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Li Li rocked back onto the grass and hugged her thighs to her chest. She bowed her head into her knees in quiet contemplation, listening to the birds trilling their first morning songs from the branches of the great tree at the top of the hill. Before her legs got too stiff, she rose to her feet, paid her respects a final time, and continued through the rows of memorials to her next destination.
Strongbo's family shrine was up the hill, under the tree's glorious spreading boughs. A lump hardened at the back of Li Li's throat, her father's words returning with painful clarity.
"Didn't you learn anything from Bo's death?"
She placed the little clay pot in front of the shrine and arranged the second bouquet of flowers in it, again sinking to her knees.
"If I could bring you back, Bo, I would. Or I would have done something different. I would have gone someplace that awful naga and her orc brute couldn't have found us.”
"But I wouldn't have not left in the first place."
At this admission, a tear slipped from Li Li's eye and ran down her cheek, matting her fur.
"I had to go. Just staying here makes me crazy. Maybe that makes me a bad person. Papa seems to think so. But I'm more afraid of what would happen to me if I tried to stay than I am of whatever might happen to me out there. I hope that's not a slight to your memory, Bo. I only want to do what's right for me. I am so sorry." Her words choked against her constricted throat. "I never wanted anyone to get hurt." She bowed her head as she had at her mother's shrine, and recited a prayer for the dead.
"I wish you peace," she finished, and stood. She looked up at the sky, rosy gold with the dawn, the sun's orange rim just cresting the eastern horizon. Li Li brushed off the hem of her shift, staring at her feet. Her heart still ached, and she had no desire to return home. It was early yet, but there was a good chance that Chen might be awake by now.
He answered his door on the fourth knock.
"Li Li?" He blinked in surprise. "Come in! Let me get you some breakfast."
Li Li followed him into the little cottage and took a seat at the kitchen table while he busied himself getting their meal ready.
"Sorry to bug you so early, Uncle Chen."
"Not at all!" he called, his voice muffled behind a cabinet door. "I was just setting up my latest brewing project. Sadly not a lot of varied stuff I can use here, but we'll see how it turns out."
Li Li sat in silence, absently fiddling with her sleeves as Chen prepared porridge on the stovetop.
"Are you still upset about last night?" Chen asked, stirring the porridge with a long stick.
"I never wanted anything to happen to Bo," she mumbled, staring at the table.
"Remember when we talked about having our own adventures together? Let's do that! I'd be safe with you; Papa knows it. Let's go see the world!"
Chen opened his mouth, then hesitated. Li Li's eager eyes searched his face, but as the seconds passed, she began to realize that the response she'd hoped for was not the one she was going to get.
"You agree with Papa, don't you?"
"It's not that," Chen said. "I think you both have reasonable concerns. But, as for me..." He looked around at his little house—at the pans hanging from above the stove; the shelves full of dishes, scrolls, and decorations; the comfortable furniture—and he smiled. "I'm happy being here. I spent so much of my life on the road, with no home of my own. This is new. This is an adventure to me now."
"You have got to be kidding." Li Li gulped a mouthful of her porridge, then shoved the bowl away, meal half finished. Here was the one person around who understood her, and he had given up. She had been betrayed.
"That… that would be quite an experience indeed," he said. "Is that what you're planning?"
Aldrek tapped the side of his nose and grinned slyly. "No. We're purely reconnaissance, right?"