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Ilsa has been wounded by the mysterious First, who also captured Tirica. Ilsa and Lemuel retreat to the village nearby.
When humans stand united, we can face any challenge and succeed.
Once a warrior had dug out the bullet, Siuku healed the wound in Ilsa’s stomach with a few careful presses of her hand. A bruise remained, painful and black, an artifact of the internal damage caused by the shot. Ilsa gave Siuku a grateful nod as the keeper replaced her veil. It hid her face except for her weary red eyes.
The keeper left the small room where Ilsa lay and went out to the parlor.
They were in a house in Atalem, with probably four hours until dusk. The Oshomi were making camp south of the village. Siuku had gathered forty riders from the bands they had encountered on their way east. Almost all of them were planning to stay near Atalem. From the village, it was only three days’ ride to Chogrum on horseback.
Ilsa groaned as she thought over the plan, lying on her back on a bed in the low-ceilinged Filami house built from packed Earth and tower grass. One of the few companions who would have gone all the way to Chogrum had just disappeared. She swore she would do everything she could to find Tirica.
She did not want to think of what her father’s apprentices would do to the girl if Ilsa took too long. Target practice looked optimistic, the way she saw it. Tirica had survived so much, and she had come so far. Ilsa would not let Black Powder just snap his fingers and have her killed.
She swung her legs off the bed. Voices came from the parlor, one obviously Siuku because of the monotone. The other belonged to Lemuel.
“I won’t just let them take my sister.”
“You cannot save her alone.”
“You think Ilsa won’t agree with me?”
“She may. But I suspect she will see things my way. We have a mission to ally with Chogrum.”
“My sister has saved me more times than I can count, keeper.”
“I am sorry about your sister. Truly. Right now we must do the greatest good we can.”
Ilsa made her way to the doorway of the parlor. She ducked her head to step out of the windowless bedroom. The parlor was almost as shadowy as the room she had just left. Only one small window let in sunlight. The door to the street out front was closed. Good. The villagers did not need to hear this argument.
“They could kill her,” said Lemuel softly, just as Ilsa stepped into the room.
Both Lemuel and Siuku’s eyes moved to look in her direction.
Siuku said, “That woman could have killed her already if she wanted. It would have been easier.”
Lemuel’s gaze remained on Ilsa. “Please, Ilsa.”
A cold pain mixed with the churn of her stomach to make her feel sick. “Lemuel. I hate to say it, but the keeper could be right.”
“Or she could be wrong,” said Lemuel.
Ilsa touched the egg-like locket hanging around her neck. “I can contact Blue, ask her to scout for Tirica’s mind.”
“We must move on,” said Siuku. “The Prince of Chogrum holds Hathani’s True Red staff. If it’s powers are anything like the True Blackwood, we will gain more than an army once Chogrum is our ally.”
“I don’t like it,” said Ilsa, eyes downcast. “But it’s true.”
“We can save your sister while we save the rest of Yr. Trust me, Lemuel.” Siuku managed to soften her voice just a little with the last word.
Lemuel sighed and shook his head. “I understand the stakes. Promise me you’ll help me find her once we have Chogrum on our side.”
“I promise,” said Ilsa.
“As do I.” Siuku bowed to Lemuel. “We leave at dawn. Let us give this family their home back.”
They left the house and went out into the street.
Lemuel turned to Ilsa. “Are you alright? It looked pretty bad.”
“It doesn’t hurt as much as Ferdinand’s lance, but its close.”
He nodded. “I’m sorry. You were hurt, and all I could worry about was my sister.”
“She’s in more danger than I am. Thanks to Siuku healing me.”
Lemuel nodded. “You put yourself in so much danger for your mission.”
“The mission is important. That doesn’t mean it is all I care about.” She put her arm around him. “We’ll find her. Believe me.”
“I believe you more than the keeper. She seems so cold most of the time.”
“She can seem that way, but I can tell she cares.” Ilsa looked after Siuku. The keeper made her way over to a group of villagers and warriors. “It was her idea to offer protection to the Filami, and her compassion doesn’t end with them.”
Lemuel nodded. “She even managed to make peace with the people who killed her family. I might not be able to do that.”
Ilsa nodded. She had done what they were talking about, but she didn’t want to say so. Her mother had done the same. Chogrum had taken a lot from Ilsa’s family, and her father, though only partially Chogrumian, threatened to keep doing so.
A few paces beyond the last house to the east in Atalem, Ilsa reached out with her spirit. She strained to connect to Blue, over two hundred kilometers to the north. She had never reached so far with conscious intent, even to her mind eater friend.
She focused on Blue’s mind, her gregarious manner, her enthusiasm combined with her discipline.
Her friend met her mind to mind.
“Ilsa, you seem upset. What’s wrong?”
“One of my father’s apprentices captured Tirica.”
“She out-shot me, I guess. It was just this afternoon, less than two hours ago.”
“Did you get her name?”
“She told me to call her ‘First.’ Said I had met her before. I don’t remember her.”
“That’s not too helpful.”
“She got away. Blue, can you help me find her?”
“I doubt it. I can only connect to you at this distance because of that temple locket. But once we both get to Chogrum, maybe.”
“How far out are you?”
“Just two days ride.”
“You’ll probably get there first. Oh, the Flowering Lyre is still sealed.”
“That’s good news,” said Blue. “So far, it looks like the Gray Lector has only managed to gather a couple thousand Uzan from the middle lyres.”
“Only… Well, two less, as of today,” Ilsa said.
“You killed more of them?”
“When First attacked. I shot one, and Tirica killed the other. She actually got the first one.” Ilsa’s mind darkened. “I’m worried about her, Blue.”
“We can’t help her right now. You’ve always been good at focusing, Ilsa. Use it.”
“Right. How are things going with Ashnia?”
“I’ve got her suppressed.” Blue’s mental presence rippled with frustration. “She can’t break out, but I wish I could talk to her. She’s so close, and I keep remembering more about my time in the temple.”
“Anything from before that?”
“Not yet, Ilsa. I don’t know if I’ll ever get that far back.”
“Good luck with her, Blue.”
“You too. How’s Lemuel holding up?”
“He’s worried about Tirica. I don’t blame him. But there was one other thing…”
“What is it?”
“First told Tirica she was a good shot. That’s true. I guess it’s not impossible Black Powder, my father, may want to recruit her.”
“They’ll be in for a surprise if they think they can control her,” said Blue. “She’s as stubborn as Ashnia. And that’s on our side.”
“I don’t know. Black Powder offers things to gunfighters they can’t get without him, the deepest form of weapon bond.”
“Bonded to the spirit. I wonder why it seems like no one else can figure that out.”
“I wish I knew.”
“Hold it together, Ilsa. Oh, I think we’re losing connection.”
Their mind drifted apart. Ilsa opened her eyes on the edge of the village. When they met up in Chogrum, she would have a prayer to find Tirica again. But her mission remained, to prevent the war from consuming Yr. She may not have much respect for her mentor, Koor, any longer, but her goals had not changed. She would fight for a greater peace, as paradoxical as that seemed.
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