“Will they rise?” asks Eun as she ties back her silver hair, ready for battle.
“We have fed these people, given them hope.”
Fai wasn’t as confident as he made out, but as his mother was wont to say, Bravery is in the belief.
Eun jerks her thumb at the stack of sacks behind them, each stenciled with the tree and coin mark of Golden Orchard Estate. “We fed them with stolen rice. We made them accomplices to our own hopes. In the eyes of the Imperial Court, they are as good as dead.”
Fai’s mother had another saying. Courage is born when choices die.
“They could have turned us in.”
“They still might.”
“No. They will rise. The generals have bled our people bone dry while the Dracai live their bright and comfortable lives. We are the spark that will ignite a million fires. The Dracai will be forced to leash their infernal hounds, to govern with care, lest they face the full fury of the Volcai.”
Eun claps her hands, slow and sardonic. “Well done for remembering your mother’s speech.”
“You don’t believe it?”
“When I see it, boy.”
The hours crawl by, restless yet sluggish like a river of lava. This is Fai’s first mission for the rebellion. The raids against Phaelin’s caravans and estate were the gathering of kindling. Here the spark will take, the fire will bloom. The fighting man in him boils with excitement, ready to pour all of his anguish, all of his anger upon these imperial oppressors. The frightened boy in him thrashes against his resolve, aching to flee back to Taoking, to hide among the glowing trees of the Forest of Flames and never come out.
It is almost a relief to see the dust cloud in the distance, almost a pleasure to see General Riku’s vanguard poke its head like a giant black snake out of the foothills.
“So he does want his merchant back,” says Eun.
Fai glances at the bound and gagged woman. Phaelin, purveyor of coal and rice, a woman of gold living off the salt of her serfs.
“Money talks when reason falls silent.”
“That another of Min’s bloody sayings?”
“No, one of mine.”
“Then you’re smarter than you look.”
Fai taps the scarred side of his face. “I remember my lessons.”
The old burn feels hot, inflamed, like his village the night Riku’s soldiers took Dromai. The night he fled with the survivors into the forest. The thought of his sister only fans the flames of his anger. His sweating palms itch, yearning for the grip of his sword, but he breathes through the smoldering emotions; forces himself to calm.
“They have to listen to us. To the people.”
The admiration fades from Eun’s gray eyes. “I take it back. You are as dumb as you are ugly.”
“We capture General Riku.” Fai puts some steel in his voice, reminding Eun who is in charge of this mission. “We use him as a bargaining tool in our negotiations with the Emperor. That’s the plan.”
Eun draws her sword, tests the edge with her thumb.
“You hear me?”
She shrugs. “Hope he’s bringing some Dracai with him. Did you know Dragon blood steams as it spills?” Something furtive flickers in Eun’s eyes. “So I’m told.”
There is more she’s not telling him, but Fai figures now is not the time to pry. “If there are Dracai, we take them alive. They must see how we live, how we suffer, with their own eyes. Torvai changed. So can they.”
Eun turns away from him; sizes up the approaching army. “Torvai was a dangerous fool.” She carves a lazy figure eight in the air, working and warming her wrists. “There are many roads to Ashvahan, Fai. The trick is not to die before you get there.”
“Wasn’t planning to, Eun.”
They wait and watch as Riku’s army spreads like tar across the fields and farms. The soldiers settle in, occupying key positions as they prepare for an assault from within. Fai waits until they are comfortable, compromised, and lights the bonfire.
Rebels throw off their Cintari disguises, mercenary allies turning to zealous enemies before the imperials’ startled eyes. Farmers pounce from hatch and hole, using their knowledge of the land to throw their unwitting visitors into chaos. Riku’s carefully chosen positions become deathtraps as his soldiers clash with rebels on all sides.
Fai and Eun charge with their veteran ninjas down the hillside. They puncture the enemy’s flank like a dagger slipping between plates of armor. Sword points stab at frightened faces and pierce screaming throats. Blades slice through raised wrists and craning necks. Like reapers in a field, the raiders harvest life and limb, quenching the earth with imperial blood.
Yet for every soldier that falls to rebel ferocity, three farmers fall to the cold, hard rigors of military training. Hammers and axes are no match for spears and halberds. Anger is no match for discipline. The people wail and weep as friends and family fall. Some surrender, some run, leaving Fai’s ninjas to face the empire alone.
“Cowards!” hisses Eun.
Again, Min’s words ring through the din of battle. Bravery is in the belief.
Though his weary muscles ache, his lungs gasp for breath, Fai meets a charging foe with a perfect strike that takes the man’s head clean off. Hot blood spatters across his chest and face.
Through the pulsing heart of the battle, Fai sees the raven-haired general upon his flame-maned steed. He remembers the cruel lines of that lean face, the gleam of the Imperial Dragon on his golden breastplate. He remembers the flames of his burning village reflected in those dark eyes.
“To me!” roars Fai.
He blocks a lunging halberd and drives his sword through the wielder’s face, splitting the soldier’s skull like an apple.
As he tugs his blade free, he feels rather than sees Eun and the remaining rebels fall in behind. Their courage fuels his own and he leaps once more into the fray.
Bloodied imperials tumble to the ground as Fai’s fighters slash a path through the melee. They do not stop, do not even pause for breath, until Fai is but a sword’s length from General Riku.
“Where are those bedamned, Dracai?!”
It is a desperate screech from Riku to a bewildered lieutenant. Fai sees the glistening fear in the general’s eyes. He surges forward to make the most of the man’s moment of weakness, only to collide with a clifface of muscle and hardened leather. The giant bodyguard growls like a charbear and swings at Fai with a broad-bladed battleax. Though Fai spins away as quick as his reflexes will allow, the soldier’s speed belies his bulk. The ax tip scores a searing line across Fai’s side.
Yet the pain only serves to drive the battle-wariness from Fai’s limbs. It lifts the exhausted fog from his mind. He sees a way to reach the general and takes it.
Fai feints high, then drives his sword through the bodyguard’s meaty thigh. The weapon sticks fast. Fai doesn’t yank it free. Where he’s going, he won’t need it. This mad endeavor will either work or he’ll be dead, and his brave rebels with him.
The man howls with rage and raises his ax to squash the unarmed ant before him. Fai catches hold of his breastplate, steps onto the sword handle jutting from his leg, and climbs him like a tree. From the surprised giant’s shoulders, Fai launches himself at Riku’s horse and lands astride its hind quarters.
Before Riku can turn to wonder at his passenger, Fai has the general’s own dagger at his throat.
He presses his lips to the man’s ear and hisses, “I am willing to die for my people. Are you?”
“Lay down your weapons!” It comes out as a squeak, but the closest lieutenant relays the order.
Hoarse shouts from nearby officers echo the general’s surrender. They are soon followed by the clatter of dropped spears and halberds. Fai can see the relief in the soldiers’ eyes. They didn’t want this fight any more than the farmers did. Perhaps some had cousins here, even brothers and sisters. The only difference between fighters and the farmers is whether they carry a halberd or a hoe.
Fai escorts Riku to their hilltop camp while the farmers and soldiers turn to the work of gathering and burning their dead. It becomes a shared chore. Most of these soldiers were farmfolk once. It is an easy return to their roots. Instinctual and welcome. Only a few need to be bound and watched. The city-born officers, groomed from birth to serve the Draconic codes.
Fai pitches in with his people, carting corpses with care, building pyres for their funeral rites. He works until dusk, until a scream from the hilltop sends him sprinting through the camp. He knocks down a woman bringing water to the wounded, barks a hasty apology, and continues running. Two more screams echo down from the hilltop before he gets there.
Phaelin’s final scream is cut off as Eun runs her blade across the merchant’s throat. Blood gushes over Eun’s knife hand and down the woman’s plush ashfur coat. Her painted eyes lose their luster and the richest woman in the east topples onto the dirt.
Nearby, Riku howls through his gag and struggles with his bonds.
“No,” growls Fai. “This is the way of revenge, not revolution.” He points down the hillside at the toiling Volcai. “Our numbers have already grown. Word is spreading.”
“What better way than to write those words in blood? Let the Dracai read their doomed futures in freshly gutted entrails.” Eun sinks her knife into the twitching woman’s belly and opens her from flank to flank.
Fai looks away as the gorge rises in his throat. Eun laughs as she kneels beside the general and cleans Phaelin’s blood from her knife with Riku’s cloak.
“Too disgusted to hear what she had to say?”
“You tortured her. She would have told you anything to make you stop.”
Eun stands and shrugs. “Sounded true to me.”
She recites a list of the names and homes of the Dracai that Phaelin had taken an interest in. There is a mischievous glint in her eye as she says the last name, having kept the best to last.
The name is a slap to Fai’s face. His scars burn hot in his flesh. “You know where she is?”
“I told you there are many roads to Ashvahan, boy.” She points her bloodied dagger at General Riku. “The trick is knowing who to kill to get there.”
(To be continued...)