Chapter 1: 9 Minutes
Zanzhu gazed out into the vast dark orange sky imagining one of the distant stars was the home of her long-forgotten ancestors. As a child, her parents regaled her for hours with tales of their now uninhabitable home world across the ocumi. She thought ahead to her four-day trek to her isolated hounan. Her reymage to Harmana had not been the hub of spiritual fulfillment as it was intended but still provided Zanzhu with the opportunity to get in touch with old contacts as well as create new ones. The reymage had been her chief means of finding work for years now. With all her special skills, she could easily find work when she needed it.
She dragged her sled behind her. She cut her trek by at least two days, preferring to cross the unforgiving Baku Terrain. There was no chance she would ever meet a Raud in Baku. Despite the Rauds’ abilities to conquer others and destroy their worlds, they remained superstitious. They feared the akude said to roam Baku when the sky turned deep purple. She had no idea how the belief came about; Zanzhu was just grateful it gave her an unmolested route for the reymage. She did not have to fight over her property expending unnecessary energy in the process.
Zanzhu stopped a moment to catch her breath. She calculated at least 45 minutes before she reached Red Rocks just outside of Baku. She could cleanse there and take her final rest before making the last leg of the trek to her hounan. The timing was perfect since she would need replenishing in about an hour. She gathered her remaining strength and set out for her destination.
The caves of Red Rocks grew drafty when the sky turned deep purple, but Zanzhu had spent so much time getting to know them that she had learned the secrets to surviving them long ago. She walked deeper into one of the smaller caves, parking her sled into an empty corner. She studied the walls of the cave until she spotted the pale pink section of the otherwise deep red wall. She removed two tiny energy bursts from her jacket and placed one on the wall and another one on the rocky ground near the wall. The small detonations were just enough to create a wellzum large enough to hold her as it caught the flowing stream of water hidden in the walls. Zanzhu undressed and stepped into the wellzum. She knew the combination of her body and the water would create enough heat in the cave to last until the sky returned to deep orange in a few hours.
She immersed herself and let the water roll off her brown skin. She let it drip from her brownish-red hair. Then Zanzhu felt the warning sign. A brief, sharp pain shot from the top of her head to the base of her neck. She turned around in time to see him. She was not sure how long he had been watching her. He tried to run away, but he fell before he could flee. Zanzhu got dressed before checking on him since he was not going anywhere. She could see that he was badly in need of replenishing. She dragged him to the wellzum and stripped him of his garments. She carefully washed him as she did not want to aggravate the red welts that covered his body. When he began to show signs of recovery, she salved the wounds and dressed them tightly. She then began to prepare befoomon for offerings so they could complete replenishing.
Zanzhu decided not to question him as he greedily ate his offering. She could see that he had not been replenished in days. The beatings he must have suffered to acquire those wounds could not have helped. Whatever the case, Zanzhu knew deep down that helping this stranger could have negative ramifications. Then again, she was never one to play by the rules. That was why she survived.
“I don’t know if I can ever thank you, stranger,” he said once he finished his offering. “You may have saved me.”
“You may have saved yourself. I’m the only Ninhu to ever come to Red Rocks. You obviously knew to come to hide from the Rauds.”
“But there is no shuci within days from here. I would have died without replenishment and sickcare. I must tell you though, I have no kanmo to fund you with.”
“What makes you think I want kanmo?”
“No one does anything for someone else without wanting something in return.”
“But I’m not a Raud.”
He blushed. “You’re right. I am named Calim.”
“I am named Zanzhu.”
“Zanzhu, I am in your debt, but you may have to wait to collect. The nearest shuci is almost four days away and I don’t know where I will see you again.”
Zanzhu could only hope she would not live to regret this. “I live a day and a half from Lo Krisha. You are welcome to accompany me and stay until you have fully recovered. Unless it is Lo Krisha you are running from?”
Calim thought it over. It was rare to find someone willing to help a complete stranger with no expectation of a kanmo reward. In that regard Ninhus became more like Rauds every day. “No, it’s not. I think I’ll be safe with you.”
“Good. We leave when the sky turns deep orange.”
Her sleep was rather fitful at first, but she eventually rested and was refreshed by the time the sky turned light orange. Zanzhu was nearly done repacking her sled when Calim woke. She lent him some clean garments and they made the trek to her hounan. They did not talk unnecessarily so that they could conserve energy. Besides, she was too busy fighting the doubts in her mind. She also noticed that despite his injuries, he kept pace very well. She was going to make her time as expected.
Zanzhu stopped when they arrived nine minutes from her home. “Follow me and step exactly where I step.”
Zanzhu held her sled closely and took measured steps toward her hounan. Calim stayed close on her heels not knowing exactly what to expect. He was momentarily distracted by a beautiful mobird and in a split second, he found himself sinking waist deep into her trap. She held on to him tightly and helped him pull himself from the mire. He saw the scolding in her eyes and apologized before she could verbalize it.
“Sorry. I’ve never seen such a beautiful mobird.”
They continued to her hounan in silence. Once they crossed the threshold, Zanzhu beamed and made a grand gesture. “Welcome.”
Although she had all necessities and even a few creature comforts, Zanzhu led a relatively simple existence. She rarely kept more than what she needed for the next two to three months. In that respect, she lived like a fugitobo. Her one room was spacious so its bareness was made all the more prominent. Her bedding sat in one corner; her cooking wares sat opposite there. A cache of weapons from antique to contemporary decorated the walls. Under the weapons, books sat in stacks nearly toppling over.
Calim looked again at the enigma in front of him as she put away her gains from the reymage. He studied her carefully. Even though she was built like a warhita, Zanzhu had deceptively soft features. Her eyes were two light brown almonds under two brownish-red arches. Her nose seemed tiny over her full lips. Her hair had been tied when he began recovery, but now she let her wild curls flow freely. Even with her garments still on, Calim could see the muscular calves and thick thighs supporting her soft backside. He imagined her top shelf was just as soft. When he again tried to picture the delicate, strong back he had seen before he lost consciousness, he remembered she had seen him unclothed. He wondered what she thought of him.
“You can use the bedding since you are still in recovery,” Zanzhu said once she was done organizing. “I can make myself another spot.”
“You’re very generous, but I’ll be fine. Besides, you’ve already lent me your garments.”
She may as well have not heard. Zanzhu took his damaged garments and began to mend them. She had already decided they could be saved when she first removed them. She could clean the purple streaks of blood later after the tears were properly reinforced.
Calim began to keep himself busy by looking through her books. Most of them contained instruction from subjects ranging from hounan maintenance and weapon building to beast tracking and bartering. Every kind of skill and trade. Zanzhu appeared to be a female with no limits. That explained how she was able to give him sickcare, trek the Baku Terrain and mend his garments.
There were practically none of the types of books popular among both Rauds and Ninhus that wove tales of forbidden loves and sexual escapades.
His eyes grew heavy. Before he could think twice, he went to Zanzhu’s bedding and made himself comfortable. Zanzhu watched him carefully and waited until she was sure he was resting. She put down his garments and retrieved a small black box hidden behind an odd weapon. She opened it and inhaled the aroma of the black powder inside. Yakru. She took a small measure of it and immersed it into some liquid extracted from one of the many wild beasts that roamed nearby. She drank the entire concoction and waited to feel its effects. Yakru always brought her to a state of euphoria. Without ever having to leave the hounan, she ascended to heights of ecstasy unknown in reality. Of course, yakru was illegal to Ninhus, but Zanzhu had connections of every kind. She always had access to it. Amazingly, she could still function normally under its influence.
When Calim awoke, Zanzhu was not in the hounan. He looked around him trying to remember where he was, plotting his next move. He found his mended and cleaned garments in Zanzhu’s chair, so he got dressed and looked for her. He found her outside cleaning a dead beast for offerings. She did not even look up at him.
“You recover quickly,” she said. “I take it you want to leave soon?”
“I don’t want to. I feel safe here. But I’ll have to.”
She stood, cleaned her hands and walked behind him. She examined his wounds and gave a hum of satisfaction with her own handiwork. His wounds had nearly disappeared, but she knew this was not from her efforts alone. The only real evidence to his unfortunate incident was the mends in his garments. But she had even done an exceptional job with them. There was no trace of blood and Zanzhu managed to hide the frayed edges from what she guessed was security razor wire.
“You’ll be fine to travel. You could even make it to Hankag if you want. It’s three days away.”
“But I thought Lo Krisha was a day and a half.”
“It is, but I thought you should know your options.”
“Oh.” Calim was at a loss for words. Nothing about Zanzhu was cut and dried. He felt her kindness and consideration were sincere as she took care of him, yet she lived isolated nearly two days from the nearest shuci with a rigged hounan full of nothing valuable.
“Will you replenish before you leave?”
“If you don’t mind.”
“Then you can help me prepare offerings.”
Calim helped Zanzhu prepare the beast she had been cleaning. They took their time to replenish, though neither of them seemed to enjoy it. Zanzhu made friendly conversation this time.
“My parents used to tell me stories of the home world, before the Rauds transported the Ninhus here,” she said. “My mother said for a time Ninhus had no ability to distinguish one taste from another in this place. Rauds have no sense of smell, so they could not taste. When Ninhus began adapting to this world, we eventually lost our abilities to taste because the befoomon was so awful. My mother said before then, Ninhus sometimes replenished for pleasure. It was just… eating. Since we no longer eat for pleasure because we can’t distinguish tastes, a fat Ninhu is quite rare. Even they are having trouble surviving now” Zanzhu snickered a bit to herself. “I know now she just did not want to tell me that the Rauds have always intentionally tried to starve us so that we would depend on them. Some things about the old home world and the ways we’ve kept from that time intrigue me.”
“I can say the same about you,” Calim blurted before he could stop himself. But Zanzhu was not offended. She was amused.
“Is that so?”
“Not many Ninhu females I know travel alone with male garments on hand. No one, Ninhu or Raud, keeps as much information on hand as you have here in all these books. You’ve gone out of your way to help a complete stranger and led him into your well-protected hounan.”
“I like living alone, so I need to be self-sufficient,” she answered simply. She offered no other explanation beyond that. Calim decided he should not test her.
“If my calculations are correct, it is six days until the Day of Tenchition. I should get to a shuci in order to take full advantage of the upcoming celebrations.”
“I’ll have to lead you back out.”
They took a different path away from Zanzhu’s hounan. When they were nine minutes away, she pointed him in the direction he needed to follow.
“I must tell you again how much I greatly appreciate your generosity, Zanzhu. Perhaps someday I’ll have the honor of returning it.”
“I look forward to that day, Calim. Until then, may your trek be safe.”
Zanzhu watched him momentarily as he walked away. She then went back to the hounan. She would only have two days to herself before she had to go to Lo Krisha.
Lo Krisha was one of the few shucis where Rauds and Ninhus commingled in relative peace. Tensions were even less than usual with the upcoming celebrations for the Day of Tenchition. Shochantshus busily decorated their posts in anticipation of the influx of business from both wealthy lords and their underlings who saved for months for the occasion. Traders had already begun to make their contacts. It was easy to navigate anonymously through the hub of activity filling the streets.
Zanzhu walked into her favorite bapa and looked around. Despite the ever-increasing throngs of travelers, Mozam was almost empty. Zanzhu spied the bapa’s owner, Uthra, behind the counter and walked over to take a seat. Without ever looking at her, Uthra placed Zanzhu’s regular drink in front of her and continued to arrange her counter all the while keeping the professional smile for the benefit of her patrons. Zanzhu slowly nursed her drink in silence.
Eventually the four patrons occupying the bapa left, but not before giving Uthra spiteful glances. She did not seem to mind as she counted the kanmo left for the replenishment. She followed them to the door, locked it behind them and put up her sign indicating the bapa was closed.
“When did you get back from reymage?” Uthra asked as she clasped Zanzhu’s hand and gave her the intimate greeting of touching foreheads.
“About three days ago,” Zanzhu replied. “I had an unexpected visitor.”
“Really? What happened?”
“I didn’t ask him, but from the looks of his wounds, it seems he escaped from Keimu Camp.”
“Escaped? Wow! There’s been no talk of an escape.”
“I know. So, what’s been going on around here lately?”
“Actually, it’s been quiet. You know it gets a little calmer around this time. The Rauds don’t want anything to ruin the Day of Tenchition. They like to show The Gami how much progress they’ve made with Ninhu project.”
“Some progress. Ninhus are no longer dreives. We just can’t get steady work without approval and papers from the Rauds. If you’re caught helping a Ninhu with no prior consent, you go to Keimu Camp. Being a trader is about the only work you can have without being under the Raud’s boot and there’s so much competition there.”
“Unless, of course, you become a furilan then you answer to no one: Raud, Ninhu or otherwise.”
Zanzhu rarely smiled, but something about her oldest and only friend brought it out of her. Uthra knew Zanzhu better than anyone, so she was not surprised when Zanzhu made the choice of becoming a furilan, learning every possible skill and trade so that she could adapt to any situation and take any type of work available. Uthra had even given Zanzhu her first lessons in targeting so that Zanzhu could always protect herself and catch beasts for offerings. From there, Zanzhu had familiarized herself with various types of weapons and combat.
In turn, Zanzhu saw that Uthra always had the best supplies and kept the means of replenishment in stock. No one wanted to deal with Uthra; she was half Raud, half Ninhu -- a halhan. Rauds despised her and Ninhus loathed her as Uthra’s kind represented an unholy union of the conquerors and the conquered. Since Uthra took pleasure in food, she was rounder than many others. Ninhus envied her round belly while Rauds saw it as a sign of her Ninhu weakness, reluctant to admit that she just could not be starved so easily. Uthra carried it like a badge of pride.
Incidentally, Uthra’s friendship had cost Zanzhu regular companionship with others. Zanzhu preferred it that way. She never liked the company of others very much and Uthra was the only one she trusted. Uthra completed her simple existence. She could keep up with the latest news through Uthra while maintaining her isolated hounan out of the way of “civilization.”
“There’s to be a raid on Zaiply. The Sharebs could really use someone with your talents.”
“I only planned to trade until the Day of Tenchition is over. Then I planned to stay home for the rest of fuwin. I don’t want to be anywhere else when it hits.”
“Before you hide yourself away for 40 days, you could help out the Sharebs. You know the Ninhus don’t have enough access to supplies when fuwin hits. Can’t you do it for them?”
“Now, why would I do something for a bunch of strangers with no kanmo?”
“Because I asked you.”
Only Uthra could coax Zanzhu into a mission of mercy. Otherwise, Zanzhu would never accept work that came with no promise of a benefit. Zanzhu was no one’s hero but her own.
“No one else will be in here for a while. Let’s got to the parshon and have some yakru.”
They spoke of their youth and dreamed of their future until they finished the yakru in the parshon above the bapa. Afterward, still under its influence, Zanzhu enjoyed a peaceful slumber that took her to the old home world.
Zanzhu positioned herself near the side entrance of the Zaiply Compound. It was one of the smaller supply compounds, so it was never very heavily guarded. On this occasion only two Rauds would be on post, so she suggested it would be best to dispose of them quietly rather than make a conflict so soon. The Sharebs would have more time to get into the compound and get as many supplies as they could carry.
Uthra had not told Zanzhu that the Shareb leader Maeda had asked especially for Zanzhu. She had noticed him in Uthra’s bapa before, but she had never spoken to him. She was always surprised when her reputation preceded her although by now she should not have been. She had momentarily been proud that her skills were giving hope to the Sharebs she secretly admired. Then she found out that Maeda wanted to capitalize on assets not related to her skills.
Maeda convinced her to pose as a baispro. Zanzhu had nothing against the profession but preferred to be known as a furilan, a warhita at the least. Even most Ninhu males had begun to believe that Ninhu females were only good for being baispros. Maeda argued with Zanzhu that this ruse could be their element of surprise. What Raud would mistake a baispro for a warhita?
Zanzhu adjusted the skin tight garments she would usually only wear under other garments then signaled to Maeda and his second in command Bud. The males them awaited her next move. Zanzhu moved from her position to make herself visible to the Raud guards. When she was sure they saw her, she feigned surprise. She began to run toward her previous hiding spot but tripped before she could reach it. She gave a small cry of pain as she sat down and clutched her ankle. Then their shadows emerged over her. She looked up at her sworn enemies as they stood against the light purple sky. The beauty of the greenish tinges of their skin never ceased to amaze her. The clearness of their eyes never ceased to strike fear into her heart, but that fear always subsided quickly because as soon as she realized she could not tell where they were looking, she brought her defenses back up. She knew it only took a moment for the notion crossing the Rauds’ minds to show itself on their wispy lips. This notion caused the growing numbers of halhans, sometimes with a consenting Ninhu female but mostly with a forceful Raud male. Zanzhu could see that although she was dressed as a baispro, the Rauds now standing over her were not looking for her consent or planning on paying for the services of pleasure.
“She’s a rare one, Tun,” one said to his comrade. “Never seen her around here before.”
“Damatta!” Tun replied. “And to think I was upset about missing the celebrations tonight. Looks like we’ll still get to have our own festivities.”
They began their wheezy hacking called laughter but abruptly stopped when they noticed Zanzhu had begun to smile. Maeda and Bud were almost upon them when they turned and began to fight with the Ninhu males. Zanzhu stood to assess where she was most needed. Maeda handled himself quite well against the Raud called Tun. However, she could see that Bud was quickly losing his battle. She knew males hated when females fought battles for them but more was at stake than Bud’s pride.
Zanzhu managed to get between the two of them and delivered her fist into the Raud’s neck before sweeping his feet from under him. As the Raud clutched his neck gasping for breath, Zanzhu ordered Bud, “Finish him.” Bud threw her a hateful look before planting a fatal blow through the side of the Raud’s neck, knowing Zanzhu would have done it herself if she had her weapon on her. She ignored his disdain and took her pouch from him when she saw that Maeda had also finished his Raud and was stripping him of his cloak.
“I could have handled him myself,” Bud disdainfully announced.
“No. No you couldn’t have,” Zanzhu flatly replied. “Now, instead of sulking like a youth, you need to remove his cloak and hide his body.”
Bud was about to protest, but Maeda caught his eye. Maeda’s look told Bud that he should not argue. He did as he was told. Meanwhile, Zanzhu removed her baispro attire and changed into her familiar warhita garments. Although they had a snug fit, they were not as constricting as the uncomfortable baispro costume. She was aware that Bud was watching her intently, but she wanted him to. She knew his stupidity would get him a reprimand.
“Bud!” Maeda angrily called. “Go give the signal to the others.”
Bud donned his stolen cloak and headed off to get the rest of the Sharebs.
“I apologize about Bud,” he said. “He’s usually more professional than that.”
“He’s a cousin, isn’t he?”
Maeda’s embarrassed nod told her everything. “Don’t worry. He’s only serving as lookout for the mission.”
Bud was returning with the other six Sharebs in tow. Maeda handed his cloak to a comrade who was to be the other lookout. He then reiterated everyone’s roles for the mission.
When he was done, Zanzhu took her cue to place a small energy burst on the entrance lock.
They stealthily entered the compound. Although it was devoid of the usually full Raud posts because of the celebrations, they still moved with quiet efficiency, making no small talk as they worked. Zanzhu found her station: weapons. She was to find weapons that even the most inexperienced warhita could handle. Her primary goal was to find swanas. Any Ninhu caught with a swana was immediately executed as it was the most effective weapon in killing a Raud. Zanzhu was surprised that Maeda had entrusted such a weapon to someone as incompetent as Bud. She loaded her pouches with as many of the simple weapons she could carry. She finally found the small supply of swanas. It seemed like such poetic justice to Zanzhu that the weapons previously only used in Raud executions had now become the coveted weapon of the Sharebs, so much so that Raud executions sanctioned by The Gami had become almost obsolete.
Zanzhu was still collecting the swanas when a sharp pain shot through her head. They had nine minutes. Should she warn the others or risk letting Bud prove his mettle as a lookout? She did not want to risk having her secret found out. She collected weapons for two more minutes. She found Maeda and was about to suggest they leave when Bud and the other lookout came from nowhere.
“The Raud guard is coming from the hills. Someone must have triggered a warning,” the young Shareb explained.
“Damatta!” Maeda exclaimed. “I thought we would have more time. Gather the others. Tell them to get to the rendezvous point.”
Zanzhu knew from her spasms that there were twelve guards on the way. Even if they got out of the compound before the guards came, they might still have to put up a fight.
“Wait! Let me tell them.”
She took a swana from her pouch and handed it to the youth. Maeda understood her intention.
“If you change your mind,” he said while clasping her hand, “you should come and join us.”
“I’m not done just yet. I got you in here. I have to get you out.”
Zanzhu left to distribute the weapons to the other Sharebs, instructing them to leave. She handed the entire supply of weapons to the only other female to come along to the raid.
“Before going to the rendezvous, take these to Mozam. Uthra will keep them hidden for you.”
“But that female is a…”
“She’s a very dear friend and you will find no one more trustworthy. Maeda did.”
“May your trek be safe, Zanzhu.”
“May your trek be safe as well, Sacha.”
The two females split and Zanzhu headed back toward the side entrance. She felt the sudden sharp pang again. Thirteen. She found Maeda and the youth just as the guards burst through the door. She saw that only six had stayed to clear the compound. The others must have given chase to the fleeing Sharebs.
Zanzhu artfully dodged the weapons swinging from the two Rauds attacking her. They underestimated the quickness of her movements. Still, there were two against one. She could distract herself from the pain that came when the sharp points managed to penetrate her skin. She waited until the two of them moved in for the kill. She quickly swung behind one Raud as they tried to ram her, a technique they frequently used in battle. They collided, sinking their weapons into each other while Zanzhu delivered the fatal blow to the neck of the one she swung behind. The other recovered more quickly than she hoped he would, so she had to fight to remove his weapon away from his vulnerable spot. She finally managed to lock weapons with him and gave him a flying kick to the neck which knocked him to the ground. She sunk the swana into his neck.
Zanzhu assessed the battle. Maeda had made one kill, but he was struggling with his other opponent. The young Shareb was close to defeat at the hands of two Rauds. She went over to even the field.
Her energy was dwindling, but she still fought valiantly and skillfully. She was just about to strike the Raud’s neck when the youth screamed in agony. The Raud had pierced him in the side, a potentially deadly blow to a Ninhu. In the short moment she looked away, the Raud punched Zanzhu in the face with such force it knocked her to the floor. She still saw the youth managed to plunge his swana into the Raud’s neck before they both collapsed. Zanzhu caught the other Raud’s weapon before it found its way into her side. She threw her entire body’s weight into tossing him into a pile of supplies. She had held on to his weapon and used it to sever his head from his body. Zanzhu’s ears then caught the ongoing scuffle. She turned just in time to stop Maeda from killing Calim.
As soon as Maeda snapped his head toward Zanzhu, Calim released himself from Maeda’s grip and gave him a knee to the side. He glanced at Zanzhu before he ran.
She went to check on the youth. He was barely alive and bleeding profusely. She helped him to his feet but doubted he would make it out of the compound under his own volition. Maeda had come over to them by then.
“You let him get away!”
“I know. Help me get him to a sled.”
Maeda helped Zanzhu carry the youth. “Do you know what he is?”
“Yes, I know.”
“And you let him go. He can identify us. He’ll have us hunted and killed!”
Zanzhu lost her cool. “His life is in my hands! He won’t go back to the Rauds. He won’t go to anyone!”
Maeda looked at her questioningly but stayed silent as they loaded their comrade into a sled.
“Sacha took the weapons to Mozam just in case the Rauds found the rendezvous. Do you want to take him or will you get the weapons?”
“I’ll go to Uthra. I need to discuss a few things with her anyway.”
Maeda turned to leave then turned back to Zanzhu. “Are you coming back to join us?”
She flinched. “I have to get him away. He won’t make it much longer without sickcare.”
They parted ways. Zanzhu passed four dead Rauds and one Shareb on her way to the rendezvous. Apparently, the Rauds had not been aware the Sharebs were in possession of swanas. The other two must have fled when they realized they were beaten. She finally arrived. The Shareb lookouts stopped her but let her through when they recognized their fallen comrade. Sacha was the first to greet her, but her elation at seeing Zanzhu abruptly ended when she saw her brother’s condition.
“He’s lost a lot of blood but if there’s some mediku, we can probably save him.”
Sacha helped Zanzhu nurse her brother. After they were satisfied that he was stable, Sacha dressed some of Zanzhu’s wounds and fixed her befoomon for offerings.
“Maeda should be here shortly. He went to get the weapons from Uthra. Probably went to get on her case about me, too.”
“Even if he did, he still desperately wants you to join us. What about Bud? Did he make it?”
“He didn’t come back?”
“No. We thought he was still with Maeda.”
“He was nowhere to be found when we left.”
Zanzhu had a bad feeling. Bud had been a Shareb insider. She knew this would not go well. Zanzhu checked on her young patient, who she learned was called Maek, one last time then instructed Sacha on his care.
“As soon as Maeda comes back, tell him about Bud. You’ll all have to move somewhere else. Somewhere Bud doesn’t know about.”
“You don’t think…,” Sacha trailed off then noticed Zanzhu preparing to leave. “You’re not staying then?”
“No. There’s something I need to take care of.”
Zanzhu and Sacha clasped hands. Zanzhu began the trek to her hounan.
She was one minute away when she felt the telltale pain.
His back was to the door when she walked in. His wet boots and cloak told her that he had not navigated the path with complete success. Zanzhu silently walked behind him.
“How did you know?” Calim asked. “How did you know what I was?”
She could not tell him the truth. The only one she had ever told about the anomaly in her brain was Uthra. The small growth worked as an antenna telling her when a Raud was nine minutes away. She only had a one-minute warning for a halhan. Her abnormality caused her parents much concern before they decided their daughter was the next step of evolution for the Ninhus, a new weapon for their protection. So far, though, Zanzhu was the only one with the anomaly. She knew if word were to get out about it, she would be as good as dead.
“There were a couple of signs. Remember, I had to undress you in Red Rocks. You have some of the Raud features. And of course your rapid recovery was the last thing I needed to be absolutely certain.”
“You’re observant. I should have known better than to think I could fool you.”
“Well, you are unusual. I’ve never met a halhan with a Raud mother and a Ninhu father. You’re one of a kind, Calim.
“So are you, Zanzhu. I don’t know many Ninhus who would knowingly save a halhan’s life twice. Your Shareb friends must hate you.”
“They are not my friends. Yes, my standing with them will be compromised, but that’s because Maeda thinks you are a spy and a traitor. But as you said, I’m observant. I seriously doubt anyone who survived the Keimu Camp could truly share allegiance with the Rauds.”
Calim unconsciously rubbed at the wounds he had the first time he met Zanzhu.
“Fool I am, I was recaptured soon after I left you. I had a choice: back to Keimu or assist in putting down the raid they heard about from their inside Ninhu.”
“Bud,” Zanzhu said softly.
“I had to keep up the pretense, but your warhita fought so fiercely… I tried to give him a sign, but he fought me with even greater intensity seeing I wasn’t a Raud…. I guess we both know now my life is in your hands.”
“I don’t want your life, Calim.”
“I owe you at least my loyalty. You’ve saved me twice, Zanzhu. This means more than a mere debt. I am forever inkanshed to you. You can’t take away my gratitude. We are bound, Zanzhu. I am bound to you.”
Zanzhu had no desire to be bound with anyone, especially a halhan, but Calim would not be one to let his gratitude go unexpressed. She was not sure if she was happy about saving him because she knew her isolated life was about to get much more complicated. Her small hideaway hounan would no longer be her haven. She was now involved in something.
“We’re both bound, but not to each other. We have a greater cause ahead of us.” Calim understood. “You’ll have to convince them about me. I can’t do it alone.”
Zanzhu looked around the hounan. She was certain she could hide most of her belongings at Red Rocks or even further into the Baku Terrain if necessary. It would be much easier once everyone was assembled and she distributed these things to the others.
“So what do we do now?” Calim asked.
“First, we recuperate for a while. Then I must get into Lo Krisha to see Uthra. When I’m back, we go to Red Rocks to wait for the others. Tonight was just the beginning. A Great Conflict has just gone underway.”