Senaiya watched as the man, covered in mud and dripping with water, crawled onto the bank before her, exhaustion rattling his breath. Water ran down his face, dripping from his hair and nose. He looked defeated, beaten by what ever ills had befallen him, but still she did not move, afraid that he would see her through the fog and green shoots of bamboo separating them.
She didn’t need to worry. The man collapsed, lying still on the lake shore, his breath rattling from his lung as he tried to catch it. But he never did. A wisp of steam rose from his lips, the last breath he would ever release and his body stilled.
Horrified, Senaiya stared at the man, too frightened to investigate and too entranced to run. She’d never seen a dead body in all of her years; at least not one so unceremoniously strewn like the man on the shore. He may have had family who didn’t know he was gone, perhaps children and a wife who would miss him. Maybe he was a lowly farmer who had been robbed of his wares by bandits while he went to sell them in town. All she knew was that he was dead.
The lake was oddly silent. From where she sat she couldn’t hear the bubbling of the streams that filled the lake and the normally boisterous cranes were quiet. Even the fog seemed to press in all around her, suffocating.
She was alone with the man, the only witness to his struggling, final breath. She felt responsible. If anything, he needed a proper burial. If he didn’t have one, his soul would haunt her for the rest of her life.
Senaiya swallowed back the horror and revulsion she felt and made her way down the muddy, rain slicked slope to the shore and crossed to the man’s body. When she got close, she paused.
A trail of blood led from the man to the water still lapping at his ripped and water soaked sandals. She swallowed. It had been bandits. Senaiya went to her knees in silent prayer but stopped with her hands clasped before her. There was something on the man. Something distantly familiar. She hesitated. Would it be wrong of her to turn him over and see what it was that had caught her eye? Would the dead understand?
Not wanting to wait for the answers and with the sand digging into her knees, Senaiya crawled across the sand, gripped the man’s shoulders, and pushed him onto his back.
Of all the things that had given her pause since the man had crawled upon the shore and exhaled his final dying breath, what was on his chest made her faint and sick. There was only one other place she had seen that perfectly etched, pure white symbol: on her.
Against her will, she reached out and touched the symbol. When she did, the man’s eyes opened. She wanted to scream, but her voice was caught in her throat. Unbidden, the man sat up and stared at her. His eyes watched her, not exactly into her own, but through her, as if he was seeing her from a great distance, and she knew that he was. He was seeing her from the echoes of death. Senaiya tried to move away but the man grabbed her wrist, held her as she felt bile rise up in her throat and her heart thunder so hard it almost drowned out the soft lapping of the water on the shore.
He pulled her closer. His strength was so much greater than hers, perhaps the strength lent by the Gods upon his death. She tried to get away but she couldn’t, he held her too tight. When they were near enough that their faces almost touched, he opened his mouth. “Do not let the child emperor have you. Escape.”
She opened her mouth to ask a question but he was gone. His eyes rolled back into his head and he fell back upon the sandy shore in the same position he had been before, death once again claiming his person. Senaiya peeled her wrist out of his cold grip and backed away from the shore. Against her will, she vomited on the sand, hacking and retching as that morning’s breakfast came out in great chunks. When the digested food came no more, she spit, looked at the body one last time and started back up the slick slope. She needed to get away. Whoever had killed the man would look for him. She didn’t want to be there when they came. She needed to get back home.
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