Prologue

Li was in a foul mood. All she wanted was a hot meal and somewhere dry and safe to sleep. So why, in the name of all that was good and true, was she having to run for her life? The night was complete in its inky blackness now the city had been left behind and the moons were yet to rise. The darkness added yet more weight on Li’s already frayed nerves. She was frightened and being angry seemed the best way to stop herself sinking to her knees in one of the muddy puddles she was splashing though and crying until she was either caught or died from exhaustion and exposure.

Pain bloomed in one of her unshod feet. The mud of the track hid many sharp stones. She was surprised she had not ripped her feet open before now. She hopped onwards, cursing in three languages as silently as she could. If they were being followed then it would be foolish to give away their exact position. Hopping on one foot was not the most stable of positions on a muddy trail. Her uninjured foot slithered sideways. She knew she was not going to catch her balance in time. She squinted her eyes shut and put her hands out, bracing herself for a face full of mud, or worse, rock.

A strong hand grabbed her by the hair and yanked her upwards, snarling words in a hard, guttural language. She squealed like an infant as her hair pulled on her scalp. Fear and pain fanned the flames of her anger.

“Get off me!” she howled. She was released immediately and almost lost her footing again.

“Still your tongue or I will rip it out,” hissed her saviour.

Planting her feet more carefully Li glared at the direction she thought her reluctant companion stood in.

“You can’t threaten me!” she hissed, though she was mindful to keep her voice down. If he thought for one moment he could order her around then she would take great pleasure in informing the fish humper that…

A sharp nailed finger poked her in the ribs, threatening to slice open the black jute fabric she had been forced to wear for over a cycle. Perhaps running around naked would not be such a harsh alternative. The material still scratched against her skin and would attract lice in the summer if it was not washed correctly.

“I will not warn you again,” growled her companion and owner of the sharp nails. “Keep your emotions in check or you fill my head with your vulgarities and I lose focus…” she heard the deliberate pause in his scolding of her. They both knew what happened if she got too emotional, it was an annoyance to him but it could be much more than an inconvenience for her.

Something inside her burst. A flood of resentment, anger and vitriol came pouring out. She realised she was shaking and screaming into the darkness words that would have made her mother disown her. There was a warning growl to her left and a sharp reprimand from a voice to her right. There were five of them in the darkness and she suddenly hated them all. She did not care; she was not listening to any of them again. She normally always did as she was ordered, look where that had got her; skidding through the mud in the middle of the night like a common criminal.

“She has gone mad,” said a crisp female voice to her right. “I always suspected she was slightly moon touched but…” Li’s rage turned as cold as the voices tone.

“Do us all a kindness and either hold your tongue, or even better, find a man and get shafted,” she spat at the shadow to her right. “Maybe then you will start thinking like a woman and not the ice hearted reptilian you are.” Leeanna steadied herself, not wanting the mud to cut her tirade short. “You don’t hold my leash anymore!”

The shape fell silent. Li grinned, thrilled at her victory. She suspected the alchemist was not used to her former servant arguing back yet. Li placed her hands on her hips and widened her stance, daring any of them to chastise her; her righteous rage pushing all thoughts of pursuit from her mind. She had never felt like this! She did not care what any of them thought and said. They were all equals now, whether they cared to admit it or not was immaterial.

“Please!” whispered a quivering voice behind her. “I don’t want to die!” The terrified tone, full of distress and tears, brought her back to as close to sanity as she could be, given the circumstances. “If we separate now we won’t make it to the observatory,” the voice quavered.

Li mastered herself and sighed, still trembling with the rush of her unchained passions. It was hard to govern herself now she did not have to think about every word that left her lips.

Only one of them could see in the dark. She was tied to him at least until morning. Then there were… the other complexities of their relationship. She would do some research on the subject when they got to the observatory. The monks there were custodians of a vast library, there must be something on possession within the tomes they had gathered. She wiped the rain slick hair from her face and sighed. How had she got into this mess? She had been a good person, or as good as she could be. She growled another curse and plunged onwards into the darkness. If she made it to dawn with her life it would be a minor miracle.

“I want to go home,” she muttered to herself. That was almost as unachievable as living to see the sun rise and it was the fault of her companions that she was not with her family at that very moment.

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