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Aloy reached inside her pouch for her last few shards of bluegleam. “And what do you think you can do with this?” she asked Arin.

The Banuk craftsman sucked his teeth. “Not much.” He looked her up and down appraisingly. “You’ve already managed to find more than most of our hunters find in years. Why not wait a little longer, until you collect enough that I can make something more substantive?”

Honestly, the answer was that she wasn’t sure when she’d be back to the Cut, or how long she would stay when she did, and she wasn’t sentimental enough to haul things she didn’t need over the long distances ahead. But she had sense enough not to be quite that blunt to a people who didn’t often open their home to outsiders. So she tried to think what use she might put it to instead.

Talanah popped into mind, as she was wont to do on odd occasions. Often when Aloy was creeping up on some mechanical creature, so maybe not that odd after all. But she didn’t think that was the reason now, and, oh, inspiration struck. “Do you think there’s enough to inlay a knife?”

Arin squinted, taking the shards to weigh in one hand while measuring distances with the other. “Assuming you don’t want too heavy a pattern on the blade, and use the rest of the bluegleam for the pommel, sure.” He nodded approvingly. “I wouldn’t think many people born outside the Cut would think to make a knife made especially for honouring the machine spirits.”

Aloy offered him a quick smile. “Thanks,” she says, not bothering to correct his misapprehension, before starting to dicker about how many shards she needed to pay him for the work.

It was weeks later when she was finally walking among Meridian’s buildings, the clean sharp air of the Cut seeming like a distant dream while breathing the dust in the air kicked up by the teeming inhabitants of the city. She ended up in front of the Hunter Lodge without really thinking about it and decided to pop her head in, see if anything had changed since her last visit.

“I don’t care if he’s your cousin’s nephew,” an irritated looking Talanah snapped at a recalcitrant looking Sirion, a thickset Hawk who towered at least a head over her. “You know the new rules. Anyone is allowed to take part in the challenge to become a new Thrush, and there is no favouritism to be shown.”

“I think I know how to tell which candidates have the most potential, Sunhawk,” Sirion said, the honorific sounding more like a curse. “And just because someone has a run of luck during a test, it doesn’t mean that they will thrive under me, or in the Lodge for that matter. Sometimes the old ways are best.”

“And sometimes the old ways are just that, old.” Talanah sighed. “Will you at least give Liga a chance? Take her under your wing for two moons, then we’ll revisit this.”

Sirion ground his teeth, but gave her a short nod. “As you wish,” he said, then turned and stalked past Aloy out of the Lodge.

“So, things are going well I see,” Aloy said lightly.

Talanah huffed a laugh. “Believe it or not, Sirion is one of the more reasonable Hawks in the Lodge. The only other Hawk who was looking for a Thrush since I took over just arranged things so that only his favoured candidate found out where one of his challenges was in time, and when I challenged him, said that finding it was part of the test.” She gave Aloy a wry look. “I can’t prove that he told his new Thrush where to go, but…”

“I’m sure if anyone can pound sense into their skulls, it’ll be you.”

“You have more faith in me than I do, sometimes.” Talanah clapped Aloy on the shoulder and it was still strange, having someone who wasn’t Rost touch her that easily, but it wasn’t a bad thing. Not when it was Talanah, at least. “Come on, I’ll take you up to my office and you can tell me over drinks what you’ve been doing since I saw you last.”

“And you can tell me about how things are going here?”

Talanah groaned, then laughed again as she led Aloy up the stairs. “You’ll have to get more than one drink in me for that.” She shook her head. “So many protests and petitions. I think the other Hawks and their supporters think that even if they can’t dispute my accession, then they might be able to get a new Sunhawk if they just drown me in paper.” Having reached her office, she gestured Aloy towards one of the chairs then retrieved a bottle and two glasses from a cabinet.

“It’s a hard life being in charge,” Aloy said unsympathetically as she accepted a glass from Talanah. “That’s why I try to never stay in the same place long enough for anyone to put me there.”

Talanah clinked her glass against Aloy’s before taking a hefty slug. “And we’re all grateful for what you’ve managed to do, but for me… I want to try and leave the Lodge better than it was when I joined it. Even if that means dealing with” —she sighed dramatically— “paperwork.”

“To paperwork,” Aloy agreed and took a sip of her own, letting the harsh burn trickle down her throat.

It was another few glasses in and Aloy was starting to feel sloppy and relaxed in her chair when her eyes glanced off the empty sheath always half hidden at Talanah’s side and, oh. That was why she’d thought of Talanah and knives all those weeks ago. Rooting around in her backpack she retrieved the carefully wrapped package with a cry of success and handed it to Talanah.

“I had it made when I was in the Banuk lands,” she explained when Talanah had unwrapped it. “I thought you could fill that,” she added with a slight twist of her lips, pointing to Talanah’s side. She wasn’t completely serious — there was undoubtedly a good reason why it was left empty — but she wasn’t entirely not serious either. The almost glowing blue highlights worked into the blade and pommel would work well with Talanah’s whole… thing and, well. It wouldn’t be so bad if Talanah carried something of Aloy’s with her.

Talanah just stared at her unblinkingly after she said that, not laughing in the slightest and, oops. This was a little awkward.

“Ah, sorry,” Aloy said, trying to laugh it off. “I really didn’t mean anything by that. I just thought you might appreciate the gift.”

Talanah shook her head, smiling slightly. “Of course you didn’t.” She might have been flushing slightly, or it might have been the drink. “And it’s a nice knife. I’ll definitely put it to good use. I’m sorry I haven’t got anything for you.”

“You’ve been busy enough here, it seems. So, weird cultural thing?”

“Weird cultural thing,” Talanah confirmed. “I wouldn’t suggest handing out knives to random Carja women with that line. So,” she said in an obvious change of subject, “Given you’ll seen how much trouble I’m having with the Hawks around here, what are the chances that I can get you to take on a Thrush sometime soon? I can guarantee the competition for that position would be epic.”

Aloy groaned. “Do I really have to? I’m not sure I’m ready for that much responsibility.”

“As Sunhawk, I think you have to agree that I’m obligated to try and persuade the most open minded Hawks to help in continuing to improve the Lodge.” Talanah told her mock solemnly. “And, well, I’ve only got seven Hawks in total.”

Aloy groaned again, louder this time. “I’ll think about it, no more. But I tell you, if I end with a Thrush, they better get used to being independent. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m not really the hand holding type.”

“I’m make sure that any candidates understand,” Talanah said, her eyes dancing with a suspicious amount of mirth.

Aloy narrowed her eyes. “After shamelessly bullying me like that, the least thing that you could do is refill my glass.”

“At last, something we can agree on.” Talanah said, refilling Aloy’s glass before topping off her own.

“I cannot believe you have me doing this,” Aloy said before grunting slightly as she leapt for the next handhold. When she didn’t get a response, she looked back to see Talanah a little way behind her, sweat clumping strands of her hair together and glistening on her skin. She couldn’t help a wicked grin. “Having trouble down there? Maybe regretting all those hours you now have to spend in the Lodge?”

If looks could kill, Aloy would be a very ex-Hawk of the Hunter’s Lodge. 

“That’s it,” Talanah panted when she finally managed to join Aloy at the top of the mesa. “I don’t care how many complaints I get, I am spending more time out in the field from this point forward.”

“Probably a good idea if you want to stay Sunhawk,” Aloy agreed. “But forgive me if I’m a little less than sympathetic, because, as I repeat, I cannot believe you have me doing this.”

Talanah looked down at the plain below them. “Well, you were the one who wanted to get this trial over and done with as quickly as possible,” she noted blandly.

Aloy grunted. “I guess.” Her eyes picked out the ten hunters who were vying for the honour of becoming her Thrush. Mostly men, mostly Carja, but apparently word had spread enough that some who were not one of  either of those had also turned up. She strung a modified fire arrow into her bow and released it, but didn’t bother watching the bright arc it described across the sky, instead focussing on her would-be students as they leapt into action.

Talanah sat down next to her, letting her legs hand down over the edge. “Quite the turnout, isn’t it?”

“Apparently.” So much desperation from some of the applicants, who saw Aloy as their only chance. The drive of one Carja boy who wanted to serve under her for saving his family during the invasion. She was sure that half of them were here just for the prestige of being linked with her name, but…  She could all too easily remember the fear that she wouldn’t make the cut to become a brave, and the odds were a lot worse for anyone down there. “Are you sure that I have to just take one of them?” she asked, a little wistfully.

Talanah gave her a surprised little huff. “I thought you were complaining about taking on one Thrush, now you want more?”

“If I have to sponsor one anyway, how much extra trouble will it be to have a tagalong or two?” Aloy asked philosophically. “Besides, a group might be able to take care of itself better so I don’t have to keep as close an eye on them.”

“Regardless, it’s impossible,” Talanah said regretfully. “I have enough battles on my hands already. I really don’t need to pick another.”

“That’s because you’re fighting the wrong kinds of…” Aloy’s words trailed off as she spotted a dark smudge entering one corner of the arena. “What is that?”

Talanah swore an oath and jumped to her feet. “I don’t know, but it’s on a path for some of the contestants. Come on!” she snapped, not waiting for Aloy before jumping off the top of the mesa and abseiling down.

As they sprinted closer, the smudge turned into a cloud, and what started as a slight prickle resolved into a bone shaking thrum. Closer still, and it became obvious that it was a cloud of almost fist sized mechanical insects, thousands upon thousands of them, stripping every shred of greenery as it advanced.

Talanah was pale beside her. “Maybe they’re a variation of a grazer?” she asked and drew a fire arrow all the way to her chin before releasing it. It managed to get someway into the cloud before hitting something, immediately exploding in a gout of fire a foot across, causing a few secondary explosions that almost almost doubled that in size. The swarm buzzed angrily towards them and they split. Aloy dove into cover before sneaking towards their pre-agreed meeting point.

Flammable, definitely, but not that flammable. They’d need a much bigger source of flames to even think about making a dent in the swarm, and Aloy doubted that everything she had on her could do much more than start on that.

But for anything this complicated, they had to be talking among themselves somehow. Nothing that she could hear, but maybe the Focus could. Also maybe somewhere they deposited the blaze — it couldn’t be easy flying around an ever expanding load of it, like a blood bloated mosquito. If nothing else maybe attacking it would make the swarm retreat for a while, regroup.

But if there was something like that, it’d almost undoubtedly be within the swarm, if towards the back.

She’d need a distraction.

“Sure,” Talanah said when they met up. “I can handle it.”

Aloy gave her a quick smile. “Give me half a mark,” she said and headed off without a second thought. She was halfway around the swarm when flashes started up behind her, from wider angles than she thought even Talanah could manage easily.

Talanah’d recruited help. Good. The more hands, the better.

Her focus highlighted a shape within the cloud as she approached the back. Like a Focus, it sent out signals. It looked a bit like an upright armoured hemisphere on crab legs, with a pockmarked top. The swarm was much thinner back here, a tribute to the success of Talanah and the others, though there was a continuous haze of the insects around the top.

Well, wasn’t this going to be fun?

The good news was that, shortly after the hive, as she’d decided to call it, had finally exploded in a rather impressive sheet of flame, the swarm did seem to be dispersing in a non-aggressive way. The bad news that was the insects had indeed seemed as happy to harvest human flesh as leaves, and there really hadn’t been a good way to dodge all of them. At least not that she’d found this time.

Well, at least the injuries all seemed to be fairly shallow, even if she was fairly sure that she looked like a horror.

After bandaging almost every inch of exposed skin, she went to work on the mechanical corpse of the hive, disassembling it for what it could scavenge. And, hey, the lens had somehow managed to survive everything completely untouched. That was a nice surprise at least.

“It went well, I see,” Talanah called as Aloy finally approached.

Aloy shrugged. “Well enough. Who do you have here?”

Talanah introduced the people standing with her, three men, two women. Aloy thanked and then dismissed them, telling them that she’d let them know when they had decided who her Thrush would be.

“So,” Aloy said after they headed off. “I take it you haven’t heard of anything like this before.”

Talanah, looking troubled, shook her head. “No. And so close to Meridian…”

And who knew if the swarm had swept over any other settlement on its way here. “You need more hunters in the Lodge. Fifteen might have been enough when it was founded, but it’s not now.” Not with Hephaestus cooking up who knew what new horrors in its Cauldrons.

Talanah sighed but nodded. “The other Hawks are not going to like this, but you’re right.” She gave Aloy a small smile. “And not just because you have a problem choosing between candidates.”

“Hey,” Aloy said with injured dignity. “I think I’ve narrowed the pool down to five at least. And would it help if the order came from Avad? I could ask him if you want.”

“I suspect it would be much of a muchness. I don’t think anyone will be fooled about where it came from if Avad suddenly pokes his nose into our business.” Talanah gave her a quick apologetic look. “There are enough rumours already about how you’ve got him twisted around your little finger.”

And… that was a topic that Aloy was not going to touch. She reached inside her pack and tossed Talanah the hive lens. “Here,” she said by way of changing the subject. “A perfect lens. A souvenir of our day. I thought you might appreciate it.”

Talanah blinked at her, catching the lens seemingly unconsciously with snakelike reflexes, before giving her a slightly crooked smile. “Well, at least you waited until the others had gone before giving me this.”

Aloy groaned. “Another custom I’ve tripped over. Really?”

“Well, not a common one here any more, at least, though I believe the Banuk still observe some variation on it. More… the condition that a lens is in is sometimes seen as an augury for… certain ventures. Kind of old fashioned these days, though.” Her smile turned wicked. “And I’m not sure anyone would take you for that kind of girl.”

There was something about how Talanah looked like this, playful and free, her dark eyes shining in the light, that left Aloy blushing and unable to look at her in any other way apart from in brief spurts. In the end, she gave up and gave her a smile of her own that felt awkward on her face, but not unpleasant. “That’s good to know. I definitely wouldn’t want anyone to think that.”

“Perish the thought. Now let’s get you somewhere we can look at those cuts. It’d be a real shame if any of them got infected.”

Angry voices echoed around the Lodge as Aloy quietly eased herself through the front door.

“Not content with forcing us to take on unworthy new Thrushes, you want us to take on more of them?” She recognised the voice, Therin. And from the murmured sounds of support, he wasn’t alone there either. Great.

Talanah sighed wearily. “It’s quite simple. We can’t protect all the towns and villages we have, not with our current numbers.”

“And how will dragging us away from the hunts to sort through the chaff you seem determined to feed us help? Especially with these ridiculous new regulations about how we have to select them.”

“If you can’t think of a way a new Thrush who passed the tests you set can help, then I’m not responsible for your lack of imagination.”

Probably time for her to step out.

“If you really don’t want to handle a new Thrush, I’m sure I can always take the slot off your hands, Therin. Let you get back to what you do best, sitting behind a team of hunters who do all the hard work.”

Possibly a little less than diplomatic, but it was just so satisfying watching his face flush in an ugly fashion.

“What a surprise,” he sneered. “Talanah’s little Midnight Thrush flying in to defend her.” The men around him snickered at his words, while Talanah looked like she’d bitten into something sour.

Midnight Thrush? Probably a slur of some kind. Not that Aloy really cared one way or another. “Hawk now,” she said mildly. “And the offer goes for the rest of you as well, if you’re so strapped for time. Of course, then I have to ask what you’re doing here, rather than fulfilling contracts.”

“I’m honestly surprised that you’re sticking around in Carja lands for long enough to train anyone, rather than heading off to foreign parts the first chance you get. Fine then, train this extra Thrush that I’m supposed to take. Let us all see what kind of disappointment they turn out to be.”

Aloy shrugged. “Give me a few months, and I’ll pit them against your current Thrush, see who’s better.” She gave him a sharp smile. “Assuming you can back up your claims of good judgement when it comes to recruits for the Lodge with anything more than hot air.”

“Fine! I guess a few months is all you’re willing to spend in Carja lands before you leave again anyway. At least my Thrush has been trained by someone who’s spent his life learning the ways of this land.” He turned back towards Talanah. “Maybe we wouldn’t be having these number problems if you’d managed to choose someone as your Thrush who would actually stay to perform their Lodge duties, rather than, well.” He smiled unpleasantly. “And you wonder why we don’t want any more foreigners in the Lodge.”

Aloy suppressed the wince she felt at his words. She couldn’t actually say he was wrong. She had accepted a responsibility when she’d joined the Lodge, one of a very limited number of places. Not that she wouldn’t argue that she’d done her part, but… 

Talanah stared him down levelly. “She has done more to protect Carja lands and Meridian itself than any other hunter in this Lodge. If we had even another of her, then I wouldn’t be asking for more Thrushes. If we had two, we’d have a Lodge like that of our forefathers, even with all these new machines appearing.”

“Or maybe we’d have that if the King saw sense, and kept the Lodge rules to those of our forefathers, where no woman would have been a member in the first place, let alone the Sunhawk.” He shared a smirk with his compatriots. “And speaking of these new machines, maybe it’s about time to assign an impartial judge to determine how much honour it would be to take them down.” His tone was that of an open threat.

“Just say what you mean, Therin.” Talanah said crisply.

“As you wish, Sunhawk. I and the other Hawks here have made a pact. We’re going to deal with these new threats, as you call them, and we’re going to amass enough honour to depose you as Sunhawk and put things back to the way they should be.”

So here they were. Even if Therin didn’t manage to unseat Talanah this time, it was unlikely to end there. And the last thing that the Lodge needed in these times was to have half their number practically schisming from the rest, more focussed on internal politics than the actual threat.

She cleared her throat. “As I understand it, your problem is that you feel the Lodge is changing too quickly, and you and the other hunters who cleave to the traditions don’t have any control over how this is happening?”

Therin glanced at her, before turning back towards his comrades. “See, even a barbarian can see that much, that we are just to feel this way.”

Aloy ignored his grandstanding to look at the other three Hawks with him. One was nodding at her words, and the other two seemed at the least receptive. “Well,” she said thoughtfully. “Among the nearest equivalent to the Lodge that exists among the Nora, while the leader can propose changes to the rules, any member can call for a vote to block them. Maybe something similar can be done here. Give you more say in the running of the Lodge. Would that work for you?” she asked the Hawks.

“Why should we accept—” Therin began before being interrupted by Talanah. “You want to give away my power?” she asked in a distinctly betrayed voice. Aloy couldn’t help a slightly embarrassed one shoulder shrug in response.

The Hawk who had nodded narrowed his eyes thoughtfully.  “How do you call a vote if you spend most of your time out in the field?”

“Well, Nora lands are smaller, so it’s never been a problem for us. But… I guess, maybe electing a proxy?”

“Or having a meeting once every three moons, vote on any proposed changes,” another Hawk rumbled.

“And what if something has to be decided immediately? You’d really bind the hands of the Sunhawk that way?” Talanah asked in a controlled tone.

“If it really has to be done immediately… it still has to be voted on at the next meeting.”

Therin’s eyes flashed fire at the way his thunder had been stolen out from under his feet. “Fine,” he practically growled. “We can discuss this before a full meeting of the Lodge as quickly as we can arrange it.”

“Fine,” Talanah snapped. “Since you all seem so insistent on this course of action.”

“Before you go,” Aloy interjected. “Is there anyone else who would like me to take on their new Thrush instead?” She shrugged. “I like a few of the crop that applied for my initial place.”

Two of the others nodded their assent and Talanah glowered at them before noting the names down.

When Aloy was sure that everyone else had left the Lodge, she turned back to Talanah. “So, did I manage to perform up to your expectations?”

“I don’t think you should give up being a hunter for a career as an actor,” Talanah said dryly. “But it seemed to work, so I’m not complaining. Here, let me pour you a drink.”

“I’m just glad that none of them knew more about the Nora than you thought,” Aloy said, rolling her eyes as she accepted the glass. “Yes, among the Nora we talk over all our problems.” Her voice was thick with sarcasm.

Talanah cracked a smile. “It is a benefit of arguing only against the most hidebound of Lodge members. They’re very unlikely to call out errors of fact as regards people they consider beneath them.” She raised an eyebrow. “Nicely done acquiring their extra Thrushes, by the way.”

“Well, if they didn’t want them…” She shrugged. “When do you think they’re going to remember that Thrushes are also members of the Lodge?”

“Hopefully not before the first meeting for a vote. And I’m sorry about Therin calling you that. I wasn’t sure how you wanted to handle it.”

“What, Midnight Thrush?” Aloy shrugged. “Even if I knew what it was, I’m sure I’ve been called worse.”

Talanah flushed slightly, eyes flicking away from Aloy. “It’s… uh, well, it’s an insinuation that I made you my Thrush because of how you look rather than your hunting skill. And that, rather than that you agree with me, is why you stand with me on Lodge matters.”

Aloy, somewhat ridiculously, found her own cheeks flaming. Not that she was a complete innocent — well, Rost had explained the basics to her in a rather halting and embarrassed way, and it wasn’t as though she hadn’t been propositioned once or twice — but…

It wasn’t as though she had had any experience with it, either, apart from turning people down.

“I’m fairly sure that if I had come down hard on them for saying that, it would just be taken as more proof. I’m sorry if that wasn’t the right thing to do,” Talanah said in a rush, more discombobulated than Aloy had ever seen her.

It wasn’t as though Aloy would have a better idea how to handle these Carja matters than Talanah, anyway. “It’s not a problem,” she said, forcing what she hoped was a reassuring smile onto her face. She really had no idea why she was feeling so thrown by this. “It’s not like I care what they think anyway, unless it’d cause you any trouble.”

Talanah took a long drink, able to look at Aloy once again after she had, and gave her a small smile. “Being linked with the saviour of Meridian, even by people who have no use for either of us? It’s not a problem at all.”

Aloy carefully picked a leprous green fruit off a tree branch. It was so overripe, its skin split from just the touch, spilling sickly sweet juices all down her hand.

Based on previous sample, time since fruiting began estimated at 36 days, her Focus informed her.

“We’re getting closer,” she informed the rest of them before finding a stream to carefully wash all traces away. They’d found far too many dead animals for her to trust anything they’d found this far into the changed lands.

“How much further?” Talanah asked her.

From the reports — and absence of reports — they’d gotten… “These fruits are a little over a moon old. Even with accelerated growth, the heart of this has to be nearby. Within a few days travel at most.”

It seemed like the swarm had only been the first wave of the new machines, at a guess sent to destroy the existing plantlife and turn it into fertiliser for its replacement, seeded by followup machines.

Talanah looked up at the slowly reddening sky with an assessing gaze. The setting sun caught her upturned face, her skin seeming almost to glow in the light. “Time to set camp for the evening. We’ll continue the search in the morning,” she called out, and the brush rustled as Aloy’s Thrushes started moving towards them. Some might have called it a rough initiation, but if they couldn’t keep up with her as a group, it was probably best to know now.

Aloy realised she was staring and gave herself a mental shake, getting her thoughts back on track. “Actually,” she said. “I think I might know a good spot nearby.” Assuming it was still here. Everything looked so different now.

Talanah looked at her with a half smile. “I should have known that you’d been in these parts before.”

“Contrary to common belief, I haven’t been everywhere,” Aloy said with a laugh. “But I don’t mind taking the easy path when it presents itself.”

There wasn’t much left of the clearing she remembered, but there were still a flat stretch of ground surrounded by scattered boulders on one side and a cliff on the other which made for a defensive position. New greenery, sure, but nothing that should be too hard to shift before nightfall. 

And, hey, it looked like the swarms and other machines had left alone the shelter she’d made when she’d last spent a few days around here on a hunt. A little battered, maybe, but easy enough to fix.

“Hey,” she said, nudging Talanah. “Give me a hand with fixing that, and I reckon it shouldn’t be too hard to expand so it can hold the both of us.” She raised her voice. “The rest of you can sort your own accommodation. Remember to not use anything green or growing, just in case.”

There was some grumbling as the others moved out, but Talanah was suspiciously silent and when Aloy glanced at her, she was studiously not looking back. Aloy started gathering fallen wood and what remained of the dried moss and waited for her to speak.

“So,” Talanah eventually said carefully, as they finished expanding the shelter. “It’s probably just as well that you didn’t pick a Nora Thrush.”

There had been one Nora candidate who taken the opportunity to try and become the Thrush of the Seeker. She’d been torn between admiring his bravery and feeling intensely uncomfortable with how much worship she’d seen in his eyes, between whether she was being too hard on him, or cutting him too much slack.

Honestly, she still didn’t know if she’d been completely fair to him, didn’t even know if that was possible.

None of which really explained the comment Talanah had just made.

“Oh?” she asked. “Why?”

Talanah stopped and looked at her. “I know you didn’t mean anything by it, but I’d heard, I’d heard” —she emphasised the word— “that it was a Nora custom to invite a potential beau to a place they’d made outside a town where they could, um, explore any mutual interest,” she said, looking extremely awkward. “I’m sorry if I’ve gotten that wrong.”



It was Aloy’s turn to look away from Talanah, and rearrange the wood of the shelter awkwardly. “I don’t know whether that’s true or not.” It wasn’t anything Rost had ever told her, but then he’d been so awkward about the subject…

She didn’t care about the Nora superstitions and prescriptions, nor their way of doing things, not really, but there were still times like this when the absence of a culture like other people had ached like an absence within her. Couldn’t help remembering the loneliness she’d suffered as a child, an outcast away from all the others.

She was thankful when the others returned to break up the awkwardness and, from her body language, so was Talanah. Later, when lying there, next to Talanah, she tried to imagine what it’d be like, inviting someone to a shelter like this.

Better constructed, of course, and presumably a little more effort made to get rid of all the stones beneath her back. She imagined kissing… someone, being touched. More, maybe, even though the thought was more of an inchoate void than anything definite. Her breath caught in her throat and she couldn’t help her cheeks flushing. She rolled away from Talanah despite the fact that there was no way she could see Aloy in the darkness.

What would they even be like?

She couldn’t help Talanah’s face from flashing into her mind’s eye, and immediately felt a hundred times more awkward, even more glad there was no chance of Talanah seeing her, even though she could practically feel the heat radiating off Talanah’s body.

It didn’t mean anything. Talanah was just there, and after the talk they’d had earlier, it was natural her mind would wonder in that direction. But still, she couldn’t help wondering what it’d be like to kiss her, to smear that makeup by dragging her thumb across the planes of Talanah’s face.

That was enough, she told herself firmly. Talanah hadn’t given her permission to think that way about her, and it felt wrong to do so while she slept innocently next to her. And for all the camaraderie she’d shown Aloy, there was no reason to even think she’d be interested in her that way.

It wasn’t easy to get to sleep with her skin feeling too tight with half formed thoughts, but somehow she managed it. And in the morning, even though her eye couldn’t help catching on the languidly graceful movement of Talanah’s limbs, she firmly shoved the thoughts into the back of her mind.

There was a much more immediate crisis to solve, after all.


Aloy looked around the marketplace before focusing on the painted face of an older woman, looking directly at her.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“My name is Belaine Linah Khane.” A moment, when she seemed to be waiting for a reaction of some kind. “Talanah’s mother.”

Oh. Now that she mentioned it, Aloy could recognise some of Talanah’s lines in her face.

She hadn’t seen Talanah since returning from deactivating — hopefully permanently — the Cauldron that was producing the new machines. Talanah had been busy with the Lodge business that had cropped up in her absence. Aloy had been as busy with training her Thrushes to her satisfaction as mopping up the last remnants of the corrupted machines left over from Hades. And also, if she was going to be completely honest, with avoiding Talanah until she could feel  completely in control of herself again. 

She’d had limited success so far, dreams where she was doing… something with Talanah irritatingly persistent. Which was why, even though she was visiting one of Meridien’s markets, she hadn’t planned on stopping in at the Lodge. Not that she had any business there at the moment anyway, and in any case she’d probably be off again before nightfall.

Still, that was no reason to be rude to Talanah’s mother, of all people. “How can I help you?” 

“I was wondering if you’d be available to attend dinner at my estate this evening.”

Okay, she hadn’t been expecting that. And… she really needed to learn more about Carja culture, because she had no idea about how to turn this offer down politely, because this really didn’t feel so much like a question as a politely phrased demand. Not that she had a problem with being blunt or even rude if the situation called for it, but… This was Talanah’s mother. “I guess?” she temporised.

“I guess?” Belaine echoed, one eyebrow arched.

Aloy squirmed a little under her gaze. “Of course, I’d be happy to be there.” Honestly, it still seemed a little surreal, being invited to any kind of social event. Not that she hadn’t had her fair share of invitations since… everything, but still.

“Thank you.” Belaine kept on looking at her before softening a little. “Since you didn’t even know who I was, it’s obvious that Talanah hasn’t shared much about her home life with you. Maybe I should have realised. After all, if she had, I might not have had to make the effort to come out here and find you myself.” She quickly outlined directions to the estate. “Try to be there by seven bells. And don’t worry. This isn’t anything official. I just thought it was time we met.”

Which was… great? Aloy rather dazedly nodded her head, and Belaine took her leave, marching briskly away. Aloy couldn’t help noticing that she had a knife sheath like Talanah’s, only Belaine’s seemed to be filled by a knife with its hilt broken off, the blade sealed inside by wax.

Aloy still wasn’t quite sure what to make of the invitation. The first thought was that Belaine wanted to meet Talanah’s Thrush, but she hadn’t been that for some time. Maybe it was something political to do with her being Talanah’s foremost supporter in the Lodge? Maybe it was just that she was Talanah’s friend — she thought that Talanah thought of her that way, anyway — and this was something that Belaine did.

It wasn’t like it really mattered. She hadn’t turned a hair approaching anyone here, up to and including the Sun King. Why would this be any different?

It was different, she had to admit by the time that seven bells approached and she was standing at the entrance to the estate. She hadn’t had a gnawing in the gut like this since the Proving, and at least then she’d known what she was doing, had a clear purpose and more than enough anger to overcome any nerves. This, this truly was a foreign land, and it mattered.

Belaine met her at the door. She was dressed differently, in a robe that seemed to be cut more neatly, complemented her hair and eyes more fully, the chime of soft bells ringing from the crafted machine parts as she moved. Aloy couldn’t help feeling unpolished by comparison. Not that she had anything like this, but she had the shards, so maybe she could have bought something?

Belaine smiled. “Thank you for coming. I do understand  how busy you are.” Her voice became dry. “It’s hard enough getting Talanah to visit and she at least spends most of her time in the city.”

She led Aloy through the building into a large room dominated by a long table, lit by blaze lamps. Laid out on the table were various dishes, and Aloy couldn’t help wondering how many people Belaine was intending to feed. Surely more than the two of them. Belaine gestured at one chair, and walked around the table to take one that wasn’t quite facing the one she’d offered Aloy, but was still close enough that they could talk easily.

“So,” she said as she poured Aloy a drink. “I hear you aren’t quite the normal member of the Lodge, that your travels often take you other places completely.”

It was surprisingly easy to talk with Belaine while grazing on the cold foods laid out on the table. She seemed fascinated by stories of Aloy’s life, and offered tales of the Carja in return, from legends to stories of her youth. Before Aloy really knew it, she was relaxed and the dread that had knotted her stomach during the afternoon was nowhere to be found.

Which was, of course, when Talanah entered the room. “Good evening, mother,” she said as she opened the door.

“Ah,” Belaine said, turning to look at her. “Daughter mine. I’m so glad that you finally managed to join us.”

Talanah was frozen in the doorway, her eyes fixed on Aloy in something that looked an awful lot like horror. “Aloy,” she finally managed. “What a pleasant surprise. I wasn’t expecting to find you here.”

“Well, I’d gotten tired of waiting for you to invite her yourself, so I decided to take the initiative,” Belaine said, seemingly pleasantly but with depths in her voice that Aloy had no idea how to interpret.

Talanah’s head jerked around to stare at Belaine. “Mother,” she groaned. “It’s… it’s…” She snuck a look at Aloy.

That feeling in Aloy’s stomach was back.

She started to get to her feet. “I’ll just be going. Thank you, Belaine. It was a nice meal, and…” She trailed off, not sure how to complete the sentence, just wanting to get out of there as quickly as possible, with a minimum of further awkwardness.

“That’s quite alright,” Belaine said, getting to her feet as well. “I’ll go instead. I’ve had a very nice conversation with Aloy, but I do have things to do and I have no doubt that you two want to catch up without me around to interfere.”

Talanah blushed and without quite knowing why, Aloy felt herself redden as well. 

“You really don’t have to,” Talanah said.

“Nonsense,” Belaine said, pressing a quick kiss to the side of Talanah’s head. “By the way, I do approve,” she said before disappearing out of the room, leaving Talanah looking like she wished she could burrow into the tiled floor beneath her.

As much as she’d been trying to avoid Talanah, in both body and thought, Aloy had to admit the look suited her. Then again, most did, even seeing her tousled and unmade-up, first thing in the morning.

“I’m really sorry about this,” Talanah said, looking at her again.

“Sorry for what?” Shouldn’t she be the one apologising? “This is your family estate, after all.” She should probably go.

“No wait,” Talanah said before Aloy could get very far, reaching out and touching her on the arm. Aloy froze, and Talanah pulled her hand back as if stung, leaving a prickling sensation behind on Aloy’s skin. “I…” She winced. “Mother’s got the wrong idea about us.” Apparently Aloy looked as blank as she felt, because Talanah quickly continued. “There may be rumours that we are involved. Intimately involved, like we’re seeing each other. As in… please stop me speaking.”

Oh. “You can stop talking now,” she said, trying her best to sound humorous, not knowing how well she succeeded. People thought that they… Had she really been so obvious? But she’d only just realised herself.

It was odd to think that other people might know her better than she did herself.

Talanah flashed her a quick, grateful smile. “I denied it when Mother asked me, of course, but I don’t think she believed me. She’s always known me a little too well.”

Wait. Did that mean…?

“So she wanted to meet you, to see what she thought of you as a suitor.” This time Talanah’s smile was more of a grimace. “Sorry to drop that on you like that. I really didn’t… Obviously we’re not… I would never… I didn’t want you to even think that I might pressure you… I’m sure you want some time to yourself,” she said, before practically fleeing the room.

Aloy let herself out of the mansion, her thoughts a whirl. She hadn’t even considered that Talanah might possibly interested in her as well. She… Honestly, she didn’t have any idea about what she wanted to do now.

She’d have to think. And maybe plot.

Aloy lurked outside the Lodge, all her former nerves steadied. Like Rost had taught her, the most important part of a hunt was deciding what your goal was. Once that had been established, all else flowed from there.

It was a little before nine in the evening, a little over two bells past sunset, that her prey finally emerged.

“So,” Aloy said, noting with a certain amount of satisfaction that she’d managed to remain undetected long enough to make Talanah jump. “If I did want to court you, how would you like me to do it?”

Talanah just blinked at her for long moments. Aloy could tell exactly when her words registered from the way Talanah’s cheeks went slightly pink and a smile started stretching across her face and, oh, it was possible that Aloy was taking entirely too much pleasure in throwing Talanah off like this.

But that was alright. She had no doubt that Talanah would get her revenge at some point.

“Court me?” Talanah echoed, a smile now firmly on her face.

Aloy shrugged. “It’s not like I know your customs, and I can’t imagine you’re a stickler for them anyway. So, what would you like me to do?” Assuming Talanah wanted her to do anything at all, but she could handle that too. Possibly by exploring a far land and not coming back to Meridian for months, but still.

“Like offering me a marriage blade?” Talanah asked, raising one eyebrow.

A marriage blade? Aloy’s eyes flickered to the empty sheath at Talanah’s side. Oh.

“Or maybe a pristine lens, to signify a good omen for our relationship?”


“Possibly offering to share a hut you’d built yourself for a night?” Talanah asked, looking like she was thoroughly enjoying herself.

She had expected Talanah to exact her vengeance, but she really hadn’t thought it’d be so soon.

“So what you’re saying is that I may have done the work already?” she attempted.

Talanah was suddenly much closer to her, so near the breath from her mouth ghosted across the skin of Aloy’s face, making her shiver involuntarily.

“I’m not saying that I wouldn’t appreciate some more courting, but… Would you mind if I kissed you now?” There was a note in Talanah’s voice that Aloy had never heard before. A plea, almost a whimper that plucked at Aloy’s chest, and she couldn’t help but answer by tilting her head forward, meeting Talanah’s lips with her own.

And, oh, it wasn’t like anything she’d been expecting, heat and want and sensation, the waxy smoothness of Talanah’s lipstick and the sharp edges of her teeth. When it finally ended Aloy was left panting and Talanah was looking distinctly mussed.

“Don’t worry about courting me,” Talanah said in a husky voice. “I think I’ve got some catching up to do.

And, smiling back at her, Aloy realised that she was more than good with that.