If she kills the man with the red-jeweled hand, they might all go free. The snakes in her hair whisper hope, never promises. Yet…
She mouths the word, imagines the taste of a ripe peach chilled by the stream, the peach softness of her sister’s cheek. Her reflexes, quick as a serpent, have never failed her.
She slips the blade inside her kimono and paints her face, kohl around her eyes, ruby lips to match the warlord’s gem. He will want her lips on his hand. Her snakes weave among her hair, lie against her scalp, still as scaled combs.
At sunset, she joins the other girls outside the warlord’s home, waiting to be chosen. None desire to be here. Tears flow down their faces, smearing the paint. One will die, so that their village may live another day.
This has to stop.
The warlord and his entourage approach on horseback, returning from a day of pillaging. His men are drunk, but he is wary even in victory. Others have tried to kill a daimyo. She bares her shoulders, and hides her face behind a fan of crimson and gold, a subtle play for his attention. His dark eyes are on her. He points, and his men take her.
Surrounded by four paper walls, she sits, hands in her lap. The warlord enters, filling the space with his bulk. She rises and bows. He circles her, leering, fingers on his sheathed katana. Does he know? She bows lower, hiding fear. The snakes squirm and her hair ripples.
He halts, scowling, and motions for her to remove her clothing. He sees her knife as her robes hit the floor. His katana whines through the air, but she is faster. Her steel fang pierces his side.
There’s no blood.
She jerks away. The warlord laughs and lunges at her, katana whistling. She stumbles back, crashes through the paper wall and into the moonlight.
She blinks. Her headless body lies inches from her face.
The snakes writhe, their venom sinking into her scalp. It courses through her, burning, gnawing. It’s energy, it’s fire. She glares at the warlord with the intensity of poison.
He’s paralyzed; can’t breathe. And he falls like a wall of stone.
She smiles, and closes her eyes for the last time.
From her neck emerges a serpent, pearl-white scales and ruby eyes shimmering under the moon. It tongues the air, tastes peaches in the breeze, and glides toward home.
“Peaches in the Breeze” was originally published in Abyss & Apex.