The Fall of Kosòbyo, the first great battle of the world war, started the bloody exodus of the desert clans from their homes as they attempted to flee the upcoming civil war between the sun and moon.
— Givil da Nisian, The Mechanical War, One Woman's Insight
Morning came with a lightening of the sky and pressure on Beauty's bladder. She managed to pull her legs out from between Daman's and crawled out of the wonderful warmth of their bedrolls and into the cold air of their shelter. Above her, rain still drizzled in a light pattern on the heavy material and she could feel cold air seeping underneath the edges and along the openings.
Shivering, she tried to pull her clothes but they had gotten trapped underneath the rolls. Her lover's weight pinned them against the soft ground and she could feel they had gathered the damp from the rain.
Quietly muttering to herself and fighting the growing need to pee, she looked around for an alternative to cover herself. For a moment, she considered going out naked but it was cold, rainy, and she didn't know how safe the abandoned camp would be.
She spotted Daman's heavy shirt inside the rolls. It was coiled next to his arm and between his body, but looked otherwise easy to pull free. Crawling over him, she grabbed it and gently tugged it free. It still had his warmth and smell when she pulled it on and covered her body. The heavy material reached a foot below her hips, indecent in polite company but enough to rush to the latrine and back.
Forgoing the rest of her small clothes but not her pair of boots, she crawled out of the shelter and then ran through the icy drizzle to the latrine they had found earlier. The sky above her was brighter, probably early morning with the sun well hidden behind the boiling clouds.
She didn't like being exposed, even with no one else around. She finished her business and hurried back. Her bare feet smacked loudly on the wet grasses and she slipped a few times when she hit a patch of cold water just a few degrees above freezing. She couldn't wait to crawl into Daman's warm bed and just let the rest of the day pass by.
Beauty reached the shelter they put their supplies when her skin prickled. Slipping to a halt, she stopped and looked around.
There was someone leaning against a tree only a few yards away from the entrance of their sleeping area. It took her a moment to take in the gray trench coat and the bulky man inside to identify the intruder, Rizen.
Rizen chuckled and gestured with one hand. “It's rare to see such a beauty prancing out of the rain.”
Beauty tightened her lips and looked around. Under the edge of their sleeping area, she saw a jerk of movement. Then behind her, a rustle of grasses told her that someone had walked up behind her. She glanced around, looking for something to defend herself, but her sword was a few yards away with only the hilt sticking out. The peace-bond wire glinted in the light, not that it would stop her.
She brought her eyes up. “What do you want, Rizen?”
“Your man left in such a hurry, right in the middle of our discussion. I want to return to the topic so I came out here.”
“How did you find us?”
Rizen shook his head. “I didn't hurt the little girl. One of my men overheard you and I asked that impressible young man what they were talking about. He was a fool for answering, but he doesn't know better,” Rizen said with a grin. “These Tarsan youth don't understand betrayal… at least not yet.”
Behind her, she heard two men chuckling. They were on each side of her and she guessed they were also about two yards behind her. To the side, she saw another few men coming up from where they had been hiding behind trees. They were all soaked from the rain and their heavy boots crushed dying leaves and fallen branches.
Her skin crawled.
Daman crawled out of his shelter, still naked. He groaned as he made a show of stretching before he looked pointedly at Rizen. “Why are you bothering us?”
Rizen's eyes flickered down to take in Daman's appearance. He made a show of shrugging with disinterest. “As I told your woman, I just want to talk.”
“I have no interest in your words or your fantasies.” Daman made a shooing gesture with his hand.
Rizen pushed himself from the tree. His gloved hand dropped to the hilt of his sword. “Maybe, but we are still going to talk.” His voice was low and threatening.
Daman flexed his back and shoulders, his muscles twitching. For a moment, Beauty was reminded of how he would do that as the Beast, a terrifying gesture that silenced most conversations instantly but, as just a naked human, it didn't have the same terrifying impact.
No one responded.
The prince sighed. “Why don't you just head back to town and we'll talk there? I have little interest in politics with my branch swinging out and gathering rain.”
“Because I doubt you'd return. You're a coward, March Prince.”
“I am not a coward.”
“Maybe. Maybe not,” Rizen said, “but I'd rather see which side you are on.”
“Why are there sides? I wasn't aware we were at war with Tarsan.”
Rizen's eyes flashed. “We aren't at war with these pathetically soft men of a dying country. You know as well as I do, the desert borders have fallen. Whatever happened inside that forsaken land is spilling out and Gepaul is right on the front of that battle. We are the marches before the war and I will be damned to the hells if I let a bunch of sand-blooded bastards take my land and kill my people.”
Around them, a few of the men grunted with agreement.
Beauty glanced to the supplies, looking for Daman's weapon. It wasn't where she thought they had left it. Her eyes scanned around, turning to the side. As she started to look behind her, she heard a scuffing of movement and held herself. They were standing just on the edge to make her uncomfortable and it was working. Her stomach twisted.
Rizen's eyes caught hers. He chuckled and held up Daman's sword. “Looking for this?”
Daman held out his hand. “That's my father's sword. I would rather you not stain the hilt with your touch.”
Rizen shook his head. “No, pretty boy. You're going to listen, one way or another.”
“Are you threatening me, Rizen?”
The warrior's eyes looked directly at Beauty. He smiled slowly even as his eyes darkened.
She shivered at the look.
Daman crossed his arms over his chest. “Are you threatening… my Beauty?”
Rizen answered without looking back. “Yes. Either you listen with her by your side or you listen to her dying. If you continue to fight, then you'll die—”
Beauty couldn't take it anymore. She rushed forward and yanked her sword free from the pile of her supplies. The weapon felt comforting in her grip as she spun around and braced herself.
The two men that were looming behind her were armed with short swords in their hands. The blades wavered and rain ran down the naked steel. One of them had a second weapon out, a short fighting dagger.
Rizen chuckled. “Go on, let her have her little toy. It's peace-bonded. You'll have plenty of time to cut her throat by the time she gets it free.”
Beauty glanced down at the thick wire that tied the hilt to the sheath. It was sturdy and wouldn't budge. Rizen was right about trying to free herself, but she focused to make sure the wire still remained in the two notches on each side of the sheath. Seeing that, she transfers the sheath to her other hand and held it firmly by the middle.
One of the looming men chuckled and elbowed. “You even know how to use that, Girl?”
She glared at him. “I'm good enough to handle two boys.”
Rizen sighed. “Now listen, Prince. You are going to help us take this town if you want to or not. If you don't, then I'm going to make sure your little girl here has a very short and painful life left.”
“Take this town?” Daman shook his head as he glared. “We aren't at war with Tarsan. You are talking about invading from Gepaul, that would start a war.”
“We need that iron for our own battles. Tarsan doesn't care about this place, it's some middle of fuck nowhere mine right on the border. Half the business used to go through that pass until a few years ago. I know, I was positioned over there, watching this country get fatter and richer while Gepaul starved.”
A murmur of assent came from Rizen's men. Beauty counted seven of them, all armed and ready for fighting.
“And what happens when Tarsan comes to defend their territory?”
“The town is easily defended, if you know the enemy is coming. We'll just blow the road leading to Tarsan and then start shipping the iron across the pass.”
“Winter is coming. A lot of people will suffer if you do that.”
“I have a lot more allies than you know. I can bring in fire mages to keep the pass open and stone knights to keep it clear. Gepaul is going to get this iron, one way or the other.”
“And do you think the Silver King is just going to welcome you with open arms.”
Rizen snorted. “The Silver King is a fool who thinks the best of people. No, I follow the Golden Queen and she will reward me for my service.” Rizen thumped his chest. “She will reward all of us, even you. You want to be more than March Prince? Doomed to spend the rest of your life protecting some border?”
“My family has protected the border for generations.”
“Then why aren't you there… Prince?” Rizen smirked.
Daman pressed his lips together but said nothing.
“You aren't there because you want adventure. Join me, and we'll have a glorious time conquering this town and then we join the war that has already started. The Golden Queen is already moving and I plan on firmly planting my feet on the winning side.”
“What if you are wrong?”
Rizen snorted. “I'm not. I will not let the sands invade my home, even if I have to kill every one of those brown bastards with my own hands.”
Daman shook his head. “And I heard they are bringing their families with them. These are refugees, not warriors.”
“They still attack.”
“We provoked. They are scared and frightened.”
“They'll be dead soon enough. They can be scared in whatever hell their sands have for them.”
Beauty felt sick to her stomach listened to Rizen. She tightened her grip and glanced at the two men threatening her to see if either was distracted. To her surprise, they had excellent discipline and kept their eyes on her.
Daman shook his head again. “No.”
Rizen did a double take, finally looking away from Beauty to the prince. “What?”
“No, I will not betray my oath to Gepaul. I will not help you invade a peaceful country. I will not stand by and let you slaughter innocence, no matter if they are here in Tarsan or fleeing wars in their home. In fact, I will go beyond not helping by actively doing my best to stop you.”
Rizen gestured at him. “You're naked, unarmed, and outnumbered.”
Daman grunted. “I'm not… exactly in a position to stop you in this moment, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to try.”
The warrior shook his head. “No, I need to make my point clear. You will help me, Prince. Kill her.”
Beauty tensed as she turned toward the two men. She held up her sheathed sword between her and them.
In the corner of her vision, she saw Daman looking at her expectantly. Her mind flashed for a moment, trying to remember the terrain behind her. The shelter wouldn't be enough protection if they surrounded them. They had to get further away but she doubted they would have a chance to snatch other supplies.
Daman answered as he shoved himself away their tent and rushed toward her.
Beauty surged forward, bringing her sword up before slamming the tip of the sheath hard on a large rock she spotted. The bottom third of her sheath had been made from a thinner material. It crumbled from the blow, driving two wedges on either side of her blade up and into the wires. The metal snapped, flinging off as the sword was ejected from the sheath.
Grabbing the moving hilt with practiced grace, she swung it in a tight arc as she stepped to the right. The blade made a perfect sweep at an angle and caught the first man just under his chin. The tip tore open his throat before the blade arced down to catch the second man across his knuckles. The blade jerked as it snapped bone and sliced through his fingers.
Beauty stepped back to catch the momentum of her first strike, flipped the sword underneath her hand and then drove forward to ram the blade into the second attacker's gut. With all her might, she angled the blade up to spear his lungs and other organs.
The world stopped for the briefest of moments.
With her face in a grimace, she twisted hard with all her might.
Blood sprayed across her face.
Daman raced past her without a second look.
The first attacker gurgled as he tried to stop the crimson spraying out from his fatal injury.
The second man stared at her with shock and fear.
Then, with a twist of the blade to tear her opponent open even further, she yanked the blade out and ripped open his stomach. She stepped back to avoid the gore and then turn and ran after Daman.
By the time the first man hit the ground and the second's organs were spilling out across the ground, she had caught up with Daman and they rushed up the hill toward a bank of mist that hadn't been burned off by the hidden sun.
Seconds later, there was a roar as the warriors charged after them.