Chapter 3 (Zara)

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A few days had passed since Rising Waters attacked the Red District. Zara's failure still gnawed at her. Same with the disgust she held for herself as she imagined what her mom thought of her from the Above. In her mind, there was a perfect world where she didn't use her magic as a weapon. Where she didn't take lives or steal souls. Where peace was her greatest pride.

But that was not this world.

If Queen Chhaya knew what she was thinking, she'd laugh at Zara's foolishness. No amount of cleansing plants could wash the blood from her hands. Still, she wished there was another way to fight Rising Waters. She'd seen enough violence. If she could be rid of it, she would.

Today was not that day.

She pressed her back to a whisper tree. Her sleeveless tunic stuck to her skin in the Leodian heat, although the breeze provided some relief. The leaves stirred. In the forest of whispers, if she listened close enough, their faint, tempting voices called to her. But the alluring trees were not what she was after.

She waited. Then she heard it—the smallest rustling in the underbrush.

She peeked around the trunk and spotted the boy. His shoulders hunched as he walked, hands jammed into his pants pockets. He whistled a quiet tune. At sixteen years old, he stood taller than her, even though he was a couple years younger.

The boy—Tyrus Johan, a supposedly dangerous rebel—visited the forest of whispers once a week. Always on the fifth day, right before sundown. She'd been tracking him for weeks to learn his routine. When he reached the small clearing where ancient stone benches stood, she had the perfect shot. She took aim with her crossbow. Even though she could have made that shot on a galloping horse, she took extra care setting it up.

She couldn't afford this one to go wrong.

As she shifted her position, a twig broke beneath her boot. Tyrus spun around, eyes wide.

She swore as he ran in the opposite direction. Usually, she carried out her assignments in the city, where she found it easy to navigate the narrow alleys. But Tyrus was difficult to track there. He knew more passages than she did. And unlike most of her targets, he could slip through the streets undetected.

As Tyrus reached the edge of the clearing, she fired a bolt. It punctured his sleeve, pinning the pink fabric to a tree. He tore it free and took off again.

She slung her crossbow over her shoulder, retrieving her bolt and the scrap of fabric. Then she gave chase.

Tyrus was good at losing a pursuer. She'd watched him do it twice in Lihtan and once in the Old City this week alone. Now, he wove through trees in complicated patterns.

She followed close behind, drawing her black-bladed dagger from her belt.

As the sun set, the brilliant red-gold light shone between the trees. Zara and Tyrus neared the edge of the forest where the fields began. An overpowering, sweet scent filled her senses. For a heartbeat, she thought he would run through the neighboring wildflower field. It was the closest way to the Old City, where she'd never be able to follow him. But it would be foolish. Thoughtless. There was no way she'd miss a shot in such an open space.

She muttered a quick prayer under her breath.

Just as she thought they were out of the forest, Tyrus broke his steady rhythm. He swung himself around a large tree trunk and changed directions. Then he was off again, dipping under the low-hanging branches and skipping over roots. She could've sworn she even heard him give a low whoop.

She followed, but as she turned sharply, her ankle gave way.

"Gods," Zara hissed.

Tyrus was out of sight. She squeezed her eyes shut. She was so tired of chasing after Rising Waters to no end. At this rate, she'd die of old age before she even came close to stopping them. She dragged her dirt-covered hand over her face and sighed. Right now, she wished more than ever she could just leave it all. But she couldn't. She'd been labeled a traitor's daughter when she was younger, and she had to pay the price.

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