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Red Skies at Morning

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Even the sea smells different here, Miah’to thought as he gazed out at the Othard shore, towering islands of volcanic rock rising from the ocean floor. When the Captain told him that they were setting sail for the Far East, Miah’to had anticipated new sights and smells, but he hadn’t expected the sea itself to change. It seemed so foolish in hindsight, to think that that familiar sea salt smell would remain consistent even in foreign lands. It was the marine life, he realized; different creatures occupied these waters, altering its scent in different ways as they lived and died and decayed.

When he was a child, Miah’to would sit with his mother on the western pier in Limsa Lominsa, and as day turned to night they would watch together as the sun dipped beneath the waves, transmuting water into gold, and then ink. Miah’to knew what lied to the east of Vylbrand, across the Strait of Merlthor; travelers and merchants from all over Eorzea made stops in Limsa in search of work and trade. But as they looked to the west, he sometimes asked his mother what waited beyond the horizon, and she would tell him about distant lands and people, all unique and all beautiful in their own way. He told her that when he grew up he wanted to see it all, and he would bring her with him. She would smile at him then, lavender eyes he wasn’t fortunate enough to inherit full of warmth, and tell him that she couldn’t wait.

Seeing those lands now, Miah’to found that there was little joy to be had in the experience. A pirate vessel was not his intended mode of transportation, nor had he planned on making his journey until he was old enough to pay his way onto a merchant’s ship—or sail one himself. For the thousandth time, Miah’to felt a pang of homesickness, a dull throbbing behind his ribs that gnawed like a hunger he could not fill. Last week had marked the two year anniversary since he was taken, and a month before that, his sixteenth name day came and went without remark. The Captain didn’t care to know more than his year of birth, and that information he knew intimately well—after all, he had participated in his conception.

The sound of laughter made Miah’to cringe and look over his shoulder. Between Othard and the island nation of Koshu, the Ruby Sea was held by a fleet who called themselves the Confederacy. To the members of this fleet, any ship that wished to travel between Othard and Koshu must pay the Ruby tithe to guarantee its safety.

Pirates everywhere are the same, Miah’to thought as he watched the Captain chat amicably with a Hyur man whose dark hair was pulled back into a braid. There were a lot of Hyur in the Far East, as well as a number of Hellsguard and a race of horned beings Miah’to had never encountered before—though even the familiar races looked different here in comparison to their Eorzean counterparts.

Miah’to was jolted from his thoughts by a hand striking the back of his head with an open palm.

“Quit your staring!” hissed his assailant: a Sun Seeker named A’linh, and the crew’s first-mate. “The last thing the Captain needs right now is for you to fuck up negotiations by making our gracious hosts feel uncomfortable.”

Miah’to shot him a scowl and replied, “You say that like you think I give a damn about his needs.”

A’linh raised his hand like he was going to hit Miah’to a second time, but then he curled his fingers into his palm and jerked his thumb at the Confederate pirates behind him. “If you’re thinking about throwing your lot in with this bunch, be my guest. You’re pretty, and some of them may have never even seen a Miqo’te before. I’m sure they’d have far better uses for your mouth than I do.”

Miah’to’s teeth snapped together with an audible click and he met A’linh’s amber gaze with a glare. When they weren’t discussing the Captain or doling out instructions (or, as was often the case, punishment), it seemed the crew could talk to him about precious little aside from how pretty he was. It was why A’linh was the only member who the Captain trusted to leave alone with Miah’to for any length of time.

“Having difficulties over there, A’linh?” came his voice.

Miah’to stiffened and raised his chin to look toward the source instinctively, finding a pair of silver eyes staring back at him impassively, like twin daggers trapped in ice. Cold and razor sharp. A shiver ran down his spine and Miah’to gritted his teeth harder together. His mother always used to say Miah’to had beautiful eyes; having found their origin, he no longer agreed. He hated every little reminder that his blood ran in Miah’to’s veins—that long, straight nose and bushy tail. Pale skin now tanned from too long spent beneath the sun on the open sea.

“None at all, Cap,” said the Sun Seeker. “Everything’s been sorted.”

“Good,” he replied. “Then I want you to get your axes and run him through drills.”

A’linh groaned with exasperation, but he offered no resistance as he curled a hand around Miah’to’s arm—tightly, despite his previous words to the Moon Keeper—and began to lead him back to the ship.

Behind them, the Confederate Hyur said to the Captain, “You are bringing your boy with you?”

“No, but we are in Garlean territory. One must be prepared for anything.”

 

 

For twenty-two years, Doma had been under the heel of the Garlean Empire. For a time, little changed across the countryside save for its leadership, but since Doma’s leash had been relinquished to a new Viceroy, her people found themselves guided by a far less forgiving hand. It left them weak and vulnerable—easy pickings, the Captain said with a smirk that made Miah’to’s blood boil. He wanted to take his dinner knife and cut the grin from his lips.

But he was right. Twice, they raided villages along the shore of the Ruby Sea, and Miah’to was left on the ship with A’linh to await their return. To watch them climb back aboard with bloodied armour and stolen bounty. The day after the second raid, the Captain declared that they would take a third village, and Miah’to clenched his fists, knowing that he had reached his limit. Tomorrow, he would challenge his father to a duel or pitch himself overboard—entrust his life to the sea before suffering another day of complicity.

He never got the chance.

Later, he wasn’t sure if it was the cannon fire or the Captain scrambling from his bed that woke him. All he knew was that within seconds of blinking awake, a rough hand was curling around his bicep and yanking him from his cot in their shared quarters. At first Miah’to simply wobbled on his feet, sleepy and confused, but as the second volley of cannon fire rocked the ship, he snapped to attention. The Captain hissed a string of curses as he tugged on his boots and armoured overcoat, forgoing a light—as Keepers of the Moon, neither he nor Miah’to had any need for one. Miah’to followed his lead and began to dress himself as his heart took up a staccato rhythm, like a bird’s wings beating against the bars of its cage. Breaths coming faster as his body prepared itself for fight or flight.

It was around that time when the screams began.

In the books Miah’to’s mother read to him as a child, the battles were long and drawn out. Even though he knew the heroes would come out victorious in the end, there was suspense and a clear power struggle between the combatants. Reality was never so fair. Armed with a strategically sound plan, most battles were swift and decisive. It mattered not who was more righteous—only whose tactician was smarter.

The Captain had barely taken his great-axe in his hands before the door burst open to admit a panting and bloodied A’linh, the blond hair at his temples dampened with sweat.

“It’s an ambush, Captain!” A’linh cried. “The Garleans have—” He was cut off with a wet gasp as a sword pierced through his mid-section like a skewered fruit. Time came to a standstill as wide eyes fell to the steel tip peering through his tattered shirt, red blooming down its front like an opening rose. The moment passed as he slid off of the blade, falling to the wooden floor in a heap. The blood came quickly now that the wound was no longer stoppered and Miah’to could only stare dumbly at the spreading lake of crimson. How many times had those hands, now lax, taken the lash to him? He should have known, because he had been ordered to count each one, but now the number escaped him as he thought, I’ll never feel the sting of his whip again.

His mind went blank as the swordsman stepped through the doorway and over A’linh’s corpse. Between his towering height and the elaborate armour that adorned his body, he utterly filled the room—but more than that he seemed to leech the very warmth from the air. If there was such a thing as an angel of death, Miah’to thought, this is how he would appear: with a horned white mask and lifeless eyes as he held his bloodied blade in a loose grasp, golden hair cascading down broad shoulders.

The Captain positioned himself between Miah’to and that lethal angel, gripping his axe with white knuckles. “Miah’to, run!” he shouted, panic lacing his voice.

Miah’to drew in a sharp breath, tasting salt and iron, but instead of darting for the porthole window over the head of the Captain’s bed, he reached beneath the pillow for the dagger he knew resided there and drew it from its sheath. The Captain and his accoster hadn’t moved when Miah’to turned back to them, and he found himself freezing with indecision. Suddenly, he wasn’t sure whether he should aid in fending off the Garlean giant or plunge the knife into the Captain’s back. His heart pounded, the bird behind his ribs frantic with its proximity to freedom.

The decision was taken out of his hands when the Captain lunged forward with a wordless yell. The Garlean parried the blade effortlessly, like he was sparring with a child, and as the Captain was forced off-balance by the strength with which he was met, the angel of death swung his sword around in a graceful arc. A shower of rubies spilled from the blade’s edge and Miah’to flinched as something warm and wet splattered across his face. A broken cry was wrenched from the Captain’s mouth and the axe slipped from his hands as he fell to his hands and knees. The breath retreated from his lungs with a shuddering sigh, and Miah’to could have sworn for a moment that he heard his own name. The Garlean turned his sword downward and drove it through the Captain’s back, pinning him to the floor.

He’s dead, Miah’to thought, repeating over and over like a mantra. For two long years he had dreamed of this day, though in his fantasies it was he who had made the killing stroke. He’s dead. Face-down as his blood joined the pool surrounding A’linh. His head was spinning, unable to come to terms with the reality he was seeing.

Slowly, the pale mask of the Garlean’s helm lifted to meet Miah’to’s gaze and he remembered that he was not alone. His hands tightened around the dagger, hard leather digging into his palms, but as he stared into those blackened eyes he found that he couldn’t move. The cage door had swung open before him to reveal a coeurl, and he had no intentions of charging to his doom. The Garlean spoke then with a low and sultry voice.

“Why do you hesitate?” he asked.

A drip rolled down Miah’to’s face and he licked his lips, tasting blood. “Because… I am not sure whether I should attack you or thank you,” he said.

The Garlean cocked his head. “An interesting response.”

Miah’to glared back at him. “Should I love my own captors? You have done me a service—if you permit me to live.”

“And if I do not?”

Miah’to widened his stance and bared his teeth. “Then I will fight until I draw my last breath… or you do.”

The angel regarded him for a long minute and Miah’to realized, during that silence, that the screaming had ceased along with the cannon fire. The assault had come to an end and there was no questioning who reigned triumphant. After all, who could defeat death? His Garlean angel surprised him by turning his back to him to exit the room.

Just past the doorway he paused, and Miah’to knew that his words were meant for him. “Take what you please and come.”

It was all Miah’to needed to jolt him into action. He dropped the dagger and scrambled for a rucksack, filling it with his meagre supply of clothing and gil from the Captain’s chest. When he finished with his task he stood, eyes searching the room for… something. Even he was uncertain what it was he sought as his gaze passed over his dishevelled cot and the Captain’s unmade bed, now flecked with blood. Then he spied the oil lamp on the Captain’s desk and something inside of him said, yes, and he knew. Miah’to crossed the room to take the lamp in his hands, and then he brought down the oil reservoir against the corner of the desk with a resounding crack, feeling the glass give way. He dribbled fuel across the floor and over the beds, splashing the walls as best he could, and then let it fall to the floor with a crystalline crunch. He wiped his trembling fingers on his shirt and returned to the desk to find the Captain’s flint and a map to use as kindling. Three times he fumbled with the fire starter until sparks finally caught on the parchment. With a racing heart, Miah’to brought the burning map to the Captain’s bed and dropped it onto oil-soaked sheets. Flames sprung to life across the bed hungrily and began to clamber their way up the wall.

Let it all burn, Miah’to thought. Turn it all to ash and leave nothing behind.

Satisfied, he made his way to the door, stopping only as he reached the Captain’s body. Motionless, now and forever. Miah’to knelt down and turned him onto his back. His eyes were closed and his face was slack, parted lips that would never smirk again revealing sharp, feline teeth. Hair a few shades darker than Miah’to’s plastered to his forehead with blood. For two years Miah’to had lived with this man. Fought him and despised him even as he learned from him. For two years, Miah’to had yearned for the mother he was ripped away from, for his home in Limsa Lominsa where they would watch the sunset side by side. He wondered, not for the first time, how a woman as kind and compassionate as his mother could have loved this man for an evening, and his answer came in the unbidden memory of his name whispered on a dying breath.

How insurmountable he had once seemed. He was small for a Miqo’te, barely taller than Miah’to, and yet he had felt larger than life as he put Miah’to down again and again and again. Swatting him aside as easily as he would a fly. As easily as the Garlean angel swatted him.

Steeling his resolve, Miah’to found the great-axe at his side and hoisted it into his hands as he rose to his feet. He stepped over A’linh and found his angel waiting outside the door. The angel spared him only a brief glance before making his way out of the cabin. Miah’to followed.

If the Garleans were surprised to see a young Miqo’te trailing willingly behind the giant through the carnage, they did not show it, nor did they move to disarm him. It was clear that his angel was their leader and his will would not be defied. The smell of wood smoke mingled with blood and gunpowder as they reached the gangplank and crossed over onto the Garlean ship, joined by the last few soldiers who had remained on deck to await their superior’s orders. When the final soldier finished crossing, they drew back the gangplank and the Garlean ship drifted away from the smouldering carcass of its prey. His angel stood at the railing and Miah’to joined him, surveying the remains of the pirate vessel that had housed him for the last two years.

It was once a grand ship with a chestnut brown hull and massive, midnight blue sails, an ornate figurehead of a Sahagin warrior carved beneath the jutting bowsprit. Now smoke billowed from the cabin window as Miah’to’s fire consumed it from the inside out, and the masts were collapsed like broken twigs, shredding the blue-dyed fabric. Very slowly, the ship was sinking as water poured into the holes that had been punched through its hull with cannonballs. It wasn’t enough. Miah’to’s hands became fists around the handle of the Captain’s great-axe.

A soldier approached his angel and said, “No survivors remaining onboard save for your… hostage. In addition to eliminating the outlaws, we have also confiscated all plundered goods below deck. Your orders, my lord?”

Miah’to ignored him, glaring at the wreckage. He was not expecting a gauntleted hand to cup his jaw, a thumb covered in warmed metal running through the drying blood on his cheek. His Garlean angel. He did not look away. He did not falter.

His angel said, “Leave naught but splinters.”

“Yes, my lord. At once.”

Miah’to would never forget the sound as the cannons resumed fire. The hissing of the fuse followed by the low thrum as black powder combusted within the chamber. The deafening crash as the cannonballs collided with the hull and tore it apart, wood wailing in protest. Beating it into submission and then dismembering the ravaged corpse. Leaving ruin where once his prison stood.

Something fluttered in Miah’to’s chest and he found himself grinning, giddy, and then he was laughing. He was free. The bird escaped through his open mouth, caged no more, and he laughed even harder until tears began to stream down his face. He was free, he was free, he was free.

Chapter Text

His angel’s personal quarters were far grander than the Captain’s. Illuminated by magitek lighting, a four-poster bed with scarlet sheets was pushed against the far wall and a large, empty wardrobe stood open next to it—ostensibly to store his armour in, as there was a second dresser positioned on the bed’s other side. Unlike the Captain’s, his desk was immaculate and the chair in front of it was padded with plush leather. The cabin was large, even for its giant occupant as he strode into the room without a backwards glance. It was a status symbol as inimitable as a crown. Miah’to followed him into the room without question or comment, and as one of the two soldiers standing guard outside the entrance made to join them, the angel turned his deathly mask on him and bade him to beat a hasty retreat. Even among his own men, his Garlean angel inspired fear, Miah’to thought with a shiver. The door closed behind them, and they were left alone in silence.

Pretending to pay his angel no mind, Miah’to walked along the perimeter of the room with slow, lazy steps toward the desk, where he propped his great-axe against the wall and dropped his rucksack. He climbed into the chair in front of it, leaning back languidly as his feet dangled above the floor, and trailed absent fingertips across the wooden surface. A splinter nearly made its way beneath the pad of his index finger before he carefully redirected its motion.

Finally, he looked up at the Garlean and his breath caught as he watched his angel remove his helm. Despite his staggering height, the man couldn’t have been even a decade older than Miah’to, his unlined face fair and hauntingly beautiful. Above bow-shaped lips and an aquiline nose, his Garlean third eye was a milky white sphere embedded in the centre of his forehead like a pearl. And when eyes framed with long, dark lashes opened to meet his with irises as pale and blue as the endless sky, Miah’to found himself entranced.

Without his mask to muffle it, his voice was rich and smooth.

“You are a long way from home, Eorzean.”

“I should like to know the name of my rescuer,” Miah’to said, ignoring the implied question in his words.

The corner of his angel’s mouth twitched. “I am Zenos yae Galvus, Imperial Viceroy, Legatus of the XIIth Legion, and crown prince of Garlemald.”

How fitting, Miah’to thought, that his angel should be a prince. “I am Miah’to Nikos, general nuisance and prince of no one.”

An amused smirk spread across Zenos’ lips and Miah’to felt a rush of pride for giving rise to it. Then his angel raised his hands to find the buckles on his armour, and Miah’to’s mouth went dry as he began to remove it piece by piece, stripping away metal alloy to reveal woven fabric underneath. He spoke as he worked. “And what brings an Eorzean prince of no one to the Ruby Sea?”

“Hubris and greed,” Miah’to replied. “Not my own.”

A hum that may have been a laugh. “A fitting end then.” The final plate of his sabatons hit the floor with a metallic clang and then he peeled the gloves from his hands, baring long fingers and sharp knuckles. Without the bulk of his armour, his steps were astonishingly quiet as he made his way toward Miah’to, powerful muscle moving beneath his clothing. Miah’to was under no illusion that the lack of armour made him any more vulnerable. In fact, he was positive that Zenos had taken it off for the selfsame reason that he allowed Miah’to to carry his great-axe into his personal quarters without a guard: to show that any threat the Miqo’te posed was insignificant to him. It was a display of power.

Zenos rested his hip against the desk, examining him with a critical eye as Miah’to stared back at his towering figure unflinchingly. On impulse, Miah’to pulled his feet up and stood to his full height on top of the chair, sparing only a cursory thought for the blood he’d walked through on the way from the Captain’s quarters.

Zenos chuckled as the move brought them face to face. “You are bold for one who walks in a wolves’ den.”

“Better to walk among wolves than cutthroat bastards,” Miah’to retaliated. “A wolf may have honour.”

His smirk became a grin, and though his teeth were no different from a Hyur’s, Miah’to couldn’t help but feel reminded of a shark. “Even a wolf from Garlemald?”

“You saved my life,” said Miah’to. “Not just from death, but from years of torment.”

Zenos seemed to consider him for a moment before he turned to the great-axe against the wall and lifted it into his hands, inspecting the blade. Burning sapphires met silver over the sharpened edge and narrowed calculatedly. “Do you know how to wield this?”

Miah’to bit his lip at the sudden shift in conversation and nodded. “Yes. My fa—the Captain was teaching me.”

A single blond eyebrow was raised, but Zenos did not comment on the slip-up. “We will be arriving back in Doma in the morning. I want to see what you are capable of.”

Miah’to opened his mouth to speak and found himself in the rare condition of being at a loss for words. The thought of facing his angel in combat at once filled him with dread and anticipation; his excitement at physically engaging Zenos warring with the image of the Captain collapsing like a puppet with its strings cut. Unthinking, he raised his hand to touch the dried blood on his cheek.

“Ah yes.” Those sapphire eyes tore themselves away from Miah’to’s as Zenos strode over to the door, pulling it open slightly to murmur something to one of the guards—just too softly for him to make out. Leaving the door ajar, Zenos then headed over to the dresser on the far side of his bed to retrieve a coat to wear over his under-armour. A wine red cloak followed, and Miah’to watched him as he surreptitiously lowered himself to sit in the chair. Moments later a guard entered, carrying a bucket full of water and a washcloth, and placed it on the desk in front of Miah’to. She was dismissed with a glance from Zenos, and then his angel addressed him once more. “Clean up, then sleep. You will be needing your strength in the morning.”

Miah’to blinked, standing from his seat abruptly. “Sleep here?

“Where else?” Zenos turned his back on him, and before Miah’to could gather the words for a response, his angel made a swift departure. The door closed behind him with a decisive click and Miah’to was left standing with one hand clenching his shirt over his chest. He could feel his heart pounding beneath curled fingers.

Miah’to liked to believe that he was not ignorant. His mother taught him to read and write when he was a child, and there was much to learn from peers, travelers, and experience in Limsa Lominsa. The Captain and his crew taught him even more. He knew that acts of kindness rarely came without a price, and the notion of a shared bed left little room for ambiguity. How many times had he been told that he was pretty? That he had a perfect mouth? That his body was made for fucking? Miah’to knew how sex between men worked. It had been explained to him by a pair of laughing Roegadyns in the Drowning Wench back in Limsa as they grinned knowingly at one another, and a year later it was whispered in his ear as fingers curled around his waist mere seconds before his unwanted suitor was pitched over the railing and into the sea by a fuming Captain.

A shiver went down his spine and Miah’to snatched the washcloth in his hands, dunking it in the water before bringing it up to scrub his face. The water was cold enough to make his breath hitch as it made contact with his skin, but it was invigorating, clearing away the clutter of his thoughts.

The idea of being touched by Zenos was not wholly unappealing. The Garlean angel was attractive, beautiful even, with those curved lips and piercing blue eyes. Miah’to had liked the way his long fingers wrapped around the handle of his great-axe and how his hair fell in a golden curtain across the left side of his face. But he couldn’t help feeling intimidated at the thought of being taken by him, particularly given their difference in size. Standing next to him, Miah’to had scarcely come up to Zenos’ waist. It would be excruciating unless his angel was exceptionally gentle with him. The more he imagined it, the more he blushed. Was Garlemald really so accepting of interracial relations that its prince would be permitted to lay with a Miqo’te?

Miah’to lowered the cloth from his face and froze as the white fabric came away pink. In his mind’s eye, twin lakes of blood grew until they became conjoined. A’linh and the Captain.

He ground his teeth together and tugged off his clothing in jerking movements. He wanted to erase every trace of the last two years from his body: the hands on his arms, the whip at his back, the salt on his skin. Make himself anew as he moved onto a new chapter of his life with his Garlean angel. Discarding his clothes on the floor, Miah’to rinsed the washcloth in the bucket before he brought it to his chest and arms, stomach and back, his legs and in between them, rubbing until his flesh turned pink and raw. And when finally he felt clean enough to stand the sensation of fabric against his skin, he stared at the heap on the floor and felt nothing but revulsion. Those clothes belonged to the Captain before they became his. They were saturated with years of sweat and now splattered with blood.

Coming to a decision, Miah’to padded his way across the wooden floor until he stood in front of the dresser. It took two tries until he found the drawer that housed Zenos’ shirts, and the scent of pine intertwined with citrus as it wafted upward. It smelled fresh. Miah’to retrieved a plain, white shirt from the stack and pulled it on over his head, satisfied when it reached down to just above his knees. An appetizing treat for his angel when he returned, Miah’to thought. He had read that it was erotic to find one’s partner in your clothes, and it certainly felt erotic to him to wear them.

Out of the corner of his eye, Miah’to took notice of Zenos’ armour still scattered across the floor, and for a moment he toyed with the idea of replacing it in the open wardrobe. But then it occurred to him what his angel did while wearing it, and the thought of placing his hand in yet more blood made him wrinkle his nose with disgust. If Zenos did not attend to his armour personally, then surely one of his servants would; it was not Miah’to’s responsibility.

With that resolved, Miah’to climbed onto the four-poster bed, eyes going wide as the mattress dipped deliciously beneath his weight. It was so soft! On a number of occasions, the Captain had brought him with the crew to stay at inns onshore, but those excursions were exceedingly rare and none of the cots he’d slept in compared to this. This truly was a bed fit for a prince. Miah’to slipped beneath the blankets and sighed as warmth enveloped him, and when he pressed his cheek into the pillow he inhaled that same clean, pine and citrus fragrance—as well as something else that was spicy and slightly musky. Zenos’ scent, he realized, and buried his face in the pillow as heat flooded his cheeks.

Though the thought of being discovered in his bed was alluring, he privately hoped that Zenos would not return yet for at least a few hours. The adrenaline from his untimely wakeup call had long since faded, leaving him exhausted and sluggish, as if he’d spent the last two hours treading water. He would make a poor lover, even accounting for his inexperience. Thus far, he had been extraordinarily fortunate between his sudden rescue and the Garlean prince’s unexpected show of hospitality—here was hoping that his good fortune held out for the rest of the night.

He did not know how to turn off the magitek lights, and at this point was too tired to care. Closing his eyes, Miah’to thought of blond hair and flashing steel, and then he thought of nothing more.

 

 

A deep voice as rich as honey.

“We have arrived.”

Miah’to squeezed his eyes shut and groaned in sleepy protest, burrowing further into the blankets that surrounded him. For a brief moment, he wondered absently if this was how a caterpillar felt in its chrysalis: safe and secure and so, so warm—but then the voice registered in his mind as well as the scent that encircled him. Miah’to pushed his bangs back from his forehead, feeling them curl between his fingers, and sat up to blink blearily at the room. He quickly found his angel seated in the chair by his desk, watching Miah’to with those breathtakingly blue eyes as he rested his chin in his hand.

Miah’to frowned, twisting around to look for a window only to recall that there was none. “You didn’t sleep…?”

“I had no need of it.” Zenos’ gaze flickered down toward Miah’to’s chest. “I see that you have taken liberties with your attire.”

Miah’to opened his mouth to inquire about his meaning when last night’s memories returned in a rush. He suddenly became very aware of the fact that he was dressed in one of Zenos’ shirts and nothing else, bare skin sliding against fabric. His face felt like it was burning. How foolish he had been. He forced his lips to shape words and gave voice to them. “Would you rather I slept in your bed drenched in blood?”

His angel was unmoved by his apparent indignity. “I am merely curious as to whether you are possessed of any self-preservation instinct. After all, your previous charge met his end at my sword.”

Miah’to glared back defiantly, ears lying flat against his head. “And had I the skill and opportunity, I would have sooner slain him myself. I have no love for him.”

Zenos’ voice lowered in both volume and pitch, taking on an intimate tone that rumbled through his bones. “That look in your eyes… You have taken a life before.”

“Yes.”

His angel studied him for a long minute before he said, “Then we shall soon see if your words are more than air. Come.”

Miah’to chewed his lower lip and did not stir, hands fisting in the blankets on either side of his hips. “I would change into my own clothing first.”

Zenos smirked with cruel amusement. “You made your bed; you may lie in it.”

“I already am, but now you are bidding me to leave it,” he shot back.

A beat. The comment elicited a short laugh from the Garlean prince, but when he replied, his voice bore a razor’s edge. “Your clever tongue will only get you so far and my patience wears thin. Change, if it pleases you, but do not make me wait, lest I wrest it from between your jaws.”

There was a remark to be made about the many uses for a clever tongue, but the danger in Zenos’ words was visceral, bringing once more to the forefront of his mind the image of how easily he had butchered A’linh and the Captain. The shining tip of his blade like a steel stigma in a scarlet flower. It set Miah’to’s heart racing and stayed his lips against temptation. His collection of scars was a testament to his fondness for tempting fate, but even he knew better than to provoke an angel of death beyond his limits. He could survive a lashing; a sword was less permissive.

Miah’to rose from the bed with his head held high as he marched past Zenos to where he’d dropped his rucksack the previous night, next to the desk. He spared not a single glance for his prince while he retrieved a change of clothing from his bag, because his obedience also had its limits. Then he said, “Turn around and don’t look, or I’ll never forgive you.”

Zenos did not grace his insolence with a verbal response, but moved to the centre of the room with his back to the Miqo’te teen. Miah’to changed quickly, dropping Zenos’ shirt from his arms before pulling on his smallclothes and trousers. Once his vest was buttoned and stocking-clad feet were placed into boots, he slung his rucksack over his shoulder, gil jangling with its movement. Finally, he seized his great-axe from its position against the wall and squeezed the handle tightly.

He said, “Okay. I’m ready.”

His angel turned to him impassively, sapphire eyes flickering up and down his figure, and approached with slow, predatory steps as Miah’to’s eyes widened. When at last they stood, navel to nose, Zenos took the axe from Miah’to’s unresisting hands and loosened the strap looped around its handle in perfunctory motions until he could sling the weapon across Miah’to’s back, over his rucksack. He swallowed as Zenos’ hands adjusted the strap at his shoulder and beneath the opposite arm, fingers slightly chilled between the leather and his clothes. Then he stepped back.

Now you are ready.”

 

 

The fishing villages along the Ruby Sea had been modest; built more for functionality than aesthetic purposes. Serviceability was their only requirement. As Miah’to disembarked from the Garlean ship with Zenos and an escort of soldiers, he was greeted with Doman architecture in its full splendor: red brick and emerald tile, sweeping roofs and towering spires of gold. Geometric designs engraved in wood and stone. Doma Castle was built on the canal in the heart of a valley, sequestered by a scarlet wall built into the mountain that cradled it. The great archways that once granted passage to the castle via the road and waterway were now closed with magitek barriers that glowed ceruleum blue. In the twenty-odd years since Garlemald had been occupying Doma, their own modifications had been incorporated into the structure: cannons mounted on rooftops and magitek devices Miah’to could neither name nor place a use for.

Miah’to gazed at it all with wonder as he was led from the dock to the sprawling courtyard, past the extension buildings toward the massive heart of the castle. Instead of entering the main building as he expected, he was led to an extension building to the left, where two guards saluted the prince before opening the twin wooden doors before them. The building was modest in size and consisted of only a single room. The floor was covered with a dark tatami mat and the walls were paneled with wood, hung with simple scrolls and Doman script.

As Zenos strode into the centre of the room, he looked over his shoulder at his soldiers and said in a bored tone, “You are dismissed. I have no need of you.” Then his gaze settled on the leader of the escort and he added, “Except for you, Pilus. I would have your sword.”

The Imperial froze. “My—? Yes, of course! At once, my lord.” She stepped forward and drew her blade from its sheath, surrendering it to Zenos handle-first with a respectful bow.

Zenos held the blade up to his face for a moment, then gave it a testing swing. “You may watch from the door in case I have need of a chirurgeon.”

“Yes, my lord.”

As her men exited the building, the commanding officer took her place next to the doorway dutifully. Miah’to watched bewilderedly from where he stood several steps into the room, tail twitching with agitation. Zenos had discarded his cloak and moved just off from the room’s epicenter, facing Miah’to with his sword held in a ready position.

Miah’to’s lips parted as he stared at his angel. Did he not have duties to attend to upon his return from the Ruby Sea? Neither of them wore armour and he wielded a borrowed blade. “You want to test my abilities now?” he asked.

“There is no better time than the present,” Zenos replied. “Why delay the inevitable? I require of you one thing and one thing only: fight as if you wish to kill me. Like you would love nothing more than to feel flesh and bone give way beneath the weight of your blade. To taste my blood on your lips as you tasted the blood of your captor.”

Miah’to frowned as he took the Captain’s great-axe from his back and then awkwardly wriggled free of his rucksack. It fell to the floor with a dull thud and he took a few steps forward to close the distance between them. “I have no desire to kill you.”

A humourless smirk crept across Zenos’ lips. “Surely an Eorzean savage such as yourself can find ample justification to slay a prince of Garlem—”

Zenos was cut off as Miah’to darted forward, using his momentum to power the swing of his axe. Zenos’ sword came up to meet it with a loud, metallic clang.

His angel laughed. “Using speech as a distraction. Alas, cunning will not save you in a battle of strength.”

To emphasize his point, Zenos used the strength of his arm to push Miah’to back. Remembering how Zenos had taken advantage of the Captain’s loss of balance to cut him down, Miah’to remained light on his feet, moving with the motion of their blades so that he was ready to parry Zenos’ retaliatory strike. The force behind the blow was enough to make Miah’to’s arms shake as he caught it with his axe, gritting his teeth, but he held fast until he could safely step back to free his weapon and make a diagonal slash at Zenos’ body.

For a time it continued like this, with each of them trading blows as irritation began to climb up Miah’to’s spine. Zenos was toying with him. Though he overpowered Miah’to with ease, it was clear that he was not using his full strength and he fended off every counterattack with an expression of ennui. Miah’to snarled with frustration and his motions became wilder. He still allowed himself to move with Zenos’ sword with every clash of their blades, but he put more of his body weight into each swing and made more daring choices—sweeping his axe at Zenos’ legs, letting his grip slip to the end of the handle to lengthen his axe’s reach. And through it all, Zenos moved like war was the breath in his lungs: fluid, with every lunge and parry coming as naturally as a reflex. Blue eyes flashing like lightning.

Zenos sidestepped a strike and brought his blade up, slicing through the sleeve of Miah’to’s shirt and leaving a shallow, stinging cut on his forearm. Instead of deterring his efforts, however, Miah’to found himself galvanized, as if the burst of pain had set his nerves aflame. With a wordless yell of anger, Miah’to slammed the blade of his axe against Zenos’ sword, then slid it down towards the hilt in his angel’s hands. Zenos slipped his weapon free and Miah’to ducked as it arced over his back, and then vaulted himself forward to slice at Zenos’ exposed side.

What happened next occurred too rapidly for Miah’to to process until the action was completed. Zenos dropped his sword and, in the same movement, brought around his hand to catch the handle of Miah’to’s axe, mid-swing. Using his grip and the inertia behind Miah’to’s strike, Zenos redirected the blade to his right while he plunged downward to slam their foreheads together.

Looking at it, Miah’to wasn’t sure what he had thought a Garlean’s third eye would feel like to the touch. Though it was referred to as an eye, he knew that it was not a true one and it looked more like a pearl than an organ made for vision. Milky white and smooth, almost chatoyant in the way that it simultaneously captured light and casted shadow within itself.

It was hard—a tooth that bit into his scalp as their heads collided together—but the pain of it was muted against the white noise of his brain rattling in its skull, stars flashing before his eyes. Miah’to’s hands relinquished his axe into Zenos’ helplessly as he fell to his knees, this time his own blood coating his face as it ran down his skin in hot rivulets. Miah’to spluttered and gasped as it dribbled over his lips, filling his mouth with the taste of iron. The Captain’s great-axe fell to his side with a clatter as Zenos dropped it carelessly.

“You adapt quickly,” he said, “but you are weak. Undisciplined. A novice hunter who would sooner fall victim to his prey than kill it.”

Miah’to hissed, baring his teeth as he blinked through the blood at his angel. “Then make me strong. I want—” He cut himself off.

Zenos looked down at him with those burning sapphire eyes. “Tell me what you want.”

“I want to never feel helpless again.” Miah’to’s voice shook. His head was still spinning, spikes of pain still lancing through his skull. “I don’t want to be someone who needs to be rescued or protected. From anything. I want to become strong enough to repay my debt to you, and…” He took a deep breath and drank in the sight of his Garlean angel standing above him. The light catching in his hair and spinning it into a golden halo. Those long, dark lashes and pink lips. The streak of blood that now tinged his third eye pink. He remembered the feeling of a gauntleted thumb caressing his cheek before the order was given for his prison’s destruction. “I want you, Zenos.” The shape of his angel’s name in his mouth sent a thrill through his veins.

Zenos threw back his head and laughed, teeth flashing. Miah’to glared back determinedly, not allowing himself to be shamed or cowed. Zenos said, “Do you not realize to whom you speak?”

“I have been informed,” Miah’to replied coolly. “I merely have no care for who you are to Garlemald. You could be a foot soldier, or an adventurer beholden to no man or nation, and I would still feel the same.”

“Have you no loyalty to your homeland?”

“For two years I was held captive on that ship!” Miah’to spat. “Two years, and no one ever came for me! Not the Maelstrom or the Twin Adder or the Immortal fucking Flames! Not one of Eorzea’s Grand Companies spared the men to save a single child. And even if saving me was not your intent when you laid siege to my fa—the Captain’s—ship, you still did.”

Zenos stared back at him for a long minute with unreadable eyes before he bent down and cupped Miah’to’s chin in one hand. With the pad of his thumb, he smeared the blood over his lips, staining them red. Voice low and intimate, he said, “I can make you stronger than all of them, if you survive. It will not be easy. You will be forged into a weapon, as I was, and then tested. You will bleed again and again until it is no longer your own blood that you taste on your tongue.” Gently, he pressed his thumb inward and Miah’to’s cheeks filled with heat as he accepted it into his mouth. “And when you become powerful enough, you can take what you want.”

Miah’to’s eyes fell closed with a shudder and he leaned into Zenos’ touch, his flush deepening like a ripening fruit as he lapped at the thumb and pressed it between his teeth teasingly. It occurred to him that he could bite down and taste Zenos’ blood now, but a warning voice in his head held him at bay—his conscience making a rare appearance.

Out of nowhere there came a jolt. Miah’to flinched away from the Garlean prince as his heartbeat throbbed in his temples—not painfully, but overwhelming him with a wave of dizziness. His lips parted, but there was no time to speak before his vision faded out with the undertow. He felt himself tipping over like a capsizing ship, and then…

Darkness.

A long stretch of darkness until suddenly he could see again: muted images that were rough around the edges like a fraying tapestry. He was in a stately courtyard, standing on a cobblestone path that wound around a sparse garden. There were few leaves left on the trees and most of the plants had already begun hibernation, leaving them brown and barren. Three figures stood in the centre of the path: an adolescent boy with golden hair and eyes that held the sky; a hunting hound with dark fur that sat obediently next to him; and a tall man with platinum hair who stood with his back to them both. When he turned around, his face seemed to be etched with a permanent frown and his citrine eyes were colder and emptier than anything Miah’to had ever seen. The bottom of the deepest ocean trench, the middle of the darkest winter night. Miah’to knew immediately that this was the boy’s father.

He asked, “How long has it been now that you have cared for your hound?”

The boy met his father’s permafrost eyes, his posture rigid and perfect, and said, “It has been four years now, my lord. He has served me well.”

The man’s eyes slid to the hound. “What was it that you called it?”

“Sergius, my lord,” the boy replied.

In a commanding tone, the man called, “Sergius,” and the hound padded over to sit in front of him with expectant brown eyes. For a brief moment, the man simply stared at the beast before he reached down to grab him by the scruff of the neck. The hound barked with outrage, growling low in his throat, and the man drew a knife from his belt. To his son, he said, “I want you to kill it. Now. And if you do not do so quickly, then I will, and I will not be so merciful.”

The boy’s eyes widened with horror, and then… and then… and then…

Darkness.

And a matronly voice.

Hear… Feel… Think…

Miah’to’s feet touched a rippling surface and he found himself standing in a field full of stars. His limbs felt heavy, and as he looked down at himself he discovered that he was dressed in full armour, weighted down with leather and steel. A thousand questions sprung to his mind, but before he could give coherency to a single one of them, a being appeared from a plume of smoke in the distance: a black-robed Hyur wearing a deep red mask. A shiver ran through Miah’to—though he couldn’t fathom how, he could feel something inherently wrong about the man, like an empty boat at sea or a sheet of glass that held no reflection.

Magic gathered at the man’s fingertips and Miah’to’s heart began to pound before he was suddenly overcome with a deep calm, as if he had surfaced in a tranquil lake. Somehow, he knew exactly what to do. He held out his arms and a weapon forged from light materialized in his waiting hands: a great-axe that was made just for him, almost blinding in its brightness. And as the black-robed man advanced on him, Miah’to raised his axe to meet him, and…

Miah’to opened his eyes with a gasp. Tatami flooring was spread out beneath him until it met a wall of paneled wood. His head ached and he groaned as he tried to roll himself onto his back, catching sight of an enormous Garlean man making his way over to a set of double doors and the Imperial soldier who stood solemnly next to them. Golden hair and sky blue eyes.

Miah’to choked out, “Zenos!” and the man turned to him.

“Ah. You are awake. You were more fragile than I expected.”

Miah’to pushed himself into a sitting position, ignoring the way his head spun in his haste to get out his words. “I saw you! You were a boy—perhaps twelve summers old—and there was a hound!” A sharp look stayed his voice as he caught his breath. He panted and continued, “Your father was there and he told you to kill it. You named him—”

“Sergius,” Zenos said quietly, a strange expression overtaking his face. He crossed the room with long strides until he was standing in front of Miah’to once more. “You saw this?”

A fierce nod. “Yes! It was late autumn. Your father, he… He gave you an ultimatum.”

“A pitiful end,” said Zenos. “There is no sport in slaying a tame pet.”

Miah’to’s heart thudded and he licked his lips as he took a steadying breath. “I… You asked me, this morning, if I had killed before. Once… And it was like your hound. My—” he closed his eyes “—the Captain and his men caught a member of a rival crew. Tied him up and gave me an axe.” He didn’t finish. He didn’t need to. He met Zenos’ gaze.

“You find it distasteful. Dishonourable. I can see it from your eyes,” his angel said. “You are no butcher poised for slaughter, but a hunter. You wish for prey that will fight back and present a challenge.”

Miah’to swallowed. “There was a second vision. I was wearing armour and a woman’s voice was echoing through my mind. Then a masked man in a black robe appeared before me and I fought him with an axe made of light.”

Zenos pursed his lips as he considered Miah’to for a long minute, a pregnant silence growing between them. A pit grew in Miah’to’s stomach and his tail curled with mortification as he realized how far-fetched his own words sounded. Like a fever dream. Then Zenos’ mouth curled into a smirk and he reached down to stroke Miah’to’s hair, fingertips trailing over the back of his left ear.

“How right I was to spare your life,” he said, almost affectionately. “You are turning out to be… most interesting.”

Miah’to sighed as he pressed into Zenos’ hand. His beautiful angel of death who was primed for war by an unloving father—just like him. Miah’to curled his hand into a fist and brought it to his own chest, feeling his heart beat beneath clothes and skin.

I will protect him, he vowed, and silver pierced the sky.