"Be the first to take the world's trouble to heart, be the last to enjoy the world's pleasure."
Dawn Star carefully placed the dirt around the young plant, a bamboo shoot. It stood at the end of her garden, apart and away from the flowers, in the least sunny spot. That shoot would live, despite the shadows it lived in.
Perhaps it would be many years before other settlers came here and found the ruins of the old buildings, but in time, this garden would grow and it would be here to greet them.
Wu watched from the bridge, not wanting to disturb her friend. This garden was how Dawn Star was making her peace. They had come here, to the ruins of their home, to make a living memorial to the friends they had lost during the Two River attack. That shoot had been at Wu's special request.
When her friend wiped her hands and stood up, she said, "It looks beautiful, Dawn Star."
Her friend was surprised. "You're back already."
"I've prepared the campsite." An outlying hut was still intact and would put a roof over their heads. This close to the school, old wounds were opened; it was too much for either of them to bed down in the ruins of their home.
They fished by the waters and took their freshly caught dinner back to their makeshift home. They did not speak much. Words were harder here and seemed out of place, so they were used sparingly.
As they bedded down in their camprolls, Dawn Star asked, "Will you be going tomorrow?"
"I do not know." Wu stopped. She didn't know what else to say.
She stared at the stars that pierced the thatch of the hut and listened. The crickets and frogs were the most vocal inhabitants of Two Rivers, but once she heard the yip of a fox and the harsh cry of the night thrush.
Wu could not sleep so she got up to join them. The dark was a comfortable friend now; it was something else she carried with her from the Necropolis.
She was drawn to the water lapping at the shore. The old path was overgrown with grass, and plants were attacking the cracked statute of Sun Hai.
Her fingers curled, her foot snapped out and it was dust. She immediately regretted her anger, only because it had led to a futile gesture. Stone could not hurt her now. The Emperor was dead. Long live the Empress.
She stared at the light on the water. Long ago, there had a been a ship there and she had seen her first Lotus Assassin. He led bloodthirsty brigands, wielded raw magical power without a thought, and controlled the dead like a god. He had been decisive, cold, commanding, and utterly terrifying. That had been the first Lotus Assassin she had seen.
It was the second that had brought her home.
Sky was entertaining Dawn Star with a story while Kang tinkered with another invention; one that he had promised had no explosive properties. Zu was gone. Zu was often gone.
Dawn Star's laughter, Sky's exaggerations, the clink of metal on metal; all of it irritated her.
Wu stood up quickly and strode out of the campsite. Dawn Star called after her, but she smiled, showed that she had her sword with her, and kept going. She didn't want questions or concern. She wanted to be alone. The pirates' lair had left her feeling drained far beyond a physical tiredness. She needed to find a place to clear her head and to rediscover her place in the world.
Tien's Landing was silent and the only light came from the lanterns outside the teahouse. She let her feet take her where they willed. They led her through the dark, behind the stilt dwellings. She stepped over a shallow creek and went over a fence. Then she found herself in a fallow field, now conquered by flowers and weeds, and lit by the stars.
There was a shadow, out of place. Her arms flowed to her side and all that was cold and sharp inside her went to her hands.
"What do you want?" Zu asked.
She relaxed and the ice evaporated into the air, a cold cloud in the summer air. "I didn't know anyone else was here. I'll leave you alone then."
"If you came here to interrogate me, that's a good idea." He turned away to stare at the flat muddy plain that stretched in front of them. "But if you're here to get away from Sky's inane babbling, feel free to stay."
Wu killed the smile that crept up her lips and sat on the ground, feeling the warm air and smelling the crushed flowers at her feet. The view - well, the view would be better when she closed the dam.
If she closed the dam. She hadn't decided yet.
After a few minutes, she realized that she had to think about Zu to remember that he was there. It should not have surprised her. He had admitted to being a Lotus Assassin; no doubt, shadows were his second home. Yet she was not as skilled as believed - or she had come to trust Zu too much - if she could not keep him in her awareness.
But she was not here to think about her companions. She closed her eyes and let herself drift on the air that moved around her.
Wu did not know how long she sat there, but she was no closer to finding heart's ease or peace of mind in the field and trees than she had when she had been surrounded by people. She stood up to leave.
Zu spoke out of the darkness. "You're restless."
"It's that obvious?" She ran her hand along the tops of the weeds. "At my school, Master Li would have us spar when we couldn't sleep. He said tired bodies would silence active minds."
"Your Master Li was not different in that respect from any master," Zu said, moving away from the tree. "I could do with a stretch. Let's spar."
She was surprised, but not displeased. Here was someone who had not only training but life experience. This would be much better than any sparring session at Two Rivers and less dangerous than the fighting she had been doing. "I would be honored."
Night blooming flowers, starlight, and the dead were their only witnesses. They bowed and then began.
Her hands snaked out, but he had her wrists. She tried to put her foot behind his knee, but his footwork was too quick. She broke free and took a step back.
Here was something she hadn't had in awhile - a challenge.
She didn't have much time to be thankful. Where had he kept his staff? - yet there it was in his hands and she had to leap and roll to scoop up Fortune's Favorite. She brought it up just as Zu brought his staff down upon her head.
His momentum brought the edge of her sword within an inch of her scalp. Hairs shorn off by her own sword drifted down in front of her eyes as he pressed the edge closer.
Her arm trembled. Zu was not fighting like the students at her school whose sole wish was to learn. He was not even fighting like a mercenary, spurred on by money and fear. Zu's style was backed by something much darker and much more powerful. A misstep with him would earn her more than a bruise.
She focused and pushed away with everything in her. Zu stumbled back. He recovered and swung the staff in circles, forcing her backwards. He had the advantage in reach and strength. She would have to disarm him immediately with her sword or beat him with skill.
In a real fight, indecision would kill her. She dropped her sword and found the cold place, the place that had always been inside her. The ice came easily to her hands.
She threw the shards at his face. He blocked the first volley, but missed the ones that she aimed at his shoulders and stomach. She hit him in the wrist and he dropped his staff.
Wu pulled hard at the world. There was so much cold hidden in the muddy ground that had been buried under a lake and river only a few weeks ago and she brought it to the surface, around Zu. He was done.
Wu walked around the pillar of ice, a perfect sculpture of a Lotus Assassin. She struck it with her fist. The ice exploded and Zu stood there, gasping; his breath a cloud in the summer air. When he was composed, she bowed. "Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to spar with you."
She felt the air part in front of her and she caught him by the wrist. She pulled him forward, turned, and held her hand a finger's width away from the pressure point on the side of his throat, then let him go.
"You were expecting that," he said. She may have even heard respect somewhere in his voice.
"Someone tried it before," she explained. "I won't fall for it twice."
He moved so fast that he had her back up against a tree. As his forearm crushed against her throat, she could feel his breath on her ear. "How about a third time?"
Before she could fight back, he let go and stepped back. Her hand went to her throat and she did not bow. Her voice rasped with pain and censure when she spoke. "And what did that teach me? Trust no one?"
"Trust whomever you like," Zu said. "That was a lesson about your enemy. Assassins, once given an order, won't stop to fulfill it. They will keep coming at you while they have breath in their bodies. Do not drop your guard. Do not show them mercy."
She did not like being lectured. Only Master Li had that privilege. "I know this."
"Do you? Where one falls, another takes his brother's place. Are you prepared for that? Once you've declared Death's Hand as your enemy, you are at war with every Assassin in the Empire."
If she believed that, then there was no hope and Master Li was as good as dead. "There are always exceptions," she protested.
"You have the exception," he said sharply. "There won't be another."
He left her there in the field with her sword at her feet. She did not follow him.
As she remembered the feeling of being trapped between the tree and the man, her face grew flush. She told herself it was because she had been taken off-guard.
Master Li would have been disappointed in her.