Chapter 6

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A fortnight later, the Nori and the Ghost girl warily trotted up a dry, winding path bordered with tussock as red as Weixiang's wrath. Dome's dialled to zoom, Ping spotted him high above, his mischievous smile twisted into a cruel grimace. He was flanked by a buxom wench on his left who looked as if she was wearing a trailing tussock atop her head, and a shelf of a man on his right whose bearing was not dissimilar to the rocky outcrops surrounding them. Without breaking stride Ping stripped the Domes from her face and single-handedly stowed them.

She felt like swearing at Jamie's cowardice but used her training to stifle the urge. They were here now. She needed to move on to the next scene. Her mind needed to be cold, chill like the mountain air she was still acclimatising to. An ordinary citizen would probably have died by now, eye lids encrusted with death like the frost bitten Jamiels of the cities' namesake. Nori training eschewed the womb-like temperature control citizens lived under. You learned to self-regulate or you were recycled. Nori law.

"Pity you can't recycle ghosts," she muttered, shooting a glacial look at Jamie's matted crown keeping pace with her left boot. She resisted the urge to kick it, after all, it had taken days before the feral girl could be persuaded to keep pace with her.

At least she had an element of surprise, the equivalent of flying in on a flame-breathing dragon – for Ping was riding in on a horse. She deeply and suspiciously inhaled its musky animal stench. The surrealism of the situation made it unreal. She was far from the Lotus Cities now, embedded in her mission. Ping was no longer Ping Brunder, Nori, heir to the Sukh house. She was a character in her own archaic art-doci, riding into a life-threatening situation on a mythological beast that hadn't been seen alive in over a century. Nothing mattered except gaining access to that group of ragtag pakeha. Nothing.

The enraged scream of the beast filtered through her mind, shredding the dualism into one compact, lethal identity: Nori. Thigh muscles clenched, gripping its copper flanks as it reared up, tossing pale dawn hair into her mouth. She grabbed the hank in her hands tightly, instinctively. Hooves chopped the dry air, desperately trying to cleave to the fiery head weaving in front of it, welcome blade in hand.

Ping's training took over. Pupils dilated she assessed the immediate threat: one female, red-headed, heavy, but well conditioned and strong. Secondary threat: rock man. Intuition fed her the same height and weight as Connell so he should move the same, without the martial training. Other danger: well, the rest of the camp. They had stopped setting up and were watching, with an air of menace. Weapons: hands and feet, killing blade, beast. Jamie – nowhere. Typical.

The analysis took micro-seconds. The pale blue mountain sky filtered through her narrowed eyes, her dark head an artificial horizon, a storm about to break on her opponent below. Ping squeezed her thighs, forcing the horse to shoot towards the harpy, heavy artillery. A little closer and she could break that dusky neck with one well-placed boot without losing her seat. She breathed in the mad-eyed woman's fear, shifted her weight slightly, a few more seconds and those delicate bones would implode. Ping wanted her blow to be the killing force, not the beast's.

"Serena." The name was barked out by Weixiang, a clear order.

Tossing those red curls into the flaming tussocks, Serena hit the dusty earth and crumbling shale, rolling out and away from the noise and heat and dust that made up the horse. Ping saw her swallow her fear and through some alchemy, turn it into a sulky look.

"But my lord, you wanted the insect dead?" she said, turning the defiance into a querulous question. "I can kill it for you." Without thinking she stamped her foot, looking for all the world like a dancer about to break into flamenco.

"Things have changed. She has the Kaimanaiwa. We go to the Wu. Come"

"I think they're talking about you," Ping said to the horse, nudging him with her foot. She was eager to get this charade over with, so she could get started.

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