Chapter Twenty-two

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Rinnet found it annoying that the Hatawan seemed even less afraid of her now than she had been before Rinnet attacked her. The cut on the girl's neck was shallow, not life-threatening. She held a cloth to it as she shook the dust from her rug and gestured for Rinnet to sit. Though whether she spoke to Rinnet herself, or the space she kept looking at over her shoulder, was unclear.

Rinnet chose to squat, ready to jump up again at any moment. "What is this?" she demanded. "How do you know about Kozua? What do you know about him?"

"It's as I said." The Hatawan sat with her arms resting on her bent knees. She clutched the stained cloth in one hand. Her body sagged with exhaustion, but her head and face stayed alert. "He's here."

"He's not here. He's dead. He's been dead for moons, now."

"That's ... that's how he's here." The girl's gaze went unsteady. She dabbed at her neck, her brow wrinkling. "You want me to tell her? All of it?"

Rinnet scraped her toes against the inside of her boots. She wanted to tell herself the Hatawan was mad and end the nonsense here. And yet ... she might have an explanation. Hakolly said the girl had abilities. She might have been a Guardsman, and a dim one at that, but she had no reason to lie, especially about something like her brother's disownment. And Rinnet had seen stranger things when Kozua was around.

So maybe the girl wasn't talking to herself. Rinnet needed to make sure of it before doing anything permanent. It made her itch to wait, but she let the Hatawan deliberate and mutter in the otherwise silent room.

Finally, the girl nodded once and twisted her fingers together. "If you think she should know." She closed her eyes, straightened her posture, let out a low breath. Opened her eyes. She looked directly at Rinnet before closing her eyes once more. "Listen well."

***

"In life, I was Kozua's cousin. My name is Riuza, though no one has called me anything for a long time.

"Kozua lived here in this longhouse. Our grandmother was the matron of the family, and her children and grandchildren stayed together as was typical. This settlement was one of the largest in Hatawa. Its southern location in the territory made for a prosperous existence, though as a people we avoid extravagance — for reasons you might already know.

"Since ancient times, the Hatawans have been a hermit-like people, treading the line between life and death from the moment they are born. We have always learned to respect this relationship and maintain balance by never taking without giving. Our relationship with death means we can contact the spirits left behind in the Passage — that's the world between ours and death, where spirits may dwell if they find they are not ready for death. Often, they believe themselves to be ... undeserving."

Riuza paused. "Kozua," she said, her voice hitching. "You couldn't— you didn't— you were never undeserving."

Rinnet didn't understand how someone could be undeserving of death after they died, but she brushed the concept away. "Keep talking."

Something made Riuza pause just after she breathed in to continue. "He tells me," she said slowly, "that once, in a part of history long lost to us, Coretians and Tevarians had the same connection to the Passage. We all came from one original people before splitting into two tribes. The tribe in the south slowly grew into a life of comfort, a life of warring with itself, and split again. The Coretians, named after the ancient Hatawan word for flame and led by a family of the same name, became known for their rare, fiery red hair and eyes. They and their followers believed their unusual appearance indicated favor from the spirits. The Tevarians called themselves as such because they believed themselves to be the best incarnation of the split into three — tevari means "perfection." They thought they could keep the comforts of the living while still maintaining their connection to the Passage.

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