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Birthright

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The archers and spearmen rose up like an explosion, a burst of fire and ferocity. Since birth they'd been forged and molded for just such a moment: they were wild, volcanic energy, overwhelming in one moment and gone to steam and ash the next. Yujin should have seen it coming. Her father fell into the chasm below, and amid the cheers and commotion of the rebellion, she slid her grief aside and slipped between the shadows.

Drums called both sides to the battlefield but Yujin crept over the crags of the barrier mountains instead, a path she'd picked her way across countless times before. "Such an explorer," Rensai used to say whenever he intercepted her after her little expeditions. Admiring, fond, as though she were a child. As though it were passing interest that drove her instead of a blood-born necessity to know her mountain down to the last crevice. But his sweetness had long since soured and her father had paid the price, leaving her with a singular option that she'd inherited the moment her father fell. The reality of it settled on her shoulders not like a weight but like a blanket, secure and insulating. Her new purpose protected her as she climbed hand over hand to her perch, coming to rest on a ledge and brushing her hair from her eyes as it whipped in the wind.

Her targets were easy to spot in the open expanse below. Counselor Yoren stood at the edges of the fray, bright as a flame and wrapped in her father's stolen sash. There was more color on the battlefield, flashes of red and green that marked the Imperialists and their allies. Yujin looked past them for the shadows that darted between. Rensai was among them, and several other spearmen she recognized and many more she didn’t. She took her aim.

Her arrow struck Yoren through the chest. She was too far away to hear the sound, but she imagined the wind carried it to her anyway, his gasp of surprise and horror that it had all fallen apart so soon. He fell before he could spot who claimed him. The battle raged on. No one took notice of the old man crumpled in the dust.

As though guided by some divine hand, at last Rensai turned to look for his father. He cast around, shouted for Yoren, took his mounting panic out on a pair of Forest People. They buckled beneath his strength while Yujin watched from above and drew a second arrow.

The Chieftain's sash was inherited, never taken. Handed down from parent to child, generation after generation. Perhaps it was that momentary tension that drew his eyes to her up on her ledge, her bowstring pulled tight. A stolen title wasn't his to inherit. It was Yujin's by birthright as much as her heart. She'd promised Rensai nothing and owed him even less.

Even at her distance, she saw his body relax when he found her. He staggered back from the fray, closer to his father, palms up and arms open in a gesture she couldn't place. His lips shaped her name.

Yujin let the arrow fly.