Chapter 1: Part I: Mercy
“Children,” Tanetaka began, “cannot be given the death penalty.”
Lord Harumasa, the portly noble who fancied himself as a legal advisor on most days but really just made a nuisance of himself, looked as if he was about to have an apoplexy at Tanetaka’s gentle correction. His kimono, always vividly bright, was splotched with sweat stains on that sickly hot summer day, the silk amplifying the stench of musk to the point where Tanetaka had to force his face to stay utterly straight.
“That child,” Lord Harumasa snarled, “murdered a noble! With his bare hands!”
“A monstrous child indeed, to kill a grown man with nothing but his hands,” Tanetaka said flatly, ignoring Lord Harumasa’s blustering, “My lord, I mean no disrespect, but no matter the crime Kugane’s laws are clear: children cannot be given the death penalty.”
“Then suspend the sentence,” Lord Harumasa rolled his eyes like this was obvious, “Incarcerate the little savage until he’s old enough-”
“That can only be done when the child is close to adulthood,” Tanetaka interrupted, “Which we cannot know, as curiously, this Aza Lynel came under Lord Musa’s employ without citizenship papers…”
“A servant, given a purpose out of the goodness of Lord Musa’s heart,” Lord Harumasa said quickly, “He always had a soft spot for disenfranchised children, you know. This- this whelp must have been picked up from the docks, the stowaways, you see.”
“Hmm,” Tanetaka said, eyeing Lord Harumasa and wondering if the cause of his sweating was from something other than the heat. Lord Harumasa and Lord Musa were thick as thieves, after all, “Be that as it may, it’s difficult to pinpoint the child’s age. He claims he is thirteen?”
Lord Harumasa scoffed, “I say sixteen!”
“Unfortunately, the court does not condemn a person one’s opinion, no matter one’s station,” Tanetaka said serenely, smiling politely at Lord Harumasa’s glower, “There will be no death penalty.”
“But the little monster murdered a noble!”
“I’m well aware,” Tanetaka said, “His sentence shall match that crime, I assure you, Lord Harumasa.”
It took a while, after that, for Tanetaka to be free from that man’s presence. He endured his blustering, his attempts to paint the child as some demon that had crawled out from the depths of hell itself and expounding on Lord Musa’s well known acts of philanthropy, and kindness, and etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
Honestly, if Lord Harumasa had wanted to bury the nasty skeletons in Lord Musa’s closet, he could have been subtler about it.
It was just nearing dusk when Lord Harumasa finally left, and Tanetaka was left to deal with the legal headache once and for all. Many had bayed for the trial to be a public affair – equally as many had demanded a public execution – but Tanetaka was a servant of justice and the laws of Kugane, and his careful interpretation of such things told him that this was a crime to be dealt with in private and with a measure of mercy.
So, as the sun sunk down in the horizon, he indicated for his assistant to bring the criminal before him.
The child before him was nowhere near sixteen.
Tanetaka was moderately experienced with Miqo’te – a few had been prosecuted for inciting prostitution or petty thievery – and so he could vaguely pinpoint their ages from looks alone. Miqo’te, he knew, were late bloomers in adolescent, hitting their growth spurts at around seventeen years of ages. Before then they looked remarkably young for their ages, maintaining a very child-like appearance well into their mid-teens.
The child before him looked ten, so Tanetaka tentatively placed him about twelve to thirteen.
He also looked wan, and tired, with a stark bruise blossoming against his swollen left cheek. Someone had tried to find garments his size for him (according to the report submitted by the Sekiseigumi that had apprehended him, he had been entirely naked at the time of his arrest) but the rough spun tunic and breeches were still comically large on him, making him seem even younger.
Behind him stood the guards, stone-faced and stiff-backed. Tanetaka eyed them, wondering if they had administered the bruise on the child’s face. No matter one’s crimes, he did not condone abuse during custody.
“Aza Lynel,” he said, dismissing that concern to be investigated later, “Please confirm if that is the correct name to refer you by.”
The child looked dully at him, saying nothing.
“Silence will be taken as affirmative,” Tanetaka said, stifling his disquiet at the situation. Rare was it for him to prosecute children like this, and it unsettled him every time, “Do you plead guilty to the perverse mutilation, murder and desecration of Musa Godo, Lord of House Godo?”
“You have admitted guilt to your crimes,” Tanetaka said, and waited a fraction of a second in case the boy protested. There was none, “Then we shall proceed to the sentencing. Aza Lynel, by the power vested in me by the Sekiseigumi, upholders of law and peace in Kugane, you will be sentenced to ten years of hard labour.”
Nothing. The boy didn’t even blink.
“After these ten years, if you still live,” Tanetaka continued, “You will be released and deported from Kugane. You may choose where you will be deported to, whereupon you will come under the jurisdiction of that country’s laws. Furthermore, you will be permanently exiled from Kugane, and any attempt of re-entry will result in your immediate arrest and execution.”
The boy’s gaze dropped, but still he remained silent.
“If you have anything to say, now is the time for it,” Tanetaka said, “After this, you will be taken to the prison ship that will transport you to the… correction centre.”
“What…” the boy rasped quietly, “about Ala…?”
Tanetaka paused, puzzled. “I’m sorry?”
“Ala,” the boy looked up, an unsettling glint in those beastly, yellow eyes of his, “There was- there was a girl called Ala, there. Lots of- loads of kids, are still there.”
Tanetaka recalled something in the arrest report about collateral. Ah, yes, two other children – servants – also turned up dead. One of them was a girl. He took a quick moment to measure his words carefully, “The children were wards of Lord Musa, therefor-”
“Wards,” the boy snarled, and the flat, empty expression suddenly transformed into one of dark rage, “We were slaves-”
“Slavery is forbidden in Kugane,” Tanetaka said coolly, “Indentured servitude-”
“We were slaves!” the boy shrieked and lunged to his feet – instantly, the guards clamped their hands down on his small shoulders and shoved him down hard enough that Tanataka heard the boy’s knees audibly crack against the hard floor. The boy didn’t even wince – he just hissed and growled, his ears flat against his skull and glaring at Tanataka with such venomous hatred it actually took him back a bit.
Such an expression didn’t belong on such a young child.
“Legally,” Tanetaka said over the low, guttural noises rumbling in the boy’s throat, “You are an indentured servant, one who violated the terms of his contract by torturing and murdering his employer.”
The boy just laughed – but it was an awful, despairing noise – his head bowing too low for Tanetaka to see his expression.
“He was,” the boy half-gasped past his bitter, awful laughter, “a monster. He was a horrible-”
“Defamation will add another year to your sentence,” Tanetaka warned.
“-rapist,” the boy finished in a snarl, glaring up at him from beneath his fringe, “I’m happy I killed him. I’m happy! I’ll do it again, and again, and again!”
Tanetaka waved a hand, dismissing the boy. He’d seen enough raging criminals to know hysteria when he saw it, and there was no point keeping him here to extend his own sentence in a fit of blind rage. The guards gripped the boy’s small arms, forcing him to his feet.
“He deserved it!” the boy continued to scream, violently thrashing and kicking in the guards’ hold as he was pulled away, “He deserved it! WE WERE SLAVES AND YOU DID NOTHING-!“
The door to his office slid shut, cutting off the boy’s howled words. He could still hear him wailing, wild and crazed, until the distance muffled what the walls could not. His office was disturbingly quiet in the aftermath of that, and Tanetaka rubbed at his mouth, stifling a sigh into it.
Well. He knew what skeletons Lord Harumasa was trying to hide now.
Now, how to prove they existed…
Yasuo, not for the first time that evening, bemoaned his rotten luck as he pulled at the cold iron chaining him to the ship’s floor. He was packed in with the rest of the prisoners being transported to one of Kugane’s ‘correction centres’, all petty criminals promised the prospect of a clean sheet in a year so long as they broke their backs hauling stone and iron in one of the many mines situated on the islands within the Ruby Sea.
Yasuo had willingly taken the sentence – the alternative was losing a hand for pilfering a rack of fish – but now he was wondering if he chose right. The seas were choppy that evening, the ship rocking in its berth as the evening winds picked up, and he was sitting on the world’s most uncomfortable wooden bench. He couldn’t even stand properly, the chain tying him to the floor so short he would have to stoop over.
“All this over some cod,” he muttered under his breath, slouching in his seat as much as he could. They were all jammed in tight, a good fifty of them in the small hold of this ship – though there was one, tiny space next to him, against the wall. No doubt for a last-minute addition to their merry cruise.
The bang of the hold’s door had the room, already at a low, cautious murmur, instantly quieten, and Yasuo looked up at the noise of stomping boots to see two soldiers descend into the hold with a child in too-big prison clothes and equally big, heavy chains binding his wrists, between them. The hush took on a bewildered tone.
Yasuo stared as the soldiers dragged the child towards him, and everyone, himself included, had to quickly tuck their feet in before the soldiers stomped on their toes. Yasuo awkwardly leaned away as much as he could as the soldiers went about attaching the floor chain to the boy’s manacles, uncaring of the other prisoners in forced close quarters with how carelessly the flung their elbows out, and within minutes were done. They then left without a word.
The boy, obviously, remained, staring at the thick, black iron around his tiny wrists with an expression that lacked all emotion.
He was a Miqo’te, Yasuo realised, eyeing the large, cat-like ears that protruded from the boy’s messy hair. He even had a tail, which looked a bit matted and filthy. Curiosity overcoming him, Yasuo nudged him with his elbow.
“Hey,” he tried. The boy ignored him, so he nudged again, “Hey.”
Dully, the catboy glanced over at him with eerie, yellow eyes. His face was a mess. His cheek was swollen and bruised, his bottom lip was split and there was a bloody gash at his temple, like someone had smashed a gauntleted fist into his face. Yasuo felt unease at the sight. He knew the Sekiseigumi could be harsh, but he thought they drew the line at hitting kids – or arresting them, at that.
“Are, uh, you alright?” he asked, deciding against his earlier question at the flat, empty stare the kid was giving him, “You’re… bleeding.”
The boy didn’t answer him. He just looked away from him and curled up as much as he could against the wall, trying to put as much space between them as the cramped bench would allow. His ill-fitting prison clothes just hung off him, but Yasuo could see him trembling underneath the thin fabric, his matted tail tucked so close to his body that Yasuo wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been between his legs, if he’d been standing.
Perturbed, Yasuo leaned away and let him be. There was no way they would work a child at the correction centre, right? The boy would surely die from exertion alone within months.
The ship groaned and shuddered then, freed from its moorings, and Yasuo grimaced at they began to set sail to their new home.
A home they never reached.
Chapter 2: Part I: Divine (?) Intervention
There was still blood underneath his fingernails.
Aza stared at the dark brown staining his nailbeds, wondering who it belonged to. His hands had been smeared in so much of it – angry red cuts still lined his palms and the inside of his fingers, where his hands slipped on the knife hilt – and wondered, was it his? But there was a lot of it too, with Master. And with the other boy. And with-
He clenched his hands, refusing to finish the thought. Underneath him the ship lurched nauseously, and he squeezed his eyes shut and pulled his knees up to his chest again, hating the sickly feeling roiling in his belly.
It was almost too much – the blood, the phantom wet stickiness of it he could still feel on his fingers, the seasickness, the ship, the tight press of people all around him. The man next to him at least wasn’t talking to him anymore, effectively deterred by Aza’s frigid silence. Good. Good.
Every time someone looked at him, his skin crawled. Being spoken to…
He jumped when thunder rumbled ahead, and a rippling murmur went through the hold, mostly worried. The storm had come in quick, and Aza wasn’t an expert with sailing, but he was sure that it was getting a bit wild for the small transport ship they were in. The entire vessel felt like it was being violently shaken by some great creature, with how much it lurched.
“We must be getting close,” his neighbour muttered to no one in particular, “They can’t go any further in this storm, can they?”
“Kugane ships are built for these rough seas,” the man opposite Aza said, a grizzled old man with an impressive barrel-chest, “It’s fine.”
“Fine… the whole ship’s-” his neighbour cut off when the ship lurched sideways, almost making Aza slide into him, “-doing that!”
“It’s fine,” the old man insisted, then turned his head to stare at the wall.
Aza’s neighbour huffed but fell into a worried silence, while Aza thought. What would happen if the ship capsized or ran into a reef? Surely the guards would release them all, or would they abandon them to drown in the hold? Then again, why would any Kuganite risk their lives for a hold full of ‘lowlifes’. No, they’d let them drown. Probably view it as just punishment by their kami.
Disquieted at that thought, Aza distracted himself by pulling at his manacles, testing its hold. It was made of thick, crude iron, but these manacles were obviously made for someone with thicker wrists than his. Aza was sure with a bit of oil and a lack of care for scraping all the skin off his knuckles and thumb, he could wriggle free of these.
For what, though? He had nothing now. He escaped Master, but he had nowhere to go, no one else to… he didn’t know where home was, and there was no way he could go back to Mom without Ala, who- who was never coming home now, and, and what else-
(“You can go back to starve every winter, but I’m staying here! You’d enjoy it too if you just did as you were told, Aza!”)
He shook his head violently. No. Not thinking about that.
Another rumble of thunder, louder and angrier this time. Aza looked up at the dark ceiling, where one of the crystal-powered lights were swinging wildly ahead, casting strange, moving shadows everywhere. He could hear muffled shouting and the thump of boots over the pouring rain. The ship groaned, pitching up then down so quickly Aza’s stomach almost rose into his throat – distantly, he heard someone retch, seasick, but Aza’s nausea was all but forgotten, replaced with something tenser and colder-
-then the ship shuddered, a deep ‘crack!’ echoing throughout the hold. Aza cried out as he was almost thrown off the bench, and everyone was shouting, yelling, somewhere in the far back someone screaming “breach!”
But it wasn’t over. The entire vessel jerked, like its hull was caught on something, and somewhere beneath Aza’s feet he heard an awful crunching noise that had him quickly lifting his legs up, staring wide eyed at where a thin film of frothy white water was already cascading over the dark wood.
“Kami above!” his neighbour yelled, leaping to his feet – only to almost fall over when his manacles almost dragged him back down, “Water- there’s water- WATER!”
Aza flattened himself against the wall as the entire hold erupted into panicked screaming, the ship suddenly listing sideways. There was another deep groan that reverbed throughout the entire ship, followed by a roaring ‘crrrrrrk’ that had it shuddering free of whatever it was trapped on.
But it was still listing.
‘The ship’s gonna sink,’ Aza thought numbly, not really feeling anything as he watched chaos descend around him. He couldn’t even see anything – everyone was standing up and yelling, and Aza just curled up against the wall, bewildered and frightened and unsure on what to do.
The hold doors slammed open, and the yelling took on an angry, desperate edge as a pair of Kugane soldiers spilled inside the hold along with what felt like half of the Ruby Sea. The noise all smeared into a high-pitched roar, the storm’s winds chasing the soaked soldiers inside the hold, until all Aza could hear was yelling, the crash of waves and the thundering storm.
It was then that Aza realised he needed to get out.
Without jumped off the bench, saltwater splashing about his heels as he yanked at the chain pinning his manacles to the floor. It was a thick, ugly chain, looped over itself and padlocked to the manacles itself – there was no way Aza could pull free from it, not unless he cut off the chunk of wood the chain was bolted to with an axe or something. So, what? What, he needed to get out of the manacles themselves? They were big on him – but still a bit tight. He had a small gap but-
But but but.
Aza felt something settle in him – cold and flat and focused – and almost calmly he bent over, planting his foot on the chain holding the two thick cuffs around his wrists. His heart was hammering in his throat, he knew this would hurt, but the water was starting to lap at his ankles – people were yelling, sounds of fighting, the ship slipping a little more down to the left – he would drown. He could drown. And no matter what happened, where he was, where he was going, Mom always said survival was the ultimate goal of any life.
He still didn’t understand what that meant, but right now he knew it to mean ‘I can’t die now’.
So, he braced himself and pulled.
He pulled even when the edge of the manacles bit into the side of his hands, broke the skin, gasping through the pain as he pulled and pulled and-
Almost cracked his head on the bench behind him when the manacles ripped free, sending his upper body flying backwards in a pinwheeling tumble. He cried out when he struck the bench hard, driving the wind out of him as he scrambled at it to get back onto his feet. Tears fuzzed his vision, but he could still clearly see the skin the metal had stripped off his hands, bright red and ugly and painful but-
He was free – for the second time that week.
“H-Haa… haha…” a half-hysterical laugh ripped out of him, shaking almost violently as his mind wildly thought on the next step. He was free – on a sinking ship in the middle of a storm in the sea. Where could he even go? The water was rushing higher, up to shin level, and Aza’s wild, wide-eyed stare lifted to see the open door of the hold, leading to the dark, howling tempest outside.
It was madness – complete insanity – but Aza still went for it. Filled with a frantic energy that gave strength to his trembling limbs, he barrelled over the feet of the other prisoners, shoving past legs and hips, wriggling through the tight confines with a single-minded determination that ignored the riot breaking out in the hold right in front of him. He didn’t care. He had to get out. He didn’t care. He had to get out. He didn’t care!
His feet slipped on the wet-slick wood once he reached the bottom of the hold’s stairs – he tumbled forwards, bleeding palms catching on the wood, elbows and knees banging hard against the edged- he crawled, scrambled, up and up and up the stairs, until a faceful of stinging cold rain lashed at him, the wind pulling at his baggy clothes and threatening to pluck him off and toss him into the roiling sea.
Lightning flashed over the dark sky, and all Aza could see, in that brief surge of light was; the prow of a ship lifting up, the sailors scattered over the desk, some pulling at ropes and some pointing, screaming, to the left, at a monstrous wave rising from the depths of the sea to tower over their tiny little ship as a wall of solid, black water and-
With an almighty crash, the rogue wave slammed into the broken, sinking ship, and swept everything away.
Aza woke up choking on seawater and a broken rib.
His entire torso was a mess of spasming agony, and if he had the air for it he probably would’ve screamed. Instead he retched, heaving and crying around the burn in his throat and deep in his chest, digging his fingers into coarse sand as he tried, and failed, to breathe through it. Everything hurt. Everything hurt so much.
But, he was alive, some bewildered, hysterical part of him gibbered giddily, somehow- someway, he was alive.
“…hh…” he rasped, his voice wisping into nothing as he broke down into a round of agony-inducing coughs. His lungs and throat felt raw, and his entire right side was just a hot brand of brokenness. It didn’t feel right. It didn’t and it hurt so bad. It hurt worse than anything he’d ever felt…
Aza’s mind flashed to the past two years, of Master Musa’s long, slim fingers, and amended, no, no it wasn’t.
He didn’t know how long he stayed like that, sprawled out on the sand, rasping through his breaths and barely grasping onto consciousness, but eventually he became aware of a noise other than gently lapping waves and the distant cry of gulls. Voices. Men.
Aza’s eyes fluttered open just as one of those voices exclaimed in surprise, then there were rapid footsteps over sand heading in his direction and – panic. Panic set in white hot and sickening as he realised he was sprawled, weak and helpless, unknown men running towards him, and what if he washed up in Kugane? That man said he’d be executed if he was back, would this count, it would count wouldn’t it, he wouldn’t care, he could die and be executed or these men would hurt him they definitely would they would they would-
“I think he’s alive!” one of the voices said, now directly above him, and he heard the man kneel down-
With a strength born of wild desperation, he bolted onto his feet and ran.
But Aza was gone – pain wracked through him, agonising, dizzying pain that made his vision explode with dark spots and smears of colour, but he kept going – he ran, and ran, and ran, sand slipping underneath his bare heels, until he felt foliage thwack at his stomach and arms and legs and he still ran – then tripped over a root, tumbling, then crawling, scrambling, until he wedged himself under something (earthy, damp, log, it was a log, a log) and stayed, a shivering, curled up ball, crying in pain and fear and hearing distant voices call out.
He hurt so much.
But he was alone again, and safe, and the voices calling out to him grew quieter and more distant, and Aza closed his eyes and wished and wished and wished that this two-year long nightmare would just end already. He just wanted to be back home. He just wanted to go home.
Please, please, let him go home.
And it was then, when Aza hit the very bottom of his despair, curled up beneath a half rotting log with no knowledge or where he was or where to go…
He heard a young girl scream.
Aza didn’t move.
The scream cut off sharply, and the silence that crept on its heels rang high in Aza’s ears. He stared out from under the safety of his fallen log, curled up tight and shivering, pain stabbing into every nerve from the slightest movement. Whoever that was, there was no way Aza could go to help – as if, he could even… him, a small injured little boy, who couldn’t even save his sister with a bow in hand – how can he now-
Another scream- this one angrier, shriller, almost like a word, before it cut off with a cry of pain, joined with a deeper, male voice roaring something. Aza reluctantly tuned into it, faintly hearing a scuffle, yelling – a young girl, and a man, fighting.
He closed his eyes and grit his teeth. If he’d help, he’d fuck it up again. He always did. He’d make it worse. He couldn’t. He couldn’t-
(“You’ve ruined everything! I hate you!”)
But he was already crawling out from under the log, panting hard as he silently crept through the thick, tangling underbrush on bleeding hands and aching knees. Even this slow, shambling movement almost drove him to tears from the agony of it, but he stubbornly went on, creeping quietly, quietly, quietly, until light peeked through the vegetation and he clearly heard voices – two men, muffled keening noises.
Aza held his breath, cautiously pulling back a thick clump of underbrush, squinting out into the glaring sunlight. It was another stretch of beach, with white sands and neverending blue on the horizon – and two men, dressed in sailing garb, standing over the small form of a black-scaled Au Ra girl pinned into the sand.
“The little bitch stabbed me,” one of the men snarled. He was a Hyur, thick with muscle with practically no neck, his right sleeve stained a damp red from a nasty gash along his forearm. It didn’t seem to stop him from holding the girl face down into the sand with a painful looking grip on the nape of her neck, one hand holding both wrists behind her back as she futilely wriggled and yelled into the sand, “Shit, that fucking hurts-”
“Stop whining,” the other man, another Hyur with a skinny, weasly look about him. He was standing over the pair, looking annoyed, “It’s just a harmless little cut.”
“Harmless! Look, I’m pissing blood here!”
“We’ll toss a potion on it when we get back to the ship. Look, we’re already an hour late and the captain wanted us back with supplies asap. Just pick her up and come on.”
“He won’t be angry once we bring him this feisty little lizard, though,” Muscular Hyur sneered, “That Lord Haramasu has been ragging on us to get him a Xaela and we got one! Look, just get something to tie the fucking bitch up so she doesn’t bite me and give me rabies-”
Aza didn’t hear anymore, all the blood draining out his face at hearing that. Master Haramasu…! That fat, ugly piece of shit who always simpered at Master Musa’s heels! Aza remembered him as a bloated horror, his hands always sweaty and who always gripped too hard when he- he forced the memory down, pressing his hands over his mouth when nausea heaved, deep and sickening, in his belly. No, stop it. Focus. Focus.
Girl. Master Haramasu. He couldn’t- he couldn’t let that girl go to that pig! He ran through girls like they were paper- horrible, horrible man. Aza knew first hand, he only managed to endure some of the- no, he couldn’t.
But what could he even do? He was small – always small – and powerless, and those men were bigger and stronger and armed. Aza had nothing- he could barely stand up straight as it was!
Weasel Hyur suddenly started walking away, “You stay there, I’ll get rope from the boat!”
“Don’t take forever!”
Light glinted off something in the sand, and Aza’s gaze slowly moved from the retreating slaver to something metal half-buried into the ground. Splotches of red clumped pale sand together, and Aza could make out a small knife, made for skinning animals, sticking out of the sand. It must’ve fallen there when Muscle Hyur had grabbed the girl…
It was behind the slaver too, the man’s back to Aza. If he was quiet…
(“It becomes very easy. Beast or man, it gets very easy. Now, watch, Azeyma’a.”)
Aza slipped out of the brush. The pain in his body became a distant, detached thing, his gaze fixated on the knife buried in the sand. He remembered what Mom told him about creeping silently, to breathe slow and deep, to press weight in the heel then forwards, to stay low, and not to hesitate with your prey. This was his prey. This was his prey. His prey. His-
He’ll kill it, Mom.
His fingers closed around the knife. The slaver’s back was still him. Aza’s slow breaths were muffled beneath the girl’s dying, muffled yelling, the slaver cursing. The slaver was just out of arm’s reach. Aza’s gaze refocused. Nape of the neck, between the vertebrae. Or.
Aza took a step, then intentionally scuffed his foot, kicking up sand-
The slaver half-turned with a frown, mouth open-
Aza flung himself forwards, putting all of his weight behind it as he rammed the small skinning knife point first into the fucker’s eye.
There was a frozen pause. A split second that felt like an hour, where Aza stared blindly above the slaver’s head, hot wetness spilling over his fingers and making him remember-
(“I’m sorry,” Aza heard something say in his voice, and lifted the knife, “I love you Ala.”)
The slaver screamed, wrenching Aza out of that cold, flat memory. He thrashed, wildly, and Aza staggered and hit the sand hard as the slaver toppled onto his back, clawing at his face, at the hilt of the knife, convulsing as blood spurted– Aza stayed on the floor, wheezing because the pain broke through the cracks of his calm, and spots wobbled, in his vision-
But the girl from before, was already on her feet, spitting out sand and diving for the dying slaver. Aza somehow – somehow – managed to lurch upright, but everything was spinning now, and he dived for the dying slaver too, almost knocking right into the girl as his hands scrambled for the sword on his belt-
Girl looked up sharply – yelled, “MOVE!” and shoved him before he could wrench off the sword. Aza yelped as he tumbled, again, into the sand, blindly scrambling away, any direction, panting and gasping because his chest felt like a sack of hot knives being shaken up and down, and screeched when a large, strong hand grabbed his tail and yanked so hard he felt the pain right up to the base of his neck!
“How about I dock your fucking tail, huh?!” Weasel man was shrieking, “You little fu-ARGH!”
“GET OFF HIM!” Girl was screaming, and through the tears Aza saw her wrench a knife back, glistening with bright red and droplets arching high from the violent movement. She plunged the knife back forwards as Weasel man staggered, right back in his groin, again and again, yelling almost unintelligibly until-
Weasel man fell over in the sand, right near Aza. Aza couldn’t even move. Just watched, blankly, as the girl, her expression almost crazed and splattered with red, rammed the knife into his throat and left it there. She was sitting on his stomach now, blood staining into her trousers, her small shoulders heaving as she choked on her breath.
Close above, Aza could hear gulls.
The girl looked over to him, still panting.
“H-Hey,” she said, her voice hoarse and thick. She was crying, “Are you- who are you?”
“… Aza,” he rasped, not moving from his crumpled, messy sprawl in the sand. Even breathing hurt. He was too tired, “Are… you… hurt…?”
“M-Me? You’re- bleeding, you- you crazy boy!” the girl yelled at him, leaping to her feet. Her entire front was wet with blood, “You helped me and you’re bleeding!”
Aza just stared blankly.
“Idiot!” the girl stomped the few steps to him, landing heavily on her knees beside him. Aza recoiled – then immediately regretted it because his entire body lit up with agony from it. He made a tinny, pathetic noise, and the girl’s face crumpled, looking torn between concern and anger.
“Y-You- um, you’re…” she sniffed, roughly rubbing at her wet cheeks with her sleeve, and looked over him, “You’re really hurt. Um, you helped me so- so I’m gonna help you. Stay there, I’ll get my Dad-”
“No,” Aza gasped, fear lancing through him at the thought of some strange man coming across him like this. He’ll be helpless, they could hurt him, and, “No, no don’t, please-”
“I’m gonna help you!” the girl snapped, jumping to her feet, “Stay there, don’t move! I’ll- I’ll hunt you down if you do and sit on you!”
With that the girl ran off before Aza could get a word in edgewise, leaving him alone with two corpses and his growing terror for company.
Aruci sighed as he finished loading up the little fishing boat with his wares for the day. Very little was traded, but he could blame the storm from last night for that. Not many people travelled to Onokoro, and the Confederates were busy taking stock of the damage to their fleet and less sturdy shanties on the island. Well, no matter, there was still Reunion on their way back. He could add another day to their journey, and he knew Bluebird would enjoy the extra day ‘adventuring’.
Speaking of… he frowned as he looked up at the sky. It was nearing noon, and normally his little Bluebird would be back by now complaining about being hungry. He wasn’t concerned, exactly, his daughter was very capable for her age, but still, there were many dangerous predators roaming about the wilderness of Onokoro, and he’d heard slavers were very active in these parts recently – much to the Confederates ire.
Aruci double-checked the moorings of his boat and went off in search of his daughter. He stepped off the docks, and circled the Aetheryte plaza, then moved off to the western outskirts of the settlement. No doubt she got distracted by the rockpool creatures again…
No sooner had this thought crossed his mind, as he reached the two gate guards playing mah-jong at their little post (a small, makeshift shelter that house two chairs and a table), that he saw his daughter come sprinting from around the rocky hill a few yalms from Onokoro’s entrance, coated in blood and yelling for him at the top of her lungs.
“Bluebird!” he gasped, racing towards her just as the guards leapt to their feet with weapons in hand, no doubt anticipating some monster rampaging on her heels. But there was none. Instead his daughter practically threw herself at him the moment she could, babbling faster than he could understand and half-crying.
“Bluebird- Bluebird- Alaqa…” Aruci soothed, ignoring the guards rushing up on either side of him as he knelt down, gently cupping her cheeks, “Calm down, tell me what’s wrong-”
“Shit, that’s a lotta blood,” One of the guards, a Raen, muttered, “Kiyotame, go get the medic.”
“It’s not me who’s hurt!” Bluebird burst out, “Dad- Daddy, there’s a boy and he’s all bleeding and couldn’t get up and-”
“Bluebird, deep breath,” Aruci interrupted, waiting until Bluebird clumsily sucked in a deep, shuddering breath before asking softly, “A boy’s hurt? Is that who’s blood this is?”
“These horrible people tried to kidnap me!” Bluebird said, making Aruci go cold, “Like- Like Buduga but uglier! They held me down and I couldn’t get up- but then this, this, catboy just- he jumped out of nowhere and stabbed one of them, but he was really hurt and is hurt and he’s bleeding and, out of his nose and mouth and stuff, and-”
“Do you know where he is?” Aruci interrupted.
“Yeah! So, we need to go now, Daddy!”
“You go get him,” the Raen guard said quickly, “I’ll tell the medic what I just heard. Hopefully he can help when you come back.”
Aruci nodded his thanks and got to his feet, “Can you run, Bluebird?”
“I can fly!” she yelled, already turning away and moving off, “C’mon, Dad! C’mon!”
Without hesitating, Aruci followed his daughter at a swift pace, bewildered and alarmed, but knowing that questions of what the hell happened will have to wait until he got this boy to safety. Bleeding out of his mouth and nose? That didn’t sound good…
But Aruci understood one thing: this boy had helped his daughter when she was almost kidnapped, so with Nhaama as his witness, he will do the same for him
nothing quite like seeing your daughter running towards you screaming bloody murder and covered in blood :') about ten years was shaved off Aruci's lifespan from witnessing that...
Please don't forget to kudos/comment if you enjoyed!
They ran a good malm.
Which was far beyond the limits Bluebird was meant to wander by herself on Onokoro, but that was a disobedience Aruci was going to overlook for now. By the time they reached the stretch of coast where his daughter was attacked, Bluebird was red-faced and wheezing, while Aruci was barely winded, and they stopped near the edge of a small copse to survey the scene before them.
Two dead adults, lying sprawled in the sand – a few gulls were already curiously pecking at their clothes, inspecting their soon to be meal – and there, a few yalms away with a clear line in the sand that said he had dragged himself before giving up, was a very tiny form that clearly belonged to a miqo’te child, limp and terrifyingly still.
Aruci felt his stomach drop. When Bluebird had said ‘catboy’, he had hoped she’d meant a miqo’te close to her age, an adolescent at most, but this...
“There he is, Daddy,” Bluebird gasped, already trotting over to the small form, “I told him not to move and everything! Ugh, why’d he move?”
“It’s fine, Bluebird, he didn’t go far,” Aruci said worriedly, quickly following.
A few gulls that had been loitering nearby flapped away with irritated squawks when Bluebird kicked sand at them once they drew near to the boy, and Aruci gingerly knelt at his side to inspect the damage.
It was… a lot.
The boy was lying on his side, his eyes closed and his chest barely moving from wheezing, shallow breaths. There was dried blood crusting from his nose, over his upper lip and around the corners of his mouth, splotches of brown staining the baggy, dull grey clothes he was wearing. His left cheek was an explosion of bruising colour, a nasty gash already crusted with sand and scabbing at his temple, dried brown smeared into his hairline, with his bottom lip busted and angry red.
And that was just his face. The boy’s hands and wrists looked like someone had ripped strips of skin off, sand and splinters and dirt grinded into the open wounds that were still weeping blood and clear fluid and-
Aruci shook his head, carefully compartmentalising the horrified outrage at someone hurting a child to this degree. He could be angry later. Right now, this boy needed immediate medical care!
“He looks really bad, Daddy,” Bluebird said very quietly next to him.
“It is bad,” Aruci said grimly, trying to decide how to pick him up without causing more damage. The boy was beaten black and blue; Nhaama knew what internal injuries were hiding under the surface. He decided that whatever damage he caused picking him up couldn’t be worse than whatever he was suffering now, and carefully rolled him onto his back.
The boy twitched, his eyelashes fluttering, but aside from a soft, rasping noise of pain, he didn’t wake.
Aruci felt his heart crack at the sound. Gods.
He picked him up as gently as he could. The boy fit so easily in his arms and weighed barely anything – Bluebird was heavier than this! Adjusting the limp weight in his arms, to make it as comfortable for the boy as possible, he cast an eye over the two dead men. One of the gulls was already pecking at the largest one’s face.
“The Confederates will deal with them,” he muttered, then, “Alright, Bluebird, we’re going to have to run back as fast as we can. Can you make it?”
Bluebird, still red-faced and breathless, just bristled, in the exact same way Atani did when her abilities were called into doubt, “Yeah! I can! I won’t slow you down, so let’s go, Daddy! Slowpoke!”
With that his daughter was already racing off, and Aruci could only marvel at the stubborn energy of youth. Hopefully she could keep that up all the way back to the settlement – they couldn’t afford to slow down in the slightest.
So, Aruci broke out into a quick run, hoping that they would make it back to the medic in time.
Sadakazu sighed irritably when Nariyasu lead him to a very empty gate with no injured Xaela girl in sight, Koreshige anxiously fidgeting at his post.
“Did she run off?” Sadakazu asked Koreshige blandly, more than used to Bluebird’s antics at this point. She was a proper hellion, preferring to run away and hide under a porch like a bad-tempered cat than be fussed over by a medic or healer. If she really was hurt, though, he would’ve thought Aruci would’ve pinned his wily daughter down long enough for a check-up.
“Er, kinda,” Koreshige said, rubbing behind his backwards sweeping horn, “She was rambling about some boy that got hurt, bleeding out of his nose and mouth and something about stabbing? So, Aruci raced off to pick him up.”
That made Sadakazu straighten up from his lazy slouch, “Stabbing? How badly?”
“I don’t know. She didn’t say.”
Well, obviously. Bluebird wouldn’t know a serious injury even if one was gushing blood on her own damn body. Sadakazu sighed, running a hand through his pale hair as he wondered if this was Bluebird being Bluebird. She wasn’t prone to lies as such, but exaggeration? Hopefully, she’d just broke the nose of some random kid again and panicked, thinking she’d done more damage than she thought. Sadakazu really didn’t want to be dealing with a medical emergency so close to lunchtime…
Nariyasu just shrugged, “Well, nothing to do but wait for them to get back. Sada, you wanna play some dice?”
“I’ll pass, thanks,” Sadakazu said absently, watching as the two guards drifted back to their little shack with the squat table. They seemed unbothered, but Sadakazu was getting an antsy feeling now, the sort that crept over him when something horrible was about to happen. It had made his scales itch last night, when the storm hit, and this morning when some men came back from their beach walk talking about bodies washing up on the coast from a shipwreck…
Could that boy be what Koroko reported an hour ago? About a little boy passed out on the sands, who raced off into the woods? It was possible he was a survivor of the shipwreck, had some internal injuries aggravated from his panicked bolting… damn, then Sadakazu might have to anticipate some complications with his lungs, if he’d inhaled seawater on top of whatever all this bleeding nonsense was.
He crossed his thick arms over his chest, anxiously staring out towards the wilderness of the island. Hopefully it wasn’t bad…
As if summoned by his worries, a large, familiar figure ran around the corner of a distant, rocky hill. Sadakazu recognised the tall man instantly as Aruci, and he squinted against the glare of the midday sun, seeing that the Xaela was carrying something in his arms, his daughter struggling to keep up on his heels. He was coming in pretty damn fast!
“Sadakazu!” Aruci yelled once he was close enough, and the guards looked up as Sadakazu jogged out to meet them just past the gate. The closer he got, the more he could see of the small figure in the Xaela’s arms and-
“Shit,” he gasped, almost tripping over his feet from sheer horrified surprise at the state of the poor boy. He all but lunged the last few fulms, almost running into Aruci in the process, and simply stared.
“Sadakazu,” Aruci’s urgent voice broke through his horror, “He needs help, now.”
“R-Right,” he shook himself out of his stupor, mouth thinning into a grim line, “Right, come on.”
“Urgh,” Bluebird groaned somewhere about their knees, “More… running…?”
“Keep up, squirt,” Sadakazu snapped, pivoting on his heel and making a quick pace to his ‘clinic’. The guards were standing up from their table and staring, open-mouthed, at the body in Aruci’s arms, but Sadakazu ignored them.
They made it to his clinic – nothing more than a sturdy, wooden house built close to the docks, better to receive wounded Confederates after a skirmish gone wrong – in record time, and he directed Aruci to the private room near the back, out of sight of any rubberneckers who might try to ‘drop by’ to gawp, while he went digging through his potion cabinet for something strong.
Well, not too strong. The boy looked young, probably no more than eleven? He wasn’t too good with Miqo’te ages, admittedly, but Sadakazu would rather err on the side of caution than cause complications via aether sickness. Children were always tricky to heal – their underdeveloped aether channels meant they couldn’t tolerate high potency potions or powerful healing spells, lest it caused a dangerous internal imbalance that could cause irreparable damage to their ability to use or tolerate aether. If this had been an adult, he would’ve dropped him in a superpotion laced bath, but as it was…
He dug out a hi-potion, too weak for his current state but it would plug up any dangerous internal bleeds and hasten cellular regeneration. Everything else would have to be healed naturally.
Gathering the rest of his medical kit, he hustled into the private back room. Aruci had already laid the boy out on the bed, and Bluebird was sprawled in a visitor’s chair on the corner, practically gulping for air like a beached fish, her face so red he was genuinely worried she was going to pass out with all that blood rushing to her head.
“If you’re going to vomit,” he told the girl, “Take it outside.”
“N-Not… vom…” she wheezed out.
“Sadakazu,” Aruci murmured, “The boy…”
“Yeah, I’ve got him,” Sadakazu said grimly, setting his kit down on the table next to the bed. Aruci practically melted into the background, in that eerie silent way of his (a man that large should not be able to mask his presence that well, it was unsettling), and Sadakazu finally inspected his patient with a detached, clinical eye. Moral outrage could come after the boy was stabilised.
Head trauma, potential respiratory damage, wrists and side of his hands were skinned, the exposed tissue already showing signs of infection – and that was what he identified just from looking. He reached out, checking the pulse in the boy’s neck and wrist, tutting when he found it fast and weak – shock? He felt a little clammy and his clothes were still damp, stinking of seawater.
“Aruci,” he said absently, already divesting the boy of his oversized, grey shirt, “In the stockroom – spare clothes, dry towels, things like that.”
The squeak of the floorboards and the scuff of boots was the only sign Sadakazu got that Aruci went to carry out his task.
“Damn,” Sadakazu muttered, dropping the shirt on the floor once he pulled it free. The boy’s chest was a mess of black and blue, yellows and greens, old and new bruising, spreading over his torso and stomach like the world’s ugliest painting. These injuries were not just from the past day – some of these were old, days old, bordering on a week. Sadakazu squelched the bubble of rage at the thought, testing the boy’s ribs. They rose evenly, but he felt a crack on the left side. It was in place, though.
Okay, not too bad. No punctured lung. That was good. He’ll still have to watch out for lung infection from inhaled seawater though.
He untied the boy’s breeches next, to see if there were any injures to his legs or pelvic region – he might’ve gotten bashed around by flotsam when washing up, and pelvic breaks had a dangerous potential to cause fatal internal bleeding. He heard Aruci come back as he tugged them down and-
There were bruises on the boy’s legs.
A large one by the knee, like something had whacked it, but higher, on both thighs and on his hips, there were bruises – pale blue, splotching into green and yellow, but sporting an undeniable shape that left Sadakazu feeling sick to his stomach. There, stark against the boy’s skin, were bruises in the shape of handprints on his inner thighs, his hips, as if someone had been gripping him hard there while-
“Is that…” Aruci whispered, horrified, behind him, “Are those…”
“I pray to the kami,” Sadakazu said shakily, “That they are not.”
It was a bit difficult to cling to his clinical detachment then. He just felt nausea, creep up, in his throat, every time his gaze swept over those handprints. Focus. Bruising was… almost a week old, a few days at least, and when he tested the boy’s knees they bent without any malforming of the joints. He did spot fresh, pale pink scars running along the back of them, surgical and neat, as if someone had repeatedly sliced through the ligaments and healed over them. The nausea came rushing back.
Fuck. Fuck. Sadakazu can not-
He could check. He could check for… trauma. He could, but he wouldn’t. For one, the boy was flat out unconscious and last thing he needed was him waking up mid-investigation and screaming the shack down if he panicked. Secondly, Sadakazu didn’t want to know. No. He did not want to know. The boy was an injured shipwreck survivor. That was all he needed to know. He was tending to injuries gained from a shipwreck. That was it.
So, after affirming that the boy’s legs and knees were fine, no breaks, he silently took the spare underwear and breeches from Aruci’s arms and put them on to give the boy some decency.
Gods. The boy. This was a damned boy.
Sadakazu threw himself firmly in his task then. He did not think about what lay under the breeches. Aruci said nothing as well, a still, stone statue loitering in the background, his eyes dark with barely suppressed anger. Bluebird, at some point, exhausted and bored, started drowsing off in her chair, oblivious to the horror of the situation. Sadakazu almost envied her.
After what felt like an eternity, Sadakazu was finished. He had administered hi-potion on the boy’s chest, gently coaxed some hastened regeneration on the broken rib by gentle application of physick and cleaned up the boy’s injured hands with disinfectant. Sadakazu had wiped away so much sand and grit and splinters from those wounds, and he was forced to wrap the poor hands up to keep them clean. It was going to itch like hell when the skin started growing back.
“Done,” he muttered, feeling drained in a way that was purely mental, “All that’s left is to watch for a potential lung infection, but otherwise… he’s stable.”
Aruci took a moment to reply, his jaw working in silence, “The… bruises?”
“Will heal. In time,” Sadakazu said stiltedly, “Have you got those towels?”
Aruci presented them, and Sadakazu used a few fire crystal chippings to flash warm the towels up, then gently draped them over the boy. He still felt a little cold and clammy, though his pulse was a lot stronger now, and Sadakazu would rather keep his temperature up for the moment.
“He’ll be famished when he wakes up,” Aruci said as Sadakazu was tucking the thin blanket over the boy and his toasty warm towels, “Should he have anything specific?”
The kami’s blessing to make up for the shit he went through, Sadakazu thought with black humour, “Soup might be good. He seems a little underweight for his age, so not sure his reaction to heavy foods.”
Aruci nodded, and with that moved off to his clinic’s tiny kitchenette without asking permission. Well. Yeah, fine. Sadakazu didn’t really care right now. He needed a nap, maybe some bleach for his brain to forget the horrible suspicion he had going on right now. Just- what ship wrecked up on Onokoro’s coast? The guys still didn’t know, though a few bodies washed up wearing Kugane’s guard uniforms but- honestly, those people were corrupt, but that? That?
Maybe that’s why their ship was wrecked and the boy was the only survivor, Sadakazu thought semi-hysterical. If that wasn’t the kami’s will then he didn’t know what was.
“It’s too early in the day for this,” Sadakazu muttered, eyeing Bluebird now snoring loudly in her chair, sprawled messily and looking ready to fall off at a moment’s notice, “Bluebird, just what the hell have you dragged in this time…?”
The girl didn’t reply. She simply snored.
Sadakazu is Not Paid Enough For This (wait... is he even being paid???)
Chapter 5: Part I: Homesickness
Aza woke up to the smell of fish soup.
It was a viscerally familiar smell, one that brought back hazy memories of home. Fish soup was Mom’s favourite, so she made it a lot, then taught him how to make it, so it made him think, briefly, groggily, with a splutter of warm hope in his chest; ‘am I home? Is the bad dream over?’
He opened his eyes, and through the blurriness in his vision, saw an unfamiliar roof.
‘No,’ he thought dully, his hope dying a quick, cold death, ‘It isn’t.’
He wasn’t sure how long he laid there, breathing and staring blankly at the ceiling. His body ached, like an old bruise, but there was none of the stabbing, nauseous pain that had needled his rib cage like before. His lungs still felt raw though, each inhale dragging against a painfully dry throat and making him want to cough. He fought it back each time though. Coughing hurt.
He felt rotten, but it was a tolerable kind of rotten.
It made him suspicious.
He had, a very wobbly memory of… the beach. The girl. Her promising to get help before racing off. He remembered trying to get up, but his legs just not cooperating, so he dragged himself until everything went fuzzy and grey around the edges. He must’ve… passed out. So, who had him now, then? Was it that girl and her help? Or someone else? Who was it? Who owned him now?
Anxiety bit at his guts as that question rattled inside his skull. Who owned him now? Who owned him now? Who?
He tried to sit up, the panic giving him enough adrenaline to sort of, pathetically heave his upper body up against the headboard of the bed he was on. The room looked like… something. Two beds, him occupying one, cabinets lined with medical stuff, and a big, uncomfortable looking chair with… the girl sprawled over it like a corpse – except her breaths audibly whistled, edging close to snoring. She was asleep. Okay.
Aza stared blankly at her for a long while. He could still smell fish soup. If he focused, he could hear low, adult voices murmuring in the room next over, filtering through the thin looking, wooden walls. He lifted his hands, to press against his ears to muffle the noise, but paused at the bandages wrapped around them. They were soft, white and smelled like antiseptic, tight enough that he couldn’t curl his fingers all the way against his palm, but not so tight that it cut off blood flow.
So… someone tended to his injuries? Someone… helped him?
‘Why?’ came the immediate, paranoid thought, ‘Why would they? What do they want?’
The girl, something in him said. He helped her, so she helped him. Isn’t that enough?
‘No, it isn’t,’ Aza thought aggressively, pulling his sore, aching legs up until his knees squashed against his chest. It hurt, but it was a good hurt that kept him grounded and focused. He stared at the partially shut door. He didn’t know where it led. He didn’t know who those voices belonged to. Where did this girl take him? ‘They have to want something.’
As if summoned by his swirling, anxious thoughts, footsteps sounded towards the door. He tensed, trying to make himself as tiny as possible in the corner between the headboard and the wall the bed was pressed up against, thighs clenched tight together with his arms around his knees, like a little hedgehog determined to stay curled up against an incoming predator, and-
The door was gently nudged open, and a tall, tall, black-scaled Au Ra ducked through the door. He had a furred collar coat thingy, that was a dark blue, and he was tall, and broad, and in his hands was a bowl of what smelled like fish soup. The man, with weird eyes that were blue but also black, startled at seeing him awake, then smiled, though the expression seemed a little scary on such an angular, stern face.
“You’re awake,” he murmured. His voice was very deep, but it was also hushed, like he was speaking to a terrified little animal – which Aza was. He was little, and terrified and an animal.
“I made you some food,” the man said, very slowly stepping towards him- no, towards the table next to the bed. He made sure to stay out of arm’s reach from the bed. Aza still pressed himself hard against the wall, like if he willed it hard enough he could phase through it and run back to freedom.
He could feel his limbs shake, his tail tucked close, and he hated it, he hated that immediately, he cowered. The girl was fine. She was taller but young like him, and she didn’t have the parts that really hurt him – this was a big man, big, and looming, and Aza was trapped in a corner, in a room he did not know, in a location he did not know, and he didn’t know who this was, what the rules were, what the punishments would be, what the games will be played – was that food his? He said it was? But was he allowed it? Those were two different things: to own something but then not allowed. Master would play that game sometimes, when he would give something then punish when Aza used it. He won’t fall for that here.
So, Aza stayed in his corner, curled up, shaking, and did not look the man in the eye.
The man sighed, very quietly, and Aza felt a frozen thrill snap down his spine at the sound. Annoyance. That noise meant annoyance. Don’t – don’t – don’t –
“I won’t hurt you,” the man said very very softly, his voice strained. There was a rustle of cloth, creak of leather, and Aza flicked his gaze up, rapidly, to see the man was crouching next to the bed, still out of arm’s reach, hands in clear view, holding them up like he was surrendering to the Sekiseigumi.
“I won’t hurt you,” the man promised – lied – promised, “Okay? Do you understand?”
Was this a trick question? Aza stared at him – no, just past him – wasn’t sure if he wanted a verbal response or a silent one. He settled for some weird, jerky shrug of his shoulders and nod of his head. The man seemed to accept it.
“That food is for you to eat,” the man said very slowly, “It’s yours. Do you want anything else to go with it? Water?”
Aza’s throat ached then, reminded that he felt as parched as a barren desert. He felt his mouth work, unsure, but when he glanced up again, the man was still sitting there, hands lifted, severe face set into one of total neutrality. Behind him, he could hear the girl starting to snore.
“… yes, please,” he rasped.
“Okay,” the man smiled, and it didn’t seem as scary this time, “I’ll be right back with your water. Try to rest, though. You’re safe here, I promise.”
The man stood up, Aza couldn’t hold back a flinch, and then he left, leaving the door partially shut as he went. The girl was dead to the world, oblivious to the intruder in the room. Gods, how the hell did she survive until now?
“Okay,” he whispered to himself, pressing his bandaged hands against his face, breathing in deep and slow, trying not to choke on the ragged breaths because the urge to cry just welled up in him, like a horrible thick lump clogging up his sore throat. No. No. Why was he even-!? Get it together, it was- he can…
What did he even do now? The thought almost made him laugh hysterically. He was somewhere he didn’t know, with strangers, he didn’t know – what even to do. Should he escape? To where? Fucking where? To do what? He didn’t… even…
He struggled, but he managed to cram down the awful pressure that bubbled up in him. He felt like a piece of stressed lumber getting smacked with hammers. Cracks were there, and he could feel it started to break, but not quite yet. No, no no, he needed to- keep it together for a bit. Right now.
The man’s returned then, and Aza was no longer cowering in the corner of the bed. He was still curled up, but he wasn’t shaking as bad, and he nervously watched the man’s movements as he set the glass of water next to the untouched bowl of fish soup.
“There, water,” the man said, smiling again, “By the way, I’m Aruci Iriq. My daughter behind me is Bluebird, in case she didn’t introduce herself yet. What’s your name?”
Aza recalled when Master asked him that same question, and who did not like the answer (“Azeyma’a Lynel? Lynel sounds nice enough, but Azeyma’a? No, no, no, a servant shouldn’t have a divine name like that. Let us go with Aza, shall we?”), so he said; “Aza.”
“Aza,” the man, Aruci, tried, “Very nice. A lovely name.”
Aza lowered his gaze, feeling a weirdly heavy feeling in his stomach despite getting the right answer. Of course… Aza, was better.
“I’ll leave you to eat and rest,” Aruci said gently, “If you need anything, just call for me, or wake up Bluebird. Okay?”
“Okay,” Aza rasped, watching as the man left again and eyed the soup. He was starving, but the smell… it made his stomach flipflop and twist at the same time, which probably wasn’t healthy. Still, hunger won out, so he picked up the bowl gingerly with his bandaged hands and stared into the pale white depths. This smelled like cod.
He ate a spoonful. It tasted exactly like the soup Mom made back home.
It got hard, after that. He ate the soup, but it was by forcing it past the hard, aching lump in his throat, his eyes burning with tears and his nose stuffy because this was home but it wasn’t. If he pretended hard enough, he could be home, but it wasn’t. When he finished this, it’ll just be an empty bowl. The horrible nightmare will still continue.
He finished the soup.
Then he left the water untouched, lying back down in the bed, pressing his face into the pillow and, for the first time in what felt like an eternity, cried.
Chapter 6: Part I: The Bluebird Who Adopts The Cat
Bluebird woke up to the sound of muffled crying.
For a groggy moment, she didn’t quite know where she was. She was sprawled on a squashy chair with a horrible crick in her neck and her spine twisted awkwardly, in a room she didn’t quite recognise. But then she breathed in, smelled seawater and the sour tang of dried blood and remembered-
She jerked upright, looking over to the sound of the crying – and yeah, there was catboy, curled up with his back to her, his small frame shaking from trying to choke down sobs. Bluebird simply stared, a little uncomfortable and unsure on what to do. She was never good with crying kids, and she should probably go get Daddy anyways in case he was, uh, dying or something, but she couldn’t move without him hearing her – the floorboards were really creaky here – and it’d be really awkward, wouldn’t it? If she just ignored him crying, even if it was to get Daddy?
After a bit of back of forth with herself, she finally slipped off her chair. Predictably, the floorboards creaked.
Catboy stopped crying with a loud, hitched inhale.
“Hey,” Bluebird said quietly, tiptoeing over to Catboy’s bed until she was standing awkwardly next to it, her shadow casting a stark line over his huddled form, “Are you okay?”
Catboy sniffled, then slowly sat up – stiffly, clearly in pain – turning to look at her with red-rimmed eyes and wet cheeks. He looked awful, the bruising all over his face was in ugly shades of green and blue now, but the worst of the blood had been wiped off at least.
“M’fine,” Catboy croaked.
“Liar,” Bluebird shot back instantly, “You look horrible.”
Catboy hunched his shoulders, and he looked like a little turtle trying to retreat into its non-existent shell. Bluebird almost felt bad about her blunt words, but she instantly dismissed it. If he didn’t want to be called out, then he shouldn’t’ve said such an obvious lie.
“You still have sand in your hair,” she said, when the silence stretched a bit awkwardly between them, with Catboy just staring at his knees, “And, um, blood and other stuff. You stink too.”
“Sorry,” Catboy mumbled so quietly she barely heard him.
“No, you don’t- I just mean,” Bluebird stopped, her face scrunching up in frustration. She wasn’t trying to make him feel bad, damn it! She was trying to help! “I mean, do you want a bath, or something? Ol’ Sada has hot water, and I can help carry you if you need it.”
Catboy looked at her then like she was some weird alien, “What?”
“I said I’d carry you!” Bluebird snapped, then winced when Catboy flinched at the sharp tone, “If- if you need it, I mean. You were hurt really bad, right? And you’re tiny too, so you’d weigh nothing to me. I can carry you, easy.”
That got Catboy out of his shell a little, his fluffy ears setting back a fraction as he mumbled, “I’m not tiny.”
“Yes, you are,” Bluebird sniffed, “You’re like a lil’ baby. Look, your cheeks still have puppy fat! See!”
Catboy grunted when Bluebird pinched his unbruised cheek, pushing her hand away irritably as he scooted further back on the bed to get out of reach. He definitely looked like a sulky kitten now, curled up against the wall, his tail thumping against the bed with his ears tilted back. It was a lot better than his earlier sniffling, so Bluebird felt some satisfaction about it.
“You really do stink though,” she said, “Like dirty seawater.”
Catboy made a face, but he did turn his head slightly to sniff himself. His face got even worse, a flicker of disgust, quickly followed by resignation, “Okay.”
“Come on, then,” Bluebird said, “I’ll pick you up.”
“I can walk,” Catboy growled, and Bluebird stepped back when the boy scooted off the bed. His movements were tense and jerky though, and she watched him closely when he stood up, his legs shaking a little before they firmed. His face had turned a shade of off-white that usually meant inevitable fainting, though, so Bluebird made sure to get ready for a dramatic dive to catch him if he toppled over.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked dubiously, “You look ready to puke.”
Catboy just looked at her dully. He had nothing but loose-fitting pants on, so standing up she could see his chest clearly. It was really battered and bruised looking, and… scrawny. She wasn’t an expert on what baby Catboys were meant to look like, weight wise, but she could see the light definition of his ribs sticking out. That was way too skinny, right?
“Okay,” she said when Catboy said nothing, “Come on, then.”
She led Catboy to the door, keeping her steps reeeeeally slow because he shuffled like a hundred-year-old granny. It felt like an eternity before they reached the ajar door, and she nudged it open into a short corridor. One way led to the front room of the clinic, where Ol’ Sada dealt with the majority of his patients, and the other way led to the kitchen and bathroom and stuff. Normally, that was off-limits to anyone who wasn’t Ol’ Sada, but this had to count as an exception, right? Like, stop Catboy’s wounds from getting infected because he was all dirty? He couldn’t yell at her for using her initiative.
…also, she kind of wanted a bath too. There was blood dried into her hair and the smell was making her queasy.
“Down this way,” she whispered, and they made their granny-slow shuffle down the corridor and to the bathroom. Ol’ Sada had a fire-aspected crystal boiler in his home, a requirement, he argued, because hot water was necessary for medical hygiene, but it also meant he was one of the very few people in Onokoro with running hot water, as these boilers were super expensive so weren’t all that common in Othard. Bluebird didn’t understand why it worked, but she knew how to make it give out hot water, and that was all that mattered, so long as she didn’t accidentally break it.
The bathroom itself though, was rather simplistic. A square tub just big enough for an adult man to cram himself in, smooth tiles and a sink on the side, with a tiny, square window letting in the fresh ocean breeze. Bluebird ushered Catboy to the tub and started fiddling with the taps.
“Get in,” she said, “The water comes out already hot.”
Catboy hesitated, looking at the tub with a weirdly distant look. But before Bluebird started to get concerned, he untied the drawstrings of his loose pants and took them off. Bluebird eyed him curiously – Xaela, and Raen, she supposed – had scales everywhere, but Catboy, like the Hyurs and Roegadyns, had hair instead – or would it be ‘fur’? Catboy’s body hair was darker and thicker too, even though he was a baby, dark brown on his arms, legs and trailing from his navel to in between his legs. He even had some on his armpits, which was weird to Bluebird. Wouldn’t it itch a lot to have it there?
But then her gaze travelled lower, to handprint bruises on his hips and thighs, and ugly, pink scars on the back of his knees. His slow, grandma shuffling made sense, then.
“Oh,” she heard herself say, “Those are…”
Catboy went stiff, holding the pants close to his chest, and did not make eye contact.
Bluebird said dumb things – she knew she did it, without thinking most of the time – but in that moment, staring at the scars on the back of Catboy’s knees, reminded of a terrible practice from another Xaela tribe on the Steppe, a few things clicked into place and she tactfully kept her mouth shut. Thirteen was old enough to know about the darker side of capture, especially if you were associated with the Borlaaq tribe like she was. Some tribes targeted them for that sole purpose, and with a specific, cruel tactic.
(“You helped me, so I’m gonna help you!” she started scrambling to her feet, “Stay there, I’ll get my Dad-”
“No,” Catboy gasped, looking white with nauseous terror for reasons beyond her, “No, no, don’t, please-”)
She looked away, feeling sick to her stomach.
“Um,” she cleared her throat, “You can hop in now, if you want.”
The tension in Catboy’s shoulders slackened a fraction, though he still looked as taut as a drawn bowstring. Slowly, he awkwardly clambered over the side of the bathtub, sinking into the swirling hot water. Steam was rising off it, and she worried it was a bit too hot, but Catboy made no complaint as he sat there, curled up, knees to chest, his bandaged hands raised out of the rising water to keep them dry.
The water made it harder to see the bruising on his thighs.
“So…” she began, “Those jerks on the beach. Did you help me, because…?”
“I helped, because…” Catboy trailed off, his gaze sliding over to his hands. He curled his fingers, though they didn’t fully close, “They were gonna send you to Master Haramasu.”
Bluebird remembered those assholes saying something like that, except it was ‘Lord’ instead of ‘Master’. She mulled over that in silence, watching Catboy watch the rippling water. Master Haramasu. She knew that word had different meanings in Hingan, depending on context, but she heard disturbing things about Kugane recently. The adults tried to keep it from her, but she had horns and easily overheard them muttering of a growing slave trade in and around the Ruby Sea, selling ‘indentured servants’ to the Kugane elite. Only a small percentage, mind, but what few horrible individuals did do slaving fuelled the industry almost singlehandedly. They were just that rich – and insatiable.
“Haramasu,” she repeated, seeing Catboy shudder at the name. He looked ill, as if the very name made him want to retch, “Is he who did that to you?”
Catboy didn’t answer.
Bluebird took it as a yes, “So, if those guys got me, he would have done that stuff to me too.”
She felt oddly calm about this realisation – it hadn’t happened, so it was fine – but there was still… an ugly, tight feeling in her belly thinking about it. She couldn’t even comprehend something like that happening to her. It was a threat she’d have to take seriously when she was older, she knew, and when she struck out into the Steppe by herself, but there was always a vague kind of thought of ‘it would never happen to me.’
But it almost did. Today. It very almost did.
“He goes through girls…” Catboy whispered, “Fast. He goes through them fast.”
What did that even mean? Bluebird frowned at him, but Catboy was staring at something she couldn’t see, distant. His knees were clamped tight together, so hard it looked uncomfortable, and she should see a faint, barely there tremble in his hands. It made her uneasy.
“Not through me,” she said with a confidence she didn’t fully feel, “I’m tough as anything. Tough as rock. I would’ve fought him.”
“Tough,” Catboy repeated softly, slowly coming back to wherever he went mentally, “That doesn’t matter.”
“How tough you are,” he lowered his head, hiding his eyes from view, “It doesn’t matter. It’ll happen. It’ll- hurt more if you… try to be tough.”
Bluebird wasn’t sure what to say for that. She disliked the thought that there were going to be situations where raw strength and tenacity wasn’t going to be enough to bail her out. But it was true, wasn’t it? Those assholes on the beach hadn’t cared how tough she was. She stabbed one, but got overpowered and pinned down, and no matter how much she screamed and yelled and thrashed, they still kept her down. If Catboy hadn’t barrelled through when he did, she’d be on a boat to Kugane now to get sold to some sick freak.
“Well,” she said awkwardly, just to fill the heavy silence, “At least you got out, in the end.”
Bluebird turned the taps off then. The water was up to Catboy’s shoulders, and she realised with his hands bandaged, he wouldn’t be able to clean the sand and blood out of his hair, “Hey, want me to wash your hair? Your hands…”
Catboy blinked slowly as he looked back up – he didn’t seem all there yet. In fact, he looked a bit drowsy, his eyes squinting half-shut, exhaustion lining his body, “Huh?”
“I can get the sand and blood outta your hair,” she repeated, “Otherwise it’s gonna be all greasy and gross later.”
“Oh,” Catboy looked a bit alert then, hesitant, before saying, “It’s… it’s fine.”
Bluebird opened her mouth to argue – when the bathroom door swung open. The bathwater sloshed as Catboy jerked, looking panicked, and without thinking Bluebird hopped to her feet and stood in front of the bath, blocking Catboy from view, to see Sada standing in the doorway looking exasperated.
“Really?” he said, “You took over my bath.”
“Catboy needs it to clean,” Bluebird huffed, “Still needs it to clean! It’s rude to interrupt a baby’s bath-time!”
Sada just groaned, “Bluebird-”
“Out!” she yelled, the knowledge that Sada’s presence was gonna scare Catboy making her bolder than usual. She picked up Catboy’s breeches, wadded them up, and threw them at the intruder – the ball of cloth just unravelled and fluttered pathetically to the floor a full fulm short of its target.
Sada stared flatly at her.
“This is my bathroom,” he said.
“And it’s occupied!” Bluebird growled, “You’re an adult! You’re not allowed in here with naked kids! So, go away before- before I tell Daddy you walked in on me naked!”
She started pulling her tunic off.
“Fucking kami- fine! I’m leaving!”
Sada quickly left before she even managed to pull it over her chest, and she tugged it back down, smugly triumphant. Hah, that never failed! Even though Daddy would’ve just scolded her for stripping down in Onokoro rather than shaking down Sada, but Sada didn’t know that.
She turned back to Catboy, who was staring at her in open bewilderment.
“Told ya,” she preened, “Tough as rock.”
“You’re… something,” Catboy said a bit faintly, looking like he wasn’t sure whether or not he wanted to smile, “Um, you didn’t have to…”
“It’s fine. Sada’s a jerk,” Bluebird sniffed. Though, he wasn’t that bad, really. He could be a jerk sometimes, but he did help Catboy and heal his injuries, so he wasn’t all bad, maybe, “I would’ve done it anyways.”
Catboy looked unsure, but he didn’t challenge her on it.
“I’m Bluebird,” she said, realising belatedly that she hadn’t introduced herself - and that she couldn’t call him Catboy forever, “What’s yours?”
“Um,” Catboy hesitated, before mumbling, “Aza.”
Bluebird mulled it over, “Aza? That’s a dumb name.”
Catboy – Aza – blinked, “E-Eh?”
“Well, it is!” Bluebird huffed, “’Aza’. Who calls their kid that? Is it some weird Kugane name?”
“N-No it’s…” Aza looked down, “It’s a… nickname.”
“Oh,” Well, that made sense. Bluebird was a nickname too. She almost asked for his real name, but then she’d have to extend the same courtesy, and the only people she’d allow to call her by that was Daddy and Mommy, so she kept her curiosity quiet, “I think I like ‘Catboy’ better as a nickname.”
Aza instantly grimaced, “Don’t call me that.”
“Catboy,” Bluebird repeated, smirking when Aza gave her a glower underneath his lanky fringe, “Cat. Boy.”
Aza splashed her.
She shrieked, jerking back and almost tumbling right over from the violent movement, her face and front sopping wet. Aza laughed – a quick, short burst – before he abruptly stopped, blanching when he realised what he just did.
“Uh, I’m- I’m sorry,” he said quickly, shrinking against the opposite side of the tub as Bluebird fixed him with a hard stare, “I did it without think-”
Bluebird splashed him back, making him splutter and cough through the rest of his words. Blindly, he splashed her back, coughing something unintelligible but clearly insulting, and in no time at all, they were in an all-out war. Bluebird even jumped into the tub for better access to the water arsenal, the pair of them yelling and laughing – when they weren’t spluttering through the water, that was.
It meant Aza’s bandaged hands were wet and useless, but oh well. That was an easy fix, and it was worth it to get Catboy out his silent, gloomy slump. It was a mission success, in Bluebird’s mind, and she gave herself a pat on the back for it.
It also gave her an idea. She still, after all, needed to finish helping Aza.
Chapter 7: Part I: Real Mercy
Aruci could hear the sound of laughter and yelling through Sadakazu’s thin walls and couldn’t help but smile. Trust Bluebird to bulldoze her way through the boy’s nervousness.
“Well, least my stolen bathtub is being used for a good cause,” Sadakazu grouched without any bite. He was sitting at his small kitchen table, a cup of fortifying tea in hand. He’d been annoyed at Bluebird chasing him out of his own bathroom, but Aruci had quickly smoothed down his ruffled feathers with a quickly brewed pot of suutsai.
“May need to change his bandages after he’s done,” Aruci said, “Perhaps ask if he’s in pain anywhere else, in case we missed something.”
“Hm,” Sadakazu looked discomforted. Ever since the horrible revelation of the boy’s injuries, they had both cautiously circled the matanga in the room. His more serious wounds had been tended to, but the trauma he no doubt experienced, both physically and mentally, from his violation, still needed to be addressed. Sadly, Sadakazu was ill-equipped for it, and they both knew it.
There was a solution for that, but Aruci was hesitant to take it. Chagur, the healer back in the Iriq tribe, had unfortunate experience in dealing with such… injuries. Even she might balk at seeing them in a child, but at least she would know what to look for, and how to treat him. It would require him taking the boy to the Azim Steppe, a journey that took about two days on horseback. Wouldn’t it be cruel to drag him on such a journey when he was still hurting, still terrified of other people?
But little Aza didn’t know anyone here either. True, Sadakazu would tend to him and the Confederates wouldn’t abandon a child to the wilderness of Onokoro – but no one would want to claim him either, especially upon learning what he had endured, and Aruci feared he just wouldn’t get the help he’d need. He’d be housed, tolerated, and probably put to work when older to ‘pay back’ his room and board, but he would be treated well enough.
He might not be happy, though.
“I know that look,” Sadakazu said, breaking Aruci out of his thoughts, “Bluebird gets it whenever she finds broken-winged birds or half-starved dogs.”
“I was just thinking…” Aruci said very carefully, “That it might be best to take him to the Iriq tribe. Chagur knows how to tend to… his specific injury.”
“Do they now,” Sadakazu said flatly, “Well, that’s good then.”
“No offence meant to your medical ability,” Aruci added hastily, “But…”
Sadakazu shook his head, “No, I agree. I’m… I wouldn’t be able to help like I want to. I know you, anyway, Aruci. You’re a good man, so that kid will be in capable hands. I’ll pass him off to you.”
Well, that was pretty much decided then, wasn’t it?
But, now it was to convince the boy. Aruci didn’t want to take him away against his will, but neither did he want the boy to refuse him from irrational fear. Difficult position…
At that point the muffled commotion from the bathroom had gone quiet. Aruci finished his tea and stood up, deciding to check up on them, when he heard footsteps stomping their way. Bluebird’s.
“Daaaaaaaaddy!” Bluebird popped around the kitchen’s doorframe, standing before them soaked to the bone and dripping a small puddle at her feet… whilst fully clothed, “We need towels and dry clothes!”
“There are some in the private room,” Aruci sighed, “Bluebird, why are you so wet?”
“’Cuz I was in the bath,” she said, giving him a look that screamed ‘duh’, “I had blood everywhere, it was gross.”
“So, you dived into the bed fully clothed?”
“That’s where most of the blood was!”
Aruci resisted the urge to rub his temples, planting his hands on his hips instead, “Where’s Aza?”
“Catboy?” Bluebird jerked a thumb over her shoulder, “He’s in the bath cleaning his butt.”
Aruci blinked very slowly, “Sorry?”
“His butt. There’s some blood there,” Bluebird said, her mouth pinching like she just took a bite out of a lemon, “’Cuz some sicko put stuff in it.”
There was some horrible kind of relief that someone finally said it, but Bluebird’s tactless bluntness made him grimace. But that was the truth of it, wasn’t it? Some sicko had put something up there that they shouldn’t’ve. Blood, though. That sounded worrisome.
“How much blood?” Sadakazu asked seriously, “A lot?”
“No, a little. It was mostly dried.”
Sadakazu relaxed. No doubt he’d been concerned of internal bleeding, “I see…”
“Daddy,” Bluebird said with uncharacteristic quietness, “That almost happened to me.”
Aruci felt like his heart just tried crawling into his throat, “What-”
“Those guys who grabbed me,” Bluebird said, squeezing water from her soaked sleeve, “They said they were gonna sell me to ‘Lord Haramasu’, and I was talking to Catboy, and he said that ‘Master Haramasu’ went through girls fast, that he did that… stuff to him. So, that almost happened to me.”
You could cut the tension in the room with a butter knife. Sadakazu swore softly under his breath, and Aruci took a very deep, calming breath, telling himself that it hadn’t happened, because of Aza’s timely intervention… somehow. Bluebird’s rushed explanation on what happened had been difficult to follow.
“Haramasu,” he repeated, knowing that man was going to very quickly find top spot on Atani’s shitlist when she heard this, “Do you know that man, Sadakazu?”
“He’s some big noble in Kugane,” Sadakazu said, “Got a lot of dirty fingers in a lot of unsavoury pies. I heard he has a large appetite for pretty women, but, fuck, kids…”
Untouchable for now, then. Aruci filed the name away for later, in case the ‘big noble’ ever wandered past the protective border of Kugane.
“Aza helped me,” Bluebird continued, “Even though he was really hurt and scared, he helped me. So, I’m gonna help him. I’m gonna help him stop being scared and, uh, I’ll help him to get stronger too, because he’s scrawny like a twig, which means we’ll have to feed him a lot too. So, we need to bring him back with us to help him like that, Daddy! I’ll carry him back too, so he doesn’t have to walk and get hurt, and- and let him ride my pony and-”
“Bluebird, Bluebird,” Aruci broke in, gently interrupting his daughter’s rapid rambling, “It’s fine, I agree.”
“You- you do?” Bluebird beamed up at him, “So, we can bring him home?”
“If he says yes,” Aruci said, “He’s not a stray animal to be claimed. He’s a traumatised little boy that has feelings of his own. If he genuinely wants to come with us, he can.”
“Yes!” Bluebird fist pumped, clearly already convinced Aza would agree to leaving with them, “I’ll go tell him!”
But his daughter already ran off, yelling ‘Catboy’ at the top of her lungs. Sadakazu sighed at the commotion.
“She’s too much like her mother,” he muttered quietly.
Aruci laughed sheepishly, but honestly? He didn’t see that as a bad thing.
“Go… with you?”
“Yeah,” Bluebird held out a fluffy towel, “This one’s the best towel. C’mon.”
Aza sluggishly climbed out of the bath. The water was lukewarm, but it’d still been pretty nice to sit in, even if it had taken a slight off-colour tinge from all the blood, dirt and sand that had been scrubbed off himself and Bluebird. He shivered at the draft breezing through the open window, but Bluebird immediately swaddled him up, patting the front of his towel down in a satisfied way.
“You don’t have anywhere else to go, right?” Bluebird said frankly, “So, may as well come with us.”
Aza wasn’t sure. Something about it felt… too good to be true? That, and a tiny, nasty little voice kept saying he didn’t deserve it. He felt a queasy clench in his gut whenever he thought about it, because he knew why he didn’t deserve it, but he still, he still wanted it. He wanted…
He cut the thought off, looking down at his feet.
“Why?” he asked.
“Huh?” Bluebird leaned back, “Why what?”
“Why do you want to help me?”
“Why’d you help me?” Bluebird shot back, “The answer’s probably the same: ‘cuz I wanted to.”
Aza wasn’t sure what to say to that.
“Look,” Bluebird stepped back and picked up another towel, “I’m not too good with words and stuff, but… you helped me, so, I want to help you too. But not just because you helped me, but because you need it, and I want to. So, yeah.”
That queasy feeling morphed into shame.
“You pity me,” he said quietly.
“You say that like it’s bad,” Bluebird scoffed, “Mommy says if you pity someone, it’s ‘cuz you recognise that they’re hurting and need help. It’s a sign of a decent person.”
Aza looked away from her, wriggled his toes against the wet tiles under his feet. Despite the warm towel, he was feeling a horrible chill crawling over him, an exhaustion that bordered on sickening making him want to just close his eyes and will away reality for a bit. He wanted to go with Bluebird, if only because he didn’t know what else to do, but he was scared. He was really, really, scared.
He was sick of being scared.
“I can carry you,” Bluebird continued, and she sounded weirdly anxious, “Because I know it hurts you to walk around. Not that we we’re walking all the way back home, anyways. Our ponies are back at Isari, see, ‘cuz we have a deal with the fishermen there and stuff. I’ll let you ride my pony. I can walk, I don’t mind.”
“I…” Aza struggled for a moment, “Won’t that be, um, troublesome for you?”
“I don’t care!” Bluebird huffed, “If I’m offering it, then obviously I don’t care if it’s troublesome!”
Aza winced, looking down, “O-Oh, sorry.”
“Don’t-” Bluebird cut herself off with a sign, “No, I’m not… mad or, I just yell. Um,” she fiddled with the towel in her hands, her face scrunched up in frustration, “You can think on it, okay? We’re not leaving now now, so you have time.”
“Okay,” Aza tugged his towel closer about him, “I’ll think about it.”
“Good! Okay, let’s get you back to bed.”
Aza let Bluebird lead him back to the private room, the tight soreness running down the back of his legs a lot better after soaking in the hot water. It still hurt, and ached, and he felt horrible and sick to his stomach, but he didn’t feel like he was drowning anymore. There was a light at the end of this horrible nightmare, even if he was hesitating to grasp at it. He just felt… he didn’t know. He was too tired to make sense of it.
So tired, he barely remembered the journey back to bed. His eyelids kept drooping, and he went from walking to suddenly lying down on a soft bed, toasty warm towels draped over him and low voices murmuring. He almost tensed, but he recognised Bluebird’s, whispering loudly, so he relaxed again, lingering between wakefulness and sleep.
He couldn’t remember when he was this exhausted. Back with Master Musa, he always had to be alert, always had to be ready to spring awake because he could call for him at any moment, any time, and Master hated waiting. Two years he spent tightly strung, a bowstring verging on snapping, and now… he didn’t need to do that. He could lie down and sleep like a corpse and not worry that he’ll miss a call and Master Musa would be angry. He’ll never be angry again.
Master Musa will never be again.
That was a nice thought.
Aza opened his eyes. The voices were gone, and Bluebird was sitting next to his bed, having dragged the chair over. She was in different clothes, dry, and she was frowning at her knife. There was blood stained into the leather of the grip and it seemed to trouble her.
Weirdly, he didn’t feel anxious at Bluebird sitting over him with a knife. He just remembered her, bloody and screaming and vicious, ramming that blade into that slaver’s groin over and over. That was a nice thought too. She didn’t have to, but she stayed behind and protected him, when she could’ve ran away and saved herself.
“Hey,” he croaked, his throat feeling raw and his chest aching, “Bluebird.”
Bluebird looked up, resting her knife on the edge of the bed, “Oh, you’re awake. You snore really loudly, d’ya know that?”
No, he’d never snored in his life before this, “I think…” he said slowly, “I think I want to.”
For a moment, Bluebird stared blankly at him, uncomprehending, before she lit up, “You mean- you wanna come back home with me?”
“Yeah,” his heart felt like it was going a mile a minute, and he felt ill and uncertain, and a nasty voice hissing ‘you don’t deserve to go you don’t’ but. He was tired. He was really tired, and Bluebird… he didn’t know her, but she was the first person to be so kind to him, for no reason other than she felt like it. She was blunt, rude and quick to huffiness, but she was still… really kind.
He knew he was blindly following, but he didn’t know what else to do. It couldn’t be worse than where he came from though, could it? Please, don’t let it be worse. He couldn’t take it if it was. This was all he had left. This last little bit in him, it was all he had.
“I’ll go,” he finished, his breath audibly shaking in his throat. He was terrified, but… hopeful, “I’ll go with you, Bluebird.”
“You won’t regret it, Catboy,” Bluebird said, and she set the knife, just so, next to his hands. The bandages were dry and new on them. Someone must’ve changed them as he slept, “I’ll help you, don’t worry. I’ve got you.”
She patted his arm, and Aza tried not to ruin the moment by crying or something. So he closed his eyes instead, struggling to swallow down the burning lump in his throat, and tentatively hoped.
Aruci felt like he was handling a very timid, fragile animal when it came to helping Aza get ready to leave.
He’d been relieved when Bluebird told him of Aza’s decision, but at the same time he was apprehensive. The journey would be long, and while it was a relaxing, gentle journey for the likes of him and Bluebird, for Aza it would be arduous and exhausting. He had no idea how the boy was going to handle sitting on a pony for almost two solid days. It might be agonising for him.
But walking all the way there was out of the question too. Aza was simply too injured and weak – his rib was still cracked, a chest infection was beginning to sink its claws into his previously waterlogged lungs, and his internal injuries from this Haramasu meant walking the malms back to the Iriq tribe would probably kill him. Truthfully, Aruci felt it’d be easier to drug the boy asleep so he’d miss the worst of it, but that would most likely irreparably damage the rapport he was painstaking trying to build.
Like he was doing now.
“How do they fit?”
Aza looked at the furred boots on his feet, twisting his ankle this way and that, and whispered; “Okay.”
“That’s good,” Aruci sighed in relief. Aza had no clothes to call his own, so he was borrowing Bluebird’s spares for now – his daughter had a few ilms on Aza, so the breeches and the tunic sleeves had to be rolled up, the clothes a little baggy on him. The boy looked a lot more comfortable in furred tunics than he did in Hingan robes, at the very least.
Aza fidgeted before him. He was seated on the edge of his bed, dressed up and ready to go, but not once had he looked Aruci in the eye. He seemed to shrink, grow silent, and moved as little as possible, and not even Bluebird’s presence seemed to act as a good enough buffer to draw him out of his shell around Aruci.
He tried not to take it personally. Aza had been… abused horribly by a man. It stood to reason that he would be leery of them for a long while yet. Aruci was sort of banking on him warming up to Atani, anyways, if his interactions with Bluebird was anything to go by.
“Now, we’ll be going in fifteen minutes,” he said, “Bluebird will carry you to our boat, and we’ll be sailing over to Isari. From there we’ll be reclaiming our ponies to begin the journey to Reunion. Have you heard of Reunion before?”
Aza seemed to hesitate before he shook his head, peeking up at him beneath his fringe – only to quickly glance back down when he accidentally made eye contact.
“Reunion is a trading post owned by the Qestir,” Aruci explained gently, “We’ll be spending the night there with an old friend of mine, as it’s too dangerous to travel the Steppe at night. Come morning, we’ll travel onwards to the Iriq tribe with a pair of Qestir traders.”
He thought telling Aza in advance would make him less anxious about the journey in general. He had a feeling the boy would like the certainty, the structure of a known timetable, but Aza made no indication that he appreciated the explanation. The boy simply nodded, looking at his boots, his small shoulders hunching like he could vanish if he curled up small enough.
It broke Aruci’s heart. He wasn’t even sure on how to fix it.
“Take this moment to relieve yourself if you need to. It’s a long journey from here to Reunion,” Aruci said, deciding to spare the boy further discomfort and remove himself from his presence. Maybe he’ll warm up to him on the ride over to Reunion.
Again, just a nod. Aruci sighed.
He really hoped Atani would do better.
For now, Bluebird would have to do.
“Okay! Three, two, one… hup!”
Bluebird grunted as she took Aza’s weight on her back, hooking her arms underneath his thighs to keep him steady as his small arms wrapped around her neck. He wasn’t heavy, but he wasn’t super light either – but she could carry him to the boat at least, easy.
Bluebird started walking, adjusting her strides so she didn’t jostle Catboy too much. By the time she walked to the front of Sadakazu’s clinic, Daddy was there with the medic, the pair of them wearing serious faces and Daddy holding a small medical pack. Probably medicine for Aza, since Bluebird knew he also had some chest sickness starting to sink its claws into him.
“Oh, are we all ready?” Daddy asked when he spotted them.
“Yup!” Bluebird chirped, feeling Aza huddle a little closer against her back. He was so scared of Daddy and Sadakazu, and normally that’d be a thing she’d tease over but, well, not even she was that tactless. She pretended not to notice.
Daddy nodded and turned to Sadakazu, “Thank you for you help. I’ll be sure to bring an extra shipment of potions on my next visit.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Sadakazu heaved a sigh, “Have a good journey, alright?”
They left after that. Outside the sun was already starting to sink down towards the horizon, painting the sky in smears of dark blue, orange and pink. A small chill started to pick up on a brisk wind too, the waves looking a tiny bit choppy as they approached the small dock. Aza shivered against her back.
“Just a lil’ choppy,” she said cheerfully, guessing he was nervous. Well, he was always nervous, but nervouser, “It’s only a short ride anyways.”
“Less than half an hour,” Daddy confirmed. Their footsteps thudded heavily as they stepped onto the wooden planks of the dock, the surface slimy from damp and algae. Bluebird made sure to tread carefully, “You can see Isari from here, see?”
Daddy pointed, and against the glare of the setting sun, the coast of Othard could be made out, with the mountains jutting out in the far distance. There were also twinkling lights dancing on the surface of the waters between Onokoro and Isari, the fishermen using that weird light trick of theirs to dazzle and catch fish.
“…what’re those lights?” Aza whispered to her.
“Isari fisherman,” she said, “They use lanterns to catch fish. It’s really cool to watch.”
“It requires a special oil from a bombfish,” Daddy added on, “From what I understand, the Doman army would occasionally send recruits to harvest the oil to both train and maintain the fishing trade in Isari, but recently that hasn’t been done.”
Aza made a puzzled noise, his curiosity briefly overwhelming his nerves as he asked, “How come?”
“The Iron Men took over Doma about a year ago,” Daddy explained, “They crushed the Doman army and the entire country is in a logistical nightmare right now, so isolated communities like Isari are starting to struggle,” he sighed, clearly worried about this, “They have enough oil reserves to maintain themselves for a few more months but… after that, who knows what they’ll do.”
“Oh,” Aza said, sounding a little lost.
“Well, it doesn’t really matter to us,” Bluebird said confidently, “So don’t worry about it, Catboy.”
“It should matter to us,” Aruci sighed, “We do trade with them, Bluebird.”
They reached their boat then. It was a small fishing vessel, borrowed from Isari, with a capacity to hold two grown men and their daily catch. Daddy had already stored up their wares in it, so there were two benches free for her and Catboy, with Daddy taking up the rowers. She very carefully, with Daddy holding the boat steady, climbed into the fishing boat, ignoring how Aza was clinging to her in open anxiety.
“It’s alright, see?” she said once she was standing on the boat, easily adjusting to the gentle rocking under her feet, “We’re on. Okay, here’s the bench.”
She squatted, and very reluctantly, Aza let go of her and gingerly sat on the hard, wooden bench. He gripped the edge of his seat with both hands, like he was terrified of being flung off, his tail tucked close against his thigh with the fur all fluffed out.
Bluebird sat down next to him, just as Daddy climbed into the boat. The whole thing wobbled from his weight, and Aza made a very soft, high pitched noise right in the back of his throat. Bluebird reached out and pried his death grip off the edge of the bench, holding onto his hand with both of hers instead.
“You’re gonna hurt your fingers like that,” she scolded, “C’mon, it’s impossible to fall out of this boat.”
“It’ll be a very smooth ride,” Daddy added, sitting down with more care than usual, probably trying not to rock the boat even further, and picked up the oars. With their fishing boat unmoored, and the oars in the water, they were off with a few powerful strokes, the boat sailing smoothly despite the choppy waves.
Aza said nothing for the entire ride. He sat tensely, like a stone statue, gripping Bluebird’s hand with his own, the other gripping the bench, with his eyes shut. He was breathing a little fast too, but he didn’t look like he was going to be sick or freak out, so Bluebird just rubbed her hand up and down his forearm, humming calmly as Daddy rowed them along the coast of Onokoro, past a few Isari fishing boats (who hailed them with cheery greetings upon recognising Daddy), and into Isari’s fishing docks.
By then the sun was halfway past the horizon, and the first glint of stars could be seen above.
“We’re here,” Daddy said, and Aza reluctantly opened his eyes, “Bluebird, mind the boat while I see if our ponies are ready.”
“Okay, Daddy,” Bluebird said, waiting until Daddy had climbed out of the boat, tied it up, and wandered down the dock until turning to a rather green looking Aza, “You’re not gonna puke, are you?”
“Mrngh,” was Aza’s reply.
Grimly, and knowing she was risking getting puked on, Bluebird managed to pry Aza off his bench and coax him from the boat to sit on the dock instead. Aza’s legs shook like a newborn foal as he awkwardly clambered onto the slick, wooden planks, but Bluebird had him, and in no time at all he was curled up next to her side as they sat on the dock, looking up at the mountains that shadowed the fishing village.
“We gotta go through them to get home,” she said, pointing at the mountains, “There’s a pass up north we walk through – like, a big tunnel someone built ages ago. It’s kinda boring to travel through, to be honest, though the crystals look nice.”
“Mm. Crystals in the wall light it up all the way through, so you don’t have to carry torches or anything to see.”
Aza seemed to mull over that, lowering his gaze from the mountains to stare out at the sea instead.
“How’s your butt?” she asked, noting that Aza was sitting awkwardly, more on his hip with his legs curled out to the side, “Is it still hurting?”
“I’m used to it,” he said dully, “S’not as bad as it could be.”
“I don’t get it,” Bluebird said frankly, “Why would someone wanna stick their dick up there? I mean, won’t they get poo on it? Sounds like that’d be more gross than nice for them.”
Aza turned to stare at her.
“What?” she said defensively, “I know how sex works! Guys put dicks up the girls’ vagina, or guys rub their dicks together or girls touch each other. But sticking dicks up buttholes? There’s poo up your butt, all the time, even after pooing! So, they’d just get their dick all dirty and then it’ll go all infected and stuff, right?”
There was a weird kind of pause, one where Bluebird worried she’d stuck her foot in it and gave him horrible flashbacks to Haramasu, with how blankly he stared at her. But then he abruptly, and without warning, cracked up. It was a breathless kind of laugh, one that had his shoulders shaking from the force of it as he bent over his lap.
“What? What?” Bluebird whined, her face heating up as Aza laughed at her, “I don’t get it!”
“I-It’s… no, you’re right,” he coughed, straightening up and getting himself back under control. His face was also red, his eyes wet from unshed tears, “That… that can happen.”
“Yeah,” Aza’s mouth twisted into a not quite smile, a black sort of humour lacing his voice as he repeated, “Poo-dick.”
“Yeah,” Aza wiped at his eyes, then made a weird, cough-laugh that almost sounded like crying, “’Poo-dick’. Damn.”
It wasn’t that funny. Bluebird frowned, but before she could question Aza on his weird giggling, the thud of footsteps resounded over the planks. Instantly, Aza went quiet, shuffling close against her side and hunching, like he could hide behind her if he went small enough.
“Hi, Daddy,” she said, “We ready?”
“That we are,” Daddy said, walking up to them, “Help me unload the boat, Bluebird. Aza, don’t worry, you can rest.”
Aza looked a little uncertain, especially when Bluebird got up and left him sitting on the dock alone, but he shuffled out of the way and sat, very quietly, his knees tucked up to his chest with his tail curled over his boots, watching as Bluebird and Daddy took the boxes and bags out of the boat. There were three boxes and two bags in total, much less than what they took over to Onokoro yesterday.
“Bluebird,” Daddy said, before she could pick up one of the sacks, “Take Aza over to the ponies. I’ll carry all of this.”
Bluebird blinked in surprise – she always helped Daddy carry this stuff back – but, well, it made sense that she’d take Aza over first. They couldn’t leave him sitting by the boat by himself, huh?
“Okay. C’mon, Catboy. Up we get!”
“I can walk-” Aza began, but Bluebird already gripped his arms and pulled him onto his feet.
“Don’t be silly, I can carry you,” she scolded, “C’mon, on my back.”
Aza hesitated, but he didn’t argue. With a quiet sigh, he awkwardly climbed onto her back, and Bluebird hefted him up, arms under his thighs, and moved past Daddy and down the dock. It was a lot darker now, with only a few torches lighting up the way towards the village.
Isari was very small. From the docks, she could see only a handful of lights glittering from the windows of wooden huts that lined the beach. A lot of them looked like they were already falling apart, probably battered from that storm last night, and a few people were standing in the surf along the beach, raking for seaweed. There didn’t seem as many people as before, and what did remain were mostly women, kids or old men.
Weird, Bluebird thought, where was everyone?
She reached the end of the dock then, and there, next to one of the empty stalls where the ferryman normally sat, were their two ponies tied up on the wooden post. There was Sunbeam, Daddy’s pony, a thickset, plodding cob that was nosing at scraggly grass clumping at the base of the post, and the other was Moonbeam, her pony, a sprightly filly with a silvery coat that was tossing her head up and down upon spotting Bluebird.
“Are those ponies?” Aza asked her quietly, sounding amazed.
“Uh, yeah?” Bluebird said slowly, unsure if he was being funny or not, “What, you’ve never seen a pony before?”
“…no,” Aza mumbled, sounding embarrassed, “Only in paintings or sculptures.”
What sort of hellscape was Kugane if they didn’t have ponies? Bluebird couldn’t even imagine living somewhere where she couldn’t hop on her mount and ride for hours a day. No wonder Aza was so gloomy all the time!
“Well, I guess I better introduce you!” she said, stopping right next to Moonbeam and squatting down enough for Aza to climb off, “This is Moonbeam, my pony. She’s fast and the best pony in all of the Iriq tribe. C’mon, pet her.”
Aza hesitated, but after a moment he reached out, tentatively stroking the tips of his fingers over Moonbeam’s thick neck. He let out a small ‘oh’, stroking a bit more confidently after that, a little smile on his face.
“Her fur feels soft,” he said.
“Yeah, she gets the best feed, so her coat is all nice,” Bluebird said proudly, rubbing Moonbeam’s nose and laughing when she nudged at her pockets, “Hey, I don’t have sugar cubes this time! Weren’t any in Onokoro, sorry, Moonbeam.”
Moonbeam snorted and lipped at her sleeve.
“Who’s this, then?” Aza asked, turning to Sunbeam.
“That’s Sunbeam. That’s Daddy’s pony. He’s kinda slow and old,” Bluebird said, “But he’s nice. You can pet him too.”
Aza did so. He looked the happiest Bluebird had ever seen him right then, contently petting Sunbeam, then Moonbeam when her pony got annoyed at being ignored and nudged at his hip with her nose. Bluebird couldn’t help but smile at the sight. It was kinda adorable.
“Maybe we can get you one too,” she said, “A pony, I mean.”
Aza paused, then looked down at his feet, “I don’t know how to ride.”
“You can learn, easy,” Bluebird said confidently, “Like, you might have to be put with the babies at the start. Everyone learns how to ride at five, y’see. But I’ll teach you too, and so can Daddy and Mommy, so you’ll pick it up fast. It’ll be fine!”
“But, it might be a waste of time,” Aza said uncertainly, “If you all learn at five, I’m way too old…”
Bluebird frowned, “You can’t be that older than-”
She was cut off by the stomping of Daddy’s heavy footsteps, and she watched as Aza made a small noise and promptly huddled close to Moonbeam’s side, effective hiding him from view. Bluebird tried not to roll her eyes, turning to see Daddy huff and puff his way over, the boxes and the sacks all balanced in a precarious tower on each shoulder.
“Oof,” Aruci squatted and somehow juggled his load onto the floor without it toppling everywhere, “I’m getting old. I struggled with that.”
“You’ve always been old, Daddy,” Bluebird said cheekily, “Me and Catboy heard you creaking long before we saw you!”
“Cheeky brat,” Daddy said fondly, wiping at his sweaty forehead with the back of his hand, “Alright, it’s time to load Sunbeam up with the crates. Moonbeam can have the sacks.”
Bluebird handled Moonbeam’s load, if only because Aza seemed to be more comfortable having the silver pony between him and Daddy. He watched her load up the sacks, securely tying them to the saddle so they wouldn’t shift or rub Moonbeam uncomfortably, his hand pressing against the pony’s neck in slow, absent-minded strokes.
“Are those heavy for her?” Aza asked quietly.
“Nah, she’s pretty strong,” Bluebird said, testing the girth of the saddle to make sure everything was secure before straightening up, “Steppe ponies can carry like, three times their weight before they start to sweat. They’re not very fast, though.”
“They’re more of an enduring species, if anything,” Daddy said, making Aza jump in surprise, “Very reliable creatures. They’re one of your best companions on the Steppe.”
“Oh,” Aza said softly, eyeing Moonbeam with renewed interest.
“Okay, everything’s loaded up here,” Bluebird said, now turning her attention to the next problem at hand: who was riding and who was walking, “Daddy-”
“Aza can have Sunbeam,” Daddy said, “I’ll walk. These old legs of mine could use the exercise.”
Aza looked reluctant. Probably because it would require him to move from his hiding spot and be in Daddy’s line of sight, “Um, I can… walk…”
“Don’t be silly,” Bluebird scoffed, lightly tapping his shoulder, “You know you can’t. Look, lemme help you get on Sunbeam, okay?”
“I’ll go settle things with Takeshi,” Daddy said, even though he probably already did if their ponies were here, “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“Okay,” Bluebird said, watching Daddy skirt widely around Moonbeam and disappear off towards the village proper. She felt a bit bad for Daddy. He did have a scary face, but he was soft as a kitten! She was sure Aza would start to see that soon and stop imitating a turtle whenever he was around.
Aza’s shoulders slumped, his head bowing slightly with his ears tilted back, “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” Bluebird asked, ushering him from Moonbeam’s side to Sunbeam’s, “Being a scaredy-cat? It’s fine. I get it.”
“I’m trying not to be scared,” Aza muttered, “I am.”
“I know,” Bluebird stopped next to Sunbeam, eyeing the height difference. Aza might have to jump and use some upper arm strength to haul himself up – but since he had a cracked rib that might not be doable. “I’ll pick you up, okay? Try to hook your foot into the stirrup and swing your leg over.”
“Uh,” Aza faltered, skittering back a step when Bluebird reached for him. She waited, arm’s outstretched, and after a long pause, Aza cautiously shuffled back towards her, his back stiff, “O-Okay.”
“Alright,” she moved behind him, gripping him by the waist. He shivered. She ignored it, “Three, two, one…hup!”
She lifted him up – and man, her arms hated her for that! She struggled, but she lifted him up high enough that his foot snagged into the stirrup, and he awkwardly wobbled his other leg over Sunbeam’s flank. He sat a bit too heavily, making Sunbeam snort and stomp, and Aza winced, but he was on and didn’t fall off, so Bluebird marked it as a success.
“There! Perfect!” she panted, shaking out her arms and then patting Sunbeam’s neck to settle him, “Just tuck closer to the- yeah, there. Lemme adjust the stirrups for you, though.”
Daddy must’ve done a rough adjustment beforehand, because the stirrups were already higher than they usually were. But Aza was still having to go tippy-toes to keep his feet in them, so she shortened them up, checked to see the saddle was stable, and nodded. Perfect.
Aza sat like a sack of popoto, though, stiff-backed and face set into a grimace of discomfort, his fingers curled into the pommel of the saddle. She guessed it was a bit painful on his butt, but there wasn’t much they could do about it. His legs were gonna hurt a lot by the time they got to Reunion, but it was better than making him limp his way there.
Bluebird let him adjust, deftly climbing onto Moonbeam and nudging her over to Sunbeam once she was settled. She reached over and took Sunbeam’s reins in her hand, leaning back to flash the grim-faced Aza a smile.
“Just sit back and enjoy the ride,” she said, “Just think, by the time we get to Reunion, it’ll be time to eat and sleep!”
“My ass hurts to much to enjoy the ride,” Aza grumbled, and the cuss startled a laugh out of Bluebird, “This is too uncomfortable.”
“Well, it’s either that or walking. Think you can walk for three solid hours?”
Aza blanched at the thought, and Bluebird couldn’t help but laugh at the face he pulled.
“Chin up,” she told him past her chuckles, “Just this little bit, and you can relax and sleep. Promise.”
Aza swallowed thickly, but nodded, staring off towards the mountains with an expression that was a mix of uncertainty and determination. She had no idea what he was thinking, but so long as it got him through this journey with minimal fussing, she wasn’t gonna pry.
Not long now, she thought wearily. Even she couldn’t wait to go home at this right, exhausted and achy and desperately wanting to curl up in her own bed, in her own yurt. Just two days of travelling, and they’ll be home with Mommy.
It’ll be better after that, she was sure.
Oh yeah I forgot, I actually made Aruci and Atani in ffxiv proper! See the links below to see what they look like!
Atani&Aruci headshots: https://twitter.com/kivaember/status/1092205995940548609
Chapter 9: Part I: Reunion
Aza jerked awake when Bluebird jabbed his bicep.
“C’mon,” she said to him as he groggily straightened up, “Just a lil’ bit longer. We’re almost at the end.”
“Mngh,” he mumbled, rubbing at his sleep-itchy eyes. He felt so drained, so exhausted, yet at the same time so uncomfortable. He had permanent cramps straining the inside of his thighs, a bone deep ache in his hip joints, and his ass was a hot brand of pressure pain – when it wasn’t numb, that is. That wasn’t even getting into the sheer monotony of the ride, where they plodded down a long, straight tunnel for what felt like hours, with not even the sparkling crystals embedded in the walls snagging his attention.
Bluebird had tried to make conversation, but she’d started running out of steam after the first hour, yawning and mumbling, and Aruci still made Aza too nervous to try to talk to him, so he just sat on the pony, sore and tired, trying his best to stay awake. Something he kept failing miserably at, if the growing bruise on his arm was an indication.
“She’s right. You can see the end of the tunnel there,” Aruci said on Bluebird’s other side. Aza felt less anxious with Bluebird and her pony between them, so he chanced a quick glance over, seeing the tall man pointing forwards.
“Oh,” Bluebird perked up, “Can we trot over there, Daddy? I wanna show Aza the view before we get to Reunion!”
“If he’s happy with it.”
Bluebird turned to him eagerly, and Aza blinked owlishly, “Huh?”
“We’ll go a lil’ faster,” Bluebird said, already adjusting her grip on Sunbeam’s reins, held loosely in her hand, “Just a little bit.”
Aza already felt super unstable just on this slow, plodding gait, but he didn’t want to deny Bluebird something she clearly wanted. She had been so nice and accommodating already, and he didn’t want to annoy her or make her reconsider that kindness because he ended up being too timid or difficult.
So, against his better judgement, he said, “Um, okay.”
“Alright, grab onto the front of your saddle like that- yup! And make sure your feet are in the stirrups- just the front! Don’t put your heels there! Okay, yeah, like that. Comfy?” Bluebird didn’t wait for a reply, “Okay, try to move with the trot. You’ll know what I mean when we start moving. Your body’ll wanna do it naturally. Okay, let’s go!”
“Um, I-!” Aza cut himself off with a squeak when they suddenly took off at a faster pace, the noise of hooves clomping against stone echoing all around them. He gripped onto the saddle, awkwardly wobbling as Sunbeam and Moonbeam steadily trotted forwards, any semblance of tiredness evaporating at the jolt of adrenaline he got.
His sore body really did not like it.
But it didn’t last long. After a few minutes, they reached the end of the tunnel and Bluebird smoothly slowed the pace back into a gentle walk, turning to grin at him as he tried to stop clinging so tightly to poor Sunbeam’s saddle. He could feel the pony shift at his knees digging so hard into his ribs.
“See? Wasn’t that fun?” Bluebird asked him.
“Mmm…” Aza breathed out shakily. His broken rib throbbed with agony from all that jostling, but with pained experience he swallowed it down, “Um, kinda.”
Bluebird seemed content enough with that weak lie, turning to point forwards, “Look. That’s Reunion there.”
Aza looked – and blinked. Before him sprawled a wide, never-ending plain, a dark blue beneath a starry sky. What looked to be a ten-minute walk away, he could see a massive, blue rock looming in the darkness, casting its village into a stark silhouette from its gentle glow. Dark shapes moved outside the village’s perimeter, and it took him a moment to realise they were animals.
“What’re those?” he asked, pointing at the closest one – a big, hulking thing that looked bigger than Sunbeam.
“Uh, what?” Bluebird squinted, struggling to see in the dark, “Oh, that? That’s a dzo. They’re livestock,” and, anticipating Aza’s next question, she pointed at the smaller shape close by, clustered close with other small shapes, “That’s sheep. They’re livestock too.”
“Everyone has a small herd of ‘em,” Bluebird continued, “For milk and wool and stuff. Milk’s super important to our diet round here, so we make sure to have a few of ‘em about. You get some jerks that try to steal other people’s though.”
“Do you have a herd?”
“’Course!” Bluebird snorted, “We have a few sheep, a dzo, two goats and our ponies.”
Curiosity piquing even further, Aza leaned forwards a little eagerly, trying to see these ‘dzo’ and ‘sheep’ a bit more clearly in the lowlight, asking; “What’s a goat?”
“They’re like, um, sheep but with less wool and straighter horns,” Bluebird said, giving him an odd look. For a queasy moment, Aza thought she was going to tell him off for asking so many stupid questions. Instead she just said, “Anymore questions?”
Aza hesitated, abruptly self-conscious about how stupid he sounded asking such obvious questions. He quietened, gripping the pommel of his saddle and glanced over the village in the distance, with its big, glowing rock. He got excited, because this was all new and someone was answering his questions for once – but he forgot, people hated dumb questions, didn’t they? He overstepped, didn’t he?
So, he said, “Um, no. I’m good.”
Bluebird frowned at him, then glanced at where he was staring, “…that’s an aetheryte,” she said abruptly, pointing at the rock, “It teleports people.”
Aza’s ear twitched, and he tentatively, quietly, asked; “Oh?”
“Yeah. I dunno how it works though. It’s only for adults, and, um, I think not all adults?”
“It requires anima,” Aruci’s voice piped up behind them, making them both startle in surprise.
“Daddy!” Bluebird huffed, as Aza tried to stuff his heart back down from his throat, “You scared us!”
“Sorry!” Aruci lifted his hands, chuckling weakly as Bluebird puffed her cheeks out at him, “I didn’t mean to sneak up on you.”
Aza shifted in his saddle, rubbing at his chest as he looked away from the pair, over towards the ‘aetheryte’. That could teleport people, huh? He saw something similar, set up in the courtyard of Mast- of his previous… not-home. That could have teleported him all along, if he knew how? He wanted to know how. To be able to vanish and escape from anywhere by teleporting…
His gaze dropped, remembering it was for adults. Maybe not right now, then.
“Let’s finish the last leg,” Aruci said, “We’re almost there.”
“Ugh, yeah. Food and bed,” Bluebird groaned, digging her heels in and prompting Moonbeam and Sunbeam onwards. Aza barely caught his balance when his pony started plodding, “I can’t wait.”
Aza couldn’t wait either. He was burning out.
So, the trio continued on, down towards the little Qestiri trading outpost.
Sarantuya hummed softly as she dug stones out of her pony’s hoof.
It was a mild night, warm enough that she could comfortably sit outside her yurt tending to her chores without bundling up, but chilly enough that the breeze felt pleasantly cool. The only minor hiccup of the evening was that her old tribesman, Aruci, was late, and she couldn’t help but glance up towards the main body of Reunion every so often, waiting to see that familiar, lumbering man dragging along his hellion of a daughter.
It wasn’t like him to be late, especially when returning from a few day’s trading at Isari and Onokoro. He was punctual, and liked travelling with the Qestir merchants back to the Iriq for that extra security. Of course, that storm last night had hit the Ruby Sea, and it was possible he was delayed by his boat being damaged, but Sarantuya sincerely hoped that wasn’t so.
She lowered her pony’s hoof with a sigh, patting its flank before she stood up. Well, maybe she could put a pot of tea on? If Aruci wasn’t back by the time she brewed and drank it, then she’ll go to bed.
No sooner had this thought crossed her mind, did she glimpse something coming towards her yurt from camp. She squinted against the dull gloom – and smiled when she recognised Aruci leading along Sunbeam, Bluebird on Moonbeam and… another child on Sunbeam…?
Bemused, Sarantuya waited with her hands on her hips. This late at night, she was wasn’t going to yell, so it was when Aruci drew up before her, lit up by the firelight thrown through her open yurt’s door, that she said; “You’re late.”
“I know,” Aruci said sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck, “But, we were briefly delayed…”
He glanced over at the child sitting on Sunbeam. It was the oddest child she’d ever seen though – a Catboy, a young one at that, with a bruised face and a hunched over posture that spoke of fatigue and pain. Sarantuya felt the smile fade as the boy avoided looking at her, picking at the saddle.
Bluebird, though, was oblivious – or uncaring – of the suddenly tense mood, and pointed at the hunched boy; “Auntie Saya! Look, this is Catboy!”
“Aza,” Aruci sighed, “His name’s Aza, Saya.”
“We’re taking him home,” Bluebird continued breezily, and turned to ‘Aza’, “This is Auntie Saya. She’s nice.”
“… Auntie?” the boy asked, so quietly Sarantuya had to strain her horns to hear.
“She’s my half-sister,” Aruci explained, “Sarantuya Qalli.”
“Qestir now, actually,” Sarantuya corrected with a small smile, “I’ve officially been accepted.”
“Oh?” Aruci turned to her with a wide grin, “Congratulations! Who proposed?”
“Me, of course!” Sarantuya laughed, “Maral tried, bless him, but he would get so nervous he’d never finished!”
“Maral is such a dweeb,” was Bluebird’s blunt assessment.
“That’s why I love him,” Sarantuya said dryly, “But enough, come on. Poor Aza is falling asleep in his saddle. Let’s go inside, shall we?”
Aza jolted at being singled out, a brief look of alarm flickering across his face like he expected a quick smack for being caught dozing, but Sarantuya pointedly ignored the flinch – as did Aruci – and she turned towards her yurt, stepping up the short, wooden steps into her home.
Maral was off tending to nightly shepherding duties, so until the morning it would be just her and her half-brother’s family for the night. She had already set up the beds, though Bluebird and Aza would have to share a bedroll, and she moved over to her stone stove, getting on brewing that tea for her guests. Warm milk for the children, though. Bluebird would be bouncing around the yurt if she had anything caffeinated.
Once she got a pot brewing, and set two cups of warm milk on her low table, Aruci trooped in with his two kids. Aza was moving very slowly, shuffling with a bad limp, and Sarantuya eyed him discreetly, wondering if maybe she should dig out some willow bark for him to chew on.
“Here we go, you can have the cushion,” Bluebird said magnanimously, ushering Aza to the table and letting him sit gingerly on the squashy guest cushion. A surprise, since Bluebird normally divebombed onto that cushion before anyone else to claim it.
Aruci knelt beside her, another surprise. He normally sat beside his daughter. Sarantuya kept the confusion off her face, though, rolling with it as she poured herself and her half-brother some tea, while Bluebird sat, cross-legged, next to the quiet boy, and pushed his warm cup of milk towards him.
“C’mon, drink up,” Bluebird coaxed, “Then we can sleep.”
“Mm…” Aza mumbled, rubbing at his eye drowsily before clumsily picking up the cup.
Satisfied that the children were occupying each other, Sarantuya leant over and whispered in soft Qalli; “What the hell, Aruci?”
“I’ll tell you later,” Aruci whispered back, grimacing like he’d swallowed a salt block, “Just… move slowly around him. He’s been through a lot.”
Been through a lot? Judging by his slow, wincing movements and his bruised face, and the way Bluebird was hovering protectively like a miniature version of her mother, all indicated that Aza had been through more than just ‘a lot’. Sarantuya bit back her curiosity, though, turning to smile at the kids when she caught Bluebird squinting suspiciously at them.
“What’cha talking about?” she asked them warily.
“Whether to let you two have a lie in tomorrow,” Sarantuya lied smoothly, “Your friend looks very tired.”
Aza lowered his cup. His upper lip had milk on it. It looked adorable, “Um, n-no, I’m okay. I’m not tired.”
“Yes, you are,” Bluebird scoffed, “You fell asleep about a hundred times on the way here.”
Aza lowered his gaze, his ears drooping as he mumbled; “It wasn’t a hundred…”
“Well, I’m tired,” Aruci said with an exaggerated slump to his shoulders, “So I think I’ll have a lie in.”
“Me too,” Bluebird added, quickly catching on, “So, if we’re having one, you might as well have one, Catboy.”
Aza clearly knew they were doing it for his sake, judging by the expression that flickered across his face, but he didn’t call them out on it. He just nodded slowly, looking down into his cup like it held the world’s answers in it. His eyelids drooped a little. He really was tired.
“Bluebird,” Sarantuya murmured.
Bluebird nodded, picking up her cup and gently ushering Aza up, “C’mon, Catboy. Lemme show you our bed. It’s a lot comfier than this dumb ol’ table.”
Aza mumbled something that might’ve been ‘okay’, but it was too quiet and slurred to understand. Bluebird took him to the other side of the yurt, behind a short, heavy curtain that sectioned off the ‘guest room’. Low, muffled talking drifted from behind the curtain, followed by rustling, and Sarantuya turned her attention away. Bluebird could be a brat, but she was mature for her age when she put her mind to it. Aza was in good hands.
“Aruci?” she said quietly.
“Bluebird found him along the coast of Onokoro,” Aruci said grimly, “He… saved her from would be kidnappers, who wanted to sell her to some animal in Kugane.”
Sarantuya barely bit down on her gasp, “What- where were you?”
Aruci winced guiltily, “Loading up the boat. She went exploring the outskirts as usual, but… she went further than she should’ve…”
Sarantuya shook her head. Aruci was too soft on Bluebird, fatally so. He told her the rules and limits, and she went and broke then willy nilly because she knew Aruci wouldn’t properly punish her. She was a lot more well behaved with Atani but, well, who wouldn’t be behaved with that beast breathing down their neck?
“In any case,” Aruci hurried the conversation along, “Bluebird came to get me, and I brought him to Onokoro for medical attention. He was… abused. Apparently owned as a slave by a Kuganite. His injuries are quite… horrific.”
Sarantuya sipped her tea with forced calm, because the alternative was to crush her cup in her fist, “…I see.”
“I’m hoping Chagur will help him more,” Aruci murmured, “And, well, he was alone, Saya. I couldn’t simply leave him.” He huffed out an amused noise, “Not that I could if I wanted. Bluebird has stuck to him like a burr ever since we found him.”
“She’s like her mother,” Sarantuya sighed, “Quick to get attached, and fiercely overprotective. I think you’ll be keeping the boy the second Atani lays eyes on him, Aruci.”
“Then we’ll keep him,” Aruci said simply, “We’ll look after him.”
Too soft, Sarantuya thought fondly. It made one wonder how a man like him could end up with the Bear of the Steppe.
“I wish you luck, then,” Sarantuya muttered, “Now, tell me how trading was like...”
A clumsy shift in topic, but Aruci took it. They conversed quietly for a while, skirting the topic of Aza the Tragic Orphan (?). Behind the curtain where the two children were, she could hear Bluebird snoring. Aza was utterly silent. Sarantuya didn’t know if that was because he was so deeply asleep, or completely awake.
Whichever state he was in, she hoped he found some measure of comfort and peace in her yurt, if only for the night.
Chapter 10: Part I: Insomnia
Aza couldn’t sleep.
It was funny, since he’d been so exhausted earlier. But the second his head hit the pillow, Bluebird sprawled out next to him under the thick furs snoring down his ear, his mind sprung to full alertness. This would be… how many nights had it been since Master died? Too few.
It felt all wrong, still. After two years, nights were a horrible, albeit predictable, experience he had learned to numb out. Master never kept Aza at his side 24/7. No, like all the other children Master kept, he was tossed into the ‘Garden’, a lovely, resplendent room that had everything you could ever want in there – a gilded cage. Quite a lot of the older kids were brainwashed to love it, learning that in exchange for a few hours of violation, you could enjoy a carefree life… until they grew up, that is. Master didn’t tolerate them getting old.
This place was nothing like that. But still, every time Aza found himself starting to drowse, he’d jerk awake, listening, waiting for the ‘click’ of the door, the tramp of armoured boots when the masked guards came to take one of them away – lately it had always been Aza. Before, he’d been ‘too small’, delegated mostly to sit at Master’s elbow and look pretty, but then he started taking more interest, more- he would- more-
Aza rolled onto his side, feeling queasy. He stared at Bluebird’s sleeping face.
It was like this back at Master’s. They all slept together – there weren’t separate beds, just piles and piles of squashy, soft pillows and thin, silken blankets. Everyone piled together, but Aza always tried to sleep alone from them, until he realised the safety in numbers. Ala hadn’t been there, so-
His heart squeezed, like someone had reached in there and crushed it. No. Don’t think about that.
This felt wrong. This wasn’t where he was meant to sleep.
It was a stupid thought. Aza knew that. But still. It was all wrong. He rolled onto his back, clasped his hands over his stomach, felt the weight of the furs and found it making him feel nauseous. It felt heavy enough to be someone else’s weight.
He sat up, rubbing his bandaged hands over his skinny arms. The tent was quiet. The adults had gone to sleep, probably, and Bluebird’s snores had died down into soft little snuffling noises. She hadn’t stirred from him moving about.
Aza didn’t know what to expect, anymore. How he should behave to minimise chances of being hurt, to ensure he was tolerated, for them to remain kind with him, what behaviour would anger them, what… he didn’t know the rules. Mom had rules, very easy ones, but still rules. Master had them – unofficial ones. Unsaid ones you had to learn yourself, through pain and humiliation. Bluebird and Aruci… they hadn’t told him any rules yet, and they had been kind, but there was a frantic, paranoid chant in the back of his mind saying he needed to know them now, now now now.
It was like his emotions were exploding apart like a crate of gunpowder. He had felt okay on the ride here. Fine. Very fine. Hopeful, even. But now, now there was a part of him that felt cold and slimy, and he rubbed his arms, staring blankly in the darkness, waiting, because it was always around now that it happened, when the masked guards came, and he could almost feel Master’s hands – always dry, dusty with white powder, smelled sharp – and he could almost feel- his skin crawled, like he had live ants under them, and he rubbed his arms harder, fingernails digging into the skin, just wanting the touch off of him.
He could still feel him. Like his touch had sunk bone deep and Aza needed to get it off him, just claw it off and strip away any evidence all of it get it off him he wanted to rip the memory of the touch off and away he had to get it off get it off get it off-
Someone grabbed his hands. Stopped him. And it was like a relief – oh normality restored, they came – but no, too small hands, and- Bluebird’s hands. She was sitting up next to him. He hadn’t even. Noticed.
“Aza, Aza, Aza,” she was whispering. She looked like she had repeated herself a lot, judging by how worried and bewildered she looked, “Aza, you- what’re you doing?”
He stared at her. He could hear himself panting.
“I have to get it off,” he said, barely recognising his own voice. It sounded crazed, even to him, “I have to- I need to get it off.”
“Get it… the, the bandages?” Bluebird was looking at his arms, “Um, those need to stay on-”
“Master,” he said, “I have to get Master off. I can still- feel, still-”
“There’s nothing there,” Bluebird said, definitely sounding wary now. For a split, terrifying second, he thought she was going to yell for Aruci, because she was looking at him like she thought he was going to stab himself the second she let go of his hands, “Okay? Catboy, there’s nothing there. Well, uh, you’ve scratched yourself up a bit, but aside from those, there’s nothing there.”
No. He could feel him.
“It’s okay,” Bluebird said very softly, like he was a skittish animal, “You’re okay. Look, it’s just us two here. There’s no, there’s no dirty old man here. See? Look. It’s just Auntie Saya’s yurt, and us. Okay?”
A tinny, wet noise left him. His vision blurred and his eyes burned. Bluebird was still holding his hands.
“It’s okay,” Bluebird said.
“I’ve got you, remember?” Bluebird continued, and she let go of his hands. He left them resting limply in his lap, “So, c’mon...”
“It won’t go away,” he whispered.
Bluebird was quiet for a long moment. Aza focused on breathing, because crying made his chest hurt. His arms hurt too. Stinging, shallow pain.
“Let’s go outside,” she finally said, “Can you stand up?”
Could he? He felt dizzy. He tried anyway. He got up on wobbly, unstable legs, and Bluebird caught his elbow, steadying him as she got up too. When they went to bed earlier, they stripped down to their undercloths – the furs had been really warm – but the yurt itself was cold, and he shivered, staring at the goosebumps prickling over his scratched arms.
He’d ripped the skin open, he noted blandly. Bright red, angry lines, blood crusting into dark scabs already. There was blood under his fingernails again. Not that the blood before had left. Too many people’s blood stuck under his nails.
He felt sick again.
“Get out of your head,” Bluebird muttered, jolting him out of the dark haze that gripped him by draping the furs over him. She swaddled him up like he was a child, so his arms were pinned against his chest by the thick fabric. It smelled musky, not in a bad way. It reminded him of the leather Mom would tan out front of the house.
Ah. What a random thing to remember. But the memory was there, stark. It made him breathless.
“Boots,” Bluebird said, half to herself, and Aza obediently lifted his feet, let Bluebird fit his boots on, then stood there blankly as she got changed into her clothes. Then, quietly, they walked across the yurt, skirting around the dark shapes of Aruci and Saya sleeping in their own bedrolls, and out into the crisp, cold outside.
Aza hadn’t paid attention to it before, but the sky was bright with glittering, white stars. There were no clouds. Just a large, inky blue expanse hanging above them, the air so sharp it needled down his throat, and came out in a great white puff. Bluebird sat them on the yurt’s doorstep, the slick wood creaking under their combined weight. In front of the yurt, Sunbeam and Moonbeam and another pony were standing quietly together, their heads bowed towards the scraggly grass at their feet.
For a long, long, long moment, it was silent between them.
“…why’d you hurt yourself?” Bluebird finally asked, her tone oddly neutral.
Aza stared at the stars above, feeling partially detached from his body. Sitting out here, he felt a bit… better. No, not better. He still felt horrible, but the stars were nice and distracting to look at, and it made the noise in his head quiet.
“I don’t know,” he answered after a too long pause, “I just… needed to. I could feel…”
“You can’t do that anymore,” Bluebird said, “It’s not a good thing. If you wanna wreak stuff, just rip up some grass or something.”
It’s not that simple, he thought, even though he couldn’t explain his own actions to himself. Such things happened, occasionally. He’d be gripped by some psychotic madness, he’d hurt himself, and the pain helped, or it didn’t, but it always meant Master would leave him alone for a day or two while the ‘Doctor’ drugged him up to his eyeballs until the madness passed. Hysteria, Doctor called it.
Whatever it was, that ‘hysteria’ was what gave him the courage he needed to finally see it done. That psychotic madness – instead of hurting himself, he focused it to Master, and he made him hurt. It’d been both sickening and rapturous. It’d been the worst and greatest thing he’d ever done. Even remembering it made him sick to his stomach but also breathless with a delirious kind of joy. The warmth of his blood (under his fingernails), his choked wet gasps for mercy (begging him, weak, weak master), the resistance of muscle and bone when Aza rammed the knife in (hands slipping over the leather handle, so his fingernails dug into his skin instead, ripping into him like the animal he was), and…
His hands were shaking, underneath the furs. He wanted to experience it again, but at the same time he wished he never remembered that moment of hot insanity.
“It’s okay,” Bluebird said, probably thinking that if she said it enough times things would magically become okay from sheer willpower alone, “We’ll work on it. You’re just tired and hurt, is all. It’s like that time, when we found a dog some jerks had thrown out into the desert down south. He was all scrawny and frightened, and every time you tried to touch him he’d just scream. Ugh, it was horrible, but…”
Bluebird leaned on her elbows, tilting her head to look at him, “But he stopped screaming, eventually. He started being happy, and his tail would wag and stuff. It just took time and a lot of treats.”
Aza wasn’t sure if he should be offended at being compared to an abused dog. The comparison was true, though, wasn’t it? Aza dipped his head.
“I called him Rock,” Bluebird said nostalgically, “I was stupid. I dunno how to name things.”
“Rock,” Aza repeated.
“Hey, he was brown and… well, rocks are brown!”
Aza felt his mouth twitch into a maybe smile. Bluebird grinned back at him.
“Yeah,” he rasped, “You’re bad at naming things. You call me Catboy.”
“Well, you are a Catboy!” Bluebird mock-huffed, gently shoving his shoulder. He rocked with the motion.
“Yeah,” he said. Exhaustion was pulling at him again, and the cold was making his nose numb. He muffled a cough into his furs, “I’m sorry.”
“For being crazy and weird,” Aza mumbled, “That probably looked scary, me… being a psycho.”
“You’re not a psycho,” Bluebird said, then paused, “Well, um, okay, you kinda are. But it’s fine. Mom’s crazy too, but she’s still doing good. You just gotta figure yourself out, is all.”
“Figure myself out…?”
“That’s what Mom says,” Bluebird shrugged, pushing herself to her feet, “I already know who I am, so I guess I don’t really get it, not knowing. But maybe that’s a good thing! I can be your, uh, pillar of stability!”
“I don’t think it works like that,” Aza said, reluctantly getting to his feet too.
“I say it does,” Bluebird sniffed, ushering him back inside and lowering her voice into a quiet hush, “Just don’t think about it too hard. You get stuck in your head too much.”
Aza wasn’t sure how the hell he was supposed to manage that, but he doubted Bluebird knew either. He just made a non-committal noise, shuffling to their bedrolls and lying back down. Bluebird stripped back down to her underclothes, and bullied her way back under the furs. Her hands were cold and Aza couldn’t hold back a squeak when she shoved a calloused palm against his cheek.
“Bluebird,” he hissed, “That’s cold!”
“Heheh,” Bluebird giggled, but she kept her chilly hands to herself after that. They were almost nose to nose, her blue eyes strangely bright in the dark yurt, “Was just making sure you weren’t trapped in your brain again. Go on, go to sleep, Catboy. I’ll make sure no monsters’ll get you.”
“I’m not a child,” he muttered, but he did feel assurance despite himself. Bluebird looked alert, wide-awake, and she was staring right at him. He thought he’d find that unnerving, but he didn’t. His eyes slid shut – he almost jolted himself back awake, but Bluebird hummed, softly, quietly, on the very edge of his hearing, and Aza relaxed again, drifting…
He fell asleep, and dreamt no dreams.
Chapter 11: Part I: Chapter 11
Aruci woke up to Bluebird prodding him awake just before dawn.
“Daddy,” she whispered, jabbing her finger hard against his cheek, “Wake up.”
“M’up,” he mumbled, taking a moment to orientate himself. He could hear the early morning bustle starting up outside, the distant bugle of a hunting horn echoing, and Saya’s quiet snoring next to him. He squinted his eyes open and saw Bluebird leaning over him with a worried look.
That jolted him to full awareness.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, pushing himself up onto his elbow, “Did you have a nightmare?”
“No…” Bluebird sat back on her heels. She was already dressed, with deep, dark circles under her eyes, “I think Aza did though.”
Aruci looked past her, at the heavy curtain that separated the ‘guest’ room from the rest of the yurt, “Did he…”
“He’s asleep now,” Bluebird said, and hesitated. She was squatting, her knees close to her chest, her arms wrapped around them with her fingers clenched into the bottom hems of her breeches, “But, um…”
Aruci patiently waited.
“I woke up earlier,” she continued slowly, after a very long, thoughtful silence, “And, Aza was… hurting himself.”
Aruci kept his expression very even, despite the way his heart thudded against his ribs, “Deliberately?”
“Yeah,” Bluebird briefly looked frustrated, “Like, I asked him what he was doing, but he didn’t hear me. He looked like, uh, like he was looking at something far away. And, he was scratching at himself, like this-” she demonstrated, making clawing motions at her forearms, “And then I shook him out of it, and he kept saying he had to get ‘Master off of him’. I got him to calm down, though, and we went outside, and came back in, and he went to sleep. I made sure he slept.”
Bluebird sounded proud about this, but it was belied by the worried frown on her face. Ah. Her exhaustion made sense now. When Bluebird said she’d do something, she’d do it, and no doubt she sat there and stared at Aza from then until just now to ensure he slept.
But Aza… Aruci had an idea on what must’ve happened. A nightmare, or a flashback – honestly, he was surprised it took until now for something like that to rear up.
“It was scary to watch, Daddy. I don’t understand why he’d do that,” Bluebird admitted, “Is there something, like, um, medicine, we can give him to make him stop… doing that? Because he might really hurt himself without meaning to.”
“No,” Aruci said, then amended, “There’s no easy cure but… there is treatment. It’ll take time, and a lot of care…” he trailed off, not sure how one went about treating such an ‘illness’, now that he was thinking about it. Chagur would know, but for now… “How did you calm him down?”
“I just made sure he knew he was okay,” Bluebird said, “And told him about Rock. He smiled about that.”
Ah. Good ol’ Rock, “Good. That was good, Bluebird. Well done.”
Bluebird didn’t seem assured, chewing her bottom lip before saying; “His arms need patching up. They’re really scratched up.”
The boy was going to be practically mummified by the time they got back to the Iriq, Aruci thought wryly, rubbing sleep from his eyes. He doubted Aza would be receptive of his medical care, if he was fresh off a vivid flashback about his ‘Master’. As much as it pained him, he’d have to delegate this task.
“Get the medical kit,” he sighed, “You’ll have to patch him up yourself. He trusts you.”
“You’re just lazy, Daddy,” Bluebird said, but she leaned over and tugged his travel pack over to them.
After ensuring Bluebird had what she needed – clean bandages, antiseptic, some pain relief since the boy would no doubt be in sore agony when he woke up – he let her vanish back behind the curtain, leaving him to slump against his bedroll. He had genuinely hoped for a lie in, but despite his exhaustion, he was now wide-awake.
There was a dark pit of anger brewing in him. Hurting himself. Aza was so traumatised, that he was…
Aruci bundled up the anger and let it out with a slow, deep breath. That anger won’t help. No. He needed to stay calm and gentle, for Aza’s sake. This wasn’t about his outrage, this was about the boy.
He sat up again, quietly, and began preparing for the day, as soft, incoherent murmuring rose up from behind the curtain. He’d best start prepping for the rest of their journey, maybe go into the market to grab something other than dried travelling rations to give Aza an extra boost of energy. He’ll probably need it.
He let Saya be, tiptoeing over her still-slumbering form, and out of the yurt entirely, into the rising dawn.
Bluebird sat heavily next to Aza, fighting back a yawn as she squinted into the medical pack resting on her lap. She felt exhausted, and her eyes felt uncomfortably dry and itchy, no matter how much she blinked or rubbed them. The six-hour ride was going to be fun, she could tell. Geeze, the things she did for people…
“You owe me,” she mumbled under her breath, before gently smacking her cheeks to rouse herself. Okay, Bluebird, focus. Time to patch Aza up, check that he was still okay, and then food. If they left before noon, they’d be back home before nightfall! Then Mommy can fix everything and Bluebird can sleep. Yup, sounded like a plan.
She shifted her attention to the boy before her. Aza was sleeping on his back, his limbs sprawled out and a faint frown on his face. He was probably in pain or something.
Bluebird dug into the medical pack and took out a long, thin piece of willow bark. She knew the Confederates and Domans preferred the convenience of Potions and stuff, but growing up amongst a tribe of crafters let Bluebird in on the knowledge that while adults could chug obscene amounts of that stuff, kids as small as Aza couldn’t because it would make them really ill. So, back to old, non-magical methods it was.
“Hey,” she said, gently nudging his cheek with the end of the bark, “Wake up, Catboy. Wake uuup~”
“Nh…” Aza’s face scrunched up in a way that made Bluebird grin, before he squinted his eyes open. He looked groggy – then pained when he tried to sit up. ‘Tried’ being the key word, because he lifted himself about two ilms off the bedroll and made a breathy, almost-squeak as his face paled to the same colour as off milk. He dropped back against the bed and groaned.
Yup. Bluebird knew that was gonna happen.
“Here, chew this. It’ll kill the pain,” she said, poking the bark at Aza’s mouth before he obligingly let her stick it in there. Half of it stuck out past his lips, bobbing up and down as he cautiously chewed, only to still when he let out a disgusted grunting noise.
“Yeah, it tastes nasty, but it’ll help,” Bluebird said, wagging a finger at him, “Don’t spit it out. Chew- er, but don’t eat it, okay?”
“I ‘av ‘ad wil’w ba’k b’fer,” Aza mumbled around it, his eyes sliding half shut as he started chewing again.
Bluebird didn’t reply, studying him. He looked tired – which was a joke, because out of the pair of them he had more sleep! – and his skin was pale under the bruising. He just didn’t look very well, to be honest. She reached out, ignoring Aza’s aborted flinch as she pressed the back of her knuckles against his forehead. He felt clammy.
“Are you ill?” she asked, then remembered that Aza was supposed to be suffering the beginnings of some kind of chest infection or whatever, so amended the question to; “Do you feel ill?”
“…ti’d,” was Aza’s near-incoherent response.
“Tired,” he repeated, “Jus’ tired.”
“Hmm,” Bluebird doubted that, but she didn’t call him on it. She took out the antiseptic from the medical pack, some kind of sharp smelling paste that gave you severe belly cramps if you ate it (she admitted it, when she was young and dumb, she ate the paste and sorely regretted it an hour later when all her organs tried to evacuate her gut), so she made sure to only put on as little as possible.
“I’m gonna put this on your arms,” she said, “’Cuz they’re all scratched up and gross.”
Aza made a drowsy, assenting noise. He looked kinda out of it.
“Don’t lick it off. You’ll poo your guts out,” Bluebird warned, dipping her fingers into the paste. It was creamy and white, with hard, tiny granules in it. It smelled almost like mint, but the scent caught the back of her nose uncomfortably, making her cough before she adjusted to it. She picked up the arm closest to her, fingers gently curled around Aza’s thin, bandaged wrist, and frowned at the wounds lining his forearm.
They were an angry red, with black, ugly scabs already crusted over the worst of it. She applied the antiseptic, working briskly while Aza was too sleepy to freak out or squirm. Once she was done, she bandaged up his arms and packed everything away. She took the rest of the willow bark still sticking out of Aza’s mouth after that.
“You need a wash,” she told Aza, who was peering up at her from beneath his eyelashes, looking boneless, “You kinda smell.”
“Mmm…” Aza’s eyes slipped fully closed, “Now?”
“Nah. You’ll just get sweaty again in a few hours. Mommy’ll wanna scrab you down, anyways,” Bluebird said, shoving the medical pack to the side and stretching her legs out. She was tempted to just sprawl out on the bedroll next to Aza, “You can keep resting.”
Aza said nothing, looking like he was back to sleep, but his breathing wasn’t deep or slow enough for it. Dozing, then. Bluebird reclined onto her elbows, staring at him. The bruise on his face was starting to heal, so it was now an ugly splotchy mess of off-yellow, green and bluish purple. The swelling had gone down, though, and his busted lip was fully scabbed over, if a bit red around the edges.
Mommy was gonna flip. She got super protective of kids, even if they weren’t hers, and Aza…
Bluebird sighed, shifting more onto her side as she reached out, carefully tugging on a stray lock of Aza’s hair, “Hey, Catboy.”
“Are you really feeling better?”
There was a pregnant pause, one where Aza opened his eyes and stared up at her.
“… yeah,” he said unconvincingly.
Bluebird tugged his hair reproachfully, “Be honest.”
“I am,” Aza weakly pushed her hand away – she let go, resting her hand on the bedroll between them, “I’m a lot better.”
He didn’t look it, though. He looked exhausted and pained and ill, and she kept remembering last night, that wild-eyed, blank stare of his as he clawed at his arms until they bled. She still couldn’t understand why he would do that, didn’t know if he’d do something worse if he wasn’t supervised. She tried to bury the worry for now, though. It’ll be fine. Mommy and Daddy are watching out for him too.
“You look kinda sick,” she said bluntly.
“I feel it,” Aza mumbled, “But it’s… it’s still better.”
“I’ve had worse,” he continued almost timidly, “It’s okay.”
It wasn’t okay, but Bluebird wasn’t sure how to get that across without Aza thinking she was mad at him. The more she looked at him, stewed on his behaviour and injuries, the more she felt… frustrated? Angrily worried? She didn’t know. Aza was hurting, really badly, but he showed no sign of pain – refused to show sign of pain or weakness, kept walling himself up or shrinking down, and sometimes she wanted to shake him by the shoulders and yell at him to let them help him, that it was okay to say he was too ill or injured to do this or that. That no one would get mad.
But that would make things worse, she knew.
“If you wanna… stay for an extra day, to rest,” Bluebird began carefully, trying to keep a lid on her usual brashness, “You can, y’know. It’s okay. We have a six-hour ride ahead of us, and you kinda look like that’ll kill you.”
Aza was quiet. He looked conflicted.
“I can fake a stomach ache,” Bluebird added in a rush, “So, Daddy won’t think it’s ‘cuz of you either. I’m really good at acting.”
“…no, it’s fine,” Aza mumbled, “It’s okay. It’s fine.”
“I don’t want…” Aza paused, rubbing a hand over his forehead as he exhaled noisily, “I’m already being… being a burden…”
“A what?” Bluebird coughed out, startled despite herself, “How’re you a burden? We wanna help you.”
Aza just looked miserable, and Bluebird, honestly, did not know what the hell was going through his weird little mind. She was certain they had this talk already too! Then again, maybe Aza forgot about it – he was kinda drugged up and groggy back then, and if it didn’t stick, then maybe she should go about it a different way…
“Okay…” she said slowly, “But you won’t be a burden forever. You plan to get better, right?”
“…right,” Aza said cautiously, wariness clouding his expression.
“Right,” Bluebird continued brightly, “So, once you’re better, you can help me out with my chores then. There’s lots of, um, animals to skin, sheep to shear, dzo to milk… you can pay us back by helping us with that, if it bugs you too much.”
Aza made a very complicated expression, before it settled into something uncertain; “That’s… all you’d want from me?”
“Well, yeah,” Bluebird huffed, “And you don’t have to do it if you don’t want either. I don’t care. Just, if you feel like you wanna pay us back, you can… do that. Or something.”
It sounded better in her head, to be honest, but now that it was out there, Bluebird felt kinda scummy. Of course Aza was going to do it, because he felt obliged to, but she didn’t want him to do stuff out of a misguided idea that he had to… argh! Bluebird was so dumb at this stuff!
Aza was staring at her, and Bluebird looked away, feeling her face warm. Thankfully, she was saved from breaking the awkward silence when the curtain was pulled away, revealing a sleepy-eyed, tussled Auntie Saya squinting at them.
“What’re you two whispering about?” she mumbled, “Bluebird, I thought you were letting Aza sleep in.”
“Oh, I was…” Bluebird paused, hesitant to tell Saya about Aza self-harming. Telling Daddy in private was one thing, but blurting it out to Auntie Saya while Aza was there felt… weird, in a bad way. She didn’t even know if Aza remembered it.
“I was just fixing up his hands,” she lied stiltedly, hoping Auntie Saya’s grogginess would let it pass, “Um, where’s Daddy? Making breakfast?”
“He’s not here,” Saya said, rubbing a hand through her hair, “Probably gone to the market for food. Anyways, morning, Aza. You feeling better?”
Aza was very still, but he didn’t look as scared or timid like he did with Daddy. He blinked up at Saya warily, like he was watching for any sudden, violent movements, “Oh, um, yeah. I’m okay.”
“Hmm…” Saya looked doubtful, but didn’t call him on it, “Well, I’ll make us some tea while we wait for Aruci. If you feel up to it, join us, Aza.”
With that, Saya let the curtain drop, and Bluebird heard her shuffle to the stone stove, bustling about.
“I think some tea would be good,” Bluebird said. Aza hadn’t eaten a lot yesterday, or drank a lot, either. He must be starving and dehydrated, “It sounds good, right?”
“Mm…” Aza didn’t seem enthused, “I don’t feel that hungry or thirsty…”
“C’mon, you should get some fluids in you,” Bluebird chided, “You look half-dead already!”
Aza, briefly, looked sulky. It was the most normal reaction he had to something yet.
“C’moooon~” she said, very gently poking Aza’s ear and watching it flick away from her, “Just a little cup of hot tea~ we even have sugar to sweeten it up if you want to… even if that’s kinda gross.”
Aza sighed, “Okay.”
Bluebird grinned, “Great! Okay, lemme help you up…”
Small victories, she thought, as she helped a clumsy, stiff Aza up and into his clothes. Such small, simple things, that made her feel upset at how proud they made her feel on his behalf. This should be normal stuff for little catboys, but for Aza, it wasn’t. It felt wrong, in a visceral kind of way she couldn’t explain.
But she swallowed it down, for later, to be brooded over along with the whole incident at the beach she wasn’t Thinking About Right Now. It had its place, and its place wasn’t now. Now was getting Aza dressed and having tea with Auntie Saya.
Then after that… helping him survive the journey home.
Bluebird's idea of tea was very different to Aza's.
He eyed the stone wrought cup with some measure of uncertainty, exhausted to his bones from the short trek across the room. Bluebird was chattering away next to him, pointing at the cup and speaking, but he struggled to process what she was saying. Bluebird didn't seem to want any input, anyways.
Then Saya placed a bowl in front of him, filled with a white broth, a subtle smell like meat wafting from it.
Aza felt his stomach curdle almost instantly, and he swallowed thickly.
"When you make that?" Bluebird asked, leaning over. She wasn't given a bowl, but she didn't seem bothered by this, "Oh, s'this sheep-bone broth?"
"I had some leftovers I was saving for later," Saya half-yawned, practically slumping into a sitting position opposite them at the table, "But Aza looks like he needs it on top of what breakfast your father rustles up."
"Um," Aza began, his uncertainty turning into a nauseous kind of guilt. He had no appetite whatsoever, and the thought of trying to eat that made his stomach cramp. He barely tolerated the idea of tea - or what passes for tea here anyways - and... but, that was so ungrateful, wasn't it? They didn't have to feed him so much, and for free too. To reject this after it was made for him was... kinda bad, wasn't it?
"You need to eat," Saya said firmly, giving him a very intense look that made him duck his head, "You're practically skin and bones."
Master liked his kids to have a delicate beauty, Aza did not say, his gaze drifting down to his wrist. It was thin and bony, and he could wrap his little finger and thumb around it if he tried. You could see the light definition of his ribs. You could see the jutting of his pelvic bones. Sharp lines of his collarbone. Jutting shoulder blades. Under his clothes. He was practically skin and bones.
The thought didn't lessen the queasy feeling or make him hungrier. It just made him feel worse.
As if sensing his mood's downturn, Bluebird immediately came to his defence, "He's just, um, growing into his body, s'all. You know, like a colt. They all look skinny and stuff, but it's normal."
It wasn't normal for him, and Saya knew it too, but she just made an indulgent 'hmm' noise at Bluebird.
"It's fine," Aza mumbled, "I'll eat a little."
And he did, though it was... weirdly trying. Like with the fish soup yesterday, where his throat tried closing up after a few bites, feeling it like a physical, discomforting lump scraping his insides on the way down. It was just, he could taste too much salt, thick salt, feel the meat and popotos, sitting in his stomach after swallowing, like a rock, no, a pile of rocks, all pilling up and sitting there and feeling heavy, and the broth felt sloshy too, like waves crashing over one of Kugane's piers. The thought of that - Kugane's piers, hard hands on his biceps, bruising, Loetrlona's sneer and the guards' indifferent coolness - made his stomach spasm. The next mouthful of broth barely went down.
But the bowl was still half-full. He set the spoon down and breathed through the too-full-sloshing-sick feeling cramping through his belly, feeling frustrated with himself. It was just broth.
"Um, Catboy?" Bluebird sounded wary and was pointedly leaning her whole body away from him, "You okay? You're really pale."
"Fine," he forced out angrily. The salty taste was almost making him gag. He curled his hands into fists and dug the knuckles into his thighs.
Saya was still staring at him, her eyes narrowed, "...have some tea," she said, an unidentifiable tone edging her words, "It might settle it better."
Adding more liquid to the mix sounded terrible, but Aza obeyed without thinking. The milky looking tea sloshed in the cup when he picked it up, and Bluebird was eyeing his hand like she was thinking of snatching it out of his hand. She didn't, though, and Aza, with some hesitation, sipped it. It was creamy and salty, with a thick texture as he swallowed, that reminded him of-
It immediately tried to come back up.
He was gonna throw up.
Don't, he thought desperately, setting the cup down hard that some of the tea spilled over the edge, over his fingers, a tight, fluttering panicky feeling clenching rhythmically around his ribs. Throwing up never ended well - Bluebird and Saya would get mad, probably - likely - and, Aza recalled, with abrupt, vivid clarity, when he almost vomited on Master before, because- he hadn't been able to- that, the first time of that and he had vomited, and Master had been furious, furious-
(on hands and knees, coughing and panting through the burn and taste of bile on the back of his tongue, Master pushing his head down at the mess, hissing 'clean that up')
"You don't look fine," Bluebird's voice filtered through the ice-cold fog that swept over him, paralysing him, "Catboy? Aza?"
The salt reminded him of- Aza bit the inside of his cheek, hard, until a metallic tang filled his mouth, less- less that - the pain, wrenching him back into now. He stared into the middle distance, inside of his cheek throbbing, blood heavy on his tongue, and realised he really was crazy.
It was a weird sort of thought - detached and cold. He also just hurt himself, after Bluebird told him that was a bad thing to do. His mind kept twitching back to Master, though, all the thorny emotions tangled up in those memories rushing fast on their heels and pain blotted them out, but... why. why. why. why.
"I'm okay," he heard himself say, voice thin and reedy, the taste of blood almost as nauseating as the salt, but in a different way, "I need to rip up some grass."
There was a pause. One heartbeat, two, three, then Bluebird said, "Oh. Oh. Um, yeah! Okay!"
"Grass?" Saya muttered.
"It's a Catboy thing," Bluebird said, and Aza almost jumped when he felt her small yet strong hands grip his bicep, urging him onto his feet, "You know, uh, like, just a Catboy thing!"
If Saya replied to that, Aza didn't hear it. He still felt coldly detached as Bluebird practically dragged him from the table and out of the yurt. The glare of the early morning sun made him squint, and he jolted back into full awareness when he felt chilly, dewy grass beneath his bare feet.
"Let's sit here," Bluebird said, sounding a little tense. They sat on the yurt's bottom step, Aza's feet still pressed into the grass, and she didn't let go of his arm, "You might step on horse poo if you walk around with no shoes."
That was fine. Aza felt better just sitting here. The air still carried a chill from the evening, but the sun was warm and bright, no clouds in the sky above. The ponies were still nosing around the grass in front of the yurt, and he couldn't see anyone else.
Distantly could hear them... the 'village' was waking up, still.
"You hurt yourself again," Bluebird said after a moment of quiet, "There's blood on your lip."
Aza licked it unthinkingly, tasting dull copper, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. A streak of red stained the back of the bandages, "Oh."
"C'mon," Bluebird let go of his arm, gently nudging him, "Pull up grass. Try it."
He tried. It was wet and weirdly sharp-edged. He tugged up clumps of it, leaning over slightly to reach, pulling and ripping and tugging, and there was something cathartic about it. Something... that settled him a little. Just a little.
"So, um," Bluebird seemed to think on her words, "What... caused that?"
"It..." Aza paused, realising saying 'it was too salty' sounded crazy, and that he might have to explain... his insides quivered at the thought, and he let out a rough noise, clenching his fingers around a fistful of grass, "I remembered... stuff."
Bluebird waited, but upon realising nothing else was forthcoming, said, "Bad stuff?"
"Was it the... broth?" Bluebird sounded kinda dubious, but she lacked judgement - or hid it very well. Aza wasn't looking at her anyway. He knew she'd be looking at him like he was nuts. He certainly would in her shoes.
"No. Yeah. Um," Aza blew out a noisy exhale, brushing his hands clean of grass, "I-It's... I'm sorry. She made that for me too, and- I wasted that. Over something stupid. I'm sorry."
"It's fine," Bluebird said, sounding startled, "It was leftovers and-"
"I don't know why it happened. It just came outta nowhere, and it was just- just broth, but, I just kept..." he continued unevenly, his frustration just pouring out of him. His eyes stung, embarrassingly, and he roughly rubbed at them, fighting the urge to sink his fingernails into his cheeks just because - why? He didn't even know. He just wanted to claw out this stupid- stupid stupid - craziness out of his skull, maybe rake out all the memories of Master, so he could be normal. But, what was that even? He didn't know.
He was free, but he didn't feel like it. He felt cornered, trapped, suffocating under the weight of Master when he wasn't even here.
"Hey, hey..." Bluebird's voice filtered through, and Aza realised he was crying into his hands, and he hated himself a little bit more, "It's- um, I dunno why it happened either. But, it's okay. We'll figure it out, yeah?"
"It's not," Aza snapped, dropping his hands and digging his knuckles into his thighs, "It's not okay. I'm not okay."
"Well, uh, yeah, 'course you're not," Bluebird said in a tone that clearly said 'duh', "But you're not gonna stay like that, are you?"
Aza looked at her miserably.
"Are you?" Bluebird pressed.
"You'll get better," Bluebird said, nodding, "I told you last night, remember? About Rock. It'll just take a while, and lots of, uh, treats- well, I mean, not dog treats for you, but, like, um, you know, cakes and stuff."
Aza stared at her.
"Cakes and stuff," he repeated blankly.
Bluebird's pale cheeks were turning pink, "You know what I mean! Mommy and Daddy will spoil ya, spoil ya so much you'll forget all about the whole, stuff with that creepy old man. You'll make new happy memories, and your brain can only have so many memories! So, you know, we make lots of new ones to push out the old, nasty ones. Yeah?"
"I don't think it works like that."
"And I say it does," Bluebird said stubbornly, "Look, all I'm saying is, right now, stuff like that's gonna happen and we don't know why 'cuz you're crazy."
"Thanks," Aza said dully.
"But that's fine," Bluebird gave him a bit of a glare, "Crazy's fine. It doesn't mean you can't, uh, get better. Or, cope or whatever. It's just a bit of extra work. Do you feel better now?"
A bit thrown by the topic change, he thought about it. He didn't feel sick anymore, even if his nose felt a bit stuffy from his earlier snivelling. He was so sick of crying. It made his head hurt.
"A little," he admitted quietly.
"Good," Bluebird nodded, "Anytime you feel like that, um, just say what you did before. That you wanna rip up grass. And I'll sit and talk to you, or like, break you outta awkward situations. Easy."
Aza felt something then. He couldn't quite identify it, but it made his chest warm and his heart hurt. Maybe it was indigestion.
"So, think you can finish that broth or nah?" Bluebird asked, breaking him out of his thoughts, "'Cuz, Auntie Saya's right. You do need to eat more. I think I could break your arm like a twig as you are."
Aza looked at his arm, skinny looking even in the baggy sleeve of his borrowed tunic, and frowned, "I dunno..."
"Try?" Bluebird wheedled, "One more bite? If you can't manage it, then we'll wait for Daddy to come back and tell him to get us cakes."
Aza looked at her in disbelief.
"We can convince him," Bluebird said almost mischievously, her eyes crinkling a little from her grin, "I think you deserve cake, anyways."
Aza couldn't recall the last time he had cake, "If it's okay..."
"More than okay!" Bluebird said cheerfully, "Okay, c'mon, back inside! We'll try and finish your tea too-"
"With sugar," Aza said instantly, "It, um, was, too salty for me."
Thankfully, Bluebird didn't question that, though she did give him a bit of a weird look, "Too salty? Uh, sure. Okay, I think Auntie Saya has some sugar, maybe."
Bluebird helped him up at that, and honestly, Aza felt better despite his earlier nausea and panic. Maybe it was the fresh air, or just Bluebird's frank company. He liked how... she was so blunt and forward, about everything. He was so, so, so grateful towards her, but at the same time, he wondered when she was going to get bored or annoyed with him. He must be such hard work for her, right?
Guilt chewed at him, but he tried to push it down. Well, until she got bored, he'll bask in what he could, selfishly. It made him feel dirty but... he really needed this. This kind hand, even if it came in the form of a brash, tactless girl.
"Remember," Bluebird said as they went back inside, "One bite. Then you can have cake."
Even if she thought Aza's problems could be solved with treats. If only.
so RL has been hitting me hard recently, hence the slow updates. Turns out I might've fractured my pelvis bc my bones are thinning and whatnot, so I'm bouncing between doctors and all that stuff as well as juggling work so i'm finding my energy for writing chugging on fumes. tbh this chapter is only half of what i intended, but there was such a wait for it already that i decided to post this and do the rest later haaaa
but don't worry! they'll be seeing Atani soon!
Also, LOTUSBLIGHT on twitter very kindly drew Aza and Bluebird together. It's amazing and I love it: https://twitter.com/LOTUSBLIGHT/status/1116149932568776705
I hope you enjoyed this chapter, as short as it is!
Aruci bowed his head in thanks as Mide wrapped up his purchases.
“Thank you, Mide,” he said, “I greatly appreciate you accepting my haggling this early in the morning.”
Mide, a middle-aged Qestiri woman who was well known for manning a reliable carvery stall in Reunion’s markets, simply waved him off. She tied off the twine keeping the thick leaves wrapped around the dzo chunks, a small knife flicking out of her sleeve and cutting the twine faster than Aruci could blink.
“What do you think?” Aruci continued, accepting the wrapped meat, “Stew or soup for an ill child?”
Mide tilted her head thoughtfully, then gestured to her throat then her belly.
“Hm, he didn’t seem nauseous last night,” Aruci said, “Mostly fatigued and sore. He, ah, had a close brush with drowning yesterday, you see, so he’s a little feverish from that.”
Mide frowned, then signed ‘he?’
Ah, right, Mide probably thought he’d been talking about Bluebird; “I found a töörsön yesterday,” he said, using the word for an abandoned child, “He’s a bit too skinny for my tastes, and barely ate yesterday, so…”
Mide shook her head, then nodded, then signed, ‘Soup, then.’
‘Yes, soup,’ Mide rolled her eyes, then fluttered her fingers in a Qestiri gesture that Aruci wasn’t familiar with, but knew it was a playful insult of some sort, ‘Stew will be too heavy on stomach. Will make him puke.’
Right. Stew would probably be a bit too stodgy for Aza to digest, especially since he had a long ride ahead of him. He held back a grimace at imaging how miserable the poor boy would be if he heaved everything back up within the first hour.
“Maybe a very thin broth…” he muttered half to himself, “Is Taghai still running his bakery?”
Mide wobbled her hand side to side, ‘ every other day.’
Aruci made a note to stop by Taghai’s stall just in case. The man was the only ‘baker’ in Reunion, as he managed to get his claws on a fourth-hand stone oven from over the Yanxian border. Flour and yeast was difficult to obtain out here in the Steppes, though, so his inventory tended to restock on its own random schedule.
“Thank you, Mide,” Aruci held up his free hand in a mock-salute, continuing on his shopping, “Have a good day!”
Mide waved him goodbye, and Aruci tucked his wrapped dzo chunks under his arm, running a mental inventory on what supplies he had and needed. He had already restock their food for the road - it was a long journey, but if the weather continued to be pleasant, he knew the right spots to stop at for a proper rest and meal. The pace would be slower too, to account for Aza, but he estimated they would be back sometime after midnight, if they left by mid-morning…
Plenty of time to cook up a quick, invigorating warm meal for the kids, he decided. If Taghai was selling some bread too, that was easy carbs for Aza too. Perhaps he should stop by the Qestir healer to grab some medicine? He didn’t want to make Aza too drowsy, though. He might doze off and tumble off his mount…
His feet navigated him through the waking Reunion markets as he thought. This early in the morning, most traders were setting up, but there were some like Aruci - those planning long jaunts across the Steppe - that were already trying to nab early supplies. It was a crowd of impatient, tired Xaela barely kept civil under the watchful eyes of the Qestiri guards, rammed into the cramped, narrow ‘corridors’ of the market made by the collapsable wooden stalls.
Compared to Onokoro’s markets, Reunion’s was a riot of colours, tribal markings vibrant and clashing with the Qestir’s only just dominating. The air was filled with a mix of different Xaela dialects, a blurring into an incoherent buzz that felt familiar in a way only home could. The Iriq tribe was Aruci’s place in the world, true, but there was nothing like the centre of the Steppe, where all the tribes mingled freely without (fatal) bloodshed. So many thought them savage brutes, mindlessly mauling each other if caught within ten fulms of each other, but they had a culture, and Reunion was the perfect representation of it.
Eventually, Aruci managed to shoulder his way through the thickening morning crowd to Taghai’s stall. He was set up close to the Qestiri khan’s yurt, and the aroma of freshly baked bread settled like the most pleasant perfume. Aruci already saw a hungry group of Oronir hunters circling like sharks, eagerly awaiting for Taghai to officially open up.
Thankfully, Aruci wasn’t beholden to things like ‘opening times’, being old friends and all.
For he and Teghai went back well into their younger years, when Aruci was a lovestruck fool scrambling after Atani, singing her love ballads and somehow not getting punched for it. He was older than him by a good decade, though it didn’t show. His skin was unblemished and smooth beneath his mottled black and white scales - or what signs of age existed were expertly covered up by the vividly red tiger stripes he painted over his face.
Teghai had shown Aruci the ropes on his integration with the Iriq, after he had left the Qalli - then Teghai had departed for greener pastures with the Qestir. Honestly, Aruci was amazed he was still in Reunion. Teghai was a roamer, always loathed to sit down in one spot, with one tribe, for too long.
“Haven’t left for the Oronir yet?” Aruci asked as he approached the stall, where Teghai was neatly laying out his bread.
“They’re going through a leadership dispute at the moment,” Teghai replied, looking up from his work with a grin. His face always made his smile look sly, like he was constantly up to no good, “I don’t want to be involved in that mess right now. How’s it going, Aruci? Think I missed you passing through a few days ago.”
“You did,” Aruci cast an eye over what Teghai had laid out, “Just got back from Onokoro last night.”
“Oh? Trade still good with those crabs?”
Aruci rolled his eyes at Teghai’s disdainful nickname. He didn’t know what his dispute was with the Confederates, but there was no love lost between them and Teghai, “Yes, it’s still good. In fact…”
He paused, considering his words, “I picked up a töörsön yesterday, near their outpost. He’s an underfed young thing, so I was wondering…”
Teghai sighed, “You want first dibs on the best bread?”
Aruci gave him his most charming smile, “It’s for a starving orphan.”
“Does this orphan actually exist?” Teghai asked dubiously, but he was already moving to wrap up the fattest, softest loaf out on display, “What’re you doing, picking up strays anyway?”
Aruci felt some of his humour fade at that, his worries about Aza crowding back to the forefront of his mind. Picking up strays… that was what he’d done, wasn’t it? After handing him over to Chagur, Aruci will have a responsibility towards him, one he planned on meeting wholeheartedly - if Aza would accept him.
“I couldn’t leave him out there,” Aruci said after a weighted pause, “He’s… very ill.”
“The crabs have healers, don’t they?” Teghai sighed, but his yellow eyes were shrewd as he glanced up at him. He always saw through Aruci, “And he’s not one of theirs?”
“No. He’s a… shipwreck victim, from Kugane,” Aruci said, “A Miqo’te boy.”
“A Miqo’te ,” Teghai paused wrapping up the bread, his eyebrows rising in interest, “Not many of them in the Ruby Sea.”
“Mm,” Aruci scratched at his jaw scales, “You’re right, the Confederates would’ve looked after him, but… well, Bluebird got attached and…”
“Ah. Say no more,” Teghai chuckled, “Too much like her mother, that one. Adopts anything helpless enough.”
Aruci grimaced. He had no idea.
“Well, since he’s had such a rough start, you can have this for free,” Teghai said, handing the wrapped bread over, “Though, send word ahead next time you swing by. It’s been too long since we sat down and had a good chat.”
“It has,” Aruci accepted the bread with a nod of thanks, “I’ll be swinging by before the rains come in. Will you…?”
“Oh, I’ll still be here. Not planning on moving to the Oronir until winter. So long as it’s not zud again, of course.”
“Of course,” Aruci echoed, reminded of that distant worry. The winters had been getting more severe in recent years, and people were wary of the khavsarsan zud occurring again. Over a million heads of livestock died, and some tribes went extinct - still within recent memory of only thirteen winters. It was a fear that snapped and gnawed at every Xaela here as the previous winter had been as cold and harsh as iron, freezing the ground so solid the livestock could barely get to the grazing beneath. Tumer zud , they called that one.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine, though,” Teghai said hurriedly, sensing the dip in mood, “Well, don’t let me keep you. And remember, we’ll have drinks next time you’re here.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Aruci banished his worries, offering a bright smile for his friend before moving off, “Enjoy your day.”
“You too, old friend!”
Aruci trudged his careful way through the markets, weaving through the morning crowd to the outskirts. He forced himself to think on what to make for breakfast - a thin broth, bolstered with bread, and ensure Aza drank at least a litre of water, or half a litre of milk, for the journey ahead. Check he felt well enough and rested enough, and…
And by tonight, they’ll be home, and Aza will be in safe hands.
short chapter this time, just so you know what Aruci was up to while aza and bluebird were in the yurt.
For those curious, a zud (or dzud) is a natural disaster unique only to Mongolia, and it's something i think would occur on the Azim Steppes as well. This national geographic article explains it well: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/proof/2018/04/extreme-winter-mongolia-dzud-environment-science/