Theo bent over the boy.  His leg was deeply slashed near his groin.  The smell of his blood was heavy in the air, and his face was chalk-pale as he clutched the Evok Peregrine had given him earlier.  One of the Phyrnosians was bending over him now, but she was different than the others.  The color of a sunset, the kind he’d only ever seen in picture books- and she was tender, like his mother.  His mother!  Now he started to cry.  Where was his mother?  Suddenly he wanted her desperately, wanted the softness of her neck and the warm hum of her voice.

Isela stroked his hair. "Try to relax," she said.

“Okay,” he said, brokenly. He was trying. "Will you take care of him?"

"Take care of who, sweetheart?"

The boy looked at the Evok. "The... "

His face quieted.  A young boy should never lay so still.

"He's gone," Theo said. He picked up the trembling Evok. The animal’s grief filled the street with the smell of blood and lilacs.  “Here, take this thing, will you?”

"What can I do for it?"

"Damned if I know," he said.

Other ships that had received Maiden's distress signal were humming to the ground behind them. Pilots and warriors rushed from them, fully armed and bristling for war.

But that was already over.

Seeing the confused glances, Theo wrapped his arm protectively around Isela’s shoulders. The mood was bleak. People filled the streets, returning to their homes and shops.  They were silent as they helped each other along, pulling debris out of the way: silent as if they would not disturb the dead who lay in the streets, oblivious now to their wounds and the enemies who lay beside them.

A woman paused to drape her jacket over a man’s body, her hand lingering as if she might wake him.  Her daughter stood beside her, as pale and upright as an unlit candle. She flinched when her mother stood and kicked the body of a blue-black Phyrnosian that lay at their feet. An oily trickle of humour spurted from its eyes. Isela looked away.

A man said something about moving the outpost further from the Oup Hind.

Theo watched him talk. "Whatever it was that happened here today.  I have the strangest feeling that we lost," he said.

"Things will not return to the way they were for a long time," Isela said.

"Things have always been this way," Martine said. She’d been leaning against a nearby building, watching them. Now she shook her black hair. "But some refuse to see it," she said. She sauntered closer. She purred.  “Forgive the imposition, but are you’re that famous bounty hunter, aren’t you?”

Theo smiled tiredly. “How did you know?”

"Your little bird told me." She gestured at his ship, which had the words “KHADO OR BUST” scrawled across its side, above a painted tally of Theo's successful bounties. “And are you still headed to Khado?”

“I don’t see why not.”

“Would you mind terribly if I asked you to carry us along? Our main camp is there, but my ship is on fire.”

He laughed too loudly for the dusty sadness around them. “Seems like an eternity ago that I put that up.” He wiped his eyes with his shirt. “Yes, yes, come along, we’ll give you a ride.”

Isela smiled at Martine, who didn't miss a beat. “Lovely. Thank you. I'll just gather my things.” She curtsied sweetly and went away, returning minutes later with four men behind her, each one carrying armfuls of bags and tins. She smiled at Theo, and waited for him to open the door.

Nonplussed, he did. As the four men tramped past him after her, one of the men shrugged at Theo. “Her people are French,” he said, apologetically.

"Ah."

It was with guilty relief that they left Maiden. Isela pointed them toward Phayara Khado, the greatest city of Phyrnos. She held the Evok as they flew.  The little animal sensed their relief.  The rooms of Theodore’s ships slowly filled with the scent of pine needles, new snow, sun-warmed wood.

But the blood and smoke of Maiden would be with them for many days.

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