Chapter Three

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Shff ... shff.

The pattern stopped, and Kozua awoke with a start. The sun burned between the scattered leaves of the tree. He rose and went to where Rinnet stood frozen in the road. Her hands were balled at her sides.

Kozua's head rushed. "Rinnet?"

"It's them," she said. "I can hear hoofbeats."

Kozua listened. He heard nothing other than the noise from the traffic. Or maybe he did hear something ... no, that was the pounding of his heart inside his head. He couldn't hear much over that now. It could be a mistake, he told himself. Rinnet is too eager...

But no. He could see them now, a dark cloud thundering on the edge of the horizon. He had a sudden urge to run, but felt more likely to collapse. "It's them."

"Where?" Rinnet said. "I don't see anything."

Kozua was surprised out of his fear for a moment. It hadn't occurred to him before how much smaller Rinnet was than himself, enough so that she could not yet see the approaching Guardsmen. He knew she was shorter, but he always thought it wasn't by much. Seeing her now, poised as straight as possible but refusing to stand on her toes, he wondered how she would survive a fight against larger opponents. The Tevarians he'd seen up near Hatawa were tall and well-muscled.

"You're lying to me," Rinnet said.

"No. They're coming this way, just down the road. Wait a moment."

She stood still. The instant Rinnet could make out the party, she grinned. "Come on," she said, spinning and pushing Kozua ahead of her. "We have to get to the town square."

She ran ahead of him. Kozua struggled to keep up, though his lack of enthusiasm slowed him more than anything else. His long legs — "bony Hatawan spindles" Rinnet called them — covered over twice as much ground Rinnet's did. Kozua was sure he could outpace her if he had the energy. He hadn't noticed that before either, and now he was worried. Beyond her attitude, was Rinnet much more than an underfed peasant? If she died in the Coretian Guard, what protection did he have?

What was he thinking — he hardly had protection now. If the Guard wanted him dead, Rinnet would give him up without a breath in his defense. He wasn't sure what she wanted him around for anyway. He told her he would never fight, though he suspected that's why she brought him with. She said she wanted a servant, yet she had asked him to do next to nothing so far and was only interested in getting into the Guard. After that, if he survived that long, her sole purpose would be defending Coreti against Tevar to the west. If she wanted him to fight, she'd be disappointed. And he'd be dead once she realized he meant his lifetime vow of peace.

Kozua's heart did not stop racing once he caught up to Rinnet in the square. He could try to escape, maybe, once the Guard took their volunteers and started preparing to return to Villotta, the capital. Rinnet might get distracted, but he wouldn't count on it. The spirits couldn't do much to conceal him, and he hadn't been sacrificing at all the past few days.

Kozua gnawed the inside of his cheek. He was running out of options, if he had any to begin with. It would have been wise to fast, or hold off on sleeping if nothing else. Now the spirits were hazy at best. They moved without vigor and disappeared when he looked to them. He focused harder on his thoughts of impending doom, but it wasn't enough to draw anything out of the Passage. They needed more proof than laments about things that had not yet happened.

Kozua knew that. He also knew they were less tolerant because he had done little for them since leaving King's Helm. Every Hatawan learned early on that the Passage was not there for their use whenever they wanted. It was a balance, giving and taking equally. Spirits had no reason to offer favors on which they could not guarantee return. In death, there is no compromise, and no one knew that better than the dead.

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