The Prayer Beads

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The Celebrated Emperor Wo Jia waited for them at the foot of the Prayer Beads. This string of narrow hills was the only natural obstacle standing between Zha Yao and Xichon. The gentle Verdant Plains stretched to either side of the hills, and once Zha Yao passed them, he would be within an easy day march from Wo Jia's capital city. On approach, the rebel forces could see flickering cooking fires between the snow-covered slopes and red dragon banners sprouting like thickets on top of the hills. The soldiers whispered about ancient burials, and the ghosts from Wo Jia's own lineage stirring under those hills. With the drifting snow devils, it was easy to credit these tales.

Fortunately, morale soared when three war mages declared themselves Oathbreakers, and two of them openly joined Zha Yao.

Also for the sake of esprit-de-corps, Tien Lyn was not permitted to depart for Kefei and stay with Xi. Her mother was adamant that Xi was safer there, and her primary duty was to make sure he remained safe. Mother was not wrong, of course, given that their survival now hinged on Zha Yao's ultimate victory, but her spirit flagged every day she had to dress in garments designed by her mother and accompany Zha Yao. The fashions were partly borrowed from myths, and partly - from men's intimate dreams, or perhaps those were one and the same.

The rebel leader was brisk but courteous to her, and as far as she could tell, not at all titillated by her flowing silks. But Shan Jiang sang nightly of Tien Lyn's fortuitous delivery from the pirates and the soldiers cheered when they saw her. Sometimes, it gave her headaches.

Of Yu she had no sign but dreams. She asked Rustam the Unsworn after him. The Mage told her cryptically that the Waverunner had returned unscathed, and that Yu had passed beyond his Understanding. She hoped it meant that Yu was still alive in the same way she hoped that Xi was well.

Tien Lyn did not know how Zha Yao's generals selected the day for the attack. The talk was mostly of supply chains, bloody flux outbreak and the planting time. Then, out of the blue, the word: "Tomorrow!" spread from campfire to campfire.

The next morning saw gallant men emerge from the chaos of tents and the squalor of latrines, to form brave lines.

Tien Lyn along with her mother and the other high-born ladies settled into an uneasy wait in the Ladies' Camp. The Wu wife spoke enough for all of them, compensating for years of marriage to a man absorbed with his twin sister. Tien Lyn was discovering that the plump woman worshiped her remote husband, unlike the second Wu twin's husband. Although a competent warrior in his own right, the consort was no match to either Wu, the brother or the sister, and delighted in the company of women not steeped in martial tradition. Tien Lyn's head spun from the tragic fate of Wu, the complexities of their household, and keeping the track of the twins in Lady Wu's stories, but she was grateful for the distraction.

It kept her mind off the pebble Rustam gave her. "Look at us from above," he'd ordered her, "and if the day is lost, flee to Kefei. Save Xi."

The mention of her son filled Tien Lyn's arms with the phantom weight of her baby, and drove a thousand sharp pins through her belly, but she willed herself to focus on the fateful battle. She caught up to Rustam and asked, "How would I know? In the Chronicles it's just knights fighting one another, blow by blow, and then it tells you who won the day."

"Watch the hilltops," Rustam suggested, "if we cannot dislodge the faeries from the heights by the evening, we are lost."

Rustam rode out to rejoin the Coven on the right flank next to Deserving Du's band of heavy cavalry. Zhu Zhao and one of the Oathbreakers stood in the center by Zha Yao's own banner and the preemptively drunk Shan Jiang. The last of the rebels' war mages was stationed on the left. She could not see him despite his bright robes.

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