Umi closed his eyes and imagined in the thick, dreaming aroma of Shiori’s room both of them were in their childhood again. He imagined he didn’t have to worry about who didn’t (or did) want touching him. He imagined someone would wake him, in the morning, and tell him what he should do. He imagined they would tell him how to be happy.
The discovery of Saikasu had been an accident. A seasonal priestess on her way to Bhin, sailing on the mapped way she’d used for a decade—Lotus, Queen’s Tattoo, Threecorn—found her route interrupted by a body in the stars she’d never seen before.
The bushes overflowed with every shade of color, but in particular crimson. It was Shiori’s favorite color, and arrogant red flowers spilled over the blues, purples, and pinks. The other woman servants grumbled about it to each other every now and again--that many in the same soil, they shouldn’t grow like that.
The yard behind the atrium was empty of the harem children and their carers. Only half of the parakeet cages swung outside, empty of birds. The only noise between the evening gusts was their metal hooks, clicking and creaking on their lines. A single white-robed woman stood in the yard’s center, standing on a block to pull the cages down.
“Ain't that the truth. So you’re training the patriarch’s boy, now?” Hanif wrestled playfully with his son's grip. “That’s a damned honor. Damned waste, too, if you ask me. Like five cats in one dog, that young man is. Think you’d be willing to give this little beast of wrath some lessons?”
Why the sixteenth patriarch of Regnor had invited him to his residence was still unclear to Umi.
Her name was Zoya Nia. She was a foreign slave of an aristocrat who had ended the service for her crime a long time ago, and her owners paid her well. They trusted her with tending their babes and selecting the best of Árai’s horses for the warriors they sponsored.
Her first battle came only two days later. A gang of straggling Demons fell on them, rising from hills of mulch. They had no choice but to stop and stand their ground.
Crushed between two pages bookmarking a section on home fertility remedies, Shiori found a head of dried hydrangeas. He plucked it out gingerly—the petals were veined and brittle as fly wings. They shuddered quietly in his grasp. Shiori's eyebrow ticked. He hated dead things.
“Tell me, Umi Siskin, great hero of the Margins,” he said. “Tell my why a Demon is a Demon.”