Chapter Eighteen

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Distya awoke slowly, drifting in and out of consciousness and feeling at times as though she no longer inhabited her own body. But then a quick surge of fiery pain would shoot through her back and shoulders, and she'd know she still lived, though early on the agony was enough to send her back under the black waves. Images of people hovered around her, some clearer than others. Many of them strangers, though some familiar. One thin figure looked like someone Distya remembered, but she never could see his shadowy face long enough to be sure, and when he talked his raspy voice sounded distant. Once she saw Vazhan.

When she at last opened her eyes, she saw above her wooden rafters strung with vines and baskets of plants. She could not manage the effort to sit up, but tilted her head to each side to peer around the room. The walls looked much the same as the ceiling. To one side the wall was close, and to the other Distya saw a fire crackling under a tub with steam rising from its mouth. Seeing this, she felt a dampness on her forehead, though she couldn't be sure if it was steam or sweat.

Movement beyond swiveling her head proved to be too difficult, and as Distya swam out of the haze of unconsciousness she felt disconcertion rising. This place did not belong to any healer from Minyavo, not as far as she could tell. The riders' medics kept their rooms cool and dry to discourage mold and other growths, not like this. That, and Distya did not recognize several of the plants hanging around the room.

The lack of noise coming from outside the hut led her to believe she likely was not in a large city of any sort, at least not near the center. Now fully submerged in a panic, Distya tried to remember what had happened last. She stared at the foliage above as her mind raced, afraid to close her eyes for too long and risk losing consciousness again. Memories flooded back: the kidnapped Coretian peasants; the ambush where she fought until Yurovin stopped her; returning home, then traveling back to the border upon Irya's orders.

Rinnet.

Distya started to curl her fingers and cried out when the tensed muscles in her arms and shoulders flashed with pain. She heard a noise beyond her feet and froze, fighting off the dark haze forming at the edges of her vision. A door opened and Distya went limp. She let her eyes fall shut, but not in time.

"Ah, awake at last," a voice said. Near her right foot, between her and the crackling fire, getting closer.

"No need to pretend," said the voice, now just above her right ear. "I'm only here to make you better. I must say, I didn't think you'd have the strength to yell quite so loud as you just did."

Distya allowed her eyes to open and struggled briefly to bring the man into focus. He was close to her age, maybe a few years older, with deep red curls and faint freckles. As far as Coretians went, he looked harmless, almost boyish with his shaved face.

But he was still Coretian, and an innocent look did not equal innocence. As the man grinned at her, Distya remained silent and almost unblinking. She would not tell him anything or let him out of her sight, as long as she could help it.

She would rather die.

"A little odd, don't you think, you playing dead when you were so near death just a day or two ago," the man said. "I'd have thought you'd be happy to be awake and alive. Looking around at the world you could have lost."

Lost worlds. Distya thought she might have been fine losing this world. She briefly caught a spark of the shadowy figure from her unconscious meeting, but he disappeared from her mind just as fast as the thought materialized.

The man wandered to a corner and dragged over a stool, perched on it next to where Distya lay. She tracked his every movement.

For a moment he stared at her, perhaps waiting for her to say something. After a while, his toothy grin faded. "I know this isn't where you want to be," he said. "Injured. Stranded in Coreti. I wouldn't want to be you, either."

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