67

She giggled, the sound high and near maniacal, as she looked up at the Anointed One who stood beside her, his face carefully arranged into a stoic mask, black eyes so light they were nearly grey reflecting the dancing flames that had nearly swallowed Ahkshen in the distance.

She watched as he lowered the longbow and his shooting hand, shaking his fingers out with gentle flicks. She could still hear soft twang-thwung of the bowstring vibrating, could still hear the unnatural whistle of the feather-tipped arrows he’d loosed one after the other faster than she could track down into the city-village.

She didn’t ask what — or who — his target was. His skill with a bow, a longbow specifically, was unmatched and well known, and there was only one thing in Ahkshen spread at the base of the plateau that was worth shooting at. Only one thing not consumed by the fires that had ravaged the city-village with a ruthlessness that took her breath away. And she did not doubt that the Anointed One had hit that mark perfectly.

Part of her, a part long buried and nearly dead, whispered that she should feel bad for being the reason so many orphaned young, why so many innocents in general, were dead, but she silenced it quickly. Because in truth, she wasn’t the reason that this had happened at all. If the Coward King had lived up to his promises and his true namesake, the Worlds wouldn’t be in shambles. If that worthless excuse for a Qishir hadn’t murdered Qishir Lulphé, the Worlds wouldn’t be at war.

So every death, every act of bad luck, every loss no matter how large or small, was solely the fault of the Coward King. And she and her ilk, with the Anointed One at their head, would see that Rhyshladlyn paid for every last transgression.

“Your thoughts are very loud,” the Anointed One admonished as he vanished out his bow and quiver.

“My sincerest apologies, Honored One,” she replied, hands clasped together in front of her as she pressed her thumbs to her forehead between her eyebrows in a sign of great respect.

“At ease, Axcil,” his voice was as endless and wise as the sea waves that crashed against the rocks far below them and it made her skin break out in shiver-bumps. “You did well today, I am very proud of you. I will admit using Imènian fire to corner Nhulynolyn and Azriel was ingenious.”

Her breath caught at the praise for it was rare. She sank to her knees before him and bowed over his feet, her hands pressed to either side of them, fingers itching to stroke his legs, to see that he was indeed very real stood here giving her praise she hadn’t fully earned yet.

“There is much more to do yet,” he continued, utterly uncaring of her genuflecting at his feet. “But I have great faith in you to succeed.”

“Thank you, Honored One.” It took great effort to keep her voice from shaking as she rose to her feet and followed his line of sight to where the orphanage had been. “I will succeed in your name and bring you honor, I swear it.”

For long moments they stood and watched the city-village burn in silence; the Anointed One’s presence beside her solid and thunderous yet soothing all at once. His power a whispering spring breeze that held off the hint of winter’s chill coming off the Uthiel Sea. In quiet moments like this, she was able to admit that she had missed the feeling of him so close; had missed his presence even if she understood why she was sent so far from him when many of her sisters and brothers and siblings were not.

“Do you think the Grey Qishir still lives?” she asked, flinching the second the words were out of her mouth. She hadn’t meant to speak them aloud to him, as though she were questioning his skill.

But for all that she had expected to be punished, the Anointed One just held up one of his hands, long fingers spread wide, and stared at it for a long moment before a soft smile twisted his lips. It held a million secrets woven around the type of sadness born of abandonment and hopelessness. The sight of that smile made her back itch around the stones embedded along her spine.

“Were we only so lucky,” he answered at length before dropping his hand to his side and rolling his shoulders as he looked at her, those black eyes still a shade so light there were nearly grey unnervingly intense. “Attack him now, whilst he is weakened and his Other is removed from the game board, Axcil. Do not disappointment me.”

Before she could say anything in response he was gone and she was left standing on the plateau alone. She wondered why he’d looked at his hand as though it held the answer to her question, wondered why he’d looked so incredibly sad when he’d spoken, wondered what had driven him to become the Anointed One and lead a group of dedicated followers to bring about Rhyshladlyn’s end.

But it wasn’t her place to question such things.

With a flick of her fingers she caught the Shaozae Line that ran directly over where the Ahkshen orphanage had been. When she was within range, she dropped and landed on the other end of the courtyard from where Rhyshladlyn knelt in a growing puddle of his own blood, skin marked and streaked with soot and ash, orange-amber eyes bright and filled with an oldness that made her heart stutter, body riddled with the Anointed One’s arrows.

It took only half a heartbeat for the Grey Qishir, the Coward King, to see her.

The look on his face when he did was priceless and she smiled at him.

“Greetings, brother. Did you miss me?”

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