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Aftermath

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"Take him," Omare commanded. He was still panting, but his bearing was all hardened calm as he swiped sweat and grime from his brow. Two officers seized the Denborn Counselor roughly by the shoulders.

"No!" The old man snarled and wrenched himself free. He flung himself onto the body in front of him, shock-shaken fingers scrabbling for any hold in the armor he could find, desperate and dangerous as a wild animal. "No, don't touch him! I won't leave him, my son, my son!"

"Leave the other," Omare said coldly, then turned away.

"Omare!" Jimaya looked to her brother, aghast, but he brushed past her.

"He would have left me to rot. I'm returning the kindness."

The Counselor's protests had quieted – he held his son's face in his hands, murmuring apologies, oaths, pleas, until at last the officer's yanked him off and his anguished howls tore through the thick, still air. Jimaya cringed away. She glanced back towards Omare. He was already striding back across the battlefield.

The enormity of the Denborn defeat hung like a miasma over the beaten earth. It pressed down on Jimaya as she picked her way between broken spears and arrow shafts to reach the Counselor's son. He laid just as his father had left him, a heap of crumpled limbs, but still she approached slowly. He could rear up and take her by the throat, he could drive a dagger between her ribs – could he be playing that long and convincing a game? She didn't know him like Omare did. Reluctant, she knelt down beside him.

He was breathing, but it came shallow and rattling, as though he feared to risk more. Maybe broken ribs – he'd taken the full force of the explosion all on his own, after all. She didn't see any blood, but who knew what the armor was hiding. She leaned closer, listening for signs of a punctured lung.

Her knee jostled him by accident and he hissed in a sudden agonized gasp. Jimaya yelped in alarm and jerked away.

"I'm sorry," she said on instinct, but he didn't appear to have heard her: he rolled onto his back, eyes squeezed shut and breath ragged. "Bring a stretcher!" she called. "And water!" A little ways off, two valets stumbled to comply. She turned back to the Counselor's son and tried to swallow her panic. "It's okay, it's okay, breathe." But breathing appeared to be the problem. He clutched his hands to his ribs, curling back into himself.

"No, no, relax, you'll make it worse." She wrung her hands anxiously and cast around. Omare was nowhere in sight. Hesitantly she laid her hands on his shoulders to ease him flat again, and to her surprise she met no resistance. He winced and gritted his teeth, but he obeyed, and after a few moments his breath had settled back to an even, if shallow, rhythm.

"Yujin?" he whispered.

She knew the name. She thought back to the flurry of faces she'd met as she and her brother rallied their new allies. A flash of pink and copper hooked in her memory, Omare's fingers laced in another's – the Chief Archer's daughter.

"No," Jimaya said. The Counselor's son's face tore up in pain again. "But she's safe," she added hastily.

It did nothing to soothe him. He kept drawing in those horrible, rattling breaths, and Jimaya pushed his hair out of his face with shaking hands so at least he could see who he was talking to. Immediately she wished she hadn't: his war paint was streaked, blurred in distinct downward pulls, revealing the barest glimpse of a man far too young and far too real to be responsible for the atrocity that stretched all around them. His gaze didn't settle on her or anything else, it darted in panicked flicks in all directions, never lingering, never focusing.

With a chilling wave of understanding, Jimaya realized the blast had left him blind.

"Yujin," he repeated again.

Jimaya remembered that brief meeting, the gentle, desperate relief that had seeped out of Yujin when they embraced. As soon as they'd parted Yujin had gripped Omare's hand again as though it were her anchor. Her eyes had been shining with tears.

The Counselor's son's hands closed over Jimaya's. She startled and tried to snatch them back, but his grip only tightened like a snare. She thought of Yujin's hand in Omare's.

"Forgive me."

Quieter. His breathing was slowing.

"No no no." Jimaya gripped him back and gave him a firm shake. "Stay awake. Stay with me."

"Forgive me," he whispered. "Please."

"I'll forgive you, just stay awake." Jimaya cast around, agitated – where were the valets? "Come on. If you don't pull through now you can't go to trial and then no one else can forgive you too."

With a horrible swoop in her gut Jimaya noticed he'd managed a weak, mournful smile.

"If it's for you I––"

"Your High–– Your Majesty!"

The call came from behind her and Jimaya whipped around to see two valets carrying a stretcher at last. She slipped her hands from the Counselor's son's. His smile disappeared as his hand fell back to his chest.

"We're sorry we were away so long, there are many of our own who need––"

"Show me and I will tend to them until they can receive better care," Jimaya cut the valet off. "Please, do what you can for him. And if Omare protests, remind him that dead men can't testify."

Her own hard-bitten words sank tiny, sharp teeth into her conscience as the valets eased the Counselor's son onto the stretcher. He didn't even know who he'd been talking to. He wouldn't remember this, he wouldn't think to look back on this desolate, decisive aftermath and remember something as trivial as her tone.

Still he looked stricken as the valets bore him away. Still the pattern of his smeared war paint, whether streaked by tears or from clutching his face in despair, burned like a brand at the back of her mind.

Jimaya would remember.

She swallowed and turned to see to her people.