Shui looked to the guards loyal to him who eyed the Commander’s guards warily. “You!” He declared, and all eyes fell on him. “Men loyal to my title, but not my house.” More than one man nodded in response, as if Shui was had talked directly to him. “You have witnessed the Commander confess his treachery and dishonorable behavior. You have heard his plans to dishonor me and steal my holdings.”
“A trial shall be convened and the Commander will answer for his crimes. I leave his fate to the court conference. The minister of justice will decide between execution or exile.”
Shui turned his back to the Commander. “Take him from my sight immediately!”
The guards bowed slightly and corralled the Commander and his accomplices. The Commander’s guards hung their heads in shame, but the Commander screamed obscenities and struggled against the guards, swearing revenge.
Finally, after the chamber had cleared and the Commander’s expletives faded down the hall, Shui and Nala were alone.
“How are you alive?” she blurted impulsively.
Shui smiled, beads of sweat lined his brow. “You have learned much here, Nala, but you still are not as observant as you think you are.”
Nala pleaded an explanation with her eyes.
Shui strained to widen his smile. “My garden is not filled with just the Cao Wo, but many poisonous flowers and herbs. I have yet to announce my retirement from the Hainan Island tournament, so less honorable men would see to usurp my title with treachery, rather than skill.”
Shui slumped hauntingly, and Nala bore his weight.
“I have ingested trace quantities of every known poison.” Shui coughed and continued. “I’ve endeavored to build up an immunity.” He sat on his bed. “Poison has always been a tool of assassins.” He laid back on the bed. “Now, I really do need to rest.”
Nala watched as he closed his eyes, exhaling the breath that he had held strong. Nala was overcome by a new emotion: pity.
Until now, she had never considered that the greatest warrior the Han Dynasty had would be on constant alert from attacks. He had been unable to trust anyone. He had to push away those he cared for so they would not be used as leverage against him in the arena.
The loneliness must be overwhelming, she thought.
The image of the villainous Champion Standing she had constructed crumbled away as she watched Shui’s chest rise and fall. Shui’s eyes fluttered open and he returned her steady gaze.
“The girls are safe,” he whispered. “Slavery is one tradition we do not need.” He reached to Nala’s hand and squeezed. “You are a freewoman now.”
“Fabia is alive?”
Shui nodded. “She has been reunited with her Roman father.”
Nala mouthed the word Roman as Shui closed his eyes and snored softly.
Nala wept. Her calloused outlook was suddenly better. Shui had proven his innocence of atrocities rumored. Fabia was safe with her family.
There remained only one thing for her to do.