Author's Notes: This story is a one-shot featuring Horakinis and an OC dragon-blooded character, Usui. Hopefully it will be part of a larger project in time, but the story is intended to stand alone.
Questions and comments of any sort are encouraged.
Crux of Scrolls
Ascending Earth 26 – RY 768
Moonlight; pale, weakened, illumination – for Luna’s slow wane was well progressed – slid across the surface of the dunes. The slow dance of the celestial mantle overhead cast itself up and down, by parts. Here and there quartz granules glittered, their still waltz moving in time to a silent song of wind and star-shine, patterned in spectra. Cool now, almost chill, in the depths of the dark hours before dawn, the land breathed out, relaxed. Daytime heat and bustle dissipated, left behind at last, forgotten, if only briefly.
Not all acknowledged this desert rhythm, or honored it, and here and there the stillness broke. Men and gods and darker things dared to challenge the exhalations of the night hours. Intermittent ruptures tore the turning of the cycle, pressed over, but not erased. Obscured deep within slow-spreading shadows, hidden from the pale gleam above, sands shifted. Footprints left their ephemeral marking, quick-buried passages across wind-shaped land.
Light-footed on soft sandals, the sign bearing witness to Usui’s motion was subtle indeed. Shallow whispers of tread, bare outline only, emerged. The slow, inexorable march of the dunes quickly obscured these tenuous suggestions. Soundless, her tracks alerted no watcher; went unheeded and unnoticed by the night crawlers of the desert realm.
Above, level with the distance, not the granulated floor beneath, her eyes watched in turn. Far they wandered, gaze unguided, searching into the cold and empty expanse of shrouded barrens. Looking reflexively upon nothing.
This presence, the restive lonely figure in the dark, upon the dunes, did not fit her pattern. This place and this time, she was not meant to be at such a convergence. Three miles north, clustered among kneaded stones and the verdant beauty brought forth from a small spring, lay the warm fires and soft music of a caravansary. There was welcome there, and beds, and the camaraderie of her troops, her supply team. It that place lay the promise of sleep, and food, and any other needs of nighttime she might seek out.
In the ordinary order of events, of her life, that was where she need remain in these hours.
Instead, listless empty moments had forbade that normalcy. Set instead to aimlessness she had taken to the blacks, and to wandering distant silences among the dunes.
She could not have, if there had been some spirit witness to ask, have put a name to this impulse, this drifting, nor a goal. The profundity of dissatisfaction inducing it had quaked deep, a fissure.
Fire must burn. The air of the times was heavily laden, replete with fuel. Fate seared to the edge of combustion, rising. Sparks bursting from every corner of Creation.
Cool midnight sands brought a moment’s peace, but Usui could feel the inferno building. Discontented smoldering could not be sustained. She must break free, find a new spreading course, or immolation would follow.
An hour south, across empty dunes unclaimed. Unsafe, even by the tenuous standards of these desolate, stateless, lands. She marched further, unceasing. Time was written in the sky, in the journey of the Maidens against the star-field. Another hour southward could be encompassed. That much, and no more, and she yet might return before the dawn broke.
Reckless though this journey, this night-born walkabout, might be, it was not foolery. Blades waited, tucked behind her waist, ready. Scanning, wide-seeing, vision parsed the granular flow before her, keen in the darkness, and missed little. Should some rapacious desert beast – cruel basilisc or ravenous devourer – emerge it would be a welcome diversion.
Fearsome feral marauders, whether merely absent or wisely discretionary, remained unseen.
Time passed in soft steps, unheard, and at length the second hour came to its end. Usui paused, waiting, breathing softly atop a shallow dune. Beyond her the desert spread forth unending. Somewhere past the limits of sight, in a distance measured in dreams more than miles, it all faded away, slipping into the madness of ever-changing Wyld. Only one point, the eternal maelstrom of flame at the elemental pole, was constant. Most sacred point of Hesiesh.
If lands of men existed between this spot and that distant beacon at the edge of reality itself she could not see them. They lay hidden in folds of sand and stone; utterly dwarfed by desert vastness.
To walk to that far off point, that Pole of pure fire anchoring Creation, would be a thing of legend. It could be done, or so the ancient Immaculate texts proclaimed. Had been, even, more than once. Usui’s eyes lingered there for a moment, slipping past focus to gaze at horizons behind the scope of sight, contemplating. Only to turn away.
Legendary yes, such a journey would be, but also frivolous. For its own sake and nothing more, accomplishing no goal of meaning, bearing no value. Such empty glories could not satisfy the heat within.
Resigned, she turned north once more. Her sandal rose, and fell, the first of many steps to carry her back to her soldier; to the mundanity of her appointed task.
In that moment – left foot down, right foot not yet risen – the night air was riven by a single, solitary note. A clear peal of sound.
Still pre-dawn atmosphere, chill and clear, carries sound far. Sloping dune and towering stone channel echoes both. To trace the source is no easy task.
Usui was a scout of no small skill. To that sound she turned, a ghostly smile hidden away beneath the mask of cloth atop her mouth. Blood began the slow beat of acceleration in her veins.
Metal on metal, distinctive even from afar, such was the birthing of that note. In this place nothing should serve as the source. A puzzle, it enticed.
One sound, alone, would have been impossible to pursue, even for the keenest ear. It served as messenger of naught but a vague directional impulse. East, over dunes. That way lay a ridge, low stones, old and half-crumbling, barely fragmenting a way free of the engulfing march of sand.
Turning toward the ragged rocky landmark, Usui stepped into a sudden assault, a storm of sound unleashed on the night. Chaotic, dissonant, twisted by snippets of wind and distorted by valley and echo, it remained familiar. She knew this din, this crush of metal and wood and leather underlain by the unmistakable current of pain.
Battle, just begun.
Swift now, the woman ran. Slip-sliding down dune slopes in half-reckless fashion, blasting upward with the gift of momentum and carefully placed strides; she rushed ahead, covering great swathes of ground. The mystery of death sang a clarion trumpet song of summons. Set blood to burning.
Her rush was not heedless, rapid yes, but considered. A step before cresting each dune she paused, dropping flat to her belly and scanning the path ahead. Though backed by absolute intention to uncover what battle this was, she had the inverse determination with regard to becoming a participant.
Sonic emanations provided further clues as the gap receded. The fearful cries and angry shouts of men were mixed with the vibrato bellows of camels and a loud, frightful half-hissed exhalation – the bloodthirsty hunting cry of a claw strider.
Putting a name to the yet unseen raiders, and it was a fearsome appellation, did not cause hesitation in Usui. Rather her eagerness increased by measure.
She crested the last rise soon after. A pair of wooden stakes stood there, scrap-rags waving as flags. The post of a sentry, now abandoned.
Staring outward, she took in the scene. Below, cut into the side of the ridge, was an excavation. Men had dug a great pit, braced with scrub-wood boards, clearing the sand back from red-stone walls. Within that depth waited deep and impenetrable shadows, the sign of some chamber hollowed out into the rock face below. A tomb, or so Usui guessed. Rich prize for the scavenger who’d uncovered it.
They had heaped the spare overburden to the south, forming a loose earthen berm shielding the camp tucked in between dune and stone. That pile might cut the wind, but it had served as no barrier to claw striders at all. Broad-footed and swift, the scaled and feathered carnivores had charged across it with ease. Following their mounted captains the mismatched pillagers had scrambled more roughly, but their passage had not been contested.
Battle, Usui discovered, was an exaggeration. A camp of fifty or more, attacked by less than half their number in raiders – a mere three mounted on the horse-sized repto-avians – but resistance had already collapsed. Now routed, men and women fought only to fend off hungry teeth and seeking lances. Otherwise they fled north, heedless, abandoning supplies, comrades, riches.
Glancing upon the camp before her, Usui glimpsed a king’s ransom in First Age artifacts, jewels, and artwork. Lost now, all of it, prey to the avarice of the Featherfangs.
Atop the breached berm lay a body, a man wearing a brilliant hat decorated with austrech feathers and adorned in a flamboyant cloak of gold-laced silk. Two arrows, bone-white shafts fletched with claw-strider red, sprouted from his throat. A pair of similarly perforated remains, armed men in servant’s garb, lay beside him.
Scavenger lord and first to fall, and with him, the whole of his workings. Obvious, and all too typical.
Claw striders ran down those slow to flee, sharp upturned-claws on bent toes tearing leather and bone, leg-borne spears. Ruined corpses dropped, bleeding out upon the sand. Eight fell so, but others were left to run. Pursuit was not offered, even the pillage was half-hearted. Enough to slake the hungers of their mounts, no more.
No mercy in this, merely caution. Dozens ran, but the desert would claim all but a handful. Survivors would only spread the necessary, beneficial, fear.
Usui blinked once, filled with vague sorrow, unformed regret mingled with disappointment. She began to slide back downslope.
Truly, a waste of time.
Sudden motion drew her to a halt.
Something, brilliantly fast and burning bright, an eye-searing streak, slashed across the encampment.
Soft pause, unsteady quiet descended through the frozen moment. A rider tumbled and fell from the back of his claw strider. Fire, a lonely pale yellow cylinder of flame, leaked out from a hole in his chest. At the sight, weight gone from its back, his beast exploded, hell-bent in maddened feral rage. Throaty shrieks, bird-like but deeper, carried with ancient ferocity, split the carnage.
What was this?
Tracking backwards at combat speed, Usui uncovered two additional bodies. Dark-skinned men with jewels tied to their wrists in feather-and-tooth bracelets, Featherfang markings. They lay by the edge of the open hole in the earth, struck down by arrows – arrows aflame.
The bow that had launched those missiles belonged to a woman. She stood, cloaked and veiled in simple tan, blending with the sands. Her boots rested atop a crate, one of three, standing beside the hints of a ladder downward to the shadowy sepulcher below. All three crates were filled, not with jewels or jade, but with scrolls.
In the paleness of Luna’s crescent phase and fallen torchlight Usui could see nothing of her face. Even her gender was revealed only through stance and the curve of her hips.
Blood-curdling cries of fury split the dark as the Featherfangs turned on this figure who had so dared to oppose them. No bows rested in their hands now, the insult, the death of a rider – chosen of their saurian god – was too great to be forgiven with such a swift death.
Howling curses in their broken, tongue-hiss bastardization of Flametongue they converged.
Atop the crate the woman making this valiant but mad stand dropped her bow and drew paired short blades. Very fine, they caught the gleam of moonlight and the flickering of lanterns, but the silver-pink shine they returned revealed them to be steel, not jade.
Though the riders held back, restraining the enraged mount of their fallen comrade, one stood alone against twenty hardened raiders of the dunes. Flaming arrows or no, Usui’s measure of the odds turned up ill in every reckoning.
Such augurs grew more perilous still from the report of the first exchange. The leading raider, a tall man, strong and muscled, wielding a notched axe, assaulted high, descending in a swooping overhand cut.
Steel blade met bound wooden haft, blocking the strike, turning it aside with practiced motion as the woman’s body slipped away from danger. No counter followed.
Usui gasped in silence, watching the opening, a chance for blade to slide through ribs and claim life freely, pass by unexploited. This lone defender could fight, and knew her weapons, but she was no master. Moreover, the flex of her frame before that blow revealed arms that held no more strength than the observant watcher anticipated.
She was outmatched, and terribly so. Crates guarded her flanks, but the raiders closed three abreast, on a wide front.
Silent in her vigil, Usui closed her eyes. She would honor this woman’s valor, but avoid witnessing her fool’s sacrifice.
Three men, bearing stolen steel and the scars of battles fought and won, bodies of hard-wrought muscle and death-learned skill, attacked together. Sword, spear, and axe in tandem. Three parries answered, and from one throat ripped free an agonized cry. A male throat.
Usui opened her eyes.
Paired swords, sharply pointed and single-edged, moved before the short female frame. Their motion had changed, shifted completely. They were faster, sharped, guided by an infusion not of skill, but of ineffable, overwhelming, potency. The power of essence channeled to excellency.
A second, deeper answer broke free with that strike. Upon the woman’s brow, bursting past the concealment of her cloak, was a shining brand. Circular in scope, its top half was brilliant gold, the bottom empty.
Five signs taught to every child in the reach of the Immaculate Order, five golden symbols to be feared above all. Third among them stood this one. The mark of the Unclean.
Utterly frozen, Usui crouched, stone still, as the glowing presence fought. Neither cowed nor comprehending this display, the bandits screamed the names of their gods and pressed their assault. Men scrambled up wooden boxes, blocking counter-blows at hands and elbows, forcing the isolated defender to awkwardly batter back arms and shift desperately aside to avoid encirclement.
Kneeling upon the dunes, sand shifting with her shivers of awe, Usui’s mind awakened to a singularly unearthly realization. She was watching a band of middling bandit warriors face down one of the legendary anathema. And they were going to take her head.
Power burst free from the pressed exalt’s frame, a billowing golden corona. It spelled out a whirlwind of words, characters rendered in exquisite hand. The calligraphy of the Unconquered Sun himself suffused ruby, sapphire and diamond-fire golden script.
A spearhead, thick with the crimson stain of the recently slain, pierced the woman’s guard. At the edge of that golden whirl it stopped, blocked by a word in halcyon light, the character sealing itself over the skin. A last, desperate defense.
It could not last. Though indeed great, the power of the anathema was anything but limitless. Worn down by many, they will fall. Usui recalled the fearful whispered lessons of her final courses. Now she was witness to such legends in person.
Why? The question cut through Usui’s mind, wildfire. Escape had been within the anathema’s power. Why face near-certain death?
The answer was gifted in tandem with the death of a man. Twin blades struck deep into the belly of a raider as the exalt jumped down from her crates, scrambling for purchase. “Not these!” she cried, words spinning in day-bright fire above her head. “Not into darkness. Too many lives; too many hopes. I won’t give them up!”
Knowledge can be contained in words and pages, script and scroll. Lore, words and secrets passed down from the First Age, held transformative power beyond the scope of any daiklave or essence cannon. The agency not to destroy, but to build. To produce beginnings, not endings.
Doubt seized Usui. Ten thousand chains.
A flame took shape in her mind, flickering redness in the form of her life. Many masters she had served: the patrician family whose fires she’d tended and floors she’d cleaned; the Master of Orphans who’d taken her name; the general of the Stair who’d drilled her body and made of her death; Saloy Hin, who’d claimed her service and grasped at mastery. None among them, not one, would have given their lives for the future. The only futures they desired, they saw at all, belonged to them alone.
In Usui’s heart there was a cinder, a jagged burnt-out thing cast away, thrown from its proper place. She’d known it since Hesiesh’s fire quickened in her blood and claimed her for the dragons. No fire in Creation bore the heat needed to melt that charred stone, that outcaste fragment of the great volcanic caldera.
No fire save that of the sun.
A bandit spear cut through hood and cloak to lash a bloody gouge between the shoulder blades of the Solar. Tearing fabric, it revealed her face in the brightness of her billowing anima.
She had red hair.
From spark to fire-whorl in half-a-heartbeat. At the merest expression of the essence within her, Usui exploded into motion. Smooth-curving blades, sharp-pointed, leapt into her hands, familiar and fast.
Long, loping motions, half-stride, half-jump, carried her down the dunes in three steps. The momentum of the descent slid down her shoulders to her arms, powering her first, sudden, strike. Steel connected with the neck of a dark-skinned man, barely aware, struggling to turn, and laid a head upon the sand, neatly severing the lines of his tattoos.
Raiders turned about, cries of panic and rage tearing from their throats. Splitting swiftly, they maneuvered toward this new threat.
Usui was faster. A wicked smile bent her lips beneath her mask.
Calling on the molten vitality within, channeling it dragon-breath from the core of her all the way out through bone and blood, muscle and skin, she accelerated. Flame cloaked her, dark red nimbus licking every surface, and her movements flickered and swam in the night.
A raider pulled back for a vicious thrust, bloody blade swift and sure, only to misjudge that red-whip motion and spill his effort harmlessly to the side. Spinning about with easy, almost casual rapidity, chakras burning, she let free a dribble of essence to push her motions faster and stronger through their katas and ripped open a wide, raging crimson cross through the bandit’s stomach.
Gore spilled out onto the sands.
Men charged, and Usui danced among them, shifting and slashing. Her body slipped and swam between their blows, blades interposing themselves in front of enemy strikes ere they had even begun, leaving them to crumble, abandoned, into uselessness. Guided by the pattern of inner fire in her veins she darted through them, a blaze among the weeds, candle quick.
Essence slid down her limbs, through her muscles, twitching her blades to impossible, furious cuts past blocks and parries that mortal efforts simply could not follow, could never keep up. Under and around weapons and hardened plates of leather the curling points wound and wove, hunting down vessels and arteries, watering the sand with the life of men.
And as the anima billowed out from her in turn, it burned.
No protective banner of glowing golden words marked the truth of Usui. Black smoke, filled with splinter-jagged barbs of char and ash, heated to extremes, enveloped her in a cloud of nightmare. Hands guiding blades against her cracked, blistered, and curled away, skin ripped to ragged gray ruins. Clothes ignited, and men who dared to strike at her and challenge her wrath were left as hollowed out remains, scourged.
Blasting through the center of her enemies, smashing their formation, Usui saw the anathema woman rally, striking with her short swords into the exposed backsides of men who had dared to forget her presence, enthralled by the red and yellow rage upon them now. Raiders fell away from crates, exposed in the absence of any order, compelled by fear and overrun within their steps.
Mere moments had passed. Half the Featherfangs were fallen.
Faced with two towering pillars of essence, one who met their blades with silent laughter and slapped aside their strikes with contemptuous ease, they quailed. Brigands, predatory men without discipline or honor, not soldiers, they ran. Disordered and prideful, now snapped, they transformed into prey.
Whirling about, Usui cut down those in her immediate circle of smoke and steel, sending three more to greet their ancestors. She paused there, not moving to engage others, letting them scatter over the dunes. The riders, desert hard and supported by their mounts, retreated in order, struggling to shepherd their men, salvage what remained of the ruined warband. They launched no attacks, barely in control of themselves, and soon vanished in the darkness over the sands.
When they had gone Usui turned to face the anathema.
Battle done, the rage of characters faded somewhat, but did not vanish. Such great power took time to dissipate. The sun shone on her still. In dark counterpoint smoky fury yet boiled out of the shadows of Usui.
Neither dropped, or lowered an inch, their blades.
“So,” the voice of the Solar was somewhat breathless, but otherwise precise. She did not use Flametongue as before, but spoke in rigorous High Realm, diction and delivery flawless. A display of culture Usui could not have matched. “Are you to add me to the tally now?”
“No,” Usui answered simply. She took silent satisfaction in the woman’s admission. In the recognition that the life of one of the anathema was, for the moment, wholly in her power. A rare thing that, and one she doubted she would soon experience again. Usui knew, by rights, by all she had been taught, she ought to strike the other down. These things she knew, but strangely they had no hold on her, the words and bonds were vaporous, empty, and powerless.
No such desire existed within her. It was a puzzling realization, origin unknown, lost in smoke-wrapped history. Yet there was no conflict, she rested at peace with this.
“Why?” Incredulity warred with gratitude in the anathema’s voice. “Why spare me child of Hesiesh? You know what I am, you are not blind.” Her frame was taught with tension. “In battle, those movements, I know them, and I know that only Immaculates teach them.”
“My questions,” Usui shushed her quickly. For the moment control belonged to her, and she was not yet ready to surrender it. Still holding both blades, she extended a finger toward the mark on the woman’s forehead. “Who are you?”
A momentary flash of hesitation crossed that pale, sharp-boned face. Falsehoods were considered, but Usui reckoned them untold. This one had nothing left to empower charms of deception. “I am Horakinis,” the answer was given formally, accompanied by a slight bow. “Formerly of Arjuf, now one of the Twilight Caste of the Solar Exalted. I do not know why you did it,” she added, hastily, rushing ahead. “But you saved my life, and I thank you for that.”
Saved the life of a Solar. Few enough among the dragon-blooded host could make such claims. Fewer still would wish to. Usui quivered slightly, grasping in wonder at the unrealized meaning behind such an act. “Why fight?” she demanded, requiring this answer, needing it desperately, beyond any other. “It was folly.”
Horakinis tossed her head slightly to the side, golden anima light rippling across her hair. She had a severe, rarefied countenance, high cheekbones, sharp eyes, narrow nose. When a thin smile emerged from long, precise lips, as it did now, she proved rather pretty, possessed of a mysterious, unapproachable allure. Directing a scowl internally, Usui ruthlessly dashed aside all impulses this glimpse engendered.
“This tomb belonged to a dragon-blooded of the First Age,” Horakinis explained, gesturing broadly to the crates behind her, undamaged, whole, spared ruthless looting by illiterate nomads. “It seems he served as agricultural minister for Southern Coast Province, the land we see now.” Relaying this her body calmed, relaxed, feeding into the discussion with amenable, erudite vitality. “He kept extensive duplicate records, and some were buried with him. They speak of cropping methods, landscaping practices, pest-proofing construction, and more. Even charms and thaumaturgy to shift rivers and command optimal growing conditions.” Her words, while vibrant, tended to the wistful, longing. “If I can translate them, repurpose the knowledge of that age, then perhaps the people could make the desert bloom again, and see all the South fed.”
It was a mad dream, impossible. Usui’s first impulse was to throw it back in this woman’s face. No power had ever overcome the cycles of famine that gripped the South. Ashes, the words died on her tongue. Golden brilliance, fading now but still bright, embraced Horakinis. The power of the Anathema, the Solars, was unequalled in Creation. Even the Empress had not matched their works. The cold truth struck her that the true madness was to look upon this woman and claim it could not be done.
Deep within the fiery center of her being, it did not matter. If the dream was impossible, if it never came to pass, these things meant nothing. Dream or illusion, it was a future, a better future, and this woman, Horakinis, had risked everything to save its seeds.
One question more. “Why wish that?”
Dark narrow eyes blinked. The half-full half-empty caste mark flared on her brow. “The world is broken. You can see it, you must.” Hands still holding swords, dripping a steady percussion of blood onto the sand, spread wide, inviting. “Men fight and kill every day to grasp at mere scraps of what once was. Starvation, pestilence, slavery, ghostly predation, and raksha raids.” Voice rising, she shook her head. “In the First Age there was none of this. I know it. I remember those days.” Certainty, deep and personal, wrung free from great sorrow, backed this declaration. “The Realm, though born in just cause, cares for nothing but its own power now. Even if this were not so, even with the best of intentions, it would not be strong enough. We did not make our tools for the hands of dragon-blooded or mortals. We erred, but now we have returned, and what was lost can be recovered and the knowledge can be spread, and the methods to preserve the world, to end the suffering of Creation, regained.” Passion filled every word, unfeigned. She was not speaking just to Usui, but to herself, and to all the land before her, letting free some deep-felt truth; justifying all she had been prepared to sacrifice. “I cannot let the knowledge that would save the people perish.”
Usui waited, silent, until the Solar had finished. Then she sheathed her blades, returning them to the harness at her lower back. Without hesitation, emptied of doubt, she knelt down, one knee upon the sands. The words that followed came quickly. “I, Usui, daughter of Hesiesh, pledge myself to you, Horakinis of the Twilight Caste, to be you shadow and your servant for all nights that remain, and if it should pass that you should fall out of the light of the Sun, your slayer.”
“Ah….ah…” Horakinis stood with her mouth half open, arms limp at her sides, struck dumb.
Rising, Usui felt no regret. Nothing in her denied the choice she had made. From that place, strangely content, she was able to take amusement at the Solar’s plight. Her smirk hid behind her mask, unseen. She did not let it reach her eyes as she rose to stand lightly upon blood-stained sand.
“All are gone,” she spoke softly, gesturing to the abandoned camp, cleared but for the pair and the dead. “Salvage right grants us the spoils.” Considering the mass of riches, a great quantity of heavy crates, she considered the next option. “We cannot carry all this,” she gestured to the stone above. “It should be buried there. Cannot stay here,” she added. “Featherfangs may return.” She paused, recalling one other important piece. “And I have one lingering duty.”
“Duty?” Horakinis found her voice at last, though still it trembled. “You wear no livery,” she noted the black outfit, completely unadorned. “Who do you serve? Which house?”
“No house,” Usui said this with pride, and for the first time, satisfaction. It no longer mattered, and so it seemed petty and ridiculous in the receding distance. “I am only Usui.” Carefully she reached inside her weapon belt and pulled free a small circular badge, leather marked with a broad banner seal. “Seventeenth Legion, my post.”
“The rogue unit? Under Saloy Hin, yes?” The Twilight proved herself well-informed, and quick-witted, pulling the puzzle together swiftly. “You took the Coin then?”
This was both a wise and diplomatic phrasing, and Usui’s confidence increased by measure. “The Coin marks the Empress,” she said carefully. It was seared into her memory, that day, but not pleasant. “A thing no longer. Saloy Hin is just a man granted hollow rank. No oaths exist to break.” She paused, tasting the words and recognizing their truth, and the darkness they held coiled inside. Looking back to the Solar she returned to the moment. “My fang, my command, and the supply team, are at the caravansary.” She pointed northwest, over the sands. “If I am marked for desertion, they will suffer punishment.” Her eyes met the Solar’s, deferential but insistent. “By your leave, I would fake my death.”
At this Horakinis’ face opened into a thin smile. “I approve, and,” she gestured to encompass the ruin of the camp and the many fallen. “It seems we have ample materials at hand.” A second smile, same as the first, followed.
Though the glow of her anima was now gone, Usui saw the expression in the light of the first rays of dawn, breaking over the ridge. She thought she might grow to like such smiles very much.