobody is supposed to harm a Herald. Someone with more intelligence than idealism figured out that there are always going to be people who’ll do exactly what they’re told not to do, though, so Heralds carry wooden swords in case we have to defend ourselves. But when most people see the wooden sword, they know that the carrier is a Herald.”
“When most people see a man carrying a sword, they won’t attack him, either.”
She stared at him. “You carry it just for show?”
He spread his hands and dared a glance in her direction, making eye contact. “Looking at me, do you really think I could defend myself against an attacker if I didn’t have a weapon? If someone sees that I’ve got a weapon, though, they might think twice about attacking me.”
Jurnia looked at him for a moment, realizing with a bit of a shock that he was actually an inch shorter than she was. Though she could see the muscle on him now, his clothes hid it completely, making him look rather skinny. On top of that, he wasn’t a square-jawed handsome brute—he could almost be called “pretty” instead, looking almost girlish with his fine features and large, delicately shaped golden eyes. Long thick lashes, too, she noticed. I’ve always liked long thick lashes and golden eyes on a man. She ruthlessly stomped that wayward thought into the back of her brain.
“All right,” she conceded. “It might keep you from getting attacked. But what if someone does attack you? You can’t exactly slice them up.”
“Exactly,” he agreed, very softly; for a moment, there was an almost haunted look in his eyes before they refocused on her. “But if Heralds can protect themselves with a wooden sword that also doesn’t have an edge, I can do about the same thing, right?” His smile was unexpected and sunny, and Jurnia caught herself starting to smile back.
“Oh, all right,” she said, trying to erase the smile with a scowl. “You can have it back. But if you ever walk in like that again—”
“I won’t,” he said fervently. “I promise that I won’t.”
“Good.” No need to let him know that it was good because she hadn’t thought of a sufficiently awful threat to finish her sentence with. She held the weapon out, and he took it gently from her hand.
“Thank you,” he said, bowing deeply and shuffling backward without straightening up.
“Er . . . you’re welcome.” Jurnia closed the door, shaking her head. What a strange little fellow.
The common dining room of the inn was smaller than its taproom—a comment, perhaps, on which set of services were most preferred by the inn’s regular patrons. The food was plain, but filling, and Jurnia was having no qualms about working her way through dinner. She’d had the room to herself, which meant that when someone else entered, the movement and the presence of another aura caught her attention at once.
To her surprise, the little orange-haired man hesitantly entered the room. He looked around, then winced faintly as he met her somewhat baleful gaze. Crossing the room, he stopped beside her table and shifted nervously from foot to foot.
“I, uh, wished to apologize again for my intrusion,” he mumbled. “I am most sorry for my mistake, that I am.”
She stared at him unblinking for a moment, then finally nodded, taking pity on the nervous-looking little fellow. “It was an accident,” she said graciously. “You seemed to be pretty deep in thought.”
“I was,” he replied. “Otherwise I surely would have noticed your robe on the firebox and realized that the room was occupied, that I would.”
“I suppose you can sit down if you want. Have you had dinner yet?”
“Uh, no, I haven’t,” he said, sitting down slowly in the chair across from her, watching her as if she might suddenly change her mind. “I’m a bit low on money, that I am, but I decided to spend the night in this inn because I was wanting a nice hot bath. Bathing in streams and rivers might get you clean, but it’s just not the same. And sleeping in a real bed is a nice change from sleeping on the ground.”
Jurnia waved a hand as one of the kitchen boys passed the door, pointed at her plate, then pointed at Kara. The boy nodded in understanding and went off down the hallway. “I’ll cover it,” she said, picking up her cup and sipping her tea as the young man stared at her, his mouth hanging open slightly.
“Uh—you don’t have to do that, Lady Jurnia,” he managed.
“I know,” she said calmly. “But I don’t mind doing it.” She looked at him sharply. “How did you know my name?”
Karavasu blinked at her in feigned surprise. He looked first at the thick braid that lay over the front of her shoulder, so dark that in the somewhat indirect light of the room it appeared black. Then he looked intently at her face, from her eyes outward, as if taking in every detail. Finally, he dropped his gaze toward her waist, though the edge of the table hid all but the pommel of her wooden sword. “Unless I have been sadly misinformed,” he said carefully, “the Chief Herald of the Kaykolom is a comely young woman with very dark red hair and green eyes. Since you have dark red hair and green eyes, you’re a pretty young woman, and you’re carrying a Herald’s sword, I made the assumption that surely you must be Lady Jurnia.”
She felt a trace of a blush rise in her cheeks. Even though he was a silly little fellow, and a Fox besides, it was still flattering to be called “pretty”. She knew full well that she’d never come close to her mother’s ethereal beauty, but it was nice to know that she at least rated as “pretty”. “I suppose that’s a reasonable enough conclusion,” she agreed.
Karavasu’s meal arrived, and he gave her a somewhat hesitant look as if he half-expected her to laugh and reveal that she’d been joking. She nodded slightly, a touch impatiently, and he fell to eating immediately. Considering most of the time he ate only what he could catch, a real meal was a welcome treat.
“You came to this town chasing the rumors of Lopayzom bandits, Lady Jurnia?” he asked curiously, between bites.
Jurnia half-shrugged, sipping her tea again. “Every so often, rumors start to fly that this group or that group of outlaws are Lopayzom. Even though the rumors have never been true, the brigands are usually quite real, and it’s the duty of His Grace the Raven to see that his people are safe from such predators. This time, though, they’re claiming that Khuradasu’s their leader.”
“Then why would His Grace only send a Herald, rather than a group of warriors?” he asked, a touch incredulously. “The Demon’s Claw is said to be quite fearsome.” Interesting that His Grace the Raven investigates. I wonder . . . Does he do so because he’s certain there are no more Fox and bandits must be dealt with, or does he expect to find more Lopayzom breaking the truce?
“He didn’t send me,” Jurnia answered. “I came on my own to investigate. Khuradasu’s hardly likely to lower himself to the level of a common thief and murderer, so whoever’s really in charge is an impostor.”
“Ara?” Karavasu blinked at her uncomprehendingly. “But if you’re certain that this isn’t Khuradasu, why would you wish to investigate personally?”
“Because I’m offended that someone would sully Khuradasu’s name in such a base fashion,” she sniffed.
“You’re . . . offended?”
“Of course I am. He saved me from death and worse than death when I was younger. He’s a hero,” she declared. “His name shouldn’t be misused by a bunch of criminals who just want to frighten people.”
“A . . . hero?” Karavasu said weakly. It was hard to believe that anyone would speak in such glowing terms when it came to the most feared assassin of recent years, yet this beautiful Kaykolom seemed to be doing just that.
“He was amazing,” Jurnia continued. She was warming to her favorite subject, which meant she could keep talking for quite a while without anyone else’s input. “I’ll tell you the whole story. It was during the Dragonfly conflict, about five years ago . . .”
Karavasu continued to stare at her, a faintly creeping sensation of ill ease settling in the pit of his stomach. His mouth hung open a little and his eyes glazed slightly while she delivered a remarkably accurate—Of course it’s accurate, she’s a Herald; she’s been trained to give accurate and full reports—account of her peril and Khuradasu’s intervention to save her virtue and her life. All the facts were present in her story, but it bore quite a lot of detail about just how absolutely stupendous Khuradasu was.
She fairly glowed by the time her account was finished, the emerald eyes bright. The redheaded Lopayzom slumped down a bit in his seat, unconsciously shrinking from the unexpected attention.
“What’s really frustrating,” Jurnia said darkly, “is that His Grace the Raven evidently promised my mother that he’d look for a good match for me, even though both of them knew that I’ll only marry Khuradasu.”
“Ara?” Karavasu warbled, his eyes getting even wider.
“Of course,” she replied, evidently not really noticing his expression. She had a slightly dreamy look on her face, as well as a delicate blush—no doubt thinking about this smashing paragon of a man she’d kept in her memory. “How could I marry anyone else? He saved me. And he’s the most handsome man I’ve ever seen. I can’t help but chase down reports of Khuradasu if there’s even the remotest chance that it might really be him, because I want him to know that I’d do anything to spend the rest of my life with him.”
Ararara! Mouth suddenly dry, the shaggy-maned Fox quickly gulped down some of his tea. His cheeks felt far warmer than usual.
“He’s magnificent,” she swept onward, oblivious to her audience’s dumbfounded silence. “I know that my chieftain wouldn’t find any reason to object to the match. All of those silly stories about the horrible things he’s supposedly done are nonsense. Khuradasu’s above such things.”
“And how would you even know that?” Karavasu choked out. “I mean . . . he’s just a wild animal, a bloodthirsty killer, or so it’s said.”
She waved a hand
dismissively, forgetting for a moment that she was using that hand to eat with
and sprinkling bits of rice in the wake of the casual gesture. “And who says it? Wild-eyed, credulous
peasants, the same people who would claim that the
“But what about the stories of him killing and eating young children? After all, they say he’s not even human,” the Lopayzom murmured. Deep within, his discomfort grew; he wasn’t used to anyone—let alone a gorgeous girl who had really interesting—
He gulped, hard, pulling his mind away from the memory of seeing her in the bathhouse. Noticing his amber gaze had settled on her cleavage, he flicked his gaze back to her face while absently brushing off a couple of grains of rice from his cheek.
Jurnia snorted. “More nonsense. Anyone who would save someone the way he saved me wouldn’t do that sort of thing to children. And he’s most certainly human.” Her eyes went even dreamier. “I’ve touched him. I know he’s human.”
“You’ve touched him?” Karavasu squeaked out, deliberately hinting at something improper. It was certainly something that would morbidly fascinate the silly wanderer.
“He carried me back to the army camp,” she reminded him, a touch primly. “I’d suffered that blow to my head, but I was awake enough to know what was going on. I just reached up and touched his hair.” The primness dissolved into another dreamy smile. “I won’t forget how it felt when he had me in his arms.”
Honey-hued eyes gave her a very long, very careful looking over. Though his expression remained faintly awed and certainly harmless, the young Fox was feeling rather flushed inside. She really means it. She really likes the assassin. He felt embarrassed and awed both; he hid his admiration of her rather enticing physical charm behind the mask of the awed simpleton. “Well, you don’t look like you’re missing any limbs. I’m surprised a monster like him didn’t hurt you or anything. It’s not like he’s very merciful, even if he saved you that one time.”
She blinked and stared at him. “He’s not a monster. And I spoke to some of the other soldiers in the camp about him. He’s very merciful, I’ll have you know. Some warriors don’t seem to care if they maim someone horribly on a battlefield, but Khuradasu either killed his opponent quickly or let them off with only minor wounds.”
“I suppose that could be called ‘mercy’ for the ones at the point of his sword,” Karavasu murmured. He bowed his head, attention turning to his food. After weeks on end foraging for himself, it was a rather nice change of pace. “But I wouldn’t call any of that ‘merciful’ to those left behind. Every death goes beyond the person who died.”
There was a moment of silence. “I know,” Jurnia said finally, and her voice was heavy, edged with grief.
He inwardly winced; it certainly hadn’t been his intent to dampen the spirits of the pretty girl who so nicely bought him dinner. “But I suppose he couldn’t be all bad since he saved you. Strange that such a bloodthirsty assassin would even bother, it certainly is.”
“He wasn’t an assassin then,” Jurnia replied shortly. “He was a soldier. And he wasn’t more than a year or two older than I was. Just . . . just a boy.”
She was silent again for a moment. “I met your chieftain once,” she said, staring at her plate. “He came to the Rookery to bring my mother . . . my mother’s body home. She was murdered by a Raven warrior who thought that Chieftain Iryasitru’s decision to end the hostilities against the Lopayzom just . . . didn’t apply to him.”
Amazingly, the youth across the table from her suddenly seemed something quite different from a fluff-headed vagabond. Amber eyes looked up at her in silent sympathy. “I’m very sorry it took such a tragic circumstance for you to meet Father. Your mother’s death wasn’t easy on him either. Chaiya still meant something to him even after all this time and the blood feud between our clans.”
“I’ve been told that when Mother’s pregnancy started to show, there were some wild suppositions about the identity of the other responsible party.” She tried for a smile, and got it mostly right.
He blinked cluelessly at her, the honey-colored eyes mostly vacant once more. “But it was over a year since Father last saw her like that and he told me he’d never . . .” Karavasu’s voice trailed off as his girlish face suddenly flushed red.
“Those particular rumors were dispelled not long after I was born and it became flagrantly obvious that I wasn’t the result of ‘fraternizing with the enemy’,” she said dryly. “Mother still wouldn’t say who my father was, but he was definitely Kaykolom, not Lopayzom.”
“I’m sure she had good reason not to say anything,” the Fox said, voice neutral. He took another sip of his tea. “I’m sure both of your parents, whomever they are, want to be sure you’re happy. But why on the Goddess’s green earth would you want to chase after a scary killer like Khuradasu? Only because he saved you? I’m sure just about any decent warrior would have done the same. You’re a Herald after all . . .”
“It was more than that,” she insisted. “He would have done the same even if I hadn’t been a Herald. He’s not a scary killer, he’s a brave and noble warrior.”
“How can you be so sure? It’s been how long now since you last saw him? People change, Lady Jurnia, sometimes for the worse.”
“He wouldn’t have,” she said with absolute confidence. “I think that he became an assassin because he didn’t want to go on killing men whose only reason for being on the battlefield was their duty to their lord. As an assassin, he could go after the people who were really responsible for all the violence and make them stop. A real ‘scary killer’ would have stayed on the battlefield where he could slaughter scores of men, wouldn’t you say?”
It took a lot for him to keep his surprise hidden from her. She was unexpectedly perceptive despite the fact she hadn’t been privy to the meeting between himself and his father that had lead to Khuradasu’s retreat into the shadows. “Perhaps. But it’s hard to say why a demon would decide to do anything, that it is.”
“He’s not a demon,” she said impatiently. “He was just called that because he was so fearsome in battle. He’s definitely human.”
“How can you be so certain?” Karavasu repeated, keeping his expression that of the airheaded wanderer. “I mean there’s many tales where evil disguises itself as something beautiful and spirits take on the guise of flesh.”
“I just know,” Jurnia answered with nigh-insufferable confidence. “I couldn’t love him if he weren’t a good person.”
The hapless Lopayzom had been taking another drink of his tea when the Kaykolom made her confident declaration. Hearing her words, he suddenly choked on the green-tinted liquid. Tea sprayed all over as Karavasu violently coughed, trying to catch a breath.
Jurnia almost toppled backward out of her chair to avoid the unexpected spluttering. Teetering on the back legs, holding onto the edge of the table for balance, she looked at him with a decidedly startled expression.
He finally managed to expel the rest of the liquid. Looking back over at her, he gave her a very sheepish grin. “I’m so very sorry, that I am. I really shouldn’t be in such a hurry and try to breathe my tea,” he hastily apologized. Hopefully the Raven would take the explanation at face value and chalk it up to his being such a fluff-head. “I hope your shirt isn’t ruined. That would be a terrible shame.”
Love? Love? How can she even say that with such confidence? he wondered.
If he weren’t so cute, he’d be the most aggravatingly empty-headed person I’ve met in a long time, she mused, dabbing at the spots on her blouse. “It should be all right. If your tea’s getting cold, you can just ask for another cup, you know. You don’t have to gulp it down like that.”
“I’m very sorry,” he repeated, lowering his eyes, chastised. “It’s been so long since I’ve had anything this good, that it has.” He picked at what remained of his food. “Love? Why do you say you love him? It’s been years since you’ve even last laid eyes upon him.”
“You’ve never heard of love at first sight?” she inquired loftily.
“Well, I’ve heard of it, but really? You were pretty young, you said.”
“So? He was pretty young, too.”
“He’s not the one claiming love at first sight, that he is not.”
“Women know these things when they happen,” she announced.
“Ara?” Karavasu blinked at her. That’s a new one . . .
“Trust me. I know that I fell in love with him the moment I saw him.”
Eeee. She’s serious. He blinked a bit more, uncomfortable once again. He wasn’t used to anyone feeling in such a manner about the Demon’s Claw, yet here someone was, her aura genuine.
“I just hope he’s not already married or anything,” she fretted. “I don’t want to have to fight some other woman for him.”
“He’s not,” Karavasu murmured, mind still focused on his conflicting emotions. Suddenly feeling curious emerald eyes boring into him, he realized with a queasy feeling what he’d just said. “Er, well, what I mean is that given all that’s been said about such a terrible, bloodthirsty demon as he is said to be, it’s a good chance he’s not. What woman in her right mind would dare try to find out if what’s said is just rumor or not?” The queasy feeling intensified as he realized how badly Jurnia might take his hasty, hopefully clueless, explanation.
Her fingertips drummed on the edge of the table as her gaze narrowed. “I would,” she replied sweetly. “And I already know it’s all just silly, superstitious rumors. I told you, he couldn’t have done even half of the things that people claim he’s done, because it’s just not the way he is.”
“I’m certain you’re one truly in your right mind,” he stammered, hands coming up in a warding-off gesture.
“I am.” She looked thoughtful. “You might have a point, though. Many women would be too put off by that ridiculous reputation he’s afflicted with, so I won’t have to worry about fighting over him with some other girl.”
“You don’t know if he’s even still alive,” Karavasu pointed out. “He just disappeared. The uncharitable would say he merely returned to the depths of whatever hell spawned him.”
“They wouldn’t say that around me if they were wise,” she said through clenched teeth. Then her face paled, and she bit her lip. “I . . . I don’t want to think that he might not be alive.”
The Lopayzom stared at her for a long moment. “He did just disappear. It’s quite possible Aizhou killed him or captured him and had him executed when he was trying to return from his last assignment.”
“No,” she said, too fast. She swallowed, then repeated herself more calmly. “No. If they’d done that, they would have made it very well-known.”
“You certain? Perhaps a public execution, yes, but if they’d just killed him outright . . .”
“If they had known who he was, they would have made sure it was known that he was dead.”
“You do make a good case for him not being killed by Aizhou then,” the silly little wanderer reluctantly admitted. “But he could have also been badly wounded and then died somewhere off in the wilds, away from everyone.”
“That sort of thing couldn’t happen to Khuradasu,” the young Raven said firmly. “He’s much too good for someone to hurt him that badly, and much too intelligent to not know how to take care of himself.”
“So much faith in one you hardly know . . .”
“So?” she replied belligerently. “Just because I haven’t spent much time with him doesn’t mean that I don’t know him well.”
The Fox just gave her a smile he hoped would soothe her ruffled feathers. “How well do you know him then?”
“There hasn’t been a day since I first met him that I haven’t thought about him, and I’ve put a great deal of time into meeting and talking with soldiers and people who’ve actually met him. If I could have spoken directly to Lord Arjunayazu, I’d have done so. As the Dragon’s Minister of War, surely he knew Khuradasu or could direct me to those who did.”
“You didn’t ask Father about him when you met him at Kaykolvayshti?”
“I had other things on my mind at the time.” She stared down into her plate. “Like the fact that my mother was dead, and her killer was a Raven.”
Way to go, Kara. You’ve made her feel bad all over again. Fighting back the urge to slap himself in the face in exasperation, he merely sighed and picked at what remained of his food. “Sorry, Lady Jurnia. I must be quite the terrible boor, that I am.”
“Lord Arjunayazu was still recovering from the injuries he’d taken, as well, and he had some kind of relapse while he was at the Rookery. The woman with him—Lady Kerzama?—was very strict about who got in to see him and when. I think that Iryasitru was the only person he spoke to privately the whole time, really.”
“He did?” Amber eyes blinked at her in more than curious passing. “He recovered though, yes?”
“Oh, yes. Lady Kerzama said that he’d just over-stressed the muscles that were still healing, and he had a bit of fever. Nothing too severe, but she was downright overprotective.” She blinked back at him. “I’d think you would know that, being his son and everything.”
His only response was an embarrassed chuckle. “We
. . . aren’t on very good terms right now.
Why else would I be here in Zarya while he’s home comfortably in the
“That’s awful. Did you have a fight over something?”
The bright smile seemed to give the impression there wasn’t anything wrong at all. “Not quite. He just didn’t like how I wanted to live my life, so I left to go do so. It’s good to hear he’s let Lady Kerza ‘mother hen’ him, however. He didn’t really feel like taking care of himself, that he did not.”
“He didn’t seem like a cruel or spiteful man. Mother never described him as such, at least.” She bit her lip again, feeling very sorry for the silly little man. Her mother would never have turned her out with nothing more than the clothes on her back, no matter what she did. But then, she had always had the rest of the Kaykolom, as well; this little fellow hadn’t even had the support of his clan. Because my clan destroyed his, she thought, and her stomach clenched with the guilt that many of the Raven shared, even if they didn’t dare show it in any way. No one, inside the clan or outside it, dared to criticize Chieftain Iryasitru’s actions. Even Jurnia herself had learned quickly that the decimation of the Lopayzom was a subject that one simply did not speak of to the Kaykolom lord.
“Oh, he’s not like that . . . usually. It’s just . . . Well, I think being the only living adult Fox weighed too heavy on his soul at times. I enjoy being alive, to be honest. And this way, I get to see so much more of life than if I’d stayed and done as he’d wished.”
“I imagine he was overprotective,” she surmised. “I mean, if you’re the only other Fox in the world, he’d surely be very concerned with your safety. Probably to a stifling degree. I know that would get on my nerves very quickly. I don’t like being caged in.” The more she thought about it, the more sense it made. Certainly the only adult Fox would be very worried about his young clansman, and a father would be worried about his son. It seemed quite logical to her. “I don’t blame you a bit for wanting to go out and see the world,” she announced.
He just blinked cluelessly at her. From her words and her aura, she believed pretty much the opposite of what had really drove him away. Arjuna had wanted to die, taking his adopted son with him. To those ends, he’d trained his son to be a warrior among the best. Then the war had erupted and Derkaryans began dying—and Kara remained safe in the palace. He’d thought it horribly unfair, and so had chosen to not only risk his life as others were but also gain his father’s admiration for being the warrior he’d wanted.
But the blood had become too much; knowing he’d ended so many lives had worn away at his soul . . .
Finding himself falling into the same old despair, he jerked his head back as he tried to force himself from his morose thoughts. “Yes. And I’ve not regretted doing so. After all, I get to meet so many people far more interesting than myself. Such as you, Lady Herald.” He grinned at her.
That made her blush a little. “I like traveling, myself,” she confessed. “It can get inconvenient and dangerous at times, but it’s much more exciting that just sitting at home twiddling my thumbs.”
“I’ve bet you’ve seen all sorts of things,” he gently encouraged. Her smile was delightful, making her even prettier, and a blush was very becoming on her.
“Oh, yes. I’ve even been to the
“Is it true that Chieftain Iryasitru’s married to someone like that? A Kamaryan?”
Jurnia nodded. “His wife’s from the Mayurom clan. She’s civil enough, but you always get the feeling that she’s being polite because that’s what’s expected of someone who’s upper-class.” She leaned forward a little. “I’m just glad that Irya’s children take after him in a lot of ways. Mayurom tend to be pretty people, but they’re a bit on the dim side sometimes, if you know what I mean.”
“Ara,” he murmured, refusing to commit to any opinion one way or another. To be honest, his father couldn’t stand the airs the Peacocks sometimes put on, but Kara had always found them far more elegant than anything of substance. One good glare or a raised weapon made most of them cower.
“She doesn’t exactly make a secret of the fact that she rather resents having to live at the Rookery. As if there’s something wrong with the place! The Rookery might not be built out of marble and covered in gold leaf, but it’s a clean, well-organized place. I think she’d really have been offended if she had to live in the Bhalyukom noble’s house that I visited once in Aizkaur . . .”
Her description of the Bear noble’s home—the sort of solid, plain lodge that one might expect from that clan—was quite entertaining, given that she delivered it as if she herself were a Mayurom, complaining elaborately of the lack of ornamentation and the heathenish practices of letting one’s hunting dogs wander through the place, not demanding that people scrape the mud off their boots before coming inside, and so on. It was obvious that she was indeed very well-traveled, and had picked up a flair for storytelling somewhere along the way.
He ended up laughing at her story. She was amusing and entertaining both, and he was beginning to find her company quite pleasant. A shame he would have to soon be going on his way.
Giving her a wink, he grinned. “I bet even the scary Khuradasu would be amused by that telling you just rendered. You’re very good, that you are. Seen any other interesting places, Lady Jurnia?”
“Of course. The Tiger Palace has some of the most beautiful water-gardens I’ve ever seen . . .” She went on to describe the breathtaking beauty of that place, with its sparkling waterfalls cascading over crystalline stones into deep pools and streams, populated by many-colored fish.
It came as a shock when she finished a description of the stark, serene mountains in Aizkaur and realized that she’d been regaling the little man with her stories for a solid hour.
Karavasu, of course, had long finished his dinner by then. Glancing up and noticing the more night-life sorts of people wandering about, he rose. “Thank you very much once more, Lady Jurnia. I’ve not had a better time in a long while, that I have not. But it’s getting late, and I really should be trying to get some sleep. I’ve been up since the crack of dawn.” He bowed low, a subconscious hint that the silly wanderer hadn’t lost the courtly ways of his youth.
“Oh, it really is getting very late . . . I need to get a little rest, too, since I’ll be going out into the woods tonight to look for those bandits.” She hastily swallowed the last of her now-cold tea. “I’m terribly sorry for going on like that for so long.”
“Oh, it was nothing,” he assured her. The smile on his face was quite sunny—and appreciative, not the vacant clueless one she’d often seen. “I’ve truly enjoyed your company. But is it really that good of an idea for a lone Herald to be chasing after bandits, especially ones claiming to be Foxes led by Khuradasu?”
It was nice to see a glimmer of intelligence in the little fellow, at least. She rose from her chair, then paused and looked at him. “Well, they’re not really Lopayzom, and Khuradasu certainly isn’t leading them. I think I can handle the situation.”
“It still sounds pretty scary, even for one as well-trained as you.” For a moment, the honey-colored eyes stared at her with a hint of worry. “You really need to be careful if you insist on doing this, that you should. It wouldn’t do at all for the Chief Herald of the Kaykolom to be hurt.”
She waved a hand casually. “I’ll be fine. It’s not like I haven’t done this sort of thing before.” She smiled at him.
He smiled back, but looked either uncertain or unconvinced. “Just be careful,” he repeated before turning away and walking off.
It was past ; a brief, light drizzle had given a damp tinge to the cool air. The inn’s taproom had closed some time previously, the last few patrons trickling out unsteadily, rather like the final contents of their tankards. A peaceful hush settled over the town.
Jurnia wasn’t exactly asleep. She was lying on a sleeping mat with the covers pulled up over her, and her eyes were closed, but she hovered in a peculiar state of drowsing awareness. The information she had received indicated that the thieves plaguing the town didn’t strike every night, but when they did, it was always quite late. If it became necessary to catch sleep during the day and stay awake every night, she considered herself quite capable of it.
There was a loud cracking-splitting noise that seemed very close, amplified by the quiet that had preceded it. The Herald sat up, tossing the covers back and rising to her feet, absently smoothing down her clothes. It sounded as if she wouldn’t need to nap in daylight after all. Keeping a hand on the pommel of her sword and picking up her shoes with the other hand, she went quickly down the hallway to the side door, where she shuffled her shoes onto her feet and stood with her head tilted slightly to one side. She hardly needed the muffled creaking sounds—probably wooden slats being dragged loose from their nails in one of the small trader booths—to locate the culprits; her Avatar senses revealed the shimmer of active energy on the far side of the square.
Moving carefully, her steps silent on the beaten earth, Jurnia made her way around the square, using the cover of buildings and shadows to conceal herself. There was a brief, muttered conversation in male voices ahead, and she froze, her eyes flicking rapidly to scan the area. Two shadows moved where there should have been no movement, one passing a box or crate to the other. Jurnia’s Herald-trained memory flicked up an image before her mind’s eye; the booth they were breaking into would be a fruit-seller’s stall. Perhaps these thugs were tired of a diet of game meat and whatever they had stolen from the traders they had waylaid recently.
Each man was carrying two boxes by the time they turned and started for the edge of town. Their only concession toward concealing their handiwork was to crudely shove the cracked boards into place again, a half-hearted attempt that would be glaringly obvious in daylight. They didn’t seem all that hurried or furtive on their way out, unlike the slender shadow that flickered along behind them.
The forest that lay outside the town’s eastern border was thin at the edges, where new saplings grew to replace the timber cut by the townsfolk. It became thicker as one went deeper, though the ground remained relatively clear—it was easier to collect fallen trees and branches for firewood. The recent depredations of the bandits had discouraged most people from going too deeply into the forest, but obviously they needed firewood as well, which kept the usual litter of deadwood from accumulating as quickly as it otherwise might.
Jurnia caught a glimpse of firelight ahead. The bandits’ camp was well concealed in a thick clump of undergrowth, but there were a few gaps that let the light through very clearly on a dark night. This close, she could also plainly hear male voices raised in argument or laughter. The men she had followed showed as silhouettes against the glow for a moment before they ducked under a branch, moved around a thorny bush, and disappeared. They were greeted by a round of catcalls and mocking cheers.
She had already pinpointed at least ten different voices. Though the word was out that these brigands claimed to be Lopayzom, and their leader proclaimed himself to be the terrible Khuradasu, she had “seen” those two men wearing the sleek, long-tailed outlines of rats, not foxes. This close to the camp, she could sense more rats, a monkey or two, and at least one weasel—but still no foxes. In fact, the only fox she’d sensed all day was the little fellow, and she automatically rejected the notion that he could have been the bandits’ leader. Besides not matching the physical description, he had struck her as being entirely too dumb to organize a sock drawer, much less a successful band of brigands. Frowning, she edged closer, still casting about with an Avatar’s eyes.
Perhaps if she hadn’t been so preoccupied, she would have sensed the men who weren’t around the fire much sooner. Since those men were posted on guard duty, that would have been enormously helpful in preventing her from feeling the sudden prick of a knife through her clothes in the region of her kidneys. She stiffened for a moment, then sighed and went reluctantly in the direction she was prodded, which was directly toward the fire.
She was greeted with calls of “What have we here?” and “I didn’t know those roamed this forest!” along with far less polite commentary. On the far side of the fire, a huge man rose from his seat on a log.
“What’s this?” he inquired, eyeing her up and down.
Jurnia wondered why villainous types felt the need to use that phrase. It wasn’t all that clever or intimidating.
“I am Jurnia, Chief Herald of the Kaykolom,” she answered coldly. “I came here to investigate reports of banditry in the region. Obviously, I’ve found the bandits. Oddly, though, I see no Lopayzom here. Since the reports stated that the brigands claimed to be Lopayzom, and their leader claimed to be the feared Khuradasu, I’m surprised to see that there isn’t a single Fox.”
“I am Khuradasu,” the big man snapped. “How would you know who is a Fox and who isn’t?”
“I’m an Avatar.” She noted that a few of the men shuffled discreetly away from her. “I can see what all of you truly are—including that you, ‘Khuradasu’, happen to be a Weasel . . . how appropriate.” Straightening, she rested a hand on the wooden sword at her hip. “If you surrender peacefully, I’ll take the lot of you into custody. We can all be very polite and civilized about this. If you refuse, the local outpost will have to get involved, and that’s apt to be much less courteous.”
She had rather expected the explosion of crude laughter. Sighing, she said, “Is that a ‘no’ that I hear?”
The huge fellow was half bent over, slapping his knee and guffawing. “That’s right, missy . . . it’s a ‘no’! Boys, grab her—I think she needs a lesson!”
“Why do people never want to do things the easy way?” Jurnia asked rhetorically, rolling her eyes heavenward as several chuckling men closed in.
Years ago, the young Jurnia had broken a man’s finger, another one’s knee, and a third one’s teeth before her attackers could bring her down. That was before she’d reached her full growth and received a few more years of training in both the art of combat and the finer control of her Avatar abilities. She had gotten a great deal better at both.
The first man to reach for her screamed and grabbed for a newly broken wrist. Another spun and dropped as her blow broke his jaw. A third received a dainty foot in a place that caused him to fold up and drop to the ground, curling around his own private world of pain. A fourth staggered and fell to his knees, gurgling as he clutched his bruised throat.
Jurnia was a bit stronger than most women, but her attacks were based more on speed and precision than on sheer power. The wooden sword might have seemed laughable, a mere symbol, but only if one ignored the fact that it was essentially a long stout stick. Stout sticks have played a large part in the history of conflict, and Jurnia was delivering a brief, painful history lesson. Dodging and weaving, she fairly danced through her opposition, avoiding sword and dagger blows and responding with well-directed force.
The huge bandit leader turned out to be a surprisingly quick thinker. Operating on the principle that when faced with a stout stick, one should get a bigger stout stick, he whirled around, grabbed the six-foot log he’d been sitting on, and swung it in a wide arc. It was almost pure luck that Jurnia was dodging backward to avoid a sword slash and ended up in the path of the swing.
The log caught her under the arm and nearly flung her into the flames; only a quick roll to the side kept her clothes or hair from catching fire. The leader might not be Khuradasu, but he certainly had a lot of raw strength, as Jurnia’s suddenly shortened breath and aching side proved. She rose unsteadily to her knees, holding her weapon ready to defend. Seven men were down, but the camp guards had rushed in to join the fray, and there were still eight men standing. She was certain that if she regained her feet, she could manage them, but they were closing in very fast. “Khuradasu” shifted his grip on the log and raised it overhead, grinning horribly as he prepared to smash it down onto the young woman’s head.
“Excuse me,” said a cheery voice. “I’d really prefer it if you didn’t do that.”
The vicious swing was checked in mid-arc as all eyes turned to the opening in the bushes. Jurnia stared, then groaned under her breath as Karavasu walked into the firelight, a friendly smile on his face.
“Who the hell are you?” snarled “Khuradasu”.
“Oh, I’m no one very important. Certainly not as important as that lovely young Herald you’re being so rude to.”
It seemed more his mere appearance than his words that acted like a bucket of cold water thrown over a bunch of fighting dogs. He seemed utterly incongruous—a small slender man with a large-eyed, pretty face, walking into the camp with an air of complete calm, as if he were just walking down a street. A few of the bandits stepped back; the one nearest to Jurnia snatched at her sword, trying to pull it out of her hand and starting a sort of tug-of-war between himself and the Herald.
“I think it would really be for the best if this stopped now,” he continued. “It would be a shame if any more of your friends wound up hurt, or if the lady were seriously harmed.”
“Go away before you get hurt, idiot,” Jurnia growled, yanking at her sword to free it from the bandit’s grip.
“Listen, you little weakling, I’m the fearsome Khuradasu! This wench intruded on my camp, and I’m going to deal with her as I see fit!”
“Are you sure I can’t talk you out of it?” the redhead asked, a hint of regret in his tone, as he shifted his weight on his feet. His hand went to the pommel of his sword as though to stop it from poking him in the side.
“Would you please try to pretend you have at least the intelligence of a doorstop and get away before they kill you?” Jurnia shouted at him.
The hulking brute laughed out loud. “You’re next!” he shouted almost gleefully as he raised the log over Jurnia again, his men laughing as well and turning toward the stranger with their weapons ready.
The small man sighed and bowed his head. “I was afraid you’d say that,” he said in very soft voice that bore an undertone of pure steel. When his head came up again, his eyes blazed with fierce golden flame. His sword left its sheath with a hiss, the draw so quick that the weapon seemed to leap into his hand. And then he blurred into movement.
Jurnia gave her wooden sword a shove, jabbing the brigand just below the ribs and knocking the wind out of him, but it was a distracted sort of attack. She was staring, open-mouthed, as the swordsman became a swift-moving hurricane of concentrated destruction.
The log exploded into splinters just above “Khuradasu’s” grip, and the severed section was deflected smoothly away from Jurnia to crash into the ground. Men were shouting and groaning and shrieking, collapsing on the spot or hurtling into the trees and bushes before hitting the ground. One man started to run and caught a blow across the back that sent him flying face-first into a thorn bush, which was hardly an improvement on his situation. Another snatched up a blazing brand from the fire, only to have it taken away from him a moment before he performed a sort of half-pirouette and teetered off his feet. Yet another, trying to parry, stared in shock as his inferior weapon snapped off just above the hilt, and then sat down very hard before falling over backward. An overweight fellow tried to move to find an opening, and fell on his face as Jurnia thrust her oak sword between his ankles and gave it a sort of shove and twist, knocking his feet out from under him. A blinding arc of bright steel ended at the back of his head, removing him from the fight.
There was a brief pause, as if the world was taking a breath. The leader was the only one standing, the stub of log still gripped in his hands and splinters decorating his hair and shoulders, as the blur stopped and resolved itself back into the red-haired swordsman. He didn’t look at all harmless now, his amber eyes narrowed and brilliant with power, his sword held at a low angle.
“Are you still sure that I can’t talk you out of it?” he inquired in that soft, silk-and-steel voice.
The sound that came from the man’s throat was hardly human, a bestial roar of pure frustration and rage. He raised the chunk of log higher over his head, muscle bunching in his arms as he took a single step forward, obviously intending to hurl it straight at the much smaller man.
Jurnia rolled over and lashed up with one foot. The force of the strike seemed to come straight from her hip, traveling all the way up her leg and ending in an area that was perhaps two square inches.
The roar turned into a high thin squeak, such as one might hear from a kitten. The brigand leader’s eyes almost leaped out of his head, then rolled upward as he unthinkingly let go of the log and started to fold forward. There was an audible clunk as the slab of wood thudded onto his head. The swordsman’s final blow alongside his head was really a mercy at that point.
The fake Khuradasu crashed over sideways; even unconscious, he was holding himself in a really personal way.
Jurnia got to her feet, ignoring the man she had possibly just rendered incapable of reproduction. She was staring across the man’s hunched body at Karavasu, who looked around a moment to be sure there were no more immediate threats before turning his attention to the Herald. When she had been on the ground, he had seemed so much taller, the firelight staining his hair a ruddier shade, his eyes twin beacons of golden fire that seemed to leave sunlit trails as he moved with an unbelievable grace and speed . . .
“You . . . you . . .” Jurnia sputtered, rendered nearly speechless by pure astonishment
“Should I faint now so that you can carry me back this time?” he asked mildly, his tone of voice quite different, lacking the bitter ice that had edged his words to the brigands.
“It’s you!” she shouted at him, pointing a wildly shaking finger.
“Yes, I generally tend to be me.”
“No—I mean—you—you’re Khuradasu!” She was faintly surprised to see him wince. He raised a hand slightly in a “stop” motion.
“That was the name I used before. I am not that person any more.”
“What do you mean?”
“A person is defined by his deeds in the eyes of the world. Khuradasu did things that I . . . cannot countenance now.” His eyes met hers, and there was more in those golden depths than just power. The battle-fury had faded, and she saw a complexity of emotion that she had not expected to find there. Grief, and pain, and guilt . . . it changed him subtly, made him somehow more . . . human, less a legend and more a real person.
“You’re a Fox,” she said, as if protesting the fact.
“And you’re a Raven. Shall we fight now?”
“Don’t be stupid. I wouldn’t last a second against you.”
I would hope you’d last a bit more than a second against me. A few hours or so, at least. He stifled that thought, then looked down at the unconscious man lying between them. The recollection of exactly where her dainty foot had struck certainly helped him rein in the unruly notions romping around his mind. “If you hit me like you hit him a moment ago, I think you’d last more than a second.”
“I doubt I’d ever get a chance to land a shot like that on you,” she sniffed. “He wasn’t all that troublesome.”
He reached over and prodded her in the side where the log had struck; she flinched, sucked in half a breath, and leaned away from the pressure. “Troublesome enough, I would say. How bad is it?”
“It hurts,” she muttered grudgingly. “Nothing’s broken, though. I’m just going to have a bruise.”
“Good.” Sheathing his sword, he looked around the clearing again to cover the slightly glazed look in his eyes as he pictured exactly where that bruise would be. After his mistake in the bath chamber, he felt as if the image of her unclad body was stamped on the insides of his eyelids. Fair skin, glistening water . . . “We should return to the village and get a few of the men to come out here and tie these fellows up.”
“I’ll send a message to the nearest Sapphire Tiger outpost. If the weather holds, there should be soldiers here by the end of the week to take these brutes to jail.”
“I think that part can wait until morning. But with this matter cleared up, I guess I can continue on my way—uh . . .” He stared cross-eyed at the end of the wooden sword that was suddenly aimed at the bridge of his nose.
“You say you’re not exactly Khuradasu any more,” Jurnia said levelly.
“That’s right.” He leaned back a bit, and the sword tracked closer.
“But you’re still a Fox. And you’re still the man who was the most dreaded warrior and assassin of the Dragon-Phoenix conflict. What are you doing in Zarya?” Her eyes widened. “Are you here to take revenge on the Kaykolom?”
“As I told you before,” he answered, keeping both hands in plain view, “I go wherever my feet take me. The weather is nice in Zarya this time of year, and I’d heard about this so-called Lopayzom band. And if I wanted to do something awful against the Kaykolom, would I have intervened here?” His eyes met hers. There was a conflict in those vivid green eyes that he didn’t quite understand. Softly, he added, “Would I have intervened six years ago?”
The golden flame had faded. Jurnia looked into the honey-hued depths of his eyes for a moment. “Yes, you would,” she said finally. “You’d do it no matter what clan I was. You’re not the kind of person who’d let scum like these hurt someone, if you were in a position to prevent it. I’ve known that all along.”
“I’m not here to bring any harm to your clan,” he said quietly, emphatically. “What’s past is past. It won’t do any good to keep digging up old bones to chew on.” He was careful to move slowly as he reached to his side and drew his sword about six inches out of its sheath. “And as I pointed out before, one cannot kill with this weapon—at least not cleanly, and a true warrior does not revel in the pain of his enemies.” He let the sword sink back home and gestured around the clearing. “Those men will wake with aches and bruises, but no severe injuries—unlike those fellows, I might mention.” He eyed two of the men that Jurnia had felled.
Her cheeks reddened with a sudden, intense blush. “You . . . I . . .” She stammered a moment more. “You sat there and let me go on and on about you over dinner!”
She watched him, chewing at her lip. Finally, she lowered the weapon, sliding it back into her sash. “All right. I won’t turn you over to the soldiers as well. But I am going to stick closer than your shadow until you’re out of Zarya.”
“Ara?” He blinked at her.
She gave him a brilliant smile. “Just to make sure you’re being truthful.”
“But you’ll need to report—”
“I can send a letter back to the Raven.”
“You have other duties—”
“There are other Heralds. They can manage while I’m away.”
“I don’t know how long I’ll be here—”
“That’s fine. I’ll be with you every step of the way.”
It sounded more like a threat than a promise.