Buri clenched her legs tighter around her mountain pony, urging it to stillness. It was restless, tired of standing in the cold and wet. So was she. But unlike the pony, she had a purpose to keep her waiting as the early autumn drizzle trickled through the gap between her helmet and cuirass and dripped down her neck.
"Something's coming," Thayet had said three days ago, waking beside Buri just before dawn. "In my--" she frowned, concentrating, separating the land from her own body. "In the northwest pass, the one where the pines line the braided stream. Not now. We have a few days."
Enough time for Buri to gather the clan's fighters and ride northwest, but not time for argument or debate. No one raised one. It would not be the first time the lowlanders came to prey on the K'mir, though it was rare for them to venture that far into the mountains. And what Thayet felt, with the Dominion Jewel at her waist, was never wrong.
So Buri waited and kept silent with the rest of the Hau Ma, though she could hear only the sound of rain striking stone and the wet rustle of pine needles. And then--just at the edge of Buri's perception, the jingle of a harness. She could tell from the tension that settled over the other K'mir that they had heard it, too. Still no one moved. They could hear hooves striking stone, now, and the faint clatter of weapons against saddles. The sounds shifted, nearer and then farther, as the raiding party from the lowlands wound up the twisting mountain pass.
Buri built a picture of their progress from the faint noise of their passage. Now they were climbing a steep scree slope--the dislodged pebbles clattered against the mountainside--now picking their way across the braided stream as the pass narrowed to a gully, now turning--
Heartbeat thrumming painfully loud in her ears, Buri raised one arm in silent signal, bent low over her pony, and charged. As she rounded the corner of the narrow rock spur that had hid the K'mir, she met the shocked eyes of the raiders' leader, who was silhouetted against the sky. Time seemed to freeze.
In her mind the lowlanders had been stout and well-armored, their faces grim and battle-hardened. But even the leader's armor was patchy, ill-cured leather, and it fit his rawboned form poorly. There had been famine in the lowlands for three years running, Buri knew, and the rains that heralded winter's coming were the final knell of another failed harvest.
She blinked, and saw in the weary lowlander's place the piles of K'mir dead that had littered her and Thayet's flight east. Saw Kalasin fall.
Buri charged, and as the lowlanders fell back in confusion, their horses fouling one another, K'miri arrows began to rain down from either side of the gully's steep walls.
The wood was too wet to burn. That was the only reason Buri and the other K'mir were still in the pass, hours later, when the sentry's sharp whistle drew her attention from the barely scorched pyre.
She fumbled for her crossbow before the second whistle came, longer and softer, assuring that nothing dangerous was afoot.
"Keep trying," Buri advised the K'mir currently piling tinder at the pyre's least wind-swept corner, and went to investigate. She was out of patience with the whole affair. If it had been men alone, she would have urged the others to leave them to rot. There were no K'mir among them, after all. But the lowlanders' mounts deserved better, deserved to be set free to roam the winds with the horselords.
At the top of the ridge overlooking the pass, where the archers had lain in wait, three sentries loosely circled a single woman on a pony.
"What are you doing here?" Buri demanded. The stranger was unarmed and unarmored, but her blazing red hair clearly marked her as not K'mir.
"Tracking them," the stranger said, nodding down toward the pass. "But it looks like you've taken care of them for me." She swung off her mount, and the sentries' hands suddenly bristled with knives. Buri brought her own crossbow to bear. The stranger raised empty hands in response. "I'm not a danger to you."
"You were tracking twenty armed men," Buri said. "Alone. Why?"
"They meant trouble."
"You were going to take them on?" Buri asked incredulously. "You don't even have a bow."
The stranger tilted her hands so that the backs of her gloves faced Buri instead of her palms. There was a Shang globe embroidered on each of them, guarded by a lioness. "I don't need one." There was no bragging in her voice, just simple fact. "I wasn't going to take them on all at once," she added, when Buri let the silence stretch.
Against her will, Buri felt the corner of her mouth twitch. She slung her crossbow back on her belt, and the sentries followed suit with their knives. "Why were you going to take them on at all?"
"They were looking for K'mir to raid."
"We can take care of ourselves," Buri snapped.
The Lioness glanced down into the gully. "I can see that. But I thought it would be polite, since I was looking for you. A sort of welcome gift." At Buri's confused look, she added. "I heard the K'mir have fighting techniques no one down in the lowlands knows. Seemed worth coming to study a bit."
She came through a civil war just to study? Buri thought. But then, everyone knew the Shang were crazy. And it would be good to have someone new to practice with, a chance to sharpen all their skills.
Buri shrugged. "It's up to the elders to offer hospitality. But it seems fair to me, if you're willing to teach us in turn."
"Of course." The Lioness looked faintly affronted. "I pull my own weight."
"Good." Buri turned back to the twisting cliff-side path, trusting the Lioness to follow. "You can start by helping with the fire. Got any tricks for that?"
"No," the Lioness said.
Buri shrugged, letting the Lioness's vehemence pass. "Then come help gather tinder, before the rain gets any worse."
Onua was the first sentry they met when they returned to where the clans were gathered. She didn't bother to return Buri's whistle, just dropped out of the rock outcropping where she had been perched within a warded circle and hugged her.
"All of us," Buri confirmed, before Onua could finish trying to count the train of men and women behind her.
"Who's the new one?"
"The Shang Lioness," Buri said, proud as if she were showing off a colt she'd just helped birth. On the three-day ride back to the camp, she and the Lioness had sparred several times, leaving her bruised, sore--and exhilarated. No one had stretched her skills like that in months.
"Huh. Another one."
"Lowlander," Onua said with a shrug. "Looks the same, too, but he stinks of magic. Guess you'll meet him soon enough. Oh, Thayet left word she wants to see you as soon as you get back."
"I wouldn't go anywhere else," Buri said indignantly.
Onua laughed. "I know. Go on, now. I'll see to getting your guest comfortable."
It was good that someone would get to be comfortable, Buri thought, because it certainly wasn't her.
"Ow!" Buri swatted at Thayet, but the other woman was too quick for her, and yanked her hand and the offending brush out of the way. Buri rubbed at her scalp. "What'd you go and do that for?"
"What did you go and get your hair tangled up for?" Thayet retorted. "No, come back here."
"I was fighting," Buri protested. "It's what happens." She gave the tent flap another longing look, then scooted toward Thayet, who resumed her labors.
"It can't hurt that badly," Thayet said, amusement plain in her voice. "Any of the bruises on your arms ought to smart more."
"Those," Buri said loftily, "are honorable training wounds. And ow."
Thayet paused and parted the hair behind Buri's ear, revealing a purpling bruise the size of a quail's egg. She leaned forward to kiss it. "I thought you said you weren't injured in the battle."
"I wasn't. That's another training wound."
"The Lioness hit you in the head?"
"She didn't hit me, she kicked me. You should have seen it! The way she leaps." Buri sighed and leaned back against Thayet. "I'll never be that good."
"You haven't been studying with the Shang since you were six," Thayet pointed out. "And I bet you could best her with throwing knives."
"True." Buri brightened. "We'll have to try that tomorrow."
"Will I see you at all, while the Lioness stalks our tents?" Thayet teased.
"Of course you will!" Buri tilted her head back to study Thayet's expression. "You don't think I'm neglecting my duties, am I?"
"Your self-appointed duties," Thayet reminded her. "No one is going to hurt me among the clans, Buri. I don't need guarding. I just appreciate your company."
"Oh." Buri looked relieved. "It's just, it's so rare for there to be anyone new for me to train with."
"I know." Thayet sighed and began braiding Buri's hair. "And what do you think of our other visitor?"
Buri made a face. "I haven't met him yet, but Onua says he reeks of magic."
"Mages do," Thayet said drily.
"So if he's so powerful, what's he doing here?" Buri demanded. "The Lioness is one thing. That's what the Shang do. They wander the world, seeking glory." She sounded faintly wistful. Thayet squeezed her shoulder. "But a court mage? Why would he brave the lowlanders' civil war to see us, when he could stay at home and have a patron provide for his every dream?"
"We're about to find out," Thayet said. "He wants to speak with me in private."
Buri spun around, wrenching a half-finished plait out of Thayet's grip. "He's not getting you alone. He'll have to go through me first."
Thayet laughed. "Settle down. You'll be there, too. If you can spare the time away from your Lioness?"
"Of course I can," Buri said, a fierceness in her expression that Thayet hadn't seen since the Roof of the World. "You come first, Thayet. You know you do."
"I know." She opened her arms, and after a moment Buri dropped out of her fighter's crouch to embrace her. "And together, I'm sure we're more than a match for Lord Thom."
They met with him in the slopes above the clan's tents, where the herd was lipping at the last, withered stalks of grass and scrub. Soon it would be time to move them to lower pastures.
The elders had offered Thayet use of the clan's gathering tent, but she had refused. She was a K'mir and would meet Lord Thom as one, not by dressing up as a courier and playing the games of her father's court. Buri was by her side, a watchful, cautious shadow who tensed when she saw Lord Thom moving up the path.
"I thought you wanted to know why he was here," Thayet murmured out of the corner of her mouth, too low to carry. "You'll never find out if you knife him before he can talk."
It startled a laugh out of Buri, who settled back against one of the ponies. Lord Thom still gave her a slightly wary eye when he finally rounded the top of the trail. Buri had filled out in the year they had spent with the clans, and her muscles combined with the dozens of knives strapped to her body made her an imposing presence.
"You asked to speak with me?" Thayet prompted.
Lord Thom's bow was deep enough, but brief. A K'mir would not have noticed the difference. Thayet did, then regretted the thought. She was K'mir. Political calculations belonged in her former life.
"Your Highness Thayet jian Wilima--"
Buri snorted softly.
"It's been a long time since I claimed that title," Thayet said, more diplomatically. "Or any title. I am a K'miri among other K'mir. If you've traveled this far, surely you know we have no rank among ourselves except what we earn."
Lord Thom shrugged. "And yet in only a year, you've earned quite the place for yourself. Even in Tortall, we hear how the tiny Hau Ma have grown, how the other clans have rallied around them and driven the lowlanders out of the mountains. And your name is on many lips as the source behind that change." He paused, and when she said nothing, added, "You don't look like a warleader. But then, that's hardly my area of expertise."
Buri made another soft, irritated huff at her side. Thayet kept her voice cool. "I am honored that my knowledge of the lowlands has been of use to my people."
"Of course," Lord Thom said. "And it's those scraps of knowledge that have brought the K'mir from a people slaughtered for sport to a prosperous nation apart, untouched by war."
"Did you come here just to bother us?" Buri asked, abruptly.
"No." Lord Thom looked amused. "His majesty, King Roger of Tortall, sent me to present you with an offer."
"And that offer is?" Thayet asked.
"His hand in marriage." He glanced at Buri, who had made an inarticulate noise, and nodded toward Thayet. "To you, of course."
"Why?" Thayet demanded, before Buri could say or do something extremely unfortunate. "I have no lands or wealth to offer him. Even if I wanted to use my former title, it has no meaning. You and he must know I have no claim to the throne of Sarain."
Lord Thom smiled tightly. "It's still a title. Blue-blooded princess aren't thick on the ground, Your Highness. To some, blood matters." His tone made it clear he did not number himself among them. "Your name is enough of a dower."
"I'm flattered," Thayet said drily. "I've received some crude proposals in the past, but even zhir Anduo at least managed a passing comment about my looks."
"Let me be frank," Lord Thom said. "His Majesty no more cares about your looks than you do about his." His gaze flickered, pointedly, from her to Buri and back again. "His interests are . . . otherwise engaged. He wants an heir, not a love match."
"A need I don't share," Thayet pointed out. "What does he think I gain from this?"
Thom glanced around the pasture. "Comfort? Civilization? A roof over your head in winter, silk dresses in summer." Still just as flippantly, he added, "An ally for the K'mir, when the lowlanders are no longer busy tearing themselves apart and turn to you instead. Or do you have reason to believe this peace will last forever?"
There was an edge to his last words. His violet gaze bore into her. With effort, she kept from glancing away. "An ally on the other side of the continent," she said, trying to match his earlier, bored tone. "How very useful."
"Do you have others offering?"
"We don't need allies," Buri burst in. "We're strong enough to look after ourselves. We--"
"Buri," Thayet said, and the younger woman quieted.
"Perhaps it's as she says." Thom shrugged. "I trust you'll consider the offer, at least. I intend to remain here some days before returning home."
"The elders have granted you the hospitality of the Hau Ma clan," Thayet allowed. "I will see you at tomorrow's feast."
"Of course." He smiled tightly. "Until then, Your Highness."
As soon as he was out of earshot, Buri whirled on Thayet. "You can't be considering it," she accused.
"Of course not." Thayet stretched, cracking joints that seemed to have frozen during the tense conversation. She gave Buri a puzzled look. "You didn't think I was, did you?"
Buri let out a breath. "Not really. It's just," she waved at the ponies. "He's right, you know. This isn't what you're used to. And I worry, sometimes. That you miss . . . what you had before."
"You're right," Thayet said quietly. She reached out and caught both of Buri's hands in her own. "This isn't what I was brought up to. It's better."
After the uncomfortable conversation with Lord Thom, Thayet almost had to order Buri away to keep her from spending the day stuck to Thayet's side.
"It's politics, Buri. Do you want him to know he's made you uncomfortable?"
"Politics." Buri snorted. "A quick knife or a crossbow bolt, and we wouldn't have to worry about him at all."
"Buri! He's our guest."
Buri threw up her hands, fortunately empty of knives. "I know. I won't hurt a hair on his head. I just want to."
"Go take it out on the Lioness," Thayet advised.
Buri did, or tried. After the fourth time Buri went flying across the practice area, the Lioness waved away her efforts to resume a fighting stance and crouched down next to her with a waterskin.
"You were better yesterday," the Lioness informed her, "and that was after a day of trail riding."
"I know," Buri said morosely after a long, gulping drink. "And today I was going to get you to practice throwing knives, and maybe actually win for a change."
"But you decide you'd rather practice slamming your head into the mountain a few more times?"
"Something like that," Buri muttered, and set the waterskin aside. "Let's try again."
The Lioness's foot lashed out before Buri could finish standing, and the K'miri found herself lying in the dirt once more.
"Waste of my time," the Lioness said. "My training master always said there's no point in fighting while you're angry."
"That's stupid," Buri said.
The Lioness grinned, unexpectedly. "That's what I told him. Anger's a fuel. But you can't let it rule you. What's got you so angry you can't fight?"
"Our other visitor," Buri said, and then bit her lip. She didn't want to explain everything to a stranger. "He's from Tortall," she said instead. "I guess you are, too. He looks just like you."
The Lioness stiffened and swore under her breath. "Just like me?"
Buri tilted her head up. She had grown used to seeing the Lioness covered in trail dust, a stark contrast to Lord Thom's careful grooming, but now that she looked closely, the resemblance was eerie. It wasn't just the purple eyes and red hair. The lines of their noses were the same, and the sharp points of their chins.
"You could be twins. Does everyone in Tortall look like that?"
"No," the Lioness said flatly. "Just my twin and I."
Buri blinked. "I thought Shang didn't have families."
"We don't." The Lioness sighed and rubbed at her nose. "But yes, he's my twin."
"And you're both here," Buri said slowly. "By accident." Her distrust for Lord Thom came flooding back, and with it a heightened awareness that the Lioness could have her in the dirt before she could blink.
Something of her fear must have shown in her face, because the Lioness swore again and dropped to a sitting position. It didn't make Buri feel any less outclassed, but she appreciated the attempt. "Not by accident. But it's not like that, either."
"You were following him?"
"Not exactly. I wanted to get here first."
"Why?" Buri demanded.
"Because he--" The Lioness cut herself off, and bit her lip. "Whatever he offers you, he can't be trusted."
"I don't," Buri said promptly.
The Lioness gave her a flicker of a smile. "There's a rumor," she said carefully, "that you have the Dominion Jewel."
"Thayet?" Buri asked, pushing her way into their tent and squinting into the unexpected violet-tinged dimness. Thayet was sitting cross-legged on a rug, the Dominion Jewel in her palms, meditating. She opened her eyes slowly, looking puzzled.
"I thought you were busy training."
"I was." Buri swallowed. "The Lioness wanted to talk with you."
Thayet tugged at the strings of her belt pouch, preparing to tuck the Jewel away.
"And you think it's important. I don't have much time before I need to go help prepare for the feast, but I can do this later. Where is she?"
"Here," Buri said, nudging the tent flap open a little wider. The Lioness slipped through and stopped, her gaze caught by the Jewel.
"So it's real," the Lioness said.
Thayet's gaze flicked between the Lioness and Buri. "Yes. Buri--"
"She already knew," Buri said in a rush. "And she--tell her what you told me."
The Lioness crouched down just inside the tent flap, making no move toward Thayet. "There have been rumors for months, now, that the Jewel is here."
"We've told no one," Thayet said carefully. "The K'mir have suffered enough. We don't want power, or prominence. Only to be left in peace."
"I know. But the clans gathering together, the lowlanders retreating--it's the sort of thing that makes people wonder. And there have been visions among the Gifted. Even I see it, when I'm tired. A great power, back in the world. It's hard to miss."
Thayet closed her eyes briefly. "I suppose we couldn't hide it forever. You won't be the first to come looking for it."
"I'm not the first," the Lioness said drily. "That would be Lord Thom. Buri told me," she explained.
Thayet rubbed at the bridge of her nose. "It would be a great coup for King Roger, to have the Dominion Jewel."
"Not just a coup." The Lioness sounded tired. "You don't know what things are like in Tortall, since Roger took the throne. The Gift is his passion. In the early years, there was no spell he and Lord Thom discovered that they didn't want to test. And now--there are monsters that steal souls roaming freely through the desert, and demons that lurk on the roads. Droughts in spring and floods in summer. Strange diseases that take whole towns, things the healers can't touch. It doesn't matter that they've stopped their spell casting. The land is near to breaking."
Thayet's fingers clenched around the Jewel. "And he wants more power," she said softly.
The Lioness nodded. "To fix what he's done, he'd say. And maybe he would. He has to. He's kept the nobles pacified, as best he can, but the commoners are near to open revolt. But after?" She grimaced. "He can't be trusted with that kind of power. So I came here to keep it from him."
"Did you?" Thayet asked. "Or did you come here to take it for yourself?"
The Lioness stiffened. "I would never steal it."
"But you would take it if I offered it," Thayet said.
Buri made a soft sound of protest and shifted her weight, ready to move but not knowing which way to turn. Thayet and the Lioness paid her no notice, too busy locking gazes with each other.
"Yes," the Lioness said.
Thayet tilted the stone in her hand, watching the violet facets flare in the tent's dim lamp light. "Sometimes I wonder why Chitral let me take it. I was going to leave Sarain, you know. Leave, and never come back. But once I had it--it does things to you. It binds you to the land as much as it binds the land to you." She smiled slightly. "Your King might be surprised, if he did take it."
"He's not my King," the Lioness said sharply.
"No," Thayet agreed. She closed her fingers. "And I can't give you the Jewel. I'm sorry for your land, but my people--my people need it, too."
The Lioness looked, for a moment, like she wanted to argue. "You're a good ruler," she said, finally. "I wish--well. I'll help you protect it."
"We've protected it so far," Buri interjected.
"But not from a mage like my brother."
"Magic is cheating," Buri muttered.
The Lioness gave her a tired smile. "I agree. He doesn't see it that way."
"And neither do I, since I'm holding the age's most powerful artifact in my hands," Thayet said drily. She studied the Lioness's face for a moment. "Your--brother, you said. Do you think he'll listen to you?"
"I'd like to say yes," the Lioness said. There was tension in her voice, for all that she kept her tone matter-of-fact. "But no. I don't think he's ever really forgiven me for leaving."
"That doesn't make what he's done your fault," Thayet said gently.
The Lioness's eyes blazed briefly. "I didn't come here for sympathy. I came here to help you."
Thayet nodded, conceding the point. "He is a guest here, whatever you claim--"
"Everything I've said is true!"
"And I want to trust you." Thayet raised a hand, making a soothing gesture. "You've been straightforward, at least, which is more than I can say about him."
"And she hasn't tried to marry you off," Buri muttered.
Thayet coughed. "But he is a guest, and we cannot attack him based on what he might do in the future. We will need more proof."
"Proof of what he's done in Tortall?"
"Proof that he means to take the Jewel, whether or not I consent."
"There's no one here he's likely to confide in," the Lioness objected. "He's not going to warn you. I'm sure he'd rather have you and the Jewel. It would be easier. But the moment he realizes you won't marry Roger, he'll take it and be gone. It doesn't matter how hard you watch. He can move it without touching it, without being seen."
"The Jewel has a mind of its own," Thayet reminded her.
"And are you willing to gamble on that?" the Lioness demanded.
Thayet studied the Jewel for a moment. "No," she said finally. "So we'll give him an opportunity to take it."
The Lioness sucked in her breath, ready to object.
"He's not the only one who can move without being seen," Buri interjected. "You want me to plan an ambush?"
Thayet nodded. "And we'll see if he takes the bait."
The gathering tent was a riot of color and movement with the whole clan crowded in for the equinox feast. The Hau Ma had been the smallest of the clans, once, but that was before Thayet and the Jewel she carried. And before the war had left so many clans orphaned and sundered, their scattered members seeking homes.
Lord Thom was there as well, of course, a black-clad shadow beside the brightly beaded and appliqued clan members. He settled onto the cushion next to Thayet, though not, Buri noted with some spite, gracefully.
"Have you thought about our earlier conversation?" he asked Thayet. He ignored Buri.
"As you can see," Thayet said, spreading her hands to indicate the crowded tent and the platters of food that lined the western side, "I've been busy. Preparing for the feast takes time and attention. So will considering your offer. I'm afraid hospitality comes first."
"A warleader and a cook. I can see why the K'mir value you highly."
"We value each other," Thayet said coolly.
"Of course." He gave her a half bow, smiling. "Did you ever worry, though?"
"About your reception, here, as the Warlord's daughter."
"Kalasin's daughter," Buri snapped out before Thayet could answer. "Kalasin's daughter will always be welcome among the clans."
For the first time, Lord Thom glanced past Thayet to look at Buri directly. His violet gaze was intense, penetrating--and then gone, as his attention was caught by something in the crowds behind her.
"Do keep considering," he advised Thayet. "For now, I beg your pardon. Your Highness."
He didn't wait for an answer, but pushed himself to his feet and was gone. Buri craned her neck around, not caring how obvious the gesture was, and saw Lord Thom step to the Lioness's side where she had just entered the tent.
Buri couldn't hear Lord Thom over the crowd, but she could see the Lioness stiffen, dropping nearly into a fighting crouch. Lord Thom looked perfectly relaxed.
"Do you trust her?" Thayet asked quietly, interrupting Buri's attempt at eavesdropping.
"Me?" Buri was the warrior, the guardian. It was Thayet's job to read people. It always had been.
"You. You've known her longer than I."
Buri swallowed. "Yes. I do."
Then the Lioness was spinning on her heel and stalking toward them, leaving Lord Thom behind by the entrance to the tent. He was standing in shadow, and Buri couldn't quite make out his expression. She supposed it didn't matter.
"Talking with him wasn't part of the plan," Thayet pointed out when the Lioness reached them.
"I know. I had to try, anyway." She grimaced. "It didn't help."
Thayet looked like she was about to say something, but instead she only nodded and carefully undid the pouch from her belt. "Keep it safe," she told the Lioness, and passed the pouch to her.
Buri could feel Lord Thom's eyes on them.
In the morning, the Lioness made her farewells to the clan. The sky was clear and blue, but there was a bite to the air that hadn't been there the day before. Fall was slipping away, and soon there would be no paths left open to the lowlands.
"I wish you could stay longer," Buri said. "I still haven't learned how to block that high kick."
To her surprise, the Lioness hugged her. "Keep practicing. I'll be back some day."
But Buri didn't think she would be. She had heard the other woman's voice when she talked about her homeland. With or without the Jewel, she had a long fight ahead of her.
"I will," she said anyway, and hugged the Lioness back.
Most of the clan had gathered to see the Lioness off, so it was easy enough for Buri to slip away into the crowd and join Onua on the ridge overlooking the trail.
When the Lioness and her small, shaggy pony at last left the clan, they followed from above. On ground this rough, it was easy for them to keep pace with the Lioness, especially since they knew the terrain better than her or her mount.
She stopped a little after midday at a culvert just off the trail, where a spring bubbled up through a crack in the cliff wall and trailed across mossy stones before vanishing into the pebbled earth. Buri settled into a crouch at the top of the cliff while Onua paced around her, casting wards.
"Are you sure that will hold?" Buri asked.
Onua gave her a look. "Twitchy today, aren't you? I don't care how good a mage he is. What I hide stays hidden."
"Sorry." Buri gave her a half-hearted grin and settled in to wait.
It was nearly evening when the sound of hooves came clopping down the trail. Lord Thom's mount was finer than the Lioness's pony, but less well-suited for the mountains. Buri could hear it whinny with protest every time the ground shifted beneath its feet.
The Lioness, crouched by a laid but unlit fire, didn't bother to stand, though she did set aside the harness piece she'd been mending.
Buri didn't have to struggle to eavesdrop, here. The words drifted up clearly from the base of the cliff.
"Sister mine," Lord Thom said, cordially enough. "I see your charms worked where mine were insufficient."
"You don't have any charms," the Lioness retorted. There was something almost rote to the response. When Lord Thom didn't reply, she sighed and rocked back on her heels. "You can sense it, then?"
"From miles and miles away. As you could, too, sister mine, if you didn't keep your magic bottled up like rare wine." With a flick of his fingers, he lit the fire. "May I see it?"
The Lioness's lips tightened, but she reached into the pouch at her belt and drew out the Jewel. The light cast by the fire was already purple, giving the gem a deeper, blood-tinged hue.
"You know Tortall needs it," Lord Thom said, almost softly.
"I know Tortall needs it," the Lioness agreed. "Not Roger."
"And who else has the power to wield it? If these savages can do what they've done without a touch of the Gift, just imagine how it will respond in his hands. He could heal the earth, sister mine. Banish the ghosts. Clean the waters."
"Bring back Trebond?" the Lioness asked steadily.
Buri couldn't read the look that flashed across Thom's face, but his tone was soft enough. "Build it better, even."
"And the people?" Her voice rose, harsh. "No, don't answer that. I'm sure he could bring them back from the dead. It won't change what he did, Thom. It won't change how you failed them."
"I failed them? Sister mine, you left first."
"I was destined for the convent, Thom. I was never going to be Lord. They were never going to look to me for protection."
He took a deep breath and rubbed at his temples. "I do regret it. You may not believe me, but I do. With the Jewel--we can fix things. We need it, Alanna."
She folded her arms across her chest, tucking the Jewel out of a sight. "No."
"So you'll give it to--who? That madwoman at Dunlath? Sister mine. There's only one way this ends."
The Lioness came up into a fighting crouch. "You'll have to kill me, first."
Lord Thom lifted a hand, violet power gathering at his fingertips. "Oh, no. I do love you, sister mine, even if you don't understand what needs to be done. I would never hurt you."
Buri had heard enough. If Lord Thom would take the Jewel from his own sister, who was bearing it to his own homeland, he would take it as easily from Thayet. What did he care about the K'mir and the protection they needed?
Buri's crossbow had been aimed since Lord Thom first rode into the culvert. She pulled the trigger, and watched the bolt whistle out of their warded hiding spot and bury itself in Lord Thom's back.
The Lioness stood slowly, and made her away around the fire to crouch at Lord Thom's side. She murmured something, but Buri was abruptly no longer interested in eavesdropping. She took the long way down to the trail, leaving the Lioness alone with her grief for as long as she could.
Onua parted ways from Buri when they returned to camp, leaving Buri alone to throw herself in Thayet's arms. She pulled back after a moment to scrabble at her belt for the Jewel's pouch.
"Here," she said, thrusting it at Thayet.
"It's a heavy burden," Thayet said quietly. "But it's done great things for our people."
"I know." Buri scrubbed at her eyes. "But I don't want to see it right now." She thought of the Lioness standing over her brother, thought of how the flames had risen, violet as the Jewel, to swallow his body. "I'm glad it's your burden," she confessed. "Not mine."
"Oh, Buri." Thayet kissed her forehead. "You're stronger than you think you are."
"Maybe. But you know how to lead people."
"I'm learning," Thayet said. Her hand stole into the pouch to stroke the Jewel's facets. She still held Buri close, but her eyes had gone distant. "What the Lioness said, about Tortall--"
"You're not having second thoughts, are you?"
"Not about giving it to her," Thayet said slowly. "But what she said about floods and droughts, about the danger on the roads. The lowlands are nearly as bad. The people are starving."
"Let them," Buri said, fiercely. "They aren't our people."
"Not your people," Thayet corrected.
Buri's arms tightened around Thayet. "You're K'mir, too."
"I am. But I'm also Sarain." She pulled the Jewel out with her one free hand and let it rest in her palm. "It's all one land, Buri. Different peoples, but one land. The Jewel doesn't know the difference. It's like I've been ignoring half my body. If I'm going to lead, it needs to be everyone. Lowlanders and K'miri, both."
Buri gaped at her. "You'll never convince the lowlanders."
"They're starving, Buri. They're starving and tired and at war with themselves. And the Jewel . . . I think it will help me find a way."
Buri swallowed and squeezed Thayet's hand. Unbidden, she saw the face of the raider she had killed only days ago--gaunt, eyes dull with exhaustion. None of that had stopped him from turning on her people, and so it had not stopped Buri from burying a blade in his chest. She had never thought another way was possible. She still wasn't sure she believed it. But trusting Thayet had brought her this far--across Sarain, to the Roof of the World, and home. "Us."
Thayet smiled at her. "Us, then. Come on." She tugged Buri toward their tent.
"Time to start plotting?" Buri said.
Thayet glanced out at the peaks that towered over the camp, their tops already well-coated with snow. "I think that can wait until spring," she said softly. She tucked the Jewel back into its pouch. "No. No plotting, now, or leading, or other people's schemes." She kissed Buri. "Just us."
Buri followed her inside.