For those still waiting on Death in Double Mocha and Invasion!, I hit the ground running on January 1st, but I am very, VERY behind. January and February will be spent catching up on the fustercluck that was 2022. In the meantime, here's another tidbit from the next Justice Anthea adventure.
Reverend Father Biming parted from us to clamber aboard the Unbridled. To my surprise, Quan and Shi Hua followed Luc, my wardens, and me onboard the Mars Tranquilus
Completely out of character and violating a number of etiquette rules, the captain, officers, and crew of the Issuran ship embraced me before I could take more than two steps onto the main deck. Several of them requested my tale of how I survived the demon realm before Captain Titus proclaimed it was late, and I needed rest. I promised to regale the crew with my story once we settled matters in Naha and continued on to Jing.
Jonata guided me to our cabin. The interior was crammed with the rest of the ship’s passengers, including little Yin Shang. The child threw his pudgy arms about my waist and clung to me like a leech. Most of what he said was in Jing and mangled by his sobs. His fear and relief mirrored my own emotions, and I found myself weeping while I hugged the members of our party who could not go to the Temple of Balance.
Mateqai was alive, but nasty scars marred his handsome face and his right forearm. Balance only knew how bad his injuries were under his clothing.
“I feared we lost you when you were separated from Shi Hua during the battle,” I said.
“I shared the same fear.” His smile was crooked with the scarring, but the expression held the same warmth. “I was knocked unconscious by the flashbang that killed the demon attacking me. I awoke beneath a pile of bodies, both human and demon. Thankfully, the Ryukyuan Temple of Death were efficient and found me when I started shouting, but not so efficient I was laid on the funeral pyres before I regained my senses.”
Jonata led me to the bed I shared with Luc during our voyage. Luc sat beside me and laid his crutches in the bottom storage drawer under the bed. He clasped my right hand in his left so tightly I feared our flesh would meld together, but I welcomed the pain.
Yin Shang climbed upon the bed on my left. His mother Sister Yin Li of Love was about to chide him, but I caught her attention and shook my head. She pursed her lips and relented. We were all too emotional to start any arguments at the moment, even over something like a mother attempting to instill etiquette and manners in her offspring.
I told my companions who hadn’t been at the Temple of Balance an abbreviated version of my misadventures and how I returned to Naha. I said I would tell the remainder in the morning if they wished to join the officers and crew for our morning meal.
“Is there anything you left out during your recitation to the Reverend Mother?” Quan asked. In other words, had I withheld information for a reason from the Ryukyuan Temples?
“Nothing intentional,” I assured him. “However, I am thoroughly exhausted. That’s why I wanted to review the dispatch before she sends it to the other Temples of Balance on the morrow.”
I narrowed my eyes. “My question is why aren’t you, Lady Shi Hua, and the rest of your party taking up quarters on the Unbridled. That was the plan so you would arrive in Jing in a style befitting an emperor.”
It was nothing personal against the Mars Tranquilus. However, its design was over a generation old. The brand new carrack design of the Unbridled was half again the size of the caravels comprising most of Issura’s trading fleets. I understood Biming’s desire to move Quan and Shi Hua to the grander ship. Jing was no different than Issura. Appearances were everything among the noble class.
“Because the safest place to keep my prince alive is by your side,” Shi Hua said with a wicked grin.
“You didn’t know if I would come back,” I said sternly.
Everyone remained silent for a long time. I picked up anger and embarrassment from all of them.
Surprisingly, it was Warden Yar who broke the silence. “Captain Titus refused to leave without you, m’lady. Reverend Father Biming tried to convince the crown prince and his party to board the Unbridled and head for Jing. As Lady Shi Hua pointed out at the time, such an argument should not have taken place in front of the citizens of Ryukyu.”
For the gentle giant to explain, there had been more than a simple difference of opinion between the Reverend Father of Thief and the soon-to-be emperor of Jing. The pair may have been lovers before Balance had separated them into their more profound roles in life, but I was fairly certain Biming’s attitude had more to do with his fear that Quan’s enemies would have more time to plan Quan’s demise than any jealousy over Quan’s marriage to Shi Hua. The fact the two self-assured and circumspect men lost their tempers in public was even more astounding.
I eyed Quan. “Should I assume the Reverend Father wished to sail with the first high tide on the morrow?”
“Actually, he wanted to leave on this evening’s high tide. There is no reason we cannot stay an extra day for you to consult with the Ryukyuan Reverend Mother of Balance,” he said dryly. “If demons are invading other worlds, not just our own, shared knowledge becomes an imperative. And the crew of the Mars Tranquilus can use the extra rest after our battle-laden voyage across the Peaceful Sea.”
“Thank you for allowing your common sense and compassion to rule your decisions, Your Highness.” I inclined my head.
“Let us hope my fellow citizens feel the same way you do, m’lady,” he replied.
Shi Hua patted his arm. “Po, we all need some rest. Dawn will be here all too soon.”
As if to confirm her evaluation, the Temple bells rang Third Night. I yawned.
“We’ll discuss things in the morning,” Luc promised Quan.
Once the Jing contingent of our expedition returned to their cabin. It was all I could do to remove my gear and clothing. Thankfully, no one treated me as an invalid. Instead Luc and the wardens made their own preparations for sleep. I yanked on my sleep shift and crawled onto the bed.
“Shi Hua’s trousseau wouldn’t be ready until midday tomorrow.” I yawned. “Was Reverend Father Biming planning to leave without it?”
“I don’t think her dresses were on top of his priority list at the time, m’love.” Luc extinguished his spells on the alabaster globes that provided conventional light for the rest of my cabin mates.
I curled in the crook of his shoulder. You haven’t said much since I returned
I haven’t had much of an opportunity. He kissed my temple. I feared I’d never see you again when you ran straight into that rip in reality. I feared you had suffered a terrible fate in the demon realm. I didn’t share Shi Hua’s faith you would find a way home. I hope you can forgive me.
I feared the same things you did
, I said. You’ve had so many terrible losses over the last two years. I can understand your despair, and I am so sorry I caused you to feel that way.
He hugged me tightly. I’m simply glad you are back with us. I love you.
I love you, too.
Beneath my ear, his heartbeat slowed and his breathing deepened. However, sleep eluded me despite the fatigue dragging my limbs and mind.
We couldn’t afford Quan and Biming fighting, whether it be in public or in private. We already knew the Jing nobility had never been happy with the idea of an emperor with Thief talent, much less one who had a common-born parent. Quan needed the support of the Temples and Guilds, but I wouldn’t put it past the renegade Assassins Guild to recruit some nobles to their cause.
If only the idiots knew they would be killed and eaten by the Assassins Guild’s true allies once they murdered Quan.