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from Born to Die by Kat Frost

Chapter 10
The Warriors Three

The shouting reached my ears before we’d even reached the dusk-darkened main square.

“The Warriors Three! Look, here they come!”

“Sajia Tiet’fa! Sajia Tiet’fa! Borri Alka’ad! Paathke Hogran!”

“Protect our city, protect our kingdom!”

“All hail the heroes, the Warriors Three!”

“Please!” A woman thrust her way to the front of the crowd, earning angry glares and mutters, a baby clasped in her arms. She stepped across our path to the castle, turning the child’s face toward me. “Please, give my baby your blessing,” she pleaded. “He’s all I have now that his father’s gone, and I can’t lose him too.”

I was at the center, Borri and Paathke to my right and left and a little behind. This was a common occurrence. We were the city’s favored heroes, and they seemed to consider me something of a goddess. Perhaps it was my elf blood; still distant and mysterious, but exalted rather than hated and feared. I wasn’t sure this was any better. I was reluctant to encourage them, but the woman was desperate and I could see the despair in her eyes. There was no power in my blessing, but there was hope to these people, and anything to give them hope was better than nothing at all.

I rested a hand on the baby’s head and whispered a prayer, kissed his forehead, and straightened.

“You will protect him better than I or any blessing of mine,” I murmured to his mother.

Her eyes widened and she stumbled back into the crowd’s embrace, dazed. So many people treated my words as prophecies in encounters like this. But the truth remained: she was his mother, and she clearly loved him – she would protect him better than me, despite the fact that so many Azurians looked to me and the Warriors Three as guardian angels to save them from their troubles.

The cheers pounded at my skull, the sea of faces swimming in and out of focus all the way to the castle gates. But like all battles, I’d learned to survive these moments. At least they weren’t fatal.

“Sajia Tiet’fa! Warriors Three!” A girl, several years younger than me, perhaps sixteen, flung herself onto her knees in front of me. She was exhausted and bedraggled, covered in dust. “Please, I need your help!”

I took her shoulder and gently urged her to her feet. “I’m not a queen,” I said. “You don’t need to kneel. What’s the matter? You look done in.”

For a moment, just how bone weary she truly was flashed in her eyes. “My brother,” she whispered, too awestruck to form complete sentences.

“What about him?” Paathke thumped her shoulder encouragingly. “We won’t eat ya, kid. Can’t promise we can help, but then, maybe. Speak on up, don’t be shy. Woman up!”

“Paathke,” I said warningly, “not helping.”

“I came all the way from a village not far from Gae Bolg,” the girl stammered.

"Savage country,” Borri murmured. “Isn’t that infested with the native savages of Azure, that area? I thought it was practically uninhabitable by regular Azurians.”

The girl nodded. “Only a few dare, those too poor to live elsewhere.” She gestured vaguely, indicating herself. “Mostly, if we stay away and don’t bother them, the savages don’t bother Azurians. My brother and I... we’re on our own. Been trying to survive these last few years. Had to move to savage territory. We were fine for several years. Last fortnight, they went on a rampage. Every Azurian living in that area... They burned houses, crops, killed animals, some people too. Took some prisoners, but only a few, maybe ten. My brother hid me in a barrel in our cellar, but there was no one to hide him. They found him, took him away. When I got out and crept outside, the house was burning, and they were gone.”

“Umm...” Paathke began.

“You’re brother probably didn’t make it,” Borri said, resting a hand on her shoulder. “I’m so sorry. The savages seldom take prisoners.”

“But I saw him!” Her eyes dilated with panic. “I saw through the planks of the barrel. I watched them truss him up and haul him off! If they were going to kill him they would have right then. He’s still alive! Can’t you do something? Save him? Please?”

My heart swelled with pity and sympathetic pain. She had trekked all the way from Gae Bolg across most of Azure with little or no silver, no horse, and probably no food, just to beg for help from the only people she believed cold help her brother.

“I’ll speak to the king about it personally,” I said. “We can’t go on any missions without his leave, but I’ll see if I can convince him.”

Her shoulders slumped, and I watched the tiny flame of hope dwindle in her eyes. “Thank you,” she whispered.

I glared ferociously at the crowd, trying to look impressive and intimidating. “Well?” I demanded. “Who in Varmouth is so calloused that they’d refuse help to this poor soul? She needs food, shelter, new clothes. We’ll do our part to help her; will the rest of the Azure fail to act?”

Almost as one, people surged forward, warm shushing voices saying comforting things, welcoming the girl to this home or that, offering help from a dozen quarters. It was this about me that Paathke said made me dangerous, my ability to sway a crowd.

“Watch out,” she’d say, “or the king will get jealous and think you mean to steal his throne. Wooing a crowd is all fine and good when you’re helping people, but if he so much as dreams that you’re planning a coup for the throne, bam, you’re out of the game, sister.”

Borri usually put it more gently, but I worried them both. I worried me too, but in the moment, I never could seem to stop myself. How could you look at that pitiful desperate girl and not do anything you could to help her?

We made it safely into the castle courtyard without further incident and headed straight to the throne room.

“You think we can afford another job?” Borri murmured in my ear. “We never catch a break at this rate; every time we come back, there’s someone on the doorstep pleading for help.”

“You wouldn’t have left her hanging,” I said, keeping my eyes straight ahead. “I know you better than that.”

There was a pause. “No, I don’t suppose I could have.” Borri sighed. “But there’s never time for... anything else. And I know that’s at least as important to you as to any of us.”

I knew he meant finding a way out of the Eternals without being eternally hunted and locked up and tortured. “I know,” I said. “But it’s not like I can choose about being hero-worshipped and drawing crowds begging for help. If you want to help people, which I do, particularly if you have exceptional powers, which we do, then you’re going to draw them like bees to sugar water.”

“Well, you can choose,” Paathke observed thoughtfully. “You can choose to say no to all supplicants. That’d reduce the amount of askers and hero-worshippers in one go. But I don’t think that’s an option on your table.”

“No,” I agreed. “We’ll just have to keep going with it and keep our eyes open for opportunity and hope it doesn’t betray everything we stand for so we can take it.”

Petronius was not on duty, but a different servant left us in the anteroom while he went, he said, to see if the king was disposed. He was always disposed. Even if it was the middle of the night, he was always disposed for Eternal business.

“He won’t be happy,” Borri said, breaking the tense silence.


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