Anzi didn’t want to know how Ash had managed to convince him. All she knew was that Kai was in a towering mood, terrible and brooding, and she could feel it from across the camp. It was fainter here in Qinglong’s tent that had somehow become extremely crowded within the last day—Oza and Letti as well as all three of her dragons along with Rania, too—but she could sense Kai’s anger nonetheless. Something had changed between them without her even noticing, something beyond simple attraction and other mundane feelings. Maybe it had been back when he first kissed her on the bridge, or maybe it had been that day when she had sat by him, watching the healers labor to save his life before the basilisk poison could kill him. Or maybe it had been during the flight here, when she had first tasted real freedom away from the shadow of the Empire.
But things were different now, and the part of her that used to be afraid of defining those very changes—wasn’t so afrai
“You’re running away. I never thought you could be so timid.” “It’s not about being timid. I knew he would try to stop me. Doesn’t matter what you told him, he would have changed his mind in the end and gotten in my way.” “Oho, what a chill I feel in the middle of all this heat. Tell me, how do you think he will feel when he wakes up to see you gone?” “Don’t try to guilt me.” Anzi straightened her uniform. It was in tatters, missing a forearm bracer, a shoulder guard, waist split, half of one pant leg missing. That night in the Imperial City had torn a hole or burst seams in just about everything, especially after the fight with Doufan and the collapse of the dungeon. Even the flight in Shu-Amunet’s massive claws had done their share of damage. But all the better. It would make her story of forced kidnapping more plausible. “No guilt, then,” Ash snickered. “But some regret? You must be wishing you
“It’s impossible.” “Obviously, it’s not,” Anzi snarled, and she shoved Ash’s shoulder in a vain attempt to send her away. But the old woman only stumbled to the side and continued staring into the distance at the unmistakable shape of dragons in flight. “Go! Do you realize what they’ll do if they catch you with me? They’ll drag you along no matter what I say!” “This makes no sense. There’s not a Druid among them. They can’t sense you. Can’t sense us.” “If you had listened to me—” No. This wasn’t the time to argue. It would solve nothing. Ash was here and they would take her prisoner if she didn’t get away in time, assuming they hadn’t seen her yet from the sky, but worse, they were too close. Too close! It hadn’t been but a few hours since they had left Kai’s camp, and a dragon in flight could cross the distance they’d traveled in a tenth of that time. She knew better than to hope Bisset wasn’t among them, too, and
Please, take him back, she begged as she struggled to keep her face stone-solemn and unaffected. It’s not too late. Ash, you know what the plan was. Take him back! All of them! This was the plan all along, and it’s time you learn to put your faith in fate. This is your destiny. Not just yours, but everyone’s, and you have to rise to meet it. This is what you were born into the world to do, to be. If you believe nothing else, then believe in that. What do you mean, this was the plan? Ash! Last night when you begged me to lie to Kaizat, did you think I’d done it? I didn’t. What I told him was to trust me just as I’m telling you to trust me now, and he did. Do you know it? I’ve guided the half-dragons since before he was born, for the last two hundred years since they dispersed and wandered and gathered together at last, one by one. I was there when their grandfathers’ grandfathe
Anzi had no time for a poetic entry into battle. She had no time for battle either while she was at it and hoped desperately she could be more assassin instead, striking at vulnerable heart and tearing apart the enemy before they could fight back and resist. But that was impossible. She was faster than any ordinary man, stronger and more agile even in this battered state she’d earned from the night of the great battle, but these men were riders too. First Guards, men of the Premier just like her. Of course she never made it to a killing stroke on the first try and in the first moments of what could only end in the bloodiest ways. “Get her down!” Benhad shouted from her right, so she went to the left with deadly slices of her sword, aiming for whatever part of the closest man she could reach. When she found only air, she didn’t stop: she pressed on, dashing after her target who backed up into his motionless dragon as he drew his own weapon. She had to br
Was there nothing else she could do? Nothing at all? Anzi took a deep and angled slash to her midriff that tore the tattered remains of her uniform almost completely in two while at the same time, beheading Benhad at last in exchange, and yet it wasn’t triumph she felt but stunned disbelief. She had thrown her faith into Ash’s words because she had no choice but to fight on anyway, but here that faith proved futile as ever. Five newcomer dragons in the fight, some of them rivaling Kai’s generals in size, and the five First Guards riding atop them as well. Outnumbered, outpowered, fighting like this would mean everyone died. No path to victory, no opening, no vulnerability to exploit. And for every one she might find if she looked hard enough, the shifter tribe had a dozen more. Please, she begged the gods, the spirits, even herself. The fate and destiny Ash insisted would meet her here, where were they? Please, let there be something I can do, she screa
She was exhausted but unable to sleep as Ash transported her and Kai back to camp. Qing had implored him not to go, but there was no dissuading him now that his men were stable and those who could be saved had been saved. After all, those were his men back at camp, too, the ones who had had to remain behind. No one said a thing as the Oasis slithered through the sands. Kai, despite how exhausted he must be and fearing for his defenseless men on top of that, took Anzi to the spring and bathed her gently. Her wounds refused to close, and even when he slid his hands over them to try to impart healing power through their mate bond, they remained angry and red and gushed blood anew anytime she shifted too much. “It’ll be all right,” he murmured as he kissed her wounds while she sat numbly in the water. “We’ll be there soon.” Soon wasn’t enough. Night was already falling, and it had been that long since she heard Netra’s