Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Telling Tales 235

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An Introduction or Two

Yi-Min had never seen anyone like the man who introduced himself to her as Haraka. Her own skin was not so pale as the nobility in her country, those people who aspired so much to be porcelain that some of them, the highest of them, had become porcelain. The Empress was so rigid and delicate that she must sit on only the finest of silk pillows, their fabric woven from tame spiders, lest she break a leg. That was delicacy.

She was not sheltered, Yi-Min, either, no indeed. She had not been sheltered before she began to look for her enchanted husband, and even if she had been, she would not have been now. She had met the people of the mountains, with rougher and darker skin than hers. They had fashioned for her her first pair of iron boots.

She received the second pair from the plains traders, mighty warriors whose men and women alike rode on horseback and used no reins, guiding their steeds only with their knees so that their hands were free to string arrows to their mighty bows. Her own people had a long-standing dislike of horses, but Yi-Min in her current state had no more reason to fear them than most, so she kept her opinions to herself.

The mountain people were coarser than she and the plains traders were darker, but none so dark as Haraka. Beyond them, to the north where the Master of the Taiga held sway, iron-pitted blacksmith spiders had fashioned her third pair, the soles of which had finally given way, rusted through, even as the smoke of a village rose in the distance. Yet in all her travels, she had seen no one and nothing like this man, if he was a man.

Yi-Min had seen enchantments aplenty in her relatively short life, so she was not inclined to assume that this Haraka even was a man, or if he was, that his dark, dark brown skin was his own. Simply, she kept her mind open. There was also the fact that he was very, very fast, and had arrived pursuing an arrow that flew from the heavens.

There was also the fact that he knew her husband, Kou Ke.

“Let us walk to the village,” she said, once he had said his piece and once she had declined his offer to speed her to her husband’s side. She held up the bodies of her iron boots and collected the soles so that she would have something to show the local smith. “You do not mind moving at such a poor pace?”

“No, indeed, my lady,” he said with a smile. His teeth stood out against his face. Yi-Min thought it looked marvelous. “I enjoy a walk and I enjoy a run. There is a time and place for both, just as there are moments for celebration and moments for gravity.”

“As you say,” she said, and they fell into a companionable walk, one next to the other.

“I understand that you wish to demonstrate your love to your husband,” he began, reiterating their conversation from a moment before.

“It is the least I can do, having been responsible for our separation,” she insisted. “My feet must perform this duty.”

“As you say. Yet you would not turn away from, for example, a pair of seven-league boots, were you to find them?”

She considered. “Not if I achieved them through effort that indicated my love and my responsibility, no.”

“Indeed,” said Haraka.

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