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I rode past bodies.

Soldiers, wearing the black and white of the Dark Hounds, and soldiers wearing the kingdom's colors of red and gold. They lay in different positions of death, some hacked to pieces, some with missing limbs. Nyx's hooves sank into mud and blood: they both blended together into a noxious ooze. Above me hovered the death birds. Vultures glided ominously with their huge wing spans while their smaller counterparts, the crows, frolicked in the wind, cawing to one another in their grim language. When I passed a heap of men, I startled more scavengers. They scrambled off in a flurry of fur and long tails.

Arrows had pierced through many of the soldiers. I noted grimly that they were Fazalur's men. So, our archers had done some damage.

The smoke rose from various siege machines. Siege machines! I pressed on, focusing on my journey. I dreaded to find out what had happened to the castle.

To my surprise, the castle stood unscathed. My joy was brief. They had set up tents around the castle, tending to the injured. There were many. As Nyx trotted towards the drawbridge, I could see that our side had taken a heavy toll as well. Men and women groaned in pain, some too drugged out to voice out their agony, their vacant eyes staring into the distance.

Then the drawbridge slammed open and Lisbet stalked out, in her own armor of silver and gold, her sword in hand. Her brazen hair had come loose, giving her an aura of golden rage. Her eyes were ferocious, daring anyone to challenge her. When she saw it was me, she lowered her blade and walked slowly towards me. I sensed a change in her. Not more exuberance and passion. She was now banked fire. Controlled, determined.

She came up close to me the moment my booted feet touched the drawbridge. I could smell her: all steel, the hint of citrus soap, and blood. "You are back early," she whispered and it was the Lisbet I'd left a few days ago. Her eyes watched me, trying to look for an answer.

"Yes," I said, leading Nyx towards the courtyard. I was thirsty and famished.

"How is... he?" Lisbet asked, her words tentative, kindly even.

I fought down a rush of sadness. "He's well," I said curtly and left it as that.

Thankfully, Lisbet didn't ask further. She knew me well enough not to push the issue. Instead, she fed me fresh soup with a huge chunk of seed bread. While I soaked the bread and relished the taste of potatoes and meat, she gave me some shocking news. Shan Kung had chosen to remain neutral and closed its doors. My family remained safe.

"I understand Emperor Fang Tian's desire for neutrality," Lisbet's eyes flashed angrily. "But we need his help. His war dragons could turn the tide!"

"Never mind his war dragons," I mopped up the last bit of soup in the bowl, chewing thoughtfully. "We work on what we have."

"I just couldn't believe Shan Kung chose neutrality," Lisbet shook her head and her hair cascaded past her shoulders. Irritably, she pulled it up into a tight ponytail. "I feel betrayed. I am so furious!" Now her voice broke. Lisbet looked fragile, on the verge of breaking apart.

I opened my arms and she gratefully placed her head on my chest. I stroked her hair while she sobbed.

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