The Sea

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All at once, the jinn retreated into the sky.

Weary and broken, the remaining warriors—a fraction of their former force—regrouped around the queen, but there was no cheering. Their dead lay like lilies crushed by a storm, the once-green grass of the mountain peak now turned to crimson mud. The air stank of death, so thick that Padore could taste it on her tongue. It tasted of salt and metal and burned meat, and she retched.

"Where did they go?" Arun wondered, looking to the skies.

She stared at the swirling clouds, knowing Nardukha was at their heart, drawing the air around himself and gathering powers she couldn't begin to comprehend.

"They are not finished with us." She walked until she found Tarin lying with wide, unseeing eyes. Weary to her bones, she knelt beside him and shut his eyes, then kissed his forehead. The tears she had withheld now fell, mixing with the mud and blood on her cheeks. Her men watched silently, many of them grieving their own fallen friends and brothers.

Arun's hands gripped her shoulders, and she felt in his trembling the grief he did not let show on his face.

"I've doomed us all," she whispered, so that only he could hear. "I should have met Nardukha's demands. But I was proud, and look what I've brought down on us. I am a fool."

"You are Padore Amounasun ba Napthalia, Queen over Ghedda, the Ever-Shining Star, and you are no fool," Arun replied, kneeling beside her and looking her in the eye. His face seemed to have aged ten years. "Tarin was right. If we'd given in then, the Shaitan would have ruled us completely. We would have died as slaves. Instead we will die free and fighting. You have given us a chance to enter the godlands with honor, as Tarin already has."

But Padore looked around at the corpses and was not comforted. It seemed to her that honor may come at too high a price.

"All the people have taken shelter," she said, rising slowly to her feet. "We had better do the same. I don't know what the Shaitan's next move will be, but I fear it will not be an attack we can defend with sword and shield. Tell the men to return to the palace and—"

The land beneath her heaved, and she stumbled forward into Arun. The warriors all cried out, slipping and falling as the Mountain of Tongues shook like waves. A terrible cracking sound splintered the air, and at the same time, thunder sounded above.

"Earthquake!" Arun shouted over the noise. "He is breaking apart the island!"
             "He means to sink us into the sea," Padore whispered, as her heart clenched with horror. "My warriors! To me!"
             Struggling to stand on the treacherous ground, she raised one sword over her head and shouted over the splintering earth, "Run to every corner of the island! You must tell everyone to get to high ground. The sea is coming for your wives and children, for us all. I know you are weary. I know your hearts bleed for your fallen brothers. But our battle is only just beginning, and I must beg of you to find new strength!"

The warriors gave a resounding shout, and tears sprang to her eyes to see how bravely they lifted themselves up. She stood by Arun and watched as the men ran in all directions, streaming down the mountainside, their determination overcoming exhaustion and grief. As the island trembled beneath them, they sprinted for the hills, beaches, and forests.

Padore took strength from them, and clutched Arun's arm.

"We must go too," she said, "and make for the palace. We can shelter many people there."
             "What of Tarin?"

She looked down at her brother's body, his expression still so noble, even in death.

"He deserves a tomb of marble and a funeral of kings. But... there is no time. We cannot take him with us." The words knifed her, but she knew it was true. She kissed his forehead one last time and crossed his hands on his chest, his scimitar's hilt grasped in his fingers. She made a shallow cut on her palm with her own blade and with her blood, drew three dots on his face: one on each cheek, one on his chin. The blood of a queen to assure he would be received in the godlands with highest honors and escorted to a place of glory. It was all she could do for him, and it seemed hardly sufficient.

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