Chanisuenda was already curled on the couch, a cheap paperback in hand, when Aleguarda brought the breakfast tray out of the kitchen. Aleguarda set the tray on the table and deftly plucked the book from Chanisuenda’s hands. “What are you reading?” she demanded.
“Hey!” Her sister sat upright, and tried to snatch the book back.
Aleguarda stepped back quickly, and raised an eyebrow. “‘Heart of Ice, Heart of Fire: A Sexual Conquest of the Frozen North?’ Let me guess, by - ah, yes, by Aramilla fal Carastue.”
Chanisuenda flicked her fingers. Emerald light shone from the tattoos on the back of her hand and the book leapt from Aleguarda’s grasp. “Great writers are never appreciated in their time,” she proclaimed as the book landed in her outstretched hand. “Mark my words, Ale, Aramilla is the next Petracuiste.”
“Petracuiste fal Malacan?”
“Fal Marueso, you ass. Honestly, how have you ever had sex?”
“I’ve had enough to know half the things Aramilla writes about are physically impossible. I brought you tea.”
“I suppose that makes up for you insulting the greatest romance novelist of our time.” Chanisuenda waved a hand idly as her cuemara flared again and bands of green light encircled the dishes.
Aleguarda folded her arms. “You’re going to get fat and slow sitting there and doing everything that way. I’ve seen it happen to better emators.”
“I love you too, sister dearest,” said Chanisuenda, catching the filled teacup in her hand. “Who’s the southerner mom just left with? She looked like she was planning trouble.”
“Mother or the Shan?”
“Both of them. Now spill.”
“She’s some mystic Nali dragged home from the brothel last night. Mother seems to think she’ll be useful, so she hired her.” Aleguarda lowered her voice. “Chani, where in Anur’s name were you last night? Somebody tried to poison Tara.”
There was a clatter, and then a yelp as Chani’s cup hit the floor, spilling hot tea all over her lap. “What?”
“Somebody got into her medicine. She would have died in her sleep. That Shan woman saved her life.”
“I — I was visiting a friend — is Tara alright?”
“She’s shaken but she’s alive.”
Chanisuenda clenched her fists, angry green light burning on her hands and in her irises. “Tell me who I need to kill, sister.”
“If we knew, they’d be dead already.” Aleguarda sank onto the couch next to Chani. “Mother and the Shan - Len Win is her name - went out to squeeze some answers out of Techencue. I’m trying to hold it together for the girls and mother’s sake, but—”
Chanisuenda hugged Aleguarda tightly. “I’m so sorry I wasn’t here for you all. Gods above, I always have the worst timing. I—”
The outer door to the den slammed open. Aleguarda was on her feet again in a moment, a dagger in hand. Chanisuenda stumbled to her feet, fumbling with her spectacles.
“Anur’s ass, what the fuck is—?” Aleguarda began, then stopped dead.
Standing outside their home was a woman in gleaming golden mail, with the dark brown skin and fiery red hair of a native Beladan, though instead of the long, flowing curls favored by freewomen her hair was cropped close to her scalp. She was flanked by soldiers with drawn swords, and with the unmistakable insignia of the High Church on their breastplates.
Tendrils of blue light were glowing around the woman’s outstretched hand as she lowered it and stepped forward. Her armor was richly decorated, verses from the Book of Dawn sewn in miniscule into the leather armbands that both Aleguarda and Chani knew covered huge, intricate cuemara under her skin. Her sharp eyes glowed a fierce blue. Behind her, a white cape embroidered with the four-pointed star of the High Church flowed down her back.
“A fucking paladin?” growled Aleguarda.
“Clan Chistar,” the woman announced, her voice booming. “I am Ariacanno fal Cheveran, Paladin of the Radiant Order, Hand of the Church, and Bearer of the Prophet’s Justice—”
“I can fucking see that,” said Aleguarda, her grip tightening on her blade. “You are trespassing on my clan’s property and I demand you remove yourself.”
“Ale-” Chani grabbed her arm. “Ale, don’t do anything rash-”
Ariacanno looked at the sisters contemptuously, and unfurled a scroll. “By command of the most holy Inquisition, you will surrender into our custody the foreign agent you have secreted in your home, and—”
“Get. Out.” Aleguarda stepped forward and brandished her blade. “If you have legitimate business, you can step outside and ask nicely, or go begging Clan Checueten for a writ. Until then, you are trespassing on property lawfully titled to Clan Chistar and—”
The paladin flicked her wrist. Aleguarda was picked up by a tidal wave of force and hurled across the room. Chanisuenda screamed, instinctively flinging out a hand, trying to cushion Aleguarda’s fall, a blaze of emerald light surrounding her sister. It was enough that when Aleguarda hit the far wall, she was only bruised, instead of breaking several bones. Chani fell to her knees, exhausted from the effort.
The paladin stepped forward. “Chistar. You know, that name sounds familiar. ‘Ale,’ did she call you? Short for ‘Aleguarda,’ perhaps? I wonder, could you be the same Aleguarda fal Chistar I think you might be?”
Shaking, Aleguarda pulled herself upright. She balled her fists.
The paladin clicked her tongue. “Nah-ah.” Another wave of her hand and Aleguarda was thrust back to the floor, winded. “Of course, if you really were Aleguarda fal Chistar, the failure that got kicked out of the Radiant Order for gross dereliction of duty, the Aleguarda fal Chistar who got her whole command butchered and ran like a little boy instead of facing the Four like an honorable woman, you’d know exactly what a paladin is capable of, and you’d know better than to wave your little blade in my face.” She tapped her fingers to her chin and narrowed her eyes. “On the other hand,” she continued mockingly, “that Aleguarda might be such a wretched creature that dying at the hands of a paladin would be a welcome release from her pathetic life. Tell me, are you that Aleguarda?”
Aleguarda spat. “I have nothing to say to you.”
“Wrong.” Ariacanno jerked her wrist, and hefted Aleguarda into the air, blue tendrils curling around her limbs. “You haven’t told me the location of your little Shan friend. Now— ah!” The paladin cried out in sudden pain, stumbling backwards.
“Put my mother down.” Taracuele was standing at the foot of the stairs, an inferno of golden light dancing along her wrists and shining from her eyes. She extended a hand, golden flame curling around her fingers. “I’m not warning you again.”
“Tara! No—” Chani began, before the paladin picked Tara up with a single contemptuous gesture and slammed her into the wall. Tara cried out in pain, the golden light vanishing in an instant.
“‘Mother?’” mimicked Ariacanno. “Really, Aleguarda, you followed up your mistake in the Radiants by bringing more of your pathetic line into the world?” The paladin shook her head. “And she’s defective already, by the look of it. I’d be doing you a favor by snuffing you all out here and now.”
“You hurt my daughter,” said Aleguarda. Her voice was low, shaking.
“And I’m going to hurt her more if you don’t start cooperating!” said Ariacanno, striding forward, and grabbing Aleguarda’s chin in her mailed fist. “Are you bright enough to understand that? Where is the Shan sage?”
Aleguarda spat in her eye.
With a slow, incredulous motion, the paladin wiped her hand across her face. She looked at it for a moment, then balled her fist and drew back her hand, ready to punch Aleguarda in the stomach.
“Wait!” Chanisuenda threw herself between them. “Don’t do this!”
The paladin gripped Chanisuenda’s arm in her hand and wrenched it upwards, studying the tattoo on her wrist. “These are Church markings. Anurite. You were a healer, weren’t you? Do you feel the need to join your relatives with your own petulant little display, or—?”
Chani wrenched her arm free. “I’ll tell you what you want to know. You don’t need to assault my sister or my niece for a goddamn question about a guest—”
“Need? No. It’s just one of those perks of the job.” The paladin folded her arms. “I’m listening.”
“First you put them down and let me tend to my niece.”
“Do you really think you’re in a position to make demands?” The paladin seized Chani by the throat. “I’m tired of your family’s mewling and empty defiance. Answer the question or people get even more hurt.”
“Clan Techencue!” Chani blurted. “They went to Clan Techencue, damn you! Now let us go!”
The paladin’s cold violet eyes bored into her for a moment, then she shrugged and pushed Chani away. Aleguarda and Taracuele fell to the floor.
“We’ll be back if you weren’t telling the truth,” she said curtly. She motioned to a soldier. “Stay here. Make sure they don’t leave.”
“Tara!” Chanisuenda ran to her niece, and knelt next her on the floor as the door slammed behind Ariacanno. “I’m here, sweetheart, don’t move. Is anything broken? Are you-”
“I-it all hurts. Can’t move. Hurts too much,” Tara mumbled.
Chani closed her eyes, the diviner’s marks on her cheeks lighting up as she looked past her niece’s skin, probing the damage to her body. Her ribs were broken in two places. There were torn blood vessels. Internal bleeding. It was bad, but nothing she couldn’t fix. She took Tara’s hands in hers. “Okay, babe, stay with me. Shhh. It’s gonna be okay. Just stay with me.” Tara cried out as her aunt squeezed torn blood vessels together, manifesting tiny stitches and sewing them in place with a thought. She breathed a sigh of relief as the bleeding stopped. And—
And there was something wrong about Tara’s blood. Chani couldn’t place it. She could barely describe how blood normally looked her mind’s eye, let alone what was different here. But somehow—
Whatever it wasn’t, the paladin hadn’t done it. It didn’t matter. Not right now. I need to focus.
The ribs were easier. Less delicate, anyway. She held the fragments in place and, snarling with effort, fused them back in place.
She collapsed, spent, to the floor.
“Is she—” Aleguarda was shaking. There were tears in her eyes.
Chani smiled weakly. “Sh-she’ll be okay, sis.”
Aleguarda closed her eyes, and whispered something under her breath that might have been a thankful prayer.
Chani glanced at the guard, then back to Aleguarda. “Go check on Nali. Make sure she’s okay.”
Aleguarda didn’t look up, but nodded. She turned to go upstairs.
“Hold there.” The Radiant held up a hand. “Lady Ariacanno said you’re not to leave. That means you’re all staying where I can see you until she gets back, you understand?”
Aleguarda took a deep breath, then rounded on the soldier.
“Maybe I couldn’t hurt your pet paladin, but don’t think for a split fucking second that I couldn’t break you in half, little girl,” she spat, her voice boiling with contempt. “If you try to get between me and my family, I will take you apart. Do you understand me, bitch? Bark once for yes.”
“What, you don’t have enough Radiant blood on your hands already?” The woman leveled her blade at Aleguarda. “Stand the fuck down before you pick another fight you can’t w—”
In the blink of an eye, Aleguarda had slapped the sword out of her hand. Before the Radiant could react, Aleguarda drove her knee into her stomach. As the soldier doubled up in pain, Aleguarda seized her by the back of her breastplate and flung her to the floor. She finished up with a foot to the abdomen that made the Radiant howl in pain.
“Unlike you, I remember my training,” said Aleguarda. “Stop now before you really piss me off.” She turned and walked to the stairs, slamming the door to the stairwell behind her.
“It’s good advice,” Chanisuenda offered, as the Radiant struggled back to her feet. “Maybe they didn’t tell you this when they were busy slandering my sister in your history classes, but she was one of the Radiants’ finest soldiers for thirty damn years. Besides, she’s not going to run off when her injured daughter is still here.”
“You knew why she was thrown out?” The Radiant spat blood on the carpet. Chani winced.
“She really got you good there, didn’t she?”
“Answer the goddamn question.”
“Sure we knew. Why do you think I left?”
“Left what? The Church?”
“I was a healer for the Radiants, idiot. I served alongside my sister. I was there when they scapegoated her, court-martialed her, and threw her out. Like literally there, in the courtroom. Did you think you and your mistress were going to come barging in here, spew some Church dogma, and get my clanfolk to turn against each other? Are you people actually that stupid?”
“Your sister’s a traitor, and you’re delusional.”
“I’ll take that as a yes, I guess.” Chani glanced inside the Radiant’s body to see how much damage Aleguarda had done, and whistled. “Four fractured ribs you got there. Sis really packs a punch, doesn’t she?”
“I could patch you up, you know.”
“I’m a healer. It’s what I do. I won’t, though.”
“Then why the fuck did you bring it up?”
“I just wanted to make sure you knew I could end your pain with a snap of my fingers and that I’m not going to. It’s called rubbing salt in your wounds. Which I could also do literally. Sun's out and salt’s not hard to make.”
“You want to give me a reason not to come over there and shut you the fuck up?”
Chanisuenda laughed out loud, and snapped her fingers. The Radiant cried out in pain and fell to her knees. “You now have three fractured ribs and one broken rib. Do I really need to go on?”
“You know as soon as Ariacanno gets back, she’s going to take you both in for assaulting officials of the Church?”
“Maybe.” Another sharp crack and the Radiant screamed. “Except this isn’t Rosamar. You people broke into a private home and asaulted three people without the leave of the ruling clan. This story doesn’t end well for you.” She flicked her fingers and her book darted from the couch to her outstretched hand. “Now hush. The trader’s daughter was just about the ravish the steel-eyed son of a barbarous northern shaman when you shitbirds broke in, and I’m dying to find out what happens next.”