Chapter Two

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They walked for most of the night, stopping only when Kozua needed to rest. Rinnet was frustrated, but Kozua knew she wouldn't argue more than a few insults and complaints. She understood, at least as far as he had explained, that his bodily weakness contributed to his powers beyond the physical realm. Still, it irked her when his breathing grew heavy and his feet scuffed across the dirt.

By sunrise the dusty ruts they followed merged with a cobbled road. It was jagged and the stones half-buried under dirt, but to Rinnet those stones were as precious as gold. They meant civilization was near enough for real roads to be worthwhile. And it would be real civilization, too, towns and not just miles of scathed peasant estates. The road seemed to propel her forward, but too often Kozua would trip on the exposed stone behind her.

He was exhausted. The rising sun already felt too hot, drying his sweat before it could cool him. He saw spirits melding in and out of the Passage, sensing his weariness and hoping for a chance to draw from it. They were a relief to Kozua, but a concern as well. If the spirits were this close, he was far too exhausted.

"Rinnet. We have to stop," Kozua panted. He noted that the spirits lacked any interest in Rinnet, keeping a wide distance from her. "I need food. And rest."

Rinnet felt her own hunger growing, but still turned on Kozua. "You're pathetic," she said, stomping the few feet back to him. "We'll never get to Goldsriff at this pace. You've been slowing me down the whole time. I should have left you behind the first time you stopped."

Kozua thought he wouldn't have minded much if she had. He had no love for King's Helm, but he found himself dreaming of his lopsided shack by the palsa fields. "I won't be much use to you if I die."

"You aren't much use to me anyway." Rinnet imagined what Kozua would look like with a knife jammed in his throat. The blades at her hip seemed to vibrate in a single, high-pitched tone. It would be so quick ... well, she could make it last. She still had a smear of his blood on her shirt from yesterday.

"There are too many spirits gathering," he said. "They could overtake me."

A lie, but one that worked. The spirits were harmless unless called upon, but Rinnet didn't know that. Kozua suspected the spirits made her uneasy. He had seen it in their first meeting and saw it now in the way her aggressive tilt toward him subsided. The knowledge was perhaps more valuable than any act of Strength he was willing to perform.

Rinnet shifted, the soles of her boots hissing against the stones. Angrily she unslung the sack from her shoulder and sat next to the road. "You can eat," she said. "But we're not staying here long."

Kozua sighed as he eased himself to the ground by the bag. His feet and joints ached, and the sun was only getting hotter. The fruit was refreshing beyond its tough peel, and the spirits backed off somewhat as he ate. Rinnet looked at the road and drank from a flask, eyeing Kozua from the side as she did. He sat facing her as though he expected light mealtime conversation. His black eyes never darted around as her own did. Annoyed, she sealed the flask and stood to pace a short distance away.

Indeed, Kozua thought it strange she didn't sit with him to enjoy the breakfast. He might think it a cultural mannerism had he not seen the other peasants do it. Even the Coretian Guardsmen had sat together to eat and drink in the houses of Hatawans they killed.

But maybe that was only to mock the survivors. They tore the houses apart to find people and food, sometimes hidden in the same places. It had sickened Kozua to see Coretian soldiers take the seats of his family's table while their bodies lay in the streets just outside.

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