Facing off outside the caves, a dozen short grey humanoids, wide mouths full of sharp teeth, and bright, staring eyes, vs our four intrepid travellers, staggering from their painful memories and crude illusions. Shyan, in front, has her fists up and jaw set. Fassn flanks her, with Cang and Abia behind. “Well?” she asks.
The princess smirks. “Would Davit have approved of your haste?”
“Master Davit is dead,” Shyan says, her voice flat. “It was I who killed him. If you wish to kill me, know you won’t be the first to try.”
“Certainly not,” says the princess. “But we shall be the last.” She flicks her wrist and her retainers draw blowpipes and loose a wave of darts cut of splintered bone. Many reach Shyan’s skin, and she soon feels their poison coursing through her blood.
“I knew the moment I saw you fight in the square,” the princess says. “A village full of tall folk, and you, a young woman, striking with the Silent Mantis. Sliding into Hooking Crow. Techniques only Davit knew.”
Shyan perks up at the name. She stands steadily, rising from the floor, silent and intense.
“Of all people,” Old Mossy says. “I’m glad we finally found you.”
“The killer of Davit,” the princess says, a note of wonder in her voice.
“You are some of many,” Shyan replies. She pivots a foot into a defensive stance as her compatriots gather around her. Her eyes blaze. “Come,” she says, raising her fists. “You may have it.”
“Is there anything you do not wish to smell?” Cang asks.
Fassn cocks his head thoughtfully, then shakes it. “Nope. I wanna smell it all. If they’re coming now, I might get my chance.”
“They’re always coming,” Shyan says. “Master Davit was feared and beloved. I’ve put a price on my head — a price to be paid in honour and blood.” She seems to be speaking mostly to herself. “A day will come soon when it’s spilled.”
Just then, from outside the circle of the gang’s meagre camp fire, the crack of a twig underfoot.
“When I was in the deserts, eyes rose from the sands. When I moved through the jungles, hands rose out of the brush. In the mountains, blades swung down from the sky.” Shyan shifts in her seat, her eyes cold and focused somewhere deep in the past. “I pushed them all off, but still they came. Pretenders, mourners, opportunists. Master Davit’s fists — my fists — drove them off, one by one. I had killed him. I was all that was left of him. A cruel wind followed me. Still follows me.” She lifts her head, her eyes narrow. “I taste the bitter breeze.”
“When they came for me, I was ready. Thanks to Master Davit, so had so kindly made space for me under his wing, I could fight. I had killed him, yes. I mourn him still. But when they came for me, well… I killed again. He taught me how. More important, he taught me why. I slid from stance to stance, struck clean and true where needed. They had a lot to prove, each in his own way, for his own reasons. Me? I had nothing to prove. Nothing but love for my master, who taught me all. None could come against him. None could come against me. I struck, and wept, and soldiered on.” Shyan draws her knees to her chest. Her eyes are rimmed red. “They hunt me still.”
“When it happened I panicked,” Shyan says. “Held the traditional ceremony, strung the bunting. Buried him in the sky. But word got out. People knew, and they came for me. I took to the road after the mourning period, but I wasn’t fast enough.”
Cang coughs, the sound harsh and echoing across the rocks.
“All those who said I wasn’t worthy, well, they appeared again to tell me so. To prove it with their feet and their fists.” Shyan’s face is ashen, set with grim finality. “With mine, I showed them that I was.”
“Tell us of the good,” Abia says, her voice gentle but unyielding, like that of a patient mother.
“He taught me everything I know,” Shyan says plainly. “Each technique, each flowing movement, they all came from Master Davit.” She meets Abia’s eyes, her gaze intense. “He was loved and feared by all. And I—”
Cang and Fassn shift in their seats, leaning in to hear.
“—I was hated, for having got the space as his pupil. For having got it, and…” She squeezes her eyes closed, the tight lines around them paling. “And throwing that gods-damned punch.”