The Oath-Giving Day

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The word 'pretender' cut Zha Yao to the quick, and he froze to the spot, but Du was on her feet and sprinting toward the assassin like lightning.

"Death to Tien Lyn!" the man screamed.

Zhenshi pushed Zha Yao to the side and bore him down to the ground.

Ma swung a short sword to cut a bolt out of the air. The Wu Twins scanned the roofs and windows, the bows knocked with feathered arrows.

The screaming and panting stopped, and save for the sickening sounds of Du's halberd chopping into bone and flesh it got very quiet.

Zha Yao pushed Zhenshi away and turned to Lady Chen Guang with a weak smile: "You could not find a dragon, My Lady?"

Lady Chen Guang paid him no heed. She was looking down at the bolt that had struck her below the left clavicle. As his mind caught up to what he was seeing, his jaw went slack with fear. She touched the shaft with her delicate fingertips. They came away reddened.

The governor of Shantong rushed from the inside of the teahouse and caught her as she crumpled without a single cry. Zha Yao wished he'd gathered his wits faster, so it would be him holding the woman.

The governor motioned for the guards to take her inside, and shouted to the hushed crowd: "Zha Yao, I swear, the people of Kefei had no hand in this treachery!"

"I know," he replied as loudly and willed himself to think about their cause.

"The unrighteous Wo Jia plots against our friendship!

But he cannot hurt me when my sworn knights stand with me!

When people stand with me!"

His Five brandished their weapons, vowing loudly to die before Zha Yao could be harmed, to die for Zha Yao, to die together.

Curse all of this dying!

The Five's circle around him became so tight that he felt like a concubine imprisoned in a demon's castle, while the crowd took to shouting, hesitant at first, then louder than he ever heard anyone shout, powered by the camaraderie.

The quiet merchants and artisans of the pleasant city of Kefei tore the assassin's body to bloody shreds in their righteous fury and their unbridled joy. They also chanted for vengeance for the injuries done to the Gracious Lady Tien Lyn by some unfathomable reason.

Zha Yao stood and watched, as he felt obliged to do, while the crowd's bloodlust was satisfied. Then he embraced each of his Five under the peach tree, as Guang would have wanted him to. She'd probably be proud of him.

But she was in the governor's manor, attended by the governor's medic. If only the mad healer Guang had told him about was not rotting in Sutao's jail... The blessed faeries, they all flocked to Wo Jia, left their Temples in the South empty, and cursed Zha Yao's name. He did not give a demon's spittle about their curses, but they left his army to depend on nothing but herbs, knives and bandages for healing.

Curse the blighted faeries!

By the time the Five whisked Zha Yao back to the governor's palace, Lady Chen Guang was resting quietly. He entered without asking for permission. Her hair was down, and her pupils dilated from the pain-dousing herbs. She looked so fragile and beautiful, he nearly took her in his arms.

"The medic tells me I will be able to host the ceremony for you on the morrow, My Lord," were the first words out of Lady Chen Guang's mouth. The words were well-articulated.

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