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The closer we get to the cry, the thicker the reeds grow.
“Don’t step on the shore,” Forziel cautions. “If we leave footprints or scent, it’ll undo all the extra work of leaving a decoy trail.”
Then a reed catches my sandal underwater. I wiggle free, only to stumble face-first into another stalk. I shove the reed aside and push forward.
The baby’s cry sputters. We surge upstream with renewed vigor. It’s anyone’s guess how long the infant has been out here. We need to find it.
By now, the sun has sunk without fanfare. The sky dims with every step we take. Shadows lengthen and deepen among the reeds.
The baby’s cries quiet.
One by one, we freeze in our search. I swallow to clear my ears.
The stream gurgles where it runs over rocks. The reeds rustle, soft and gentle, even when no breeze moves them. Nearby but invisible, a nighthawk’s pneet stands out against the repetitive calls of the spotted crakes pecking for supper along the bank. Away in the distance, a jackal barks.
But none of these sounds give the slightest clue about where we’ll find the baby.
“Aia, lead us to the child,” I whisper to the sky.
“Yes, do,” Nhardah agrees.
I start forward again, this time with more care. We all move slower, parting the reeds, peering into every dark shadow.
Saviayr’s quick intake of breath draws our attention. He blinks through parted reeds, then dives between them. By the time we follow, he’s cradling the tiniest baby I’ve ever seen in his arms. The child is utterly still.
I rest a hand on Saviayr’s shoulder and peer at the bundle. “Is it…” A lump in my throat chokes the rest of the words before I can speak them.
Savi brushes a finger over the baby’s cheek and rests it on the child’s chest. He must feel the lungs expanding in breaths, because the shoulder under my hand relaxes. “They’re alive.”
We collectively sigh in relief.
Nhardah comes up on Saviayr’s other side. His anxious eyes fix on the baby with affection and concern. “We need to get her home,” he says, “or she won’t be alive for long.” He brushes a hand over the child’s bald head.
“She?” Savi asks.
Nhardah raises an eyebrow. “Spend enough decades around babies, and maybe you’ll be able to guess their gender, too. But if you want to check, go ahead.”
Savi swallows. He opens his mouth, but Nihae plucks the baby from his arms. “Poor dear,” she croons. “You probably need a changing, anyways. Anyone have something we can use for a diaper?”
I grab the frayed edge of my ruined chemise skirt and rip. “Will this do?”
It takes longer than it should to clean the baby–indeed a girl–since we have to manage it in the middle of a stream. I hover at Nihae’s elbow and help when she gives directions.
Unwrapping the child–the first step–makes my breakfast sit uneasy in my stomach. Her skin clings to her ribs and arms. Nadina’s chubby baby brother comes to mind. That is what babies should look like, not like their skin barely covers their protruding bones.
Part way through the changing, her eyes flutter open. The sound she makes is a feeble imitation of what a cry should be.
Nihae hums the “Lullaby of the River” to her, the same song I sang to Pitka the night of the falling star. I brush a finger over the baby’s tiny fist.
She should be home, warm and safe, nursing from her mother, not starved and cold in the middle of a river.
This is why we are here. This is why I am going to the capital and risking everything on a foolish hope. This, and Elesekk’s death.
By Aia’s grace, we will defeat the Izyphorns and the aivenkaites, once and for all.
Nihae wraps the thin blanket back around the baby. Forziel shakes his head. “I didn’t know humans could be so small.”
Nihae starts at his voice, and frowns. “I’m sorry, but who are you?” she asks.
Savi and I look at each other, then at Forziel. He, in turn, is looking at us. “Mama,” Savi says, “this is Forziel, our guide. We met him last night?”
Nihae’s confused expression remains, even though she nods. “Oh, of course. I’m sorry. It’s just this memory of mine.”
Forziel nods slowly. “Right. Well, if you’re done, we oughta get moving. I think the town’s still a bit of a walk from here.” He turns north, and we follow. The banks have risen again when Forziel flinches. Something plunks into the river beside him. “Ow!” He grabs his shoulder and looks around.
A whoop makes my heart race. The hills move. Luemikaroeth flashes out before I consciously decide to pull the sword.
But wait–there are eyes in the hills, and arms, and feet. Only they’re not in the hills at all. Not aivenkaites, but a dozen humans flank us, running down the banks.
“Bandits,” Forziel curses.
“The baby,” Nihae worries.
I scan the outlaws closing in on us. They outnumber us, and we can’t easily outrun them. We’ll probably be able to get away, but the baby desperately needs care. Now is the time for the Firstborn to make good on his wish to do better. “Nhardah, take the baby and run. We’ll distract them here.”
He doesn’t hesitate, just snatches the infant from Nihae and sprints.
The bandits shout. A few break off and chase them.
I raise Luemikaroeth and shout in the Common Tongue. “Hey! He’s just trying to get a baby back to her parents. We’ll be much more worth your time.”
“You sure that’s a good idea?” Forziel asks, backing toward me and eyeing the bandits.
I scan the outlaws. They wear the same inconspicuous slave clothing as Forziel. Apart from the variety of skin and hair colors, what really distinguishes them is their adornments. I count them that way:
Three Rhilissi, with dozens of braids each.
Two Lariens, ear lobes clipped to honor their ancestor.
Two Umwians, with tattoos dappling their dark faces.
One Kedi, whose neck is circled by ropes of stone beads.
Three Maraians with chanavea.
“Just follow my lead,” I whisper to Forziel and the others. The bandits have stopped their pursuit of Nhardah at the command of the female Umwian. I brandish Luemikaroeth. “I am Raiballeon of the Charn family, a Maraian, and I am the enemy of Izyphor.”
“As are we all,” the Umwian calls back. She waves a hand, and the other bandits advance a few paces. “What makes you special?”
My mouth has gone dry. I try to speak anyways. “I am challenging the sultan. I am an elgarnoseth, a Champion, and the four of us are en route to the capital to demand Maraiah’s freedom.”
The Maraians, a man, woman, and boy, shift on their feet and glance at the Umwian woman. She tilts her head. “Then you are fools. You’re of no value, but I’m very interested in your weapons.”
“Onili,” the Maraian woman speaks up softly, “I heard rumors of them when I sneaked in to get supplies this morning. Our people’ve been waiting for a champion for years. They really think she’s it.”
The Umwian, Onili, flicks her eyes over the Maraian woman.
She adds, “She might be more valuable, just ‘cause of that.”
Onili looks back at me. I’m standing in front of Forziel and Nihae, and Savi is behind them. Even though I have Luemikaroeth out, I don’t know if I can use the sword against the bandits. Sending aivenkaites to the Void is one thing. Can I bring myself to take a human’s life?
“Those who spread death shall drink its violence themselves,” the kaites used to say.
My palm sweats on the sword’s grip. I stare at Onili, willing her to see us as a threat, begging her to think of the damage two swords could do against eleven people.
Instead, she must read my hesitation. A smirk flickers over her lips. “Grab them,” Onili orders.
The bandits spring on us.