Chapter Eight

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The fleeing dove slumped to the ground, red blooming across its pure fur.

Myriads of actions fought for my first reaction. Did I yell? Did I run to the dead bird, clinging to the possibility it was only playing dead? Did I stare at Zhen of Khuyal, just as unreadably as he stared at me?

Jingyi relieved me of the burden of choice. "And what are you doing here?" she called, placing an arm on my shoulder. Her eyes briefly flickered to my hands trembling with shock not yet relayed to the rest of my body. I clenched my fingers, begging them to stay still.

Zhen raised his chin; it was a discreet act of petty defiance that elicited a snort from the woman's nose. "You shot the arrow wrong," he informed across his precautionary distance from the deadly weapon in my hands.

There was a questioning curl to his tone, as if he wanted to address the absurdity of our arrangement but was too mannerly to do so.

"I'm sorry," I breathed, my brows tense and my lips pressed in an apologetic line as I shook my head. I couldn't bare the thought that I was already taking lives — I wouldn't even acknowledge the existence of the lifeless bird before me. Because if it really was dead, my days of innocence were once and for all behind me. "It— I didn't—"

The damp grass screeched under the soles of his shoes as he stepped into the lousily fenced area. Something twitched in my chest, the electricity of shame zapping my limbs as Zhen approached me. He wouldn't look at me. It seemed like some kind of godly intervention that he didn't.

My eyes didn't share the aversion of his. They shadowed the boy with chilling precision, noting his every move, constantly reminding me that his skin was warm and his eyes alert and that I would have to change that. I was grateful he didn't return the stare; the guilt was already starting to consume me.

When he stood before me, he reached his hand out. It was surprisingly still. It was clear he didn't want to speak another word to me, so I hastily dropped the weapon in his hands and wished the blood it had shed would transfer over to him, too.

"The arrow will do the bow's bidding," he said, taking an arrow from an amused Jingyi's hand. "Tama kir tamabar. That is what my parents always wrote in their letters."

"Try not to try," Jingyi translated through a smile.

It felt as if another thread of my sanity snapped. "Tama kir tamabar," I echoed. "That is Kasan, isn't it?" It was an obsolete language that only served proverbs and dusty bureaucratic books nowadays; ever since the Ashaban Empire tore through Kasa's culture, it had never been spoken again.

"What an educational exile your clan is enjoying!" Jingyi said.

The boy's only reply was a defying jerk of his brow. He lifted the bow and let the breeze gently shut his eyes.

"Come on, now." Jingyi placed her hands on her waist, that bitter amusement never leaving her tone. "You are showing off."

The concision of his movements proved otherwise. Jingyi had been quick with the exhibition of her own skill, yet Zhen seemed relaxed, at peace. Trying not to try. Only a moment later, the arrow shoved its way through the air and stabbed the yellow-painted circle.

My skin pulsed. That might as well have been my confidence.

Jingyi raised her brows, inclining her head in acknowledgment. "Impressive. But you did not hit the center."

"That was never the point."

She crossed her arms, snatching the weapon from his grip. "Is that what you came here for? To spout your sophistries?"

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