Yusuf is killing the men who dared to invade his homeland when he sees the child. It’s quick. So quick that Yusuf thinks he imagined it at first. He slides his scimitar into the body of one wretched soldier only to turn and find a boy in the middle of the battlefield. He’s small, terribly small. It’s his skin that caught Yusuf’s attention first. The child stands, almost naked in the frey. His paste-pale skin burning visibly in the sun. The boy’s hands are over his ears. He’s whipping his head back and forth, mouth open in a wordless scream. There are tears in his eyes. Dirt on his face. Yusuf takes one step toward him, then a soldier appears in his peripheral. He turns to block the invader’s blade. He kills the man. When he looks back toward the boy: the child is gone.
Later, when the sun sets and the armies grudgingly retreat to their respective sides for the evening, Yusuf wonders if it had been a phantom. A ghost. Perhaps even a dream haunting his daytime. He stands on the edge of the battlefield, squinting out into the abyss as if the near-naked child would appear again by his will alone.
“You still thinking about the kid?” Sebastien asks. He comes bearing fresh water. Yusuf drinks greedily from his offered canteen, wiping his lips with the back of his hand when he’s finished. “It was probably just a trick of the light.”
“A trick of the light that manifested into a whole child?” Yusuf asks, tilting his head toward his oldest friend. Sebastien hadn’t enjoyed hearing of the boy back when the fighting had just ended. He’d been leaning heavily on his sword, gulping in huge gasps of air in an attempt to not overheat in the afternoon sun. He’d stared at Yusuf unseeingly for far too many minutes before he eventually said he’d neither heard nor seen a child during the melee.
Regardless of Sebastien’s thoughts, Yusuf knows what he saw. He takes a step closer to the fighting grounds. “Hey,” Sebastien snatches at his arm. “You cannot mean to look for him?”
“It was a boy, Bas,” Yusuf says. “A young boy, this tall.” He raises his hand up to his sternum. “As young as Nile. And he was terrified.”
“He’s not one of ours,” Sebastien reminds him, not releasing Yusuf’s arm in the least. “We’d have seen a boy like that wandering our camp. Which means he’s one of theirs. What are you going to do when you find him? Walk him back to their camp and tell his parents not to let him wander off in the future? There’s no point in looking, my prince.”
But no, there is a point. There has to be a point. Yusuf shakes his head. He pulls his arm free. “Either way. He deserves to be found.”
“It’s been a long day, your highness, perhaps—”
“—It will be an even longer day if I do not search for him now .” And Sebastien, no matter how good of a friend he is, hears the definitive nature of that statement. He bows his head and keeps his protestations to himself as Yusuf walks back onto the killing field.
Carts were set out earlier, physicians and their apprentices wandered from one end of the field to the other looking for wounded soldiers. The dead were piled up to be burned, their names and faces recorded to the best of their Death Keeper’s ability. A list will be prepared for Yusuf to sign off on before the battle starts the next day. It’s one of the few tasks Yusuf’s uncle had given him once he’d arrived to fight in the war. He’d been sixteen then, and his uncle told him it was a commander’s duty to give respect to the men who died under his command. But Yusuf isn’t a commander in this army, merely the Prince of their people, and this war isn’t one of his choosing. It is a war that he fights anyway.
He walks across the blood stained earth, peering at the faces and bodies of those who still remain. He recognizes the white band around the arms of enemy men who are retrieving the dead for their side. They are here in peace. They wish for no conflict during these somber hours. Yet when they see him, they tense. They either recognize his face or his sigil. Either way they stare at him with mistrustful eyes. “Try it,” Sebastien tells them from behind Yusuf’s back. Yusuf can hear Sebastien’s sword sliding out of his sheath.
“Enough,” Yusuf commands. He bows his head at the body collectors, then continues on his way. The enemy does not follow. They return to their task and the truce is maintained.
“You’re fortunate they’re not more brave,” Sebastien mutters as he returns his sword to his side.
Yusuf thinks he’s fortunate the day has been so long and so very hot. The men collecting bodies seemed to exhausted to even complete their own task let alone attempt a royal assassination during the evening respite. In any case, Yusuf doubts Sebastien’s observation on a nominal level. It isn’t a brave man who would have thought to attack, only a desperate one who saw no way out except for this.
They keep walking.
Yusuf’s fingers twitch as he spies the rows of dead men. His skin tingles with the urge to bend down, touch them, breath life back into their bodies. But, he’d made his father a promise when he’d first been assigned to the front. He would not do anything that could draw attention to himself. Resurrecting a field of the dead can do nothing but draw attention to himself. No matter how strong the urge remains.
Lights flicker in the distance. The enemy camp is just up ahead, they’ve reached the end of the agreed upon neutral zone. The child is nowhere to be seen. Either he’d been collected already, he’d managed to escape the frenzy, or Sebastien had been right: the boy never existed in the first place. “I know the Queen of Mezzaluna is said to have a heart of stone, but even she wouldn’t send a boy to a place like this,” Sebastien says. The word he uses for ‘boy’ translates poorly in Yusuf’s ear. It’s not just a boy. But a baby. A child. A little thing that reminded Yusuf so much of his sister when she learned he had to go. How she slapped her hands over her ears as if to block out the truth, crying and telling him ‘no, no, no,’ the whole while.
Exhaustion fills him. Shaking his head, Yusuf motions for Sebastien to come with him. They make their way back to their side of the war, where the faces turn more familiar and the bodies still call for his aid. Instead of returning to his tent, Yusuf strides past the camp and out into the plains beyond. The Bask River weaves its way from Altas to Crowen here. Fish keep their armies fed, and the people of Altas provide the additional supplies they need to survive. It is the only place nearby that Yusuf has ever managed to have a few moments of peace.
Sebastien is quiet as they walk. He seems to know that Yusuf has no desire to speak, and he keeps his thoughts to himself with a rigid discipline Yusuf wishes more of his compatriots managed to show. Three years fighting an endless war has left Yusuf with the distinct impression that there’s no such thing as privacy any longer. The whole army lives on top of each other. They move in and out of tents and camp postings with little regard to who is where and what state they might be in. There’s never any malicious intent, just a neediness that life and death has always maintained. They’re fighting a war, and sometimes wars have little patience for manners.
Crouching by the river, Yusuf removes his boots and lets his feet slip beneath the water. They cool immediately. Tingles slip up his ankles and into his spine. He shivers, but then relaxes into the sensation. His eyes shut and he tilts his head up to the moon above. It’s shining so bright tonight they hadn’t needed a torch to guide their way - either through the battlefield or to this spot. Every animal burrow or possible point of discomfort had been clearly illuminated by the sky.
Everything, except for whatever it is that whimpers now in the night. Yusuf opens his eyes at the same time Sebastien draws his blade. The desperate noise vanishes as soon as it appears, but Yusuf knows he can’t have imagined it. Not with Sebastien also on alert. He sits up, squinting through the pale blue gloom. He roams his eyes up and down the riverbank, on this side and the other just in case.
Standing slowly, he pads his bare feet across the smooth rocks of the shoreline. He moves with practiced ease. Two large stones are all that could conceivably conceal something from the moon’s gaze. Sebastien follows at Yusuf’s side, louder and with more purpose. It must be frightening to the wretched creature still in hiding, because it’s when they draw near that it gasps again.
Yusuf squints through the shadows. He cannot help but laugh. “Look, Bas. It’s my ghost.”
The boy is just as pale as he’d been on the battlefield. Even so, he’s taken great pains to tuck himself into the darkest possible place he could. His knees are drawn up to his chest. His arms are tucked tight around them. He’s peeking up at them from behind his clenched limbs and Yusuf has no doubt that he’s been crying here for some time.
“How did he make it here?” Sebastian asks. His hand is still on his sword, though he hasn’t drawn it yet. Instead, he frowns down at the boy as if he could make the picture prettier by sheer force of will. Yusuf kneels before the child.
He rarely has a chance to practice his mezzaluna on anyone. His countrymen hate the sharp consonants of their closest neighbors. It’s as if, even when they weren’t actively in combat with the northern country, they still needed something to fight. The consonants were the first to fall under the assault of Yusuf’s people. With great care, Yusuf resurrects them from the dead too. “Do not be afraid,” he says as best he can. “We’re not going to hurt you.” The child’s eyes snap to Yusuf’s face with such rigid attention it’s almost enough to drive the air from Yusuf’s lungs. He frowns, unused to such piercing focus from such a small creature. “Why are you here?”
The boy unfolds himself one limb at a time. His arms slide off his knees. His legs twist as his weight shifts. He tilts himself forwards so instead of sitting on his butt he’s now kneeling. His nakedness is clear. Only a small wrap of cloth hides his groin from view. There are a few dark marks hastily slashed upon the child’s neck and stomach, as if he’d had more but attempted to clean himself. He’d failed his task, leaving behind evidence of his presence on the battlefield. But Yusuf cannot see any true injuries. Nothing that requires medical attention of any kind.
The child is perhaps a bit older than Yusuf first imagined, too. He’s certainly small, but his face is more mature than the youths Yusuf remembers from back home. Even now, in this endless campaign, when he sees the fresh faced soldiers arriving from the south, he thinks of them as young. But this boy doesn’t strike him as too young. His must be older than Nile, who at thirteen still maintained the baby-fat of her adolescence. But this boy is so thin, and so small that it casts an illusion of youth that seems to shimmer like a mirage before Yusuf’s eyes.
The boy’s ribs protrude just a little. His cheeks have a kind of hollowed out look that Yusuf sees only in the prisoners back home. There’s also a scar on the boy’s face. Something wretched and curved that Yusuf had somehow missed in the melee. It travels down from the child’s left eye to his chin, spanning one side of his cheek to the other. He’d thought it was dirt before, during the battle. But it isn’t.
A slice of fear slithers through Yusuf as he recognizes it for what it means. The boy’s already moving, though. Reaching one hand toward Yusuf as if it’s a single minded goal. Sebastien intercedes before Yusuf can tell him not to. His oldest friend snatches the child by the wrist with his bare hand and promptly falls dead where he stood.
Sebastien is both taller and heavier than the boy. His weight drags the youth crashing to the dirt with him. When they hit the ground, Yusuf can’t help but flinch at the noise. It’s been a long time since he’s seen a Reaper kill. The speed never fails to impress despite the horror that nearly overwhelms him at the sight. Swallowing back both emotions, Yusuf waits as the boy tugs his wrist from Sebastien’s lax grip. He’s not surprised in the least when the boy charges for him, hands outstretched with deadly intent.
Yusuf slaps both out of the way with a flick of the wrist. Skin on skin. The boy freezes. “He really hates it when I have to bring him back,” Yusuf chides. The boy looks so utterly baffled, that Yusuf would feel sorry for him if he hadn’t already deduced the boy’s purpose. The Queen of Mezzaluna really is the stone hearted woman they’d all heard of. If nothing else, she deserves praise for being so wickedly cruel.
Shifting his weight, Yusuf presses his palm firmly to the boy’s chest and shoves him back enough to actually inspect Sebastien. It’s not the first time that he’s died to a Reaper, but it’s the first time that Reaper was an enemy. Yusuf lightly trails his fingers over his friend’s face, closing his eyes, and willing him to return.
Immediately, Sebastien lurches beneath his touch. He gasps for air, rolling to one side and coughing to catch his breath. While he collects himself, Yusuf looks back at the boy. The mark on the boy’s face isn’t as dark as it could be. Yusuf suspects that it’s being concealed in some manner by a powder or cream. That he can see it at all is likely an accident. Perhaps the boy had washed it off when he’d tried to wash the blood off his body. Even so, Mezzaluna’s brands are famous, and this one marks the boy as exactly what he is.
“It’s terribly rude to try to kill someone just for speaking with you,” Yusuf informs him, head still churning over possibilities. He cannot just let the boy reap havoc on the battlefield. But it’s as impossible to kill a Reaper as it is to kill Yusuf , a fact the boy still seems to be coming to terms with. He’s pressing his palms to his chest where Yusuf pushed him, running his fingers over the skin as if to confirm its bare. “What’s your name?” Yusuf asks.
The boy blinks at him. Then his hands are back out. He touches Yusuf’s fingers, his palms, his neck, his face. He squeezes his fingers on either side of Yusuf’s head as if it’d be enough to do something . Yusuf waits, patiently, through most of it. He awkwardly holds the boy’s squirming body only to steady him from falling completely against Yusuf. The little Reaper says nothing through his attempts. Just keeps pushing his skin to any skin that Yusuf has available. And when all of that leads to nothing but Yusuf sitting there patiently, he bends down and bites at Yusuf’s shoulder hard.
Sebastien squawks from where he’s finally rallied himself and even Yusuf’s had enough. He shoves the boy off him, hissing curses and standing up. “You’re all right?” he asks Sebastien in their own tongue.
“Fine. What the hell is a Reaper doing out here?” The child is on his feet now, still terribly short and ungainly. He dives for Yusuf who catches him by the arms and twirls him about. It takes hardly any effort to put the boy in a tight hold, locking his arms behind his back. Sebastien unwinds his belt from his waist. He removes his sword from its looping and then offers the belt to Yusuf. It’s challenging to manage while still keeping the boy steady, but eventually Yusuf gets a tight bind around the boy’s wrists.
The whole while their diminutive captive mouths wordlessly, whining or growling, but without any true word or statement. “Are they not allowed to talk in Mezzaluna?” Sebastien asks. Any other prisoner would be spitting blasphemy at this point. But the noises emitting from the boy are more animal than human.
“I’m unfamiliar. I only recognized the sign on his face.” The new moon, branded on the boy’s cheek so all the world can see that he is death personified. Any touch to his skin brings about an instant death regardless of the age or piety of his victims.
“What’s that Queen of theirs thinking?” He squints down at the snarling beast of a boy. “He’d have been as much a liability to them as to us out there.”
More than that, Yusuf thinks as he reassesses the bloodstains he’d spied on the boy’s skin. As a Reaper, he cannot die a proper death. He could have been stabbed or sliced by hundreds of blades that day, and each wound would have healed. Each fatal blow would have ended with the boy standing up and walking away. He is death. He died once before, and will never die again. That doesn’t mean he didn’t hurt the whole while. Nor does it mean that the tears he’d been crying when they found him were false.
“He’s a child,” Yusuf murmurs as he inspects the boy before him. He may be older than Nile, but he’s young still. And for every word or condemnation that fails to form on the boy’s lips, the younger he seems. This boy’s Queen tossed him into a battlefield in the hopes that he could kill like a man, and he’d fled to hide by a river in fear.
Sebastien groans, shaking his head. “What are you going to do?”
“Take him back to Irania,” Yusuf replies. “Like you said. He’s too dangerous to remain on a battlefield...and I cannot follow him around through camp resurrecting anyone he touches.”
“So we’re going to find Andromache?” Sebastien doesn’t seem terribly upset with the idea. Then again, it’s been a long three years. Day in and day out, fighting the same battlefield that never seems to tire of fresh bodies to slaughter. It will take weeks to reach Irania, and depending on the length of time the explanations take, perhaps twice that to return.
“Yes,” Yusuf sighs as the boy manages to spin around and bite his arm again in an apparent attempt to kill Yusuf and make it stick this time. “I think our little cat here will benefit greatly from her tutelage….don’t you think?”
The boy thrashes against Yusuf, trying to pull his arms free and escape. It’s a useless effort. Yusuf’s grip is secured and he has no intentions of letting the boy run off into the night. “Peace,” he tells the child in Mezzaluna. “We’re taking you to Irania.” It may as well mean nothing to the child, because he doesn’t so much as blink at the idea. He twists and turns and tries to latch his teeth onto Yusuf’s body, and every time he makes contact nothing worse than a bruise appears on Yusuf’s skin. “Peace,” he says again. “I’m a Giver, little cat. You cannot kill life. Just as we cannot kill death. Your touch does nothing to me.” Great tears press from the boy’s eyes and stream down his face. He sobs, wordless and pathetic, over the dirt.
With nothing to lose, Yusuf wraps his arms around the boy. He cannot help but wonder when the last time someone touched this boy and didn’t die. For even though he’d been trying to kill Yusuf for the past half hour at least, the moment he registers the embrace for what it is, he sags against Yusuf’s body and doesn’t try to fight it at all.