Pain. His thoughts lurched back to it, again and again, a volcanic force that would not let him think of anything else. The world swam every time he opened his eyes, red-hazed and indistinct; it was so much easier to just close them and let the pain claim his undivided attention. But every time he did that, he felt himself slipping, red giving way to black. And so he clawed his way back up, again and again, fighting against the current that wanted to drag him down forever.
In those moments, fragments came through.
Adechike. On his knees, reaching out in horror, and some delirious part of Ojo’s mind wanted to tell him that he was ruining his clothing, blood soaking up to stain the fabric forever. Even the embassy’s laundry workers, accustomed to dealing with bloodstains, would have trouble with that.
And then an eruption of white-hot agony from his right arm, while Adechike whispered, Gods, Ojo, stay with me—we have to stop the bleeding—
No, it wasn’t Adechike. It was someone else, a woman he recognized, but her name wouldn’t come to him. He wasn’t on the ground, lying in a pool of blood; he was in bed, and he’d just had the most terrible nightmare. He wanted to tell her about it, but she was tipping a cup of something thin and bitter down his throat, so he couldn’t talk. When he coughed up half the liquid, she just tried again.
You have to save his arm.
That wasn’t her. Someone else. Takeshi? Ojo couldn’t see. His eyelids were too heavy, like Quloo stripped of aerstone.
I have to save his life. Everything else comes after that.
Penelope, that was her name. Ojo’s sister Ihuoma laid a cool cloth on his brow, and he smiled up at her. What was she doing here? Or was he home on Quloo at last? Takeshi held him down when he tried to get up. Normally he could pin Takeshi with one hand tied behind his back, but he was weak, so weak. Like all the life had drained out of him. The darkness was beckoning again, and he couldn’t resist it any longer.
But at least the pain didn’t follow him down.
When he opened his eyes again, the world still swam in his vision, but he could think.
The pain had faded to a medley of dull and distant aches. Only one stood out: his right arm. But when he tried to lift it and see, Takeshi was there, stopping him with a gentle hand and an expression that said he’d done this more than once already.
A bitter taste lingered on Ojo’s tongue. Laudanum. He struggled to speak. “I’m . . . alive.”
Takeshi let go and brought him a cup of water. Even swallowing that was almost too much; the laudanum made it difficult to breathe, like a ramwhul was sitting on his chest. He had to pause for air between sips. Finally Takeshi set the cup aside and said, in a rough, strained voice, “What happened?”
Someone had taken the memories and tossed them around like confetti, but they were still there. Veiled attackers. Too many of them for Ojo to hold off, even with two blades. He’d sold himself as dear as he could, but in the end . . .
Telling that took even longer than drinking the water had, for the same reasons and more besides. “Who were they?” Takeshi asked when he was done.
Ojo shook his head and immediately regretted it. Even that small movement sent a rush of pain down his arm and made the room waltz around him. “I didn’t see faces.”
“But there must have been something. Their fighting style, maybe, or their clothing—”
Assassins wouldn’t be foolish enough to wear identifying marks. And it was one thing to analyze style while facing someone in the dueling arena; quite another to do it while defending against what seemed like a dozen blades at once.
But there was something.
“Their voices,” Ojo said.
Takeshi sat up sharply. “You recognized them?”
He remembered in time not to shake his head. “Not directly. But when they called out to each other—their accents—”
The rest caught in his throat. Even hazed with laudanum, he knew these words would start him down a path he couldn’t come back from.
No—not start. He’d said it already, in his delirium. Takeshi must not have heard him; had anyone else?
You can’t hold it back. Not this. Not now.
Ojo whispered, “They sounded Rumikan.”
Takeshi’s expression settled like stone. He might not be the best in a duel, but he was no political innocent, unable to read the implications of that for himself.
Ojo couldn’t face those implications. Not right now. “Where’s Penelope?”
A muffled sound burst from Takeshi. “You’re not saying she was—”
Was what? One glacial step at a time, Ojo pieced it together. “She— No, no, gods no. I thought . . . She helped treat me....