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The Bluebird Who Led The Coeurl Home

Chapter Text

The fondest memory Aza had, that was both sweet and agonising to recall, was when he was ten and Ala was seven, and they both sat at their mother’s feet during a terrible snowstorm.

Mom always had a sixth sense for these things – so in the week leading up to it, she had crunched through the frosty woods they made their home in, Aza close at her heels, soaking up her hunting wisdom, and brought back plenty of game to dry and store for a long, cold blizzard. When the snowstorm hit, she centred them both in her bedroom, every blanket they possessed gathered into the cosiest, warmest nest, the howling of the wind muffled when them buried underneath it.

It had still been cold, but Mom made everything seem less scary. She had lounged under the blankets with them, her mouth curled into a lazy, confident grin like there wasn’t a terrible, violent snowstorm battering at their little hut in the woods, her soft voice cutting through the howl of the wind with a gentle ease, telling them Ala’s favourite bedtime story: the Coeurl and the Bluebird.

Aza remembered that night very very fondly. It had been warm, and lovely, but so painful because that was lost to him forever. Ala was forever twelve years old, never to grow up, and his Mom… who knew where she was now. Aza never went back to their little modest hut in the woods – he couldn’t remember which woods they had been, couldn’t remember… he couldn’t remember what she looked like at times, either.

Blond hair, long, with bright yellow eyes and… but the details were indistinct and even her voice…

But he remembered that story. Remembered how she spoke about the Coeurl that had gotten lost, had wandered deep into the snowy wilderness, alone and hungry and afraid… when a Bluebird appeared to it, and led it to its new home with its persistent singing of hope. 

Aza, even at that age, knew it to be a silly little story. But. He still remembered it.

 


 

Aza woke up with the burn of water up his nose and the taste of salt on his tongue.

He didn’t cough so much as heave, mindlessly digging his fingers into the grainy sand beneath him as his lungs spasmed and crushed tight behind his ribs. He coughed up water – and maybe a bit of vomit – and by the time he was done he felt empty and shaky and dizzy. And hurt. He hurt a lot too.

He stayed half-hunched over the sand, eyes still squeezed firmly shut as he breathed raggedly. Water swirled at his feet and legs, crashing waves, the cry of gulls, the…

Aza opened his eyes, straightening up as he swallowed down the sharp stinging in his throat. A pale yellow beach met his blurred sight, craggy rocks towering high with trees drooping over their edges. He forced himself to look over his shoulder, to see the vast stretch of the Ruby Sea glittering behind him – with no sign of the storm and the prison ship that had been caught viciously in its grasp.

Huh.

He sat there for… he didn’t know how long. The sea looked calm as anything, deceptively, and Aza didn’t know what to do with this miracle. One he didn’t even want. He had spent the beginnings of his journey from Kugane in a state of pleasant apathy. He didn’t care what happened to him anymore. Ever since he freed himself from that disgusting animal and- then-

Aza shivered, his mind going very very blank when he thought of THAT. He didn’t want to think of THAT. The damp, coarse sand on his palms itched, suddenly, feeling sticky and he could smell copper and no- stop. Thinking. No.

He scrubbed at his face, his eyes stinging when he rubbed sand into them, and clumsily got to his feet. His bindings were still on his wrists – about a foot of chain to give him some form of mobility – but his feet were free at least. Free to… do something.

His lungs still burned, and his head felt stuffed full of cotton. He… he didn’t know what to do. When the ship had started to tilt, when the prisoners took their chance and began the riot mid-storm, Aza had just sat there and waited for the Twelve to sort him out. Whatever happened… it was pointless without- no. Not thinking about it.

He should have drowned.

Aza stared at the sea and took a few slow, wobbling steps forwards. The water lapped at his shins, pleasantly warm and gentle, and Aza took a few more. He could feel himself shaking from head to toe, his heart thumping wildly in his chest, but – it was for the best, really. Whatever miracle the Twelve pulled, it was wasted on him. He shouldn’t- he couldn’t-

That terrifying, focused determination that gripped him was abruptly shattered by the scream of a child.

Aza went rigid, hearing it echo and quieten – then start again- to be cut off abruptly. A child – a girl? He turned away from the sea, the scream triggering old instincts, old- protect Ala- sounded like Ala, but there was- no way? She couldn’t-

The silence dragged on and Aza, his earlier plan forgotten, stumbled towards it source.

There was an unpleasant sense of déjà vu as he reached a squat, clump of rocks clustered at the edge of the beach, the yellow sand hardening into barnacle encrusted tidepools. Aza clumsily splashed through them, ignoring the sharp bite of rocks and pain cutting into his bare soles, until he reached the edge of it, scooting close and peering round-

To see two burly pirates manhandling a small Au Ra child.

“Gods, this lil’ bugger has some sharp teeth!” The one grappling the child snarled – a rugged looking Hyur with an ugly, scarred face and bulging biceps. He easily held the child by pinning her arms down her sides, ignoring her little feet and scaly tail thwacking him in the shins. Her mouth had something like a wad of cloth jammed right into it. His hands had bleeding cuts, like teeth marks, all over them, “Should knock ‘em all out!”

“Oi, oi, y’know th’ Boss wants their faces pretty like,” the other pirate – a young, bored looking female Roegadyn drawled. It was her that had Aza frozen in terror, his breathing caught in his throat. That was First Mate of Captain Loetrlona; Haergeim. He remembered the bottom of her boot with an intimacy that he wished he didn’t have.

Loetrlona’s cronies. He forgot – they prowled the Ruby Sea constantly. They- they picked people up along these beaches – those sold out by people smugglers, trying to escape Yanxia and, those who didn’t pay the Ruby Tithe and became stranded on one of the many islands littering the sea they- no. Aza couldn’t- he couldn’t. Loetrlona would break him. He killed her main source of income. He.

“Pfft, that was for Lord Musa,” the Hyur sneered, “But ‘e’s not about anymore, is ‘e? What’s we even snatchin’ children fer, if that pervert’s dead anyways?”

“There’re loads of other perverts in Kugane,” Haergeim said, not moving to help as the Hyur started to haul the struggling child into their boat. “Xaela Au Ra fetch high prices anyways. No one really wants to brave the Steppes lookin’ for them barbarians.”

“Lucky for us them smugglers found ‘er then, even if she is a biter,” the Hyur said cheerfully, swinging the child around like she weighed nothing. At this point the Au Ra had stopped kicking, her pale, furious face streaked with tears.

“We’ll just muzzle her. It’ll give ‘er exotic points, or some shit,” Haergeim said carelessly, inspecting her nails, “Just hurry up and secure her. I want to get back before sundown.”

The Hyur muttered something, but went to work trying to juggle a squirming child and a length of rope he grabbed out of the boat. Aza remained squatted behind the rock, too petrified to move, too terrified at the thought of them spotting him – recognising him – taking him back and. The best thing would be Captain Loetrlona outright killing him. The worst thing would be her keeping him and selling him to a new master.

A new master he’d… no. He’d kill them. He’d kill them. He could do it. He could. He knew how easy it was now.

His breathing was short and ragged in his throat as he watched the Hyur pin the child down – ignoring her muffled whines of outrage – pulling her hands together and. Haergeim was looking the other way, towards the looming cliffs and their drooping trees. He could get away but.

The Au Ra child was dark haired – slightly curly and messy, bunched around her protruding dark horns in a way that was painfully painfully familiar. She was pale and small and – was probably around Ala’s age, and, she was crying now, angry, frustrated tears and muffled screams as the Hyur finished off his tying with a pleased grunt and.

It was too much. A large part of him was screaming to slither away like the wretch that he was, finish his job of throwing himself into the sea and spitting in the eye of the Twelve’s miracle. A last bit of spite for a pathetic creature like him. But another part, the part that still remembered Ala clumsily going through her archery drills and getting dirt on her nose and crying when Loetrlona stomped her boot down on her tail was howling and it was difficult to- to separate that.

He remembered Ala, sprawled out beneath him, his hands wet and her chest- no.

Ala was in the Hyur’s hands, crying and frightened and no, no no no

“ARGH!”

Aza, didn’t really remember what happened.

Before he realised, he had shot across the distance between him and the Hyur. Before he realised, that thin chain connecting his wrist-shackles was tight against that burly man’s throat and he heaved his entire weight behind it. The Hyur leapt to his feet, gurgling and thrashing wildly, and Aza just – clung on, leaning back and letting gravity do the work as he practically dangled off the thrashing Hyur’s back. Haergeim was yelling – angry- enough to make his pulse rocket from memory but-

Strong, broad hands grabbed at him, but Aza just – there was a lot of yelling, his pulse was roaring and his heart was pounding and after a few confusing seconds where his body registered someone hitting him but his brain just plain punted the pain aside, like he was a distant spectator of his own body and not the current occupant, the Hyur sagged against him and Aza wrenched his hands up, freeing his victim from his pseudo-garrotte and-

“YOU FUCKER!” Haergeim was screaming right into his face, grabbing the chain with one hand, jerking it down so hard he almost headbutted her in the chest, “YOU PIECE OF SHIT. I KNEW WE SHOULD’VE DROWNED YOU ALL THOSE YEARS AGO!”

A knife dangled at her waist in a loose sheath.

Aza’s mind went clear. In a nice, numb sort of way. Haergeim let go of his chain to grab him by the neck instead, squeezing tight, her other hand drawing back to punch him in the face – her knuckles were already scuffed – oh, she had been hitting him earlier. Hmm. Well then.

He grabbed the knife and had it rammed up to the hilt inside her, just below her breastbone, in one smooth, easy movement.

Haergeim’s eyes bugged out wide – it looked so comical that Aza let out a strained, high-pitched laugh, feeling red, hot blood over his fingers, sticky, and suddenly it wasn’t funny, because it wasn’t Haergeim staring at him in dumb, open-mouthed shock it was Ala’s pale, stunned face, her mouth open as she let out that breathy “oh”, confused, staring at him, blankly, the knife right in her chest and her blood sticky and warm on his fingers and-

Aza was on the ground.

Haergeim was on the ground too, moaning quietly as she curled around the knife in her gut. Aza could feel himself shaking, his hands over his mouth, his stomach feeling like it was going to crawl right out of it. Oh Gods. His mind was caught on-

It was like it just hit him. Ever since- ever since he killed the disgusting animal, Ala’s de… d-death hadn’t… he had existed in a state of numb apathy. He hadn’t cared about anything. Hadn’t cared when the Sekiseigumi arrested him. Hadn’t cared when he was sentenced to a life of hard labour. Hadn’t cared when the storm hit the boat. Hadn’t cared…

But now his mind was stuck on Ala, pale, confused, staring, her tiny chest red and wet and the knife deep in – and, he realised, he killed her. He killed her. The realisation of it all almost made him scream, leaning over under his forehead pressed into the coarse sand, hands pressed tight over his mouth, breathing through the horror of it all until slowly, slowly, slowly, he… the apathy was crawling back in because, he couldn’t think about it. He couldn’t. Don’t think about it.

Don’t.

Aza didn’t know how long he lied there. Haergeim had gone silent. The Hyur was in a messy sprawl on the floor.

The Au Ra child…

Aza slowly lifted his head. The Au Ra child was huddled next to the boat, the water lapping around her as she stared at him with wide eyes. His hands were still sticky with blood – smeared all over his face – he must look terrifying. He is terrifying. But- he did this for a reason. He had to think that. He needed to… he could free her, at least.

He picked up the knife – and instantly dropped it. The sensation of its grip against his palm, damp and warm with blood and- oh Gods, no. Fuck. Shove that memory back down now.

The Au Ra girl was staring at him.

“I’m…” Aza croaked, and realised this was the first time he had spoken in almost a week, “I’m not gonna hurt you.”

The girl’s stare turned sceptical.

“I was… these guys caught me before,” he explained, forcing himself to pick up the knife again. It hurt. Oh fuck, no, the sensation of holding it was almost too much, but he needed to – just until he freed the girl. He got to his feet, ignoring the urge to vomit, “They sold me. They would’ve sold you too.”

The girl shrank away from him as he advanced, her eyes wide with terror as he leaned down, grabbing her wrists and-

Cut through the ropes.

He cut through her wrist bindings and her feet – and as he reached to ungag her she scrambled away from him. She climbed over the edge of the boat and tumbled headfirst into it with a solid thump. Aza let her do it, dropping the knife like it burnt him, and focused on his breathing.

Okay.

Time drifted again – he was hungry and thirsty, he noted detachedly, and couldn’t remember when he last ate and drank – and the girl eventually poked her head over the edge of the boat, staring at him suspiciously.

Aza stared back dully.

“…you’re scary,” the girl whispered to him – but it was a fierce whisper, defiant – kind of like what he would’ve done at her age. Did do. Got his shit kicked in by Loetrlona because of it.

“Yeah,” he rasped, “I am.”

“Are you a murderer?” the girl asked him, with the sort of careless curiosity only a child could have.

Aza’s stomach rolled, because – yeah. He was that. With Mast- the disgusting animal, it was easy to compartmentalise that murder. He was an animal. A disgusting creature that wasn’t a person. Ergo, it wasn’t murder. Ala, though. Ala.

“Yes,” he whispered, his voice barely louder than an exhale.

The girl watched him for several long moments.

“I think you’re crazy,” she decided, but then climbed over the edge of the boat, gingerly standing before him. She, pointedly, picked up the knife, and held it with a confidence that spoke of experience. Her chin was tilted proudly, her gaze defiant – Aza had no doubt she would shank him if he tried anything.

“But you saved me, so you’re okay,” she continued, when he didn’t reply. “Why’re you chained up?”

“Prison,” Aza answered, finding talking exhausting. He found himself listing to the side slightly, “Where’re your parents?”

The girl instantly paled, “Oh no! They must be… I’ve been gone for hours!”

She scampered away. Aza didn’t watch her go.

He thought himself alone, and was contemplating the whole drowning plan again, but a few minutes later she returned, frowning at him warily, still holding the knife firmly in her hand but letting it dangle, relaxed, at her side.

“Crazy guy, are you gonna just sit here?”

Aza tilted his head, letting his gaze drift over to her, “…yeah.”

“That’s dumb. At least come back with me. Daddy will want to say thanks for saving me.”

That sounded like too much effort, but the girl, despite her frown, looked worried, and Aza realised that they were still in the wilderness. Aside from slavers, there were also wildlife and other unsavoury types roaming the place – all terrible threats to a young child, armed with a knife or not.

Aza wouldn’t be much help, but maybe he could be a meatshield, or a distraction or something…

Do this one thing, something in him whispered, don’t let her be another Ala.

“Okay,” he said, and got to his feet. The world spun a little – he was really thirsty – but the girl moved forwards, taking his hand in a tight grip. The blood was tacky, and he almost flinched, but the girl just tightened her grip.

“My parents call me their little Bluebird,” she told him with utmost seriousness, “So you can call me that too. What’s your name?”

“Aza.”

“That’s a dumb name,” Bluebird told him, “But okay. I’ll protect you, Aza, don’t worry.”

He almost laughed. But he realised he was shaking still, was gripping Bluebird’s hand just as tightly as she was, and said nothing as the child strode forwards confidently, pulling him along whilst holding her knife aloft in the other hand, as if ready and primed to stab anything slaver-shaped.

“You won’t be sold again, Aza,” she told him confidently, “And I won’t be sold at all! We’re gonna meet Daddy, and he’ll protect us both, you see.”

Life must be so nice, viewed so simply, Aza thought idly. But it was comforting… even if he didn’t deserve it. He’ll just lead her home, then… he’ll figure the rest of it out, maybe.

He let this little Bluebird lead her to his home, listening to her idle chatter, but didn’t feel that much hope. Yet.

Chapter Text

Aruci Iriq was worried.

He anxiously walked along the coastline leading away from Onokoro for what felt like the fifth time, painfully aware of the sun beginning to sink low towards the horizon. His daughter, the adventurous little scamp that she was, should have been back by now, and yet there was no sign of his little bluebird anywhere.

This wasn’t the first time she had wandered off when he had come to trade in Onokoro – she, like all Iriq children, were deft with self-defence and wilderness survival by the time they were twelve. A necessity when living on the harsh, unforgiving Azim Steppes, but his Confederacy friends had muttered about an increase in slaver snatching in the area – some Lord in the Bakufu had died, and the slavers that paid patronage to him were now increasing their ‘stock’ to tempt other buyers, now that their usual source of income was gone.

Slavers. The Iriq tribe favoured freedom over all else, and the thought of subjugating another filled Aruci with utmost disgust – and fear. Fear that his daughter may’ve been snatched by those disgusting creatures. Xaela, he was told, fetched a high price on the flesh market, and the mere thought of his daughter being bundled away, to that awful Kugane with those savage ‘Lords’…

He growled under his breath, wrestling himself under control as he rounded a craggy cliff, his boots splashing into the tidepools. The tide was beginning to come in, meaning he would have to set sail soon to return to the Steppe-

He froze when he heard his daughter’s voice echoing between the towering, craggy rocks – loud and brisk, which meant she was nervous or unsure, sounding as if she was speaking to someone. He forewent stealth, jogging forwards and splashing ungainly through the tidepools, to the closest clump of rocks-

And almost ran right into his daughter and a short looking- Miqo’te?

“Daddy!” His little Bluebird chirped – there was blood on her hands and she was holding a knife that most definitely was not hers, but a quick glance over told her she was fine. She was tightly holding the bloodied hands of the short Miqo’te- young Miqo’te, Aruci realised with a lurch, staring at the boy’s bruised, utterly terrified looking face, smeared with streaks of dried blood.

“Bluebird,” Aruci breathed out in relief, keeping an eye on the unknown Miqo’te as he squatted down. The Miqo’te boy had gone utterly still, though he was holding Bluebird’s hand tightly like she was a lifeline. There was a short chain binding his wrists, the shackles too tight, judging by the dark bruising around his wrists, the scratched, rubbed raw skin red and sore looking. But Aruci pointedly did not reach out for a better look.

“Daddy, this is Aza,” Bluebird said, acting like nothing was wrong – though her smile was worried- not because she was scared, but because she was concerned, Aruci realised. She wore that same look when she dragged a half-starved Gedan pup home, saying that they needed to help it because look, it was so small and hurt and…

This was a new Gedan pup to her. Oh dear.

“Hello, Aza,” Aruci said, humouring her for the moment. The boy didn’t look to be much of a threat. He was small and scrawny, quite young, though Aruci wasn’t very good with Miqo’te ages, and he was very very still and quiet. He wasn’t even sure he was breathing. He was looking at Aruci like he expected him to leap out at him and beat him, which made him feel deeply uneasy.  

Aza didn’t reply. He looked down at Bluebird, tense, and his lips parted slightly, like he was going to speak, but nothing came out.

“It’s okay,” Bluebird whispered loudly to the boy, “This is Daddy. He won’t hurt you like those slavers.”

What.

“Sl… Slavers?” Aruci said, somehow managing to sound calm. The boy must’ve picked up on his suppressed anger though, because he twitched, an aborted movement like he wanted to step away but knew better, his tail tucking very low and close to between his legs, his ears drooping. A baras-like expression of fear, submission.

He was going to kill those slavers. This was a boy.

“They grabbed me!” Bluebird said, brandishing her knife excitedly but not carelessly, “And I thought they were going to whisk me away! But then- then, Aza, instead of running away, he, he jumped on the big ugly one, strangled him with the chain, and the big woman, she- she was hitting him and they were yelling and then Aza grabbed her knife and stabbed her! But then he got all shaky and weird and quiet, because he’s crazy. I think he’s got that mind sickness Auntie Ibakha had.”

Aruci almost winced at his daughter’s blunt assessment, and ‘Aza’ had bowed his head. He looked ill.

But what Bluebird said was important, if he understood this right. Whilst being captive of slavers, this young boy, instead of taking advantage of their distraction and making a break for his personal freedom, risked it to save his daughter. Aruci could not let that go unremarked – wasted. Return kindness with kindness, as his father told him, and his father told him, and so on. It was a way of life that treated his family well.

“Thank you, Aza,” he said, making sure to keep his voice soft and warm, “For saving my daughter.”

“I couldn’t…” The boy spoke, his voice raspy in a way that spoke of dehydration and misuse. He winced, his ear flicking sharply, before trying again, “Can’t sell. Her. Didn’t want them to… do the same.”

“Admirable,” Aruci told him. He could see Bluebird all but bouncing on her toes in restrained anticipation, “Let me thank you properly. Are you hungry? Thirsty?”

Aza’s gaze flicked about, like he was looking for escape routes. Aruci remained squatted down, his elbows resting on his knees and his hands relaxed between them. He kept his posture relaxed and- hm, what body language did Baras use for relax? He let his tail curl lazily on the floor, even if it felt uncomfortable for the rigid limb to bend that way, and kept his shoulders slightly lowered as he stared just past the boy’s ear. Eye contact was a sign of aggression amongst Baras, if he recalled.

His attempt to exude non-aggressive vibes worked. The boy didn’t bolt, though his fingers flexed around Bluebird’s, nervously wetting his dry lips before murmuring, “I… you don’t need to.”

“I want to,” Aruci said, “It’ll be little effort to feed and water you, before sending you on your way. You must want to journey back to your family, yes? Difficult to do that on an empty stomach.”

The Miqo’te looked down at his feet. The ill-look returned.

“There’s no…” he mumbled, his words trailing off. Aruci got the message.

“I see…” Aruci muttered, glancing at Bluebird. His daughter looked a little puzzled, clearly not fully understanding the situation, but she was frowning at him defiantly, like she expected him to simply give up there and let this poor boy wander out into the wilderness to… well, probably perish. He recognised that look on the boy’s face. He saw it in ‘Auntie Ibakha’ before she… left, after that damnable Jhungid raid left her a shell of her former self.

“I insist that you share a meal,” Aruci said a little firmly, pushing himself back to his feet, “We will have to travel to Reunion to have it if you don’t mind the journey.”

The boy looked briefly alarmed, and he looked down at Bluebird as if seeking guidance.

“Reunion’s really nice,” his daughter said, patting the boy’s hand like he was a simple child years her junior, “With really tasty food. It’s not far either!”

“After that, you’re free to go wherever you so wish,” Aruci said, “I won’t detain you.”

The boy was wary – he kept looking at him like he was trying to see a trap, was sort of, half behind his daughter, even if she made a poor hiding spot, looking ready to just spook and bolt into the maze of towering rocks. But Bluebird had a tight hold on his hand, and the boy looked like he didn’t quite know what to do with himself anyway. Aruci waited him out.

“Okay,” he finally rasped.

Aruci fought the urge to clap triumphantly, knowing that it would just startle the skittish Miqo’te, “Very good. Come along then, my boat is still docked into Onokoro, and we need to get going before the waves come in. Ah, though, perhaps we should deal with that first.”

The boy looked down when Aruci pointed at his shackles, briefly looking like he forgot he even had them – bewildering, considering the painful looking sores they were rubbing against. Wasn’t he in pain?

“Oh, yeah, Daddy’s really strong,” Bluebird said, and expertly she flipped her knife and held it out to Aruci, “He can probably cut it with this. Here you go, Daddy!”

Aruci gingerly took the knife, grimacing at the half-dried blood coating the handle, and kept an eye on how the boy looked at him. The Miqo’te’s expression had gone very blank, his eyes hyperfocused on the blade, his tail curving up slightly, the fur bristling and his ears swivelled completely forwards. It reminded Aruci, very briefly, of a predator eyeing up a potential meal. It was… mildly unnerving.

But when Aruci turned a bit more towards him, that expression vanished to be replaced with a fearful kind of nervousness. Bluebird kept him rooted in place, shifting her grip to hold his forearm and forcing him to hold out his bound wrists.

“It’s okay,” she told him, “He’ll cut it really fast. Hey, I didn’t get to finish my story earlier, huh? Well, okay, so after dumb Borachu licked the icicle, he-”

The boy was distracted. Aruci took advantage, very slowly moving, like he was approaching a cornered animal liable to bite at any moment, and began the careful process of cracking the shackles. The boy had one ear flicked towards him, his eyes watching him, but he didn’t move, didn’t flinch as Aruci leveraged the knife against the flimsy shackles. Kugane’s metalwork was so poor, it was embarrassing. The shackles were off within minutes.

The metal hit the sand with a soft ‘thwampt’, revealing the raw skin underneath. Parts of the Miqo’te’s wrists were scabbed over where the sores had tried to heal, but they were tainted with streaks of yellow – infection. The boy’s wounds were infected, quite badly at that, which was probably attributing to his rather dazed, ill-looking pallor, despite his skin being otherwise quite dark.

“Oh,” Bluebird said, interrupting her story as she shifted her grip on the boy’s arm, looking closely at his infected sores, “Those look bad. Don’t they hurt?”

The Miqo’te just looked down at them dully, like he didn’t really care, “Yeah.”

He probably didn’t, Aruci realised sadly, finding a spot on his belt to hang the stolen knife. Oh, he had his work cut out for him. He knew the moment he brought him to Reunion and his wife saw this poor boy, she would refuse to let him wander off by himself. He’ll deal with that problem later, though.

“Let’s dip those into the sea,” he suggested, and giving Bluebird a pointed look, he moved towards the shore. His daughter tugged the Miqo’te long, and together, the pair of them knelt in the swirling eddies of the incoming tide, splashing their hands into the sea. The water swirled pink, and he watched with quiet pride as his daughter encouraged the boy to wash the tacky blood off his face, engaging him a little more with the world.

He was so small, Aruci mused, taking this chance to study him a bit more closely without him being unnerved by the attention. He was only a foot taller than his daughter – who was only twelve – with a thin, greyish robe and loose-fitting pants that the Kugane and Domans favoured. He forgot the name of them – Hakama and Yukata? Something like that. They were ill-fitting, though, and not at all flattering to the boy’s svelte frame. His hair and fur were a mess too – his dark blonde hair a wavy, snarled mess, and the fur on his tail matted and dirty, gritted with sand. All in all, he looked like an escaped prisoner who needed a good few meals in him, and once again, Aruci had to bite down on the anger towards these abominable slavers.

The blood washed away from his face revealed a stark, ugly bruise overtaking his cheek, circling his left eye, and Aruci heaved a quiet sigh. His wife really wasn’t going to let this boy go.

“There we go,” Bluebird said approvingly, “The salt will help with your cuts too. We’ll have to look after them after our meal though, okay?”

“Hmm…” The boy let out a curious noise – like a murmuring purr low in the back of his throat. He seemed a bit more relaxed, so Aruci tentatively labelled it as a noise of contentment or pleasure.

Bluebird looked up at him, looking pleased with herself. This was going much better than the Gedan-pup incident, “Can we go now, Daddy?”

“Yes, my little Bluebird,” Aruci said warmly, holding out his hand. Bluebird happily skipped up to her feet and grasped it.

The boy, Aza he reminded himself, remained on his knees by the shore, watching them with a look of poorly concealed wistfulness and grief.

Aruci knew he wouldn’t appreciate holding hands with him – he already expressed nervousness being around other adults, but his daughter was intuitive, and held out her hand pointedly, “Well, c’mon,” she chided him, “You can hold my hand, crazy boy.”

“It’s Aza,” the boy croaked, but he got up and, slowly, tentatively, like a beaten dog cautiously slinking forwards for a pet, he shuffled close and took Bluebird’s hand. He looked a little more focused when he did, more like he knew what was going on.

“Crazy Boy,” Bluebird said, teasingly, her mouth curving into a grin, “Aza sounds too dumb.”

Aza frowned, briefly, but didn’t rise to the teasing. He almost resembled a turtle, with how he curled into himself slightly, chin tucked close to his chest – but he didn’t let go of Bluebird’s hand. Aruci began walking, gently coaxing the two children along back to Onokoro.

“That’s enough,” Aruci said to Bluebird gently. His daughter pouted, but she obeyed, “Now, Bluebird, why don’t you tell me a bit more about these slavers, mm?”

Bluebird perked up, always eager to tell an exciting story – though he expected a lot of embellishments putting her in a flattering light, and began to talk. All through it, Aruci kept a close eye on Aza, watching as the boy just stared blankly at the sand beneath his feet, letting Bluebird tug him along. He was like an empty shell – much like Ibakha, that state where the soul left the body, to endure the pain it was in. Whatever did those slavers do to the boy?

Aruci had a feeling he didn’t want to know. He kept his curiosity stifled for now, and simply led the children along, wondering just what he was getting himself into.

Chapter Text

Aza was looking twitchy.

Bluebird kept a close eye on him, keeping her hand tight on his bigger, calloused one. His hands felt like Uncle Mauci’s did, rough and bumpy with thin, old scars from many years with the bow, which Bluebird found sort of strange, because if he was a hunter, then why was he so squeamish with the dagger? A bow and knife went hand in hand for a hunter, and Aza hadn’t hesitated at all to jam that knife right in that pirate’s belly, so it wasn’t as if he was spineless.

It was all very weird, and Bluebird liked weird things.

And liked helping hurt things, and this crazy boy was very hurt, she decided. When she unthinkingly ran off at the thought of Daddy looking for her all worried, she had half-expected Aza to follow. But when he didn’t, and she doubled back to make sure he was okay, he had just been sat in the sand, staring blankly at the sea like a little lost Gedan.

There was no way she could’ve left him alone. And, as Daddy always said, return kindness with kindness! Aza had done her a kindness or saving her when he really didn’t need to, so she would return that kindness by helping him get better – because he really was ill, she realised. Just like Auntie Ibakha, before she ‘left’ the tribe.

“Hey, Aza,” she said, waiting until his drifting attention focused on her before continuing, “Can I touch your ears?”

Aza looked weirdly startled at the question, his ears doing a curious little flick forwards and backwards, before settling into what looked like a drooping, resting position. They didn’t look like Baras ears – nor like Gedans! They were long and wide and pointy, covered in soft looking fur with a very velvety pink inside. She itched to touch them.

“Um,” Aza rasped, sounding like his throat was sandpaper, “Why?”

“Because they look soft,” she said, and if she had a hand free she would have reached up on her tiptoes to touch them, “Are they soft?”

“Mm…”

“I bet they are,” Bluebird chattered, undeterred by Aza’s silence. They stepped past the guarded threshold of Onokoro, and she felt Aza’s grip on her hand tighten, his ears flick forwards – alert? – and his filthy, matted tail flick anxiously from side to side. He looked nervous about all the people walking about this Confederacy trading hub, his eyes flickering between anyone with a weapon dangling on their belt – which was mostly the Confederate sailors.

“It’s okay, it’s fine,” she whispered to him, seeing Daddy glance at them both. He was the biggest Au Ra here, bulky and broad and super strong, so the Confederacy lot just looked over them curiously but didn’t approach. They were more than happy to trade with their Xaela neighbours – not so eager to make idle chit-chat, “No one’s gonna hurt you with me and Daddy here. We’re gonna go on the boat and sail back to the Steppes.”

“It’s a short ride,” Daddy murmured, but Aza didn’t seem all that soothed. Bluebird decided that this was Aza’s normal state of being. Maybe he was incapable of relaxing, which sounded exhausting.

They made a beeline for the docks – most of them catered to Confederacy ships, but there was a small section set aside for visiting foreigners, and their little boat, loaned by the fishing village across the way, bobbed there happily.

“In you go,” Daddy told them, letting go of her hand and turning to the pile of crates on the dock next to the tiny boat. “I’ll finish loading while you two get comfortable.”

“Okay,” Bluebird hummed, and then started to gently coax Aza onto the boat. The weird, crazy boy hesitated, like a foal pausing at the edge of a strange creek, before he gingerly climbed into the boat. He sat down on it, ramrod straight, his hands curled into tight fists on his knees, tense as a bowstring and looking ready to leap out at a moment’s notice.

“You’re really tense,” she told Aza as she climbed in with a lot more grace, flopping casually across her seat. Aza eyed her from beneath his tangled, messy fringe, “Relaaax~ it’s okay, see! It’s a sturdy boat, with no holes, and we’re going home to nice, warm foods and comfy beds!”

Aza didn’t look all that soothed. Maybe he was just tired. He did kill two people today.

Daddy finished his loading, heaving the last crate with a quiet grunt, and climbed into the boat. The whole thing rocked heavily, and Aza gripped the edge of his seat in a white-knuckled grip, his ears flicking right back and the fur on his tail bristling. Bluebird watched this all very curiously.

“Hey, Aza,” she said, regaining his anxious attention as Daddy untied the boat. The sun was sinking really low now, the sky a mess of pink and orange and yellow – the setting sunlight made Aza’s hair look a lovely shade of gold, “Can I touch your ears? You never said if I could.”

Aza looked at her, his yellow eyes unreadable from beneath the shadow of his fringe. The boat bobbed as Daddy pushed them off from the dock, and he settled his heavy frame by the rudder, steering it away. Daddy was watching them both, but mostly Aza, like he was a very unpredictable beast they had invited into the boat. Which was probably true, because this cat-boy was really weird and strange.

“…if you want to,” Aza rasped without much emotion, ducking his head slightly.

Bluebird leaned forwards and, despite her eagerness, moved slowly. He was like a cornered animal, she reminded herself, and cornered animals bit at anything that moved too quickly near them. She had seen his canines too. They looked really sharp and she didn’t want to find out if Aza was a biter. So, she reached out, slowly, carefully, pinching the soft ear between forefinger and thumb and letting out a pleased noise at the lovely and velvety softness.

“Oh…” she breathed, “That feels really soft!”

She saw it then – a ghost of a smile curving Aza’s mouth. It brightened up his pallid face, making him look prettier – but as quickly as it appeared, it vanished, and Aza turned his head away, tugging his ear out of her very gentle and loose grip.

“They need cleaning,” he muttered, reaching a hand up to rub at his ear. His fingers dug into this thick, wavy hair, and he briefly look annoyed when they caught into the snarls and knots. He started trying to comb his hair out with his fingers.

“Yeah, you look like you might have fleas,” Bluebird said bluntly.

“Bluebird,” Daddy chided her, “Don’t be rude.”

“Well, he might!” Bluebird huffed, “Wild animals have them when they’re this filthy, and he kinda counts as a wild animal, right?”

“She’s right,” Aza said roughly, giving up on his tangled hair. He stared at his hands resting on his lap, his gaze drifting to his tail dangling over the edge of his seat. The fur was shaggy and thick – but matted with clumps of dirt and dusted with grains of sand. It looked so bad that Bluebird was certain it would need the worse of the matting cut off, “My fur… I’ll need to shave it.”

He sounded upset at the idea. Bluebird bit her lip, exchanging a look with Daddy. He just shrugged at her. Right, while Daddy saw more Eorzeans than most Xaela, he still only saw them every so often – and cat-people were so rare here! She only saw one other before and they were a cat-girl. She had no idea if shaving tails was a bad thing or not with them.

“Well, umm… I’m sure you don’t,” Bluebird said, “Sometimes our horses get matted fur in the winter, when their coats get really long. I can brush out all the dirt and the fur can stay all long, if you don’t want to shave it.”

Aza made a weird face, his tail twitching slightly, “Brush my… tail…?”

“Is that like a marriage proposal to cat-people?” Bluebird asked, curious about his reaction.

Miqo’te, Bluebird,” Daddy said, “They’re not ‘cat-people’.”

“Miqo’te marriage proposal?”

That ghost-smile was back again, and Bluebird grinned when she picked up on Aza’s genuine amusement, “Well… families do it. Grooming is… mm, bonding. For family. And lovers.”

“Is that like a strict rule?” Bluebird asked, leaning forwards in her seat. Aza leaned back, shifting his weight.

“No. You can…” he licked his dry lips, his eyes narrowing slightly. He looked tired, and thirsty. “I don’t mind, if you want to.”

“Do you want to, though?” Bluebird asked him, remembering – slavers. Crazy boy probably didn’t get to pick things often as a slave, so, she’ll let him pick this. Ease him back into being a normal person early.

Aza squirmed, like he was uncomfortable being presented with a choice. He kept looking at Daddy with a nervous look, like he was worried he was doing something wrong.  

“I… I don’t want… to shave my tail,” he said awkwardly.

“So, we won’t shave it,” she decided, “Do you want to brush it out yourself?”

Aza looked at Daddy again. Daddy pretended he was busy with the rudder. Aza seemed to relax at Daddy’s supposed disinterest in him.

“You can… I want you to brush it out,” he said quietly, whispered really, to her. She played along. 

“Okay,” she whispered back, giving him a smile, “I’ll be gentle and your fur’ll look amazing. I bet it’s silky soft when it’s all clean.”

“Yeah. It feels really nice,” Aza muttered, sounding a little wistful. Maybe his tail has been dirty for a while? How gross, but slavers were probably disgusting like that. “I can- you… you can pet it too. If you want. Later.”

Aza offered this a little awkwardly, and Bluebird had the oddest feeling that she was missing something. Crazy boy was looking at his knees, his toes curled against the wet bottom of the boat. There were little cuts on his feet, she noticed. She tutted. You’d think he was the younger one here, being in such a mess. Or, maybe he was. Maybe Miqo’te were bigger earlier, or something?

Aza was also swaying a little. Bluebird watched, as his eyes slipped into very narrow, thin slits, like he was just about fighting off sleep. The boat ride would take a little under an hour, meaning they’d have to walk to the Steppes under the Dusk Mother’s watchful eye, but an hour should be long enough for a power nap.

So, she hummed, quietly, gently, a little lullaby rhythm that melded nicely with the noise of little waves and the warm gusts of winds. It didn’t take very long. Slowly, Aza slumped a little bit more, until he was dozing fitfully against the side of the boat.

“Is he asleep?” Daddy whispered, his voice a low rumble.

“Mmhm,” Bluebird stopped her singing, waiting for a few heartbeats before deciding that Aza was well and truly dead to the world, “Like a baby.”

Daddy didn’t say anything for a long while. His dark blue eyes were fixed on Aza’s slumbering form, his face set into an unhappy expression. Bluebird looked at him curiously.

“Daddy,” she whispered, “Is he sick like Auntie Ibakha?”

“Yes,” Daddy said grimly, “Like Auntie Ibakha.”

Bluebird considered this. Auntie Ibakha had been an amazing huntress in their tribe. She didn’t have much talent for crafting like most of them, but she made up for it by keeping them well fed and well supplied, and Bluebird remembered when she used to pick her up and swing her onto her broad, muscular shoulders. Bluebird loved sitting on her shoulders.

Then that raid happened. That horrible night. Some people were taken and never came back. Some people were taken and did come back, but they weren’t the same. Auntie Ibakha had been one of them, and Bluebird remembered how it was like her soul had left her body. She didn’t hunt anymore. She didn’t pick her up and carry her on her shoulders. She just sat, quiet and empty, wasting away, until one day she got up and left the tribe.

‘Left’. Bluebird knew what happened to her. She walked into the Desert without a weapon and let the Steppe claim her. She stayed awake when the adults noticed her absence, stayed awake long enough to see them bring her empty body back from the Steppe. She remembered Daddy crying long and hard when they brought her back, and she went back to bed then. She didn’t know what they did with Auntie Ibakha’s body, but she knew better than to ask.

“Can we help him?” she asked, “He helped me. So, I want to help him.”

Daddy sighed, “I don’t know, my little Bluebird. This sickness, it… it is not one easily healed.”

Well, Bluebird knew that. But she was stubborn and defiant and persistent. Those three qualities always helped her to achieve things that weren’t easy.

“We’re taking him home,” she said. She did not phrase it as a question.

“Yes, we are,” Daddy said, sounding wry, “Your mother would thrash me within an inch of my life if I let him wander off into the wilderness by himself.”

Bluebird grinned. Yeah, Mommy would.

“We’ll help him,” Bluebird said, “He won’t end up like Auntie Ibakha, Daddy. We’ll help him.”

Daddy swallowed thickly, his face scrunching up like he was holding back a sneeze – like he always did whenever Auntie’s Ibakha’s ‘leaving’ was referenced – and he ducked his head low, hiding his expression in shadow, “We’ll see, little Bluebird. Just… be aware that… things may not turn out how you wish.”

“I’ll make them turn out right,” Bluebird decided, “You’ll see, Daddy.”

Daddy just sighed, like she was being difficult, and didn’t reply. Psh, Bluebird’ll show him. She’ll repay Aza’s kindness by helping him. She… wasn’t quite sure how to go about that yet, but you couldn’t go wrong with starting with good food. That’s how you approached beaten, scared animals. You dangled food in front of them, let them get comfortable before acclimatising them to your presence. Then, so long as you were gentle and respectful, they’d let you help them. Cat-people would function the same, right? Right.

Bluebird nodded to herself, filled with absolute certainty that this would be smooth sailing, as the Confederates would say. 

She was, needless to say, going to discover otherwise.

 


 

Altani wiped the sweat from her brow as she straightened up from her hard work. The stall was packed up and ready to go, the majority of the bundles stacked onto Sunbeam, her faithful pony. Squat, stocky and strong, Steppe ponies were a necessity for the Iriq tribe’s mercantile nature. They were able to carry almost three times their weight for days on end across the sloping land of the Steppes, and they had a long journey ahead of them.

Once her boneheaded husband and their scamp of a daughter returned from Onokoro.

“The storm passed hours ago…” she muttered to herself, smoothing a hand over Sunbeam’s shaggy hide. The pony nosed at her pockets, and she gently pushed his head away, “No, no, you’ve already had your snack, Sunbeam. After the first ten malms, you’ll get another.”

Sunbeam whickered grumpily, pawing at the ground.

“That won’t work on me,” she said lightly, patting his shoulder and glancing at the gates of Reunion once more. The torches were lit, but the Steppes were dark beyond them, the moon hidden behind thick cloud cover. The Qestir guarding the gate, Jali if she remembered rightly, was giving her a curious look.

“Aruci is running late,” she told them with a sigh. Jali’s eyes squinted in what she recognised as their smile, “Haha, yes, I know. It’s just like him.”

They waited in companionable silence, and after a while she saw shapes moving in the darkness. She straightened up, smiling when she recognised Aruci stepping into the torchlight, his own pony, Moonbeam, trotting at his side, laden in their spoils from Onokoro. Their little Bluebird was walking on the pony’s other side with-

With a… Miqo’te?

“Atani,” Aruci greeted as they drew close, smiling at her like he’d been caught with his hand in the jerky jar, “The light of my lif-”

“Mommy!” Bluebird interrupted, bouncing on her toes as she pointed at the short- young? No, definitely young, a child, Miqo’te, “This is Aza! He saved me from slavers and we’re giving him food as a thank you and can he stay with us in the tribe too?”

“Slavers,” Atani said flatly, giving Aruci a long, flat look. The Miqo’te boy, Aza, kept his gaze to the floor. “Aruci. My daughter had to be saved from slavers.”

“Ah…” Aruci, wisely, did not make excuses. He scuffed the floor, clearly squirming from Atani’s glower and Jali’s very judgemental staring from the gate, “Well. Hm.”

Atani decided to return to that topic later. Giving Aruci one last glare, she turned to the young Miqo’te with a much friendlier look. The boy was small, scrawny, with wrists rubbed raw and scabbed, with bare feet baring cuts, and an awful, stark bruise overtaking his face. He was tense and still, peeking up at her like a beaten dog waiting for the master’s hand to strike down. Atani felt a frozen, deep rage bubble inside her at the thought of this young child- she stifled that thought, not letting her gentle smile waver as she slowly approached him.

“Thank you, Aza, for looking after my daughter,” she said warmly. Aza shifted, clearly uncomfortable with her approach, so she stopped out of arm’s reach. Bluebird, she noticed, had a tight hold of the boy’s hand. Hm, perhaps… “I am Atani Iriq. You’re more than welcome to join us for a meal, though we need to reach the tribe first.”

Aza glanced at Aruci nervously, then, less nervously, at Bluebird. Bluebird nodded at him with a smile.

“…okay,” he said. He sounded resigned.

Atani decided to take advantage of it. The boy looked like he needed a few solid meals in him, and if he was… liberated merchandise, then she doubted those horrible slavers took appropriate care of him. Why, just look at him! He was filthy and messy and hurt! Oh, when it was her turn to visit Onokoro, she was going to hunt down every slaver that dared to step on its coast and- no, another time, Atani.

“Then let’s go,” Atani said briskly, “If you become tired, you can ride Sunbeam. He has enough room to carry your weight.”

Aza looked a little worried about the offer, peeking at her and at Sunbeam, as if looking for a trap. Atani, very pointedly, did not try to wonder about that reaction.

“Aruci, we will have words later,” Atani said flatly, and her husband wilted, “Bluebird, dear, come and tell me about these nasty slavers.”

“Okay,” Bluebird said cheerfully, and their miniature caravan began its long journey back to the Iriq tribe. Her daughter spoke a malm a minute about how the slavers captured her, how they tied her up and were going to bundle her into a boat when Aza leapt out at one of them out of nowhere, garrotting them with his shackles (good) and stabbing the other with her own knife (even better!), before freeing Bluebird.

What a good boy. It would’ve been natural, for him to take advantage of the slavers’ distraction to escape himself, but instead he jeopardised that to save her daughter. She glanced over at Aza, when Bluebird came to the end of her tale, and curiously, he looked deeply uncomfortable and ill. When Bluebird had mentioned the stabbing, he had shuddered all over, like shaking off a chill, and rubbed his hands together anxiously.

Hm.

“So, I brought him back to Daddy,” Bluebird finished, “He’s sick, like Auntie Ibakha, but I’m going to help him. Right, Aza?”

“Mm,” Aza said, non-committedly. He didn’t seem to be paying attention.

Bluebird wasn’t put off, “So, what’re we having for food, Mommy?”

“You’ll find out,” Atani told her warmly, “But remember, we have your special guest. He’ll have to eat before you.”

“Okaaay,” Bluebird sighed, but it was exaggerated. Aza started to drift to the side, his eyes half-closed.

Atani waited, though. A malm later, when even Bluebird was beginning to yawn tiredly, Aza very nearly pitched onto his face when he dozed off mid-walk. Atani was impressed. The boy’s endurance was incredible, considering he looked half-starved, dehydrated and feverish.

“Onto Sunbeam you go,” Atani said, ushering the weakly protesting boy onto the snorting pony’s back. Aza did not like being touched, she noticed, unless it was Bluebird, though he tolerated light, brief touched to his biceps and shoulders. She accidentally brushed her hand against his hip when pushing him onto Sunbeam, and the boy went so rigid he almost tumbled off the beast. She made sure not to make that mistake again.

Kindly, none of them mentioned his near slip. Aza was put on the pony, despite his nervousness – he kept glancing at Aruci, which, really made awful, terrible suspicions bloom in her and she was going to kill every slaver she saw from now on – and it took only two minutes before he was flat out asleep on the pony’s back, kept in place by the beast’s heavy burdens.

“He is very skittish,” Atani decided.

“He’s like a beaten dog,” Bluebird said, “He keeps thinking people’ll hurt him.”

“Hmm,” Atani said, not verbalising her suspicions. The look she exchanged with Aruci told her her husband had them as well at least. Well then. They’ll have their work cut out for them.

“No family?” she asked mildly.

“He said he had no one left,” Aruci murmured quietly, his eyes downcast.

“Well then, we’ll just have to adopt him then, won’t we?” Atani said, ignoring how Bluebird stared at her in open-mouthed amazement. What? Did she think she’d have to convince her to look after this poor slip of a boy? Atani had already decided she was going to help him the moment she heard the word ‘slavers’. “Bluebird, you don’t mind a Miqo’te brother, do you?”

“N-No! I don’t mind!” Bluebird said quickly and loudly- only to wince and continue in a hushed whisper, “We’re keeping him? We’re helping him?”

“We’re keeping him,” Atani confirmed.

“We can’t keep him against his will, Atani,” Aruci whispered to her worriedly.

“Then we’ll convince him he’ll want to stay,” Atani said simply. Like Bluebird, once she decided something, she was all but impossible to dissuade, “Aruci, we both know what’ll happen if we leave him alone, like this. Do you want to be responsible for that, even if it’s his choice?”

Aruci winced and looked away with a grimace.

“…no, you’re right. It’ll be cruel to abandon him,” Aruci sighed.

“It’ll be okay, Daddy,” their little Bluebird chirped, “We’ll help him, he’ll be happy and we’ll have returned his kindness. It’ll all be okay.”

Oh, their little Bluebird was such a naïve thing, Atani thought fondly. If only it was that easy. It was going to be long, and difficult, but Atani wouldn’t be able to live with herself, if they let this poor thing walk away. He’d end up like Ibakha, letting the Steppes claim him because his soul just couldn’t endure its pain. Well, Atani was going to succeed here where she failed before. They were going to help him.

Somehow.

She’ll figure it out as they went along.

Chapter Text

It was past midnight by the time they reached the Iriq tribe’s encampment. The karakuls, yaks and ponies were herded close to the outskirts, shepherds overlooking their livelihood with keen eyes, and the glow of torches cast strange shadows over the clustered yurts as guards did their roaming patrols throughout the camp. Raiding had increased in recent months, food a little short as the Steppe went through its routine drought that hit every ten years, so the Iriq were being understandably cautious, as their tribe was well known to be effectively supplied by their mercantile nature.

Atani drew her pony to a stop at the camp’s ‘gate’, smiling at a rather sleepy looking Udutai leaning heavily on his spear. The gangly, young lad had only just achieved adulthood, and he had quickly learned that it wasn’t as fun as he believed it to be, judging by how he was openly dozing away on his feet. Poor thing… and poor drills.

“Dozing, Udutai?” Atani asked a little loudly, giving the lad a bit of a gentle nudge to the shin.

Udutai flinched awake, hurriedly straightening up with rapidly blinking eyes. He paled when he realised who stood before him, “Uh, no, Atani! I wasn’t dozing! I was, um, resting my eyes!”

“Mmhm…” Atani drew the noise out, but let it go for now – it was lucky it was him on the gate, honestly. Any of the older men would question what she was about to do, “I’m bringing in a guest to the tribe, a Miqo’te called Aza.”

“A… what?” Udutai asked blankly.

“A Miqo’te,” Atani sighed, “You know, the people who look like Baras? The cat people?”

Udutai frowned, looking puzzled, and craned his head to overlook Atani’s miniature caravan. Bluebird was asleep, cradled in Aruci’s arms, and her husband was lingering close to Sunbeam, where Aza was half sprawled over a bulky bag draped across the pony’s shoulders, his head pillowed in his arms. Many times during the journey Aruci had to do impressive saves to stop the Miqo’te from sliding off – the boy hadn’t stirred once, betraying his bone deep exhaustion.

“Oh, I see,” Udutai said after staring, rather rudely, at the slumbering boy for a good minute, “Um, well, if you’re bringing him in, I guess it’s okay?”

“It’s okay,” Atani said, patting the gangly lad on the shoulder, “I’ll bring him to the Khatun in the morning. Right now, we should let our guest rest, right?”

“Right,” Udutai said, his gaze sliding back to the sleeping Aza. He looked curious, but Atani was content he wouldn’t say anything to the Khatun until morning, which would suit her fine. She needed to get her arguments hammered out, if she wanted to keep Aza here with minimal fuss.

“Good. Now, try to stay awake for the rest of your shift, Udutai,” Atani chided him, smiling when the gangly lad squirmed uncomfortably. He nodded glumly, and Atani led her family through the gates, taking the meandering, cramped path to their yurt. It was modestly sized for their family, with enough space around it to let their ponies graze and amble about freely when not transporting their goods. They even had a small flock of karakul and one yak, though all lifestock was cared for communally, so they were currently under the watchful eye of the night shepherds, leaving their yurt looking rather lonely and dark, when they stopped before it.

“You take Bluebird in,” Atani told Aruci, eyeing their sleeping guest contemplatively, “I’ll deal with the boy.”

Aruci nodded, casting a worried look over the Miqo’te, before ducking inside with their daughter. Hopefully her husband would use his initiative and set up a place to sleep for Aza – separate from them. She had no doubt the boy would panic if he found their sleeping arrangements together, and she wasn’t sure what Miqo’te did anyway when it came to sleeping with people.

Sunbeam and Moonbeam, old ponies used to their routine, were already drinking deep from their water trough. Content that they wouldn’t move until freed from their burden, Atani dealt with Moonbeam first, keeping a watchful eye over Aza. The boy didn’t stir, not once, as she hefted their spoils to stack against the side of their yurt, to be sorted through in the morning.

Patting Moonbeam on the flank when she was done, letting the pony know that it was free to graze, she turned to Sunbeam. Right.

 “Aza,” she murmured quietly, reaching out to prod the boy sharply on the arm, “Wake up.”

Aza’s ear twitched, a low, raspy groan rumbling in the boy’s throat. She prodded him again, gentler this time, and the Miqo’te slowly lifted his head, his eyes reflecting the distant torchlight like a Baras. Atani admired the sight for a moment, before slowly waving her hand to grasp his drowsy attention.

“We’re home,” she told him, “Do you need help getting off Sunbeam?”

“Um…” Aza abruptly looked more alert, sitting up as if only realising he was still on the pony, “No, I can… I can get off myself.”

Atani hummed and took a step back to watch as the boy clumsily slid off Sunbeam’s back. It was clear Aza hadn’t ridden an animal in his life, judging by how stiff-legged he was when his feet touched the grassy floor, his face tense with an uncomfortable grimace. She bit her bottom lip to stifle her amused laughter.

“Bluebird is inside,” she told the boy, gesturing to the yurt, “Aruci should be setting a bed up for you. Needless to say, it’s a bit late to give you your meal, so I insist you stay the night.”

Aza eyed her warily – no, suspiciously. He was waiting for the shoe to drop, Atani guessed, waiting for the trap to spring. Did he think they would enslave him too? No, she was sure he would have bolted into the hills by now if he thought that. But he was obviously waiting for something, and it saddened her, that the boy was already so jaded and guarded at such a young age. He was… what? Thirteen, perhaps?

“Why?” The boy asked, his voice raspy. Atani made a note to give him a skein of water before he went to sleep.

“Why what?” Atani tilted her head, ensuring her tone was gentle, “Why am I helping you?”

Aza nodded, his expression difficult to read.

“Because you helped my daughter when you didn’t need to,” Atani said, “Such compassion needs to be rewarded, and…” she smiled, “I want to help you. Surely, one doesn’t need a motive to be kind?”

Aza looked doubtful, licking his dry lips nervously. He wanted to believe her, Atani could tell, but experience was telling him to doubt her. He rubbed his sore looking wrists, his ears set back at an angle that spoke of discomfort, and Atani made another note to deal with those wounds before he slept too. If it weren’t so late, she would’ve encouraged him to bathe too, but that could wait until morning.

“Do you want… something?” Aza asked, proving her suspicions correct.

“I want to help you,” she repeated, “You don’t need to do anything to justify it.”

Aza ducked his head, gripping his left wrist hard with his right, his fingernails digging into the sore skin. It looked painful, but the boy gave no indication of it. “You… want to help me?” he asked, quietly, sounding both sceptical and painfully hopeful. It broke Atani’s heart.

“Yes,” Atani said simply, “There are no strings attached. No obligations. No tricks. Just kindness.”

Aza’s gaze drifted, like he was marking out escape routes. He bit his bottom lip, allowing Atani to catch a glimpse of sharp canines, and shifted his weight from foot to foot. He was nervous, anxious, but he stayed in place. Atani made sure her hands remained relaxed at her sides, her body loose and non-threatening, like she was approaching a spooked pony.

“I won’t…” Aza rasped, faltering very briefly before continuing, in a voice that tried to sound defiant but wobbled too much from nervousness; “I won’t have sex with you, or… or the man.”

Atani… had to breathe through the sudden rage that overtook her, that her awful suspicions had been correct. The boy was trembling like a leaf, clearly terrified of some kind of reprisal from his refusal. The fact that he had to say that- that he- he was a child. Those slavers were disgusting and cruel and- no, she needed to be calm. She could not let Aza misunderstand her anger. She took a short, quiet breath, keeping her expression utterly neutral, and said with utmost calm; “That’s fine. You can choose who you want to have sex with. You won’t be forced here.”

Aza eyed her warily from beneath his fringe, “… I won’t be forced,” he repeated quietly – questioningly.

“If anyone tries to force you,” Atani said firmly, “I will castrate them myself.”

Aza still looked doubtful, but he relaxed a fraction – only a fraction. Atani knew she was going to have to join the morning hunting party to burn off this deep, burning rage at the revelation of this boy’s cruel fate, but she compartmentalised that to deal with later. She spoke the truth, anyways. If anyone so much as touched him inappropriately, she would deal with them.  

“Before I forget,” she said, taking a slow step forwards. Aza skittered away from her, moving close to Sunbeam’s head. She pretended not to notice, reaching out to unhook a skein of water from Sunbeam’s back, “Here. This is water. Try to drink before you sleep.”

Aza didn’t reach out immediately, but after a tense pause he took the skein off her, unscrewing its cap and sniffing it suspiciously. Atani, again, pretended not to notice, because if she started to wonder if he’d been drugged before she might just spontaneously combust from anger alone.

“I’ll take care of your wounds too, after I unload Sunbeam,” she told him, “Wait for me in the yurt?”

She phrased it as a question, but Aza acted like it was an order, instantly moving towards the tent with his tail low and clutching the water skein close to his chest. She watched him go, hoping Aruci didn’t scare him too much when coaxing him to bed, and unloaded Sunbeam with a grim focus. The world truly was a dirty, cruel place. 

She was also going to make it a bit better by visiting Onokoro tomorrow. See if Aza really had slain his slaving captors. Gut wounds were survivable, after all.

 


 

Aza was trying to understand what was happening.

He was buried beneath a pile of comfortable, soft skins, lying on an equally comfortable, soft bedroll, staring blankly at the yurt’s dark ceiling. The… the family that he was serving- with. The family that he was with were sound asleep, all of them sharing the same part of the spacious… tent? Yurt? The adults were together, and Bluebird was in her own blanket nest next to him, snoring quietly. Her presence was oddly comforting, but he didn’t want to examine why, because- those emotions were. Spiky. Sharp.

Painful.

Why was he here? He had only intended to lead Bluebird back her family and then… go, somewhere. He didn’t deserve the kindness these people showed him – was suspicious that there was an ulterior motive here. That they wanted something. That they- there must be something they wanted. He didn’t know what, though. He looked like a mess – he was ungroomed and filthy and dirty and hadn’t used any of that charm Master had practically carved into him. Flirty and vigorous, he liked. Aza hadn’t done that.

The uncertainty frightened him, because being uncertain meant making mistakes, and mistakes meant being punished. But. He told himself he won’t be- he wasn’t a slave from birth, he knew normal people weren’t- that the life he had with Master- the ANIMAL – was abnormal. He knew what a normal life was like, he lived it! And these were normal people, a normal family like he and- he and…

But at the same time, he felt like he had the whip looming over his head. He kept expecting to blink and open his eyes to Master leaning over him, to waking up from a dream where he only imagined stabbing him to death, where Ala was still alive, where he still had to, every night, had to go to the pleasure room with the others and.

His stomach clenched painfully and he rolled onto his side, curling up into a tight ball. He didn’t want to go back- but he also did because he knew what to expect, and, Ala would be alive. But horribly, awfully, he was relieved he wasn’t there anymore, even if it ended up with Ala… he was horrible. He didn’t deserve this kindness. They didn’t know what creature they invited into their home. They didn’t know… they didn’t.

His throat hurt and his eyes burned, and he pressed his hands against his face, choking down the sobs that wanted to heave out of him. He didn’t deserve this but he wanted this. He was free, but he didn’t deserve it. He survived and was in a nice, warm bed with nice, kind people looking after him, and he didn’t deserve it. But, Gods, he wanted it. He didn’t want to wake up to Master- ANIMAL. He didn’t want to wake up to him. Didn’t want to wake up to the pleasure room, with the other boys and girls. Didn’t want to see others arrive and get broken. Didn’t want to go back. He didn’t want to go back. He didn’t want to go back.

But he deserved to go back. It should be Ala in his place. It should be Ala here. He should have been the one who…

It was wretched of him. He felt awful and ungrateful and deceitful. The Twelve had saw fit to look down on him with kindness – or maybe this was an interesting way to torture him? Bluebird reminded him so much of Ala. It was painful. It hurt so much, but it was a pain that was addictive. This was- he could redeem- but no, disgusting, Ala was barely in the ground and already he replaced her. He was an awful person.

Quietly, trying not to wake up the kind people who took pity on him, he buried his face into his knees and cried as softly and silently as he could. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t deserve this. But, he didn’t know where to go from here. He couldn’t go home. He couldn’t try to go home. He couldn’t go back to Mom and look her in the face and tell her he killed Ala, that he spread his legs for Master, that he was dirty and a horrible murderer. He would die of shame. Mom would also hate him. He couldn’t- stand the thought of her… she would hate him.

He couldn’t go home. He felt sick at the thought. But he wanted Mom. He wanted his Mom. He wanted her to pet his hair and tell him it was okay and that this was some terrible, awful nightmare that never happened. He wanted Mom.  

He hiccuped, a homesickness he hadn’t felt in a long while hitting him like a boot to the gut. He wanted to go home. He wanted Mom. He wanted Ala.

But they were lost to him now. That life was gone. There was only this terrifying unknown left to him. What was he meant to do? Where could he go? He couldn’t live off these people like a parasite. He needed – he had to… he only knew how to do one thing now, but, the mere thought of using that to justify his existence here made him feel so ill he thought he’d vomit. No, he couldn’t stomach it. He couldn’t.

He shivered, curling up tighter, his crying quieting into soft sniffling. He wanted to go home.

But there was no home for him to go back to. He was utterly and completely lost.  

Chapter Text

Aza twitched awake when he heard the noise of people moving about him. He went still, instinctively, groggy and confused about where he was and what happened. His head hurt, his nose feeling a little stuffy, and a bone deep ache throbbed behind his ribs with each, rough inhale. Warm furs pressed down on him, nothing like what Master would have in his home, and more like what- what he used to have back…

“Is he awake?”

A familiar yet unfamiliar voice whispered this somewhere over him, and the childish, stupid hope that started to flutter in him died a cold death. No, he wasn’t home. He was… right, he followed an Au Ra child home and her family took pity on him. He remembered spending most of the night bawling like a dumb child – he must’ve fallen asleep at some point. Probably why he felt so awful, going to sleep crying.

“Not sure,” said Au Ra child said somewhere directly above him. Something patted at the furs, giving him a gentle shake, “Hey, Aza. Crazy boy. You awake?”

For a brief second, he debated pretending to be dead to the world – but then he didn’t have a plan beyond that. He couldn’t pretend to sleep forever either, and he didn’t feel too great. So it was with a heavy heart that he made a low, vague noise of acknowledgement, his throat feeling as raw as sandpaper as he painfully pushed the furs away to sit up.

He- oof. The world felt a bit unsteady, and he cradled the side of his head with his hand. Bluebird was sitting on the floor next to his ‘bed’, peering at him worriedly – and looming over him, in a way that made even his half-dazed mind briefly stutter in fear, was the Au Ra man from yesterday. Tall. Broad. Looked like he could pin him down with minimal effort.

Aza swallowed, his heart beginning to pound.

“You look awful,” Bluebird blurted, then added, “And kinda smell.”

“Bluebird,” Big Au Ra Man chided, “Don’t be rude.”

“I’m just telling the truth!” Bluebird huffed. Aza focused on her, the least threatening thing in the room, taking in her messy, short hair, the way it tufted around her dark horns, and how she puffed her cheeks out like a squirrel. It looked so dumb.

“Truth or not, it’s still rude,” Big Au Ra Man said. He turned his attention back to Aza, and kept his hands open and relaxed at his sides, his expression friendly. Aza knew- he knew he was fine. He had plenty of chances to do whatever the fuck he wanted to him, but instinct, experience, told him to be wary, told him to watch those hands, to prepare – to get ready to… to blank out, if he needed to.

“Aza,” Big Au Ra Man said gently, “Normally, our family wash together first thing in the morning. However, if you wish for privacy, Bluebird can show you to the wash station and leave you to your business.”

“Or I can wash with you,” Bluebird added, “Without Mommy and Daddy leering at us.”

Aza groggily looked between Big Au Ra Man and Bluebird, trying to see the trap but… there wasn’t one. He knew that. Washing in privacy or with an audience didn’t bother him, really, so long as no one touched him. It wasn’t as if bathing was a private thing in Master’s home. All the other kids washed together – and things happened there that…

“Bluebird can wash with me,” he muttered hoarsely.

Bluebird looked pleased, but Big Au Ra Man looked worried. Aza automatically cringed, wondering if he misstepped somewhere.

“Hmm, perhaps we should have Chagur look at you,” Big Au Ra Man murmured, studying Aza close enough that it made him nervous.

“Chagur’s the tribe’s healer,” Bluebird explained, “She gives you nasty tasting medicine, but it works. She likes talking about how pretty she used to be, though. She’s an old hag now.”

Big Au Ra Man sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose, “Bluebird.”

“What?” Bluebird sniffed, “All she goes on about is how she used to be the most beautiful warrior in the Borlaaq tribe, until she took that arrow to the knee. Then she got ugly somehow. She never really explains that bit.”

Aza stared, thoroughly lost in the conversation. Big Au Ra Man must’ve noticed, because he elaborated; “The Borlaaq tribe is our sister tribe. We adopt the men they give to us and in return they protect us. You will find few warriors amongst the Iriq because of this. We enjoy focusing on our crafting or trading.”

“Though, female Iriq can join the Borlaaq or the other way round,” Bluebird finished, “Mommy used to be Borlaaq, but then she had my brother and she didn’t want to give him up, so she joined the Iriq instead.”

“Brother?” Aza asked, still confused but sort of getting it. He glanced around the Yurt, but only saw the three of them. The woman from last night, Atani? She was gone, but Aza didn’t recall meeting anyone else in this small, friendly family.

“He’s gone now,” Bluebird said airily, but the atmosphere in the yurt seem to darken. Big Au Ra Man (Aruci, that was it), bowed his head, clasping his hands at stomach-height, and Bluebird was staring very hard at the edge of the fur blankets, picking at them with her mouth pressed into a thin line. She looked angry.

“Oh,” Aza said stupidly, his stomach sinking right down to the floor. His heart fluttered at his despicable faux pas, and he glanced between them anxiously, tense for… something. Reprisal. But nothing came.

“Anyway,” Bluebird finally said, “Let’s wash up, Crazy Boy. You stink.”

Yeah, he did. He could smell himself now – stale sweat, grime, seasalt and blood, even through his stuffed up nose. Gingerly, he pushed past the furs, climbing to his feet, and Bluebird grasped his hand. He startled, but Bluebird ignored it.

“We’ll be back in an hour, Daddy,” Bluebird chirped, “Just in time for the family meal.”

Aruci, who still had sadness lingering in his expression, smiled down at them both, stepping to the side and clearing a path to the Yurt’s exit, “Remember to wash behind your horns, Bluebird.”

“Ugh, I knoooow, Daddy, I’m not a baby,” Bluebird whined, tugging Aza along. He clumsily followed, “I’ll clean under my tail too!”

They left the yurt before Aza could hear Aruci’s reply and out into the loud and confusing world of the Iriq tribe. It was bustling, filled with people despite the spacious gaps between yurts – there were animals, karakuls, big hairy cow looking things, ponies and horses and other weird things Aza didn’t immediately recognise, and tall, towering Au Ra men shouldering large crates and pots and young women all armed to the teeth milling about, laughing and chatting and reminding him viscerally of Mom and-

Aza’s head spun. He felt overwhelmed. There were so many people moving around him, that if Bluebird hadn’t been insistently pulling him along he might’ve just sat down in dumb shock. His heart was beating a malm a second, flinching whenever anyone brushed past him too closely and – people were looking at him in open curiosity when they noticed he wasn’t an Au Ra, staring and watching after him and it really really really was too much.

Bluebird seemed oblivious to it all.

“So,” she was saying, Aza barely understanding her words in his half-panicked state, “We all wash here, near our Yurt.”

Bluebird had pulled him several yalms behind her yurt, where there was a wooden bench sitting on the grassy ground, with some kind of stand hooked over it. A bucket was sat on the bench, faint steam twisting into the brisk, Steppe air. Soft looking squares of cloth sat next to the bucket, and the it took Aza a few, dumb moments to realise this was it. This was the bath he’d been expecting.

“Oh, we actually have water!” Bluebird chirped, “Daddy’s spoiling us. It’s the Dawn Father’s trial, y’see,” she explained as they stopped before the simple bench, “So there’s not much water to go around. We’ll share this.”

Aza, who had spent the past two and a half years bathing in lavish, Hingan communal bath areas, felt a bit at a loss. He… recalled, vaguely, cleaning like this before Master’s time. But they had a stream that went by their home, so they pulled directly from it, not shared a bucket.

Bluebird was watching him curiously, “…do you know how to wash?”

“Yeah,” Aza said blankly. He realised another thing – this was right out in the open. Not even five yalms away one of the ponies from last night was grazing, and there were a group of women behind their own yurt twenty yalms away, on their own bench, stark naked and rubbing themselves down with dry cloths. People were walking right by.

Aza wasn’t body shy, but even he balked at such openness.

“Are you shy?” Bluebird asked, her face scrunching up like she was trying to comprehend this, “Um, people might stare at you, because barely anyone’s seen a cat person before, especially naked, but they won’t do anything to you.”

Bluebird wasn’t very good at being comforting. At least she was straight up about them staring.

“…it’s okay,” Aza rasped. At this point he was so disgusted with his own filth that he found himself able to shove aside his discomfort. He began to strip off, and after a pause, Bluebird did the same.

Aza had seen naked Au Ras before – they were the pale-scaled ones, though, and mostly boys, so he couldn’t help but peek at Bluebird curiously. He always found it weird, how their skin smoothly patterned into soft looking scales, but it looked pretty in a way. Bluebird’s dark scales contrasted heavily with her pale skin, and he noticed that she had soft, dark speckles where the scales didn’t touch. Freckles? Or incoming scales? He wasn’t sure, but at least he knew that Bluebird was roughly around his age, judging by how her scales were growing in near her nether regions and chest. Probably two years younger, if he was remembering Au ra anatomy right.  

“Wow, you have fur down there too?” Bluebird asked, openly staring at his crotch without a hint of shame as he placed his dirty clothes on the bench. He fought the urge to squirm, focusing intently on the bucket as he tried not to think about how he was standing stark naked, in front of countless adults walking by. Their stares felt like physical burns, but he didn’t know if he was imagining it because he was staring hard at the bucket like it was the most fascinating thing.

“Looks itchy,” Bluebird continued, picking up a cloth and tossing it to him. He flinched but managed to catch it before it dropped to the floor, “Okay, Stinky Boy, start rubbing yourself down.”

Eager to distract himself with something, Aza got to work. The cloth, wet with warm water, felt heavenly on his dirty skin. He found old bruises and scabbed over cuts beneath the layer of grim, and Aza was puzzled where they were from. He remembered his arrest being fairly rough, if only because he tried to stab a few of the Sekiseigumi, which… ended up with… no, don’t. Warm water. Clean. Focus on cleaning.

He rubbed the cloth vigorously on his hands, almost smelling the copper and feeling the stickiness. He accidentally cracked open the scabbed over sores on his wrists, streaks of pink and red on his dark skin – but the pain brought him back down. The pain made him focus, and after spending a few breaths staring at his very clean, rubbed pink hands, the wash cloth speckled with pale blood stains, he continued on his original task.

All the while Bluebird watched him with dark, curious eyes.

“What’re those scars?” she finally asked, when Aza had rubbed himself down from face to toes. When he glanced at her, she pointed to the back of his knees, where many thin, deliberate scars crossed over the inside of the joint, “They look too neat.”

Aza gripped the cloth tight, keeping his mind blank.

“…punishment,” he finally said, quietly, a sharp stab of phantom pain shooting right through his knees – the memory of it almost made him queasy. “I kept… trying to run away. So.”

Bluebird, for the first time, looked discomforted, her mouth flattening into that thin line, “Oh.”

“They had a surgeon do it,” he continued, though he wasn’t sure why. He stared at the cloth twisted between his fingers, “They didn’t- I had painkillers, and… they didn’t beat me. Cause me much pain. It- it was better than, what they could’ve done. So. It’s not as… bad as it could’ve been.”

A heavy silence fell between them, and from the corner of his eye he could see Bluebird staring at those scars on the back of his knees with a grim kind of realisation on her face.

“Not as bad as it could’ve been,” Bluebird repeated, and her expression and tone were utterly indecipherable, “You can walk fine now, right?”

“Mm. When I stopped trying to run away, they stopped doing it,” Aza said, “It aches sometimes but, it’s okay. It’s fine now. It could’ve been worse.”

Bluebird abruptly turned to the bucket and tossed her cloth almost angrily into it. The water sloshed, and Aza flinched despite himself, suddenly afraid even though the Au Ra girl was smaller and younger than him. He felt embarrassed a split second later, focusing hard on the cloth in his hands, twisting it between his fingers, barely feeling the brisk breeze of the Steppe cooling his wet, naked body.

“You shouldn’t defend them,” Bluebird told him, glaring at the bucket like it wronged her, “They hurt you and- and crippled you. You should be hating them. Calling them- calling them- bastards, or… or something. Not being all ‘it could’ve been worse’. They were horrible. You should’ve stabbed them more than once, on that stupid beach.”

“I’m sorry,” Aza said without thinking, going very still at the anger. Still and quiet were the two things that saved you from that.

“Don’t-” Bluebird stopped herself. She took a breath and seemed to give herself a shake, “Don’t say sorry either. You-  you need a spine or something. You- you need to, to, to get mad about it! Not- not be all… this!”

Aza didn’t reply. He wasn’t sure what the correct response was.

Bluebird puffed out a sharp breath and pointed at his tail, which was still a matted mess despite his attempts to daub out the worse of the filth, “Do you need help with that?”

“If… if you… you want,” Aza said hesitantly, still reeling from Bluebird’s burst of anger. He still didn’t dare move.

Bluebird looked like she was going to yell something, but at the last-minute thought better of it. She bit her bottom lip, hard, and released it with a sharp noise, “Okay. Well, I want to, because, I bet your tail is really nice when it doesn’t look all gross. And you deserve to look nice. So. Sit on the bench and I’ll- I’ll fix it.”

Aza sat down so fast he almost fell off the bench. Bluebird stomped away, still stark naked but obviously uncaring, disappearing around the yurt. Aza stayed in place, telling his heart to calm down even though his mind was frantically trying to understand what specific thing triggered Bluebird’s anger. Defending his conditioning? The injury itself? His lack of anger? Whatever it was, he needed to learn it quickly to avoid angering the people who took him in. He needed to. To not. Get them mad. Stay kind.

The mere thought of them angry at him made him feel shaky in a way that didn’t have to do with the ill-feeling he woke up with that morning. He knew he didn’t deserve kindness, but now that he had a taste of it he was abruptly terrified of losing it. He needed to be good. He had to do something good to make up for whatever faux pas he did. He’ll – do something good. Be good. Be good.

Bluebird returned shortly, carrying a small bag in her hands. Aza eyed it warily, not moving when Bluebird straddled the bench next to him and took hold of his tail. She draped it gently across her thighs, the little bag set between her legs. Inside Aza could see small combs, trimmers and other things.

“Grooming kit,” Bluebird said, still sounding curt but a lot more composed, “This is what we use to groom our ponies. I think it’ll work fine on your tail… maybe.”

Aza was still waiting for the other shoe to drop, but Bluebird didn’t do anything cruel to him. He picked out a comb from her little bag and started trying to tease out the worst of the matting. It hurt a little, but Bluebird was clearly trying to be careful, her face set in an intense frown of concentration, her tongue sticking out as slowly, carefully, gently, she brushed his tail out.

Slowly, Aza… relaxed. A part of him still feared for a punishment, was convinced he was being lulled into a false sense of security but… it had been so long since someone had been so gentle with him. He was used to uncaring, brisk touches to his tail, roughly shaving the fur down because Master hated ‘shaggy fur’. Used to being briskly washed down, being touched, pinned down, gripped, pushed, shoved- this. This wasn’t that.

Bluebird’s hands were calloused but gentle. 

It was… almost enough to make him cry again, for different but no less pathetic reasons.

 


 

“Khatun Amal,” Atani said formally, “I’m here to plead sanctuary for an honoured guest of my family.”

Khatun Amal watched her with dark, sleepy eyes, not budging from his lazy, casual sprawl in his low-backed chair. This was fairly standard of him, being well-known for his shocking lack of decorum and intense hatred of standing on ceremony. It made him a rather polarising character within the Iriq and Borlaaq tribes, with many of the youngsters finding him refreshing and the more conservative members hating his guts.

In this case, Atani was hoping he was liberal-minded enough to accept her proposal – otherwise she’d have to remind him who really ran the show here, and neither of them wanted that. It would rock the caravan too much. It was just making sure Amal remembered that.

“An honoured guest…?” Khatun Amal repeated slowly, “Is this the cat-boy Udutai was raving about this morning?”

“The very same,” Atani said, dropping the formality, “And it’s Miqo’te, not cat-boy.”

“Whatever,” Khatun Amal waved a hand dismissively, “He’s not Au Ra, that’s all the others will note. It’s one thing to let foreign guests break bread with us for a few days, but… Atani, you’re asking a lot.”

“I’m asking little,” Atani told him, letting a bit of steel sharpen her tone. Khatun Amal instantly sat up, wary, “I will be frank, little brother. This Miqo’te saved my daughter from slavers.”

Slavers?” All pretence of casualness was gone, Khatun Amal jumping to his feet and almost upsetting the table before him. Atani didn’t even flinch when the cups on them jostled audibly, “Is she hurt?”

“No, thanks to this Miqo’te,” Atani said sweetly, “As well, this Miqo’te was a slave, a slave who endangered his own chance of escape to ensure Bluebird didn’t suffer the same as him. Such kindness should be rewarded, and as he doesn’t have a home to return to, shouldn’t we aid him as much as we’re able? It is, after all, the very least we could do.”

Khatun Amal was frozen, before he sagged back into his seat with a heavy ‘thump’. He glared dully at Atani from beneath his dark fringe, “Sister…” he muttered, “You’re too conniving.”

“I gave you a ready-made excuse for your vulture of an advisor,” Atani scoffed, reaching out to nudge the cups away from the edge of the table, in case Khatun Amal got overexcited again, “You’re welcome, by the way. Also,” she sobered, grim, “There’s more.”

Khatun Amal groaned, “Don’t keep me in suspense, just tell me.”

“He was a child sex slave,” she said, her voice devoid of all emotion. Khatun Amal went dangerously still, “He has bruises. He has cuts. He is so terrified of adults that he flinched when Aruci so much as moved near him. Aruci, Amal! He is as gentle as a lamb!”

“A child…” Khatun Amal breathed, “Are you sure? Miqo’te… they, they look young, even as adults Atani-”

“He is a child. I would bring him here to show you, but I fear he’d die on the spot from terror alone,” Atani snarled, the anger she had bottled up boiling over in her. She needed to kill something. By the Sun, she prayed a Buduga or Jhungid raid happened soon, just to fulfil that dark urge, “He is barely bigger than Bluebird and looks-” She stopped, breathing hard.

Khatun Amal went quiet, staring at the table. After a long, tense pause, where Atani wrestled her black rage under control, he finally sighed, “He may stay.”

“Indefinitely?” Atani demanded tightly.

“Indefinitely,” Khatun Amal said, “I’ll silence those who might kick up a fuss. All I need to do is ask them to direct their complaints to you and they’ll become meek as lambs.”

Atani laughed, a sharp, low sound. It wasn’t a nice one, “My reputation is useful to get away with whatever I want, I will admit,” she said, “Thank you, little brother.”

Khatun Amal just nodded, his expression saying he was already dreading the headache this whole situation was going to bring him, “What’s his name? This Miqo’te?”

“Aza,” Atani replied, “No tribe name was given… but Aza Iriq has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?”

“Hmm…” Khatun Amal made a non-committal noise, “Just… try not to get too attached, Atani. He isn’t a replacement for-”

“I know who he is,” Atani snapped, clenching her hands so tight her nails cut into her palms, “I’m not that stupid.”

Khatun Amal just gave her a look like he thought she was – the only person who could get away with that, really, aside from her husband, but thankfully didn’t press the issue, “I wish you luck in dealing with your new charge.”

“Thank you,” she said stiffly, rising to her feet. Formally, she bowed, “I’ll leave you to your business, Khatun.”

Her little brother said nothing, but she felt his stare rest on her back as she left his yurt. She wasn’t in the right frame of mind to return home, even if it meant missing the morning meal with her family – she didn’t want to scare Aza, by storming back in a black rage. No. She’ll go hunting. Sharpen her claws in preparation for her hunting trip on Onokoro on the next dark moon.

She puffed at her fringe in open frustration. Khatun Amal’s words had hit too close to home, though. There was a part of her, that knew she was filling in a still aching hole from her son’s abrupt departure – but she would be careful.

Aza was not her lost, little Tiger, even if a small, selfish part of her wished it with all her heart. He could certainly be something else though, something just as loved, something he needed and deserved.  

What about… her little Coeurl…? Yes, yes, that sounded just right.

Chapter Text

Chagur was as old as dirt.

At least, that’s how Atani’s cheeky daughter would describe her, but Chagur thought it apt enough. She had seen almost four generations pass through the Borlaaq and Iriq tribes, had been there for every drought, every blizzard, every hardship and every raid that tried them for the past eighty years. There was very little she hadn’t seen – as the old saying went, there was nothing new under the Dawn Father’s gaze, it has all been done before.

But there were uncommon things that took her off guard, and having the quiet, gentle Aruci depositing a cat boy in her yurt ranked fairly highly up there.

“What’s this?” she asked, when the cat boy sat, still and silent and wary, before her squat table. Aruci was kneeling beside him, and on the cat boy’s other side, Bluebird was standing at his shoulder like she was a guard dog overlooking a vulnerable karakul. Atani’s daughter indeed. Quick to get attached, and just as quick to anger.

“This is Aza, Chagur,” Aruci said in a softer tone as usual, like he was in the presence of an easily spooked animal, “We have given him shelter, in thanks for saving Bluebird for slavers, but he has… injuries that need tending to.”

“Slavers, huh?” Chagur harrumphed, not surprised in the slightest. It was a miracle no one tried to snatch her sooner, with how she romped about everywhere, “He doesn’t look too injured to me.”

The cat boy ducked his head low. He looked a little strange to Chagur, with his Baras-like ears and a soft, gentle face – nothing like the sharp, angular features of an Au Ra man. His skin was dark, a pale brown colour, contrasting with his dark blond hair. His eyes were the oddest things though – bright yellow and slitted, like that of a predator, framed with thick, dark eyelashes. He was very pretty – would grow up to be very beautiful, Chagur was sure – but he was runtish. He was wearing what looked like Atani’s old clothes – probably saved for Bluebird when she was older – and they looked big on him, despite him being a man! Or a boy, in this case. She wasn’t sure how big the cat-people grew.

But he looked… hm. Well-ish? He wasn’t bleeding anywhere, though…

“Boy, roll up those sleeves of yours,” she ordered, ignoring Aruci’s frown at her curt tone.

The cat-boy practically scrambled to obey, rolling the almost too-long sleeves up. His wrists were pink and scraped raw, peppered with dark scabbing and the beginnings of infected wounds. Chagur lived long enough to recognise what those were from.

“Hmph, shackles…” Chagur grumbled, staring at the wrists for several more seconds, “You a slave, boy?”

Something dark flickered across the boy’s face, ugly and vicious – but he said nothing. He lowered his sleeves and bowed his head, his fingers curling tight against his thighs. Chagur practically saw him crush down his burst of rage with an experience that was no doubt beaten into him. Chagur recognised all those signs. Slaves were not something unique to those savages in Kugane and Yanxia.

“He’s not a slave!” Bluebird snapped, “He’s free and stuff now, you old ha-”

“Bluebird,” Aruci said sharply. Bluebird huffed and fluffed up like a little bird, brimming with self-righteous anger. Definitely Atani’s child. Chagur ignored her.

“Chagur,” Aruci continued, his voice losing none of its sharpness. People always seemed to think gentle meant weak, but Chagur wasn’t a fool. Aruci could be just as fearsome as his wife when he felt like his own were being threatened or bullied, “Aza is free, like Bluebird said. He’s a friend and honoured guest-”

“Yes, yes, I know, boy. Don’t start climbing onto your pony,” Chagur dismissed. She mostly did it to see the boy’s reaction, and she was satisfied. There was still a fire in him, spluttering embers, maybe, but a fire nevertheless. Chagur knew – had seen, many ex-slaves and survivors simply wither away, simply lie down and give up, when that fire was extinguished. It happened to Ibakha. It happened to plenty of others before her.

It might happen to this cat-boy too – but he had a fighting chance to be something more, at least.  

“Well, I have my work cut out for me, hm?” Chagur wheezed out a laugh, amused at how her guests were in varying states of irritation. She leveraged herself off her cushion, her knees clicking and old pains throbbing up her thin, brittle bones. But she ignored it. “Come on, boy, over here now. Let Old Chagur look at your ills.”

The cat-boy hesitated, but Chagur didn’t wait for him. She hobbled to the otherwise of her yurt, where she received her call-in patients. It had a heavy, cloth curtain she could pull aside for privacy – Borlaaq and Iriq weren’t body-shy, but she got annoyed if people began looking over her shoulder while waiting for her services. Everyone in this camp were nosy buggers, and if she was a decade younger she’d remind them just how hard she could whack shins with her cane to beat that trait out of them.

“It’s okay, Aza,” she heard Bluebird mutter behind her, “She’s old and crusty, but she’s okay. Sometimes. When she’s not being mean old hag.”

“I’m old, not deaf, brat!” she barked over her shoulder, and almost cackled when she saw Bluebird practically jump a foot in the air. Her horns weren’t dull from age!

“Bluebird…” Aruci sighed, then softened his voice, “But she’s right, about Chagur being fine. If you want, we can stay with you.”

Chagur didn’t hear the cat-boy’s reply, but by the time she had reached her healing box and pulled out the medicines she needed, the cat-boy and Bluebird had walked over. The heavy curtain hid them from the rest of the yurt, and Aruci was nowhere to be seen.

“Nervous of Aruci, are you?” Chagur questioned and pointed a gnarled finger at the single bedroll that occupied this private space, “Sit on there, boy, go on, go on. Old Chagur won’t bite. Strip, too.”

The cat-boy looked briefly alarmed at the command, but he looked at Bluebird, who gave him an encouraging nod, and he slowly shuffled to the bedroll. She waited impatiently for him to wriggle out of his too big clothes, dispassionately taking in his scrawny, underfed, bruised body.

Handprint bruises on his arms, his legs, and his hips. The ones on his arms were to restrain, and fairly dark, very recent – but the others – they were mottled green and yellow, old, probably over a week or two, and they were consistent with rough intercourse. Chagur had seen it before, on Ibakha, and other women and men who suffered the same. Cat-boy also had very distinct scars behind his knees, and Chagur had seen those too – usually on old Buduga defectors, who managed to fight their way through their indoctrination and crawl back to their tribe on ruined, half-rotten legs.

Curious, Chagur set her medicine vials down and reached out. The boy flinched but held in place, and Bluebird practically glared a hole in the side of her head. Chagur ignored the tiny bird, grasping the cat-boy’s arm and forcing him to straighten it out.

Inside of his elbows were clear of scarring. So, just his knees got that particular punishment, hm?

Which… wouldn’t be seen often, and if the boy was a sex-slave, then his master wouldn’t really care about how the back of his knees looked. He would care about the front, and Chagur noticed, aside from the bruising on his arms, his chest and shoulders and face were utterly free from blemish. A slave who deserved a punishment as extreme as cutting the ligaments of his knees would have more scars – implies defiance, implies needing the spirit crushed out of him. There was none of that. A normal, manual labour slave would be whipped, or beaten – but this one…

“Hmm…” Chagur let go of his arm, ignored how the boy immediately tucked his arms in close, as if to deter any further grabbing. Passive defiance. Good.

“You look a bit feverish,” Chagur said, picking up a vial she set down, “Here. Drink this.”

The cat-boy paused, but this time he didn’t look at Bluebird for confirmation. This time he chose for himself, and slowly reached out, taking it. Chagur watched him with heavy-lidded eyes as he warily drank the medicine – and almost spat it back out.

“Erk- that…” the boy spoke for the first time, half-coughing and scrunching his nose up comically.

“Yeah, they’re gross. I told you,” Bluebird sniggered, clearly finding the whole thing amusing, “But they work!”

“Hmph. Kids these days just don’t have any taste,” Chagur mock-harrumphed. Truth be told, she could easily soften the bitter, ugly taste, but she liked watching people gag and scrunch their faces, so she didn’t. An old woman needed to get her kicks somehow, “Now turn around. Let me get a look at you.”

Still reeling from the taste, the boy did as he was told without hesitating this time. In fact, he seemed more relaxed than when he first came in. Comfortable around females, hm? Well, this check up was simply getting more and more depressing.

Chagur poked at the boy’s back, seeing that it was utterly smooth and clear of scars. Definitely a pleasure-slave – if not for regular sex, then one to simply look at and admire. She eyed how the spine transitioned into the tail though, noting that the limb was sleeker compared to an Au Ra’s – and covered in long, shaggy, yet pleasantly silky looking fur. There were thin, irregular scars near its base. Unintentional. Did they shave his fur? He must’ve struggled or thrashed his tail around when they did it.

“Okay, turn back round,” she ordered, waiting until the boy was facing her again before asking, “Any burning when you piss? Any strange rashes and the like down there?”

The boy just blinked at her, clearly taken aback by her frank questioning – but Bluebird mistook it for confusion. She leaned in and whispered, sotto voce, “She’s asking if you got the dirty dick disease.”

“Stop calling it dirty dick disease,” Chagur said flatly, “And he knows what I meant, brat.”

“No, I don’t have… that stuff,” the boy rasped, like he was unused to talking – or had recently spent a lot of time screaming, “Master alwa- he,” the boy stopped, flexed his fingers for a moment as he stared fixedly into the distance before continuing, “We were, always checked. For… for that.”

“Hmm…” Chagur guessed the boy had a fancy master. How fortunate, in this case, “Lucky. Now, let me listen to you breathe. You sound like you half the desert in those lungs of yours.”

The boy suffered her ministrations in silence, but Chagur was overall pleased. She had seen this all before – though the cat-boy thing was new, which was nice – and she knew this would turn out fine. Oh, it’d be terrible and hard and horrible, a long slog of a journey for the boy, and she’d probably be nothing but bones by the time he grew out of his pains, but… 

It’d be fine in the end. She’s seen this before.

 


 

Aruci was mildly dismayed when Bluebird returned with Chagur’s medical verdict on the boy: underfed, feverish and suffering from the beginnings of a chest infection.

Chest infections were serious things on the Steppe – they were more common in the summer, where the manure from the animals dried out and mixed in with the sandy soil of the Steppe. When whipped up by the winds, this mixture could enter the lungs and cause extreme irritation. In a healthy individual, this was fine – they would have a cough for a week and be perfectly functional. For someone already suffering from a chest infection, and weakened by poor diet or other sickness, it could cause fatal complications.

Chagur had plenty of medicines and the like to treat the infection at least – Aruci and Atani would just have to keep a very close eye on the boy’s health.

It explained why he was nodding off so much. Even now, sitting at their table for morning meal, Aza looked ready to doze off into his bowl. Then again, he apparently had some of Chagur’s medicine, which was notorious for knocking a man three times his size into a deep sleep, so it was a miracle he was still conscious, really.

“Try this,” Bluebird was saying to the drowsy boy, pushing a cup of tea into his hands. Aza blinked at it curiously, taking in its pale, off-white colour.

“It’s tea,” Aruci told him, “We call it suutei tsai. I believe the Hingans call it Azim salty tea, though.”

“They call it ‘acquired taste’,” Bluebird said, sounding amused, “They have their tea differently. It’s all a weird green colour, or dark.”

“Mm…” Aza looked uncertain of the drink in his hands, but he lifted it up and gave it an experimental sip. His face… did a very interesting expression, like he wasn’t quite sure if he liked it or not.

Bluebird giggled at the look, “You look like you’re going to sneeze!”

“It’s, um, interesting…” Aza said hesitantly, now looking worried like he’d done a grave insult somehow, “I’ll try it again.”

“Don’t force yourself if you don’t like it,” Aruci said, “Try the Bantan.”

The Bantan was something one normally gave to young children, but Aruci thought it appropriate for Aza. If the boy hadn’t eaten regularly, or in a while, then giving him something too hearty or heavy would make him ill. It was a soup made with flour lumps and meat – inoffensive to taste in case Miqo’te had different likes and dislikes. He was assuming they were predominantly meat-eaters, though, judging by the boy’s very sharp canines.

Aza set the cup aside and prodded the soup uncertainly with his spoon. Bluebird turned to her own meal – soup with meat and fried noodles, something a bit heartier – but was keeping an eye on him. They couldn’t force him to eat, but Aruci hoped he would try at least a few bites. The boy needed something in him if he was to fight off his illness – plus Atani would bury him in the Steppes if she learned he let him go to bed with an empty stomach.

But, thankfully, Aza started to eat it. It was slow and somewhat unenthusiastic, but he managed to get through almost two thirds of the bowl by the time he set his spoon down. By then Bluebird and himself had finished their own meals and their cups of tea.

“Feel better?” Bluebird asked him. Aza did look like he had a bit more colour to his cheeks, a bit livelier.

“Mm… sleepy now…” the boy mumbled, lifting a hand to rub at his eyes.

“You’re always sleepy,” Bluebird teased him, “You slept on the way here, you dozed off during wash time, and you fell asleep at Chagur’s.”

Aza squirmed a little, his drowsiness evaporating into mild worry, “I’m sor-”

“It’s fine,” Aruci interrupted, giving Bluebird a pointed look. His daughter pouted, “Sleep as much as you want. It’s the fastest way to get better. Bluebird, help him set his bed out.”

“Okaaaay…” Bluebird climbed to her feet, and reached down to tug Aza up as well, “C’mon, Sleepy boy. I’ll let you borrow some of my pillows so you can have a big ol’ nest going on.”

“But…” Aza protested weakly, but Bluebird wasn’t having it. Aruci watched as his daughter hustled the drowsy Miqo’te to their sleeping area, helping pull out his bedroll with the furs and making it as comfortable for him. Aruci left her to it.

He cleared up the table, and he stepped outside to properly wash the bowls – almost walking straight into Atani in the process.

“Oh!” Atani did a cute little hop to avoid him, almost overbalancing when the Gedan corpse slung over her shoulders nearly pulled her down, “Oh,” she repeated, when she saw the bowls and cups in his hands, “I missed the meal.”

“Sorry, Atani,” Aruci said, feeling guilty as his wife pouted at this, “I thought you would be gone until noon.”

“It’s fine,” Atani sighed, shrugging the Gedan off of her shoulders and next to the entrance of their yurt, “How is our little Coeurl settling in?”

“Coeurl?”

“Aza,” Atani tutted, shooting him a smile, “Aruci, you’re not that dim.”

“I would have thought you’d call him kitten,” Aruci admitted, “He’s very… timid.”

“He just needs a confidence boost,” Atani said dismissively, then continued; “I’ve managed to get the Khatun’s approval for him to stay. Expect some of elders to grumble and make a fuss about it.”

Aruci sighed, already dreading the thought. While Atani’s reputation would mean it wouldn’t go beyond grumbling, it was still irritated to deal with the elders when they felt slighted or annoyed by something. They seemed to think his agreeable nature meant he was open to them complaining about his wife.

“Did he eat well?” Atani asked, nodding at the bowl.

“Well enough,” Aruci grimaced, “He’s ill, currently. Chagur says he has an infection of the lungs and a fever. He’s resting now.”

Atani’s expression darkened – but like clouds clearing before the sun, it vanished quickly. She glanced at their yurt with a worried look, “Did Chagur notice anything else? There are… sicknesses… that people can pick up from…”

“Chagur says he’s clean,” Aruci assured her – then hesitated. Bluebird had also told him of another disturbing fact that both she and Chagur had picked up on, and he knew Atani would react poorly to it. But she’d notice eventually, if the scars were as obvious as they said they were… “As well, he… he has some scars.”

Atani looked at him, her mouth set into a thin line, “Oh? What kind?”

“…like the sort the Budugu inflict,” he murmured in quiet discomfort. They knew all too well of those wounds, “His previous… owner… had severed the ligaments in his knees repeatedly, as punishment for his escape attempts. Chagur is convinced there is no lasting damage, though, outside of aches in winter times.”

Atani took a very deep, very long breath.

“Okay,” she said simply, her expression very neutral, “Aruci, I will take the next trip to Onokoro.”

Aruci nodded, more than happy to concede that. Atani would inflict a punishment far more terrible than he could on any slavers she managed to get her hands on, “Do you need to go hunting again, light of my life?”

“If I did, there wouldn’t be any Gedan left on the Steppes,” Atani joked in a rough voice, but she smiled – wry and pained. “No, I think I’ll make use of what I have now. I should make something nice for our little Coeurl…”

“Shoes, perhaps?” Aruci suggested. They really didn’t have anything properly sized for the Miqo’te – he was using Atani’s old clothing, after all, but the shoes seemed more important than clothes he could easily grow into. “His feet are a bit softer than ours.”

“Hmm… haven’t made those in a while, but I’ll give it a try,” Atani gave him a smile that was warmer, and she bent down to heave the Gedan back up again, “I’ll do this away from the yurt. Bluebird told me he became queasy at the sight of blood. No need to make him fret if he wandered out and saw this thing skinned.”

Aruci nodded, “Should I expect you for noon?”

“Mmhm, but don’t wake Coeurl if he’s sleeping still. I’ll check up on him tonight.”

“Alright,” Aruci said, and watched his wife walk away with her Gedan. She was upset, but the busywork of crafting would pull her out of her brooding thoughts, he knew. He made a note to make her favourite treat for noon meal, though, just to perk her up a little. Perhaps he should make something sweet too, for Aza. The boy seemed to like the sweeter things over the salty. 

Aruci sighed. If only such pains and sadness could be easily cured with good, filling meals. Shaking such thoughts from his head, he continued on to wash out the bowls and cups.

 


 

Aza was back in Master’s bed but this time he was the one on top.

He was on Master’s stomach and his hands were hot and wet and red and Master was a mess. He was a handsome, pretty man – so people kept saying – with long, silky black hair – long hair that Aza hated because it would tickle his face, his shoulders, when he leaned over him, was pressing him down, smothering him, suffocating him, touching but it was short now. Hacked pieces of black sprinkled the red cushion and silken sheets and clinging to the wetness on his fingers and

Aza laughed, soft and breathless, his hands were shaking, wet and clutched tight around the leather of the knife’s hilt – the edges of its wrapping cut into his palms and his hands slipped when he pulled – it was stuck fast in- in somewhere. The chest. Everything was an open mess. Master was no longer pretty. Master was no longer going to push him down. Aza was. Aza was. He was.

The smell was overpowering though and he felt like his bones were going to vibrate out of his body. Master was dead – oh, how could he?! Something in him wailed. How could he?! He killed Master! He was- he’d be punished for this. But. But. But! He did it! He killed him! He was free! He was. He was. He was.

The knife came out with a wet noise- it was visceral – it travelled straight to his gut and he abruptly heaved, the smell suddenly too much and – it wasn’t Master, mutilated and red and dead under him, it was Ala, and he remembered- no, she was stabbed once, neat and clean, in the breastbone, but here she was- it was like Master and Aza’s hands were on the knife, and she was still alive, gurgling through the gash in her throat, eyes wide and horrified and-

And he. He was there. Sitting on her. His hands were wet and red and warm. The knife was held between them.

“Help me, help me, help me,” sister was saying.

Yes, he needed to help her.

There was only one way to help her. Aza was free but she wasn’t yet.

So, he brought the knife down and-

-and he was upright and awake before he realised, hands clasped over his mouth as he fought down the sudden bile rising up in his throat, huddling over and keening over and over when the memory crushed itself right in the front of his mind and he remembered- remembered- remembered-

“Shhh, shh, shhhh…” Someone was hushing him, puncturing that hot, horrified haze that made him feel nauseous to the bone. Someone was touching his hair, petting it, and he felt- like- not Master- the hand was too slim and not- too gentle for master-

“It’s alright, you’re safe…” A low, female voice murmured to him, older – Mom? For a moment, he thought Mom, and he cried, he cried into his hands, and Mom pulled him into her arms and held him and for a moment- a moment- he thought he was home, that it was a horrible nightmare that never happened, that Ala was alive and he hadn’t- he didn’t- he didn’t-

“It’s alright, my little Coeurl…” Mom whispered to him, petting his hair, right behind his ears, “No one will hurt you ever again. So, sleep, and rest… I’ll protect you…”

And Aza, exhausted and relieved, did as he was told.  

Chapter Text

It took five minutes to quiet her little Coeurl down.

Aza’s breathing was unsteady, edging close to a coughing fit, and Atani kept her grip loose around him, her fingers digging into his soft hair and rubbing behind his ears. The gentle touch seemed to work, the boy’s violent trembling easing. The poor thing was curled up tight, his ears pinned back and his tail fluffed out, like a cowering dog waiting to be struck. It made Atani want to break something.

But she compartmentalised that rage. This wasn’t the time for it.

“Rest, my little Coeurl…” she murmured, rocking them back and forth. It was just them in the yurt, Aruci tending to their livestock, Bluebird out with her friends when she grew bored of watching ‘Crazy Boy snore’. It was for the best. Aruci would fret, the poor thing, and Bluebird wouldn’t understand the boy’s tears, only that he cried after a bad dream. Her daughter can sometimes take teasing too far, “You’re safe, you’re safe…”

“I-I’m, s-sorry,” her little Coeurl hiccupped into his hands, his voice wretched and pained, “I’m- I’m sorry, I-I didn’t mean- I didn’t-”

“Shh…” Atani squeezed him gently, her heart breaking when the boy let out a quiet noise that sounded like it belonged to a wounded animal. A low, keening noise of mindless misery. No child should make that noise. “There’s nothing to apologise for-”

“I-I killed- killed…” Aza interrupted her, curling up even tighter, voice muffled and quiet behind his shaking hands, “I f-failed- and- I didn’t…”

Atani frowned, confused. He killed… his captors? The slavers? Why would he be upset over that? Failed what?

“Coeurl?” she prompted as gently as she could when the boy quietened, his breathing loud and ragged, “What did you fail?”

Aza didn’t reply. His breaths hitched with tears, and Atani let her curiosity fade away. She gently rubbed her thumb behind his ear, shifting her weight to get more comfortable – and began to sing a gentle lullaby. Her voice was terrible, honestly, but her husband would do this whenever she woke up from bad dreams and it always helped. Her best would have to do.

“Do not fear,” she hummed, “It is nothing but a leaf, beating, beating on the door… do not fear, only a small wave, murmurs, murmurs on the seashore…” 

She didn’t know if it helped, but it was all she could do right now. It would have to be enough.

 


 

“So, what’s this cat-boy thing you dragged home, Bluebird?”

Bluebird looked up from where she was idly whittling a flute from a discarded piece of lumber. Khudus was standing before her, her ‘neighbour’ in that he lived in the yurt next to theirs and had the gall to be born on the same day as her. Their parents decided this was the Gods’ way of saying they were destined to share the same fate, or some rubbish like that, and kept throwing each other together for everything.

Well, it certainly fostered some feelings between them – that being resentment, irritation and pure, hot-blooded rivalry. Bluebird locked horns with that boneheaded idiot more times than she could count – sometimes literally! Though, now that he was hitting his growth spurt, he was too tall for her to headbutt anymore. Shame.

“He’s a Miqo’te,” Bluebird sniffed, turning back to her whittling. Aza needed a hobby that wasn’t being stressed out, and since he was squeamish with blood, she guessed he’d have to start doing the usual manly stuff, like music playing or crafting. The flute seemed like a nice, safe place to start, “And his name’s Aza. He’s my new brother.”

Khudus was clearly taken aback by that because he went completely silent for a good, few long seconds, Then; 

“Your Mom fucked a Baras?”

Bluebird lifted her head and gave him the flattest stare she could muster.

“Khudus,” she told him, “I’m holding a knife right now.”

Khudus shifted awkwardly, eyeing the sharp carving knife in her hand with a healthy amount of wariness. He had scars where Bluebird got lucky with a few playful stabs – and vice versa. “I was joking, of course… um, so, where did you find him?”

Bluebird sighed and let her project rest in her lap. Khudus looked genuinely curious – so she gestured for him to sit. They were in the communal area – just a bunch of overturned, old crates and logs around the fire pits for people to sit and talk, or sit alone and craft, like she was doing. There was an actual part of camp set aside for crafting, but it was usually for adults and for stuff they were going to trade or use, so Bluebird wasn’t allowed to go there, even though she was really good at crafting. Hmph.

Khudus plonked his lanky frame down on the log opposite her. He may’ve hit his growth spurt, but it wasn’t being kind to him currently. He looked like a too skinny tree that hadn’t quite figured out which way its branches were going to grow yet.

“We found him in the Ruby Sea,” Bluebird said, gesturing vaguely with her knife, “He, um, helped me, when a bunch of slavers tried snatching me.”

“Slavers?” Khudus looked interested, “Were they ugly?”

“Ugh, yeah,” Bluebird made a face, “One of them had the ugliest face ever, all covered in scars and stuff.”

“Did you cry?” Khudus asked slyly, “You’re pretty short. I bet they just picked you up and carried you off.”

Bluebird bristled because, well, this was pretty much what happened, but like hell she’d let Khudus know that. She jabbed her knife in his direction, “Excuse you, I didn’t cry! I bit them! The ugly one! All over his hands!”

“Ohhh, you’re so fierce, Bluebird~” Khudus mocked, laughing when Bluebird irritably kicked dirt at him.

“Shut up!” Bluebird sulked. The thing was, she was really annoyed at how the whole slavers thing panned out. Mommy made sure she knew how to defend herself against snatchers, after her… brother. But those slavers were just creepily experienced in pouncing on kids. She hadn’t been able to do anything but bite them, but then Aza swooped in and- and even though he was terrified and squeamish, he strangled one with his own shackles and stabbed the other with her own knife! That was- that was badass, and Bluebird was annoyed she couldn’t claim any of that.

“…Aza killed them both, by himself,” she admitted grudgingly. She was grateful to him… but she could still be annoyed at how cool he’d been, even if he ruined it by going all weird and crazy, “Strangled the ugly one and stabbed the tall one.”

“Him? But he’s… a runt,” Khudus scrunched his nose up, “I saw him, when you two were washing up. He was all skinny and timid and… I thought he was a girl at first, with how small he was…”

“He’s not a girl,” Bluebird huffed wryly, “Cat-bo- uh, Miqo’tes, they grow up different. The men are, um, small and pretty looking.”

“Hmm…” Khudus thought about this, “So, he’s as tall as he’s going to get?”

Bluebird had no idea, “Uh, yeah, sure.”

“That’s kind of… cute,” Khudus sniggered, “You got yourself a killer kitten, Bluebird. What’s your Mom calling him? Kitty? Cub?”

Bluebird frowned, feeling oddly prickly at Khudus being, well, Khudus. She didn’t mind if he mocked her, but Aza… well, it kind of felt like kicking a puppy. He couldn’t really dish it back out against Khudus, he’d just take it because he’d think he would have to, and that wasn’t… well, it wasn’t really funny.

“She’s calling him Coeurl,” Bluebird said, still frowning, “And don’t make fun of him, Khudus.”

Khudus glanced at her, “Hm? Why not? If he’s a cold-blooded killer he can take a bit of mocking, huh?”

Bluebird didn’t immediately answer. She could just say ‘because he was a slave and bad stuff happened to him’ but, she didn’t know. It didn’t feel right to blurt it out to the whole tribe. Everyone would find out eventually, because Aza was clearly nuts in a way that was very distinct, but… it, well, they’d find out on their own, right? Aza didn’t need everyone staring at him in open pity right from the start. He was crazy but he wasn’t – he wasn’t a weak baby, even if he acted like it from time to time. She still remembered how fucking terrifying he’d been when he just straight up stabbed that woman, cold-faced, in the gut, without exerting much effort, when he stared right through her as he walked towards her, bloodied and clutching that knife – Bluebird honestly hadn’t known if he was going to stab her or not then.

She fiddled with her knife, unsure, “He’s, um… he’s not… okay. Uh, well. You know.”

Khudus stared at her blankly, “Huh? He’s what… stupid?”

No,” Bluebird snapped – then sighed, “He’s- he’s like, um, Auntie Ibakha.”

“…oh,” Khudus shifted uncomfortably, “So he’s, all weird?”

“Yeah. He, doesn’t like people touching him and… he’s scared of adults,” Bluebird paused, then amended, “Uh, men. He doesn’t like men.”

“Would he dislike me?”

Bluebird eyed Khudus, noting that the boy looked genuinely put out. He may be an idiot who ran his mouth and drove her absolutely crazy… but he was an okay guy, when he felt like it. He probably wanted to make friends with the weird cat-boy, so to be told that said cat-boy would probably be terrified of him…

“I think you’d be okay,” she said slowly. Khudus was tall, but he was maybe only a few inches bigger than Aza? He had a baby-face too, and his facial scales hadn’t fully grown in yet either, so… yeah, Aza should be fine with him. So long as Khudus didn’t do anything weird. “Just don’t, touch him without warning or, uh, get in his personal space.”

“Introduce me,” Khudus asked her, “He must like you if he stabbed someone for you.”

Privately, Bluebird thought he just hated the slavers so much he temporarily lost his mind, but she kept that to herself. Aza had latched onto her – but in a way that a lost puppy would follow the first person to feed it. He clearly didn’t know what to do with himself, and just followed them home because… well, what else did he have? He would’ve sat on that beach until he died of thirst, probably, if she hadn’t thought to take him with her.

“Okay, we’ll go see him now,” Bluebird said, pocketing her half-done flute and hooking her knife onto her belt, “But he is ill, so, if he’s sleeping we’ll have to leave him alone.”

“Ill already? Sounds pretty delicate.”

“He’s hurt,” Bluebird huffed, the pair of them making their slow way to her yurt, “Like, we went to see Chagur, and he had bruises all over him – like people had grabbed him. In weird spots too, like his inner thighs and stuff, and Chagur asked if he had the dirty dick disease. Aza said his- uh, well, he said he didn’t, but, y’know. Weird questions. He’s got a cough too, or something.”

Khudus – missed a step. It was slight, but Bluebird noticed it, and Khudus had an odd look on his face, “She… asked that?”

“Yeah?” Bluebird squinted at him, “What’s wrong? You need to poo?”

“No…” Khudus looked troubled, but he shook it off, “No, uh, I just thought of something. Um, so! This cat-boy, Aza, what’s he like?”

Bluebird knew a topic change when she saw one, but after one suspicious squint, she went with it. Khudus was weird, she knew that. He probably just thought of something dumb, “He’s okay, when he’s not being all…” she made a vague gesture, “Tense. I bet if you put stones up his butt, he’d poop out a diamond.”

Khudus wrinkled his nose, “Gross.”

They chatted easily as they made their way to the yurt, Bluebird imparting what little she knew about Aza without really giving away the whole ‘he was a slave’ thing just yet. They ducked into the yurt when they reached it, and Bluebird saw that Daddy was out, and Mommy was sitting at the table with a cup of what smelled like strong alcohol, scowling at the far wall. A quick glance told her Aza was still asleep if the lump under the furs were anything to go by.

“Uh, Mommy?” Bluebird asked hesitantly, “What’s wrong?”

Mommy snapped out of whatever dark thoughts had gripped her, and turned a bright smile to her and Khudus, “Oh, Bluebird and Khudus… were you hoping to play with Aza?”

Bluebird made a face. ‘Play’ made it sound like they were babies, honestly, “Khudus wanted to meet him. Is he still asleep?”

“Yes,” Mommy’s expression darkened briefly. She was angry about something – she was always scary when she was angry, like a whole other person that Bluebird wasn’t sure she wanted to properly meet, “He’s really ill, so… he’ll have to play with you another time.”

“Aw,” Khudus mumbled, and Bluebird thwacked him with her tail.

“Okay,” Bluebird said much more maturely, “Well, um, if he wakes up and feels up for walking around, we’ll be by the fire pits.”

“I’ll walk him over,” Mommy promised, but her smile looked a little tight.

Bluebird decided to leave her. Giving her space was always the best thing when she got in these moods – maybe uncle -sorry, maybe the Khatun said something she didn’t like. He was one of the very few people who could easily get under Mommy’s skin. Or maybe Aza did something to upset her, though who knew what, since he’s just been sleeping all day like a pregnant cow. Maybe that’s what got her all upset? Mommy clearly wanted to fuss, and Aza was just snoring the day away.

“Your Mom is scary when she’s mad,” Khudus whispered to her as they left.

“She’ll calm down in a bit,” Bluebird said dismissively, “Let’s go bother Togene instead. I heard she’s got some new funny Oronir stories.”

“Ugh, those stuck ups?” Khudus stuck out his tongue, “What was she doing with them?”

“Togene wants an Oronir baby,” Bluebird said, smug about knowing some gossip before Khudus, “So she went over there, y’know, to lift her tail for them and-”

“Ew, stop, please,” Khudus groaned, “I don’t want to imagine that!” 

Bluebird cackled, and they continued on, making dirty jokes as they hunted down Togene. Still, in the back of Bluebird’s mind, she worried. Just what had gotten Mommy so upset? 

 


 

Aza woke up feeling somehow worse.

He had a vague, groggy memory of Mom singing to him, but… that couldn’t be right. He dismissed the bittersweet memory as just a wishful dream, and muffled a cough when his throat caught unpleasantly. His chest ached, like tiny, hot needles were jamming into his lungs, and it made his stomach roll nauseously. The stew thing he had earlier threatened to crawl back up, and he swallowed it down with difficulty, refusing to show such ungratefulness. They made him a meal out of the kindness of their hearts and the first thing his body tries to do the moment he wakes up is vomit it back up. Ungrateful. No, he needed to… they might get mad, or upset, so… he just needed to keep it down.

He felt so ill though.

It was like, now that he was in a place where he wasn’t constantly having to watch and expect someone to invade his personal space or hurt him, his body decided this was the perfect time to just crumble. His body ached, his knees hurt, his lungs burned, his head felt stuffed full of cotton and he was nauseous and woozy and hurt and he tried, desperately, to go back to sleep but- but now that he was awake…

He groaned, quietly, into his pillow, his fringe sticking to his sweaty forehead. The nice, second-hand clothes Aruci gave him for bed were damp with sweat, and he almost cringed at the – Master would call him disgusting, for being so sweaty. ‘Only animals sweat like this’, he’d say, and his nausea spiked, abruptly, fear a cold stab through his gut at the thought of his anno-

No. He’s dead. He can be sweaty. It’s- its okay.

He had to tell himself this several times, but the fear remained. The nausea remained.

“Coeurl?” Atani’s voice drifted through his uncomfortable haze, “Are you awake?”

“Mmn…” he groaned, flinching when he felt fingers brush against his forehead. It was Atani, he told himself. She was… okay. She was a woman, for one, so she was fine. Safe. Okay. It was okay.

“Shh, shh, it’s fine,” Atani murmured, pressing the back of her hand against his forehead, “It’s just me. Hmm… your fever has risen…”

Aza looked up at her from beneath his eyelashes, his vision a little blurry. The yurt was dimly lit, and Atani’s face was too much in shadow for him to clearly make out. It made his heart flutter a bit more, an irrational nervousness shooting through him and making his horribly queasy stomach turn practically inside out- oh, no, he was gonna-!

“M’sg’n’sick,” he managed to force out, incoherent and-

Atani quickly hauled him upright, and the sudden move was the last push his touchy stomach needed. He heaved just as something was pushed into his hands, and the next, miserable minutes was spent him retching and coughing over his lap, his stomach clenching painfully tight as it forced up everything he had eaten and drunk since arriving here. It left him trembling and shaking and hurting, tears stinging his eyes as he pathetically dry-heaved hard enough that it hurt.

“That’s it, let it all out,” Atani was murmuring, rubbing his back. It took a few, sluggish, dazed seconds for Aza to realise he was clutching some sort of bucket close to him – the smell rising from it almost sent him into another round of dry-heaving, “Today is not a good day for you, is it?”

Aza made a vague, pitiful noise, an instinctive worry puncturing through his misery. He was being an awful guest – he, he ate their food and vomited it back up, he kept falling asleep everywhere and- mooching off them and-

“But, you are at your limit. Your poor body has just had enough. It knows it can rest now,” Atani continued, her voice light. She didn’t sound angry that he just ungratefully vomited up the meal her husband had kindly served him. She took the sick bucket from him and coaxed him to lie back down. He felt clammy and woozy, so he didn’t resist. “Let me get you some water and ginger tea.”

Atani moved away, and Aza lied there, wondering when the reprisal was coming. Was there one coming?

“Here you are,” Atani returned, kneeling next to him and urging him back up. His stomach flopped unpleasantly, but he didn’t throw up again. The kind woman pressed a cup into his hands, smelling strong of something spicy, “This should settle your stomach, then drink this water. We’ll try something a bit lighter for food next time, alright?”

Aza clutched the cup, looking at Atani from beneath his fringe. The woman was smiling at him – she had a very pretty face, the sort Master would love, with short, dark hair and wicked looking horns. She looked like an older, sharper version of Bluebird.

“Sorry,” he croaked, his throat burning.

Atani tutted at him, “Don’t apologise. You’re ill. At least you managed to get it all in the bucket, hmm?”

Aza would’ve died or mortification if he sicked up on Atani. He did something like that once on one of Master’s… friends. Aza hadn’t been able to- to suppress his gag reflex and- he shuddered at the memory. Master had been furious. So furious.

Atani touched his elbow, making him flinch, “Coeurl… what are you thinking of?”

Aza’s throat closed up. There was no way he was discussing it, “Nothing,” he whispered.

Atani looked at him knowingly but didn’t press. She let the lie pass unpunished, “Then drink up. I promise you, this will make you feel better. I can drink a bit of it too, to show you?”

Aza hesitated, but lifted the cup up to take a decisive sip. This family had more than enough chances to drug him at this point. The tea was spicy and sharp on his tongue – but not unpleasant. It sat a bit heavy in his stomach, though, but at least it soothed his burning throat.

“There we go…” Atani hummed approvingly, “Bluebird came to see you earlier,” she said conversationally, “With a friend of hers, Khudus. He looks like a sapling and is a fine boy – a bit awkward, but he’s nice.”

Aza wasn’t sure about meeting anyone new, but if this ‘Khudus’ was a friend of Bluebird’s then… he must be a kid too, right? That was fine. Aza was fine with other kids, mostly. It was… the adults. The big ones. The ones who could press him down and… no. Not them. He didn’t want to meet anymore of them right now.

“If you feel up to it tomorrow, you can meet him?” Atani continued hopefully.

Aza looked at her. She was still smiling. She didn’t seem mad that he was an ungrateful liar. He shifted his weight. If she wanted it… it was the least he could do…

“Okay.”

“Good boy,” Atani praised him, “Now, drink every drop of that tea, and here’s your water,” she set another cup down on the floor next to the furs. “Get some more sleep. If you feel ready to be ill again, just say.”

Aza nodded slowly, and Atani got up and moved over to the other side of the yurt. It looked like she was busy doing something near the table with… leather. He couldn’t clearly see. It wasn’t his business to know anyway, despite his curiosity. He turned back to his assigned task of drinking this… ginger tea thing.

It was an okay task, at least, Aza thought. Even if he was still waiting for the shoe to drop. This was too good to be true, even if he felt miserably awful. There was a catch somewhere. Someone was going to want something, do something…

The looming sense of dread felt almost suffocating. He distracted himself with the tea and lied back down, shivering.

He wanted to believe this was good fortune, but… he didn’t deserve it. Something had to happen. He… he wanted something to happen.

But nothing did. He was warm and comfortable under the furs, the nausea in his stomach settling, and distantly able to hear Atani at work on her private project. It was comforting and… nice. He guiltily basked in it, even if he… didn’t deserve it.

Chapter Text

The second morning started the same as the first.

Aza woke up, groggy and confused and feeling awful, to the sound of someone whispering. He immediately identified it as Atani, and she sounded unhappy. That knocked away any lingering drowsiness, his body going still as his brain automatically assumed it was directed as him. Atani sounded close – practically leaning over him, and-

“-an’t believe Amal publicly announced it! He didn’t even try to be discreet, Aruci!”

“Atani…” Aruci sighed – he sounded further away, out of arm’s reach at least, and that helped to stifle the sickly burst of fear that rose, unbidden, in his stomach. Queasiness shot through him, followed very quickly by a cramp of sharp hunger, and Aza bit his bottom lip to stifle any noise, “He probably wanted to reduce any chances of… incidents.”

“By telling the whole tribe that my little Coeurl is-” Atani cut herself off, making a low, hissing noise like an agitated snake. It was such a Miqo’te noise that it confused Aza briefly, his ear twitching, “There are those who have stupid prejudices from- they will-”

“Calm, my light,” Aruci rumbled, his voice soothing and low. Even Aza found himself instinctively relaxing at the sound of it – before he tensed up again in alarm at unthinkingly dropping his guard, “Remember, who is the most feared warrior in the Iriq tribe?”

“…” The only thing Aza heard was Atani’s angry, short breathing. Then; “I am.”

“Exactly,” Aruci said warmly, “Love, no one will dare do anything to our little Coeurl. If not from fear of you, then definitely from fear of Bluebird.”

The tension in the air broke when Atani abruptly laughed, soft and bright, “That’s right. She can be a vindictive little demon!”

“I still remember when she left a nest of soldier ants in Dodai’s bedroll.”

“Ah, yes, I remember his squeals of pain with much fondness…” Atani sighed. A companionable silence lapsed between them, and Aza realised that his anxiety had ebbed away during their half-whispered conversation. They weren’t angry at him. They were angry at… ‘Amal’? He said something about him?

There was only one thing to say about him, really. Aza wasn’t sure how to feel about that, the whole tribe… knowing. He hadn’t met many of them, yet, but those that he did… they had pitied him and been kind, but Atani seemed to think the others wouldn’t be. There was a sliver of him that felt relieved. The hint of the expected punishment made him feel a little more secure in what was happening – even if his stomach twisted at the thought of old routine. Old routine was terrifying and awful – but comforting in its expectedness. 

“I wonder if I should wake him…” Atani sighed, shifting closer to him, “But, he needs his sleep, doesn’t he?”

“Chagur also said to make sure he’s fed and watered,” Aruci murmured, “Let’s rouse him for an hour at most. Let him wash and eat.”

“Mm… will he wash without Bluebird? I’m not sure he would be comfortable with us.”

“With me, you mean,” Aruci said wryly, a hint of sadness to his voice, “He’s comfortable with you, love. I can wash on my own later.”

“Nonsense,” Atani tutted, “I think he’s warming up to you. Slowly. Ah, a little.”

“Let’s not force him more than we should,” Aruci said, and there was the noise of him standing. He moved away, “I’ll make him something to eat. Hopefully it’ll agree with him.”

“I’m sure it was only the illness that made him throw up…!” Atani called after him consolingly, and Aza felt like the worst person in the world. He wanted to curl up into a tiny ball and disappear from the sheer shame from his ingratitude. Rationally, he knew, Aruci was kind and nice and not at all like the men but- whenever he looked at him he remembered and it didn’t matter what he thought rationally but- he was still awful. He… he should… he should try

So, Aza went through the process of feigning waking up. He had a lot of experience with this, having learned that if he pretended to sleep through his Master’s early-morning fumblings then he was generally left alone long enough for him to lose interest. It was strange to use it to catch someone’s attention this time, though his grogginess wasn’t fully feigned as he slowly pushed his furs back, blinking up at the yurt’s ceiling.

“Oh,” Atani leaned over him, smiling down at him apologetically, “Good morning, my little Coeurl! Did you sleep well?”

“Mm…” In the face of Atani’s warm cheer, Aza felt… weird. There was no building, looming sense of despairing dread suffocating him. There weren’t any aches in specific places that made him sick to his stomach. There was no grim expectation of having to do something humiliating and disgusting. He was just lying here, with no expectations of… anything, really. It was weird. He didn’t know what to do with that realisation.

“Coeurl?” Atani reached down, and he didn’t even flinch when she gently touched his forehead with the back of her fingers, “You’re still warm. Hm, maybe we should take you back to Chagur…”

That stirred Aza out of his blank daze, “N-No, I’m fine,” he mumbled, forcing himself to sit up. Atani rocked back to sit on her heels, and Aza looked about the yurt, that weird feeling still sitting in the pit of his stomach. The yurt was warmly lit, sunshine spilling through its open door. The camp’s hubbub was audible – livestock cries, people talking, shouting, stomping about with armour and crates – and Aruci was sitting at the far end, at the stove and this side of the yurt had the bedrolls, neatly folded up with its furs, tucked close against the wall of the yurt. There was a heavy smell of musk, fur and leather and…

It… reminded him, distantly… of home, back with Mom and Ala.

The weird feeling twisted with homesickness. The urge to cry suddenly swept over him – one he struggled to swallow down, but Atani still saw.

“What’s wrong?” she asked him, worry clear in her voice. She notably didn’t reach out to touch him this time, which he was thankful for because he suddenly felt- felt- something. This reminded him so much of home, and it hurt, badly, but at the same time it was comforting, and he was- was relieved that this wasn’t Mast- that man’s, home. Today could be whatever he wanted it to be. There was no routine to follow.

It was terrifying. It was amazing.  

“I…” Aza started, not sure how to even begin to verbalise this without sounded like a raving lunatic – but then, Atani and Bluebird and Aruci already thought he was crazy so… what pride did he even have left here? “I realise I… I can decide, what to do.”

Atani’s expression briefly went very neutral, before she smiled again – sadly, “Yes, you can.”

Aza sat in a state of numb shock. Aruci was still seated at the stove, but he was looking over – the yurt really wasn’t that big to even give the semblance of privacy. Aruci shared a quick look with Atani, and he could see they had some sort of silent conversation from that alone.

“What do you want to do today?” Atani asked him, her smile becoming brighter – encouraging, warmer, “Do you feel well enough to explore the camp?”

Aza thought about moving amongst all those people alone, and felt sick at the thought, “I… I don’t know.”

“I can come with you,” Atani hastened to add, “Aruci too. No one will hurt you with us nearby.”

“Mm…” Aza looked down at his hands. There was dirt under his fingernails, and he thought about how Master would’ve been disgusted by that. He felt a weird mix of fear and thrill. Fear because – an echo, of past pain from past displeasure, but thrill because – it didn’t matter anymore. He could have the dirtiest fingernails ever and it wouldn’t matter.

“I want to…” he tried the words out, could feel his heart hammer in his chest. He pushed through it. What did he want to do right now? Well, he still felt ill, but… he was also kind of gross, having sweated throughout the night and been sick and… so, what he wanted was… “I want to wash up.”

Atani lightly clapped her hands together, “Then you can. Do you want to go alone, my little Coeurl?”

“I…” No, he didn’t. He didn’t want to stand by the wash station, naked, by himself, but the thought of being naked with adults… no, he could- Atani was a woman, so, it should be fine. So, he could… “I-I can wash with… with you two.”

Aruci dropped the spoon he was stirring the pot with, and Atani shot him a smug ‘I-told-you-so’ look. Aza felt nervous, but he was determined to – with Atani there, at least, it should be fine. Aruci had plenty of opportunities to- to do things, and he never did it. Rational. Think, rational. He can do this. He can. He could choose what to do now and he chose this.

“Looks like cooking can wait, Aruci~” Atani teased him with a light laugh, and despite Aza’s nerves, he felt… like he did the right thing. Picked the right choice. 

It was a nice feeling.

 


 

“I can’t believe you bowed to Atani’s impulsiveness again.”

Amal fought the urge to roll his eyes at his advisor’s sour grumblings and just took a pointed sip of his milk tea. It was just after he did his public announcement of his sister’s decision, with all the pertinent details – everyone took it in stride, seemed amiable to it, despite Atani all but spitting fire at him for divulging ‘private details’, and his advisor, Chuluun, was in a right snit because he learnedabout the cat-boy at the same time as everyone else. Usually it was funny to rub his scales wrong, but this morning Chuluun was in rare form. It was exhausting to deal with.

“Who knows what kind of… diseases the cat-boy will bring,” Chuluun muttered, “Did Atani even have him checked?”

“Chagur did the examination,” Amal said, unruffled in the face of Chuluun’s attempt at scaremongering. The man was so high-maintenance, really, but he was an administrative genius when it came to the running of the tribe’s day-to-day affairs. Amal despised administration more than Chuluun annoyed him, so the man stayed. “The boy is clean of any ‘diseases’. Really, Chuluun, he’s a Miqo’te. A Spoken. You know this. He’s not some odd creature crawled out from the depths of the ocean for the sole purpose of terrorising you.”

“He might as well be,” Chuluun huffed, tugging at his scaled chin. Amal looked at him from beneath his eyelashes, not budging from his lazy slouch in his seat. Chuluun was very scrawny for an Au Ra. Lanky and skinny, with an unfortunate case of ‘Lizard-Skin’, a rare condition where an Au Ra’s scale to skin ratio was reversed. The only patch of pale skin visible was around the man’s dark eyes, nose and mouth – presumably his scalp too, if he ever shaved that thick mane he called hair. Everywhere else, with the exception of the inside of his joints and his, ah, private areas were all thick, dark scales.

It was a curious condition, unexplained with how randomly it cropped up in bloodlines, but unfortunate. Sufferers were deemed highly unattractive for breeding stock amongst the Borlaaq, and the scales that covered their finger joints made them clumsy and stiff, which meant they were poor crafters and hunters too for the Iriq. Chuluun managed carved his own place within the tribe, though, and Amal had grudging respect for him, even if his personality was something to be desired.

“You’re just annoyed that you were the last to know,” Amal said, smirking when Chuluun gave him a sour look, “There was a reason for that.”

“Oh?” Chuluun asked waspishly.

“You would’ve said something to Atani,” Amal said, “You would have tried to convince her to take the boy back to wherever she picked him up, before I made his acceptance official. Chuluun, she would have gutted you on the spot.”

Chuluun looked like he’d stuffed an entire salt block in his mouth, tugging harder at his scaled chin, “Khatun, even if she did… she cannot keep some strange, traumatised child she literally picked up off the ground.”

“Well, she can and has,” Amal said carelessly, looking down into his tea, “She sees Ajinai in him. He’s roughly the same age as when he was taken and they share… similarities, apparently. How can I take that from her? If she wants to care for him, to fill that void, then… I will allow it, if only to make up for that failure of mine.”

Regret softened Chuluun’s perpetual sour look, “Khatun, what happened with Ajinai-”

Amal waved a hand and Chuluun quietened, “Let’s not talk about Ajinai,” he said, setting his tea down on the table between them, “Let’s talk about this cat-boy, this Miqo’te.”

“What’s there to discuss?” Chuluun asked warily, “You’ve already accepted him into the tribe.”

“Ah, but how will he be of use to the tribe?” Amal asked, “That is the question people will ask, and one we will have to answer. They will indulge Atani in her impulsiveness at first, but they will begin to question her. I’d rather not have to deal with that volatile situation.”

Chuluun shuddered at the thought, “Why did you ever accept her into the Iriq tribe, Khatun…?”

“Because Atani is a beast that is better chained to our side then out, roaming the wilds,” Amal said simply, “We may suffer a bite now and then, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay to have her protect us.”

Chuluun sighed but accepted that without further comment. Atani was, after all, their strongest warrior – she had been the Borlaaq’s Khatun before Ajinai’s birth, and then she petitioned to transfer to the Iriq to care for her son. Amal had witnessed his wild, fiery sister soften with motherhood – no less dangerous of course, but she no longer cared only for the thrill of battle. She loved her son, she loved the man she had her son with (and wasn’t Aruci a queer man, to be able to love someone like Atani?), and she loved her daughter that came soon after. But then that raid happened…

He shook those dark memories away, “What do you know about Miqo’te, Chuluun?”

Chuluun shifted his weight, frowning in thought, “They mostly dwell in either forested areas or deserts,” he said. He was quite knowledgeable about the other Spoken; necessary to know what their foreign customers would be eager to trade for, “Their social structure is dependent on whatever that boy is, Keeper or Seeker… I think Seeker, which are very tribe-orientated, in which case his integration should go smoothly.”

“Good,” Amal was worried that the cat-boy would come from a solitary race, which would definitely cause friction, “What are their uses?”

“Skilled hunters,” Chuluun said, “Very skilled hunters. They boast the fastest sprinting speed and leaping distance of any Spoken race, with excellent hand-eye coordination. If he is to have any use, Khatun, it would be as a hunter.”

Amal considered this. The Borlaaq dealt with force protection, but also did hunting to test their mettle against the Steppes’ many beasts. The Iriq had a cadre of hunters to help upkeep the food stores and to replenish materials, but… there weren’t many naturally skilled hunters. If Miqo’te’s were born hunters, then this ‘Aza’ could be a useful addition indeed. Provided Atani managed to deal effectively with his trauma.

“Let’s push for that then,” Amal said, “A hunter. Atani’s new son will be our most skilled hunter.”

“Khatun…” Chuluun began warily, “Didn’t you say he, ah, couldn’t stomach blood?”

“I said he apparently grew queasy after killing his slaving masters,” Amal waved his hand dismissively, “He’s a child. Some children get an upset stomach when killing their first man. He’ll get used to it.”

“Hmm…” Chuluun sounded doubtful, but he thankfully kept his scepticism to himself.

“I’m sure it’ll go fine,” Amal assured his advisor, “Bluebird will draw him out of his shell, and Atani will boost his confidence. In a few years, we’ll be reaping the benefits of a natural hunter.”

“If you say so,” Chuluun sighed, tugging at his scaly chin, “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“Chuluun,” Amal said fondly, “You say that about everything. Just this once, trust your Khatun. It’ll be fine.” 

“That,” Chuluun muttered under his breath, making a small gesture like warding off an evil spirit, “Is tempting fate.”

 


 

Khaji felt excitement smoulder in the pit of his stomach, uncaring of how he was squished, shoulder to shoulder, between his bigger brothers, as he was given his very first mission for the tribe.

“Your first task in service to our tribe is to scout,” their Battlemaster told them. He was a stern man, large and barrel-chested – some of his older brothers told Khaji that he was half-behemoth, and he was tempted to believe them. His scales were thick, almost plated, and his dark hair was a grizzled mess that framed his sharp, broad features, his horns thick and wicked looking, sweeping forwards in sharp tips. He could silence an entire troop with a single look. He didn’t even need to glare, “To be able to effectively plot out a raid is one of the very basics of being a proud, long-lived Buduga. There might be glory in charging in, dick hanging out, to liberate our future brothers… but it’ll be a pointless, short-lived glory.”

Khaji and his brothers stared in breathless, rapt attention. The Battlemaster jabbed his spear at the crude map of the Steppes drawn into the dust at their feet. He was pointing at the plain relatively close to Reunion, nestled in a natural valley with access to one of the few, running streams during the Dawn Fathe’s Trial.

“This is what you’re scouting, the Iriq and Borlaaq tribe. Ukilen!”

The boy in question, two brothers down, practically jumped to attention, “Battlemaster!”

“Tell me, short and sweet, who the Iriq and Borlaaq are.”

“Iriq are weak crafters and merchants, Battlemaster!” Ukilen answered, his words practically tumbling over each other in his eagerness to please, “They hold a lot of our brothers captive, teaching them pacifistic and gentle ways that stop them from reaching their full, glorious potential! The Borlaaq are their warriors, women.”

That was all Ukilen had to say. Khaji, along with his brothers, made disgusted expressions.

Battlemaster laughed, low and malicious, “Aye, women, Ukilen… but dangerous!”

He lashed out, and Ukilen let out a squeak when the Battlemaster’s spear passed mere ilms from his nose. Khaji and his brothers froze, staring at the Battlemaster’s grim, furious look, knowing better than to do more than breath underneath that harsh stare.

“Don’t sneer at the Borlaaq,” he told them, quietly and intensely, “They’re devils beneath their soft, beguiling forms. They will fight, tooth and nail, to prevent you from liberating your brothers. The moment you think you’ve won, just because they’re women, you may as well gut yourself where you stand.”

Ukilen nodded shakily, almost green at the Battlemaster’s rebuke.

“Khaji,” the Battlemaster said almost lazily, resting the butt of his spear against the dirt, “You were liberated from the Iriq… what’s their greatest weakness?”

Khaji flushed with pride, ignoring how his brothers glanced at him, “Their numbers, Battlemaster.”

“Aye, their numbers…” he rumbled, evidently pleased at the reply. Khaji preened, “The Iriq are very numerous, because they breed so often with the Borlaaq. It means they have so many of our brothers – too many. They never have enough warriors to prevent us from liberating at least one or two per raid.”

Khaji’s brothers nodded solemnly.

“So,” the Battlemaster prodded the crude map, giving them a sharp, wide smile that made him look like a beast ready to gobble them up, “Your mission, little brothers, is to scout this area. Then, you are to liberate our brothers. You will have until the Dusk Mother’s eye is fully upon us to plan your raid out.”

“Yes, Battlemaster!” Khaji and his brothers cried, their eyes fever bright with excitement at the thought of their first raid. In one month, they will swell their ranks even more, liberate their future brothers and teach them how to achieve their true potential. They’ll resist at first… but everyone did. The strong accepted it and lived, the weak…

Well, who cared about them?

Chapter Text

Iriq washed with dirt.

“It’s very good if you spent the night sweating,” Atani was telling him, clearly ignoring or oblivious to Aza’s deeply sceptical stare. She had the wash bucket dangling from the crook of her elbow – except unlike yesterday it wasn’t filled with stream water, it was filled with something that looked almost like dark, dry soil. It had a deep, earthy smell that was actually quite pleasant, but still, Aza was having difficulty believing rubbing dirt on yourself would make you clean.

Aruci was sitting on the bench, still dressed and watching he proceedings with poorly disguised amusement.

“Look over there,” Atani said, pointing past Aruci’s shoulder. Aza obeyed, glancing over to see the three women from yesterday sitting at their wash bench. They were naked like before – and were rubbing dirt onto their skin as they chatted amongst each other. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he drank in their relaxed, smiling faces and how their powerful bodies lounged, perfectly content and confident in their safety and surroundings. He felt an odd stab of envy.

“You toss the dirt onto yourself,” Atani was saying, and Aza reluctantly looked away from them, even when the three women erupted into loud, entertained laughter, “And rub it in. Then you dust it off. We finish off by rubbing Alyssum oil into our skin and scales.”

“Alyssum?” Aza asked.

“It’s some kind of plant from Eorzea,” Atani said dismissively, “Doesn’t grow well on the Steppes, but we trade for it regularly with our Doman neighbours.”

“It’s popularly used as a perfume,” Aruci interjected, and Aza glanced at him. The man was leaning on his knees with his elbows, his hands dangling between his thighs – he looked like he was trying to make himself as small and non-threatening as possible, “But it has some antibacterial effects as well.”

“It’s good for you,” Atani summarised with a decisive nod, “It gives your scales a lustrous sheen.”

Aza hesitated, instinctively biting down on the words that nearly passed his lips. Master never liked it when he made him look stupid by pointing out the obvious, and Aza was sure that was a standard throughout the Spoken as a whole. He didn’t have scales to make lustrous looking – he had fur and… well, never mind. He’ll just do it the Au Ra way and hope it worked just as well for Miqo’te.

“Atani,” Aruci murmured with laughter evident in his tone, “Aza doesn’t have scales.”

Aza went still, as if he’d been the one to blurt that out, instantly lowering his gaze, and Atani stared at her husband blankly for a long moment – before smacking herself on the forehead.

“Oh, I’m silly!” Atani laughed, lowering her hand and looking down at Aza with a wide smile, “Well, it works just as well on hair as it does on scales, so I’m sure your fur will be fine. But, if it doesn’t, we’ll try to find something that does.”

Aza waited for exactly two rapid heartbeats, feeling both relieved and foolish. He tried to ignore how sweaty his palms had gotten, curling his fingers so he didn’t give himself away by wiping them on his trousers.

“It should be okay,” he murmured to Atani’s feet.

“We’ll find out, won’t we?” Atani said, dropping the bucket on the bench next to Aruci, “Alright, Aruci, stop being lazy and strip off.”

Aza watched them from beneath his eyelashes, taking a few steps away as Aruci was bullied to his feet by Atani’s ruthless prodding. He left them to it, though he kept them in his peripheral as he slowly stripped off. The camp was just as busy as yesterday, but Aza kept his gaze fixed to the floor, trying not to think about how many people were nearby, how he could feel their stares like ants over his skin – he stripped off, then focused on neatly folding them. It was a good distraction.

In the corner of his eye, he could see Atani and Aruci had finished stripping themselves. They were giving him space, though. Aruci was sitting on the bench, rubbing the dirt into his skin, and Atani was standing before him, her feet spaced apart, her hands on her hips, bolding standing there without a care as she spoke about…

“We could ask Orbei. She was a Noykin a few years back, and trained Bluebird well enough.”

“She’s a harsh teacher,” Aruci commented, “She would think his timidness to be something forced out of him.”

“I’ll have words with her before each lesson, then,” Atani said, something in her tone prickling Aza’s danger senses. As if sensing his sudden spike of nervousness, she looked over with a warm smile, and he almost felt silly for his weird burst of dread when nothing about her exuded threat.

“How are you getting on over there, Coeurl?” she asked him. She notably didn’t approach him, didn’t move, and slowly, Aza scooted closer. The bucket was next to Aruci on the bench, and he noticed the man went very still, like if he so much as twitched Aza would go scuttling under a rock like a skittish crab.

“Okay,” Aza mumbled, taking a steadying breath before boldly taking a step right into Atani and Aruci’s reach. He ignored how his heart was hammering, the fur on his tail fluffed out, and decisively took a handful of dirt. It felt dry and dusty against his skin, and he distracted himself by clenching his fingers tight, feeling it crumble between them, “M’okay.”

“That’s good,” Atani said, watching him closely, “If you need to stop and go back to the yurt, don’t hesitate to say, okay?”

Aza nodded jerkily and forced himself to stay in place as he clumsily copied what Aruci was doing. He patted his handful of dirt against his bicep, clumps of it scattered down and not… dusting over his skin like Aruci’s did. He frowned, confused.

“Here, let me show you,” Atani said, reaching past him to scoop up dirt – and promptly slapped her hand against Aruci’s bare chest hard enough that it made a loud, painful sounding ‘thump’. The man looked at her flatly, “You need to slap, not gently pat like you did.”

When Atani removed her hand, there was a dusty handprint left. It looked tiny on Aruci’s broad chest, but the pale skin looked red beneath the dusty soil. She hadn’t held back at all.

“Alternatively,” Aruci said in that low, soothing rumble of his, seemingly not bothered about his wife hitting him, “You take a smaller handful and gently rub it in. It’s up to you.”

“Slapping is the best method,” Atani immediately contradicted.

“Not everyone is solid, unfeeling muscle like you,” Aruci huffed with laughter.

“Unfeeling! Aruci, how rude!”

Aza’s gaze flickered between them as they playfully squabbled, feeling oddly off-kilter. It was like a warped version of how Master acted with his wife – a beautiful, cold faced woman with a very cutting tongue, and known amongst the slaves as only Master’s Wife. They had squabbled too – but it hadn’t been like this. It had been tense and ugly and vicious, especially if Aza had the misfortune to be in the same room, and Master always got in a foul mood afterwards. Master’s Wife had hated him, he knew – absolutely despised his very existence – whenever Master wasn’t looking, or foolishly left him alone with her, she would always hit him with her steel-edged fan – always at the face, but Aza learned after the first time that Master became furious whenever his face was marred so Aza always learned to lift his hands up and protect his face and-

He bowed his head, suddenly overcome with a bitterness that made his stomach hurt. Why was she never like this with Master? If she had been… if she’d been able to hold his interest, his attention, his- why didn’t she try harder? Because, oh, Aza knew she tried to gain it. She was beautiful and well-spoken and had taken many lovers into her bed – but Master never once looked at her. As irrational as it was, Aza hated her from the very bottom of his heart, because if she tried harder- but she didn’t. Or Master was just that much of a disgusting deviant. But even then.

Master’s Wife hated them. She had every opportunity to- to stop it. Stop Master. Every opportunity to kill him, whenever they were alone. She could’ve done it – Aza had seen the desire every time in her expression - she could have killed him, killed all of them, removed them from Master’s hold, but she never did. She just hated them, and hit them, and made them suffer, when it would’ve been kinder-

“Coeurl?” Atani’s voice broke him out of his spiralling thoughts, and Aza flinched in surprise, having forgotten where he was, “Coeurl, baby, what’s wrong?”

It took Aza a moment to realise he was shivering in place, and not from the cold. His heart was thumping somewhere up in his throat, and he honestly couldn’t explain why… Master’s wife was still in his head, her pale, unhappy face sneering down at him like he was some mangy dog she was forced to live with. He hated her so much, and she had despised him, so why did she ever let him live? She had the means to kill all the children Master loved, to free them, but she never did.

Why didn’t she? Why did she do nothing and let them suffer?

“I don’t feel well,” Aza whispered. That question kept invading his brain, no matter how much he tried to push it out. It was a bad thing to think about – he knew. It frightened him in a way he didn’t understand.

“Okay,” Atani said softly, “Do you need to sit? Aruci, stand up, make space-”

“No, I…,” Aza felt weirdly claustrophobic. He was aware there were many people, and he was here, naked and- he didn’t like it. That ant crawling feeling from earlier morphed into something like an entire swarm of spiders, prickling all over his body and making him want to throw up, “I want… to, to go...”

“Back to the yurt then,” Atani briskly picked up her tunic and dropped it over Aza’s shoulders. It was long enough that it reached past his hips, and she tucked it close, her touch very feather-light, like she didn’t want to make too much skin-contact, “Aruci, pick up the clothes, okay?”

The walk passed in a weird haze, but when they stepped into the yurt, its firm walls around him, that awful – crushing feeling behind his rib cage eased a fraction. He felt ill. He hated himself. He- why did he do that? Everything was- was normal, and he- his brain decided to think of something that didn’t matter and- why- he ruined that. He ruined something that was meant to be good and normal. He was ruining everything. He wasn’t good. But he needed to be good. He needed- if he kept doing this, they’d stop being kind to him and-

“It’s alright, everyone has bad moments,” Atani murmured to him, ushering him to his bedroll with light, gentle touches to his shoulder, “Don’t cry, my little Coeurl, it’s alright.”

Aza blinked, realising that his vision was blurred with unshed tears. They reached the bedroll, and Aza didn’t sit so much as let his knees just collapse under him. He accidentally sat on his tail at an awkward angle. It hurt. He ignored it, sitting there, carefully trying to make his mind go blank, like he knew how to make it. There was too much pushing through his brain. He needed to- stop.

Atani lingered over him. She looked like she wasn’t sure what to do.

“Atani,” Aruci’s voice was like a low, lulling murmur. Aza leaned towards it slightly – it almost sounded like a purr. He focused on that – not his words. He was talking, but it may as well have been in Allagan for all he knew. He focused – low, rumbling, purr, smooth, very nice noise. Very nice. It was like the rumbling noise Mom would make when she was happy, when they were curled up under the blankets during a heavy rainstorm or a blizzard, and she’d purr and it would be relaxing and…

He wasn’t sure how long he sat there. He broke out of it when Atani suddenly touched him, and he went still, breath frozen in his throat as his mind went naked -> person -> touch -> don’t move. He didn’t move. He went still, and Atani crouched in front of him, gently stroking his hair. Aza didn’t move.

“What happened, little Coeurl?” Atani asked him softly, “Tell me, please?”

Aza didn’t want to move. Speaking counted as moving. But Atani had told him to speak. He could only passively ignore vague, implied commands, not direct ones. He forced his mouth to work, a crushing pressure he was uncomfortably familiar with squeezing his lungs, “I-I rem… remembered… Master’s- his wife, and…”

“Don’t,” Atani cut him off. Aza stopped. She moved her hand from his hair and stared at it for a long moment. Her face was very neutral but her eyes were dark with fury. He trembled, bracing himself.

Atani didn’t touch him, though. She let out a slow, long breath, and pressed a hand over her eyes.

“Do you know what triggered it?” she finally asked him, lowering her hand. She gave a strained smile, bordering on a grimace, “Was it- was it the dirt? We can try for a water bath every day if-”

Aza managed to shake his head. Atani went quiet. He mustered the- he spoke, despite not being told to, and; “You- didn’t act like… like Master and- and his… wife.”

Atani looked confused, “What?”

Aza licked his dry lips, realising just how stupid it was. His stomach cramped and squirmed, and he could feel tears of angry frustration begin to sting his eyes. He woke up with such hope today, and barely an hour into it, he ruined it all because he- he couldn’t let go of- he was free! Why did it feel so much like he was back there? Why? He hated it! He hated this! He hated-!

Atani gently laid her hands over his, and Aza let out a rough noise when he realised he’d been digging his fingernails into his bare thighs. He’d broken the skin.

“Aza,” Atani said his name for the first time today, “Coeurl, it’s okay. This- this doesn’t… it doesn’t go away in one day.”

Aza bowed his head.

“This will stay with you for the rest of your life,” Atani told him. She did not soften her words, even if her voice was gentle, “You will have to fight it until you die. Maybe not for every step, but some days it will feel like it. You just have to find something to make it worth it.”

“I’ve escaped…” Aza said pitifully, “I- I did- I did so much to- so why…”

“Some hurts go soul deep and linger past their time,” Atani muttered, her eyes dark with an old bitterness. It vanished quickly, and she rubbed her thumbs over his knuckles, “You’ll… you’ll find a way to endure it.”

Aza didn’t reply. He worked to swallow the burning lump in his throat, tears clinging to his eyelashes and making his vision blurry. Atani held his hands. It should have been uncomfortable. It wasn’t.

“What do you want to do right now?” Atani asked him, “Aruci has gone to get some more medicine from Chagur for you, and Bluebird is playing with Khudus. We can finish our wash, or you can visit Bluebird, or you can go to sleep. You can do whatever you want. What do you want to do?”

The choice suddenly seemed overwhelming. He didn’t want- he wanted to just be told what to do. He instantly hated himself for that thought a second later.

“I…” Aza could see the dusty patch on his arm, from his earlier wash attempt. Irritation bloomed in him, bolstered by shame and frustration. If his Master was going to be an eternal spectre to his new, free life, then Aza wasn’t – he was at least going to be able to get through a wash. He did it yesterday, with Bluebird. He can do it now.

“I want…” he took in a sharp, bracing breath, and finished, as confidently and firmly as his wobbling voice would let him; “I want to finish our wash.”

“Okay, let’s do that then,” Atani gently pulled him to his feet as she stood up. His legs felt shaky, but they held his weight, “Do you want me to come with you?”

Aza instinctively tightened his grip on Atani’s hands, “Yes.”

Atani smiled at him warmly - tired and sad, but it still bolstered Aza’s flagging determination. 

“It’s okay if you have bad days,” Atani told him, as they moved back to the yurt’s exit, slowly, to match Aza’s tentative, unsteady steps, “I’ll be here for you when you have them. I’ll help you, and so will Bluebird and Aruci, understand?”

Aza nodded but didn’t answer. Atani seemed happy enough with that.

“Good boy,” Atani praised him, squeezing his hand. They stepped out into the sunlight, back amongst the hubbub of the camp. It didn’t feel as oppressive as before.

It made his meltdown seem rather insignificant, with how the day continued on. But that- that was oddly comforting. He had a bad moment, but the day continued on as normal after it. It was like stepping back into the moment he’d ruined, giving him a chance to fix it. He and Atani returned to the bench – the bucket of soil was still there – and Atani ushered him to sit.

“Do you mind me touching you?” she asked as she took a small handful of dirt from the bucket.

“…I don’t mind,” Aza said unsurely. Atani’s touch sometimes felt uncomfortable, but sometimes it didn’t. He sat on the very edge of the bench, letting himself be ready to spring to his feet at a moment’s notice, and dug his bare toes into the scraggly grass beneath him. It was dry and rough against his soles, the grass yellowed from lack of water, and Aza focused on the sensation of dried stems digging into his feet when Atani began the dirt bath.

She managed to get his shoulders and chest done before Bluebird arrived.

“Hi, Mommy, Aza,” Bluebird greeted like nothing was wrong, marching right up to the pair of them with an unknown Au Ra boy at her heels. Aza eyed him warily from beneath his fringe, curling his fingers tight over the edge of the bench. The boy was skinny and taller than him – but his scales weren’t fully grown in and his horns were small, and he had that gangly look about him, like a baby deer that hadn’t grown into its legs yet. The boy was staring at Aza in shameless curiosity, “Having a late wash?”

“Bluebird,” Atani paused where she’d been carefully rubbing dirt into Aza’s forearm. She loosely held his wrist, her fingers rough and dry from the dirt, and she seemed guarded. Aza noticed her looking at Khudus then him, as if half-expecting Aza to have a spectacular meltdown from the boy’s mere proximity, “And Khudus. I thought you were hunting birds today?”

“We were gonna, but we thought we could drag Aza with us,” Bluebird said cheerfully, “Get him off his lazy butt and run around for a bit.”

Atani hesitated, but Aza didn’t. Still motivated by his earlier failure and frustration, he pounced on the opportunity. Hunting? Hunting was okay. Aza remembered hunting, and he remembered being good at it. It also required minimal social interaction.

“Hunting sounds okay,” he said, and Atani dropped his wrist in surprise. He let his hand drop onto his thigh, and very carefully did not look at her.

“Great,” Bluebird chirped and moved closer, peering over him curiously, “Why’s Mommy helping you wash like you’re a baby?”

“Bluebird,” Atani muttered warningly, brushing her palms clean of dusty soil as he looking over the gathered children worriedly. She didn’t look happy about the situation, though Aza wasn’t sure if it was because she didn’t want Aza out of her sight, or she didn’t want Bluebird alone with him out in the wilderness, “Miqo’te don’t normally have dust baths.”

“Do you lick yourself clean like a Baras?” The lanky Au Ra boy asked, leaning past Bluebird slightly – only to grunt when Bluebird sharply elbowed him in the stomach, “Ow! Bluebird!”

“What did I tell you about looming?” Bluebird huffed at him, “You’ll scare him!”

“It’s okay, he didn’t sca-” Aza began. 

“I wasn’t looming. I was, um, leaning over you.”

“That’s looming, you bonehead!”

“I’m not a bonehead! You are!”

“No, you!”

“You!”

“YOU!”

“Can’t they go one day without fighting…” Atani sighed as Bluebird and Khudus began shrieking ‘YOU’ over and over into each other’s faces. Aza stared in bewildered amazement, his gaze flicking between them and noting how Bluebird looked ready to spring up and headbutt Khudus in the face. He’d seen the Au Ra kids back in Master’s place do that before – their horns sometimes locked and…

“GWARGH!” Bluebird roared, and promptly jumped up. She headbutted Khudus with a very painful, solid sounding ‘thwunk!’, and the pair of them tumbled to the floor in a tangle of limbs and howls of pained anger. Atani and Aza both stared as they flailed in a messy pile, their horns tightly locked together and their faces squished close.

“Ew, your lips are touching my nose!”

“Your nose is touching my mo- EW! IT’TH IN M’MOUTHPHF!”

“ARGH! STOP KISSING MY NOSE! EW!”

Aza honestly couldn’t help it. 

For the first time in a long while, he laughed.

 


 

Bluebird grumbled as she rubbed her aching forehead.

“Your skull must be solid all the way through,” she muttered to an equally sulky Khudus sitting next to her. After Mommy had freed them from their locked horns, she told them to sit down and shut up while Aza finished his dust bath, though she’d been smiling too much to even bother pretend being mad. All of them had been amazed at hearing Aza burst into loud, obnoxious laughter at their dumb antics.

He had a really nice laugh – a bit low and husky, but it’d been nice. If locking horns with Khudus caused that, then maybe she could forgive her idiot neighbour for almost eating her nose.

“How long do we have to sit here?” Khudus whispered to her. They were sat a few steps away from the wash bench, watching Aza finish up his dust bath with the Alyssum oil. He picked up the concept of dust bathing quick enough, though he still had this expression like he wasn’t all that keen on it. Truth be told, no one was really keen on it. It was just a necessary thing to do when the droughts hit. When winter came around, oh, everyone just swarmed the stream-turned-river and had a big bath party, even if it was horrifically cold.

“Until Aza’s done,” Bluebird whispered back, “Did you really think Miqo’te licked themselves clean?”

“Well, that’s what Baras do, right?” Khudus asked, sounding embarrassed, “And he’s, um, kind of like a Baras.”

“Just ‘cuz he’s got a tail and ears like them? May as well say we’re like lizards, then.”

Khudus definitely looked embarrassed about that, “Oh… I didn’t think of it like that.”

Silence lapsed between them.

“…but what if Miqo’te do lick themselves clean?” Khudus asked.

“How’d they reach their elbows? Or their butts?” Bluebird asked with a snort, “His tongue’s normal sized.”

“How do you know?” Khudus challenged, “You see him stick his tongue out?”

Bluebird opened her mouth – and paused, because, well, no. She’d seen his teeth, which had very sharp sets of canines in there, but she never saw what his tongue was like. Was it like a Baras? All rough-like and long? It was weird to imagine.

“Well… no,” she admitted, “But his tongue must be normal sized. I mean, his mouth’s small, right? Wouldn’t he have, um, a snout, like a Baras, if it was bigger?”

Khudus squinted over at Aza, as if checking for himself that the cat-boy didn’t have a snout, “I guess…”

“I wonder if their tongue’s rough, though,” Bluebird mused, and they both stared over at Aza in open curiosity.

Aza’s ear twitched, and slowly, he looked over at them.

Bluebird waved cheerfully and called over, “Hey, Crazy Boy – is your tongue rough like a cat’s?”

“Is it long too?” Khudus instantly tacked on, “Do you lick yourself clean?”

“Can you lick your own butthole?”

“Can you lick your own di-”

Children,” Mommy said sharply from where she was finishing up her own wash, looking over at the with a narrow-eyed, hard stare, “None of that.”

Bluebird frowned, puzzled. Mommy normally didn’t mind dirty jokes – in fact, she normally actively encouraged them! – but she was being weirdly overprotective of Aza. Bluebird was certain Mommy mistakenly believed he was fragile and weak, or something, but she knew otherwise. She remembered watching Aza murdering the shit out of two adults despite being unarmed. He was just weird and crazy in a way that made him come across as babyish. She knew better than to push Mommy’s temper though, so she settled down with a huff.

“Yeah,” Aza said abruptly, after a few seconds of silence had passed.

“Yeah?” Khudus repeated stupidly.

“Yeah,” the corner of Aza’s mouth tilted up in a crooked smile, his eyes heavy-lidded with a dark kind of amusement, “I can lick my own dick.”

Bluebird let out a burst of laughter, and Khudus snorted, “You’re kidding!”

Mommy was frowning, giving Aza a very careful sideways look. But when Aza just turned back to rubbing the oil into the fur of his tail in slow, careful strokes, his expression perfectly neutral and gaze distant, Mommy relaxed.

“Bluebird,” Mommy said, “Go grab some hunting clothes for Coeurl, will you?”

“Okay, Mommy,” Bluebird chirped, eager to start moving. Her legs had been falling asleep sitting on them for so long, and she waddled a bit clumsily before blood flow returned. She hustled into their yurt, poking through Mommy’s old clothes until she found something that looked like it would fit Aza. Cat-boy was just a few ilms bigger than her, so he could kind of squeeze into her own clothes, but he’d look dumb, and if Bluebird was going to be publicly associating with him, then she didn’t want to be known as the girl who hung out with a guy who wore super tight clothes.

It was when she had one foot out of the door that she realised she didn’t have a weapon for Aza. She and Khudus had their own bows and hunting knives, but Aza… Bluebird had liberated the knife he’d used to kill the slavers, and Daddy took the knife from her. Aza didn’t have a weapon, and while it was relatively safe on the outskirts of camp, where they were going to go bird hunting, Bluebird knew that going anywhere in the Steppes without something to protect you was stupid.

But… she remembered how he acted when he had the knife in his hands before. How after he stabbed that woman, how he’d dropped it and couldn’t touch it without going pale and sickly. Maybe it had been the blood though. Or the feel of the blood on the knife’s handle. It had gotten pretty messy, that gut-stab.

Bluebird, after a moment of hesitation, turned back into the yurt. She decided to get one of her carving knives – a spare, used mostly to whittle wood. It was too short and slim to do any real damage against a person or an animal, unless you went for vulnerable spots, but it should still stab hard enough to give any attacker a nasty enough shock to let Aza run away. It would have to do.

When she returned to the wash station, Khudus had scooted closer to Aza under Mommy’s close watch. Aza didn’t seem to mind. He was clearly finished washing and was instead staring at Khudus with the same curiosity Khudus was looking at him with. They weren’t talking. Just staring at each other. It was, quite frankly, really weird. Probably a boy thing.

“Here you go,” Bluebird said loudly, barging in between them and interrupting their stupid staring contest. She dumped the clothes on Aza’s lap and held up the carving knife, “This is mine, but you can borrow it if you want.”

Aza had gone still, eyeing the knife in Bluebird’s hand like it was a venomous snake she was holding ilms from his nose, “…a knife.”

“Yeah,” Bluebird said slowly, wondering if he was dim-witted, “You know, to stab people with.”

Aza kept his hands very close to his stomach, looking queasy, “I don’t want to stab people.”

“But haven’t you stabbed people?” Khudus asked from where he was still sitting on the floor, “Bluebird said you killed a woman with her own knife.”

Bluebird thought Mommy was going to cut in again, but when she looked over Mommy seemed interested in the conversation. She had finished washing and was pulling her tunic back on, pretending to be too busy changing to be paying attention to the conversation – but she was, Bluebird could tell.

“I-” Aza stopped. He looked at the knife then at the clothes on his lap, his expression conflicted, “She- she deserved it.”

“Then, just stab people who deserve it,” Bluebird huffed, “It’s not that hard to get, you dumb baby.”

Aza briefly looked irritated, which was an interesting expression, because his ears flicked back and his pupils narrowed into thinner slits when he looked at her, his tail giving a very sharp, pointed flick.

“…I’m not a baby.”

“Then stop acting like one and accept the dumb knife,” Bluebird told him, thrusting it closer to him. He flinched from it, “Go on, take it. Taaaake iiiiit~”

Aza snatched the knife out of her hands in an impulsive fit of annoyance, though the moment he had it, its hilt clenched firmly in his palm, he looked – Bluebird wasn’t sure what. He was looking at it with a deeply unreadable expression, like he was expecting it to explode in his hand without warning.

“Now get changed,” Bluebird ordered him, her hands planted on her hips, “At this rate the birds’ll die of old age before we hunt them! So hurry up!”

“Which is what’ll happen anyways, because Bluebird is bad at hunting them,” Khudus piped up mischievously, only to yelp a second later when Bluebird kicked him, “Ow!”

“I am not bad!” Bluebird hissed at him, “I just had an off-day!”

“What, five days in a row…?” Khudus muttered under his breath, and he quailed when Bluebird shot him a scowl.

Aza stared at the knife for a little longer, before he gingerly set it on the bench and stood up to get changed. He didn’t say another word – in fact, he kind of looked like he was regretting agreeing to go along with them, which, too bad. He said yes, so he was coming with them whether he wanted to or not! It would be good for him, anyways.

“Bluebird,” Mommy said, now fully dressed, “Come here.”

Leaving Aza to get changed and trusting Khudus not to do anything weird that’ll get him shanked by Crazy Boy, Bluebird obediently moved over to Mommy, assuming she was going to be given ‘Older Sibling order’s.

“I want you to keep a close eye on Aza,” Mommy whispered to her, “Don’t wander too far from the camp, and if he starts feeling ill, come back immediately, okay? He’s still sick and should be in bed.”

“Then why’re you letting him go out, Mommy?” Bluebird asked, feeling a little daunted at being responsible for Aza’s well-being. Khudus was one thing – she knew he could take care of himself, but Aza was a wildcard. She knew he could kill someone if he had to, but he also spent who knows how long as a slave and probably had no idea how to survive in the wilderness. It might be like looking after a baby.

“He needs… air,” Mommy said, looking like she’d swallowed a salt block, “He needs to play with someone his age. Being surrounded by boring adults like me and Daddy… no, it’s better he plays with you for a few hours. Just… be careful, okay?”

“Okay, Mommy,” Bluebird sighed, “I’ll bring him straight back if anything happens.”

“That’s my girl,” Mommy smiled at her and ruffled her hair, making her huff, “Now go have fun.”

“Will do, Mommy,” Bluebird chirped, and walked back to Aza and Khudus.

Aza was changed into Mommy’s old hunting gear – he filled it out okay, but it was clear that he was slimmer than Mommy was. Mommy had some serious muscles that Aza just didn’t have. In fact, for a boy his age, he was really scrawny. Unless Miqo’te were just like that? Made sense. Bluebird had seen some cat beasts that looked really slinky.

“Okay, boys, time to hunt,” Bluebird said, clapping her hands and kicking dirt at Khudus to get him off his lazy tail, “Up, up, up!”

“Okay, okay!” Khudus huffed, jumping to his feet. Aza flinched at the sudden movement, but settled quickly enough, “Where’re we going? The stream?”

Bluebird was about to say yes – but then had awful visions of Aza falling into it and drowning. While the stream was shallower during the drought, it was still deep enough with a powerful undercurrent that could take a fully grown Au Ra man off guard.

“Uh, let’s… go to the Karakul field,” Bluebird said slowly, “You know, on the hill.”

“What? But that place is boring,” Khudus grumbled, “Shepherd Gugen will be there too.”

Oh, Bluebird forgot about that. “We’ll just avoid him. So long as we stay away from his sheep, it’ll be fine.”

Aza was looking between them, clearly confused.

“Gugen’s a weird old man who’s in love with his Karakul,” Bluebird told him, “He’s really overprotective of them. Like, he will chase you over the hills if you’re within ten yalms of them.”

“People say he fucks them,” Khudus said in a whisper.

“He doesn’t fuck ‘em,” Bluebird scoffed, rolling her eyes, “They’d run away!”

“Not if you pin them down! Someone said once, they-”

“I get it,” Aza interrupted, looking uncomfortable. Bluebird almost jumped, surprised he would actually speak over someone, “Can we… can we go now?”

“Uh, yeah, sure,” Bluebird shook off her surprise, and grabbed his hand. He went still, but relaxed quickly, “Let’s go!”

A hunting trip with her new, weird and crazy brother. What could possibly go wrong?

Chapter Text

Despite Bluebird’s impatience, it took another hour before they actually left for ‘Karakul Hill’.

Bluebird’s Mom fussed over the cat-boy some more, making sure his borrowed clothes and boots fitted fine, if he felt well enough to go, force-feeding cat-boy some of Chagur’s medicine when Aruci returned halfway through said fussing (watching Cat-boy’s face scrunch up in disgust had been pretty funny), and plying all three of them with enough dried jerky for them to hike all the way to Reunion and back well fed. Khudus found the entire thing amusing – if only because it rubbed Bluebird’s scales all wrong and even the cat-boy looked daunted at Atani’s aggressive mothering.

Khudus didn’t mind the delay. They got a lot of food out of the deal, so even if Bluebird failed at hunting birds again (he didn’t care how hard she headbutted him, she was horrible at hunting) it wasn’t as if they’d go hungry. He felt kind of bad that he was taking from Atani’s stores though, but not enough to reject the food outright. He did make sure the majority of it went into Cat-boy’s satchel though. He looked like he needed the extra pounds.

Finally,” Bluebird huffed when they were free from Atani’s clutches, stomping their way through camp towards Karakul Hill, “I thought we’d never escape!”

Cat-boy said nothing. He was practically stepping on Bluebird’s heels he was following the girl so close, his fingers curled tight into his slightly too-long sleeves as his gaze flickered about him. He looked like a cat that had been dumped in the middle of a dog pen, waiting to see which hound would lunge at him first – it was kind of exhausting to watch, really. Khudus had no idea how anyone could be so tense and uptight and not just keel over from stress-overload.

“Your mom’s never usually that uptight,” Khudus commented idly to Bluebird, though he kept his gaze on Cat-boy. The- what? Miqo’te? Yeah, the Miqo’te always seemed to keep a bit of distance between them – but he wasn’t openly shying away from Khudus like he did with the adults. He’d flinch if he maybe moved too fast, but otherwise…

He remembered what Bluebird told him – and what his Moms told him after the big tribe meeting with the Khatun this morning. The kids weren’t invited, but all the adults were, and his Moms had come back with tense expressions and told him that he was to be very careful around ‘Atani’s Aza’. Because he was like Ibakha. Because, like her, he’d been violently claimed and broken as a result. His Moms never softened the truth like Atani did with Bluebird, so he knew what that meant.

Cat-boy seemed more… engaged with life though, compared to Ibakha. Maybe it was because he was young and kids ‘bounced back from trauma’, like Chagur always said, or maybe he was just different. Khudus didn’t know, but it made him both curious and wary. He didn’t want to do anything that might trigger what happened with Ibakha, where she went all crazy and ran into the desert to go die. Atani would make him dig his own grave with his hands and bury him in it if that happened.

“She’s just in a weird mood,” Bluebird said, though she glanced over her shoulder at Cat-boy tellingly, “Hey, Aza? Do you even know how to hunt?”

Cat-boy’s gaze drifted slowly to Bluebird. He looked a bit out of it, in Khudus’s opinion, but that might be Chagur’s medicine kicking in. He swore that old hag mixed in horse tranquilisers into her medicines, “… yeah.”

“How do Miqo’te do it?” Khudus asked curiously. In the Iriq tribe, it was common to chase down the beasts on the backs of ponies with your spears or bows, and he knew that in the Ruby Sea, the Confederacy people used fishing nets and harpoons for the sea beasts. So how did Miqo’te do it?

“Hunting?” Cat-boy frowned, his left ear flicking back in a weird gesture, “I was taught to, um… ambush.”

“Ambush?” Bluebird wrinkled her nose, exchanging a look with Khudus, “That sounds kind of boring, just sitting around all day waiting for something to turn up.”

“A good predator is patient,” Cat-boy muttered quietly, staring distantly at the ground, “You wait for the perfect time for a certain kill.”

“Well, this predator wants something exciting,” Bluebird harrumphed, waving her arm around dramatically. They were clearing past the outermost yurts and walking straight into one of the karakul flocks that milled about the edge. The hill was just a few yalms away, “When I’m old enough, I’m gonna go hunt the big bird monsters up on the mountain on horseback, and kill that big turtle-dragon that’s terrorising the north and have all the men of the Steppe swooning over my tough, amazing skills and-”

“Here we go,” Khudus sighed to himself.

“-and,” Bluebird repeated, shooting him an annoyed look, “I’ll become renowned as Bluebird, the great Beastslayer!”

“Bluebird the Beastslayer just doesn’t sound right,” Khudus teased, “Maybe you should use your actual name.”

“Ugh, no,” Bluebird stuck out her tongue.

Cat-boy was watching them with an intense, heavy-lidded gaze. It made the Khudus’s scales itch, like there was a Baras watching him from the tall grass. It was probably the eyes – those slitted pupils and bright, golden irises gave Cat-boy’s stares a naturally menacing edge to them.

Eventually, though, Cat-boy looked away. He stared up at the hill looming over them, a somewhat steep, rocky hill where the grass grew in yellowed, tough clumps between the rocks, the ground dusty and loose. In the spring it was lush with greenery and perfect for the livestock, but during the droughts it was a pain to hike up.

“What type of birds are we hunting?” Cat-boy asked.

“Groundbirds,” Bluebird answered, “They’re these big, fat birds that burrow really fast when startled. Trick is to kill them before they get a chance to start digging.”

“They waddle about in groups so it’s difficult to sneak up on them,” Khudus added, “It’s best to snipe them from afar with a bow and arrow. No one’s quiet enough to sneak up on them without at least one spotting you, though.”

Cat-boy made a low ‘hrm’ noise right in the back of his throat.

“Watch your step,” Bluebird warned Cat-boy when they reached the foot of the hill, “Mommy will kill me if Khudus has to carry you back with a broken ankle.”

“I’ll be okay,” Cat-boy said, looking weirdly and very briefly amused at the warning.

It became clear to Khudus why several minutes into the steep hike. While he and Bluebird struggled up the loose, shale-like side of the hill, Cat-boy just nimbly walked up it like he was part-goat or something, stepping sure-footedly into the most stable spots and making it look annoyingly effortless. By the time they reached the top he and Bluebird were huffing and puffing, and Cat-boy looked a little sweaty and breathless, but otherwise okay.

“Urrrrgh!” Bluebird groaned, dramatically collapsing onto her hands and knees as she gasped for breath, head bowed so low she was almost pressing her forehead into the dust, “Aza… gimme your legs!”

Cat-boy looked down at her, his tail lazily flicking from side to side with an oddest smile on his face. He was looking at Bluebird – but it was almost like he was looking at something- someone else. Khudus was too busy trying to catch his breath to decipher it properly.

“It’s not my fault you have such short, skinny legs,” Cat-boy murmured in a quietly teasing tone.

“My legs aren’t skinny!” Bluebird protested breathlessly, struggling to her feet and puffing at her fringe flopping into her eyes, “They’re big and muscular and could crush a man’s skull like an orange!”

As one, Cat-boy and Khudus’s eyes dropped to Bluebird’s legs. Partially hidden by the looseness of her hunting breeches, it was clear that like most Au Ra girls she had slim, skinny legs that hadn’t quite developed the muscle a Borlaaq warrior would have. Maybe in a few years, she’d have man-head-crushing powers, but right now…

“Yeah,” Khudus sniggered, “If that man was a baby.”

Bluebird shot him a poisonous look, “You won’t be laughing when I pop your head off with my killer thighs.”

“You’d have to reach my head first, midget.”

Bluebird made a noise like an overboiling kettle and Khudus grinned, always finding it funny how bright red her face got when she became frustrated and annoyed. He could see Cat-boy watching them with that weirdly intense look again, standing apart from them. It made Khudus feel like they were leaving him out.

“Hey, what do you think, Ca- ah, uh, Aza?” Khudus asked him, “Think Bluebird can actually hurt someone with those bird-legs of hers?”

Cat-boy startled, like he was surprised to be included, and looked between Khudus and a red-faced, huffy looking Bluebird like he was trying to spot some kind of trick. It made the silence drag a bit awkwardly between them, but Khudus just bit his tongue and waited it out while Bluebird started to cool off.

“Maybe in a few more years, with a bit more muscle,” Cat-boy finally said. His voice was beginning to sound hoarse, like he wasn’t used to speaking so much, and Khudus could see the flicker of discomfort that crossed his expression. “Need to squat more.”

“I squat plenty!” Bluebird squawked, “Every time I go to relieve mys-”

“Ew, don’t go telling him that, you dirty creature!” Khudus yelled, kicking clumps of dried dirt and grass at his neighbour. Bluebird skittered away from him with an affronted hiss, “No one wants to know your pooping habits!”

Cat-boy let out a low, husky noise – a laugh, though a bit too raspy to be a proper one. Khudus found himself grinning a bit in victory, and even Bluebird stopped huffing like an offended bird long enough to look pleased about Cat-boy’s buoying mood. He had seemed a bit down when they had wandered over this morning, so it was good he was perking up a bit… and why wouldn’t he? He had the good fortune to be pulled into the greatest tribe in the Steppes! Maybe not the strongest or the biggest, but definitely the greatest.

“Okay, enough playing around,” Bluebird said, ignoring the fact that it was her causing all the trouble, “Let’s go grab some Groundbirds. If we get enough, we might have a full roast!”

“A full roasted bird?” Khudus gasped, his mouth watering at the thought. Most game hunted were stripped down and dried for storage, with a few parts set aside for immediate cooking and consumption, so it was really rare for them to cook up an entire roast unless they had a surplus of meat. “We’d have to hunt at least one each for that.”

“Oh,” Bluebird’s eyes suddenly lit up, her mouth curving into a grin that heralded one of her ideas, “Yeah, we’d have to hunt one each.”

“I… just said that,” Khudus said slowly.

“One each!” Bluebird repeatedly excitedly, “We can have a competition.”

“…but Aza doesn’t have a bow,” Khudus said, pointing at Cat-boy. Aza blinked at being abruptly singled out, and in fact, looked a little mystified at how the conversation had turned. Looked like Chagur’s medicine was kicking in hard, “And he’s drugged.”

“Handicap,” Bluebird instantly said, “He’s supposedly some super ambush hunter, so we need all the advantages we can get.”

It still didn’t seem very fair – and also, if they went off and did their own style of hunting, then they’d have to leave Aza alone and unsupervised. Who knows what could happen out here, while their backs were turned? He could slip and fall down the hill, or- or get caught in a Karakul stampede – or snatched by Buduga creeps!

“We shouldn’t-” Khudus paused, trying to think on how to phrase his next words, “He- we, um, we should stay together. For safety.”

“Safety,” Bluebird rolled her eyes mockingly, “Oh, yeah, because the Karakuls are so dangerous out here. C’mon, Khudus, it’ll be fine.”

Khudus stepped closer to her, dropping his voice into a quiet whisper – though, judging by how Cat-boy’s ear flicked towards them, he probably heard him loud and clear, “Bluebird, Atani will kill us if we leave him alone.”

“We’ll keep an eye on him from a distance,” Bluebird whispered back just as fiercely, “Aza’s not a helpless little baby anyway.”

“No, but he’s-” Khudus stopped and sighed, “He’s ill, remember?”

Bluebird frowned, and the pair of them looked over at Cat-boy. Aza was looking back at them with a somewhat dozy expression, like he was ready to nod off there and then on his feet.

“Well… he does look kinda dopey,” Bluebird admitted grudgingly.

“And he’s crazy like Ibakha,” Khudus reminded her, “He might have a moment and- and run off into the Steppes and get eaten by a Baras or something.”

Bluebird sighed, “Okay, fine,” then louder for Aza’s benefit, “We’ll stick together. But!”

She thrust a finger up high into the air, and both Khudus and Aza looked up at it with equal confusion.

“But,” Bluebird repeated, “We’ll watch each other. We’ll see who’s the best hunter by watching how we each do it. We’ll get to stick together, we’ll all find out I’m the best, and we’ll all go home with three big Groundbirds. Sound good?”

“I like everything except the whole ‘you being the best’ thing,” Khudus said flatly, “We all know I’m the better hunter.”

“No, I am,” Bluebird said stubbornly, displaying a terrifying level of denial considering she once missed a sleeping Groundbird mere yalms away with her bow. She made the excuse of getting dust in her eye but Khudus knew the truth – she was just bad.

“…no, me,” Aza cut in – a bit hesitantly, like he wasn’t sure how this game went, but bravely went for it anyways.

“I guess we all think we’re the best,” Khudus said, interrupting Bluebird before she unintentionally bruised Aza’s fledging confidence by shouting back at him, “Looks like we should settle the answer with this hunt, then.”

“Hmph! Prepare to be stunned and amazed!” Bluebird said boldly, planting her hands on her hips and puffing her chest out, “The first try is mine! Watch, as I take down a Groundbird as silently and amazingly like a- a swooping eagle!”

Khudus and Aza stared as Bluebird then strode off in a confident swagger, cackling to herself. She was going to scare the birds away before they even reached them, making all that obnoxious noise, but Khudus just sighed and followed as he usually did whenever she was in this mood. It was best to let Bluebird go first, anyway. She was more tolerable when sulking.

Near silently, Aza followed them – Khudus had to look over his shoulder a few times just to make sure he was still behind them.

If he was that quiet when doing his hunt… well, Khudus could already predict who the winner was going to be.

 


 

Unsurprisingly, Bluebird fucked up her try.

“I don’t get it! I was aiming! Why didn’t I hit it!?” She wailed, kicking at the dirt clumps the Groundbird left behind in its frantic escape. The small clearing they had found the flock was now occupied by high dirt mounds and several deep holes, all begging for some unwary hunter to trip over and break their ankle. Bluebird’s arrow sat pathetically a few ilms from the hole she was stomping around, having missed its mark miserably.

Aza was staring at the arrow with a frown, deep in thought. Khudus left him to it, just relieved he wasn’t spooked by Bluebird’s shrill tantrum.

“Your stance was all weird,” Khudus told her frankly, “You were twisting your upper body like your Mom tells you not to do.”

“I wasn’t!” Bluebird protested, “I was standing right!”

“No, you weren’t!”

“Was to!”

“You weren’t,” Aza finally muttered, not looking at Bluebird and hunching his shoulders slightly as if bracing himself for a physical reprisal, “Your stance was terrible. It made your shot go wide.”

Silence fell over them, Bluebird staring at a half-cringing Aza with a mixture of shock and betrayal. Khudus was just plain surprised Aza would even muster the courage to say anything. Aza just looked queasy, clearly regretting his decision to speak out.

“I- But, you…” Bluebird’s stubborn anger seemed to deflate. She had enough presence of mind to know her usual tactic of whining and hissing in the face of criticism would be catastrophically bad and end in genuine tears – but didn’t know how to act otherwise. So, she just stood there, frowning, and letting the silence pull between them awkwardly.

Aza seemed to wilt the longer the silence dragged on, bowing his head and anxiously rubbing at his sore looking wrists.

Khudus put him out of his misery, “See, I told you. You need to work on your stance more, unless you wanna be a bad hunter forever.”

Bluebird made a face like she swallowed a salt block, and instead of acknowledging the fact that she was wrong she just stomped off in a full-blown huff, kicking at dirt mounds as she went. Khudus watched her go, heaving a sigh. Bluebird would come around once she cooled off. At least she didn’t didn’t yell this time.

“Was that… wrong of me to say?” Aza asked into the quiet that followed Bluebird’s departure. His ears were drooping miserably, and Khudus felt a little awkward when he realised he was alone with the Cat-boy. Not that there was anything wrong with Cat-boy, but he was aware that responsibility of the Miqo’te’s safety was now firmly in his hands. Great.

“Bluebird’s just bad at taking criticism,” Khudus told him, idly kicking at the dusty ground with the toe of his boot, “She’ll huff and puff for a bit and then crawl back asking how she can get better. Don’t take it seriously.”

Aza looked a little unsure, but he nodded – then paused, seemingly realising it was just the two of them. Wariness flickered across his expression, but he didn’t freak out like Khudus was terrified of happening. He had no idea how to deal with upset people.

“…should we wait here?” Cat-boy asked, rubbing at his wrists again. One of the cuts on them had reopened and tiny smears of red were rubbed over his dark skin. Khudus fought the urge to reach out and stop him, so he planted his hands on his hips instead.

“If you’re willing to be bored waiting for her to get her head out of her ass,” Khudus said bluntly, “Or, we can do some hunting ourselves. Bluebird can find us easily.”

Aza looked at the direction Bluebird stormed off in – the grass was high and thick here, the ground uneven and undulating, so the girl was long out of sight. She wouldn’t be far, though. She probably found a rock or a log to kick at for a good fifteen minutes and will sulk after them from a distance. Khudus knew – she did this every time.

At least he had company this time, even if it was very skittish, quiet company.

“Do you want to wait?” Khudus asked him when Aza didn’t say anything.

“Yeah,” Aza said, fidgeting with his sleeve, “If that’s okay.”

“S’okay,” Khudus sighed. It wasn’t really. It was going to be boring, but if Aza wanted to wait for her, then they’ll wait. Maybe they’d luck out and Bluebird would remember she was meant to be looking after her new brother instead of pouting over her lack of perfection, “What do you wanna do while we wait, then?”

Aza paused, looking a little unsure, before his gaze drifted over Khudus’s shoulder. His expression was unreadable, but there was something almost… wistful about it.

“I… can I, look at your bow?” he asked.

Puzzled but curious, Khudus unslung his bow from his back. It was a simple hunting bow, made for a child still learning the discipline. It was made from supple, bendy wood that they traded with the Domans for, and very compact. It was made for powerful shots at close range, since the Iriq hunted their prey normally from horseback, racing up close to the fleeing beast and shooting it at point blank range. The best hunters could normally kill or cripple with one shot, especially if they hit the beast at the base of its neck.

Aza stepped closer, but he took the bow from him gingerly, like he was half-expecting Khudus to snatch the bow away or grab at him. Khudus made sure to stay completely still, and relinquished the bow when the Cat-boy took it, watching curiously as Aza turned it over in his hands.

“This looks different…” Aza murmured, then shifted into an archery stance. It was… impeccable, really. Khudus was a little envious how the boy just neatly slid into the stance like it was second nature, and Aza experimentally pulled the bowstring back, smoothly and gracefully – before letting the tension slacken as he lowered it.

“It’s stronger,” Aza said, eyeing the compact bow in his hands, “Hmm…”

“What’re the bows like back home for you?” Khudus asked curiously.

“They’re…” Aza trailed off, his gaze lowering as his expression darkened for a brief moment, “Different. Bigger and longer.”

“Longer range?” Khudus guessed, feeling a bit uneasy at how Aza was staring blankly at the floor.

“…yeah,” Aza thankfully shook off whatever dark mood had settled over him, plucking lightly at the bowstring in his hands. Khudus watched the movements, and noted that the Cat-boy had thin, pale and old scars on his fingers, like the veteran archers did in their tribe, “We’d sit in the trees and wait in the branches, and then when our prey came, we’d…”

He mimed shooting an arrow with the bow, a small, wistful smile on his lips, “I was really bad at it at first,” he admitted, “I couldn’t hit anything and got frustrated. But Mom wou-” He stopped.

Khudus bit his bottom lip, looking away when Aza’s face filled with grief. The silence between them turned heavy and awkward, but it was broken when Aza drew in a long, shuddering breath that sounded to be on the verge of a ragged sob. The Miqo’te swallowed it down though.

“I practiced,” Aza said roughly instead. He was looking at the bow again – he didn’t seem happy now, “I practiced a lot, so now I’m- was… good.”

“Was?” Khudus asked warily. Aza’s expression was strange – he couldn’t properly decipher it but it made him feel uneasy for reasons he couldn’t explain.

“It’s been a while,” Aza murmured, “And… I don’t want to use it, anymore. There’s no point.”

Aza held the bow out, and Khudus slowly took it. The Cat-boy was staring off into the distance, his expression still strange.

“How will you hunt without a bow, though?” Khudus asked.

Aza didn’t answer him. His gaze slid to the side, slowly, still distant, and a moment later Khudus heard the rustle of someone racing through tall, thick grass.

Bluebird burst back into the clearing, red-faced and puffing, stems of grass sticking out of her clothes like she’d just dived into a thick patch and flailed around in there for a good moment, “T-There’s… creeps…!” she wheezed.

Aza and Khudus stared at her uncomprehendingly.

“What?” Khudus said blankly.

“Creeps!” Bluebird hissed, angrily scraping grass from her hair as she walked towards them, “I was sitting in a bush, thinking-”

“Sulking, more like,” Khudus muttered.

“-and I saw some guys skulking about,” Bluebird finished, ignoring Khudus’s jab, “They were moving all sneaky like, so I stayed still and quiet, and they didn’t see me. But they were muttering and I saw Buduga colours.”

Khudus went stiff, while Aza just continued to look blank, “Buduga- how many were there?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t exactly stay to get their life stories!” Bluebird snapped, “I wriggled out of there as quick as I could! They looked like scouts, so-”

“Okay, back to camp then,” Khudus said, glancing at Aza worriedly. Bluebird wouldn’t have much to worry about lone Buduga scouts – they tended to avoid lone females like they had the plague, but Khudus and Aza? If scouts walked across them, out on their own and without adult protection, they would snap them up and drag them back to their indoctrination camps. It wouldn’t matter Aza wasn’t an Au Ra – the mere novelty of a Cat-boy would be enough to spur their interest in him.

“No shit,” Bluebird huffed, “C’mon, Aza, let’s go quick time. The Buduga are bad news.”

“They snatch people,” Khudus told the confused Miqo’te as they started out of the clearing at a rapid pace, back to the camp, “Only boys. They take them away and brainwash them to join their weird, creepy cult of a tribe.”

Aza abruptly looked ill.

“Only boys too,” Bluebird emphasised, “They never snatch adults.”

Aza looked very ill.

“Why?” Aza asked, looking like he really didn’t want to know but was compelled to ask anyway.

“Because kids are easier to brainwash,” Bluebird said darkly. No doubt she was remembering her brother, “They fill their heads with stupid shit like, ‘men are superior’ and how only the strong live, and the weak die, or something like that. They don’t touch women, because they don’t know how sex works or something.”

“They think women are too, um, inferior,” Khudus muttered, finding the thought of it bizarre. The Borlaaq were powerful warriors, and the Iriq women were just as skilled as the men when it came to crafting and the like. He had no idea where the Buduga got their ideas of ‘women are inferior’ from, “To touch, or something. I think they have sex with each other, though.”

“Which produces exactly no babies,” Bluebird rolled her eyes, “They’re so stupid. I wish the Oronir would let them die out already.”

The Oronir wouldn’t, because the Buduga were good at striking out against Oronir’s enemies without the Oronir being accused of it. Khudus’s Moms called them ‘false flag strikes’, though he wasn’t quite sure what that meant – but everyone knew when Buduga attacked a tribe on Oronir’s behalf. It was just, no one could directly accuse them of it, which was underhanded and dirty.

Aza said nothing. He was walking close to Bluebird again, looking extremely tense and unwell. The Buduga had shaken him, and too late Khudus remembered that Aza was – well, damn, he must think there’s a tribe of slavers ready to do to him what he had just escaped. He almost kicked himself for his stupidity, but there wasn’t much they could do now. It was basically true… well, the Buduga had many sins, but having sex with the kids they stole was where they drew the line at least, or so he heard anyway.

Still, how annoying. The Buduga ruin everything, including nice hunts out aimed at relaxing skittish new tribe members. Hopefully they were just prowling and not planning a raid. Buduga raids were always terrible to endure – someone was always lost during it.

Chapter Text

“Oh, look! It’s Lizardman!”

Chuluun’s tail flicked in irritation at the shameless yelling, and reluctantly turned from his grain counting to see Atani’s hellspawn swaggering towards him with two minions in tow. Khudus had an exasperated expression, as always whenever he was saddled in babysitting Atani’s child, and timidly following closely on Bluebird’s heels was- ah.

Cat-boy, as everyone in the tribe was starting to call him. He was peering up at him with eerie, bright yellow beast-eyes, looking like he didn’t quite know what to make of him. Hmph, at least Chuluun’s strange appearance fascinated the boy enough for him to briefly forget his fear.

“I am Advisor Chuluun,” he sniffed, straightening up as much as his stiff spine would allow. The scales that coated his body offered him little to no flexibility, and he was cursed to be forever stooped and limping. It made his daily inspections of the Iriq tribe’s collective inventory a bit painful, but one must endure a bit of discomfort for the good of the tribe, “Just because you’re related to the Khatun does not mean you can be disrespectful to your elders, girl.”

Bluebird made a face, opening her mouth – but quick as lightning, Khudus leaned over and yanked hard on the collar of her hunting tunic, making her stagger comically with a loud yelp.

“Sorry, Advisor Chuluun,” Khudus said respectfully, “Bluebird’s too stupid to understand manners.”

“I am not-” Bluebird hissed, twisting in Khudus’s grip to smack him – only to gasp out a horrified noise when her abrupt movement made her accidentally cuff Cat-boy hard across his head, “Oh shit- Aza, I’m sorry!”

“…ow,” Cat-boy, Aza, muttered after a delayed pause, his expression almost comically startled. He was frozen in place – so were Bluebird and Khudus – like he wasn’t quite sure how he was meant to respond or act in this situation. Chuluun tiredly watched them, wondering what on earth possessed Atani to get attached to such a wounded child. She was ill-equipped to deal with the level of emotional stuntedness he was witnessing right now.

“Is there a reason you three are bothering me?” he cut in, breaking the children out of their ridiculous gaping. Bluebird turned to him with a scowl that was all Atani’s – what a pity she didn’t take after Aruci in temperament. One Atani was exhausting enough to deal with, but two…?

“Well, we were gonna tell you about some creeps crawling about on Karakul Hill,” Bluebird huffed, “But if you’re gonna get all snippy-

“Bluebird,” Khudus muttered warningly, jabbing her hard in the ribs to shut her up, “We saw Buduga scouts, Advisor Chuluun.”

Chuluun blinked. Buduga scouts? How strange for them to probe so deep into their territory so soon after their last raid. They normally waited a month or two before trying again – not because they liked to give the Iriq and Borlaaq some breathing room to brace for the next strike, but because that savage tribe always needed to replenish their numbers after each raid from their indoctrination camps. Buduga were fierce, but their martial prowess was crippled by their lack of ability for swift, consecutive attacks. Thank the Gods for small mercies, he supposed.

“Are you sure they were Buduga?” Chuluun asked severely, aware that children tended to exaggerate, “It could be one of the other tribes.”

“They were definitely Buduga,” Bluebird said fiercely, “I saw them myself! I wouldn’t mistake them!”

That Chuluun could grudgingly agree with. Bluebird had a fanatical hatred of the Buduga matched only by her mother… if she saw Buduga, it was highly likely they were there. Still, how strange. They shouldn’t have the numbers to… unless they were desperate. This drought has not been kind to them, ever since their falling out with the Oronir. Maybe…

“I see… well, I will take this to the Khatun once I’m finished then,” Chuluun said.

“Why not now?” Bluebird huffed, “Isn’t this an emergency?”

“No,” Chuluun turned away from her, resuming his inspection of the grain bags, “They won’t be attacking tonight.”

Bluebird sounded like she was going to angrily question him, but there was a ‘thump’ that sounded like fist meeting a hard, unyielding skull. A quiet whine of pain echoed behind him.

“Thanks, Advisor Chuluun. We’ll be going now!” Khudus said quickly – and breathlessly. There was the noise of shifting leather and fabric, of quiet scuffling, “We’re- ngh, c’mon, Bluebird, you little-”

Ow, stop pulling my tail you-”

The children wandered away. Chuluun waited for a moment before stiffly turning around, watching Khudus drag a protesting Bluebird by her tail, Cat-boy dutifully following after them with his body tucked into itself. He looked like a kicked dog slinking after its master.

He sympathised with the boy, he really did, but Chuluun still felt uneasy about his acceptance into the tribe. Miqo’te were strange creatures, and Atani’s story of how that child brutally murdered his masters with his bare hands… that amount of violent, murderous rage simply didn’t vanish. That boy had been damaged in an irrevocable way, and only time would tell how that damage would manifest itself as. Perhaps the boy would become timid and kind… or perhaps he’d be another Atani, venting his bitterness and anger on anyone with the misfortunate to stand on the opposite side of the battlefield. 

Whatever happened, it was out of his hands now, he supposed. All he could do now was watch and advise… and pray for the best.

 


 

Khaji tapped his bottom lip thoughtfully, pondering over what he just saw.

Khudus and Bluebird were a surprise to see – Khaji hadn’t seen them in the five years since he’d been liberated, and it was strange, to see them so grown now. He remembered them being so small… and cuter. Bluebird had not grown into her ugly temper well, from what he witnessed.

But. He didn’t really care about them, beyond a passing, distant curiosity. They were false relatives – they weren’t true brothers. Bluebird, because she was a girl, and Khudus, because he hadn’t yet accepted his potential yet. That’ll come soon, though. Khaji made a mental note to target Khudus specifically for the raid.

And a note to target that curious Cat-boy.

He remained lying in the grass, staring down at the clearing still filled with holes from the Groundbirds’ frantic escape. He was situated on a little knoll, got to witness Bluebird’s tantrum and storming off, got to witness Khudus and Cat-boy speaking – though too far away to hear, pity – before they raced off for whatever reason. He could have swooped in and taken them, but… well, one of them may’ve escaped, and that would’ve put the reconnaissance into jeopardy. Iriq would tolerate vague sightings of Buduga on their borders – not so much an outright kidnapping.

“Where did they pick that creature up…?” Khaji mused to himself. He had initially dismissed the odd thing – it had looked so weak and pathetic; scrawny, short, runtish, like an underfed dog only good for venting your frustrations on. But that stance… its stance with the bow had been beautiful. Absolutely perfect. The Buduga were so short on skilled archers right now – they took too much from the Qerel, making their tribe heavy on front-line fighters currently – so to snatch that Cat-boy up and awaken him to his potential…

Could it happen? He wasn’t Xaela, but Khaji had heard tales how Buduga had the occasional Raen or strange Hyur swell their ranks. Also… if he brought that creature back, and it proved to be perfect with the bow, Khaji’s standing would rise so high! A wet, behind-the-ears raider, bringing back such a prize on his first mission! Khaji’s heart pounded at the thought of the praise he’d receive from his older brothers!

Yes, he must liberate him. If only because to leave him in the hands of the weak, soft Iriq would only make him frailer. No, Khaji will do him a kindness and make him strong. He will beat the weakness out of him, like it was beaten out of all Buduga, until nothing but hard, unflinching steel remained.  

Khaji smiled, and slowly rose from his hiding spot before swiftly making his way back to the rendezvous point for the rest of the scouting party.

 


 

“Don’t mention the Buduga to your Mom.”

Bluebird muttered under her breath at Khudus’s severe tone, “I know. I’m not dumb.”

Aza frowned to himself, confused why Atani shouldn’t know about there being slavers nearby, but kept his peace. He was just glad to be back in the safety of the camp – even if it brought its own stressors with it. It was early afternoon, and the camp was somehow even louder, steady traffic weaving between the yurts, livestock and ponies plodding around grazing at the yellowing grass. It made him feel so overwhelmed that he had to stick close to Bluebird’s heels, shamefully using her as a physical shield from all the… the people.

“What should our excuse be?” Khudus continued. Aza flicked an ear towards him, “She’s gonna question why we’re back so early.”

Bluebird snorted and looked over her shoulder right at Aza, “That’s why.”

Aza lowered his gaze, “…I felt ill?”

“Right.”

“Bluebird,” Khudus sounded disapproving, but Aza didn’t mind being used in this way. Well, actually, he did – he didn’t like lying to Atani, who showed him such kindness, but he was aware he was serving two different interests instead of just one now. He had to keep two different people happy, with different interests, and if that meant a bit of manipulation, then… it wouldn’t be the first time. Keep Bluebird happy, keep Atani happy, keep Aruci happy… he needed to keep them happy, then they wouldn’t rethink their stance on… him.

“What?” Bluebird looked at Khudus, and they seemed to have some kind of silent conversation with a lot of eyebrow waggling and exaggerated frowning, “Oh,” she finally said, looking oddly sheepish, “I forgot. Okay, fine.”

Aza watched warily as Bluebird looked back at him again, “Do you mind pretending to be ill? Only if you want to. You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

Was this a trick question? Aza looked between Bluebird and Khudus. They had stopped walking now – they were by the yurt close to Bluebird’s, the one that belonged to the three women Aza saw washing this morning. He shifted his weight, feeling like – he was in one of those situations. Where he was given a question and – it was phrased that it was his choice but, there was only one right answer, and if he gave the wrong one…

“I…” he lowered his gaze, anxiously rubbing at his wrists, “I don’t… want to lie to Atani.”

Bluebird let out a short, frustrated sounding breath. Aza’s ears flicked back. Wrong answer.

“Okay, um,” Bluebird planted her hands on her hips, looking down and biting her bottom lip, “Shit.”

“How about we say Bluebird was so bad at archery that we came back before she accidentally killed us while aiming at Groundbirds?” Khudus said in a slow, mocking drawl.

Bluebird’s head snapped up, her eyes thin, angry slits, “I’m not that bad!”

“You’re pretty awful.”

“I am not! I-I got dust in my eye!”

“You always use that excuse! If your eyes get so dusty, maybe wear some goggles, bonehead!”

“I’ll show you bonehead, you goat-fucker!”

Khudus leaned back theatrically, gasping loudly, “Bluebird! You said a bad word in front of your new baby brother!”

“Oh, pfft,” Bluebird waved her hand dismissively, “If he kills people, he can hear me swear.”

Aza, who had been relaxing at their squabbling, found himself tensing at that. Bluebird always referenced it casually, but it still made his stomach squirm to think about. He didn’t – regret, doing that. Killing – those people. But to have it said so plainly, so out there – he kills people, he has killed, he murdered – it made him. He remembered – he remembered the fierce, ecstatic joy when he killed Master, he remembered that deep, burning rage, bitter betrayal, when Ala-

He squelched that train of thought, took in a deep breath and dug his fingernails into his aching wrist.

“Bluebird,” he interrupted quietly, and instantly the other two turned to him, “I… I actually don’t feel well.”

Bluebird looked oddly relieved and concerned, “Oh? Oh, uh, okay. Um, you wanna go see Mommy?”

Aza nodded quietly, and they started towards the yurt again. This time Bluebird stuck to his side, like she was expecting him to swoon into her arms at any moment.

“Mommy, we’re back!” Bluebird called when they stepped inside – only to pause, “Oh, huh, no one’s home.”

Indeed, the yurt was empty. It was cleaned up, and Aza’s bed was rolled out, like Atani or Aruci had expected them to come back early because of him feeling unwell, but otherwise it was empty. Judging by how Bluebird was frowning, this was unusual.

But her frown cleared up quickly and she shrugged, “Oh well. Hey, Aza, let’s sit at the table and have some food. You haven’t eaten all day, right?”

Aza’s stomach flopped unpleasantly at the thought of food, but Bluebird was adamant.

“Trust me, hunger’s probably what’s making you all woozy,” Bluebird said, “Right, Khudus?”

“Well, yeah, maybe. Plus, it’s been kinda hot, so maybe you need a drink too.”

Outnumbered, Aza was frogmarched to the table and forced to sit at it. The jerky Atani had foisted on them earlier was pulled out of each other’s respective satchels, and Bluebird pottered at the stove, making… something mysterious. Aza stared unenthusiastically at the jerky in his hands.

“It’s really good,” Khudus assured him, “Try a little. Just a mouthful?”

Aza obeyed the order. He easily ripped off a mouthful, his sharp canines tearing through the dried meat with ease. It tasted… kind of salty, but nice in a way that the rich, Hingan food his Master fed him wasn’t. He realised he hadn’t had jerky since… home.

Suddenly, it didn’t taste so nice at that thought. He felt ill.

Khudus was talking, though, “It must be nice to have such sharp teeth. I have to gnaw at this to even get a mouthful, but you just ripped it right off.”

Bluebird turned away from the stove at that, pouting, “Aw, did I miss seeing Aza’s wolf-teeth in action?”

“Yeah, it was pretty cool.”

Bluebird fully abandoned the stove, moving over to sit at the table and leaned over, staring right at Aza’s mouth. With much struggle, he forcefully swallowed his jerky, feeling it move all the way down his throat like an uncomfortable lump, trying to fidget from under the weight of the girl’s stare.

“Open your mouth,” Bluebird ordered.

Aza obeyed. He opened his mouth, and Bluebird whistled quietly – even Khudus leaned in, both of them staring, wide-eyed, at his canines.

Like a Keepers, he had two sets of canines – the front and the ones immediately behind them on both the upper and lower jaw. The front ones were sharper than the back ones, and Aza remembered more than once accidentally cutting the inside of his cheek when they first came in as a kid. Not so much anymore… he remembered his Master had been tempted to file them down, but Aza had been careful not to bite during… during. It was probably that bit of self-restraint that saved him from that awful pain.

“I wouldn’t want you biting me,” Bluebird muttered, leaning back with an envious look, “You could take a chunk out of someone with those.”

“Could probably rip someone’s throat out,” Khudus added, “Those fangs look sharp and long enough to dig right into someone’s neck.”

“Oh, that’d be amazing to see,” Bluebird grinned, “Just, rawr, CHOMP! Blood everywhere and a guy with a massive hole in his throat! Dead, instantly!”

Aza closed his mouth, feeling unsettled at the thought because – he had those thoughts. With Master. He always wondered, in the earlier days, how easy it’d be to just lean up and snap his teeth right into his throat, just rip it right out. Master had always been a little too high, been too strong, for him to even attempt it, though, and after that Aza had just known better than to try. The fantasy always stayed with him, though. He wished… he wished he had the courage to try in the earlier days. He may’ve gotten away with it. Might’ve…

Khudus looked at him, and quickly nudged Bluebird, “Uh, Bluebird. Tea?”

Bluebird frowned, then looked at Aza too, and looked sheepish, “Oh, um, yeah. I’ll finish that now.”

“We’re just joking around,” Khudus said when Bluebird moved away, “Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Aza muttered to the jerky in his hand, and forced himself to take another bite. He imagined it as Master’s neck, and felt both satisfaction and disgust in himself, “I think about it too.”

Khudus did not look comforted at those words. He looked down at the table, heaving a quiet sigh. Aza left him to it.

It was an idea to keep in mind, though, in case he ran into those Buduga. They didn’t know about Miqo’te much, so… if they tried to snatch him, and they foolishly let him in close… he’d bite this time. He wouldn’t hesitate to do it. He’d bite them.

‘He kills people.’

Yeah. He kills people. He’ll kill to make sure he is never, never, never, never, taken again. He’d sooner bite off his own tongue, then endure that again.

He wouldn’t even hesitate.

Chapter Text

Atani returned to the yurt in the late afternoon to see three wayward children asleep on her floor.

Khudus was sprawled out with all his gangly limbs like a starfish, snoring obnoxiously loud with his mouth wide open. Next to him Bluebird was curled up on her side, her face set into a grimace – probably from the force of Khudus snoring right next to her horn – and next to her, furthest from Khudus, with his back close to the stove like a cat basking in its heat was Aza.

He was curled up tight, knees close to his chest, hands curled almost protectively in front of his face – with bright, golden eyes peeking up at her. Oh, not asleep.

“Hello. Feeling better?” she asked, quietly moving deeper into the yurt, light-footed enough that she wouldn’t rouse Bluebird or Khudus. She adjusted the bundle in her arms, setting it on the low table. The remains of jerky and empty tea cups sat on the surface, and her heart felt fit to burst at the thought of her little Coeurl getting along so well with her daughter and friend.

“Mm…” Aza replied, a tension she didn’t notice easing out of him. He must’ve woken up when she stepped in – if he’d been asleep at all with Khudus’s snoring – and instantly been on guard. Wise instincts.

Atani sat down, looking over the three children with a soft smile. Something inside of her always felt calm and relaxed whenever she saw such peaceful things – children were precious gifts to this harsh, dirty world, and she always felt the pain and hardship she endured was worth it, to reach these moments.

“I have a gift for you,” she told Aza, “Well, several. You want to have them now?”

Aza blinked slowly at her – he briefly looked suspicious, wary, but the expression passed quickly enough. He was warming up to her, she noted with some satisfaction, making sure to seem as non-threatening as possible as Aza sat up and slowly scooted over to her without budging his rump off the floor.

It was something she’d scold Bluebird for, but she let it slide for him. She nudged the bundle across the table, waiting as Aza watched it curiously.

“I felt you should own some clothes of your own,” Atani explained when Aza made no move to touch it, “Instead of borrowing my old things. I wasn’t sure how much taller you would grow, so I may need to adjust them as you get older.”

“These…” Aza murmured, staring blankly at the bundle, “These are mine?”

“Completely,” Atani assured him.

Aza’s gaze flickered from the bundle to her – he looked wary again, unsure. It broke her heart, to think that instead of being excited over a present like most children, he viewed it with open suspicion. Just what did these slavers do? Were they the literal embodiment of evil? What type of creature would intentionally damage a child this way? They must be Voidsent or some sort of demon.

“What do I…” Aza bit his bottom lip briefly, flashing a sharp canine, “What… do you want?”

“Nothing,” Atani said calmly. She was getting better at throttling her temper, she thought wryly, even if she felt her rage burn a pit in her stomach, “There are no strings, no fish hooks. These are yours, for free, with no expectations. You don’t even need to accept them.”

Aza rubbed his wrists – they still looked sore, and it almost looked like he was intentionally digging his fingernails into the worst of the cuts. Atani’s fingers twitched as she just restrained the urge to stop him.  

But he eventually reached out to the bundle. He pulled at the twine holding it together, and after glancing at Atani – as if double checking that he was still allowed – he tugged the first article of clothing off the top. It was a hunting tunic similar to what he was wearing now. Aruci spearheaded that gift, having a perfect eye of gauging sizes without needing to measure. It was made of tough hide that Atani hunted from the Northern Tigers herself several months ago but made to be breathable and light. Aza would clearly grow into a man built for agility and not brute strength.

“We guessed your sizing,” she said quietly as Aza let the tunic pool in his lap, staring at it with an unreadable expression, “So if it pinches in some places, don’t hesitate to say. Aruci will adjust it for you.”

“…why,” Aza murmured quietly.

“Everyone should have at least one outfit they call their own,” Atani said lightly, “And I wanted to do something nice for you. To give you a gift to welcome you to my home.”

Aza rubbed his thumb over the breast of the shirt, his eyes lowered and mouth set in an unhappy line.

“Don’t you like it?” Atani asked gently, when the silence pulled between them awkwardly, “If you don’t, it’s fin-”

“I don’t deserve this,” Aza whispered, bowing his head low, “This is too much. I- I don’t deserve this.”

Atani wasn’t sure how to confront that – every child deserved a gift, even bratty ones like Bluebird. But Aza looked stricken, like he’d been caught stealing food out of the mouth of a starving child, and she wondered why. Why did he always seem like he was expecting to be punished for something? Why was his self-worth so low? What terrible deed did he believe he did that makes him wary or terrified of accepting kindness at face value?

“Why don’t you deserve it, Aza?” she murmured, watching as Aza’s hands shook where they held the tunic.

“…” Aza drew in a breath, like he was going to reply, but nothing came out but a shuddering exhale.

Atani drew on Aruci and waited him out.

It paid off. Aza lifted his head slightly, his eyes slightly wet but his cheeks dry, “I-I want… I’m awful. I want you- you to keep being kind to me, but- you won’t, if I tell... tell you… ”

“I will keep being kind to you,” Atani told him, knowing that she would need to kill something big after this, “No matter what you did.”

Aza looked at her – he didn’t believe her, it was obvious from his expression, and something she was painfully familiar with flickered across his face. It was the desire to hurt, to break someone’s unwavering faith in them – the desire to inflict pain so that it would be rebounded on himself as ‘deserving’ punishment. She braced herself but found herself almost disappointed.

“…I’m a murderer,” he told her, quietly, something edged in his tone. His bright, golden eyes were terrifyingly intense, like those of a beast staring her down, and Atani stared back into them fearlessly. She actually smiled.

“So am I,” she told him, “So is Aruci. So is Bluebird. So is everyone in this tribe.”

“No,” Aza’s ears went back and he looked both frustrated and despairing, “No, not like that. Not like- that.”

“Is there any other meaning to murderer?” Atani asked him, “A murderer is someone who has taken a life, in self-defence or maliciously or just for business. It is as natural to Spoken as it is natural for the Baras to kill its prey to eat. It is nothing to be ashamed of.”

Aza just shook his head. He looked close to tears.

Atani remembered, abruptly, when he had his nightmare last night. How he had wept about killing and failing. She had paid it little mind – or rather, forced herself to ignore it, as there was no point forcing it out of him, but now her curiosity returned with vengeance, and she eyed the trembling boy for a moment.

“Do you disagree?” she asked him quietly.

“It’s different,” Aza whispered under his breath.

“How is it different?” she challenged him – she could see it now. The anger, the bitterness, that the boy kept locked up tight under his fear. Anger was good – anger was cleansing, where despair would otherwise take root and paralyse you. She steeled herself, preparing herself to push him a little – she’ll take him angry and screaming, over him retreating into his apathetic, empty state.

Aza didn’t reply.

“How is it different?” she asked him again.

“I-” Aza croaked. He looked ill, “I killed… I k-killed…”

“The slavers?” Atani pressed, “They were filth who deserved it, you must know that.”

Aza just breathed for a moment, his gaze fixed somewhere in the middle distance, like his soul had briefly left his body to escape the conversation. It was enough to make a guilty feeling squirm low in her stomach.

“Coeurl-” she began, ready to deescalate the conversation.

“…sister…”

Atani paused, unsure if she heard correctly, “Sorry?”

“Sister…” Aza repeated. He was still staring at nothing – there was no emotion in his expression as he sat there, blankly staring at the space between them, “My sister.”

Atani leaned back and looked at him.

Whenever Aza was uncomfortable or afraid of incurring physical reprisal for saying/doing something wrong, he would tuck into himself slightly, shoulders hunched and tail between his legs. There was none of that here. He looked eerily relaxed, his face devoid of any expression or emotion, his gaze looking right through her. She was certain that if she went to stab him, he would simply accept it without protest.

“You killed… your sister?” she repeated slowly, just to ensure she understood.

That eerie blankness cracked a bit. Grief and shame and despair flooded his expression, and he bowed his head low, a wretched “yes” practically ripping itself out of his throat.

The remorse and regret were all but flowing off of him, and Atani found herself unsure on how to proceed. Fratricide was… not uncommon. It was almost normal on the Steppes, for brothers and sisters to turn on each other – competing for high positions, or for resources, or for status or even mates. Hell, if the rumours were true Chagur once shanked her own sister for a dumpling… to her, admitting the murder of your own sister was, while alarming, not the ultimate sin one could commit. Yet Aza’s reaction told her explaining this to him wouldn’t comfort him in the slightest.

“…why did you do that?” she asked.

“I-I didn’t- didn’t mean to!” Aza choked out – it was like a dam had burst. Tears dropped onto the tunic lying forgotten on his lap, his words all but tumbling over themselves as if he had been aching to tell someone this awful deed he’d clutched close to his chest, bowing his head low like the sheer shame of it all was crushing him into the earth, “I didn’t- she- I k-killed Master. I killed him, a-and I-I thought we could escape but s-she, she didn’t want- didn’t want to and I…”

He pressed his hands against his face, breathing ragged into it like it was too painful to voice, “I-I don’t even- I don’t even remember, I- I got angry, a-and, and then, she- she betrayed me. She betrayed me…!”

“Shhh, shh,” Atani couldn’t endure it any longer. She scooted around the table, drawing the quietly sobbing boy into her arms. He didn’t resist, “Stop, it’s okay.”

“I-It isn’t,” Aza choked, “It should’ve- she should’ve escaped. She should’ve- w-why, why didn’t she…”

Atani grimaced, unsure on how to explain without being cruel to this sister’s memory. It wasn’t unheard of, for slaves to become loyal to their masters – a twisted devotion that the disgusting Buduga had long since mastered the cultivation of. In her personal view, putting the girl out of her misery was a kindness, and not a crime, like Aza seemed to believe.

“I-It isn’t fair,” Aza sniffled loudly, wiping at his eyes with the back of his hands, “I-I did it for her. E-Everything, I… I endured f-for her, and… i-it was… was for nothing. I-I felt, I felt so angry, w-when I- I realised that, a-and…”

He trailed off. Atani didn’t press him any further.

“I’m a monster,” Aza finally whispered into the quiet. Khudus, Atani noticed, had long since stopped snoring, “I’m awful. I-I shouldn’t- you shouldn’t b-be kind to me. You shouldn’t…”

“As I said before, I will always be kind to you, no matter what you’ve done,” Atani told him firmly.

“I’m a murderer,” Aza muttered into the tense quiet.

“So am I,” Atani said.

“I-I might, I might hurt- hurt Bluebird,” Aza tried, and she could see and hear that specific emotion – the desire to hurt to be hurt in turn. Aza wanted to be pushed away, as much as he craved to keep the kindness. Such a painful, wretched state to be trapped in.

“You saved her, when you had the perfect opportunity to hurt her by doing nothing,” Atani told him firmly, “That alone is enough to tell me your character.”

Aza slumped in her arms, his ears flicked back. She couldn’t see his expression.

“I have no words that’ll make it seem better,” Atani admitted quietly, “But know that I don’t think you’re a monster. I think you’re someone who made a very awful choice in a very awful situation.”

Aza sniffed, and she felt wet drops fall on her bare arm.

“But you’re a child,” Atani continued, “You shouldn’t have had to make that choice in the first place.”

Aza cried, and Atani wondered why the Gods had saw fit to be so cruel to someone so young. The boy was practically consumed with self-hatred and remorse, and if that wasn’t a sign of humanity, then everyone who ever lived was a monster, in Atani’s opinion. She resolved to never speak of this to anyone, though. If Chuluun heard this, he’d brand Aza as an unstable risk, and Amal might be leery enough to listen to him instead of her. She’d overrule him, of course, but she needed Amal’s support for the tribe’s support.

She sighed, rubbing her little Coeurl’s back as he cried out his grief into her shoulder, and glanced over his head to see Bluebird and Khudus looking over at them from where they’d been openly eavesdropping from the floor. The pair of them looked grim – but like all children of the Steppe, they understood that Aza’s crime was not enough to fully condemn him.

Still, she raised a finger to her lips, nodding her head down at Aza pointedly.

The two children nodded and once more pretended to sleep. Good.  

All this from giving him presents… Atani felt exhausted already, but it was a grim, satisfied sort. Little by little, she was chipping at the walls the boy built around himself, worming deeper into his heart and becoming a figure of comfort to him. She may never be his ‘mother’, but she could be close as possible to it, at least.

He must be deserving of kindness though. If the Gods who tormented him saw fit to throw him into theirs, knowing they would accept him and take him in… then surely, that was a sign that he deserved this?

Chapter Text

Aza was sick of crying.

He felt like it was the only thing he had done since he ‘won’ his freedom. He cried when he’d killed Master, he cried when he killed Ala, he cried when the Sekiseigumi took him away, he cried when he saved Bluebird, he cried, he cried, he cried…

It was as if his body was trying to catch up to all the time he didn’t cry. To the times where he learned to swallow it down, to bite his lip against it, because Master hated it when he cried, thought it ugly and ‘too childish’, had…

He still felt that awful, clenching fear in his stomach as he hid behind his hands, half-expecting Master to grab him by his hair and tell him stop that but there was no Master here, he told himself desperately, just like there was no more Ala, there was just Atani who was holding him like Mom would, who was stroking his hair and humming in a low, throaty way that sounded like purring but.

The fear was still there.

He was sick of being afraid too.

He took several deep breaths, feeling them drag against his burning throat, and swallowed the sobs still trying to bubble up. It hurt, like it always did, but he forced it down, right down, imagining like he was crumpling up all those bad thoughts and feelings into a tiny ball that he pushed out of sight. It sat like a stone in his stomach, but he could breathe without choking on tears, even if there was a suffocating pressure squeezing his ribs like an iron band. He forced himself to breathe through it.

Mom used to say that crying was good when you were sad, that it was a way for all the bad feelings to escape and leave you clean inside. Aza didn’t feel that at all. He felt ugly and disgusting and aching, like he’d had someone scraping at his insides until he was raw, every breath catching and his stomach clenched tight in nauseating fear.

He wanted to go home, he thought with a longing so agonising it was like being knifed in the gut. He wanted to go home, but there was no home to go to. There was no home where he could go back to Mom, without Ala, and tell her… no. He couldn’t.

“Feeling better?” Atani murmured to him, when the quiet between them was broken only by his short, strained breathing.

“…” The correct answer would be ‘yes’, and Aza almost said it. Except, he didn’t have the motivation to pretend to be okay. He was only keeping his breathing even from force of will alone, that awful, crushing pressure constantly pressing down on his ribs, like all it took was one, too-deep breath to crack them, “No.”

Atani hummed, like she expected that answer, and curled her fingers into his hair. For a moment his heart rammed up into his throat, half-expecting her to clench and pull, like Master, but she just gently tugged a few knots free and let her hand rest on the nape of his neck instead.

“Crying tends to help get the bitterness out, but it makes you feel awful afterwards,” Atani said, “It’s like lancing a wound. It’s horrible to endure, and it makes you feel disgusting, but it releases the poison out of you. Or, so Chagur tells me, anyway.”

Aza remained quiet. Atani relaxed her hold around him.

“Personally, I just break things,” she continued wryly, “Or kill things. Everyone has their own way of coping.”

Aza thought back to when he killed Master, the absolute rush of euphoric joy that flooded him and utterly eclipsed his pain and fear. That had been nice to feel, that – that realisation that he held the power for once, that he was deciding what happened, that he got to stab that animal’s dick off and hear him scream and beg for mercy. It had been good. It had also made him feel sick – actually made him be sick. He didn’t think that was a good way for him to cope – if only because there was only one Master who was now dead, and when he thought about killing… people, he…

Those slavers on the beach, he hadn’t felt the same joy with them. Those hadn’t been enjoyable in the slightest. Ala’s surprised, pale face flickered across his memory and he quickly pushed it away before he could heave. No. Killing things wasn’t a way to cope, and crying didn’t make him feel better either.

“We’ll find what works for you,” Atani told him, and leaned away slightly, “Are you up for the rest of your gifts, or do you want to rest?”

Oh. Aza had completely forgotten about those.

He looked down guiltily at the tunic on his lap – it was a little rumpled from where he’d curled up into a pathetic ball, a few tear drops dampening its front. He smoothed his hands over it, still feeling like an ungrateful, undeserving wretch. He really didn’t deserve this – but Atani seemed to think he did, even after learning about- about… that. It’d be rude for him to refuse and… it did look nice – was nice to receive a gift that wasn’t tangled in a thousand fishhooks of ‘owing’ Master something. Was nice to have something that was his.

“I’ll… look at them,” he murmured, fighting down a sudden surge of nerves. But Atani just smiled at him, petting his hair just like Mom used to do. It made him feel kind of confused, emotionally.

It was then that the warm, relaxed mood that was slowly descending on them was rudely shattered by Bluebird piping up from her spot on the floor, “Can I wake up now?”

Aza jolted, having completely forgotten about Bluebird and Khudus being in the yurt, and stared at the girl who was watching them from her lazy sprawl on the floor. He became painfully aware of how he was curled up on Atani’s lap like some child, red-eyed and tear-stained, and had an awful, near paralysing fear that Bluebird had heard the entire thing.

“Bluebird,” Atani tutted, her thumb rubbing just behind his ear in a soothing circle, “Couldn’t you have waited for a few more minutes?”

“I got booooored,” Bluebird whined, and sat up. She promptly kicked Khudus in the hip, drawing a grunt from the boy, “Oi, Ox-skull. Stop faking.”

“I wasn’t faking…” Khudus grumbled, squinting his eyes open and not budging from his spot on the floor, “I was dozing.”

Aza’s gaze flickered between them, the panic that had bubbled sharp and fast in him dulling. They weren’t acting like they heard… or maybe like Atani, they didn’t care? He didn’t know, but he didn’t want to ask, quickly wiping at his red-rimmed eyes while Bluebird and Khudus started up another of their squabbles.

“Children, settle down,” Atani said. She didn’t raise her voice, or even sound angry, but Bluebird and Khudus instantly quietened.

Well, until Bluebird’s gaze fell upon the bundle on the table. The girl brightened and crawled over, her tail lifted in curiosity, “Oh, what’s this? Presents? Are they mine?”  

Just as Aza started feeling the beginning flickers of possessiveness – clutching his new tunic closer as Bluebird prodded at the bundle – Atani’s hand suddenly snapped out. With a yelp, Bluebird tumbled flat on her tail when her mother grabbed her by the horn and pulled her back, like how a Miqo’te mother would yank a misbehaving child’s ear.

“These are Aza’s,” Atani scolded her, letting Bluebird’s horn go, “You’ve more than enough clothes, greedy.”

Khudus sniggered, finally sitting up, and Bluebird pouted, rubbing at the base of her horn. Aza watched her worriedly, but she didn’t seem hurt at all.

“Aw, but these look really nice,” Bluebird grumbled, scooting close again but not touching the bundle. She eyed the tunic in Aza’s lap for a moment, then smiled, “Oh, that’s one of Daddy’s work!”

“You have Aruci’s stuff?” Khudus asked, scooting over too, “Lucky! People would sell their prize mare for one of his crafts!”

Aruci was that skilled? Aza looked back down at the tunic in his lap with some guilt. Even when Aza had treated him poorly by being irrationally and stupidly afraid of him, and barely spoke to him, he made something really nice for him? And, seemingly, without expectation of anything. Aza’s stomach squirmed, like he had an entire bucket’s worth of worms in there and resolved to try a bit harder with the Au Ra man. He’ll try.

“It’s made from Tiger skin too,” Bluebird noted, “Mommy, is Aza your new favourite child?”

“Yes,” Atani sniffed, “You’ve been replaced, my little Bluebird.”

“Shucks.”

“About time it happened,” Khudus laughed at her, “You’re so bratty and whiny, I’m surprised she didn’t do it soon-”

“WHO’RE YOU CALLING BRATTY AND WHINY!?”

Atani laughed loudly when Bluebird promptly tackled Khudus to the floor with a war cry, the clattering of connecting horns echoing in the yurt. Aza sat there, staring as Bluebird – scrappy and small – wrestled a cursing Khudus to the ground. She was so incredibly fearless. Even when the slavers had captured her, she had cried, but she kept fighting back and screaming and yelling.

Aza had been like that too – but fighting back always ended up with Ala being punished alongside him, and while misery loved company, he could never stand Ala crying, her confusion on why she was being hurt for something he did. That was… the beginning of a lot of things, really. Ala resented him for those early days. It was so easy to see that now, looking back.

He needed to find that fire in him again. He was sick of being afraid. He wanted to be like Bluebird, like himself, fearless and resisting, instead of cowering from things that reminded him of Master and the behaviour he conditioned himself to fit into.

“Coeurl?” Atani questioned him, when he stared blankly at the tunic in his hands. Bluebird had Khudus in a headlock at this point and was loudly declaring the prowess of her ‘dominating biceps’.

“I’m okay,” he lied, kind of. He was okay, just… not fully. He took a breath and was relieved to find the tight pressure on his ribs gone. The urge to cry wasn’t there. He didn’t feel better, but he felt a bit lighter. It was an okay feeling, “I’m fine.”

Maybe there was something to that stuff about crying after all… 

He was still sick of it, though.

 


 

“Buduga scouts, hm?”

“So Bluebird says.”

Amal tapped his fingers idly on the side of his cup, watching the milky tea ripple from the touch. It was too soon for the Buduga to be gearing up for another raid – their last one had only been two weeks ago, and the Borlaaq had smashed them to pieces, sending the raiding party limping away with only two children. A poor trade off for the Buduga.

“What could they be thinking?” Amal mused to himself. The Buduga shouldn’t be in any kind of state to be raiding anyone right now. For not only had the Borlaaq sent them away with their tails between their legs, but there had been a spectacular row between Khatuns of the Buduga and the Oronir, with accusations being flung between them of their Khatun’s son being stolen. The Oronir suspected the Buduga, the Buduga claimed innocence, and a generations-long alliance saw the beginnings of cracks at long last.

“Desperation, perhaps?” Chuluun suggested, “They must be low on men and need to bolster their numbers… as well, their food supplies…”

“Ah, right,” Amal smiled grimly, “Desperate beasts are the most dangerous kind. I would have thought them to target the more vulnerable tribes, though, like the Kahkol further down the stream. They’re scrappy but wouldn’t be able to resist a determined assault from the Buduga.”

“I’ve heard rumours that the Kahkol are battling a plague,” Chuluun said quietly, “The Buduga are savages, but even they know better than to hunt a poisoned animal.”

Amal sighed. How annoying. The Buduga could have smashed themselves further on the Kahkol and the Borlaaq would’ve been able to take advantage of their brief, vulnerable state as they returned from their raid. They roughly knew where one of their forward outposts were – they could have pre-emptively struck at them and strained them further.  

“Speaking of,” Chuluun said, “Have you considered my proposal?”

“Yes, and I reject it,” Amal said, “Even if the Kahkol weren’t dying of plague, apparently, I wouldn’t send Atani’s newest son there.”

“He fits their criteria,” Chuluun muttered, but he didn’t sound surprised. Amal supposed Chuluun knew he would refuse it, though it begged the question of why he asked about transferring Aza to the orphan tribe in the first place. Chuluun wasn’t a cold, callous man, despite his sour personality, so it was strange for him to be so standoffish with the boy, foreigner or not.

“Do you have an issue with Aza?” Amal asked his advisor curiously, “You seem a bit biased against him.”

Chuluun heaved a sigh, tugging at his scaly chin.

“Its not bias…” he grumbled, “Merely that he is unpredictable. Atani said he killed his masters with his bare hands? I saw him today, with Bluebird… he looked like a beaten dog, the kind that has endured the harsh hand of its master for too long. You know better than I how those kind of people turn out. They’re unpredictable… dangerous, too broken to integrate properly into tribes.”

“Until something happens, I won’t make rash judgements,” Amal said pointedly, “We can offer him that much, for saving one of our own.”

Chuluun made an irritated noise but didn’t argue further.

“The Buduga,” Amal continued, “I suppose if they’re desperate and wanting to replenish supplies and men… we should invite them with open arms.”

“…Khatun?”

“You lure a hungry beast into a trap with some bait,” Amal smiled, liking the idea more and more, “The Borlaaq are known to go off on grand, hunting trips during the Dawn Father’s Trial, so…”

“So, they will be anticipating our protection to leave in the next few weeks,” Chuluun said slowly, “With only a token force to protect us, and our cadre of hunters.”

“They will be watching for the signs of them stocking up for their trip,” Amal tapped his bottom lip, smirking, “And they would be certain we would take it, since they routinely leave it almost two months before they attack us again. So soon after their last attack, we normally wouldn’t suspect anything.”

Amal pushed himself to his feet, the beginnings of excitement pushing him out of his lazy mood, “So why disappoint them? We will have the Borlaaq go on their grand hunting trip, we’ll strip our defences down to a token force, and they will leap at the opportunity it offers. They will all but dive into our camp without fear.”

“Khatun…” Chuluun said slowly, his eyes brightening with realisation, “Are you saying…?”

“They will not expect the Borlaaq to appear right on their tails,” Amal finished with a grin, “And they will be penned inside our own camp, unable to escape. Think about it, Chuluun, cutting down a Buduga raiding party to the last man!”

“A clever plan!” Chuluun praised, and Amal preened. He knew he kept him around for something, “The Buduga would think twice before raiding us again, with two humiliating defeats happening within weeks of each other!”

“Oh, but it won’t end there, Chuluun,” Amal purred, and he felt the warm flickers of that bloodlust that plagued his bloodline stir his spirit. He didn’t embody it like Atani, but it was enough to make him feel like he could breathe pure, invigorating fire, “Before we kill the last man, we’ll pry his main camp’s location from him. Then the Borlaaq will have their hunting trip, running every last Buduga parasite to the ground.”

Chuluun paused, looking uncertain, “Khatun, a raiding party is one thing, but the whole tribe…”

“Without the Oronir’s protection, this is the weakest they’ll ever be,” Amal said, “The time to strike will be now.”

“… I see how you are related to Atani,” Chuluun muttered, clearly unnerved. He wasn’t meeting Amal’s eyes. “I advise you against this path, Khatun. Even weakened as they are, the Buduga are stronger than us.”

“I know,” Amal said, “But we’ll be doing it anyway. Khatun Maral will no doubt agree to avenge all the sons we have lost to them.”

Chuluun grimaced but did not argue further.  

Which was good, because this was the path Amal had decided to take for their tribes and nothing would sway him otherwise. He understood Chuluun’s thoughts – even acknowledged them as a real possibility that would happen – but Amal was sick and tired of losing child after child after child to those vultures every few months. The Borlaaq and Iriq never suffered from lack of numbers, because of their high fertility, but that wasn’t the point. The Buduga stole their children and warped them into caricatures of what they could have been – and constantly avoided any and all retribution because of their damnable alliance with the Oronir.

But not anymore.

“Chin up, Chuluun,” Amal told his advisor cheerily, “This time in a month’s time, our greatest foe will be scattered across the Steppe like the chaff they are, just in time to greet the rains.”

It would be glorious. Amal had a good feeling about this. Though…

That might just be his inner beast talking.  

Chapter Text

A flock of sparrows exploded from the underbrush as Bluebird charged through it, her feet nimbly catching purchase on the undulating, uneven ground until she all but skidded into a nice, shallow ditch. She muffled a cough from the dusty sand kicked up from the aggressive movement, flattening herself against the ground and huddling under the lip of the ditch, forcing herself to breathe short and quiet, her heart hammering in her chest.

Silence fell. The startled birds distant chirping faded, and all she could hear was the noise of the wind brushing over the long, swaying bulrush. There was a stone digging into her ribs, but she didn’t dare shift her position in case-

The noise of a boot crunching over dry grass. Bluebird went still, shifting quietly so that she could spring up faster if she had to. The steps were moving closer and closer, slow and cautious, and Bluebird waited, until they were almost upon her and-

“GOT YOU!” She roared, lunging upwards and tackling- Khudus!?

“Argh! Bluebird!” her stupid neighbour roared, the pair of them tumbling into the long bulrush and making a cacophony of noise. There was a confused, angry moment where they tried to figure out who’s limbs were who’s, almost locking horns before Bluebird threw herself back to land heavily on her rump, staring flushed and irritated at Khudus.

“What’re you doing over here?” she grumbled, “You were meant to go West!”

“I am West!” Khudus argued, sitting up and aggressively brushing the dirt off his tunic, “You’re in the wrong spot, again.”

“No, I’m… this is definitely East,” Bluebird said a mite uncertainly, but refusing to admit her error, “The sun sets in this direction!”

“The sun sets in the West,” Khudus said flatly.

“Oh.”

There was a moment of silence, a bird twittering somewhere close by in the underbrush. Bluebird could feel her face turn red.

“Um, well, oops-

RAWR!”

Bluebird screamed at the top of her lungs when something leapt out of her from the tall grass with a deep roar and tackled her. Khudus started laughing himself sick as she was beset upon by a monster, finding herself flat against the ground once more with a heavier weight squishing her into the dry grass and another rock jabbing her in the ribs, ow, why!?

“Aza!” she screeched, slapping her stupid little brother on the shoulder as he laughed at her, “You stupid cat! Get off me!”

“Haha! I got you good!” Aza chortled, rolling off her and flopping in the grass like a contented Baras, a proud grin on his stupid face. There were stems of grass tangled in his hair, and dirt and grass stains on the knees of his new breeches, like he’d spent the last twenty minutes crawling through the long bulrush… which he probably had, the sneaky ambush predator that he was.  

“Oh, Nhaama’s tits,” Khudus wheezed, barely biting down his laughter, “Bluebird, you could’ve shattered glass with that screech!”

“Shut up!” Bluebird sat up, fighting down the heat in her cheeks and throwing a nearby pebble at Khudus’s fat head. It bounced off his horn and he yelped, “It’s your fault for distracting me!”

“It kinda is,” Aza confirmed, rolling onto his back and stretching out. The sun was high above, and Aza, Bluebird had quickly learned, liked basking in the sun’s rays, “I was stalking Khudus and didn’t even know you were here, until you jumped out yelling.”

Bluebird perked up a bit at that, but then felt even more irritated towards Khudus for screwing her potential first win against Aza in their Ambush Game. She gave neighbour the stink eye, but Khudus just rolled his eyes at her.

“At least I know my West and East,” Khudus sniffed at her, leaning back on his hands.

She didn’t really have a defence against that, and sulkily grumbled under her breath. A companionable silence descended on them, and she leaned back on her hands too, watching Aza sprawl out on his back with a small smile on his lips.

He had changed a lot over the past few weeks. He was still a timid crybaby that got nightmares and acted weird over the oddest things, but he was a far cry from the smelly, dirty boy who saved her from the slavers. He smiled more, he relaxed sometimes, he… acted like a normal boy. Mostly. If it was a good day like today and there were no adults around. But, y’know, baby steps.  

“The rains are gonna hit soon,” Khudus spoke up suddenly, breathing the comfortable quiet. Bluebird looked up towards the sky, seeing nothing but clear blue and a harsh sun, “Mom said the winds are shifting for it.”

“Muscle Mom or Dancer Mom?” Bluebird asked.

“Muscle Mom,” Khudus said, “She feels it in her tailbone or something.”

“I bet she’s making it up,” Bluebird drawled, “You can’t predict rain from your tail.”

Khudus frowned, “My Mom isn’t a liar.”

“Aza,” Bluebird turned to her little brother, who had been watching their argument with mild interest, “Do you think someone can predict rain with their tail?”

Aza rolled onto his side, propping his head up with hand as he looked between them. First time they stuck him in the middle of their arguments, he had frozen with indecision. Now he was desensitised to it, “Well, if the rains come like Khudus’s Mom says, then… yeah.”

“Oh, that’s not an answer!” Bluebird huffed, “Of course the rains are gonna come soon! They always roll round this time. That’s just, like, basic caus- corl… that word!”

“Correlation?”

“Yeah!”

“Hmm, don’t think you used it right,” Aza mumbled doubtfully, his tail suddenly flicking to chase away a bee that had been hovering near his hip, “But, uh, what are the rains? Everyone talks about them a lot but I’m not sure what…”

“The rains are the rains?” Bluebird said slowly. Surely, they had rain over in Kugane or wherever Aza came from? “You know, when the hot season ends and then aaaaall the water that the sky had been holding just dumps it in one big go!”

“It’s pretty scary,” Khudus added, “It’s a mix of rain and ice, sharp like daggers, and so much drops from the sky that flash floods can happen, and mud slides.”

“Yeah, which is why the Borlaaq are gearing up for their big hunt thing,” Bluebird continued, “We usually wait out the rains by the mountains, y’know, get to higher ground, but beasts and stuff end up migrating there during the hot season. So, they go ahead and kill them all, and we follow them to set up camp once the area’s clear.”

“Oh,” Aza looked like he wasn’t sure how to take that, “So, the rains are dangerous?”

“Um, I guess,” Bluebird rubbed the back of her neck, “You do hear of a tribe or two getting wiped out because of them, but they’re usually the really small ones who get chased off high ground or just have really bad luck. Because, y’see, there’s also the Thunderbird.”

“Bluebird,” Khudus groaned, “That’s just a myth.”

“Nuh uh!” Bluebird protested, “Mommy fought it once when she was Khatun! She told me so!”

“I bet she just made it up,” Khudus simpered in a mockery of Bluebird’s voice, and snorted when she angrily tossed a pebble at him, “C’mon! Your Mom didn’t fight a Thunderbird. They’re just some story adults use to keep the kids from running out into the rains.”

“Thunderbird?” Aza asked in open confusion, clearly lost.

“It’s a giant bird that only comes out during the rains,” Bluebird said, shooting Khudus a glower when her stupid neighbour rolled his eyes at them, “It’s huge – like, um, size of a ship huge, with great big wings that are shrouded with dark, crackling lightning clouds, a scream that sounds like booming thunder and piercing red eyes!”

Aza glanced at Khudus in open doubt. Bluebird huffed.

“I’m telling the truth!” she half-yelled, tossing a pebble at Aza too. Her little brother flinched when it bounced off his shoulder, his ears flicking back, “It really does exist!”

“Sure,” Khudus drawled, “I’ll believe you… when I see one.”

“It’ll probably mistake you for a seed and gobble you up if you do,” Bluebird sneered.

“If this Thunderbird exists,” Aza cut in, interrupting a brewing argument, “Where does it stay when it’s not raining?”

“I dunno. In the mountains?” Bluebird craned her head, but the mountains in the distance were blocked by the tall bulrush towering over them, “I heard it always comes from the north, with the rains on its tail, and it sweeps down all the way to Reunion, then flies towards the Ruby Sea.”

“Some people think it brings the rain to the Steppe,” Khudus explained, his tone indicating what he thought of that idea, “And worship it as a God. Those tribes are kinda weird though, like the Ugund.”

“Oh yeah, they leave out offerings or something for it when the rains come,” Bluebird said, “Like sheep or goats.”

“Hmmm…” Aza tilted his head slightly, looking up at the sky with a thoughtful look, “It probably is real, if so many people believe in it.”

Bluebird shot Khudus a smug look, who just sighed in open defeat.

“I bet it’s just a giant Zu,” Khudus grumbled, flicking a grasshopper off his knee before standing up, “Anyway, we should probably get back to camp. The sun’s gonna set soon.”

“Ugh, but we’ve got chooooores…” Bluebird groaned dramatically, “We’re on pony duty tonight.”

“Pony duty’s fun, though,” Aza pointed out quietly.

“That’s because you’re in love with them,” Bluebird sniffed, “Would’ve thought you a Goro in disguise if I didn’t know any better.”

Aza made a face at her, flicking a few blades of dry grass her way before climbing to his feet, “You’re just jealous that they like me better.”

“It’s ‘cuz you’re so pathetic they feel bad if they bully you,” Bluebird huffed, climbing to her feet too. They started back towards camp, which was in the close distance. With it so close to the rainy season, no one could venture far from camp unless they were hunting or patrolling. Also, the Buduga threat was still a very real thing, “Being a baby and all.”

“I’m not a baby!”

“You’re kind of like a baby,” Khudus chimed in, his voice lightly teasing, “Still learning things Steppe kids know by the age of five summers.”

Aza kicked him in the shins, and Bluebird laughed when Khudus theatrically yelped and hopped away.

They continued to squabble playfully amongst themselves as they approached camp and Bluebird felt something settle nicely inside of her. Aza filled a spot she didn’t realise was empty until now – and while he was strange and weird and occasionally scary, he was a decent enough little brother. He still couldn't carry a conversation with a strange adult, though, and still cried in the middle of the night from bad dreams, but that's why she was here, after all. It was a big sister's responsibility to protect and nurture their little brothers, no matter how weird and broken they were. 

She smiled to herself, content with that thought, and opened her hand when Aza reached out for it the moment they hit the edge of camp. He was still nervous walking through it with so many people milling about in close proximity, but between her and Khudus? He could at least walk with a bit of fragile confidence to his steps, even if he did have to hold her hand. 

Like she said before, baby steps. He was doing his best. That's all that mattered.

 


 

“It’s time for the final stage of your mission, brothers.”

Khaji waited with breathless anticipation amongst his brothers as their Battlemaster gazed down on them with a fierce kind of pride. They had done as they were asked – they had scouted the Borlaaq and Iriq territory, they had watched their comings and goings, watched as they gathered supplies for the annual migration before the rains, and planned and plotted until they knew the time to strike was…

“When the Borlaaq leave for the mountains tomorrow on their hunt, you will smash into the pathetic defence they leave behind and liberate what is ours by right,” the Battlemaster murmured in a low, mesmerising rumble. Khaji could feel his heart pound, his blood pumping with excitement of the thought of tomorrow. Tomorrow, he’ll bloody himself in the name of the Buduga, tomorrow he will claim two brothers to add to their family, tomorrow he will prove himself a proud, powerful warrior of the greatest tribe of the Steppe. Tomorrow. Tomorrow.

“There will be no faltering,” the Battlemaster continued, “There will be no hesitation. For the first time, you will kill in the name of our tribe. You will cut down any who will stand in our way. You will crush the weak beneath your heel and claim what is ours – their children, our brothers, their food, their supplies… such pathetic weaklings don’t deserve that which they can’t defend!”

The Battlemaster slammed the butt of his spear into the dusty ground, his mouth curved into a wide, terrible smile, “Tomorrow, you will finally be men of the Buduga!”

Khaji and his brothers roared their delight – screamed their raw joy at that proclamation, because this is what they had worked for! Ever since their brothers liberated them, ever since their eyes were opened to the truth of their potential, this was what they cried and sweated and bled for. This moment – tomorrow. Khaji felt like his heart would burst, envisioning the glory of it.

“WHO ARE YOU!?” The Battlemaster roared, and they answered him with fierce joy in their hearts and feverish excitement in their eyes, their wild voices rising high in the starry sky, the full moon casting its bright, eerie light upon them.

“WE ARE THE BUDUGA!”

Tomorrow.

Khaji could not wait for tomorrow to come.

Chapter Text

“That’s the fattest sheep I’ve ever seen.”

“It’s meant to be a pony….”

Aruci smothered a smile as he stirred the cookpot, watching Bluebird try to instruct Aza on the art of wood carving at the table while they waited for dinner. The boy was clever and quick with his fingers, but he lacked experience and it showed. The ‘pony’ he’d spent the half hour on was chubby and short-legged, with a rather ambiguous looking head. Even Aruci would have guessed it to be a sheep first.

“Fattest pony,” Bluebird amended without hesitating, taking Aza’s wood carving from his hand, “Look, it’s all round where it’s not meant to be… and bumpy. I thought you were going for a woolly look and thought you quite clever for that, but I guess you’re just bad at making smooth cuts. And what’s with its head? It’s all weird and un-pony-like.”

Aza’s ears drooped lower and lower with every tactless word out of Bluebird’s mouth, his gaze dropping to the floor in the face of his sister’s blunt criticism.

“It’s good for a first attempt,” Aruci called over, turning from the cooking pot to give the boy an assuring smile. Aza peeked up at him shyly. Even after a near month, the boy was still nervous and unsure around him – but he looked at him without fear, spoke to him, and that was enough to make Aruci’s heart warm, “You should have seen Bluebird’s-”

Daddy,” Bluebird huffed at him, “I made those when I was seven summers.”

“Exactly. You’ve had five years of experience to build on. Aza hasn’t,” Aruci said. He pushed himself to his feet and slowly walked over. Aza fidgeted at his approach but stayed in place as he sat down opposite him, letting him keep the table as a barrier, and leaned over to take the carving from Bluebird’s hand.

“Hmm…” he began, turning the carving this way and that. Aza and Bluebird both watched him expectantly, “Bluebird’s right… your cuts are quite rough.”

“Oh,” Aza drooped again, “Sorry.”

“Nothing to apologise over,” Aruci said, “Making mistakes is part of the process with crafting. Why, if you ever meet a crafter who says they never made a mistake then you know they’re a poor one. Claiming to be flawless means you can’t identify mistakes in your own work, which means you become stagnant and incapable of improving.” 

Aza perked up a little at that, glancing at the carving in Aruci’s hands thoughtfully.

Aruci let the pony sit on his palm, and he held it up slightly, on for show. The light of the lantern caught its uneven surface – this was driftwood that they had harvested a few moons back, wood that was too flimsy or not the right sort to burn or to craft with. Already, Aza was using inferior materials to practice on, but sadly that was how carpenters began their training here. Wood was in such short supply, one had to begin on the scraps.

“Proportionally… everything is there,” he said, deciding to focus on the positives, “The head, body and leg ratio is very good. You have a keen eye in that regard.”

Aza ducked his head, but Aruci could see him smiling a little. He was still incredibly shy when receiving straight praise, but that just meant he needed to be showered with it more, in Aruci’s opinion.

“The head… hmm, I see what happened. You lost your mental plan on how to carve it, didn’t you?”

“I forgot how it looked compared to the body,” Aza admitted, rubbing his wrists and picking at one of the pinkish, thick scars that lay there, a remnant of the wounds from his too tight shackles, “So I guessed it.”

Bluebird made a noise like she was about to speak, but Aruci silenced her with a pointed look. Aza needed to learn how to improve on his own without Bluebird constantly telling him the answers.

“And it turned out wrong, as you can see,” Aruci said, keeping his tone gentle, “How could you have prevented that?”

Aza worried his bottom lip, the tip of his sharp canine digging into the soft skin almost hard enough to draw blood, “Uh… I should have… stopped?”

“And…?”

“And… thought about how it actually looked?”

“Mngh,” Bluebird looked pained as she held her words in. Aruci ignored her.

“Close,” Aruci set the pony on the table between them, “Instead of simply thinking of how it looked, you could have also…?”

Aza looked between him and Bluebird, clearly searching for the answer. Bluebird was waggling her eyebrows in strange and wonderful ways, clearly trying to telepathically force the answer into Aza’s brain, but the boy remained oblivious.

“Um, uh…” He tilted his head, his nose scrunching up and his ears tipping back as he thought, until, “Oh! I could have sat outside the yurt and carved it while looking at Sunbeam or Moonbeam.”

“Exactly. There’s nothing wrong in using a life subject to ensure accuracy,” Aruci praised, “Well done. You’ve just learned from one of your mistakes.”

Aza blinked, like he hadn’t expected it to be so easy, and Bluebird finally burst out, “You could’ve drawn it out beforehand too!”

“Yes, that too,” Aruci said with fond patience, “At your beginner level, it’s probably best to sketch out what you intend, though, that relies on you being good at drawing…”

“I can draw,” Aza said quietly, his gaze drifting to the pony carving, “Master liked me-”

He stopped.

“Well, you have me beat there,” Bluebird said, stubbornly pushing through the tense, awkward silence that abruptly fell over them, “I can’t draw anything.”

Aza took two slow, deep breaths, like Atani had taught him, seven seconds inhale, twelve seconds exhale, before he said in a slightly uneven voice, “That’s not true. Everyone… everyone can draw stickmen at least.”

“Not even those,” Bluebird said with such exaggerated solemnity that it made Aza reluctantly smile, “I’m hopeless.”

“It’s true,” Aruci said, relieved that they sidestepped a potential ‘episode’. He pushed himself up onto his feet, making his way back to the cooking pot, “Clear the table, Bluebird. Food’ll be served soon.”

“Okay, Daddy.”

The table was cleared of blocks of driftwood, wood shavings and attempted carvings, and Aruci served up bowls of meat stew for the three of them. He glanced surreptitiously at the spot where Atani should be sitting, mildly worried. She had a meeting with Khatun Amal earlier, and she still hadn’t returned from it. Hopefully she hadn’t gotten into a spectacular, public row with him again…

“Daddy,” Bluebird piped up, as if sensing his thoughts, “Where’s Mommy? I haven’t seen her all day.”

“Mommy is… busy,” Aruci hedged uncertainly, “She’s to be the backbone of the tribe’s defence when the Borlaaq leave for the mountains, so I suspect she’s busy with the preparations.”

“She’s gonna be all super protective,” Bluebird grumbled.

“Because we’ll be weaker?” Aza asked, poking at his stew unenthusiastically. Aruci frowned at him, concerned. His appetite had improved considerably over the past few weeks – so this was unusual behaviour.

“Well, um,” Bluebird paused, “Not weaker, but, uh, less people to soak up any raiders who come, um, raiding, so…”

“We will be weaker,” Aruci said, “But you will have Atani protecting you. She is worth a hundred men by herself.”

“She’s strong,” Bluebird assured an increasingly worried looking Aza, “I told you how she fought a Thunderbird, right? Well, she’s the only person to challenge it and walk away alive! So, don’t worry about some smelly raider coming to snatch you. She’ll cut them to pieces before you even see ‘em.”

Aza looked like he was going to say something – but he swallowed his words down and returned to playing with his food. Aruci wasn’t sure how to comfort him, though. This would be the boy’s first rainy season, which was a stressful time in general – adding in his own unique experiences and rumours of the Buduga prowling nearby… the loss of the powerful Borlaaq warriors was probably alarming. Words would mean nothing to the boy right now.

“Hey, Daddy, you know the Thunderbird story, right?” Bluebird asked suddenly, “Can you tell us it, please?”

Aruci glanced at his daughter, smiling a little at her cleverness. Ah, “Hmm, finish your food first. I will tell it to you to help you sleep.”

“Hear that?” Bluebird gently nudged Aza in the ribs, “So, c’mon, finish eating. You’ll get to hear The Story.”

Aza made a face, but he did stop playing with his food long enough to eat.

It wasn’t long until his children were fed, watered and washed up for bed. Bluebird had pushed her and Aza’s bedrolls together – sometime during the past weeks, their bedrolls had simply migrated closer and closer until this was the new norm – and Aruci settled himself comfortably on Bluebird’s side of the bed as the kids nestled under the furs, peeking up at him with curious eyes.

“This happened over twenty years ago,” Aruci began, modulating his voice to be low and soft, “When Atani was the Borlaaq Khatun, utterly reckless and proud of it…”

 


 

“This is the most reckless plan I’ve ever heard!”

“Sister,” Amal began, lifting his hand in a placating manner as Atani all but panted fire before him, “Myself and Khatun Maral have planned this thoroughly-

“Maral?!” Atani made a harsh, disdainful noise, tossing her head like an agitated stallion, “Maral couldn’t plan her way out of a wicker basket! Her head is full of nothing but hot air and which long-legged huntress she can fuck next!”

 “Atani,” Amal said warningly, “You’re not Khatun anymore. You can’t get away with such disrespect-”

“Disrespect?” Atani’s voice dropped into a low, soft, dangerous tone that instantly had Amal on edge. There was a hard, faintly crimson glitter in her narrowed eyes, and the flickering lantern hanging from the ceiling of his yurt cast threatening, ominous shadows over his sister’s pale features, “Respect is earned in the first place, and Maral has done nothing to earn mine.”

Dangerous ground, Amal realised uneasily, and he became uncomfortably aware of how it was just himself and his predator of a sister in his yurt. He maintained eye contact, tried not to fidget, knowing the first sign of fear or discomfort would have his sister scenting blood.

“She successfully challenged Samga and won,” Amal pointed out, “That is respectable enough, considering Samga’s martial prowess.”

“Brute strength,” Atani scoffed, “Such a man thing to focus on. What has that strength done for us so far, mm? Ever since Maral took charge, we have lost more and more children to those filthy Buduga because of her unthinking, brute-strength charging tactics – and now she’s joined in this reckless, half-cocked plan of yours to invite them into our camp with open arms?”

“It’s an ambush,” Amal snapped, “And an ambush needs bait-

Children are not bait!”

Amal leaned back at the low, guttural snarl that ripped out of Atani. His sister leaned aggressively forwards, her hands gripping the edge of the table between them as she bared her teeth at him. He could hear the wood beneath her white knuckled grip creaked in protest, fingernails digging shallow grooves into it – but Amal daren’t bring attention to it. He watched his sister in open wariness.

“Children,” Atani repeated in a quieter tone, but no less intense, “Are not things to be used when convenient to you, Amal. They are the most precious thing this filthy, cruel world possesses. They are to be nurtured and protected and I will not let you endanger them so you can kill a few extra Buduga!”

“It won’t be a few,” Amal returned, his tone equally intense, “We can kill all of them, sister. Every single one! Chase them from the Steppes, never to return!”

Atani laughed at him, mocking and cruel, “Every single Buduga – including their slaves? The boys they took from their mothers? Them too?”

Amal faltered at that, “Well… they won’t be, Buduga…”

“You need to kill every single one, to ensure their complete annihilation,” Atani told him, her mouth curving into a sharp, cutting smile, “The Buduga aren’t a tribe, brother, to be docilely assimilated into their conquerors. They’re an ideology, and so long as one, little boy keeps that ideology in his heart, keeps it in him until he’s an adult, and thinks to expand that, to spread it, the Buduga will never truly die out.”

Atani leaned back. Let go of his table. There were cracks where she had almost crushed the wood against her palms.

“Unless, of course, you’re willing to murder the Buduga down to the last child?” she asked him.

Amal finally looked away. He knew what he was willing to do. The heavy silence that fell between them dragged uncomfortably long. It was answer enough.

“I see,” she murmured softly, “Well, have fun washing your hands with the blood of children, brother. I’ll have no part in this.”

“Atani,” Amal looked back at her, “You must at least defend the camp-”

“Oh, I will,” Atani sneered at him, “I’ll kill every Buduga that dares enter this place. But mark me, brother, your venture to their main camp can be without me. I will stay right here, to defend what’s truly important.

With that his sister rose without being dismissed and stormed out in blatant contempt of her Khatun. Amal slumped in relief once she was gone, grimacing when he realised how much he’d been nervously sweating throughout that entire exchange. His sister had… not reacted well to his plan, but at least he knew she’d be protecting the camp at the very least. He could be confident that the raiding party would be all but decimated with her cooperation secured.

Still, he had hoped she would be eager for Buduga blood to follow him to their main camp. Her strength would have ensured total victory…

But that would strip the tribe of its most vital defence, Amal realised with an uncomfortable twist to his stomach. He shoved it aside. No. It was too late to get cold feet. The plan was going ahead, whether Atani approved of it or not. He was Khatun here, and he decided it.

Still, there was a feeling of foreboding lingering over him now, like a blade was dangling mere ilms from his neck.

 


 

Maral had been minding her own business, sitting out in the pleasantly cool, night air outside her yurt, rubbing an oil cloth over her sword, when the Bear of the Steppe prowled towards her with glittering red eyes and a sharp smile.

“Atani,” Maral greeted warily when the Bear did nothing but watch her from just out of arm’s reach. She wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but Atani had always made her nervous, in the same way as being in a cage with a hungry Baras would. She slowly let her oil cloth rest on her blade, her hand gripping its hilt instead, just in case.

“Maral,” The Bear returned, her voice low and calm, “Don’t fuck up tomorrow. If you do, I’ll kill you and eat your corpse.”

Maral remained frozen in place, but the Bear did not wait for a reply. As silently as she came, the dreaded Bear of the Steppe melted into the darkness, back towards the Iriq camp. It took a full minute for the noise of nightlife to tentatively return, a grasshopper chirping weakly from somewhere nearby.

“Fuck,” Maral blew out unsteadily, her heart hammering painfully hard against her ribs. She squeezed the hilt of her sword, then forced herself to let go. From anyone else, Maral would have thrashed them within an inch of their life, but Atani, the Bear of the Steppe? The Maneater? The Beast That Hell Spat Out? No, Maral wasn’t stupid enough to confront her. No one was.

“Why does Amal keep that beast around…” she muttered, pushing herself to her feet, no longer in the mood to enjoy the nightlife. The darkness felt oppressive now that she knew their resident monster was prowling the camp and she’d rather not tempt the Bear when Atani was so clearly in a mood towards her. She must not have liked Amal’s ambush plan.

Well, Maral wasn’t going to fuck up tomorrow. She was going to prove her place as Khatun – the destruction of the Buduga will finally have her climbing out of the deep, insurmountable shadow that Atani Borlaaq had cast on all her successors. No matter what Maral did, no matter how many battles she won, no matter how many enemies she crushed flawlessly, it always went back to ‘well, Atani did this…’

Atani didn’t destroy the Buduga. Atani didn’t save her child from them. Maral will.

Glaring out into the darkness, resentment and fear both burning a hole in her stomach, she marched back into her yurt. No, she wasn’t going to fuck up tomorrow. She was going to win complete glory and finally bury Atani in the past where she belonged.

Chapter Text

Aza woke up to the sound of someone crying.

He listened to it for a long moment, keeping his eyes shut as he automatically tried to place it. It wasn’t uncommon to wake up to one of the other children crying – sometimes they’d sob themselves back to sleep, other times someone would tell them to shut up, though sometimes someone would crawl over to them and they would grow quiet with awful noises that Aza would block out with his pillow.

This crying was different though. It was… it didn’t sound like a child’s.

He opened his eyes. Bluebird’s face, ilms from his own, greeted him, and it was with an unsettling lurch low in his belly that he remembered – this wasn’t Master’s pleasure room. The crying wasn’t from one of the other child slaves. The crying was from-

“Atani,” Aruci’s voice whispered, so soft that Aza had to strain to catch it, “It will be fine. We won’t lose anyone.”

“We will, we always do,” Atani replied, her voice ragged and wet sounding, “Damn them, damn those thick-headed Khatuns. If a single one- if a single one is lost, I’ll tear them all to pieces-”

“Shhh…” Aruci interrupted Atani’s increasingly guttural voice. There was movement. A rustle of fabric. Something growled, low and deep, like one of Master’s Direwolves. It was a noise that triggered an animal, instinctive fear in him, like coming face to face with a predator baring its fangs. His heart fluttered hard against his ribs and he curled close to Bluebird, tucking his head under the girl’s chin. Her soft breathing brushed over his ear. He could hear her slow, relaxed heartbeat. He tried to focus on that.

Aruci just chuckled, “Atani, that won’t scare me.”

“It should do,” Atani muttered, her voice a rumble, low, almost unrecognisable, “It scares everyone else.”

“I thought we established long ago that I wasn’t like ‘everyone else’,” Aruci pointed out in good humour, “Being ‘devoid of all sense and reason’, I think you called me all those years ago.”

The tension that had slowly been building abruptly broke with Atani’s low, husky laugh, “That’s true. I thought you a total idiot with no sense of self-preservation.”

“Ah, my heart.”

“Aruci,” Atani’s voice sobered, still carrying that odd rough quality, like she was speaking through a sore throat but… wrong, “Tomorrow, you must protect our children.”

“I will,” Aruci promised with absolute solemnity.

“You must,” Atani repeated. Something moved, something heavy, “If I lose one of them, I will… promise me, Aruci.”

“I promise, Atani, I will protect the children to my last breath.”

“Good,” Atani breathed, a low rumble that echoed to the very corners of the yurt, “Good.”

They fell silent after that. Something heavy thumped the floor, like a Baras just flopped onto its side, and Aruci began to hum softly. It was the lullaby he did whenever Aza felt sad, and it soothed the fear that had dulled into an uncertain wariness. He didn’t understand what he had just listened to – Atani had never sounded like that before. There had been moments where her eyes would flash with poorly contained rage, where she would grip something tight enough that it would crack under her fingers, times where she would have to leave, roaming the wilderness for hours on end and coming back with some slain beast of the Steppe despite never carrying a weapon on her… but she always made sure to be soft and gentle around him. She never once cried.

Aza tried to put it out of mind. He wasn’t meant to overhear it in the first place. But it was difficult. He closed his eyes and remained curled up against Bluebird, a pervading sense of unease prodding insistently at him.

When he finally managed to drift into a fitful sleep, he dreamt of himself running through the forest of his home, a hulking, indistinct beast lumbering after him in the shadows of the trees, calling to him in Atani’s voice. ‘Promise me, promise me, promise me,’ the Atani-beast called, but he didn’t understand, promise what? And he ran and ran and ran until the trees gave way to the Steppes and-

 


 

-he woke up to Bluebird poking him in the ribs.

“My arm’s asleep,” she told him while he tried to figure out where he was, “Get off it.”

Aza blinked blearily at her, until she gave him another sharp prod. With a quiet groan he rolled off her arm, his head pounding slightly and his eyes itchy with sleep. He slept poorly, and he fuzzily remembered waking up at some point to… Atani and Aruci…?

“Good morning, my adorable children~” Atani’s voice cooed over them, as if summoned by his sleepy thoughts. The Au Ra woman leaned over them with a bright smile, though her cheer did nothing to hide the dark smudges under her eyes, “Are you ready for your riding lesson today?”

Bluebird was up like a shot, jostling Aza from her rapid leap to her feet, “Yes! We’re meant to do jumping today!”

Aza found his unpleasant weariness vanishing at the reminder that it was a riding day today. All Iriq and Borlaaq children had to attend riding lessons, staggered between different age groups. As all children were put in the saddle the moment they could be trusted to balance well enough on their own, Aza was an utter novice compared to others his age. He’d been placed in the ‘Baby Group’, as Bluebird called it, a class that were rowdy six-year-olds who barely knew how to trot. Aza personally didn’t mind it. Due to his ‘nervous nature’, he’d been given Brenin, a pony of thirty years with grey around its muzzle and a round girth– and so lazy it spent most of its time grazing than doing anything Aza told it to do. It was relaxing, to be honest.

“Then you better wash up and have breakfast, hm? Today is… going to be a busy day.”

Atani’s cheer flagged a bit at that, but Bluebird didn’t notice, already moving to get ready for the day. Aza sat up, watching the woman closely.

“Atani,” he asked, “Are you okay?”

Atani startled slightly, but smiled at him, “Yes, I am. I’m just… a little sleepy. I had a bad dream last night and it kept me awake.”

Aza looked at her doubtfully but didn’t challenge her. Atani stroked his hair reassuringly, but she seemed distracted, her gaze flickering to the wall of the yurt, like an animal watching out for any creeping predators. If he didn’t know any better, he would think her afraid.

It didn’t feel right.

 


 

The sky was a dull grey that morning. With the rainy season so close, clouds had begun to gather, blocking out the sun but trapping its relentless heat as a muggy warmth. It made Aza sweat uncomfortably as he let Brenin amble around the perimeter of the riding school the Iriq had set up – thick, strong planks of wood that could easily be pulled down and rearranged elsewhere. Bluebird wasn’t here, but Aza wasn’t afraid because the only other people were six-year-olds, the least threatening creatures on the planet, and Ghoa.

Ghoa was a stocky woman, firm with muscle, and had the unique characteristic of missing an arm and an eye. This didn’t seem to impact her riding ability in the slightest, and despite the thick scars that pulled at her mouth, making her smiles seem distorted, she had a soothing voice and an equally calm demeanour. Aza, admittedly, had been frightened of her at first – her fierce appearance reminded him of Capt’n, especially as she had the same long, beautiful hair… but her personality was so different and so calming that Aza quickly warmed up to her enough.

She was better than Bluebird’s teacher at least, who was apparently a harsh, unrelenting taskmaster that didn’t mince her words when criticising every little thing about you. No, Aza much preferred Ghoa, and the calm, gentle method of her teaching.

This morning though, even she seemed a bit distracted. She kept glancing in the direction of the Borlaaq camp, where they were preparing to go on their grand hunt later in the day, with an unhappy frown on her face. Maybe she wanted to leave with them? If Aza remembered rightly, she was a Borlaaq herself – maybe she didn’t like staying behind to teach little children when she could be running off with her tribe to fight monsters?

Brenin veered off course slightly, interrupting his idly thoughts, and nosed at a stubbornly blossoming dandelion. Aza tugged gently at the reins, but the pony ignored him, chomping up the dandelion and deciding that, no, he was quite happy here. Aza left him to it.

“Aza?” Ghoa’s soft voice called over to him, and he looked up to see the woman trot her own pony up to his – her mount was a young filly that lifted its hooves almost theatrically as it moved. It was apparently some special way of walking that the Borlaaq practiced to show off their superior horse riding discipline, but Aza didn’t see any point in it, “Is Brenin being difficult?”

“He’s hungry,” Aza told her, stroking his hand over the pony’s coarse fur, “I don’t mind it.”

“He’s not hungry, he’s just lazy,” Ghoa laughed, “C’mon, give him a bit of a kick. Show him who’s boss.”

Aza frowned, always feeling a little uneasy about doing things like that. Ghoa always assured him that digging his heels in or tugging the reins wouldn’t hurt the pony, but he still had a worry that it would. Ponies couldn’t talk, and they had to do what their rider told them to, with the right incentives of kicking and pulling – it reminded him so much of… well, it was a comparison he couldn’t help but make. He told this to Bluebird once and she called him weird, so he didn’t want to try and explain it to Ghoa in case she thought the same.

Still, he felt even more uneasy about disobeying a straight order, so he tentatively tapped his heels against Brenin’s ribs. The old pony ignored him.

“A bit harder,” Ghoa encouraged, “Give him a thump. It won’t hurt him.”

Aza’s stomach squirmed guiltily as he kicked hard enough that it was a thump. Brenin gave a soft snort, obligingly moving forwards. He tugged gently at the reins to steer him back to the perimeter of the riding school, and Ghoa kept pace at his side.

“There we are. See? Not hurt at all,” she told him. She smiled one of her lopsided smiles, and Aza returned it nervously. This happened in every lesson, and he wondered how many more it would be until Ghoa lost her patience with his constant hesitation, “Ponies are tough, despite their small size, but also cheeky. You give them the slightest bit of slack, and they’ll take advantage.”

“You don’t kick,” Aza noted quietly, and almost winced at how his tone almost came across as confrontational. Thankfully, Ghoa didn’t seem to notice.

“I’m a bit more experienced and Brenin is, hm, quirky. When you’re older, you’ll learn to just gently squeeze with your lower legs or your knees to tell your pony to stop or go, but right now you need to exaggerate your movements a bit,” Ghoa explained, “Also tuck your rump in a bit. You’re letting your lower spine curve a bit too much.”

Aza straightened up, and Ghoa nodded in open satisfaction before spurring her mount forwards to check up on one of the other kids. Aza let Brenin plod on under his own steam, glancing over towards the Borlaaq camp. There was a lot of movement over there, distant shouts and calls echoing over the camp. In a few hours an entire tribe will be departing towards the mountains, leaving behind a small cadre of warriors to defend them. It would only be for a few days, Bluebird told him, the Iriq setting off by the end of the week to arrive at a place hopefully cleared of monsters. The journey was long and boring, and largely uneventful, he was told.

Still, that uneasy feeling remained in him. He woke up with it, and it just sat heavier and heavier in his stomach. Something was wrong, but he couldn’t voice it. It was if the air was charged with a premonition he could sense but not read, and it was making him nervous. He prayed nothing would go wrong. He prayed… that this happiness he found for himself, as undeserving as he was for it, wouldn’t be broken. If this was taken from him, he… he didn’t know how he’d survive the blow.

The first time he experienced grief it was like being torn in two and left to bleed to death. To experience it again…?

Brenin snorted and tossed his head in sudden agitation, and Aza realised he was gripping the reins so tight they were pulling the pony’s head back. He quickly slackened his grip, rubbing the pony’s neck with a murmured apology. Brenin quickly settled.

He hoped it was just a feeling. Please, Twelve, let it just be a feeling.

As always, whenever he sent a prayer above, the sky remained silent and uncaring.

 


 

Atani had bitten her fingernails down to the quick by the time the Borlaaq were ready to go.

Normally she saw them off – they were her old family, after all – but she was still furious with Maral that she feared she’d lose control the moment she saw her face. Maral was a powerful warrior, but too prideful, too quick to prove herself. Right now her head would be rattling with fantasies of being known as the woman to crush the Buduga, not worrying about how many would die or be captured for this foolish plan.

The awful thing was, five years ago she would have encouraged this. She would have salivated at the thought of hunting the Buduga down to the last man – but time and motherhood had given her perspective. Aruci had given her perspective. Ajinai’s kidnapping gave her perspective. The fact that somewhere, within the Buduga, her little Tiger was there, now a grown man and poisoned with their ideology. If she went to that camp and found him… would she be able to deliver the necessary killing blow?

She didn’t know the answer to that.

“Atani,” Aruci was standing over her. She was sitting on the wash bench, Sunbeam grazing beside her, saddled up and prepped to charge down any invading Buduga. She looked up at her husband, “The Borlaaq are leaving now.”

“I know,” she curled her fingers into fists, ignoring the throbbing, dull ache of her bleeding fingernails, “The children?”

“Should be on their way back from their riding lesson,” Aruci murmured, “If the Buduga have any sense, they would wait for a few hours to ensure the Borlaaq are out of range before attacking.”

“They’ll have to ride far to sell that illusion too,” Atani said grimly, “Their counterattack won’t be quick enough.”

Aruci didn’t answer. It was clear he thought the same.

Atani breathed in. Her heart was pounding, slow and firm, beneath her breast, her blood hot with anticipation – her stomach ill with fear. It had been many years since she was the relentless, merciless monster she used to be. There was fear aplenty in her heart now. Fear for her children. Fear for Aruci. Fear that her little Tiger will be part of this raiding party. Fear that she will be face to face with her lost son and have to make the decision to spare him and lose more – or kill him and lose one anyway.

Aruci knelt before her and took her hands. He tutted at her ripped fingernails, the skin pink, bloodied and swollen underneath.

“Atani, your fingers…”

“They’ll heal,” Atani muttered, her gaze fixed on the grey sky hanging low over their camp. The air felt disgustingly thick and humid.

Aruci rubbed his thumb over her knuckles, and distantly the noise of a bellowing horn echoed over the camp. The rumble of countless hooves thundering over the plain, the yells and shouts – the Borlaaq tribe had officially left.

“Atani,” she murmured, when the horn’s blow echoed into silence, “Sing for me.”

And her husband did, in that low, soothing way that captured her heart the first time she heard it. It made her feel relaxed, made her feel more human, made the beast that snarled and snapped within her calm and focused. Focus. That was what she needed most. Every Buduga attack was random, and all she could do was reacted as it happened – like a wild beast lunging to the defence of its young. But now, she knew the attack was coming. She could hone her instinct into a fine-edged blade. She will attack as a patient predator, as opposed to a beast blindly lashing out in a rage.

She squeezed Aruci’s hands tight. Her husband’s singing did not falter. He did not show any sign of pain.

Just this once, let this foul curse of hers protect her own.

 


 

“-nd then Bluebird flipped right off her pony and flat on her face!”

“Shut up, Khudus! You're telling the story wrong!” Bluebird yelled, her face smeared with dirt and her cheeks red with humiliated embarrassment, “I just- I just- I got dust in my eye!”

“And that made you fall off?” Khudus jeered, shoving playfully at Bluebird’s shoulder, “C’mon, you were sitting all wrong.”

“I was not!”

Aza found himself anxiously watching them squabble, not finding it as funny as he normally did. They had been arguing ever since they picked him up from Ghoa, and they were now halfway back to their yurts, walking along the border that separated the Iriq and Borlaaq camps. Nothing but empty Steppe resided where the Borlaaq used to be, the grass yellowed and flattened from their yurts, and dirt paths stomped into the earth from countless feet walking over it.

It felt like an empty, vulnerable wound. Where the Borlaaq before sat at the mouth of the valley, acting as a bulwark, there was nothing now. He could distantly see a pair of horsemen trotting along – sentries, their spears unslung and their posture alert. Almost expectant.

“Aza?” Bluebird’s voice suddenly drew him out of his staring, “What’s up? You’ve been quiet.”

Aza slowly turned to her, seeing concern on both her and Khudus’s faces, “I don’t know. I don’t… feel good today.”

“Hmm…” Bluebird studied him for a moment, “Well, I was gonna suggest us to play Ambush again, but…”

The thought of going out in the fields, even as close as they were to the camp, sent a thrill of terror through him. Gut instinct screamed ‘NO’ at him so viscerally he felt queasy. That feeling of ominous premonition that had dogged him all day was all but pounding drums, and the urge to run to their yurt and hide in his bed was never so strong as it was now.

“I don’t want to play Ambush,” Aza whispered faintly.

“Do you wanna see Mommy?” Bluebird asked him, sighing when Aza nodded vigorously, “Okay, fine. You coming, Khudus?”

“Yeah. My Moms are probably busy doing patrols now anyway,” Khudus said, “They’ve been acting weird all morning too.”

“Really? Hm,” Bluebird frowned, “Now that you mention it, the old hag wasn’t as mean to me today either. She only yelled at me five times.”

“Ghoa was distracted too,” Aza put in, “And Atani.”

“What? Mommy was acting weird?” Bluebird started to look uneasy as she thought about it, “She… she was acting a bit weird…”

They fell into a worried silence, their path slowly taking them through a herd of Karakul. Even the beasts seemed skittish, the animals clearly sensing the lingering tension as they bunched up close together. A cold wind suddenly whipped up, sending a choking blast of dusty sand that left the three of them coughing, the smell of ozone thick on the air.

“Ergh, stupid wind,” Bluebird grumbled, “Ugh, whatever. Let’s just go home. I bet we’re all being paranoid over noth-”

A piercing, high-pitched wail echoed over the camp.

Everyone went still. Their trio, the few tribesmen wandering camp – Aza didn’t understand what the noise meant, but seeing Bluebird and Khudus’s rapidly paling faced told him all he needed to.

“No…” Bluebird whispered, “No, it-”

BUDUGA RAID!” It was a roar, distant but rapidly echoed by everyone else until it was a screamed out warning – the entire camp exploding into frenzied action as the wailing noise continued to echo and echo and echo-

Khudus suddenly gripped his upper arm – grabbed Bluebird’s arm, and broke into a hard run that almost made Aza trip over his feet. His heart was up in his throat, everything suddenly overwhelming loud and chaotic as – men and women lunging onto their ponies, tethered close to their yurts, livestock scattering in a panicked milling as warriors charged through the camp to meet the incoming threat. It was a trial just running through camp without being trampled, let alone getting anywhere!

“Why now of all times?!” Bluebird yelled, having freed her arm from Khudus’s grasp and was gripping Aza’s other one. They were all but dragging him, pulling him this way and that to avoid the passing charge of a warsteed and their rider, “They shouldn’t- they should be preparing for the rains too! Why are they here now!”

“Don’t worry about that! Just get out of the open!” Khudus yelled and cursed when they stumbled to a stop when a flock of sheep suddenly bolted from between a pair of yurts and nearly bowled them over. They quickly backed up, and Aza heard someone scream nearby- high and terrified –

A large, hulking brute of a horse burst past the yurt, on the heels of the flcok. It towered over them, its hooves pounding hard into the compact earth as it skidded to a rough halt, and the man astride it was just as monstrous as his steed, his grizzled, steel grey hair a thick mane that hung around his long, forward sweeping horns and scarred, squared face. His cold eyes swept over them and he grinned a shark-like smile.

“Oh, look,” he rasped, his unslung spear already stained a wet crimson. His horse snorted and pawed at the ground, stomping closer, “Lost children needing rescue.”

All three of them were frozen in place. Khudus was breathing short and shallow, his fingernails digging into Aza’s upper arm – but Bluebird was white with poorly contained terrified fury, her lips pressed into a thin line as she stepped forwards decisively, as if to shield Aza and Khudus both. Her legs were shaking, though, her hand fumbling over the hilt of her hunting knife several times before she managed to draw it.

“Y-You stay right back!” she yelled at the cold-eyed man staring down at her, “You touch ‘em and I’ll stab you!”

The terrifying man merely tilted his head, like Bluebird was a dog that did a very interesting trick, “What a pity,” he sighed, “If only you were born a boy.”

Then he swung his spear.

Aza was moving before he even realised, tearing right out of Khudus’s horrified grip to knock Bluebird down, seeing everything move so slowly – the spear sweeping down, its bloodied edge wickedly sharp, aimed to catch the trembling Bluebird in the ribs – it would split her right open, and Aza could see it – could see it happen – but he refused – he had to-!

He crashed into Bluebird, felt her smaller body against his as they pitched forwards, the spear swinging-

And a spurt of red flew high in the air, splattering against the dry, dead grass.

Chapter Text

Maral had barely left the valley when the rear guard of their hunting party blew the warning horns.

It was too early, was her initial thought, pulling at the reins of her pony to draw to a halt. The other Borlaaqs did the same, their expressions mirroring her confusion. The warning horns bellowed again, and with a small mutter of annoyance, she kicked her pony forwards, cantering through her own hunting party to the rear.

“What’s this?” she demanded when she hit the rearguard. From here you could just about see the faint outline of the Iriq camp, nestled in the the valley. The air was too hazy with humidity though, to make out anything clearer than indistinct shapes, “There’s nothing here!”

“The camp is under attack, Khatun,” one of the rearguard said, her voice flat.

Maral looked at her, grimacing when she recognised them as Samga. She forgot she placed the old Khatun in charge of the rear to stay out of her way. The old Khatun had been vocal in her disapproval of the plan and had even encouraged a few still loyal to her to speak out against it. They remained a minority though – a minority that milled around her, having been condemned to the insulting position of rearguard, their expressions dark and sullen. Maral felt uncomfortable, but she quickly buried it, straightening up in her saddle and glancing back to the camp.

“It’s too early,” Maral said. They had several malms yet until they had to split their party into three, to converge back on their camp from all sides. They were still one large group – they turn back now and smash into their flank, the Buduga could scurry away up the hillsides of the valley. They were damnably good at disengaging even in the tightest of battlefields, “They shouldn’t be attacking yet.”

Yet she could hear the faint wail of the raid horn, a noise that was etched into the mind of every Au Ra since birth. The camp was under attack, there was no disputing that.

“A Buduga raid is never ‘early’,” Samga muttered, “This feels like a trap. They know we’re still in range to help. They want us to go back.”

For the briefest second, Maral agreed. This was strange, something in her whispered. They were only a ten-minute ride from the camp – five if they spurred their mounts to a gallop. As weak as the Iriq were, even they could fend off a Buduga raiding party for ten minutes. Were they simply that desperate they couldn’t wait another few hours? No, if they waited almost a month for them to leave, they could have waited for them to leave the area entirely. This was something else…

“Khatun?” Samga prompted, looking at her pointedly. Everyone was staring at her, waiting for her command.

Maral firmed her resolve. Whatever the Buduga were planning, she couldn’t waste time figuring it out. The camp was under attack, and no matter how many men they brought or what cunning plan they conjured up, even the Buduga would be swept aside by the full force of the Borlaaq smashing into their flanks. Raw strength overcame everything, after all. She spurred her pony onwards, yelling, “We charge their rear!”

The rearguard exchanged grim looks, but the rest of the Borlaaq cheered, eager to shed some Buduga blood. Samga’s gaze was like a physical burn on her back, the old Khatun keeping pace just to the left of her. Still, no matter how doubtful Samga was, she was loyal to a fault, so she silently followed Maral’s charge – as she should. The hunting party pulled after her, an indomitable wall of charging steeds, their hooves the dull roar of a pounding war drum as they built up into an unstoppable gallop back to camp.

Anticipation welled up in her and her earlier hesitation dwindled. Yes, no matter what trick the Buduga had, with the full might of the Borlaaq… Maral could almost imagine the glory of crushing the raiding party underfoot, of chasing them across the Steppes back to their nest and putting it to the torch and-!

And as they re-entered the valley, the hills looming high over them, a shrill, piercing noise of a horn echoed over them. It was not one of theirs. 

When Maral looked up in confusion it was not to the sight of a steel grey sky – but a descending cloud of black tipped arrows.

 


 

For what felt like an eternity, Aza didn’t breathe.

Bluebird was shivering underneath him, clearly realising how close to death she had just been, and something hot and wet was slowly sliding, ticklish and sticky, down his side and his leg. There was no pain yet, because he wasn’t breathing – but his lungs were burning now, and Khudus’s hands were on him, the boy’s voice terrified and frantic. He was calling his name.

Aza breathed.

The pain that sliced through him was – intense. He felt dizzy for a split second but it was – okay. Manageable. He pushed himself up, blinking the black spots out of his vision while his side burned like fire but – hurt. Pain was good. Better than numbness and paralysis. Better than, when Master cut his knees down to the tendon, so he couldn’t run, couldn’t walk – he could still move. The pain was tolerable with that.

“Aza,” Bluebird gasped up at him, her eyes very wide and her face pale. She was still sprawled underneath him. She looked horrified, “Y-You’re- you’re bleeding-

“What a surprise,” the man looming over them said, “You’re not dead.”

Aza forgot about him. He craned his head up. Past the horse’s thick, muscular neck, the Buduga was leaning forwards in his saddle, peering down at them. He was smiling, clearly pleased about something, and utterly at ease despite the chaos of the camp around them, like he had all the time to sit here in an enemy camp and stare at a couple of kids without being accosted.

You,” Bluebird spat, her rage eclipsing her fear. She squirmed from underneath Aza, fumbling in the dirt for the knife she dropped, her entire body bristling, “You monster! How dare you-!”

“Bluebird!” Khudus yelled, frantically leaning over Aza’s wavering form to grab her by the tail and pull her back on her rump. Bluebird tumbled back with a cry. She was shaking, clutching her knife between both her hands in a whiteknuckled grip, her eyes wet with tears as she glared at Khudus then at the man looming over them.

“You’ve got guts, but not the right parts,” The man said, flicking his spear carelessly before sheathing it, “Stay on the floor, girl, and you’ll live through this encounter.”

Bluebird worked her jaw wordlessly. Khudus was still gripping her tail, leaning over Aza. His face was white with fear.

“Khaji,” the man called abruptly, his gaze moving past them, “Is this the Cat boy thing you were talking about?”

“Yes, Battlemaster,” an unfamiliar voice said behind them. Bluebird gasped, as if betrayed.

“Then grab him, before he bleeds out all over the grass,” The ‘Battlemaster’ said dismissively, already slipping a foot out of his stirrup, “I’ll grab the other one.”

“NO!” Bluebird half-screamed, flinging herself sideways and – Aza’s vision flashed white when she collided into both him and Khudus, her elbow digging into his hotwetpain side, swinging her knife wildly in front of her as the Battlemaster calmly dismounted from his horse – the noise of boots behind them doing the same, “NO! YOU CAN’T HAVE THEM!”

“Still as shrill as ever,” ‘Khaji’ muttered.

“Khaji,” Khudus whispered, his voice was wobbling so much it cracked, “Y-You can’t- don’t take me, please, I don’t want to-”

“Sorry, Khudus,” Khaji said without a shred of apology in his voice, “This is for your own good.”

Aza felt like the world was slowly collapsing in on itself. Bluebird was still swinging her knife – but the Battlemaster just grabbed her thin wrist almost contemptuously mid-swing, hauling her up onehanded like she weighed nothing more than a kitten. Aza stared with a dull kind of horror, an awful realisation that for the third time in his short life, his world was ending again.

Khudus suddenly cried out, and Aza gasped when the boy was wrenched away from him. For a moment, it was just him lying on the grass, bleeding out into the dirt, staring up at a half-crying, half-screaming Bluebird in the Battlemaster’s grip, hearing Khudus yells to be let go from behind. He was forgotten and useless and he told himself get up get up and he tried, but his entire body spasmed with agony when he tried to move, his stomach feeling like it was trying to crawl up his throat, his entire side hot and wet and-

And the Battlemaster suddenly dropped Bluebird like he was burnt, his hand unslinging his spear to-

CLANG!

-catch a massive axe that swung in out of nowhere, its wicked, curved edge mere ilms from the Battlemaster’s nose.

“Mommy!” Bluebird sobbed, immediately scrambling to Aza’s side, still clutching that knife tight.

Atani did not look at her daughter or him. Her eyes were a wide, blazing, crazed red, burning so hotly it hurt to stare at. The air – Aza almost choked. The air was all but crackling with aether, hot and surging and making him feel suffocated. She looked monstrous, her face cast in an unnatural shadow as she growled – growled so low he could feel it rumble in his rib cage, and abruptly shoved the Battlemaster away hard enough that his feet left the ground in a frantic stagger that almost knocked him flat on the ground.

“Gods,” Khaji whispered in horror behind him.

The Battlemaster stumbled but regained his balance. He wasn’t smiling anymore. He was openly wary, breathing unsteadily as Atani lowered her head like a bull about to charge, breathing in deep, angry breaths.

“The fucking Bear, of all people,” the Battlemaster muttered, “Just my luck.”

With a roar that sounded more monster than Spoken, Atani charged with inhuman speed. Aza almost felt the force which she collided with the Battlemaster, and the pair of them rocketed past the nearby yurt and out of sight. But Atani was screaming, howling, roaring – like a maddened, frenzied beast, the aether still a surging, seething thing choking the air, heavy thumps and bangs like she was ripping the very earth up itself.

“Mommy is…” Bluebird said shakily, staring where the two had disappeared – then seemingly remembered they weren’t safe yet. With a jerk she turned, “Khudus!”

“Oh, fuck,” Khaji muttered.

Aza slowly turned his head, feeling like it was full of sloshing water – Khaji had Khudus pinned down on the ground, and he was… not much older than himself. He was big, like all Au Ra men were big, but he was young and gangly and – and…

“Let him go!” Bluebird hissed, holding her knife before her boldly, her eyes glittering with a madness that was echoed in Atani’s, “Let him go right now.”

“Or what? You’ll cut me with that tiny carving knife?” Khaji sneered, but he was eyeing the ‘tiny knife’ warily. He was alone, in the middle of an enemy camp – and unlike the Battlemaster, he did not seem at ease. His hands were full pinning Khudus down, and while Bluebird was half his size, she was vicious and scrappy. It was clear what will happen. Khaji would have to let Khudus go to defend himself - but Khudus had a knife too, and Khaji would have to contend with two determined kids trying their damnest to stab him to death. He'd lose. For a moment, Aza hoped that this would… this would turn out good.

Khaji’s grip relaxed, just a fraction, his gaze shifting to behind Bluebird, towards the noise of Atani's distant roars. Bluebird lowered her knife slightly, confident that he was obeying-

When a large, cloth covered hand clamped right over her mouth from behind. Bluebird spasmed, yells muffled and- abruptly slumped like a puppet with cut strings. Her knife dropped from her limp hand, landing ilms from Aza’s hand in the dry dirt.

“Easy,” the smooth voice laughed, dropping the unconscious Bluebird on the floor like what one would do with a sack of rice. Aza stared, horrified, as the girl hit the ground with a ‘thud’, face down and loose-limbed. If it weren’t for the rise and fall of her shoulders, he would have feared her dead.

“That stuff can kill kids that young,” Khaji grumbled sourly.

“It’s fine,” the newcomer said, and Aza slowly looked up at him. It was an older Au Ra – tall, slim, but muscular, with a handsome face and dark, long hair, his body covered in off-white armour, like bones. He smiled down at him with- Master's face. It was identical. The eyes, the curve of his mouth, the warmness, it was - Master's- Aza's skin crawled, stomach churning with fear, his fingers spasming into the dirt as he tried to press into the earth, to phase through into Hell if need be, because - the Au Ra was smiling so gently at him, looking at him so warmly, with Master's- Master's look- eyes it was- Master- it was him- Master- no- no, he was dead. He was dead.

“Don’t be afraid,” Master said in a soothing tone, one Aza heard countless times, when he was close to tears and Master made him get in the bed. His mind was blank. He didn't want this. He couldn't do this. Don't make him do this. Master was kneeling down. Master was reaching out. Aza couldn't move. Like always. He could never move. He had to stay still. He wasn't allowed to move. He stared blankly. Master was touching him. His face. Turned his face. Looked down at him. Thumb pressed into his throat. Pressure. Please don't. Please don't. Please. Please. 

"I think he's going into shock," Master said. He sounded like he was far away. 

"He's lost a lot of blood."

"I better put him to sleep, then. We can keep him alive until we get to camp."

 

And before Aza could do more than let out a terrified whimper, mind blank and body shaking so hard he felt like he was going to fall to literal pieces, Master clamped his hand right over his mouth and nose, filling his lungs with a burning that made his vision turn white, grey, fuzzy…

…and…

Chapter Text

It was moments like these that made Ajinai doubt the Buduga sometimes.

He sighed when the Cat-boy’s shaking subsided as he slipped into unconsciousness, moving the cloth away and quickly checking his pulse. It fluttered weak and rabbit-fast, his skin clammy to the touch, and disregarding the fact that they were in the middle of enemy camp, fumbled under his bone armour to rip off a rough strip of his tunic underneath.

“W-What’ve you done to them?” The boy Khaji was pinning down yelled, his voice cracking. Khudus, if he wasn’t mistaken. He’d gotten big in the last seven years, Ajinai noted distractedly, yanking up Cat-boy’s tunic to better survey the wound underneath.

“Shut up, Khudus, he’s helping them,” Khaji huffed, and there was the noise of scuffling and Khudus hissing.

Ajinai left them to it. As big as Khudus had gotten in recent years, Khaji was still an adult – a young adult, but an adult nevertheless. The Buduga taught them early how to subdue someone non-lethally so if Khaji was overpowered by a twelve-year-old then he deserved whatever thumping Khudus gave him. Children were fragile, no matter how hard the Steppe made you, and it wouldn’t do to drag every single kid back maimed or crippled, so non-lethal grappling it was.

Or, it was how it used to be. Now things were different, and Ajinai was seeing the results of it first-hand. Khatun Xartsaga had deposed of Hooshal, and he was a cold, cruel man who surrounded himself with equally harsh men. Their raids over the past few months had gotten more vicious, more focused on causing maximum damage, on demonstrating their martial superiority, than taking what is needed. Children being dragged back had too many bruises, broken bones, or wounds that had them succumbing in the night before they even began to turn them.

It left a sour taste in Ajinai’s mouth.

“I hope Mom rips you apart, Battlemaster,” he muttered under his breath, furious as he realised how deep the wound went in the boy’s side. He had caught the tail end of the encounter, had seen how Cat-boy had shoved his sis- shoved Bluebird aside, saved her from certain death. He owed Cat-boy for that, and…

For the briefest, shortest moment, Ajinai considered leaving him here.

He shook the sudden whim off, pressing the cloth hard against the wound to apply pressure. The wound was deep but not fatal – on an adult at least. On a child as small as this, he wasn’t sure… and the Cat-boy was small. He didn’t know if it was because of his race, but he was the size of an eleven-year-old Au Ra boy, with a slim body that looked to be from too many missed meals than any natural svelteness. He doubted Mom would’ve starved him, and he didn’t want to think what hole she had rescued this slip of a thing from.

“Gods!” Khaji complained, having finally managed to subdue Khudus into being bound and gagged. The boy was letting out furious, muffled yells – though it did nothing to hide the terrified pallor of his face. Khaji had been gentle with him, Ajinai was relieved to see. Khaji looked up to the Battlemaster and had feared he’d be one of those who took his cruel lessons too close to heart, “He’s pretty strong! Excellent.”

“Khaji,” Ajinai said, “Have you got any spare potions on you?”

“I have one… why, is the Cat-boy dying?”

Khudus went still at that, his eyes shooting to Cat-boy in open horror.

“I just want to be cautious,” Ajinai said, not wanting Khudus to panic overly much. The bleeding was beginning to slow down now, but there was a worrying puddle soaking into the dirt under the boy – Gods know how filthy the Battlemaster’s spear was too, so infection was a real risk. He had a habit of smearing the blade with sheep shit before each raid, the craven, “He’s only little.”

“Yeah,” Khaji said, looking worried. He patted at his satchel before pulling out a potion, tossing it over. “But don’t linger too long, Ajinai, your beast of a mother’s still nearby.”

“She won’t attack us if she sees me,” Ajinai said grimly, glancing over his shoulder where, distantly, he could hear Mom ripping into the Battlemaster with full, howling fury. As good as a warrior as that man was, no one could survive Mom in a one-to-one battle, so he was viciously satisfied that they’ll be returning to camp minus one Battlemaster, “She’ll hesitate.”

Khaji said nothing, and Ajinai’s gaze dropped to Bluebird sprawled out in the grass just beside him. His si- she was breathing, slowly, and Ajinai took a moment to burn into memory how she looked. She was still toddling on short, baby legs last time he saw her. She was… she was almost a spitting image of Mom now, with her ugly temper to match. The Battlemaster probably recognised her as Atani’s on sight and wanted to eliminate a potential future threat.

“Khaji, put… put Bluebird near the yurt over there, out of the way.”

“Ajinai?”

“Seems pointless to leave her out here to be trampled,” Ajinai said stiffly, turning his attention to treating Cat-boy’s wounds so he won’t die in transit, “Do it. I’m ordering you.”

Khaji didn’t immediately move – Buduga rules was to forego any previous attachments to your old family, so Ajinai was pretty much being treasonous now. If Khaji reported him, he’d have to be ‘re-educated’, and while under Hooshal that was an unpleasant but okay time, under Xartsaga was another story entirely. Those who went for re-education either came back crippled, or not at all. Ajinai wasn’t afraid, though. If he was reported, then he’d finally be able to show how he really felt before he met his end.

Eventually, Khaji moved to do as he was told, silently carrying Bluebird to the safety of a nearby yurt. Ajinai turned back to Cat-boy with a sigh. Again, the urge to leave him here rose in him.

But in the end, Ajinai was a Buduga, and he was loyal, no matter how doubtful. He tended to the boy, ensured he was stable for travel, and picked him up. He was so light in his arms, so fragile… for a moment, he doubted he’d survive Xartsaga’s indoctrination.

If that was so…

“Ajinai.”

He froze. Khaji froze too, straightening up from where he’d put down Bluebird. Taking a breath, Ajinai turned, Cat-boy in his arms, to see his father looking at him, unarmed and expression… unreadable.

“D- Aruci,” Ajinai bit out, feeling like his stomach had bottomed out. Mom, he could stand to run into here – when she was in one of her fits, she was unrecognisable, more beast than person – but Dad? Dad was… he remembered sitting at his feet, listening to his warm, gentle voice as he taught him crafting and told him stories and – it was a memory that sat as sharp and hot like a heated knife in his breast, and he swallowed the sudden lump in his throat, firming his resolve.

Hooshal said he’d been too tender-hearted to be a Buduga. It was why he kept him in charge of the kids, no matter how strong he’d been physically, no matter how skilled with the blade, and kept him out of raids that drifted too close to the Borlaaq and Iriq. Ajinai had always resented him for it, but also been relieved too, and now… he understood Hooshal’s actions. Standing here, as an enemy, looking at his father, Ajinai found himself doubting that he’d be able to do the Buduga thing and draw steel on him.

Dad’s gaze lowered to the Cat-boy in his arms, then to Bluebird, tucked safely next to the yurt, out of the way of any charging warsteed.

“If I ask nicely, will you hand the children over and come back to us?” Dad asked him, his tone soft.

It took Ajinai two tries to swallow the lump in his throat down far enough to speak, “I’m no longer your son, Aruci,” he said, the words feeling like thorns in his mouth, “I am a Buduga, and I am reclaiming these children as new blood for our tribe.”

Recited words that lacked heart. Dad looked at him, his mouth pressed into a firm line.

The thing was, Aruci was always overshadowed by Atani’s towering, terrifying reputation. He was the crafter, the meek ‘yurt-husband’, the Buduga would sneer. A man who preferred sewing and singing over the ‘manly’ activities of hunting and raiding. Aruci was soft and gentle, compared to his monster of a wife. Aruci was nothing to be afraid of. Aruci was weak.

Ajinai knew better, though. Dad was who he feared the most. Mom would hesitate, because she loved fiercely and deeply, even when those loved ones betrayed her. She was weak like that, possessing a heart too easily bruised, clinging to attachments even when they were broken. Even in the depths of her madness, she would never be able to bring herself to attack him, even if it was to defend her other children. She would be paralysed with indecision.

Dad, on the other hand, was decisively pragmatic. There would be no hesitation in his corner.

“I can’t let you to do that,” Dad murmured, “I promised Atani I’d protect our children – even against you, Ajinai.”

Ajinai swallowed, clutching Cat-boy close to him, unsure if he should put him down or not. He didn’t want him to be hurt in the inevitable scuffle, but neither did he want to lose him. Khaji was looking between Aruci and himself, clearly asking for direction. Khudus was quiet too, waiting for an opportunity to escape. Any Steppe child worth their salt could slip bonds when left unsupervised long enough.

“Bluebird’s safe,” Ajinai near-whispered.

“But Aza isn’t,” Aruci returned, nodding at Cat-boy.

Oh, so they replaced him with a poor orphan they found? Ajinai felt something ugly flare in him at the thought, but he snuffed it. He forfeited any right to be angry over that the moment he took the Buduga name – but still, the hurt of it lingered like an ache behind his breastbone. He tried to ignore it.

“I-”

“Chatting with your false family, Ajinai?”

It was like having a bucket of ice upended over his head. Ajinai went stiff at the husky low purr at his back. Khaji gasped and immediately flung himself to his knees. Aruci’s expression became even grimmer. Almost ponderously, heavy boots thudded into the hard, sun-baked dirt, the clink of mail echoing around them, clearly heard, despite the ambient noise of battle around them.

“Khatun!” Khaji whispered.

“So, Hooshal’s been succeeded,” Aruci said calmly, “Who are you?”

“Khatun Xartsaga,” the husky voice laughed. The footsteps stopped right behind Ajinai. A leather-clad hand settled on the nape of his neck in an almost fatherly fashion, and the Khatun leaned forwards. Xartsaga had been pilfered from the Olkund twenty summers ago, and had grown into a tree of a man, thick-limbed, sturdy and as flexible as an ancient oak – so he towered over Ajinai, and was taller than Aruci, who was large for an Au Ra himself.

“The Hellbeast’s yurt-husband himself,” Xartsaga mused. His face was a ruined mess of scars, cutting through his pitch-black scales and leaving ropey, thick white scars in their place. His eyes were so pale they were like chipped ice glaring out at you, and his left horn had been snapped off entirely. If one believed rumours, it was said Atani herself had almost ripped his face off with her fingernails alone during a botched raid several years ago… and had even torn off his horn and stabbed him with it. Ajinai would believe it – it would explain why Xartsaga loathed his guts with a burning, unending passion and would mutter endlessly about putting ‘that Hellbeast bitch back in her place’.

“But what’s this?” Xartsaga continued when Aruci did nothing but stare emotionlessly at them, “I see no weapon in your hands, none at your belt. Were you going to steal our children with nothing but your words?”

My children,” Aruci stressed, drawing himself up to his full height. Even shorter than Xartsaga, he somehow seemed to tower over them, “And approaching with naked steel does nothing but sour negotiations before they even begin.”

“Negotiations,” Xartsaga repeated with an ugly twist to his mouth. He gripped Ajinai’s nape tight, his fingernails pressing uncomfortably hard into his neck scales, “Buduga don’t negotiate.”

“Yes,” Aruci’s voice was as cutting as shattered glass, “Which explains why the Buduga have dropped to the same level as scavenging Gedan these days. Poor negotiations with your Oronir masters have left you desperately short of supplies and men, haven’t they?”

Khaji drew in a sharp, stunned breath. Ajinai could feel all the blood drain out of his face. 

Any semblance of amusement slid off Xartsaga’s face. He straightened up, letting go of Ajinai’s neck, and bared his teeth in a savage gesture that could barely be called a smile, “I’m going to break you, yurt-husband, and leave you for the Hellbeast to find.”

“Feel free,” Aruci said coldly, “Better men than you have tried.”

Xartsaga prowled forwards, his hand reaching for the thick hilt of his greatsword, his expression ugly. Ajinai found himself rooted in place, Cat-boy heavy in his arms. He was torn on what to do. Aruci couldn’t… he wasn’t strong enough to fight Xartsaga and walk away. As foul and cruel as the man was, he won his fight against Hooshal fair and square, was known as the most powerful warrior amongst the Buduga, even if his temper was his greatest foe at times. Aruci couldn’t – he couldn’t-

Xartsaga’s aggressive advance was interrupted when a severed arm went sailing through the air and almost hit him in the face.

He did an amusing half-hop back, his head slowly turning to see-

You,” Xartsaga snarled in choked fury.

Atani stood across the short space between the yurts, her body splattered with blood and a spearhead buried right into her gut. She didn’t seem to pay it any mind though, her crimson eyes burning like hot coals as she glowered at Xartsaga with her teeth bared in a feral snarl. She growled a beast’s growl, hefting her axe in her hands like it weighed nothing and prowling forwards with an air of impending violence.

Aruci’s gaze, for the slightest of seconds, flicked to Atani in open worry – at her gut where the spear rested – Atani was focused wholly on Xartsaga, the biggest threat to her crazed mind – there was no attention paid to Ajinai and Khaji, who was still kneeling in the dirt looking like he was witnessing two titans colliding.

Ajinai took a few slow, silent steps back, then several more, until he almost tripped over Khudus. He hopped over him, glanced over at Khaji. He was looking back, white-faced.

‘Go,’ Ajinai mouthed at him, and Khaji scrambled to his feet as quietly and quickly as he could, scurrying to Khudus and pulling at the boy.

Khudus, realising what they were up to, immediately tried to struggle, letting out muffled yells – but the moment he cried out, Atani roared and surged forwards, smashing her axe full force into Xartsaga’s blade. No one heard. 

So, it was under the cover of the Bear of the Steppe’s roars that Ajinai and Khaji did as Buduga did; they stole away with their new brothers on silent, quick feet.

 


 

Aza dreamt of being in a maze.

It was a maze of trees – all thick trunks and crowded together, their roots clawing at his feet as he ran and ran – there was a monster behind him, dark and hulking and full of sharp teeth, and it called out to him in Master’s voice, telling him not to be afraid, don’t run, it won’t hurt, don’t be afraid. But Aza was afraid. No matter how far he ran, how fast, Monster-Master was always just behind him, close enough to feel its hot breath on his neck, its teeth snapping at his heels, so close that he couldn’t even look behind him to see, because if he did, the roots would trip him and it would be upon him and he-

His feet abruptly met air and he cried out, tumbling in the darkness until he hit something soft and warm and wet. He scrambled up, and in his hands was a knife and under him was Master, bleeding and dead but his eyes were open and the ruin that was his mouth was twisted into a smile, his hands reaching up at him and it was Monster-Master now with sharp teeth and grasping claws and big and powerful beneath him-

He screamed and stabbed and stabbed because he was dead he was dead he had to be dead but his blade sunk into Monster-Master’s hide and left no blood and Monster-Master laughed and laughed and laughed and-

Hands grabbed at his wrists -  large, yelling, so much yelling, Monster-Master was laughing and the guards – the ones who stood at the door and watched and did nothing – dragged him off, and the Monster-Master was looming over him, the guards held him down and he cried and begged them help me help me but they didn’t they never did they just held him down and Monster-Master leant over him, huge and towering with a wide, hungry wolf’s smile and he couldn’t move couldn’t couldn’t couldn’t-

It won’t hurt, don’t be afraid, Monster-Master purred at him, its jaws opening and its hot breath fanning over its face and Aza closed his eyes, he closed them and thought of Mom thought of Home thought of Ala, even when the Monster-Master’s claws pulled lovingly at his clothes, burning lines over his skin, making it crawl, and-

Monster-Master’s jaws snapped right at his ear and he cried out in fear, jerking against the hands pinning him down, opening his eyes – the wolf’s smile was all he could see, grinning down at him, Master-Monster leaning over him, all he could see, his mane long and tickling his body and it felt like spiders crawling over him where it touched, bile hitting the back of his throat because he knew what came next, he knew, he knew-

“Don’t be afraid,” Monster-Master said gently, the guards’ grip bruising and the Monster-Master’s claws digging into his side so hard it was like literal flame, burning and throbbing with agony. Aza cried. Monster-Master’s leaned down, “Don’t be afraid.”

It was like being smothered. Monster-Master opened his jaws wide, sharp teeth gleaming, like he was going to swallow him whole, and he realised this will end like all the other times. The guards won’t help him. Monster-Master won’t stop. He couldn’t do anything but accept what happened next. He couldn’t do that again.

He screamed-

-and something struck him hard across the face, cutting him off with a sharp, breathless gasp, the world spinning into a confusing smear of colour until a dark, starless sky loomed over him, the muffled glow of a cloud-covered moon glaring down.

“Fuck me, he had a pair of lungs on him,” an unfamiliar voice muttered.

Aza daren’t move. He could still feel Monster-Master’s breath on his neck. The ground beneath him was moving weirdly – someone had a hand pressed hand against his stomach, keeping him in place. Something was digging into his back. The sky moved over him, and someone with a bone-white helmet, wisps of dark hair trailing from underneath it, was staring down at him with warm, blue eyes visible in the thin visor.

“Sorry for striking you,” the helmet-man said, sounding genuinely regretful, “But your shrieking would’ve had half the Steppe’s predators on us within minutes. We need to be quiet for now.”

The words didn’t make sense to him. He didn’t know where he was. Where was Master? His gaze darted about him frantically – the sky, night, the ground beneath him – thunder of hooves, horse – he smelled horse, and – his side throbbed with a burn so deep it was like being branded. This was – that was, where.

“How’s your side?” The helmet-man asked, when Aza didn’t reply.

It came to him abruptly then. He was- the man on the horse, Bluebird, the spear, the pain and Master. There was no Master here now, but his stomach was clenching and his skin was crawling – the dream was looming oppressively in his mind. He could feel his touch on him like an oil smear, he wanted to scrub himself raw, get it off, but- no. He was. Wait. No. Where was.

“Khudus,” Aza croaked, his throat feeling raw as he tried to crane his head back. It didn’t work, he couldn’t see anything but sky and helmet-man.

“On the horse next to me. He’s safe and sound,” Helmet-man assured him in a kind tone.

Aza distrusted it viscerally. Master had been kind at first too. Taken. Again. His eyes slid to his captor – the terror and horror and nausea was suddenly shoved to the very back of his mind, like when Master had fallen asleep and Aza carefully slipped the knife from where he’d hidden it under the mattress before- the. Before he. He judged the distance. Helmet-man was too high up and too armoured to bite.

He felt the sway of the horse under him. Felt how helmet-man pinned him by the stomach but was relaxed. Complacent. People relaxed when their slaves didn’t resist.

“Don’t worry,” Helmet-man continued, looking away distractedly as the horse moved sideways, moving around something, “We won’t hurt yo-”

With a violent movement that made Aza’s vision sear white with agony, he twisted and flung himself off the horse.

Someone shouted – and he realised they’d been going at a canter, because he hit the ground hard enough that he bounced and rolled for a few fulms before stopping, thoroughly winded. He pushed through it. He was unbound – miraculously – and he scrambled blindly to his feet, ignoring the stabbing agony lancing through his side, the wet heat dribbling down and, he bolted – he didn’t know where. It was like Master-Monster was on his heels again, he just ran as fast as he could, vision blurred with tears of pain – hooves pounded the ground behind him, someone yelled-

A hand grabbed him by the scruff of his shirt and hoisted him off the ground. He thrashed wildly, but his captor just carelessly flung him back across the saddle, face down, and pinned him hard enough that he felt bile hit his throat from the sheer pain the pressure brought on his side.

“You idiot!” Helmet-man snapped, no longer sounding so kind, “You could have killed yourself by dashing your skull on the floor! What were you thinking!?”

“I don’t care!” Aza screamed, kicking and thrashing as well as he could. The horse underneath him moved agitatedly, and he prayed it would rear and throw him off, maybe kill him in the process, “I’d rather die! I won’t be a slave again! I won’t!”

“You- what?” Helmet-man said blankly, easing the pressure a fraction. It was enough. Twisting around as slippery as an eel, Aza managed to sink his teeth into the hand that had been pressing against the nape of his neck, hard enough that he felt blood flood his mouth. It made him feel sick to his stomach but he stubbornly clenched his jaw. Helmet-man cursed, his hand spasming in pain but Aza just locked his jaw and held on fast.

“Arrgh- you, fuck,” Helmet-man hissed, and Aza could feel him keep his other hand on his lower back, not falling for the trick. If he’d eased up, Aza would’ve been able to thrash free. “Y-You have a nasty bite, shit.”

“Need help, Aijinai?”

“Give me- fucking, keep him pinned down.”

Another pair of hands pressed him down and he growled as low as he could. Helmet-man let out a breathless, pained sounding laugh, letting him go. Aza gave an experimental thrash, but the new person – while their hands were smaller, were just as strong. He wasn’t able to get free. Helmet-man moved his free hand to his face, and Aza was prepared for anything. For punches, for eye-gouging, anything.

What he didn’t expect was for Helmet-man to pinch his nose.

Aza almost choked, jerking slightly – but Helmet-man kept his nose pinched shut, and Aza became woozily aware that he couldn’t – breathe. His mouth was too full of blood and flesh to try and Helmet-man had a firm grip. He tried – he tried to do it as long as he could – but spots started to dance in his vision and his head spun until – he left go with a spluttering cough, feeling blood trickle over his chin as he sucked in unsteady, desperate breaths.

“There, ow,” Helmet-man grumbled, shaking his bleeding hand out. Aza looked up dizzily, saw that he had almost tore a thick chunk out of where the thumb sloped into the hand, blood oozing and soaking into his sleeve, “Shit, look at that, Khaji. If that’d been an ilm lower he’d have cut an artery.”

“Uh, should we muzzle him?”

“No, keep him down for a second. I’ll just put my gloves on.”

Aza lay there, with despairing frustration bubbling up inside of him. Why were the Gods torturing him like this? When he thought he – he knew he never deserved Atani’s love, that perfect life in her yurt with Bluebird and Aruci but, he had hoped, he could have… but he was given a taste of happiness and was now having it ripped away from him again. He let his forehead drop, mouth tasting of copper, feeling blood dry against his skin as he stared sightlessly at the leather of the saddle beneath him. He didn’t think he could survive this again. He just… he couldn’t.

“I’ve got him,” Helmet-man said, but his voice was distant and Aza didn’t care anymore. A leather-clad hand pinned him down again, and the horse started cantering again. Aza’s entire side throbbed with a pain that kept him annoyingly aware, and he hoped he bled to death.

“You’re a little spitfire, aren’t you?” Helmet-man said ruefully, “That’s good. A bit of spirit will help you.”

He likes them feisty’, Capt’n’s voice muttered in his memory from what felt like a lifetime ago, and he pressed his face into the saddle and swallowed down his sobs.