The day Reth gave Taam-kas the wyvern tooth, everything seemed right. Because he had someone who cared for him enough to give him this. Not quite a high dragon’s tooth, but the closest it could get. For you, Reth had said, because you’re important to me and I want you to know. And he was important, wasn’t he? Taam-kas was a solid, reliable Qunari, followed orders, didn’t argue, tried to do right by the troops under him and the authority above him and the Qun.
Maybe that was his downfall, that order of priorities.
When a saarebas leaves the karataam, they risk corruption. Corruption leads to abominations, death, death of innocents and destruction. So it’s better to kill the saarebas, in case it is already corrupted, and those who came in contact with it too, because they can be affected. That is what the superiors say, and so it must be. Taam-kas gives the order and watches them die, the saarebas first, that muzzled, hornless, dangerous thing that poses such a danger to his men and everyone else. It hurts, as it does every time. And he doesn’t know if it’s supposed to hurt. But it is also relief, because the saarebas stir a fear in his gut, a visceral fright that he doesn’t want to feel. Taam-kas is not meant to be afraid. He is meant to be faithful and loyal and strong, not afraid. Not hurt.
He cleans his axe in the evening, hopes that it will clean his soul alongside, and thinks that it is their blood on his axe regardless of whether he swung it. But he was doing what was best for his troops, for the city they’re in. For everyone. Even the best for the saarebas, in their suffering. Can death be worse than what they live with, every day? Their mouths shut, their faces hidden, their horns docked to show how dangerous they are...
If Taam-kas was corrupted, he would want to be killed as swift as possible. And so it must be for them as well.
Memories can be hard to hold on to if you’ve been to the re-educators. But Taam-kas has his. He doesn’t know if it’s a good thing. Is it good to remember how he empathised with the saarebas? Surely it’s bad that he recalls with such clarity his friend, destined for priesthood, a bright and kind thing, little Eva being taken away by Tama and the arvaraad because she made pretty sparks. Is it bad that he recalls how his heart bled for her, when he knew they were going to silence her voice and bind her? How he sighed and frowned when he saw saarebas pass. And Tama had seen, and asked, imekari, why do you frown?
Because the saarebas look sad. They look hurt. We take away their horns and their faces.
Yes, she had said, we do these things because they are dangerous to us and to others, and to themselves. They are pitiful creatures, imekari, but the most honourable, because they struggle not against what’s outside but against what’s inside them. And such selflessness is the highest virtue of the Qun. That’s what Tama said, and the little boy thought on it a lot. And the thought festered, and when he expressed wishes to speak with them, to help, asked if they could be free…
Recalling the re-educators is blurry, hard to dwell on. But he had left knowing that they were too dangerous to be free, that their freedom would be devastation, not least to the dangerous things themselves. This is best for them, they tell him. This is best for them, he tells himself. Just as everything around us is best for us. A place for everyone under the Qun. This is best for everyone.
Is it? Is it really?
That’s the thought he’s supposed to answer with yes, immediately. That’s the thought he shouldn’t even be asking in the first place. And it’s a thought that should get him sent to the re-education, but the boy who is now Taam-kas knows deep down that he won’t. Not when last time they took his soft and gentle heart and turned it inside out, when he walks around with a coil of fear in his gut whenever he spots a karataam. The word demon makes ice run down his spine. The tingle of magic in the air has him wanting to run and hide because it’s dangerous. Because magic can do nothing but destroy, takes everything, takes even the lives of the saarebas, takes their minds. Magic is never good. Not even Eva’s little sparks.
He wakes at night bathed in sweat, has to make sure he’s himself, because in his dreams he’s puppeted by demons of rage and pride and despair, screaming with nowhere to go as his comrades fall around him. One time, he sits in his cot and thinks that maybe the re-educators have failed him. Or is he failing them? He must be, because he holds on to the feelings and the memories instead of allowing them another crack at his mind. Yes, it must be his fault.
Is it fair that you can forfeit your honour by losing your sword? To be executed on sight. Isn’t that sentence too much? Even if the sword is the worth of your soul in the Qun?
Is that all he’s worth to the Qun? An axe? The worth of his life, as easily thrown away as an axe is.
He goes to Reth, eventually. Because Reth’s face is gentle and his hands are strong. Because he is good with a sword and good with a word. Because Reth gave him half a wyvern’s fang and told him he was important. Because Reth means protect, and Taam-kas has to protect everyone under his command (and the Qun); who better to speak to? And the stick isn’t helping, hasn’t helped for months, so Taam-kas speaks to Reth.
Reth is always glad to see him. They sit together and laugh, they sit together and drink, they sit together and talk. They spar, sometimes, and Reth tells him he can’t take so many hits, and Taam-kas tells Reth he has to hit harder. And even though Taam-kas is bigger, Reth wins often, lets the axe batter his shield and hits back with his slightly-too-weak sword arm. The word comes easy to Taam-kas, but it’s hard to say, it hummed in his mind ages before he could bring himself to form the sound. Kadan. Because Reth is good and devoted and protects, and they care for each other. Reth is sparing with it in turn, because Reth is always disciplined. He does carry the little dragon’s head of metal that Taam-kas brought him, and it means the same as saying it.
Taam-kas rambles in arching words and painful circles and Reth listens. His pale eyes wait, patient and steady and calm. Here to help. Here to protect. Protect you, or the Qun? When did those become different things?
You shouldn’t feel so conflicted, Reth tells him. There’s wrong in your mind. All those snarled thoughts are wool over your eyes. It’s no good like this. Can you serve the Qun to the best of your ability with all this on your mind? No, kadan, you can’t. You hold too much in yourself. The greatest virtue is selflessness, so you must let go. You care about all these little things, like they’re bigger than our way of life.
He takes Taam-kas so gently by the hand, smiles up at him all serene. I know now the re-educators have scared you before, he says. But it was for your own good. It worked. Go again. They will fix you, and you can be good for everyone and yourself. There is nothing to struggle against. Victory is in the Qun.
Then why does he struggle so?
When the shortsword digs into his horn, he wishes he’d taken his axe. But he’s not bringing the weapon with the blood of saarebas on it. It’s his soul, Taam-kas, and he’s letting it go. He runs and hides, and then he walks until his feet hurt, and walks on. West. Away.
The wyvern’s tooth feels heavier than it should. But he’s forfeited enough already. Will give more still. Lose more. He is not giving up his memories. He’s going to carry the reminder of what brought him this far.
The human looks up at him, indifferent to anything but his ability to handle a weapon and follow orders. Here goes the last scrap of his honour.
“Sure, we can use extra muscle on this one. We’ll take you on. What are you called?”
The tide rises, the tide falls. The sea remains unchanged. Prayers for the dead, because his life is forfeit, he left his axe. He left Taam-kas. He rose, and teetered on the edge, and he is falling now, crashing down like a wave.
“Meraad,” he says. “My name is Meraad.”