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All Things Grow

Chapter Text

Chapter Text

The cool hues of the mountain morning had just begun to warm beneath the light of the climbing sun when a firm knock resounded throughout the hut. Rost and Aloy glanced at each other in mild surprise - visitors weren't a frequent occurrence for the two outcasts, for obvious reasons. Predictably, it was Rost who rose to his feet to answer while Aloy stayed behind at the table to finish her bland breakfast of gruel mixed with torn bits of jerky. Her guardian had always been better at dealing with people than her, and as interesting as the muffled voices sounding from behind the closed door were, her mind was already fixated on other, even more exciting events - namely, the hunt they had planned for the day.

It wasn't the hunt itself, but what it represented: a final honing of her skills in preparation for the Proving which was to take place next week. Thirteen years of training, and the long-anticipated day was almost upon her. Sheer determination and force of will had carried Aloy this far, but the only thing that would make all of her struggling worth it was coming out on top and beating each and every other young Nora hopeful in order to secure the coveted boon of the Matriarchs. Then, she would find answers. She would learn why she had been made an outcast, who her mother was, and why a helpless infant had been damned to a lifetime of rejection and loneliness.

As a newly-minted Brave, she would be allowed to take root in a village and grow a real life. It would mean swallowing enough of her pride in order to seek out belonging among the tribe who had shunned her, but it would be worth it for the slim chance that she could eventually petition for Rost’s reentry, too. In any case, it wasn’t as though she had many options of places to go beyond the wilds, and the further into those she went, the further she would be from her guardian. The life awaiting her wasn't exactly her version of ideal, but with answers and Rost close by, it would have to be enough.

The furious thunder of Rost’s voice outside finally snapped Aloy from her daydreams, and she perked up in interest. He didn’t often get angry to the point of raising his voice, even when she made a careless mistake that displeased him, and she had to admit she was very curious as to what sort of issue could cause him to finally lose his temper. Before she could rise to her feet, however, the door flew open. He stormed back into the house, his expression gnarled with more fury than she had ever seen from him. Aloy raised an inquisitive eyebrow as he slammed the door shut.

“What was that all about? It sounded tense, to say the least."

Rost’s only reply was a slow exhale of air and a sagging of his shoulders.

Pushing back from the table, Aloy gave an exasperated sigh and a roll of her eyes in return. Rost could be inscrutable at the best of times, and it was something she had long since learned to deal with.

Hopping to her feet, she turned towards their carefully laid out weapons and supply packs to begin a final check. “Let me guess. Secret Nora business? I’d really like to know why someone decided to lower themselves enough to risk talking to a couple of outcasts, but if you really want, you can wait to tell me while we’re out hunting.”

“Aloy,” Rost said wearily, “that was a messenger from the Matriarchs themselves. We’re not going hunting anymore.”

Ice crept up her back.

Matriarchs. That can't mean anything good.

“What?” She turned back around to face him, her hands finding a perch on the swell of her hips. “What are you talking about? There had better be a good reason for this, because this is the last chance I have to prepare for the Proving.”

Rost gestured towards the table. “Sit back down. We need to talk.”

Anxiety rippled through her like an electric current, but Aloy complied, sinking back down into her chair. Rost’s silence as he dropped down beside her only served to rattle her more, until she couldn’t keep from fidgeting.

“I don’t know how to tell you this,” he began a couple of minutes later, “but, Aloy...tomorrow morning, you’ll be leaving the Embrace. For good.”

Her first response was a disbelieving laugh. “Wow, good one, Rost. You’ve never been much of a joker. Where’s this coming from all of a sudden - “

“This is not a joke,” he interrupted her, his tone cut through with steel. “And I’d appreciate it if you stopped laughing about it.”

The mirth drained from her at once. Her guardian had always possessed an irritatingly stoic personality and tended to take everything entirely too seriously, but something in his voice told Aloy that this was different.

Something actually serious was happening this time.

She blew out a slow breath of air and folded her hands in front of her on the table. “Okay, so...what is it? Why am I leaving the Embrace? Are we being kicked out into the greater Sacred Lands for some reason?”

“Not both of us, just you,” Rost replied, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Here’s the short version. Tomorrow morning, you’ll be handed over to emissaries from a neighboring tribe we’ve been at war with for several years. They’re called the Carja, and we’ve apparently struck up a ceasefire treaty with them.”

Whatever Aloy had been expecting, it wasn’t this. In utter shock, she drew back, unable to form words or do much of anything beyond blink rapidly.

“We’re at war?” she finally blurted out. “Other tribes? What? Why - “

He held up a hand, the exhausted lines on his face deepening. “I know. I know what you’re going to say, and I'm sorry that this has hurt you. But I refuse to apologize for keeping you in the dark about this. I felt as though it’s what I had to do to protect you, to keep you satisfied with the life we had carved out here. Since you were a child, you’ve been far too curious for your own good, and I feared what might happen if you caught wind of the existence of other tribes outside of the Sacred Lands. In time, I believed you would grow content with the life of a Nora Brave, especially after receiving the answers you have so craved.” Rost stared down at his hands as they clenched into fists. “I suppose it doesn’t matter anymore.”

Bewilderment and a deepening sense of betrayal were competing for dominance within Aloy. She stared at her guardian as though seeing him for the first time. Rost had never been anywhere close to perfect, but she’d also never taken him for someone who concealed truths, as misguided as some of his ‘truths’ were. She had looked up to him, had even loved him as a daughter would to a father. But with the scales now stripped from her eyes, all she could see in front of her was someone who had lied to her for most of her life.

All she could do was stare, stunned.

“I guess...I guess I’m not going to be competing in the Proving then,” Aloy finally said, deflating in her chair.

“No. You’re not.”

His words were blunt, leaving her with no choice but to face her new, horrifying reality. The betrayal she felt ballooned up in her chest until it burst, flooding her with a righteous fury so intense that it left her trembling.

“How dare you!” Aloy burst out, leaping to her feet. Rost made to stand as well, but she skittered away from him like a startled Strider and began to pace. “You knew how much I hated the Nora for what they’ve done to me. You knew how desperately I wanted to escape this miserable excuse for a life! But instead of letting me make my own choices, you deliberately blinded me so it looked like I only had one way forward.”

“I was trying to keep you safe,” Rost shot back. “And none of that matters anymore, does it? Now you get exactly what you want. You get to leave the Embrace, leave the tribe, and go mate with someone you’ve never even met.”

She recoiled in horror. “Mate with - what are you talking about?”

“What other use would the Carja have for a young Nora woman of mating age? They wouldn't exactly trust you or think you capable enough to join their army.” He laughed bitterly. “You’re to be tied to one of their most fearsome warriors as part of the treaty. In exchange, they’ve sworn to leave our lands alone for a period of one year.”

Bile rose to her throat. “I don’t - I’m not ready. I can’t.”

“You must,” Rost said firmly. “You've little choice in the matter. The Carja have made our lands run red with the blood of the innocent, Aloy. The eldery, the sick, children - they do not discriminate. They either cut them down or steal them away, never to be seen or heard from again. This is a way, albeit a temporary one, to put a stop to their destruction.”

“I don’t owe the Nora anything,” she said, but the words were shaky and uncertain.

“Then do not think of them as Nora.” Rost’s blue eyes were as flinty as slate. “Think of them purely as innocents, which many have been.”

“If“ - she swallowed hard before continuing - “If I go with these Carja and mate with this...warrior, you're certain they’ll leave the tribe alone?”

Aloy could see most of his guard drop, although caution still lurked at the edges of his expression. “If you go to their capital village, if we provide them with offerings of fur, machine parts, and other goods, as well as a predetermined sum of metal shards, then the treaty will hold. That’s what they’ve told us, although a Carja’s word isn’t good for much.”

She stared down at her feet, her gut churning with nausea. “This...this is a lot. I need some time to think. I’m going to go out hunting. We still need dinner.” Aloy choked out a weak chuckle. “Our last together, I guess.”

Rost stepped aside, and when she looked up at him, his expression had softened into grim regret.

“I won’t stop you. Just know, Aloy, that I didn’t want any of this.”

“Yeah,” she whispered, turning to retrieve her bow from their forgotten pile of supplies, “I didn’t either.”

-

It wasn’t until she was a few miles from the mountainside their hut stood on that Aloy felt as though she could breathe again. As much as it caged her in, roaming through the beauty of the Embrace also had always had the benefit of clearing her head, even in the most stressful of situations.

“I'd say this is much worse than the time I snapped my bowstring and lost that rabbit,” she muttered to herself humorlessly.

Aloy’s head remained free of most thoughts beyond her observation of the weather conditions of the valley and the movements of the local fauna. Thankfully, the early spring day was mostly clear, and there was little wind. Focusing on the best game to fell for dinner was the only thing keeping her from falling into the void of anguish and despair opening up in her chest, so she mentally shuffled through her options. Rabbit? No, too time-consuming to collect enough for both her and Rost. Turkey? She enjoyed it well enough, but it wasn’t his favorite. Boar? Now there was an idea. The fatty, gamey meat was decadent enough for a last meal, and despite her foul mood, her stomach grumbled in agreement.

Wild boars, though dangerous in their size and aggression, were easy enough to track. After a quick, furtive glance around, Aloy looked down and pressed two fingers to the tiny piece of technology affixed to her right ear - her trusty Focus. Immediately, a confused muddle of tracks lit up in her field of vision, and it took her a few moments to discern the freshest prints in the shape of cloven hooves. Her eyes followed them up into the forest, where a sizable sow glowed a faint blue as she snuffled her way through the ancient trees.

“All right,” she said, gripping at her bow. “Let’s do this.”

Sneaking through the tall grasses of the Embrace had always been something she had been naturally skilled at, and she took advantage of that now. With flowing hair as red as the tips of the grass, Aloy blended in effortlessly, and she knew exactly how to move so that all of her motions appeared to be a part of natural movements of the ever-shifting stalks. Being upwind as she was, the sow paid her no mind, even though her death awaited mere feet away. Aloy bared her teeth in grim satisfaction.

The feat of nocking an arrow silently had required a great deal of practice when she had first learned it years ago, but Aloy had long since mastered the skill. She had just oiled the moving parts of her bow this morning, and the bowstring pulled back with a satisfying effortlessness, causing only a slight tension in the powerful muscles of her arms and back. Slowing her breath, she took aim at the boar’s heart. On her next exhale, she released her grip and watched as it flew home with a satisfying thunk.

Her aim had been true. The boar leapt forward a few feet as though she had been shocked then fell to her side with a horrible, high-pitched squeal. She shuddered and spasmed in her death throes but was soon still, and by the time Aloy had stalked over to her quarry, the light was rapidly fading from her dark eyes - dark eyes which held Aloy's own reflection in their glassy curve. She felt an unusual pang of sorrow as she stared down at the beautiful, dying creature. But the feeling passed as quickly as the sow's life, and after saying a silent prayer of gratitude out of habit, she crouched down to begin dressing the animal.

Unfortunately, the tedium of properly draining the blood from and skinning a kill was ripe for allowing her mind to wander. As her knife separated tough, webbed fascia from skin and muscle, her thoughts finally meandered back to her current dilemma.

As soon as Rost had explained the nature of his conversation with the messenger to her, Aloy knew she had to go forward with her part in the treaty. It had never been a question of if for her, but rather a how - how she would come to terms with leaving everything and everyone she had ever known, how she would negotiate the intricacies of a brand new, unknown existence. Yes, the Nora had been the cause of most of the grief in her life, but children being slaughtered and taken away from their families wasn't something she could stand by and ignore. How cruel, how unfeeling would it be of her to refuse in the face of so much suffering? She wouldn't be any better than the Matriarchs themselves, who had somehow twisted their beliefs enough to justify casting out a newborn baby.

The true difficulty came in giving up her life's dream, that which she had been tirelessly striving for since she was six years old. It meant letting go of the possibility of ever finding out who her mother had been and surrendering herself to the whims of a foreign people in a faraway land. Then again, hadn't that been the story of her life already? Her bleak path through life had been laid out for her long ago, and this was just another turn down the same miserable road. Aloy would still be kept unwillingly under the hand of another, lacking any true control over her own existence, and the thought of never breaking free of this was too much to bear. She shifted her thoughts to her future mate instead.

Perhaps he would be kind. It was highly unlikely and nothing more than a small comfort, but in such a situation, it was all she could hope for. Rost had claimed that these Carja weren't trustworthy, but he hadn't exactly been honest either, and his borderline fanatical devotion to Nora dogma had skewed his views of the world. Maybe her mate being a warrior would be something they could find common ground over, and maybe in time they could even strike up a friendship. Aloy wasn't so foolish as to believe that love would ever be a factor - not that she had ever wanted for such things - but a friend and confidant in a strange land sounded nice. Anything was better than the loneliness which dogged her day in and day out, even with her guardian close at hand.

Speaking of Rost, she had finished dressing their dinner and should probably be heading back now. After neatly tying up and packing the meat away, she stood and took a moment stare out over the lush lands surrounding her. It was funny how she had spent most of her life dreaming of different worlds - worlds of the past, worlds beyond the Sacred Lands - and yet how much she would miss the one of her childhood. The great pines, the icy streams of fresh water, the forbidding mountains - soon they would all be nothing more than a distant memory. Closing her eyes, Aloy soaked in the warm midday sun and let herself remember this moment, what this air felt like as it whispered over her skin. It was like an embrace in its own right, and when she opened her eyes again, she felt as though she could find strength enough to say goodbye.

The familiar trails she had long ago memorized brought her back to the only home she had ever known, and she wasn't surprised to find Rost standing outside at the gate he had built overlooking the Embrace. With a slight smile, Aloy held up her bounty.

"Boar," she explained. "I figured it would be worth the extra preparation and cooking tonight."

He almost smiled back. "Good. Come inside. There's much still to discuss."

"So much for enjoying my last day here," she sighed, but she trailed after him obediently.

Once inside the hut, Aloy placed the meat on a small surface by the hearth used for food preparation then turned to Rost expectantly.

"What did you want to talk about?"

He took a deep breath. "I know I haven't said it often, but first, I want you to know I'm proud of you. What you're doing is selfless beyond compare, and your sacrifice will save many. That's no small thing."

Aloy snorted. "I'm aware. It's honestly the only thing keeping me from losing my mind right now." Striding over to her bed, that familiar nest of tanned hides and cozy furs, she dropped down onto it then added, "But...thank you. It's nice to hear that for once."

"I'm also sorry." Rost sat beside her, his face strained with regret. "There's so much I wanted for you, Aloy. I wanted to see you win the Proving - and there's no question that you would have. I wanted to watch, from afar, you become a Brave and take your rightful place as one of the best warriors in the tribe. And maybe even one day, I would have liked to see you find a mate and have children of your own."

Her heart clenched painfully in her chest. "From afar?"

Rost nodded solemnly. "I knew that you wouldn't be able to stay away from me after the Proving, so I had planned to go where you couldn't find me. But I had always meant to come back and check on you from time to time."

"That would've been useless, you know. I would have found you anyway," Aloy said matter-of-factly, and to her surprise, he chuckled.

"Who do you think taught you how to track, girl?" he said, eyes glittering. "I have more ways of staying hidden than I revealed to you."

"And I have my own ways of finding what I seek," she countered.

"Ah, you speak of your trinket." Rost shook his head in exasperation. "You already know my opinion on that. Regardless, it doesn't much matter anymore."

"No, I guess it doesn't," she said softly. Shifting, she twisted around on the bed until she was sitting cross-legged and facing him. "So. Is there anything else you think I need to know?"

"More than I could ever have the time to explain, but I suppose I should start with where you're going," he said with a sigh. "The Carja lands are called the Sundom, and the place you will be going is known as Meridian."

"Meridian," Aloy tried. The word was foreign on her tongue, although not unpleasant.

Rost was right next to her, but his gaze was miles away. "Meridian is a giant village on top of a great flat mountain called a mesa, with more people than you've ever seen in one place. It's crowded, dirty, and tainted, not to mention as far beyond the All-Mother's embrace as you can get."

Aloy cocked her head. "And you know this, because…?"

He gave a cough. "I have heard stories."

"Uh huh." Aloy wasn't exactly convinced, but the time had long passed for petty arguments. "And what do you know of the Carja?"

His fair blue eyes darkened into a stormy hue. "They are a violent people who revel in excess. They take far more from the land than they actually need to build their villages and adorn themselves in ridiculous trinkets and baubles rather than dressing for practicality. Hunting is done not for survival but sport, and as of late, that's apparently turned to people as well."

"I'm sure not all of them are like that," she protested. "I mean, the Nora aren't exactly all wonderful people. Otherwise there wouldn't be outcasts like you and I."

Rost shot her a sharp look. "We are the All-Mother's chosen. Do not insult your people, Aloy - "

"They're not my people," she returned defiantly.

"You must keep your guard up," he said, blatantly ignoring her words. "Every Carja will look down upon you as a heathen from the Savage East, and none of them are to be trusted. They have no honor and have chosen to worship the sun, of all things."

To her, worshipping the sun sounded just as ridiculous as kowtowing to an invisible goddess - at least the sun was a tangible object - but Aloy wisely kept her mouth shut this time.

"Even faced with all of this, I know you'll be able to survive it. I raised you to be strong. Remember the burden you carry, all of the lives that are on the line." Rost's stare bored into hers, and she unconsciously straightened her spine. "Out of all of the young Nora women the Matriarchs could have chosen, you're the best of them."

A gritty lump formed in Aloy's throat. "You don't think it was just because I'm expendable? Being an outcast?"

"I know Teersa, one of the High Matriarchs, well," Rost said, quiet reassurance in his tone. "Maybe your outcast status was the argument she used to sway the others into choosing you, but I know that it wasn't her true reasoning. She's been keeping an eye on your growth for a long time, Aloy. Originally, it was out of interest for what you would become once you joined the tribe, but now it's become a matter of survival. And you're our only hope."

She forced out a laugh. "No pressure, huh?"

"It's all the pressure in the world," Rost exhaled. "And if I could do it for you, I would."

In a vain attempt to lighten the mood, Aloy said, "I appreciate the sentiment, but I don't think this great Carja warrior would want you as a mate. It's for reproduction, after all, and your bits aren't likely, er, compatible."

"Reproduction, yes." A faint blush tinged her guardian's cheeks, and he cleared his throat. "Speaking of which, I suppose I've neglected to explain how that works between people. You have seen it in the wilds between animals, and you know the differences between the sexes, but when a mated couple goes to bed with the intention of creating children - "

"No!" Aloy interjected hastily, shaking her head frantically. "Rost, stop. I know what sex is, okay? You don't need to...explain anything to me. I have a good idea of what we'll be expected to do upon mating, and I'll work on making my peace with that."

Rost's shoulder sagged with pure relief. "Good. That's good. One less thing for me to worry about. But you've reminded me of one more aspect of mating with a Carja man that I must explain."

Aloy tilted her head. "What do you mean?"

"The Carja mate for more than just reproduction," Roat explained, disgust clouding his features. "In a reversal of the natural order of things, men hold the power in their tribe, and mating is seen as a form of ownership over women."

For once, she found herself in agreement with Rost, and outrage roared within her. "That's barbaric! Not even Nora women own their mates!"

"I agree with you, Aloy," he said wearily. "I know it goes against your nature, but you must do your best to play the part. If your mate tells you what to do, you must listen, because your refusal could be enough cause to sever your mating bond and therefore the treaty."

The urge to scream was growing more and more tempting. "So, what? I'm just supposed to sit there and take whatever abuse is flung at me?"

"If that's what it takes."

"You don't know he'll be that cruel," she protested. "Maybe he's more like Nora men, like you - "

"I know enough of him to know what he's capable of," Rost retorted. With a frustrated huff, he ran a hand over his bound hair. "I don't say these things to upset you, Aloy. I'm trying to prepare you to survive, just as I always have. You must be realistic. Silly hopes and flights of fancy have no place in the future you're facing. If I have to hand you off to a monster, it'll at least be with all the knowledge and tools that I can provide."

"I...I know," she said quietly, her gaze dropping to her lap. "I understand."

A warm hand landed on her shoulder then, and her eyes snapped up to Rost in utter shock. Touch between them was rare, usually meant only for times of sickness or tending to wounds, and a touch solely for comfort was nearly unheard of. Hungrily, she leaned into it, soaking up every ounce of his touch, memorizing the weight and curve of his palm. It was gone far too soon, and her shoulder felt strangely cold beneath the thick fur which blanketed it.

Their talk apparently done with, Rost rose to his feet and shuffled over to the boar meat. It would take hours to roast even upon their roaring hearth, and all Aloy could do in the meantime was curl up on her side in the bed of her childhood. Her eyes traced over years of memories. Clay vessels, tools, hunting supplies, machine scrap - within all of them, a story. She even caught a glimpse of one of her old, well-worn dolls lying propped up in a corner next to a bow she had long outgrown, and that was what almost broke her.

Saying farewell to the land may have been doable, but Aloy wasn't sure how she was supposed to say goodbye to her home. Rost had been right, of course; she needed to be strong going forward. But for now, she let herself feel pity for herself. She allowed herself to wallow, to rail internally against the unfairness of it all - how she had been so close to achieving her life's goal, only to have it torn away from her mere days before attaining it. When the tears which had been threatening all day finally welled up in her eyes, she didn't brush them away, as was her usual habit. Instead, she turned herself over until her guardian and only companion couldn't see her and let them trail silently down her cheeks.

Hours peppered with the occasional word to one another passed, and when the light in the hut grew muted and as red as blood, Rost called her to dinner. The meat was charred perfectly and dripping with delectable fat, and although Aloy tried to enjoy it, it tasted as appetizing as mud to her. But she put on as brave of a face as she could, eating and reminiscing with the man who had raised her. He was more open than he had ever been, and she treasured every precious moment of their last hours together.

The scant sunlight poking in through the cracks of the hut faded faster than it ever had before, and although she was nowhere near ready for sleep, Aloy knew that it was time for bed once the subdued fire became the only source of light. Sharing one last, meaningful glance with Rost, she headed back to her bed for a final time.

In the last vestiges of safety, comfort, and warmth she would know, Aloy took all of her insecurities, her fears, and her sorrows and packed them away somewhere deep inside of her heart, in a place where they'd be near untouchable. Her goals had shifted, and along with them, so had her priorities. Tomorrow, when she woke, she would be reborn. She would be someone new, someone even stronger that before, someone who wouldn't break or bend under even the greatest of pressures.

No matter what hardships came, Aloy would face them all with the single-minded determination she had always possessed. And above all else, she would survive.

Chapter Text

It felt as though she had just closed her eyes when Rost shook her awake early the next morning. Despite the knowledge of having a long journey ahead of her, Aloy had barely slept a wink, and with her every sluggish movement, her body screamed in protest. She almost smiled at the irony; it was a fitting beginning to a day such as this.

By the time she had dressed, grabbed her small sack of personal possessions, and stepped outside, dawn was only the barest suggestion on the horizon. Regretfully, she eyed her bow and quiver where they sat propped up against the walls of the hut. Rost had informed her yesterday during dinner that she was to meet her escort at the gates of the Embrace entirely unarmed, for their safety. Apparently, the five Carja soldiers who were to guide her to the Sundom were afraid of being attacked while their guard was down.

For good reason, Aloy thought. I could probably take all of them.

When she had asked how she was supposed to defend herself in the wilderness, Rost had told her that she was supposed to rely on these soldiers for protection, and the thought was not only enraging but humiliating. Already Aloy felt as though she was being reduced to nothing more than a helpless object, and the urge to fight this particular provision was high.

For the first but what she knew would not be the last time, she practised holding her tongue and reminding herself of what was at stake. Instead of speaking, Aloy imagined the terror of the innocent being cut down in a spray of blood, and although the restrained words burned on her tongue, it was enough to quell the urge for the meantime.

The pride in Rost's eyes had almost been enough to comfort her.

As they walked away from home - her former home now, she reminded herself - Aloy didn't look back. By the time they reached the walls of the Embrace, the sun was beginning to peek over the mountains. Its harshly cheery light lined the figures of ten people, four of them wearing the garb of Braves, five of them in a heavy style of armor unfamiliar to her and one of them sporting the robes and regalia of a High Matriarch.

"Come, come!" the Matriarch called as Aloy and Rost came within earshot. "Morning is upon us, and you have quite the journey ahead!"

"Teersa," Rost muttered, a fond smile touching his lips when they stopped before the unusual group.

"Aloy," the older woman said, laying a hand on her arm. She glanced in the direction of the Carja soldiers. "I must speak to her before we depart. There are rituals to be completed."

One of the men sneered and looked as though he wanted to speak, but another wearing a brilliant spray of red feathers on his head shot him a sharp glare, then nodded at Teersa.

"We only have a few minutes to spare with the Sun's rising, so make it quick."

"Yes, yes," she said, waving a hand as she pulled Aloy aside. Once they were out of earshot, she dropped her hold.

"Um, am I - "

"You're allowed to speak with me," Teesra interjected. "We don't have much time, so let me be brief. You've been made a full member of the tribe, and the Matriarchs have decided to grant you the mark of a Seeker."

Aloy's eyes widened in astonishment. "Why? Wait, what's a Seeker?"

"In times of great need, the Matriarchs may vote to grant Seeker status to certain individuals," Teersa explained. "And now, more than ever before, we are in need. The Seeker blessing makes it so you have the All-Mother's protection even outside of the Sacred Lands."

"The only reason I'd need something like that," Aloy said slowly, "is if the intention is for me to eventually come back. Otherwise you'd let me become an exile."

Teresa's smile was rueful. "You've turned out to be as clever as you are brave and strong, I see. Yes, Aloy. The Matriarchs have a task of utmost importance for you, and it's critical that it's carried out. If it is, and if you survive, you may come home."

"Anything," she said fervently, leaning forward. "I'll do anything to come back one day."

"I'm sure you can understand that none of the Matriarchs trust this treaty," Teersa said quietly, keeping her eyes trained on Aloy. "The man they're mating you to is legendary for his unrelenting violence in battle and one of their most skilled soldiers, and in this, they've made a grave mistake. When the time is right, when we have enough reason to believe that the Carja will break the treaty, you are to strike him down and then flee from the Sundom. Without him in play, they will be weakened, and it might just give us the advantage we need."

Her heart quickened at the weight and potential of what the older woman was offering. It was a way to use some of the skills she had refined over the years, and more importantly, it meant that her life wasn't over in the way she had believed.

Killing a single man and sneaking away before she could be discovered? Child's play.

Aloy willed her pounding heart to calm. "How will I know when to strike?"

"We shall send another Seeker to find you in Meridian. Until then, keep your ears and eyes open. Learn everything that you can about Carja military operations and your future mate." Teersa's weathered hands found one of hers and clasped it tightly. "I will now perform the Seeker blessing."

Although Aloy didn't believe in a single word of the High Matriarch's prayer, there was a great deal of comfort in what the gesture meant. But one question still remained at the forefront of her mind, and she waited until Teersa was finished to bring it up.

"Since there's no way for me to compete in the Proving to win the boon," Aloy began tentatively, "if I return...as a reward, may I know who my mother was and why I was cast out?"

Teersa's expression was kind. "I believe that's a fair trade, child, although I may have to argue with the other High Matriarchs to get them to agree. Now, come. I'm sure our guests grow impatient."

Knowing that this didn't have to be her final goodbye with Rost eased a great deal of her anguish, but Aloy's heart was still lodged in her throat when he pulled her aside. It could be a year or more before she saw him again, and the knowledge of that was almost too much to stomach. Somehow, it had been easier when she believed she would never see him again.

"Rost - "

In a rare, precious gesture, the man who had raised her opened his enormous arms and folded her into his embrace. Aloy couldn't suppress the soft sob that escaped her.

"You will survive this," he murmured in his ear. "No matter what, I know you won't break. And if anyone tries to hurt or kill you - "

"I'll kill them first," she whispered, clutching at the mantle of boar fur on Rost's shoulder.

His grip on Aloy's upper arms were gentle as he pushed her away, his eyes even more so as he gazed down at her.

"You aren't my daughter by blood, but I've always seen you as one," he said softly, reaching into a pouch hooked to his belt. From it, he produced a white object and held it up for her. "This necklace was my daughter's. I'd like for you to have it, to...remind you."

The material was cool and curiously heavy under Aloy's fingers as they closed around it. Try as she might to hold them back, tears still welled up in her eyes. "I - thank you, Rost. I'll never forget you, or anything you've done for me."

Her eyes darted over his face, memorizing every angle and curve. The exact blue of his eyes, the intricate way his beard was braided, the proud set of his nose, the sorrow he was trying to hide in the deep lines of his face. This picture of him would remind her what she was striving for and help nurture the hope that she would see him again one day.

But for now, it was time to go. Her feet felt as though they were weighed down by machine parts as she took her place by the Carja soldiers. Members of her new tribe.

Her temporary tribe, Aloy reminded herself fiercely.

"Right. Are we ready?" the soldier with the plume of feathers - obviously their leader - said tightly. At Aloy's decisive nod, he turned to the soldiers. "You saw the lady. Move out."

Once again, Aloy didn't look back as they marched out of the Embrace and into the greater Sacred Lands. If she did, she knew she might not be strong enough to leave.

The stoic Braves fell in on the outskirts of the road, keeping their keen gazes fixed on the group. Rost had explained that outlanders even being allowed into the Sacred Lands had been an issue of great contention between the Matriarchs, and the escort of Braves was meant for the soldiers' protection as much as the Nora's. They were to be guided to the edge of Nora lands, and then they would be on their own.

The soldier who had sneered at her earlier looked her over how one might examine a boot caked in excrement. "Strange of you to call this wretched creature a lady, Radid. I only see a wild animal."

Aloy's fists curled automatically, and the effort of not wheeling around and punching the man as hard as she could took all of her strength.

Surprisingly, Radid turned on the man himself.

"Quiet," he snarled, his amber eyes flashing beneath the mask attached to his helmet. "Are you mad, Irasis? Do you want Khane Argir catching wind of you speaking of his betrothed as such? She's not a lady now, but in a few short weeks, she will be. Show some respect."

The other Carja soldiers around her grew quiet, glancing between each other with a nervousness so potent it could be physically felt.

"You're a kestrel, Radid," one of the men said hesitantly. "Do you know Khane Argir personally?"

The subject of her future mate had Aloy's ears perking up in rapt attention, though she was careful not to let any of it show on her face.

Radid set his angular jaw. "Not personally, no. But I've been on the battlefield with him a few times."

"Is it true what they say about him?" one of the other soldiers asked in a hushed voice, his eyes wide.

"He's more than earned his preferred moniker of Nil, if that's what you're asking," the kestrel said grimly. "For no one on the opposing side is left alive when he's involved, and even his allies are at risk of having his blade turned on them. He rivals the Terror of the Sun himself in skill and his lust for blood. You all know of Cinnabar Sands."

"O Sun, keep the Shadow from falling upon me," the first man who had spoken whispered faintly.

"You all know how they found Khane Argir there, the only survivor of what looked to be a vicious battle," Radid continued. "How he was laughing, his face aimed at the sky, the sand around him so soaked with blood that it remained red for a year and a day. You recall how the Sun lit the scales of his armor so intensely that he glowed with its holy light, and the expedition party who found him fell to their knees at once."

Frankly, Aloy thought it all sounded like a bunch of nonsense. It had the benefit of quieting the soldiers, however, so she wasn't about to complain.

"So that is why, men, you must hold your tongues," Radid finished, fixing Irasis with a pointed look. "For if Khane Argir catches wind of any of this, it's all our lives at stake. He may have had a recent fall from grace due to disobeying orders during his last assignment, but he still will not hesitate to challenge all who slight him to a duel to the death. It's best not to tempt fate."

"So what you're saying is that this...woman...won't last a month married to such a monster." Irasis leered at Aloy, and she had to take a few calming breaths. "Good. Live like an animal, die like one. I hope he - "

"Congratulations, soldier!" Radid boomed, and Aloy may have been a touch gratified when Irasis immediately snapped to attention. "You just earned yourself an entire night's watch, all by yourself. And if I catch you asleep at post, there will be a disciplinary hearing in Meridian. Understood?"

The way the awful man wilted under his commander's harsh stare was even more satisfying. "Yes, sir."

After listening to all of this, Aloy was certain of one thing. The Carja gossiped as much as the Nora did, and with a village tens of times larger than any in the Embrace, she was sure that the true story of her betrothed, as they had referred to Khane Argir, had been long ago obfuscated by hearsay and warped into myth. Although there was likely fact somewhere in there - namely Radid speaking of his challenging of any and all who slighted him - no one man could be that monstrous.

Maybe some of her denial came from the fact that Aloy had been told how to think and what to do for her entire life, and she was determined to make up her own opinion for once. She had never trusted the Nora, and she definitely did not trust the Carja. Despite their terrifying stories, she was confident she could handle whatever this man threw at her.

In spite of the unsavory nature of most of her company and the ache in her heart, Aloy endeavored to enjoy the three week journey in what few ways she could. The greater Sacred Lands were just as gorgeous as the Embrace, and the distant, rusted out ruins of the Old Ones which dotted the lands had her entire body itching with the desire to explore. The irony was, due to her having been made a Seeker, she could actually delve into them without fear of reprisal, as long as she used the excuse that the All-Mother had guided her there. But in her current situation, all she could do was stare longingly as they passed structure after structure by, their great carcasses quietly decomposing beneath time and weather.

Machines she had never seen before were in abundance. Several times, the traveling party had to hide away to avoid some of the more vicious beasts. Aloy dutifully scanned each and every one with her Focus, spending her free time after dinner each night devouring fascinating information about Sawtooths, Shell-Walkers, Ravagers, and more. Once, in the distance, she was sure she had spotted a Tallneck drifting among the ruins of some ancient city. She recalled Rost's stories about how they were a peaceful machine, wandering the earth in endless circles, and for a moment she wished she could be as carefree.

With the last of the mountains also came the last of the Sacred Lands. At a narrow mountain pass, the Braves stood as silent sentinels, stoically watching until Aloy and the Carja soldiers crossed over into the Sundom and disappeared from their sight.

There was a pang of loss when she entered the foreign land, but it was shamefully mild. Even more damning was the tiny tinge of excitement she felt as she stood at an overlook in a Carja fort called Daytower and gazed out over the unfamiliar terrain - a desert, one of the men had called it. Aloy had never seen such a color of rock and earth, nor the strange, flat-leaved plants with what looked to be needles growing from them. It was beautiful in its own, unique way, and she thought that perhaps living in such a place wouldn't be the worst fate.

The downside was that this desert was blazingly hot during the day, while the temperatures dipped to near freezing at night. The tanned leather and furs of Aloy's outfit became uncomfortable beneath the unyielding sun, and despite the fact that she didn't voice her discomfort once, Radid came to her one morning with a bunch of shimmering cloth in his arms.

"Here, my lady," he said gruffly. "Casual silks more befitting of your station and environment."

Unsure of what to say, Aloy took the multi-colored bundle from the kestrel and gave him a hesitant nod. Although the style and cut were unfamiliar, the clothing was light, airy, and allowed her skin to finally breathe. Despite not being a vain person in the slightest, she also had to admit that the silks looked nice on her when she caught her reflection in a stream that afternoon.

Unfortunately, being in the Sundom also had the side effect of Irasis growing bolder in his aggression. He had learned to mostly fly under Radid's radar, only taunting and threatening Aloy when the kestrel went off to relieve himself or hunt for food. Mostly, she managed to ignore it by activating her Focus and continuing to study the new machines they had come across.

But one night after dinner, as she was making her way back from washing up in a tiny creek, he went too far.

She should have anticipated something like this with how quiet he had been all day due to Radid sticking close by. Irasis could do nothing more than send her the occasional look of loathing or rude finger gesture, the sort of juvenile insults only worth an exasperated eye roll.

It was already dark, and Aloy was picking her way through the scrubby brush and cacti when his smarmy voice rang out.

"It's fitting that you look like a drowned rat, savage. You're certainly of similar value."

As usual, she gritted her teeth and ignored it. A dark shadow to her left shifted and came closer.

"Perhaps one thing sets you apart, however," Irasis mused. "I've heard many stories of how untamed Nora women are, especially between the sheets. Perhaps all you need is a cock between your legs - "

"If you so much as touch me," Aloy said calmly, "I will break your arm."

"Empty threats," the soldier sneered. He was close enough now that she could just make out his face. "You know very well your hands are tied. Besides, you probably want it anyway. None of those dickless excuses you call men can compare to a Carja one - "

"You're awfully fond of that cock of yours," she noted dryly. "It would be a shame if something happened to that too. Ah, well. You probably wouldn't miss something so small anyway."

"Filthy harlot," he snarled. "You'll be singing a different tune when I have you underneath me."

Irasis's arm shot out for her then, and Aloy didn't hesitate. She neatly sidestepped him, then grabbed his arm and twisted it behind him in one smooth, practised motion. Setting her jaw, she put every ounce of force into bending the arm the wrong way, and as promised, only let up when it gave a sickening crack.

The high-pitched scream of pain which tore from Irasis as he stumbled and then collapsed to the ground almost had her wincing. What it did successfully accomplish was to draw the attention of the rest of her escort, and most of the other men immediately came running. Radid was only a few seconds behind, and he took his sweet time in sauntering to Irasis's side and crouching down next to him.

"What happened here, soldier?"

"The Nora whore," he seethed. "She - she attacked me! Unprovoked! Sir, she's dangerous."

Radid's eyebrows shot up in shock, and Aloy's heart sank. "I see. That would certainly be a problem." His gaze hardened. "If that's actually what had happened here."

"What, are you going to believe her account of events?" Irasis spat. "A Nora, who couldn't figure out anything more complicated than two sticks and a string?"

Radid's smile had too much bite to it to be considered friendly. "I don't need it, because I have my own."

Irasis gaped up at the kestrel, and it gave him all the appearance of a gutted fish.

"Do you really think I would be so stupid as to allow her to wander off, completely unwatched?" Radid growled, dropping his act and leaning over the other man. "Did you forget that I am a kestrel, one of the Sun-King's own elite soldiers? I know the games you've been playing, Irasis. You've put us all at risk, and now this attempt to defile a future lady?" He glanced over his shoulder. "Men, do any of you know the sentence for the crime of assaulting a noblewoman?"

The soldiers looked uncomfortable, but one of them hesitantly piped up, "It's a coward's crime, so he would be tied down in the desert and left to the Sun's judgement. Sir."

Radid gave a swift nod. "Very good. And I do believe we have a coward on our hands."

Irasis's chest began to heave, and his eyes bulged in panic. "N-no, please! I swear I didn't mean it!"

Ignoring him, Radid stood and turned to the other men, who immediately snapped to attention. "Take him back to camp and splint that arm. Don't be gentle."

"Yes, sir!"

Once the men had left with a pale, quaking Irasis in tow, the kestrel turned to Aloy, his eyes considerably softened. "Are you all right, my lady?"

"I'd be more worried about him." She eyed the older man. "I am wondering something, though."

"Yes?"

"Why are you going through all of this effort for a Nora savage?" she asked bluntly.

Surprisingly, Radid chuckled, and the line of his shoulders relaxed. "Besides the fact that I'd rather not capture the attention of your betrothed? I have a wife and young daughter myself. I couldn't imagine anyone speaking to either of them that way, and I will not allow it for anyone else's daughter. Although, I have to admit, you seem more than capable of defending yourself."

"My betrothed," Aloy said, testing out the word. She had heard her future mate referred to by that title many times, but hadn't yet used it herself. "Why do you think he'd be upset with my being treated poorly, if he's as bad as you say?"

"Khane Argir is...a complicated man," Radid replied, furrowing his brow. "He delights in bloodshed with a fervor exceeded only by Jiran's champion himself, but he also has an unusual sense of honor the Terror of the Sun lacks. It's a rare quality in times such as these, and one I can appreciate. If he found out you, his future wife and responsibility, were made to feel uncomfortable or hurt in any way, it would mean our hides."

"This whole thing is uncomfortable," Aloy muttered.

"That it is," he agreed. "I don't envy you, my lady. But for now, we must be getting back to camp. I'm sure my men have finished setting that broken bone, and Irasis shouldn't be a thorn in your side any longer."

With Irasis suitably cowed, the rest of the journey to Meridian passed uneventfully. The group wasn't far from Daytower when an enormous, winding tower came into view on the horizon. And next to it, hints of a vast, glittering city.

Meridian.

Radid explained that the tower was called The Spire, and it was sacred to the Carja. Apparently, the man who would become the first Sun-King, the Carja ruler, was led to the structure by Glinthawks - another new machine she had only recently beheld. The shadow the Spire cast fell upon the mesa, and it was there that the settlement which would one day become Meridian was built. Out of all of the myths and legends she had heard thus far, Aloy had to admit that this one at least sounded plausible.

Meridian grew and grew until Aloy could make out individual buildings, and eventually, the movement of people and carts over its many bridges. Despite the circumstances, she had to admit that it was an impressive sight, although that didn't stop her from feeling a great deal of nervousness the afternoon they were scheduled to arrive in the city.

"Here, wear this," Radid said, handing her yet another armful of fabric. "You have a rather unique appearance that your silks won't hide, and it's best that we avoid attention as we make our way to the Temple of the Sun. A cloak will help with that."

The prideful part of her wanted to protest, but the logical part of her begrudgingly agreed with the kestrel. With the cloak on, she was just another anonymous citizen, able to walk freely throughout the streets without notice. It worked beautifully, and it was a good thing, too, because the moment Aloy stepped into the city, she was overwhelmed.

The first thing she noticed was the volume. It began in force once their group stepped on to one of the bridges leading into Meridian, where her ears were immediately assaulted by a cacophony of voices. From deep bellows to shrill shrieks, all were talking over each other as if there were a competition to see who could speak the loudest. As if it could help, Aloy drew her hood more tightly around her head. Radid spared her a sympathetic glance.

The sheer amount of bodies was even worse. After a lifetime spent in the Embrace and barely coming into contact with others, suddenly being shoved about and touched by so many other people was a deeply uncomfortable experience. The air reeked of rancid sweat, bad breath, and a faint hint of urine that had Aloy's stomach rolling and bile rising up into her throat. Desperately, she hoped that her lodgings at this Temple of the Sun would be quieter and smell far better than the city at large.

Their trek to the temple was mercifully short, the relief Aloy felt once they came to a halt in front of a grand, dizzyingly tall building enough to have her shoulders drooping with relief. Outside, a man clothed in red robes awaited them, his chin tilted up imperiously. Judging by the ridiculous hood the man wore, this had to be one of the Sun Priests Radid had spoken of.

"Is this the bride?" the priest asked in a clipped, nasally voice. The disdain on his face was clearly visible even through his hood.

"Yes," Radid responded with a curt nod. "Did you need us to help escort her, or shall we take our leave?"

The priest waved him off. "No, no. I think I can handle a single girl. Savage or no."

Aloy wasn't certain the use of that word would ever stop inspiring white hot rage, but as usual, she kept it tightly bound through a locked jaw and hands curled into fists. After three weeks of enduring Irasis's abuse, her temper had at least gotten easier to control.

"Very well." Radid turned to Aloy, and although the stoic expression on his face hadn't changed, the kindness she had grown used to was gleaming in his amber eyes. "This is where I take my leave, my lady."

"Thank you, Radid," she said softly. "For everything."

"If you want to repay me, consider putting in a good word for me to your husband. And, my lady?" Aloy caught the slightest twitch of his lips as he turned to go. "May you always walk in the light."

"Come, girl. Quickly."

The Sun Priest was tall and gangly under those robes, his strides enormous, and Aloy had to almost break out into a jog to keep up. The passages he led her through were as intricately carved as they were winding, and although she tried to keep track of the direction of the turns they took, she soon gave up. It's not like she was planning on escaping anyway.

"You'll be married tomorrow at dawn, as is tradition," the priest explained as they walked. "You will sleep here tonight, and someone will wake you early to attend to you and make you look halfway presentable."

Aloy stumbled a bit in her surprise. "Tomorrow? Why so soon?"

"That is not for you to know," he snapped. "A good wife is silent, and you ought to learn that now before your husband inevitably punishes you for speaking out of turn."

Before Aloy could think to bite back the retort brewing in her, the priest came to a stop before an open door.

"Your room," he said shortly. "Enter. Now. I have other, much more important matters to be attending to."

"I'm sure," Aloy muttered under her breath.

The instant she stepped in the room, the wooden door slammed shut behind her. The sound of a key clicking in a lock echoed loudly throughout the space, and it took all of her willpower not to turn around and kick the door like a petulant child.

At the very least, the room was deathly quiet. Finally, Aloy felt as though she could think again, and the neatly made-up cot in the corner looked as comfortable as the most luscious pile of furs after three weeks on the road. With a sigh, she set down her pack, then wandered over to the bed and collapsed on to her back.

Aloy wasn't sure why she had expected people to treat her any differently in Meridian after Irasis. The Carja were as hateful of anyone outside of their tribe as the Nora were, with their reasoning being the only differing factor. Radid had been a rarity, apparently, and for a moment she wished it was him she was mating with rather than some mysterious warrior. He was older, yes, but he was at least kind, and she could see them becoming friends under different circumstances. The only problem would be carrying out an assassination. Aloy wasn't sure she could bring herself to kill someone who she actually liked.

Her sole comfort and hope was Radid's claim that her betrothed was an honorable man. The Carja wouldn't consider a man as such if he abused his wife, would they? After all, when Irasis had attempted to touch her, they had called what he had done a coward's crime. Between this and the kestrel's words, the notion of honor being connected to a person's actions within a mateship seemed plausible, but there was no way to be certain within the framework of such bizarre customs and beliefs.

Rolling over, Aloy shut her eyes tightly. In the end, it didn't matter much beyond her personal comfort. Tomorrow, she'd meet the man she was to mate with, and all of her questions would be answered. For now, she would rest and try her damnedest not to think of home or Rost or any of the hardships to come.

Chapter Text

When Aloy awoke the next morning, it was to a round, ruddy face lit by a jovial smile filling her entire field of vision. A startled yelp escaped her, and the stranger just barely dodged out of the way before she shot up into a sitting position.

"Good morning, my lady!" The person - an older woman about in her 50s - exclaimed, unperturbed despite almost being head-butted. "We've a lot to do, so it's time to get up!"

"Wh-what? Who are you?" Aloy gasped, pressing a palm over her thundering heart.

"My name's Kanah, my lady," she said brightly. "It's about three bells after midnight, and I'm here to get you ready for your big day!"

Some of her adrenaline finally faded away, and Aloy felt the full weight of the early hour and her lack of sleep bearing down on her.

"Wonderful," she muttered, rubbing at her eyes.

"Come on now! Get up!"

Wincing, Aloy managed to drag herself out of bed. Her forearm was immediately captured by Kanah, and the older woman began to tug her out of the tiny room.

"Wait - my things - "

"Someone will be along later to collect them and deliver them to your new home," Kanah chirped. "For now, you must be bathed and dressed."

A bath honestly didn't sound half bad after weeks of bathing in streams, so Aloy sighed and reluctantly allowed the other woman to lead her down the labyrinthine maze of hallways for the second time in twenty four hours.

Eventually, they came to another door, this one much more impressive than the one to her room. Instead of wood, it was made of a metal of some kind with complicated geometric patterns etched into it. When Kanah pushed it open, a choking plume of steam came billowing out, and the woman flailed her arms around to clear it. Aloy was reminded of some small, round bird, like a chickadee.

Once the fog had cleared, she peered into the spacious room. Rather than being a tub as she had expected, the bath was built into the floor itself and as large as a small pond. Several buckets and bins ringed the pool, a few filled with colorful vessels, soaps, and patterned towels.

"Here we are, my lady," Kanah said brightly. "A ceremonial bath for you to be cleansed for your new husband."

"I'm sure he doesn't have to take one, knowing the Carja," Aloy said dryly.

"He most certainly does, my lady," she replied, guiding her the rest of the way into the room. "In fact, Khane Argir arrived about a half hour ago and is being attended to as we speak. Saw him myself as I was coming to wake you."

"What? He's here?" Aloy glanced about the clouded room frantically, as if her future mate would somehow materialise.

"Oh, yes." Kanah leaned in with a suggestive grin. "And he's an awfully handsome young man, if I do say so myself."

"I don't - "

"But don't you worry about him seeing you before you're ready," she continued over Aloy. "He's on the opposite side of the temple and will be waiting for you in the shadow of the Spire at dawn, as is tradition."

"Uh, okay." Aloy shifted uncomfortably. "I'm ready to take my bath now."

Kanah merely folded her arms over her chest and raised an eyebrow.

"So...you can leave?"

"My lady, I must be the one to bathe you," she said firmly. "It's only proper. If you're feeling self-conscious, I can assure you that it's nothing I haven't seen before. I have attended to many, many ladies over my years at this temple."

"Really, I can do it myself - "

"My lady, I insist."

It was clear that there was no winning this argument - being bathed like a small child was yet another strange, uncomfortable custom of the Carja that Aloy apparently had no choice but to go along with. Blowing out a puff of air, she hurriedly stripped off her worn old sleeping clothes then slipped into the steaming waters of the bath as quickly as she could.

As soon as her feet touched the water, Aloy gave a hiss of delight. At the very least, the bath was the perfect temperature, pleasantly hot without being scalding, and her chilled skin instantly warmed and pinked up. Baths this heated were a rare commodity in the Sacred Lands, something she had only been allowed to indulge in during the coldest, darkest days of midwinter when it was the only thing which banished the chill from her bones.

Maybe not everything about the Carja way of life was bad.

Kneeling next to the bath, Kanah studied her through keen hazel eyes. "That hair of yours, my lady...you sleep like that?"

"I do," Aloy confirmed.

Gentle fingers begin to fiddle with the rolls and braids, and Aloy sighed, closing her eyes. She'd offer to help, but she knew what the answer was likely to be. This was probably going to take awhile.

"This kind of style can't be good for it," Kanah muttered, pulling out a couple of beads. They made a quiet plink as she placed them to the side. "How does one even maintain such a look?"

Aloy shrugged. "I don't often let my hair down. Putting it up like this keeps it out of my eyes, and it rarely comes loose. It's worked for me for years."

"Surely simply pulling it back would suffice," Kanah tsked. "But I do understand a girl's need for vanity. Even if I don't look it, I was young once too, you know."

With a soft laugh, Aloy found herself relaxing beneath the older woman's deft touch. Kanah seemed as kind as Radid was, and it was a good reminder that, just like the Nora, the Carja were not a monolith in attitudes and opinions.

"Normally your mother would help attend to you today," Kanah said softly. "It's unfortunate that she's not here to witness this."

That old wound twinged in Aloy's heart. "Oh, it, um, wouldn't have made a difference anyway. I don't have one."

"I'm sorry to hear that, my lady." Sympathy wove through Kanah's tone as she finished undoing Aloy's hair. "I do hope that your husband treats you kindly, and perhaps one day you'll be blessed enough to become a mother yourself."

"Why do you keep referring to him as a 'husband'?" Aloy asked hastily, unwilling to entertain the thoughts the older woman's words had inspired. "I thought we were to be mates."

"My, the Nora have such quaint customs!" Kanah tittered while she went to retrieve a bucket adorned with similar designs as those throughout the temple. "Forgive me, my lady. I should have explained. When a man and woman are joined together, we Carja call it marriage. The man is the husband, and the woman is the wife."

Aloy frowned. "Why the different terms for the same role?"

"Ah, but the roles aren't the same. Close your eyes, my lady." A bucketful of steaming water cascaded over Aloy's head in the next second, and once she had pushed the strands of wet hair from her eyes, Kanah continued. "A wife must always endeavor to serve and care for her husband, while a husband must always protect and provide for his wife. Much like Sun and Shadow, there is a balance to maintain. You might think of it as two halves, equally important to each other."

"I can protect myself, thank you very much," Aloy said, affronted. "And I am definitely not serving anyone."

Kanah began to work some kind of sweet smelling concoction into her hair, perhaps a little more roughly than strictly necessary.

"Be careful where you voice those opinions," she warned. "I understand that you're from the Savage East, but others may not be as forgiving as I am in the face of such crude ideas."

Forgetting the delicacy of her situation, Aloy bristled. "Crude? You have to admit that it's ridiculous, Kanah. Men aren't inherently better than women, and both are perfectly capable of filling similar roles."

"Even if that were the case, we all have our place beneath the Sun," Kanah replied distantly. "Now, kindly, my lady, please hush and let me do my job."

Begrudgingly, Aloy fell silent. The rest of the bath went mostly smoothly, the only hiccup being when Kanah attempted to lather soap over her body, including her most intimate areas. She was only willing to concede to these invasive customs to a point, and having someone else touch her like that crossed that line. At Aloy's fierce glare, the older woman threw up her hands and allowed her to do the job herself.

One Aloy had been thoroughly dried and wrapped in a towel made of material more luxurious than even silk, Kanah led her through a door on the far side of the baths into yet another room. Inside was a rounded ottoman sitting before a table laid out with what appeared to be dozens of different cosmetics, and her eyes widened.

"Is all of that going on my face?" Aloy asked as she settled down onto the plush seat.

Kanah chuckled, bending over the table to examine a pot filled with a white lotion. "Not all of it. I wasn't certain what would look best on you, so I brought several options. The only descriptors the priests gave me were 'as pale as the moon herself, with hair as red as flame'. Thankfully, I don't have to worry about your eyes, because we must keep those bare for Khane Argir to paint the marks of his House."

Aloy tilted her head. "Marks?"

"I forget how little you know of our customs. I might as well explain the entire ceremony at this point," Kanah sighed, dabbing some of the lotion onto her face. "At sunrise, you'll enter the most holy sanctum of the temple, where your betrothed will be waiting for you. He will help you up the stairs to the balcony facing the Spire, then you'll both kneel before the High Priest and say a series of vows - they aren't difficult, mind you, as long as you pay attention to what the Sun Priest says." Finished with rubbing the lotion into her face, she began to apply some kind of powder that made Aloy's nose itch. "Khane Argir will proceed to claim you for his House and draw his markings on your eyes. There will be a kiss to seal the vows, and the ceremony will conclude. After, he will lead you to your new home, where both of you will retire for the rest of the day."

"A kiss?" Aloy said faintly.

"I'd be more concerned about consummating the marriage," Kanah hummed. She paused, peering over Aloy. "You do know about that part, right? If not, I can explain - "

"No, I'm good!" Aloy said hurriedly, her cheeks heating. "It's something I've been, erm, preparing myself for."

"If he's gentle, it won't be so bad," Kanah said kindly. "Even if he's not, men are easy enough to please in bed, and it should be over with quickly. A warm bath should help soothe any aches afterwards, and I can send along a cream that may help as well."

"That's...very kind of you, Kanah," Aloy said softly. "I'd appreciate that."

The only kind of makeup she had ever worn was a smear of charcoal on her eyelids, the sole selfish vanity she could afford as an outcast, and she quickly found out that a full face of makeup was an entirely different animal. The time it took to apply was bad enough, but the fact that she couldn't touch her face irritated Aloy to no end. Kanah had to scold her several times for smudging the delicate powders and creams, dragging out the process even longer.

And after that ordeal, there was the matter of her hair. As she smoothed an oily concoction into it, Kanah proclaimed how delighted she was by both its thickness and color. The styling, at least, didn't take very long - one long braid secure her bangs back and a tie to gather the ends up was all it took for the attendant to be satisfied. Her hair, she explained, should add to the effect of her dress, not distract from it.

Finally, after what seemed like hours had passed, Aloy was released from her suffering and finally allowed to stand again.

While she stretched out her stiff limbs, Kanah disappeared into yet another room. When the Carja woman returned, it was with a delicate-looking, colorful armful of fabric.

"This was Khane Argir's mother's dress," Kanah explained, holding up the garment. "I'm told she passed away some time ago, and he specifically requested that you wear it."

The dress, simply put, was beautiful. Layers upon layers of finely spun silk draped down artfully over each other as Kanah unfurled it the entire way. The deep purple underskirt was studded with tiny white gems which sparkled brilliantly everytime they caught the light, while the bodice, overskirts, ribbons, and long sleeves were comprised of many complex patterns of gold and red. All in all, the dress had the ethereal effect of being created from the stuff of dawn itself. It was finery and frivolity of the highest magnitude, but Aloy couldn't help but admire the fine craftsmanship.

I'm already growing too soft, she thought crossly.

As Kanah wound each new layer of the complex outfit around her, Aloy couldn't help but consider what this gesture said about her betrothed. Perhaps it was the part of her that yearned for her own mother, but any man who would honor his in such a way couldn't be all bad. Then again, perhaps he had little in the way of other options, and this was simply what he could come up with on short notice.

"Oh, my lady," Kanah sighed dreamily once she had finished tying the last sash around Aloy's waist. "If only looking glasses weren't so rare. If you could see what a picture you make...ah, but there's one more piece."

Aloy only had a minute to wonder before Kanah came back with what appeared to be an artfully crafted sculpture of machine parts affixed to a gauzy fabric. The white pieces were sewn together by a thick red thread and accented by golden pigments. Despite the intricacy of the item, it looked surprisingly sturdy.

"Your veil, for your husband to reveal you beneath the Sun's light," Kanah said solemnly.

It wasn't much different than the head pieces Aloy had seen many Braves wear to protect themselves in battle. Perhaps she could consider this as armor of another kind, for when the veil fell over her eyes as Kanah pinned it to her head, it obscured her vision by turning everything to a fuzzy pink hue. The slight barrier would allow her to observe her mate with some level of discretion, to begin to figure out all of his weaknesses and how she would ultimately take him down.

"I think we're done here, my lady," Kanah said, a grin blooming on her face as she swept her gaze over Aloy. "And not a moment too soon. The Sun's rising is imminent. Are you ready?"

"No." Aloy choked out a bitter laugh. "But that doesn't really matter."

When Kanah took her arm to guide her through yet another door into yet another hallway, she gave it a squeeze and a pat. "I know. It's not easy, but we all must play our part. Know that I wish the best for you, my lady. Now, walk forward - carefully, mind you, that dress is fragile - and take your first left. Continue going that way, and you shall find the Sun Priest and your betrothed waiting for you."

"You're not coming with me?"

Kanah's smile was rueful as she dropped her hold on Aloy. "Oh no, my lady. Temple slaves aren't allowed to attend noble weddings."

"Temple slave?" Aloy's eyes widened, but as soon as she turned back towards the older woman, she disappeared back into the room and closed the door with a decisive thunk.

Rage simmered within her, hot and uncontrollable. It was enough to have her leaning against the closest wall to steady herself.

It really shouldn't have been this much of a shock. Beneath the gilded facade of Meridian existed something hideous, something no gold or other such useless finery could mask. If the Carja could stoop so low as to enslave their own people, it was no wonder they were relentlessly invading the Sacred Lands. Human life seemed to be of little value to them, and the fact that Aloy not only had to live with such attitudes, but take advantage of them made her sick to her stomach. Did her betrothed own slaves? Would she be expected to order other human beings around as if they were property?

Aloy finally managed to calm herself enough to begin to move forward, but it remained difficult not to let her despair and feelings of helplessness overwhelm her. Even if she was able to dispatch her husband, what would become of the Carja slaves? The Nora certainly wouldn't bother to help in any way - slave or not, all outlanders were considered faithless and therefore tainted.

The gears of her mind began to turn as she made the left turn as Kanah had instructed, and new purpose took root inside of Aloy. After the kind of life she had led, she refused to stand idly by and watch others suffer. She'd figure out a way to help, even if it were a small one, and she'd do it all while playing her part in the treaty.

How had Kanah phrased it? They all had their place beneath the Sun.

But that didn't mean Aloy couldn't work within those bounds to subvert them at every turn.

Squaring her shoulders, she held her head high as she walked forward with tiny, mincing steps that were as foreign to her as her surroundings. Ahead, a balcony opened up to an impressive view, framing the Spire perfectly in the center. And on either side, lit by the soft glow of the oncoming dawn, stood two men, one of them clad in the distinctive garb of a Sun Priest.

The other, her soon-to-be husband.

With every step Aloy took, she could make out more and more details of his appearance. The very first thing she noticed was how enormous he was, and not just in how he stood what looked to be a full head taller than her. He was broad, packed with powerful muscle which promised a deadly strength. It's not as though she expected anything different from a talented warrior such as he, but she knew she would have to tailor her strategy to his physical advantage when she went to put him down.

Like Radid, Khane Argir was a kestrel, and he wore the same scaled metal armor that left his pale chest exposed but for a painted sigil in the motif of a stylized bird. Resting atop his head was that familiar red-plumed headdress and mask, concealing most of the upper half of his face but for cutting silver eyes which wouldn't have looked out of place on a predator animal. He looked as threatening and imposing as the legends she had heard, more mythic monster come to life than man.

But when Aloy drew close enough to reach out and touch him, he pulled his helmet off. Her sharp intake of breath went unnoticed.

Hair as black as oil to match the goatee around his mouth spilled out on to his shoulders, the top half tied back to accent the sharp features of his face. Somehow, the eeriness of his eyes had been stripped away with the removal of his mask, and when he stepped down a couple of the stairs and held out one large hand to her, they grew as warm as an early summer day.

Unable to look away from that penetrating gaze, Aloy laid her hand in his. Long fingers as warm as his eyes curled around it, and when Khane Argir helped her up the stairs and to his side, she could have sworn she felt him give her hand a reassuring squeeze. The hope she had nurtured in her chest since the beginning of this ordeal spread its wings, beating them in time with the pounding of her heart.

The man who would marry them was the very same Sun Priest who had locked her in the guest room yesterday. Aloy had to suppress a hostile glare when he leveled her with a look of disdain. Predictably, when his eyes flickered over to Khane Argir, they contained much more respect.

"Sahad Khane Argir and Aloy of the Nora, kneel before the shadow of the Spire and the light of Sun."

Sahad. Was that his true name? To her surprise, when she kneeled down before her betrothed, she caught him mouthing what looked like her own name as he set his helmet aside. When he noticed her looking at him, Khane Argir gave her a slight grin, and she dropped her gaze to where her hands rested in her lap.

"As the Sun's holy rays bring about the start of a new day, so too does it light the beginning of this sacred union between man and women," the priest dictated. "Marriage is a great milestone upon the sunlit path of every Carja, where each man or woman becomes one with his or her other half…"

While the Sun Priest prattled on, Aloy chanced a glance back up at Khane Argir, frowning behind her veil when she noticed he was still staring at her. Quite honestly, she had no idea how to feel or what to make of him. He hadn't yet spoken a single word, but the way he looked at her contained none of the loathing of Irasis or the disgust of the Sun Priest. Nor did it hold the kindness of Radid or the fondness of Kanah. Already, he was a puzzle she was determined to solve, and she studied him carefully until the priest changing his voice to an instructional cadence tore her from her concentration.

"Sahad Khane Argir, before you sits Aloy of the Nora, she who is to be bound to you as wife and partner. Repeat these vows:

Aloy of the Nora, beneath the light of the Sun, I claim you as my wife."

"Aloy of the Nora, beneath the light of the Sun, I claim you as my wife." His voice was deep and surprisingly soothing, and the distinctive way his lips curled around her name had something in Aloy's stomach fluttering unnervingly.

"You are the Shadow to my Sun, the Sun to my Shadow," the priest said. "As those two are bound, so are we, until darkness separates us."

"You are the Shadow to my Sun, the Sun to my Shadow. As those two are bound, so are we, until darkness separates us."

Aloy dutifully repeated the same vows, relieved when she only stumbled over the words once. She swore she could see Khane Argir's lips quirk.

"Like the brazen splendor of the Sun at dawn unveils the new day, so too shall you unveil your bride."

Slowly, as though not to frighten her, Khane Argir reached out to take the thin fabric of her veil between his fingers. As he lifted it, his chest rose with a single deep breath, and once he had folded it neatly over her headdress, his grey eyes widened. For the first time, Aloy beheld the man who would imminently become her husband without anything between them. All she could wonder was what he was thinking in the moment - and why he kept staring at her so intently.

The priest continued, lifting his hands this time. "While I speak the names of those great men who came before you, Sahad Khane Argir, paint the marks of your House upon Aloy of the Nora's eyes, the same marks His Radiance Sun-King Araman himself once painted upon your forefather."

While the Sun Priest droned on and on, Khane Argir reached into one of his pouches and produced a black stick of something similar to pressed charcoal. Bending close, he slid his fingers under her chin and tilted it up. As soon as his skin made contact with hers, Aloy jumped as though a spark of static electricity had passed between them, and his eyes softened in response.

"Don't be afraid," he whispered, almost too quietly to hear as he brought the stick to her eyes. "I won't hurt you."

Maybe not now, but you'll try. That's how this has to end, Aloy thought stubbornly, but her traitorous body relaxed all the same.

Khane Argir's hands were quick and deft, and by the time the priest had finished listing off the names of his ancestors, he had pulled away and was once again sitting politely with his hands in his lap. Aloy assumed that she now sported similar markings to those under his eyes - a smudge of black with a line capped by a circle protruding from the center - and she fleetingly wondered what they looked like on her.

"Aloy of the Nora, with these marks, I, Sahad Khane Argir, bring you into the shelter and protection of my House," he said, his voice loud enough to echo throughout the chamber. "With the Sun as my witness, you shall henceforth be known as Aloy Khane Argir."

"So it is spoken, so shall it be. As the Sun has now risen, I bid you both to also rise to your feet, reborn into this new day as husband and wife," the Sun Priest commanded.

Aloy eyed Khane Argir's hand distastefully. If it weren't for the many layers of the dress - too many, in her opinion - she would have been perfectly capable of standing herself. She wasn't keen on falling on her face, however, so she swallowed her pride and took his hand once more.

He grabbed her other one, and Aloy had to bite back the impulse to yank them both away, because she had a good idea of what was coming next.

"With the Sun as your witness, Sahad Khane Argir, kiss your new wife to seal this most holy of bonds."

In an instant, her husband's face changed. His lips twisted sardonically, and Aloy braced herself as he leaned forward to press them to hers. They were firm and unyielding, as though he were pursing his lips shut tightly to make as little contact with her as possible. The kiss mercifully only lasted for a couple of seconds, and it was a good thing too, because any longer and she wasn’t sure she’d be able to resist slapping him. The closest she'd ever been to another person, and it was one of the most uncomfortable experiences of her life, one she absolutely would not be repeating. She hadn’t seen the appeal of kissing another person before and definitely didn’t see it now.

When Khane Argir jerked away, his expression was steeped in disgust. Stepping back, he turned his head and spat on the ground, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand for good measure. The Sun Priest let loose a cruel laugh. Thoroughly humiliated, all she could do was turn away to hide the angry flush heating her cheeks. At that moment, the only thing Aloy could think about was how good it would feel to sink a dagger into her husband's heart.

"Come, wife," he said harshly. After bending to retrieve his helmet, he turned to stalk off in the direction of what Aloy assumed to be the exit.

Radid had been wrong. Her own initial impression of Khane Argir had been wrong. In fact, the only one who had been right about anything in this situation was Rost. The man in front of her held not an ounce of honor within him, and as she reluctantly followed after him in her stupid, ridiculous dress, the only thing Aloy could do was curse herself for being so naive. This was about survival, not her comfort, and it was time to set aside childish hopes and consider the facts - like how she was going to have to negotiate going to bed with this awful man.

Khane Argir's strides were smooth and long, forcing her to quicken her pace to keep up with him. Which ended up being why she almost crashed into him when he came to a sudden stop.

Aloy followed the line of his gaze in irritated confusion, her eyes landing on a man she hadn't noticed before, probably because he was mostly obscured by shadow. He stepped forward into the light, and she got a good enough look at him to discern fine silks, a goatee, grey hair, grey eyes - and beneath those, markings the exact same as her husband's.

A weary, sad smile touched the older man's lips, and he gave a slow nod. "Sahad. Congratulations."

His icy eyes narrowed to slits, Khane Argir stood stock still while he studied the strange man. Something passed between the two, something heavy which Aloy couldn't quite understand but left the air charged with a nervous electricity. Then, as if jerked up by some invisible string, her husband straightened and craned his head back in her direction. His voice more commanding than before, again he barked out, "Come, wife."

Between her lack of sleep, the constricting cage of her dress, and being treated abhorrently by practically every Carja she had come in contact with, Aloy had had just about enough. Treaty or not, no one had the right to speak to her that way, and she wasn't about to spend months, perhaps years pretending to tolerate it.

Storming forward, she grabbed at her husband's arm. "Sahad, right? My name is Aloy, not wife. You know, in case you forgot within the last five minutes."

Shock and some indiscernible emotion flashed over his face, but in the next moment, he bared his teeth at her and said, "I don't particularly care what your name is, or who you were before today. You are now my wife, and that means you must obey me regardless of what your feelings on the matter are. And you are only to refer to me as Nil from now on, understood? Good. Now, walk."

Before she realized what she was doing, Aloy had balled a hand into a tight fist and was pulling it back behind her. At her husband's - Nil, apparently - skeptically raised eyebrow, she faltered.

Rost. The Nora children. The Carja slaves. How was she to help any of them if she ruined this before she had a chance to make an impact?

Exhaling through gritted teeth, Aloy slowly dropped her first and reluctantly uncurled her fingers. Seemingly satisfied, her husband's face became as still and as hard as stone before he turned, put his helmet back on, and made his way out of the Temple of the Sun and onto the streets of Meridian.

Chapter Text

Unfortunately, it appeared as though word of the wedding had gotten out to the general public. The first thing Aloy noticed when she stepped outside was several people in finery she knew now was typical of nobles loitering outside the Temple of the Sun. As soon as her and Nil stepped outside, their gazes snapped to the couple like vigilant Watchers. The whispers followed soon after.

"By the Sun, is that her?"

"Quiet - if he hears you - "

"Cleaned up awfully well for a savage."

"What a lovely dress, wasted on such a brutish woman. Why, her arms are so... muscular!"

"It was a punishment, I suppose."

"I'll bet Sahidi is rolling in her grave."

The last one was what got Nil's attention. Like a hawk who had caught sight of prey, he whipped his head in the direction of the gossiping crowd and fixed them with a piercing glare.

The nobles drew back at once, and one even let loose a muffled gasp.

"Don't you have anything better to do with yourselves?" he said disdainfully, his voice loud enough to carry throughout the courtyard. "Disperse. Now. That's an order."

Nil kept his eyes riveted onto the other nobles until they reluctantly wandered off, a few of them brave (or stupid, perhaps) enough to look visibly put out. Once they were gone, he shook his head and made a disgusted noise.

"Boastful, wretched children, all of them," he muttered.

Glancing abruptly back down at Aloy, as though he had just remembered that she was still there, Nil wordlessly jerked his head in the direction of the street. Without waiting to see if she was following or not, he took off at a brisk gait. She trailed after him with an irritated sigh, holding her head as high as ever.

For Aloy, this was just a different flavor of what she had to put up with as an outcast, and the Carja were even less creative in their variety of insults. A large part of her was viciously pleased by how her husband wasn't as accustomed to hateful words flung at him by total strangers as she was. If she had to guess, she'd say that Nil was used to the kind of respect birthed out of fear. Unfortunately for him, it seemed as though the gossip potential of his being married to a Nora savage was too much for his fellow nobles to resist.

A powerful warrior in his own right, but too weak to handle the taste of his own medicine, she thought smugly.

Despite the early hour, Meridian was already teeming with people going about their business. The way they weaved between one another in an effortless dance made it seem as though the city dwellers were in possession of an uncanny ability to sense their fellow citizens' movements. It reminded Aloy a lot of a colony of ants, actually. Each individual had a role to play out, each person had a place to be, like they were all cogs in a greater machine.

Some of them were less enthusiastic about their place than others, Aloy noted, as she watched a miserable-looking old woman carry a sack of grain on her trembling back. She itched to offer to help with the burden, something she wouldn't have hesitated to do for her neighbor Odd Grata back home in the Embrace, but between the dress and the overbearing presence of her new husband, she was worse than useless at the moment.

As they walked and left the markets outside of the temple behind, the crowds began to thin. The section of the city they were headed towards appeared to be entirely residential, and as the number of people dwindled, so too did the amount of noise. By the time Nil stopped in front of a neatly kept building with a row of doors, only a few Carja were quietly milling about, and even they fled into the early morning shadows when they caught sight of her new husband.

After glancing around warily, Nil removed his headdress. Rather than the arrogance Aloy would have expected to see on his face, he looked almost…tired.

"Welcome home, Aloy," he said, inclining his head towards a door on one corner of the building.

With a frown, Aloy examined the place. The door appeared to be made out of cast bronze, and four identical windows with ornamental shutters of some other kind of wrought metal - one next to the door on the first floor, and two on the second - studded the red brick exterior. Beneath each window hung a large box which ran the width of it. Her curiosity getting the better of her, she walked over to the first floor window and peered into the box there, perplexed when she saw that it was filled with soil, of all things.

"They're called planters," Nil explained from behind her, and Aloy immediately stepped a few paces off to the side when she realized how close he was. He didn't seem to mind. "For flowers, to brighten up the place a bit. I bought seeds, and you're welcome to plant them sometime. Or I can, if you don't want to."

When Aloy's only response was to stare at him blankly, he shrugged and walked up the small set of stone stairs leading to the front door. Producing a key from another one of the pouches hooked to his belt, he stuck it into the lock, turned it, then pushed the door open.

"After you," Nil said, flashing her an easy grin.

By this point, Aloy was thoroughly confused, not to mention more than a little suspicious. After the way Nil had behaved during the ceremony, this out of the blue kindness was glaringly suspect. She wondered if his change in attitude was intended to put her at ease before they coupled, when it was in fact having the opposite effect on her. Things would have been much easier if she knew exactly where she stood with him, rather than being stuck in this uncomfortable limbo with a man she barely knew but would be sharing a life and home with. But as had been the case throughout this entire ordeal, she didn't have much of a choice in the matter.

Sucking up all of her pride, Aloy stepped over the threshold and into what was to be her home for the foreseeable future.

The first thing she noticed was how wastefully large the place was. There was enough space to sleep twenty tribesmen, and after spending her entire life in Rost's cozy hut, it was almost too much. It didn't help that the only furniture was a couple of wooden chairs, a flat, padded bench, and a cheerfully painted wooden table sitting close to a simmering hearth on the other end.

"This is way too big for just two people," Aloy blurted out.

Nil had just set his helmet on the table, and he turned to her with an even larger grin than the one he had given her outside. "Ah, so she does speak."

"My mistake," Aloy muttered.

"This will all go a lot more smoothly if we're able to hold a civil conversation, you know," Nil said lightly. "Now, I'm sure they didn't feed you at the temple. Are you hungry?"

Shaking her head, she folded her arms over her chest and refused to look at him.

"I suppose accepting something from me at this
juncture would be too much," Nil sighed, then pointed to a small door on the wall next to the hearth. "Still, I understand. If you do decide to eat eventually, there's maizebread, cured meat, and several varieties of fruit there in the pantry. I didn't know what you would like to eat, so I picked up a bit of everything. Normally, there would be a feast with both of our families present, but, well..."

"Where did they put my bags?" Aloy demanded, ignoring his other words. "I want to change."

"That, I can help you with," he said, tilting his head. "Follow me."

A wooden flight of stairs sat in the back of the room opposite the front door, and she followed after him apprehensively. While single Nora slept in the communal bunkhouses, most mated couples tended to share a hut and a bed, and she wondered if the Carja functioned similarly. The idea of having to sleep next to Nil was deeply unpleasant, especially considering the awkward positions they could end up in throughout the night. Frankly, Aloy would rather not wake up in the morning spooning someone she was supposed to be plotting to kill.

At the top of the stairs was a tiny hallway with two doors, and Nil opened the one to the left, then stepped aside politely.

"This is your bedroom," he explained.

"We're not sharing? Don't Carja mates - er, husbands and wives - share a bed?" Aloy asked before she could stop herself.

Nil snorted and waved her off. "It's variable with noble couples, but I wouldn't be so uncouth as to inflict myself on you like that."

Some of the tension in her melted away as she stepped inside her new bedroom, as he had called it (Aloy was of the opinion that one person having an entire room to themselves was excessive, but she wasn't going to give voice to that). Oddly, it was much more finely furnished than the rest of the house. Intricately woven tapestries and framed pictures of machines covered the stone walls, and a large, plush-looking bed absolutely swamped in pillows of all colors, shapes, and sizes sat invitingly in the corner. On top of all of that sat her belongings, and Aloy breathed a quiet sigh of relief - she was more than ready to change out of her wedding dress and into the comfortable, casual silks Radid had gifted her.

Across from the bed was an unlit fireplace, while in the other corner of the room was a sturdy-looking wooden desk with another one of those rounded ottomans she had seen in the Temple of the Sun tucked beneath it.

"There's freshly laundered clothing in the wardrobe," Nil spoke up, and she glanced over at him out of reflex. "And as far as the decor goes, you're more than welcome to change it. When I found out my wife was to be Nora, I tried to search for furs, but I'm sure you understand those are considered an exotic good here in Meridian, and anything larger than trim is hard to acquire on short notice. If you prefer those to silks, I can commission a special order."

When Aloy yet again didn't respond, too befuddled by his strangely kind actions to speak, Nil stepped back and gripped the door handle.

"Take the rest of the day to yourself, Aloy," he said with a crooked smile. "You've certainly earned it."

For reasons she didn't fully understand, Aloy stared at the door long after it had clicked shut.

It was the veil falling over her eyes once again which reminded her of what she had come up here to do. After grabbing her Focus from her bags and clipping it back onto her ear, she carefully lifted the ornate jewelry from her head and walked the few paces to the desk to place it there. That was when a piece of paper with a small object sitting on top caught her eye.

Aloy picked up the object first. It only took her a second to realize that it was a carved wooden dragonfly, and she lifted it closer to her eyes to inspect it. The detail was astounding for such a tiny sculpture, from the webbing on the wings to the segmented sections of the body. It was whimsical and frivolous, and she found herself smiling slightly. But why had it been left here on her desk like this?

The paper beneath it - a note - offered clarity, and Aloy felt her newborn smile slip away as her Focus translated the Carja glyphs and she began to read it.

Beginnings are often as bitter as ends. The dragonfly, more than any other creature, understands that.

-Nil

Her lip curled of its own accord, and before she registered what she was doing, Aloy picked up the dragonfly, crumpled up the paper, and hurled them both into the fireplace. The tiny plink the gorgeous little sculpture made as it hit the stone lining inside had a brief pang of guilt throbbing in her chest, but she shoved that away. Well-made or not, it was something from him, and the mocking words of his note stung her more than she would've liked to admit. The best possible use for this cruel gift was kindling for the fire she would light later to keep her warm in the cold of the desert night. At least then, it would have a real use.

That minor annoyance dealt with, she stared down at herself with an appraising frown as she puzzled out how best to get herself out of the dress. Aloy probably should have paid more attention when Kanah had dressed her, but in her defense, her mind had been occupied by other, more pressing matters.

She handled each piece of the garment with care, laying them out on top of her bed in a neat pile. The ties and sashes were easy enough to remove, as were the floaty top layers. It was when she got to the last and tightest underlayer that she started to run into issues.

Try as she might - and she did, for about a half an hour - Aloy couldn't manage to wiggle out of the delicate silk. It laced up in the back and fit her as well as a finely made dagger sheath, supporting and showcasing parts of her body she had never given much thought to beforehand. Unfortunately, that also meant that without a helping hand, she wouldn't be able to free herself from it.

She supposed she could attempt to tear herself out of it, but something about the idea of the beautiful dress being ruined beyond repair didn't sit right with her. Aloy may have hated her husband, but destroying an heirloom belonging to his dead mother felt like a step too far. The last thing she wanted to do was stoop to his level.

That left her with little choice. As loathe as she was to admit it, Aloy needed Nil's help to get out of the final piece of the outfit.

Pushing open her door, she poked her head out to look around and listen. No sounds beyond the distant hustle and bustle of the city could be heard, and she slipped out of the room and closed the door behind her with a soft click. Nil was likely downstairs, so she slowly descended the stairs, still making sure to be mindful of her steps.

When the floorboards of the first floor creaked under her weight, Aloy scanned the space with a confused frown. No sight of her husband. Perhaps the pantry?

Her belly growled loudly as soon as her eyes landed on the variety of food he had procured. Fruits both familiar and note, multiple types of jerky, a spongy, yellow cake that must be the maizebread he spoke of...but still no sign of Nil.

Aloy's stomach protested its emptiness yet again, and she sighed in defeat. A quick snack wouldn't hurt anything. The maizebread in particular looked easy enough to eat quickly, so she reached over a shelf to pick up a pre-sliced chunk.

As soon as she bit into it, crumbly, decadent sweetness spread through her mouth. Aloy was glad she had closed the panty door behind her, because the guttural moan she gave was downright embarrassing in both its volume and enthusiasm. Once she had finished devouring the bread and her stomach had finally quieted, she determinedly brushed some errant crumbs off of her chest and pushed out of the pantry to continue looking for her husband.

If Nil wasn't downstairs, that meant he had either left altogether or was upstairs in the room next to hers. By the time Aloy reached the landing at the top once again, her heart was pounding as rapidly as the hoofbeats of a startled Strider for reasons she couldn't discern. Steeling herself, she raised her fist to knock at the door.

There was a shuffling inside, then seconds later the door was yanked open roughly, and Aloy came face to face with an entirely bare chest.

Not that it hadn't been that way before, but the black sigil Nil had painted there in addition to his other armor had done a lot to cover him up. Now, he stood before her wearing nothing but a pair of loose purple slacks which ended at his knees. His long, black locks were slicked back and damp, and his chest glimmered with beads of moisture. She watched as one quivered, broke free, and rolled down the sculpted hills and valleys of his abdomen.

Aloy couldn't help her wide-eyed stare, nor the heat which rose from her neck and up into her face like an allergic reaction. She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out.

"Yes? What is it?"

Nil sighed when several seconds passed, and she didn't respond. "You ought to start using your words, or this is going to be a frustrating experience for the both of us."

"The dress," she finally managed. "I can't get out of it. I, uh. I need your help."

Her husband's grey eyes widened almost imperceptibly, then once again became as flat and hard as slate.

"Go to your room," he said shortly. "I'll be there in a few minutes."

Aloy rolled her eyes. "Sorry to be such an inconvenience to you, husband. I'll try to avoid that in the future, believe me."

Nil had already turned to go, his hand raised to the door handle. He paused, the line of his shoulders growing taut. But when he glanced back over his shoulder at her, his gaze had lightened considerably.

"You're not at all an inconvenience, Aloy, and I'm sorry I've made you feel that way. I only need a few minutes, then I'll be right in."

After he had closed the door, she huffed and stormed off into her room, folding her arms in front of her chest while she waited.

Who exactly was Nil? Only a few hours into their marriage, and he had already shifted his personality and demeanor so many times, Aloy wasn't entirely sure that he wasn't part chameleon. Whatever he was, she didn't like it in the slightest. As predictable as they were, people very rarely caught her off guard, but Nil was an entirely different story. It would make figuring out the best way to end him all the more difficult, and she wasn't looking forward to getting close enough to him to parse out his weaknesses.

Ten or so minutes passed, and finally, Nil - wearing a simple silk shirt this time, Aloy was relieved to note - emerged from his room.

"Let's see here," he hummed, circling around her at a polite distance. "You'll forgive me if I'm not exactly up to speed on ladies' fashion and how to remove it."

The barb she could have thrown at him was all too tempting, but this time, Aloy took the high road.

"Wasn't this your mother's, though?"

"It was," he confirmed. "But I didn't spend much time looking over it after she died. It sat in storage collecting dust until about a week ago, actually."

Unsure of what to say to that, Aloy dropped her gaze to her feet.

"I think Kanah, the woman who took care of me this morning, closed it up from the back," she offered hesitantly, after a few more seconds had elapsed.

"Ah! I see now," Nil exclaimed.

The slight pressure from his fingers grazing over the fastenings elicited an uncontrollable shiver from her, and he stopped immediately.

"Are you okay? I'm sorry, I should have warned you before I touched you - "

"I'm fine!" Aloy interjected hastily, cursing the flush blooming once again in her cheeks like a disease. "Just...let's get this over with."

"I'm rather upset that they didn't feed you this morning," Nil commented as he went to work on undoing her dress again. The sound of his voice was the perfect distraction from the odd feelings his fingers were inspiring in her, and she latched onto it frantically. "Especially after putting all of this effort into your appearance. I'll have to have a word with the Sun Priests."

"Don't!" Her voice came out louder and more forceful than she had intended. Nil's hands stilled once again.

"I'll respect your wishes, but may I ask why?"

"Kanah...she's a slave," she said, clenching her fists. "I don't want her getting in trouble, and All-Mother knows how you Carja punish people who you see as nothing more than objects to be bought, sold, and used. She was the only one who's been kind to me besides the kestrel who brought me to Meridian and…" Aloy trailed off, swallowing. She had almost forgotten who she was talking to. "I don't know why I'm bothering. I'm surprised you don't own slaves yourself."

Nil's voice was exacting and dangerous when he responded. "I don't see any appeal in keeping human beings as property. In fact, I find it rather disgusting and dishonorable, and I'd appreciate it if, in the future, you didn't imply otherwise. Or allow this shared opinion of ours to leave this house. Meridian is a dangerous place, and you must learn to speak carefully." His tone softened. "But you make a very good point. I won't say anything to the Sun Priests. You have my word."

Aloy let loose a breath she hadn't known she'd be holding. As bad as he was, Nil and her at least agreed on this. Common ground was something she could work with.

Still...

A Carja's word isn't good for much.

Rost's words echoed in her head, and her hands tightened into fists.

She must learn to speak carefully, indeed.

"I can do that," Aloy finally said, and his hands began to move again.

"This kestrel," he mused after a moment. "Do you remember his name?"

"It was Radid." Aloy saw no harm in putting in a good word to her husband, as the man had requested. "He didn't allow the other soldiers to speak poorly of me, and it made my journey here much easier."

Nil made a mildly surprised noise. "Yes, I know of him. He's an honorable man and a good commander, so I'm not surprised he kept his men in line. I'll be sure to thank him next time our paths cross."

Before she could stop herself, Aloy said, "He's afraid of you."

Speaking carefully was going to be a skill she'd need to practice, apparently.

"Most people are," he replied indifferently. "Rumors spread like blood. It's something I've grown used to."

Her curiosity growing too insistent to ignore, Aloy finally gave voice to a question she had been pondering since her first day out of the Embrace.

"Is this any truth to them?" she asked hesitantly. "The rumors."

"There's a kernel of truth to be found in most stories, no matter how outlandish," Nil replied cryptically. His hands finally left her, and her back felt curiously chilled despite the warm day. He gave a polite cough. "You should be able to take that off now."

It occurred to Aloy then that she was standing in a bedroom mostly undressed, next to her brand new husband. With whom she was supposed to be consummating a marriage in the immediate future. This realization banished all of her musings on Nil's past exploits, and when she turned around to face him, clutching the loosened fabric of the shift to her chest, it was with blazingly hot cheeks and an inability to make eye contact.

If she absolutely had to couple with him, it would probably be best to do it while they were both still being cordial with each other. Maybe it would be easier if she put herself in the mindset that this was another obstacle to be overcome, and maybe in time she'd even grow used to having to go to bed with him. Pulling in an enormous breath of air to steady herself and keeping all that was at stake in the forefront of her mind, Aloy began to work her arms out of the dress.

"Well, I suppose that's my cue to leave." When she was finally able to bring herself to glance up at Nil again, she could have sworn there was a faint blush of his own dusting his cheeks.

"No, it's not." Aloy shook her head firmly, continuing to wiggle out of the shift. "If we have to mate, I'd rather - "

Before she could work the shift down over her breasts, her husband's hand shot out and tugged it right back up.

"That's" - he cleared his throat - "that's not happening, I'm afraid. I'm not going to force myself on someone who's unwilling. Especially not you."

"I am willing!" Aloy protested. "This marriage is part of the treaty, and coupling is a part of mating - I mean, marriage."

"You are not," Nil returned. "And I won't have you otherwise. I'm all for ceding to desires, but this is not one of yours."

Indignation welled up in her. "I've been preparing myself for this since the day I left home!"

"Is that so?"

His expression unreadable but for a slight tremor of his lips, Nil reached out to brush his fingers over the curve of her cheek, dragging them down until they were only a couple centimeters from her lips. Although Aloy tried her hardest to hold it back, to keep calm, she still flinched. He immediately pulled his hand away.

And when he lifted his fingers for her to inspect, there were a few crumbs of maizebread stuck to them.

A satisfied smile played on Nil's lips. "I see you found something to eat after all. I'm glad you've sated that desire, at least."

Aloy gaped at him, not sure whether to feel gratitude or more of the unique kind of irritation she was quickly coming to associate with him. She settled on the latter.

"As much as the nobility of the Sun Court would like to believe otherwise, the matters of our marriage are private, Aloy," he said, his smile becoming, to her absolute shock, genuine. "I won't tell anyone what we do - or in this case, don't do - in the privacy of our home."

The relief that swamped her at Nil's words was staggering. A massive weight had quite suddenly been lifted from her shoulders, and she felt as though she could finally breathe again after weeks of holding her breath. She hated to admit it, but he was right. As much as Aloy had been ready to accept going to bed with a man she barely knew, it wasn't what she had actually wanted in any sense of the word. In the past, on the rare occasions she thought about what coupling with someone would be like, it had always been because she wanted to, or maybe even out of a shared affection - never out of obligation or duty. Her body was still entirely her own, and she wrapped her arms around it as if to confirm that for herself.

"Thank you," she finally managed.

"No need to thank me for behaving with the most basic of decencies," Nil muttered, but there was a lopsided grin tugging at his lips. "Now, before I take my leave, is there anything else you need?"

He went to smooth back a few escaped strands of his mostly dried hair with his right hand, and that's when she saw them.

How Aloy hadn't noticed before, she didn't know. It had probably been the low light, the overwhelming nature of her circumstances, or most likely, a combination of the two. At least in the Temple of the Sun, she had the excuse that he had been wearing a leather arm guard as a part of his armor which would have covered everything.

Raised scars crisscrossed the span of his right forearm, most of them older and paler, others fresher and pinker. A couple even still bore traces of scabbing, the newly revealed skin taking on a faint shine. Aloy had received plenty of scars from her exploits, both combat related and not, and none of them bore any resemblance to these.

Her husband caught her staring, and he froze.

"Nil," she said, her brow knitting. "What…"

She lifted her hand - to do what, she wasn't sure - and that was what ultimately broke him out of his spell. With a breathless gasp, he jerked back as though she had wounded him herself. His expression flattened out until his face appeared to be carved from chiseled marble. Without another word, Nil turned and strode out the door, slamming it behind him with so much force that a framed mosaic of a Stormbird in flight on the wall rattled noisily.

Bewildered, Aloy slowly sank down onto the edge of her bed. The shift finally slipped down and pooled at her waist, but she didn't notice or care.

Her heart squeezed painfully as she mentally played back the events of the past couple minutes. If she didn't know any better, those scars had been self-inflicted with what looked like a blade. It was the only thing that explained the regular pattern, the varying degrees of healing, and most of all, Nil's reaction to her seeing them.

The question was, why did she care so much? Just because he had shown her a single scrap of kindness didn't mean Aloy owed him her sympathies. If anything, his subsequent reaction had put a damper on most of the positive ground she had made with him, and although she was aware that it was childish, she felt herself growing just a little angry in return.

She had believed that a mate who was cruel was the worst case scenario, but she had been wrong. Nil was as complex and as mutable as they came. As someone who usually knew where she stood with others due to her being an outcast, Aloy hated how much he threw her off balance. It was only the first day of her new existence as a wife and noblewoman, and already she found herself wishing that it was over.

Only one thing was for certain in the mess her life had become: Aloy was in for a very long, very frustrating marriage.

Chapter Text

The two weeks after the wedding dragged by at an excruciatingly slow pace. Nil would leave early and stay gone all day - to where, Aloy didn't know and didn't particularly care. Every evening, he brought back a fresh meal from the markets for dinner, from roasted cuts of meat with crackled skin to thick, spicy stews. No matter how appetizing the food looked, she begged off to her room every time, claiming that she had already eaten or wasn't very hungry to begin with. She could tell that he didn't really believe her, but she didn't owe him anything. Instead of suffering through what would assuredly be awkward meals with him, she had taken to eating beforehand and then sneaking down to the pantry after she knew he had retired for the night to gorge herself on whatever she could find.

Nil didn't say a word, and she always found the pantry restocked every few days.

With little in the way to do, Aloy quickly slid into boredom. Being bored at this juncture was dangerous, because it gave her too much time alone with only her thoughts as company, and that tended to lead places she had been trying to keep tightly locked away - namely, Rost and the homesickness that was growing like weeds in her heart with every passing day. With little in the way of distraction, avoiding those thoughts was becoming a monumental task, but she fought against them anyway.

The walls of the house - and by extension, the city - began to feel like a cage. Aloy yearned for the weight of her spear and bow in her hands, for the pleasure of running through forest and meadow without any care beyond honing her skills. Life had been simple back in the Embrace. Foolishly, she had hated it, unaware that there were worse fates. At least back home in the valley, she had been free.

Exercise was her only way to cope, and even her ability to partake in that was limited. She did countless pushups and situps, pulled herself up on shelves after testing their weight, ran up and down the stairs until her breath was gone and then some, and still, it wasn't enough. With no real ability to release any built up tension, her muscles were coiled as tight as springs in a machine, and without proper conditioning, she feared that soon her strength would begin to fade. Aloy had never been weak in her life, and the thought alone threatened to send her into a desperate spiral. She needed to figure out a solution, and soon.

It wasn't only homesickness and boredom that needled at Aloy, however. Loneliness began to creep in too, more than she had yet felt in the miserable span of her existence. As an outcast, she had at least had Rost to talk to. Now, she had no one.

Maybe that was why she finally caved one night, although she tried to convince herself otherwise. Nil had been running a little late, and despite her opinion of him, the house was yawningly empty without his presence. Normally, she waited up in her room for that inevitable knock on the door where he'd ask if she'd like to join him for dinner and she'd refuse. Tonight, she sat on the couch downstairs, her hands folded in her lap. Waiting.

It wasn't until shortly after the sun had set that Nil finally came home. The door flew open, snapping Aloy to attention, and he strode in with a scowl, muttering under his breath while he dropped his helmet on to the table.

Her heart sank. Tonight, of all nights, he was in a foul mood. Just her luck.

But when Nil turned and caught sight of her, the ire on his face changed to shock, then smoothed over into a carefully restrained, polite curiosity.

"Aloy," he said breathlessly. He went to take a step forward, but then stopped and folded his arms behind his back. "Is something wrong?"

"No!" she said quickly. "No. I, um, came down for dinner."

Nil's mouth dropped open, then snapped shut. Bringing a hand to his face, he groaned.

"Sun and Shadow, I'm sorry. I didn't pick anything up tonight. I didn't think it would matter."

"Oh." Oddly enough, disappointment welled up in Aloy, but she forced it back. "It's all right. I'll just - just grab something from the pantry later."

She stood to go back upstairs, but Nil lifted his hands up in front of him beseechingly.

"Wait! I could cook something. For the both of us."

Aloy found herself automatically nodding and settling back down on the couch. As uncomfortable as a meal together would be, it would at least be an opportunity to get closer to him, a way of kickstarting her mission of getting to know him. She had waffled enough, and regardless of her personal feelings, it was time to get down to business. With time, perhaps her husband would let certain valuable secrets about the Sundom's military operations slip.

Resolving to do her best to be open and friendly, Aloy kept her eyes on Nil as he began to prepare their dinner. From the pantry he had retrieved a variety of fresh vegetables, some kind of unfamiliar grain, and what looked like spices.

"I apologize for the lack of meat," Nil said as he began to slice through a bright red bell pepper with a large knife. "But here in Meridian, it spoils faster than a corpse baking in the sun, so it must be bought fresh the day you intend to use it."

Aloy wrinkled her nose. "That's disgusting."

"It's true, though." He turned his head to flash her a grin. "I think you'll like this well enough, meat or no. I don't like to boast, but cooking is one of my specialties."

"Probably because it involves using a tool which could double as a weapon," Aloy muttered.

To her surprise, Nil laughed. "Maybe. In truth, I enjoy the finer things in life, and learning to cook well was an easy way of obtaining good food to satisfy that part of my desires."

"But...food is food," she remarked, tilting her head. "It doesn't matter if it tastes good or not. It only needs to function as fuel for our bodies."

Nil snorted. "How very Nora of you. Don't worry, I won't tell anyone how much you enjoy this - and you will. Your secret is safe with me."

Unable to hold her ever-present curiosity back any longer, Aloy asked, "What is it?"

"Spiced vegetables and rice." He shrugged. "Not my most elegant dish, but it'll fill your belly. And I won't spice it too heavily either. Just enough to start getting you used to the heat of Carja cuisine."

After that, she fell silent. Nil left the house once to retrieve water from their nearby well, which he poured into a heavy pan and hooked in the hearth to boil. He talked through each step as he worked, and Aloy found herself listening reluctantly - he had such a way with words that explanations of even the most banal topics became interesting. By the time the enticing smells of their dinner had filled the house, she had relaxed almost completely.

Maybe figuring Nil out wouldn't be as difficult as she thought.

Soon enough, Aloy found herself sitting at the table enjoying her very first meal with her husband. And it turned out he hadn't been boasting - although simple, the vegetables were flavorful with a slight crunch, and the starchiness of the rice helped tame the residual heat from the spices. It may have been because it was her first cooked food in weeks, but it was one of the best meals she could recall having.

Unsurprisingly, it was Nil who spoke first once they had finished.

"Well? How did you like it?"

"It was really good, actually," Aloy said, and to her own surprise, she managed a small smile.

"We'll have to do this more often, then." His expression was pleased as he leaned across the table to collect her plate. "I know you're probably going to head up to bed now, but I did want to ask first if there was anything else you needed to feel more comfortable here."

He was being entirely earnest, she realized, and her heart skipped a beat.

"Nothing that could be bought."

Nil raised an inquisitive eyebrow. "Ah, but that means that there is something you want."

Aloy didn't see any harm in broaching the subject of her frustrations. "Honestly, all I really want is to go outside and hunt. Being trapped in here - it hasn't exactly been good for me."

"I'm not at all surprised, what with where you came from." Nil's voice was sympathetic and a touch regretful. "But you should know that noblewomen aren't allowed outside of the city without an escort. And even then, hunting is heavily frowned upon."

Disappointment and that familiar sense of anger at the uniquely Carja imbalance between men and women pricked at her. "And I'm not surprised about that."

Her husband studied her quietly for a few seconds before saying, "I may be able to figure something out for you. Give me time."

"I'd…appreciate that," she replied awkwardly. With nothing else left to say, she made to stand, but Nil raising a hand stopped her.

"A moment. There's one other topic we must discuss."

Thoroughly confused now, Aloy settled back down. "Yes?"

"Tomorrow evening, we will be expected to attend court at the Palace of the Sun in order to present you to the Sun-King." Nil's eyes darkened to the same hue they had been when he had initially come home. "I would have warned you earlier, but I only found out today, so you have my apologies for that."

"What's the problem?" Aloy cocked her head. "That doesn't sound so bad. I've dealt with plenty of awful Carja so far. What's a few more?"

He ignored the implied insult. "There are more vicious cutthroats and slimey weasels in the Sun Court than you've ever dealt with in your life, his Radiance himself being the worst of him. It was already horrible before his decision making skills…" Nil hesitated here. "...declined, but now, it's an exercise in misery."

"I haven't dealt with many people in my life in general," Aloy deadpanned. But she sat up a little straighter and leaned in. This was something to focus on, and it may just have been exactly what she needed to alleviate her boredom and, more importantly, gather information. "What do I need to know?"

Nil leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. "At some point in the night, the Sun-King will call us before him. You must kneel before him. Do not speak unless spoken to, and answer all his queries with 'yes, your Radiance' or 'no, your Radiance', unless he clearly gives you permission to elaborate." His gaze grew more intense and locked with hers. "You must be on your best behavior, Aloy. Jiran is not shy about handing out consequences for even perceived slights, and that often means death. Do not talk back. Do not question him. Allow him to play his game, and hopefully, we'll both be allowed to come home at the end of the night."

Normally she would have bristled at being ordered around, but Nil's deathly serious expression had cold dread trickling down her spine instead. Fear wasn't an emotion she had often experienced in her life, but something told her that, in this case, it was well within the bounds of reason.

"I understand."

Her husband visibly relaxed. "Good, good. As far as what to wear, there should be a few suitable dresses in your wardrobe that also belonged to my mother. Tomorrow, choose one of the most elaborate to wear, and be ready to leave by the sixth bell."

The idea of dressing up in another gaudy, complicated Carja outfit she could barely move in didn't exactly sound appealing to Aloy, but she forced herself to nod.

"I think that's about it." Nil's smile was rueful. "You're free to leave."

As she stood to go, the relief which filled her was more muted than she would have expected, the eagerness to be alone and away from him dulled. And when she reached the foot of the stairs, without thinking, Aloy turned back towards him and said, "Thank you. For making dinner."

His answering smile had her stomach fluttering for reasons unknown. "You're welcome, Aloy."

-

There were several outfits Aloy would have termed suitable hanging in the wardrobe, each of them more delicate and lovely than the last. It was a difficult decision, knowing as little as she did about clothing beyond its utility for protection and warmth; but ultimately, she settled on a flowing number made up of several earthy shades of green with accents of gold and purple. There weren't nearly as many layers involved as with her wedding dress, for which she was thankful. It was easy enough to figure out how to get the ensemble on by herself, and by the time she had finished dressing and drawing the Argir markings beneath her eyes (as Nil had advised her to do everytime she left the house), she was feeling just a little more confident in her ability to handle whatever the Sun Court lobbed at her.

That all dissipated soon after she descended the stairs to the first floor, and Nil's raptorial gaze riveted onto her. He was clad not in his armor as she would have expected, but in an outfit to rival her own in both complexity and decoration - baggy pants the Carja tended to favor draped down his long legs, several crisp layers of silk and embroidered ribbon with machine parts artfully sewn into them covered his chest, and what looked to be a curved ceremonial knife was shoved into the wrappings around his waist.

Between the deafening quiet and his unreadable stare, Aloy's face flushed.

"Is there something wrong with how I'm dressed?" she snapped.

That broke whatever spell he was under, and Nil cleared his throat. "You look fine. But we must be going now."

Curling his arm at his side, he offered it to her. She considered it in the way one might consider a rotting animal carcass.

Nil leveled her with an unimpressed look. "Take my arm, please. We'll get more questions and attention if you don't."

Attention was the last thing Aloy wanted, so she did as he asked, a little miffed that he seemed to already know her well enough to pick up on her dislike of excessive scrutiny.

The evening was pleasantly mild, a slight breeze in the arid air stirring their clothing. Although the sun hadn't quite yet set, the Carja of Meridian were an early morning people, and as such, were already winding down for the day. While they walked, most gave the pair a wide berth, apparently recognizing Nil even without the intimidating bulk of his armor.

As they approached the Palace of the Sun on an ivy covered bridge flanked by guards, Aloy let her eyes wander over the structure. Somehow, the building was more impressive than the Temple of the Sun in architectural flourish, the stone it was made out of seeming to fold inward and outward like ripples in a pond. Two main towers with harshly gleaming metal roofs jutted up from the mesa and flirted with the sky itself, painted blood red by the light of the setting sun. Objectively, it was one of the most beautiful man made structures she had ever seen. She wondered bitterly how many slaves it housed.

A line of people dressed in finery similar to their own was queued up on a curved staircase leading up to one of the towers. When they quietly took their place behind another couple, the male half angled his head back and sneered then urged his counterpart forward. With that, the snide whispers and haughty looks kicked up again, just as they had after their wedding - but this time and unlike when she had been an outcast, there was no escape.

Surprisingly, it was Nil's presence, steady and solid at her side, which gave Aloy a small measure of solace. If she could focus on that, maybe she could get through this unique form of torture without wheeling around and punching in the pinched face of the noblewoman who kept loudly comparing her hair to that of a nest of rats set on fire. With a grimace, she pressed into her husband's side and attempted to keep her breathing even and calm.

The look he gave her was one of surprise, quickly schooled into nonchalance as he awkwardly patted at the hand cradled in the crook of his arm with his own, then bent down and towards her very slightly.

"It's easier to tune them out if you can think of something else," Nil murmured. "May I suggest hunting, with these wretched animals as your quarry?"

At that, Aloy found herself fighting a smile.

The queue continued to dwindle steadily, and when the sun was no more than a distant suggestion behind the mountains to the west, they reached the head of the line. Without even checking the list he held, the guard signaled for them to enter the tower.

"Have a good evening, sir," he said politely to Nil.

"Basiv," Nil returned with a curt nod.

Flocks of nobles as bright and as talkative as birds were flitting throughout the bottom floor and up a curling staircase, but that wasn't what caught Aloy's eye. It was an ornate light fixture hanging from the ceiling, made of metal so reflective she could clearly see her own visage staring back down at her. The light it caught from both its own oil-fed flames and the outside bounced over the many facets and the stone walls of the circular room, creating a captivating show the likes of which she'd never encountered. She hadn't realized she'd stopped moving until Nil cleared his throat.

"As beautiful as that chandelier is, his Radiance doesn't like to be kept waiting. We must keep moving."

He led her up the winding stairs, Aloy growing more and more uncomfortable as the amount of people increased. Thankfully, the foreboding expression on his face was enough to get the crowds to part as effectively as if he had shoved them aside. Just as she was wondering if she'd need to stick by her husband's side for the rest of the night, the stairs came to an abrupt end.

The pair stepped through an archway, and a magnificent room opened up before them. Vaulted ceilings soared overhead, a mosaic tiled floor sparkled below, and more open-air archways leading out to balconies dotted the rounded walls. Against one wall and surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd stood a troupe of musicians, plucking merrily at strange stringed instruments and beating on more familiar drums. Against another, a lanky man clothed in nothing more than an embroidered loincloth played with fire, arcing it between his palms and even spitting it from his mouth, a sight which had Aloy doing an astonished doubletake. The space must have taken up the entire width of the tower, because the opposite walls were so distant that she would have to shout to speak with someone on the other end.

In the center of it all was a massive golden chair, upon which sat a man done up in regalia finer than anyone else is the room. As though he sensed their presence, his eyes locked onto Aloy and Nil. Leaning over to what appeared to be attendant at his side, he said something, then straightened again. Despite the fact that she was too far away to gauge the man's expression, an icy chill cascaded down Aloy's spine.

"I suppose escaping notice would have been too much to ask," Nil sighed from beside her. "Prepare yourself, Aloy. Remember what we spoke about, and that no matter what happens tonight, it's all - "

He was cut off by the insistent ringing of a bell, crisp and clear enough to rise above the noise of the crowds. At once, the room silenced, and every last person turned to face the man on the chair.

The attendant beside him spoke.

"His Radiance Sun-King Jiran, 13th Luminance of the Radiant Line."

The instant the man finished speaking, every noble, performer, and slave dropped into a kneel. Aloy's delayed response sent a couple of noblewomen behind her into a flurry of giggles, and once again she had to remind herself to take slow, deep breaths.

Jiran stood, the light from the oil lamps glinting garishly off the metal on his outfit and giving his golden-brown skin an even warmer hue.

"Welcome, esteemed Khanes, noblemen and women of the Sun Court," he began, his voice as smooth as silk. "I won't keep you from the evening's delights for long. I only wished to give the newest member of our court the finest of welcomes." His gaze once again fixed on to Aloy and Nil. "Sahad Khane Argir and Aloy Khane Argir. Step forward."

Keeping her head tucked as Nil was, Aloy held his arm as they stood. Together they took slow, even steps until they were only a few feet in front of the Sun-King, where they kneeled once more.

"Aloy Khane Argir." On impulse, she glanced up. In the next second, she remembered Nil's explanation of protocol and hastily dropped her eyes again. "No, no, child. Don't be afraid. Look at me."

Hesitantly, Aloy lifted her gaze, and found calculating brown eyes staring back at her.

"Ah, there we are. Now, if you'll do this old man the honor of entertaining a few questions, I'd be much obliged."

Forcing herself to keep her tone even, Aloy said, "Yes, Your Radiance."

A smile curled on Jiran's lips. "Lovely. Are you settling in well?"

"Yes, Your Radiance."

"Are you finding Meridian to your liking? A wondrous sight, is it not?"

"Yes, Your Radiance."

He hummed pleasantly. "And has your husband been good to you thus far?"

"Yes, Your Radiance." Despite her instincts, despite Nil's warnings, Aloy found herself beginning to relax.

And that was when Jiran struck.

"Wherever did you get those clothes?" he asked, tilting his head with a frown. "You may elaborate."

Confused, Aloy answered, "They were Nil - I mean, Sahad's mother's, Your Radiance."

The Sun-King sighed wistfully. "Ah, I remember her. A fine jewel, a rare beauty indeed. It's too bad old Ligan couldn't manage to keep her from dying in childbirth. A pity, that."

Beside her, Nil tensed.

"A shame that such a beautiful gown went to such a frighteningly brutish creature," Jiran chuckled. His kindly smile twisting into a sardonic smirk, he held his hands up when laughter rippled throughout the crowd of nobles. Aloy felt her fists curl of their own volition.

"It's years out of date, anyway," he sniffed. "Now, young Sahad, are you finding it difficult to keep your wife clothed in acceptable fashions after your demotion?"

"No, Your Radiance."

Jiran's glare was as cold as ice over a lake. "Be sure that she's properly attired next time. I won't tolerate this level of inattention to decorum in my court again."

"Yes, Your Radiance."

Through her fury, Aloy wondered how Nil was capable of staying so unperturbed.

That cruel smirk was back as Jiran relaxed. "Does she please you? You may elaborate."

For a single, long moment, Nil was quiet.

When he spoke, his tone was wry. "As much as a savage can, Your Radiance. She lacks the grace and sophistication of a Carja woman, but I suppose she makes up for it well enough with her...other talents."

More laughter resounded throughout the room, louder than before, Jiran giving a hearty chuckle himself. Aloy's fury burst into a crescendo of wild rage, and the force of holding it back had hot tears pricking in her eyes. If it had been possible, if it wouldn't nullify the treaty and immediately render her mission impossible, she would have struck both men down right then. Instead, in her mind's eye, she conjured an image of what the terror and shock on Nil's face might look like when she finally put him down like the beast he was.

"Ah, yes," Jiran grinned, amused. "I've heard that the Nora can be quite the ride. Much like a wild animal, hm?"

"Yes, Your Radiance."

"As for her lack of other graces…" he mused. "Well, this was supposed to be a punishment, my boy. Hopefully you'll have learned your lesson after this."

"Yes, Your Radiance."

"That will be enough for now." Jiran settled back into one of the many cushions on his seat with an over-wrought sigh. "Try to keep your pet on a leash and from doing anything unseemly like biting anyone, hm?"

"Yes, Your Radiance." Aloy could hear the sneer in Nil's voice.

"Dismissed. Now, shall we resume the festivities?"

At Jiran's flippant wave, Aloy rose to her feet along with Nil. He offered her his arm, and numbly, she took it, carefully keeping her mind free from any thoughts while he guided her away from the center of the room and towards a sheltered alcove.

Once they had reached the wall, he turned to face her.

"Aloy, I'm - "

"Don't," she seethed, wrenching her arm from his grasp. "Stay away from me."

"Please, if you'd just listen - "

"No."

Nil reached out to her, but she had heard enough. With a snarl, Aloy whirled around and stalked off, pushing through a gathering group of curious onlookers with prejudice. The shrill, indignant cry a noblewoman let loose at being shoved aside wasn't even as satisfying as it would have normally been.

Adding insult to injury, as she stormed away, she could just barely make out Nil saying, "I suppose she's not quite trained to stay after all. We'll have to work on that, as with all pets."

Yet more horrible, gleeful laughter that had Aloy biting back a scream.

Air. She needed air.

It took forever to navigate through the throngs of nobles, and by the time she reached a blessedly unoccupied balcony, Aloy was shaking. With rage, humiliation, betrayal...it was all too much, so she crouched down and leaned against the support railing, wrapping her arms around herself.

Aloy wasn't certain how long she stayed there like that, staring blankly at the deep night shadows of the Jewel below. The only thing that snapped her out of her reverie was the distinct sound of footsteps on stone, and it had more rage boiling up within her.

"Go away," she bit out.

The voice that answered, however, did not belong to her husband.

"Ah, my deepest apologies, my lady. I didn't realize anyone else was out here."

Rising to her feet, she angled towards the stranger with a frown. Standing a polite distance from her, his golden brown skin backlit by the warm light of the gala, was a man perhaps a few years older than her. His sheepish but strikingly attractive face was framed by an elegant headdress which, oddly enough, was similar in appearance to the one Jiran wore.

"No." Aloy shook her head. "I'm sorry. I thought you were someone else."

"It's quite all right." He smiled kindly, angling his head to the left. "Forgive me for being so forward, but...you don't look well, my lady. Is there anything I might fetch for you?"

Taken aback by what seemed to be genuine consideration, she merely stared at him.

"Aloy," she finally said. "My name is Aloy."

"Aloy," he repeated, stepping to her side. "I'm Sun-Prince Avad, but please, I insist that you call me Avad."

She could feel her eyebrows shoot up practically into her hairline. "Sun-Prince? Wait, is Jiran - I mean, His Radiance, your - "

"Yes, he's my father," Avad confirmed with a sigh. A dark look crossed his expression. "I saw what happened in there. As lowborn as he believes the Nora to be, he has no right to treat a lady of the Sun Court as such. On behalf of the Radiant House, allow me to apologize for the actions of my father."

Bewilderingly, Avad began to sink into a kneel, but before his knee could touch stone Aloy held up her hands.

"All-Mother, don't do that. It wasn't your fault, Avad." Her gaze softened. "For what it's worth, you don't seem to be anything like him."

"A high compliment." His eyes danced with amusement. "Thank you."

More footsteps echoing out over the balcony had both Avad and Aloy turning towards the doorway.

"Avad? Little brother, where did you go?"

Another man in regalia similar to the Sun-Prince's was glancing between the two with a frown tugging at his plush lips. He lacked the headdress that Avad wore, instead showcasing a thick mane of fair hair pulled back into a high Strider's tail, which in turn highlighted the sharp, sweeping angles of his face.

Avad sighed. "Kadaman, what are you doing here? It won't take Father long to notice that both of us are missing, and you know he'll get cross."

"Hush, little brother." Kadaman's eyes slid to Aloy, something like delight sparking in them. "Now, don't be impolite, you brute. Introduce me to the very lovely lady."

"Stop calling me that," Avad grumbled with a scowl, but turned to face Aloy anyway. "Aloy Khane Argir, may I introduce you to His Royal Highness Sun-Prince Kadaman - my older brother and His Radiance Sun-King Jiran's heir apparent."

Kadaman's grin could only be described as radiant when he laid a hand over his heart and bowed gallantly at the waist. "A pleasure to finally make your acquaintance, my lady. We've heard much about Sahad's betrothal."

"Um, you too," Aloy replied awkwardly. "And it's just Aloy."

The older prince was definitely what she would describe as forward, but she didn't feel threatened by him in the same way as she had with Jiran. For whatever reason, and despite the fact that a healthy amount of suspicion was probably warranted in this situation, she got the sense that both Avad and Kadaman were genuinely good people. It was an absolute relief after the ordeal she had gone through since she had arrived in Meridian.

"Well, Aloy, I must say, you held up remarkably well under our father's unique form of torture." Kadaman commented. "You should be proud."

"Pride is the furthest thing from my mind right now," she replied dryly. "But...thank you. It's not been easy being stuck with such an awful human being for a husband."

Avad blew out a breath. "I understand that this may be hard to believe, but Sahad isn't as bad as he appears on the surface."

"So, you know him?" Aloy asked, wrinkling her nose.

"We do," Avad responded with a nod. "Being of a similar class in society, we've all known each other since we were children. There was a point where we were close friends, but time and occupation have pulled us apart. It's a pity."

"Believe me, it's a good thing," Aloy muttered.

"He did go too far tonight, Avad," Kadaman frowned. "I'll be speaking to him about that very thing, in fact."

Skeptical, Avad crossed his arms over his chest. "Why do I get the sense that's not going to go well?"

Ignoring his younger brother, Kadaman turned to Aloy. "In any case, the night is winding to a close, and I'm certain you're eager to leave this wretched place. May I have the pleasure of escorting you back inside?"

She eyed his offered arm through narrowed eyes, but ultimately took it. The Carja emphasis on casual touch was peculiar to someone such as herself, but like everything else, it was a facet of the tribe she was beginning to grow used to.

The moment the trio stepped back inside, Aloy could feel curious eyes roving over them. Defiantly, she held her head high and stared right back. Shock painted the faces of most, anger bordering on outrage simmering on more than a few. Thankfully, Jiran's seat sat empty.

Beside her, Kadaman gave a quiet, undignified snort. "Yes, yes. Behold your crown prince escorting the former Nora girl as he would any lady." He tapped at her hand, nestled in the crook of his arm. "Pay them no mind, Aloy. Their jealousy says more about them than it does about you, and believe me, it's quite unattractive."

It wasn't much longer before they came upon Nil, and Aloy's mood soured once again. Curiously, there was a frantic glaze to his eyes which melted into relief when they found hers.

"Aloy," he exhaled. "Kadaman. Avad. Thank you for finding her."

Kadaman gave Aloy's hand one last pat before releasing her.

"Sahad," he began calmly, "you are to report to the sparring rings tomorrow at dawn's first light. There are a few things we must, ahem, discuss."

Nil's expression was frozen stiff. "As you wish, Your Highness."

While the two men were busy glaring daggers at each other, Avad rolled his eyes and then turned to Aloy.

"It was lovely meeting you tonight, Aloy. I hope to see you again sometime soon."

"Likewise," she replied. "It would be nice to have a few friends here."

Avad's grin was wide and boyish. "Then we shall endeavor to make that happen."

Aloy said her goodbyes to the brothers, clasping their hands together as was Carja tradition, then reluctantly followed her husband down the stairs and out into the oily shadows of Meridian at night.

The silence between them was stifling. Several times, Nil angled his head towards her and opened his mouth as though to speak, but Aloy staunchly ignored him, looking anywhere but at him. As soon as he unlocked the door to their home, she shoved past him and sprinted up the stairs. Once she had slammed the door to her room shut, potent relief loosened her muscles as she allowed herself to relax now that she was finally alone again.

Of course, that didn't last long either. As she was undressing, a scrap of parchment paper with a small wood carving sitting on top of her desk once again caught her eye.

It was a hummingbird with many indents painstakingly carved into it for feathers. Numbly, her eyes scanned the paper.

Although tiny with bones as hollow as drums, the hummingbird is as resilient as the fiercest bird of prey.

Nil

This time, when Aloy threw the note and carving into the fireplace, she felt not a single ounce of guilt.

Chapter Text

If the incident at the Palace of the Sun had done anything for Aloy, it was to finally remove any remaining shred of consideration she had for her husband.

No longer afraid of what Nil might say or do to her, she had taken to leaving the house during the day to wander around Meridian. Still, she wasn't so careless as to throw caution to the wind entirely - rather than donning the intricate layers of a noblewoman, she made sure to dress in the most casual silks in her wardrobe. Without the Argir markings beneath her eyes and a thin, hooded cloak to cover her distinctive hair, Aloy was anonymous among the crowds of the city. It wasn't the greatest amount of freedom, but it was something. And in her situation, something meant everything.

She wasn't so lucky as to avoid contact with Nil entirely, however. Most of the time, she was able to ignore his attempts at pleasantries or inquiries as to how her day had gone. But one morning, just as she was getting ready to sneak out the front door, his footsteps began to creak down the stairs.

"Damn it," she cursed under her breath.

"Going out?" came Nil's smooth voice from behind her. "A dangerous endeavor without an escort."

Aloy couldn't hold herself back this time.

"I faced threats far worse than any man in the Sacred Lands," she hissed, wheeling around. "I can protect myself."

Rather than arguing, Nil nodded in satisfaction. "I know. It's still important to keep your wits about you."

He stepped to Aloy's side, and she automatically recoiled. But he only reached down to unhook a pouch from his belt and hold it out for her. Aloy eyed it disdainfully.

"What's that?"

"Shards," Nil replied simply.

"I don't need your money - "

"I'm always the one picking out dinner. I want you to have the option to get something fresh for dinner to your tastes rather than me guessing or you eating whatever scraps you can find in the pantry."

Nil held the pouch higher, holding her gaze with his own. Aloy sighed. It seemed as though the only way she was going to be able to get away from him was to take the shards, so with a frustrated huff, she snatched them from his hand.

Before Aloy could escape, his voice sounded once again.

"I also thought I'd inform you that I've hired a dressmaker to fit you for your own wardrobe." His voice grew quiet. "To avoid what happened at court again. He'll be here early tomorrow morning, so be sure you're awake and downstairs by the seventh bell."

Forcing out a nod, she pushed the front door open and fled into the street.

To her chagrin, she actually felt a wave of gratitude towards her husband. What had happened at court had not only been humiliating - it had left her feeling more helpless than she ever had in her life, something she never wanted to experience again. Even more frustrating was the fact that he had been part of the reason, and yet now he was, for whatever reason, attempting to remedy it. Aloy was beginning to feel as though she'd never understand Nil.

But going out was meant to be the sole bright spot of her day, so she pushed those confusing thoughts aside while she headed towards the markets. The day was overly humid and hot, and she had barely stepped off her street before beads of sweat began to slither down her skin in rivulets. Taking off her cloak was a tempting prospect, but even a couple minutes without it was to risk being seen by someone who would recognize her, so she set her jaw and continued onward.

In a desperate bid to distract herself from the sticky heat, Aloy found a stall selling a variety of Carja weaponry. Polearms, swords, daggers - and of course, the bows. She raked her eyes over the display hungrily. All expertly crafted, their pristine parts gleamed in the harsh morning sun, just begging to be used for their intended purpose. Unconsciously, her fingers curled. What she wouldn't give to test the bowstring on that war bow, to experience what would surely be a smooth and balanced draw. Her mood dampened as she wondered when she would next have the opportunity to fire a bow. Certainly not before she carried out her duties.

"Good morning, girl!" the stall keeper greeted, his grin hungry. "Looking for a gift for a husband? A brother or father, perhaps?"

Aloy's mood soured further, and she stepped away from the display, tugging her hood tighter around her head. "No. Just browsing."

"Keep me in mind when you stop waffling and decide to actually throw down some shards!" he called after her as she strode away.

Before she became too incensed at the keeper's barbs, Aloy redirected her focus to finding ingredients to cobble together a dinner. Maybe preparing her own meal rather than relying on Nil or buying something premade would give her back some semblance of control over her life, however minor. She wasn't the best cook in the world, but she at least knew how to cut vegetables - sort of - and use an open flame. It was enough to keep her stomach quiet, and that was all she had ever needed.

Much to her relief, the reedy woman manning a stall boasting all kinds of meat only gave her a quick nod before rushing to attend to another customer. Just as Aloy was examining a succulent-looking cut of mutton, however, a shrill cry and loud commotion captured her attention.

She straightened, whipping her head to the left. A red-faced man adorned in noble clothing was bent over something small and quivering, spittle flying from his lips as he screamed out his fury. It only took Aloy another second to realize that small something was a tiny girl, no older than eight, and it had her automatically moving towards the pair.

She was only a few feet away when she got a better look at the child. Familiar braids closed with earthy clay beads decorated her sooty hair, which the man now had fisted in an enormous hand. The girl was Nora.

Aloy saw red.

Before her thoughts could catch up with her and give her cause to reconsider, she darted forward. Her hood flew back, exposing her hair, but Aloy was well beyond caring. Her hand clenched, her powerful muscles coiled, and she was about to let her fist smash into the noble's ugly, contorted face - when long fingers curling around her forearm stalled it out midair.

The nobleman turned at once in her direction, surprise replacing his anger. With her own fury boiling beneath her skin, Aloy rounded on whatever unfortunate soul had had the audacity to touch her.

Shock metered her rage somewhat. Before her was a noblewoman about her age with big, expressive dark brown eyes and long, shining black hair. Her expression firm, the other woman gave the slightest shake of her head before turning her attention to the man.

"I apologize for my brutish friend here," she sighed, batting her eyelashes at the man. "She's not at all accustomed to our ways, you see. Will you forgive us, good sir?"

The nobleman relaxed at once. "Ah, don't worry, my lady. As you can see - " he gestured at the girl, whose huge eyes were glazed over with tears - "these savages don't understand how to behave in polite society. Why, I almost feel as though I was swindled with this one!"

Aloy had enough control over herself at this point to reign herself in, but it did nothing to diminish the look of loathing she sent the man's way.

"They're certainly interesting to keep around, and I seem to have a natural talent with them," the woman hummed. "Perhaps I could make an offer on this one. Take her off your hands."

The man's eyes were keen with interest. "I'd certainly be interested in entertaining an offer. But you and your guardian will have to call on me later to negotiate a price, I'm afraid. I'm rather busy at the moment."

"We'll be sure to stop by then," she replied, bowing her head. When she raised it, her grin was just a little too sharp to be considered friendly.

He bowed his head in return. "Until then, Talanah Khane Padish. May the Sun light your way."

Aloy didn't have a chance to get a single word in before the noblewoman - Talanah - grabbed her arm once again and dragged her off to a secluded corner of the market. Once they came to a stop, she wrenched it from her grasp, baring her teeth.

"I don't know who the hell you think you are - "

"Woah there," Talanah interjected, holding up her hands. "You were lucky I was there to intervene. Aloy, right?"

She drew back. "How did you know my name?"

Talanah laughed, deeply and fully this time and with no trace of the previous girlishness. "Everyone knows your name." Her expression became serious, and her voice lowered to just above a whisper. "Look, I'm sorry for what I had to do back there, but that slave would have received a much harsher punishment than what she was already facing if you had followed through with what you were about to do. At least now I have a chance to get her out of that situation and into safe hands."

Aloy's mouth went dry, realization slamming into her like a stone wall.

"A slave...a Nora slave."

Overwhelmed, she leaned against the building Talanah had brought her to, breathing hard while Rost's words echoed in her head.

The elderly, the sick, children - they do not discriminate. They either cut them down or steal them away, never to be seen or heard from again.

It had been an obvious conclusion, and yet she hadn't entertained it until now: if they weren't killed outright, the missing tribe members had likely all been made slaves. And once outside of the Sacred Lands, without a Seeker blessing to protect them, they would be considered tainted and unable to ever return. Even the smallest of children.

At this point, Aloy wasn't sure if she hated the Carja or Nora more.

She was sure of at least one thing: her role in the treaty and her new sway within Nora society as a Seeker were more important than ever. The girl's terrified, pleading eyes filled her thoughts. This couldn't, wouldn't happen to anyone else. Not if she had anything to say about it.

Aloy willed herself to settle enough to speak. "You said that you have a chance to get her out of that situation. What did you mean?"

"Later, my guardian and I will go call on that nobleman, where we'll make an offer on the girl," Talanah explained.

"Isn't that just exchanging one master for another?"

She shrugged. "Temporarily, I guess. But after that, we have ways of smuggling her out of the city and to safety. She can't go back home, but she'll have her freedom and be well taken care of."

Aloy crossed her arms over her chest. "I thought the Carja nobility all used human labor freely." A tiny voice reminded her of Nil's reaction when she had brought up slavery, but she shoved it aside. "So, why are you doing this? You have no reason to."

"Believe it or not, slavery is a relatively new concept to the Carja, and some nobles have been resisting it in what few ways we can. A growing number of us have become disillusioned with the way Jiran has been running the Sundom. Several of us have lost friends and family because of him." Talanah's face was pinched with grief. "Including myself."

A great deal of Aloy's guard dropped, and she felt a wave of sympathy for the other woman. "I'm sorry."

"Whether the courtiers will admit it or not, the Sun-King grows madder with each passing year," Talanah continued lowly. "It began eighteen years ago with the Derangement of the Machines. Somehow, he came to believe that blood sacrifice was the only way to appease the Sun and calm the machines. Obviously, that hasn't worked."

"That's...that's ridiculous!" Aloy sputtered. "No one's tried to stop him?"

Talanah's lips thinned. "Yes, but direct confrontation hasn't even come close to being successful. Jiran rewards loyalty handsomely. The nobility aren't known for their strong sense of morality to begin with, so those of us who have tried to resist in our own ways are few. If you attempt to stand against him, you're guaranteeing yourself a one-way trip into the Sun-Ring. No one, not even the highest born noble, is safe."

"I've heard about this Sun-Ring," Aloy said, angling her head. "What is it?"

"It's where Jiran makes his blood sacrifices to appease the Sun," Talanah spat. "Prisoners not strong or healthy enough to be made slaves, enemy soldiers, and all who oppose him. Like my brother and father."

Aloy kept herself quiet, allowing the other woman to go on.

"When I was no more than twelve, thousands of people were set to be sacrificed in the Sun-Ring. Dissenters, loyalists, it didn't matter. A few Hawks of the Hunter's Lodge stood up to Jiran, and for their bravery, they were also condemned." At Aloy's confused expression, Talanah explained, "The Lodge is an old Carja institution revolving around trophy hunting the biggest and most powerful machines. Anyway, on the day the sacrifices were to happen, the other Hawks, including my father and brother, smuggled their weapons into the Ring. That morning, my father - " she exhaled " - my father told me to wait outside Meridian for him, that we were leaving. Hours passed, and he never showed up. After night had fallen, a messenger told me to flee the city, so I did."

"He was trying to protect you," Aloy said softly.

"Me and others." Talanah leaned against the wall too. "I found out later that when two Behemoths charged into the stands, my father, brother, and the other Hawks laid down their lives to protect those who had only just been cheering for their deaths. It was the most honorable death possible. I only wish the rest of the Sundom and the Hunter's Lodge saw it that way. The new Sunhawk, Ahsis - the leader of the Lodge - forbids even speaking of the fallen Hawks."

Aloy exhaled slowly. "That's horrible. You were so young, too."

"I was left entirely without family in the space of a day with no ability to mourn them," Talanah said. "But one of the Hawks who didn't intervene felt guilty and took me in once I returned to the city after lying low for a few years - the guardian I mentioned before. He had just lost his son in a way, and - " She cut off suddenly, shaking her head. "But that's not my story to tell. My story will hopefully involve finding a way to get strong enough to unseat Ahsis, to make sure my family's honor is restored and their sacrifices weren't in vain. I've been training for years to make it happen."

Aloy frowned. "Noblewomen are allowed to be part of this Hunter's Lodge? How does that work if we're not even allowed around Meridian without an escort?"

"Oh, they're not," Talanah replied with a laugh. "But I hope to change that one day. I'm going to find a way to become Sunhawk no matter what it takes. With Kadi - I mean, Kadaman, next in line for the throne, change is coming. We just have to find a way to make it happen."

"Kadi?" Aloy raised an eyebrow.

The noblewoman's cheeks contained the faintest hint of pink. "Yes. The Sun-Prince - which you already know, of course, because he told me how you, him, and Avad met at court. We've known each other since we were children and have remained close just as long. I guess it's a silly nickname that stuck."

Aloy got the sense that there was more to it than that, but she held her tongue, instead remarking, "I'm surprised I didn't meet you that night too."

"I'm lucky enough that I'm allowed in the city at all after my family's disgrace. Court events are considered a privilege to attend, one that's been revoked until I, a woman with almost zero rights, somehow reclaim the honor of my House." Talanah rolled her eyes. "Honestly, it's been a relief. I'd have to be a masochist to grovel before the Sun-King to earn back that privilege."

"At least you're aware of how lucky you are in that regard," Aloy muttered.

Talanah shrugged, a grin tugging at her expertly painted lips. "Never tried to deny it. In any case, it would be best if I accompanied you while you finish up in the markets."

Aloy frowned. "Why?"

"Well, you've blown your cover. Now that everyone knows who you are, people will talk about you not having an escort."

"And what about you?" She made a show of spreading her arms. "I don't see anyone around keeping an eye on you."

"My guardian is nearby," Talanah responded. "And he's made himself visible enough for others to know that. I'm doing you a favor, you know."

"I guess I don't have a choice." Any bitterness in her voice was directed at the situation, rather than the other woman; just as she had with Avad and Kadaman, Aloy found herself trusting Talanah. It made a great deal of sense that the three of them were close - genuinely good people surrounded by a sea of villains - but it also left her wondering how Nil had ever fit into their circle.

You could ask him, her brain supplied unhelpfully.

"Yeah, right," she muttered under her breath.

With Talanah at her side and her identity revealed, Aloy could finally remove the awful cloak. To any other Carja noble, being dressed as casually as she was would be nothing short of mortifying, but the only emotion that filled her when the air caressed over her bare, sweaty skin was potent bliss. Petty looks and gossip would be hurled at her no matter what she wore, and she was far beyond caring.

Maybe I should try wearing a sack next time. That'll really get them talking.

The rest of the morning passed shockingly quickly, due in part to how the conversation between the two women flowed more effortlessly than Aloy had yet experienced from anyone she had met in the Sundom. In Talanah, she found a confidant, and even more than that, a kindred spirit. Both were noblewoman trapped in a cloying cage of silk due to circumstance, longing to be free and out hunting in the wilds rather than playing the part forced on them. The pair spent as much time picking up ingredients for Aloy's dinner as they did admiring weapons and armor stalls and debating the efficacy of polearms over bows.

"A bow is nice for distance, but to get really up into the action, something like a glaive is preferable," Talanah argued, gesturing to a display of such weapons. "There's nothing more satisfying than taking down a machine up close and personal."

"My spear was only a last resort," Aloy replied with a shake of her head. "Back home, I always preferred to wait in the grass to strike when the time was right."

"You know, I think we'd make a pretty good team," Talanah mused.

"I think so too. It's too bad we can't actually get out and hunt," she groused, kicking a rock aside. "Back in the Embrace, I didn't need anyone's permission to go anywhere. I simply told Rost - he was my adopted guardian - how long I planned to be out, and then I would be free to go wherever."

"I've overheard tales of the Sacred Lands from soldiers who have come back from war." Talanah looked wistful. "Snow-capped mountains obscured by clouds, valleys full of game so abundant you practically trip over it, and the cleanest water you've ever tasted in your life. It sounds beautiful. You have to miss it a lot."

"I do," Aloy sighed. "And it's not just the land itself. I was just thinking earlier how I'd give anything to even just hold a bow in my hands again, let alone shoot it. Not a lot of opportunities to do that around here."

Talanah gave a furtive glance around, then leaned forward conspiratorially.

"You know," she whispered, "my guardian takes me out of the city once a week to hunt in secret. He wants me to keep my skills sharp for when I eventually try to unseat Ahsis."

"Sounds wonderful. So, what is this supposed to accomplish beyond making me very jealous?" Aloy whispered back.

"My point is, you should come with us sometime." Talanah's eyes were wide with earnesty. "Ask Sahad for permission. I know my guardian will be okay with it."

Aloy pursed her lips. "I really doubt he'd be okay with that."

"Hey, it doesn't hurt to try," she said. "People can often surprise you."

"I guess." Regretfully, Aloy dropped her gaze down to the packages she held in her arms. "But I should probably get this stuff home before it starts going bad. Especially the meat."

"Wow, I guess it has gotten pretty late," Talanah laughed. "Time flies when you make a new friend, huh?"

The lump of emotion that formed in Aloy's throat was enough to choke her up, and she had to swallow it back before speaking and managing a smile. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess it does."

With a cheerful wave of farewell and a promise to stop by Aloy's home for a visit sometime soon, Talanah was off, melting back into the chaos of the markets. When she put her cloak back on and flipped her hood up this time, Aloy barely noticed her discomfort over the warmth pooling in her gut.

Kadaman, Avad, and now Talanah. For the first time in her life, she had people who she could call friends. It was a bright spot in the murky darkness her life had become, and Aloy was determined to cling to it with everything she had.

Now if only she could strike up some level of peace with Nil.

Her good mood carried her through the rest of the day. Opening all of the windows in the house - located on every outward facing wall, so as to catch any available breeze on stifling days like to today - Aloy stripped down to a single layer and laid out on the couch, humming as she scrolled through different entries on her Focus. When the shadows in the living room began to creep up the walls, she hopped to her feet and headed to the pantry to negotiate dinner.

At the markets, she had picked up items she was mostly familiar with. A couple of tender rabbits and some familiar root vegetables would make a decent enough stew - as long as she managed not to overcook the meat.

Of course, that was much easier said than done. Rabbit was fussy on the best of days, and managing the heat coming from the flames of a hearth had never been Aloy's strong suit. She eyed the building fire nervously as she chopped carrots with a large knife.

When she came a hair's breadth away from slicing her own finger off in the process, she returned her focus to the task at hand.

The vegetables, at least, were easy. Even though they were all different shapes and sizes (she'd never been the best at cutting them evenly), they'd take care of themselves in a boiling pot of bone broth, soaking up the savory liquid until they were swollen with flavor. Aloy watching them simmer for several minutes, biting at her lip until she worked up enough courage to try to cook the rabbit.

Summoning all of her concentration, she dripped a little bit of leftover fat from last night's dinner into a heavy cast iron pan and slid it into the hearth next to the hanging pot. Wait for that to heat, brown the pieces of meat, then simmer in the pot for the next hour and a half or so. It was simple, right?

It started off well enough. The chunks of rabbit began to crackle as soon as Aloy set them down into the shimmering layer of fat, filling the first floor with an enticing scent that had saliva filling her mouth instantly. Even the first flip she made went well, smug self-satisfaction welling up in her when perfectly browned meat was revealed.

And of course, thirty seconds later, everything went to hell.

Aloy had just turned her back to go pluck a few dried and bundled herbs hanging by a window when a thick haze suddenly settled over the kitchen. Whirling around, she froze as she beheld the scene in front of her. Plumes of choking smoke were bellowing out from the hearth, and without another second wasted, she lunged forward. Without thinking, her hand darted into the hearth and grabbed at the handle of the pan.

White hot, agonizing pain shot from her fingers and all the way up her arm, so unbearable that Aloy let out a short scream and dropped her hold on the pan immediately. Stumbling back a few feet, she clutched at her wrist and stared down at her angry red fingers through eyes blurry with tears. She would have fallen straight onto her backside if it weren't for a pair of large hands wrapping around her upper arms and steadying her.

The familiar, slightly breathless voice of her husband sounded a second later. "Go put that hand in the water basin and keep it there. I'll take care of the rest."

Aloy was in too much pain to feel the embarrassment surely lurking in her. Giving a mute nod, she rushed over to said basin, crouched down, and shoved her injured hand into the clean water. It was lukewarm, but the relief it granted her was instant and so great that it dragged a stuttering gasp from her. Finally able to regain her bearings after the chaos of the last couple of minutes, she snuck a peek over her shoulder at Nil.

He had already pulled the pan from the fire with a thickly stitched cloth wrapped around the handle. With the windows open, the smoke dwindled relatively quickly, and Aloy saw Nil place the pan on a counter and take a deep breath before turning to face her.

"You had the fire too hot, and it caught on some of the fat. But the good news is, I think we can salvage this."

She ducked her head, the tips of her ears burning. Whether it was from anger or shame, she didn't know.

Nil's armored legs clanked noisily as he stepped towards her. "More importantly, are you okay?"

"I'm fine," Aloy muttered.

When he crouched down beside her and held out a hand, she flushed even more.

"May I?"

Wordlessly, she lifted her hand from the water.

His fingers were cool and gentle as they ghosted over the reddened flesh, and Nil studied the skin for a few more seconds before releasing it.

"It's not too bad, but it'll blister. Give me a few minutes."

He disappeared upstairs, and when he returned, he was wearing a genial smile and holding a small pot, a length of cloth, and a tangle of fresh bandages.

"A burn salve," he explained, taking her hand once more and drying it carefully with the cloth. Aloy did her best to grit her teeth through the pain, but by the third pass of the fabric, she was wincing and fighting the urge to level her husband with her uninjured fist.

"I know," Nil murmured sympathetically. "Almost done with this part."

"I'm fine," she insisted once again, but she could tell he didn't believe her.

Screwing open the cap to the salve, he dipped a couple of fingers into the gloppy substance. "A little bit of this goes a long way."

It was impossible to bite back the moan which escaped Aloy as he began to spread the lotion over her skin. First it soothed, and then it numbed to the point that the burn became nothing more than a distant, easily ignorable throb. Surprise raised Nil's eyebrows at her vocalization, but he didn't react further beyond a small smile curving his lips.

"Why do you even have burn salve?" she blurted out.

"It's something I always carry with me on the road," he replied as he began to wrap the bandages around her hand. "You never know when you'll run into a machine that spits Blaze, and field medics don't do much more than wrap it and tell you to suck it up. It's expensive, but well worth the price. I'd be covered in burn scars by now if I didn't have this." Finishing up, he tied the bandage neatly, rescrewed the cap to the salve, then held it out to her. "Here. Three times a day, wash your hand, reapply this, then wrap it in bandages."

Stubbornly, Aloy shook her head. "No, that's yours. You said it was expensive."

"And you're my wife," he said exasperatedly. "What's mine is yours. This can always be replaced."

Reluctantly, just as she had with the metal shards that morning, she took the pot of salve from Nil. It was with no small amount of hesitation that she grumbled, "Thank you."

"Now, the fire should have burned down enough, so let's finish up that dinner of yours," he said brightly, slapping at his thighs and rising to his feet. He offered Aloy his hand. She had already swallowed her pride enough for one day, so she turned her head and stumbled to her feet herself.

Nil didn't seem perturbed. "Rabbit stew, hm?"

"Well, that's what it was supposed to be," she mumbled.

"It's not as bad as you think," Nil reassured. "Just some burnt parts, and those can be scraped off."

"Wish we could just do that with my hand," Aloy said wryly, before she could stop herself.

Her husband's grin was wide as he sauntered over to the counter to begin the process of salvaging the meat. "We could, but I'm not sure how pleasant that would be for you. Now, go sit down and let me handle this."

"I can help - "

"I don't doubt that, but it's best not to do more damage to that hand." Nil glanced at her pointedly. With an annoyed exhalation, Aloy wandered over to the chaise lounge and collapsed on to it.

"So, how was your time in the markets today?"

Pressing her face into the arm of the lounge, she groaned under her breath. Of course she couldn't escape small talk with him. She could flee up to her room, but her stomach growled in fierce rebuke to that idea. There was also no point in staying silent or deflecting, because her husband would simply prod at her verbally until she talked, finding clever ways to get her to give up the information he wanted. For now, it was best to go along with the conversation. Maybe she could begin to bridge the gap between them, to attempt once again to get closer to this frustrating man and figure out his secrets. She had a pretty good idea of where to start, at least.

"It was perfectly fine," Aloy said eventually. "I met someone who I think you might know.

"Oh?"

"A noblewoman. Her name is Talanah Khane Padish."

Nil's laugh was startled. "Talanah! Yes, I knew her well."

"That's what I thought when she mentioned being close with Kadaman."

"We all spent a lot of time together as children." Finished with his task of scraping, Nil clucked as he tossed the rabbit into the simmering stew. "I used to pull on her pigtails. And oh, the fights we'd get into! She's as tenacious as you are. I'm not surprised you two get along."

"That sounds like something you'd do," Aloy remarked acerbically.

As usual, Nil only grinned in the face of her barb as he sat down at the table. "I do believe you're coming to understand me more. Soon enough we'll be as close as any other married couple."

"I really doubt that," she deadpanned. Still, the conversation was going well enough, and Talanah's offer came to mind. Maybe she could press her luck.

"You know, Talanah mentioned that she goes hunting once a week," Aloy began carefully.

Nil chuckled. "Also unsurprising. It's considered undignified, borderline scandalous for a noblewoman, but I suppose she doesn't give a damn about those things. Nor should she."

Aloy cocked her head. "So you approve?"

"Noblewomen - all women, in fact, should have the ability to choose their path through life," Nil said thoughtfully. "And all people in general should know how to defend themselves in a fight. Highwaymen, machines, slavers - it's a dangerous world out there. Handicapping nearly half of the population does no one any favors."

To say that Aloy was floored by his words was an understatement - with the general Carja attitude towards women, it was as bewildering as his opinion on slavery, if not more so in light of the way he treated her around others. For the first time, she began to get the sense that something larger was at play here, and that maybe - just maybe - she might have misjudged him.

"Obviously, I agree." Aloy worried at her lower lip. If she was going to ask, it might as well be now. "She offered to let me come along sometime. It wouldn't be just us, either. She mentioned her guardian would be there - "

The clatter of wood on wood had Aloy jerking her head up. Nil had jumped to his feet and had his palms pressed into the table, eyes wide and chest heaving with the force of his breathing.

"Nil?"

"Her guardian." His exhale was harsh. "How could I have forgotten - yes. I suppose he would be there, wouldn't he."

Gradually, he lowered himself back into his seat, his face pale and drawn. Disappointment stabbed at Aloy.

"I guess that's a no, then. Figures."

"I didn't say that," Nil replied tersely. "But I apologize for giving you that impression. I shouldn't have to give it to you to begin with, but you have my express permission to go hunting with Talanah and my - her guardian."

Yet again, he had behaved unexpectedly, and Aloy stared at him for a moment longer before nodding stiffly and turning on the lounge until she was facing the other direction.

Strangely enough, the ensuing quiet while they waited for dinner to cook lacked the awkwardness of their other encounters. It felt almost peaceful, in fact, leaving her more confused than ever. Like the phases of the moon, Nil's moods were ever changing; and now, more than ever, Aloy was determined to find the pattern. It was for her mission, she told herself, and her mission alone. And yet, for some reason, as she stole a glance at her husband over her shoulder, that sentiment rang curiously hollow.

Chapter Text

With a wide yawn, Aloy stared blearily down at her cup of tea. The gentle ripples left over from stirring in her usual spoonful of honey were hypnotic, enough to lull her back into sleep. Sure enough, after a couple minutes of tracing the fading patterns with her eyes, they began to droop, her shoulders relaxed, and -

A thunderous knocking at the door jolted her straight out of her reverie, her heart pounding against her chest as all remnants of sleepiness fled like foxes into the brush. Nil stood from where he had been sitting and nursing his own cup of tea to answer, sparing her a sympathetic glance as he strode to the door. Aloy glared in return, too grumpy to pretend to play nice this morning.

"Sahad Khane Argir," came a crisp voice from the door. "Devastatingly handsome as always." There was a pause. "I'll admit, that armor does a great deal to enhance your generous, ahem, endowments, but perfectly cut and fitted silks can do so much more. We shall have to schedule a fitting for you soon, hm?"

"Theradine," her husband replied, his voice full of good humor. "Good to see you too. I'll consider it, but remember, you're here for my wife today."

A soft sigh. "I'm more than aware. The entire city has been abuzz about her ever since your wedding, and frankly, Sahad, I'm hurt that you didn't commission a dress from me."

Aloy could hear the amusement in Nil's voice. "I didn't need to. She wore my mother's."

"Ah, Sahidi," Theradine sighed. "Such a lovely woman. How her tastes surpassed any of her station...mm. I forgive you, this once. Now, I hear that someone is in great need of my help. Where is your blushing new bride?"

Nil stepped aside, and in the next moment, the room exploded in a flurry of movement and color. A svelte older man with greying blonde hair rushed into the room, a vibrant pile of ribbons and bolts of fabric held securely in his arms. Following dutifully behind him was a tiny, mousey girl who couldn't be older than sixteen, her arms just as full as Theradine's. Strikingly large blue eyes scanned the room and locked on to her, and Aloy had the distinct impression of being targeted by a Watcher. Instinctively, she sank down into her chair.

"My, my," Theradine gasped. "Aren't you a feast for the eyes! The eyes, the hair - like spring leaves and flame itself! Sahad, you said nothing of what a gorgeous creature your wife is!"

Out of nowhere, he threw his massive armful of materials onto the table, making Aloy jump yet again. A sputtering cough sounded from the other side of the room as Nil stifled a laugh, and she wondered crossly if now would be a good time to carry out that assassination.

The dressmaker placed a hand over his heart. "Theradine at your service. It's wonderful to finally meet you, Aloy Khane Argir."

"Nice to meet you too," she managed. "And it's just Aloy."

"Well, Aloy, we have a long day ahead of us." Despite his overbearing demeanor, Theradine's smile was kind. "I'm glad you had the sense to dress simply. I've shown up to many a household where the lady is covered in layers - an attempt to show off, I suppose. Foolish, when they'll only be removed moments later! Now, my little flame, if you give me a moment to speak with your husband and settle the bill, my assistant here will help you prepare. Ailah?"

The girl was by Aloy's side the instant Theradine left it, ushering her mutely out of her seat and tugging at the loose shift and knee-length pants she wore as bed clothes with surprisingly strong fingers.

"These must come off, my lady," Ailah said in a soft, breezy voice. "We won't get accurate measurements unless you're down to your underthings."

"Of course," Aloy sighed. "Why would I expect the Carja to have even a speck of modesty about anything?"

"There's no real sense in covering up in the heat," Ailah remarked with a musical giggle. "You have my apologies, though. Once you're done being measured, we'll put you in a robe while you make your fabric and color selections. I'll try to make it as fast as I can."

Aloy couldn't stay disgruntled in the face of how sweet the assistant was. As vulnerable as it felt to undress in front of total strangers, she began to shimmy out of her top layer all the same. Thankfully, her breast band was wide and covered most of her torso, and her bottom half was covered by a pair of shorts which cut off at the upper thigh. In reality, it wasn't any more risque than what the average Carja would wear. But to Aloy, after years of dressing in layers to ward off the cold, it was practically the same as being naked. And of course, her brain took that moment to remind her that her husband was still in the room. Out of reflex, her gaze slid over to him.

Only to find him staring right back at her.

The instant their eyes met, Nil's averted straight back to Theradine, who was still chattering away. Self-conscious heat rose to Aloy's cheeks. She was about to look away, to focus on anything else but the strange, uncomfortable fluttering in her gut, but her husband glanced her way once more, then leaned forward to whisper something in the dressmaker's ear. Theradine straightened in shock as Nil shoved a large pouch of shards at him, but quickly seemed to recover and nod hurriedly. Aloy's eyes narrowed with suspicion.

"Spare no expense," Nil said, his voice now loud enough to be heard. "Whatever Aloy wants, she gets. Just make sure they're on the cutting edge of whatever the fashion is this season."

"Certainly, my lord." Theradine bowed his head, then shot a look at Aloy. "Aren't we a lucky lady to have such a generous husband?"

"Lucky isn't the word I'd use," she muttered under her breath, but she gave Theradine a polite, if strained smile.

"If there isn't anything else, I need to be going." Nil angled his head towards her and gave her a nod. "I'll see you later this evening, Aloy."

With that, he bade both Theradine and Ailah farewell and clinked noisily out the door.

"Now, my lady," Theradine said, his grin as sharp as cactus spikes, "the fun can truly begin."

Even though she felt much like a goose going to slaughter, Aloy stood wearily. Tape measure streaming from his hand like the banner on a battlement, the dressmaker descended on her. She held out each one of her limbs, lifted her head, bent, and turned, all while Theradine barked out body parts and numbers so quickly she could barely keep up. But Ailah scribbled glyphs down on a piece of parchment furiously, never once asking her boss to slow down so she could catch up. The girl was clearly good at what she did, firing back suggestions about subjects Aloy barely had a grasp on - things like 'cut' and 'shape' and 'flow'.

"Average breasts, wider hips," Theradine muttered to himself. "Square cut necklines are in fashion, thank the Sun. Good."

Reflexively, Aloy covered her chest. "Excuse me? What about my breasts?"

Theradine spared her a distracted glance. "It's an important measurement to determine the fit of clothing which will enhance your assets the most. That's all, my lady."

"And what if I don't want to enhance my assets?" Aloy said through gritted teeth.

"A wedded woman has no need to be so modest," he tsked. "You're not a blushing maiden anymore, and besides, it'll make that handsome man of yours very happy. That's the effect of a well-made dress - he'll simply ravish you. Mm, that reminds me...I'll likely need to do repairs when he rips the seams. Perhaps I should offer to bundle those into the total cost - "

"Okay, I get it!" she said loudly.

"Actually, now that I think about it, young Sahad isn't that type. Far too polite." Theradine gave a hearty chuckle. "Perhaps you're the ravisher in this situation, hm? Not that I can blame you. His bust circumference...why, it's larger than your own! I would know. I took the measurement myself, after all."

At a total loss for words, Aloy simply gaped at him.

Theradine snapped the tape away, rolling it up in a smooth motion. "But enough of that. Ailah, dear, fetch a robe for her so we can talk materials."

Before his assistant had even finished wrapping the luscious robe around Aloy, Theradine was chattering away again about style, cut, and color - and this time, she was clearly intended to be an active participant. The only problem was, she had no earthly idea what he was talking about.

"...but we must first decide on colors!" he declared as Aloy sat down at the table. Bending over, he grabbed at several different fabrics bound together as a book would be. "Dark, rich hues are in fashion this season, but I believe we can get the jump on next season if we go just a tad more saturated. Now, what are your preferences?"

Theradine's gaze bored into her expectantly.

"Why does it matter?" Aloy asked after a moment of silence, confused. "It's all going to accomplish the same purpose. I really don't care."

"Everyone cares, whether they think so or not." He studied her for a moment, and something in his expression eased. "Why don't we start with your favorite color?"

She drummed her fingers on the table. "I've never really thought about it, but...green, I guess. Or blue. Like grass...and the sky." She cringed. "Well, so much for eloquence."

"Ah, earth tones! There we are!" Theradine said, the smile lighting up his face making him appear years younger. "And with your complexion, those will suit you well indeed. Perhaps some purple as well? Sahad favors it, and it's one of the Argir House colors."

Unbidden, memories of Nil clad in nothing but a knee-length pair of loose pants riding low on his hips formed in her head, and Aloy swallowed.

"Purple is...nice."

"Those colors play nicely together too," Ailah piped up from where she was going through a pile of ribbon. "Gold as well."

Theradine heaved a dreamy sigh. "Yes, perfect. This is exactly why you're my assistant, my dear."

"That, and Kudiv would tan your hide if you tried to get rid of me," she replied archly.

Aloy cocked her head. "Kudiv?"

The smile Theradine gave was tiny but full of affection. "My, ah, partner. My lover, actually. My sweet, canny adventurer who is away from home as we speak, searching for exotic goods to sell to those with more expensive tastes."

"Oh." She sat back in her chair. "Well, she definitely sounds interesting."

"He," Ailah corrected.

"Oh, sorry," Aloy said sheepishly. "I've only seen men and women together since coming to Meridian. Which is strange, now that I think about it. Is there some sort of Carja custom around that?"

"People of the same sex aren't allowed to marry in the Sundom, I'm afraid," Theradine said with a tight-lipped smile. "Even being intimate with each other can be a risky proposition, although most tend to look the other way."

Aloy leaned forward, her curiosity stirred. "Why? Isn't that just denying half of your attraction?"

Theradine seemed to relax a great deal. "I see that the Nora are more forward-thinking about such matters! How lovely. But no, I've never had any interest in women. In truth, I'd be denying myself entirely if I wasn't able to partake in a relationship with a man."

"Wait, is having an interest in only men or women a thing?" Aloy blinked rapidly. "But...I thought everyone was interested in both."

The laugh he gave was rich and full. "Oh, my little flame! How sweet! No, most people are solely interested in the opposite sex. Being attracted to both or the same is actually rather rare."

"I guess I haven't been around enough people to know," she mumbled, the tips of her ears warming. "I just assumed that everyone was the same as me and that men and women only paired off for children."

"You're not as alone as you think," Theradine reassured. "Your husband is of a similar persuasion to you, in fact. Ah, but I'm sure you already knew that."

"Uh, yeah."

"We should probably move on to styles, Theradine," Ailah said. Leaning over to Aloy, she whispered, "Just so you're aware, my lady, this is the part that takes awhile."

"Wonderful," she intoned.

Ailah hadn't been lying. Theradine lobbed her with questions as hard and as fast as arrows, all while spending just as much time questioning and arguing with himself. Aloy remained seated the entire time, but the ordeal quickly grew exhausting. Apparently, there wasn't just one kind of silk - charmeuse and chiffon and crêpe were just a few of the different weaves, not to mention the sheer variety of patterns that were available, and she couldn't discern much of a difference between them no matter how much the dressmaker insisted there was one. Eventually, realizing that he wasn't getting anywhere with her, he threw up his hands and remarked tartly that he'd decide it all himself. Thankfully, Ailah intervened with a tactful change of subject to the topic of trim; and it was then, with some humor, that Aloy realized that she doubled as an emotional assistant for the man as well.

But in truth, she didn't mind the company of the dressmaker and his assistant as much as she had at the start. While Theradine was energetic and talkative - to say the least - he also had a particular kindness about him that allowed her to drop her guard. Perhaps it was also the fact that he, by nature of his romantic preferences, was considered nearly as much of an outsider in Carja society as she was (although admittedly with the benefit of being able to blend in more seamlessly). There was a certain rare camaraderie to be found there, and she soaked in the ability to, for once, speak freely.

"I said it once, I'll say it again," Theradine said a couple of hours later as he finished up a quick sketch, "you're lucky to have such a generous, doting husband. An entire wardrobe full of top of the line dresses, day clothing, and hu - " he coughed loudly, and Aloy raised an eyebrow - "mm, excuse me. As I was saying, all of that, and a rush order to boot. Why, Kudiv, Ailah, and I could subsist off the sum alone for the next six months!"

"He's not what I'd call generous or doting," Aloy shot back. "You should see the way he treats me around others. It's awful."

Theradine considered her a moment, then turned towards his assistant. "Ailah, fetch me that bottle of mead, would you? The older one."

She looked doubtful. "Are you sure?"

"Yes, yes. We're about done here, and I think we've all earned a bit of a drink." He angled back towards Aloy. "You must partake too, my lady. Consider it a reward for putting up with my eccentricities for the past few hours."

"I'm surprised you're so self-aware."

"Mm, I know how I can be," Theradine chuckled. "Kudiv reminds me of it enough, and my love was always better with handling people than me."

Aloy accepted a cup of mead from Ailah with a thank you, to which the assistant gave a grin before handing Theradine one. She then settled down on the chaise lounge with her own cup with a weary groan. "Eh, you're not so bad. An acquired taste, but a good one, I'd say."

"Thank you, my dear. On the topic of Sahad…" He swirled his drink in his glass thoughtfully. "I saw quite enough this morning, and I stand by what I said. The way that man looks at you…" Theradine shook his head. "Like a water well at the end of a long trek through the desert."

Thankfully having swallowed her mouthful of the honeyed beverage a second prior, Aloy snorted. "I think you need to see about checking that vision of yours."

"Mm, hardly. My abilities to thread a needle and sew an even stitch are as precise as they were when I was Ailah's age." He sat back in his chair, his gaze suddenly somewhere far off. "Which, incidentally, is around the time I met your husband. He was a lot smaller then, though."

"You've known him for that long?"

"I have indeed," Theradine confirmed. "He was a shy one, always hiding behind his mother's skirts when I dropped by with samples of fabric for her to peruse."

Try as she might, Aloy couldn't imagine Nil ever being so young. Eyes as piercing as his didn't seem like they could ever fit on the sweet, rounded face of a child, and thinking of such a large man as once being small was a near impossibility.

"And Sahidi Khane Argir...by the Sun, she was a true noblewoman in every sense of the word. Clever, strong, not afraid to inform you when you were being an ass - pardon my language, my lady, mead has a tendency to loosen me up a tad too much, I'm afraid - but she was also gentle and kind. And giving, let's not forget that! She spent quite a lot of time down in Meridian Village handing out provisions she bought herself to the more unfortunate souls, especially the little ones. The world truly was lesser when she passed. And what happened after…" Theradine trailed off. "Ah, forgive this old gossip. I should seal these lips of mine."

Aloy couldn't deny that her curiosity was piqued, but she managed to temper it. Nil's past was his own, and it's not like she was much interested in it anyway. Still, she had to admit that what she had heard of his mother had made her out to be a wonderful woman (and also left her wondering how someone as awful as her husband could have spawned from such a saint), and she was suddenly glad that she had gone through the effort to take care of the deceased woman's clothing.

"Back to Sahad, though." Theradine sighed. "My little flame, appearances can be deceiving. I can craft the finest dress for the most beautiful woman in all the Sundom, but her demeanor could be as rotten as that of the spoiled core of an apple. What I'd advise is to speak with him about what you're feeling. He's a good listener, and I guarantee that he'd listen to anything you have to say."

"It's not that easy!" Aloy burst out. She quickly took a gulp of her mead, then forced her tone back into some semblance of evenness. Apparently, Theradine wasn't the only one whose lips were loosened by alcohol. "Everyone keeps telling me that he's not that bad, but they don't have to put up with the way he talks to me in public! He humiliated me in front of a bunch of stuck-up nobles, then had to gall to act all...all nice the second we got home!" Miserably, she slumped in her chair. "He's so confusing, and I hate it. I hate him."

"I don't think you do at all, actually, but I also know there's no use attempting to convince someone so far into their cup of anything," Theradine said lightly. "In any case, it's regrettably about time for me to take my leave. All I ask is that you think on what I said, my dear."

"Fine," Aloy muttered. Remembering that she ought to at least attempt to be polite, she stumbled to her feet, nearly toppling over and into Theradine in the process. "Ugh, sorry."

"I think you may need to lie down for a spell, my lady," he remarked, offering his arm to her. She took it gratefully. "No shame in it, mead is on the stronger end of the scale...come, over to the couch with you."

Aloy allowed him to guide her to the chaise lounge which Ailah had already vacated to pack up the pair's staggering amount of supplies. After lowering her carefully down onto the cushion, Theradine took her hand and pressed a genteel kiss into the back of it.

"An entire wardrobe in two weeks time." His blue eyes glimmered. "And in a couple of days, an extra surprise, just for you, my little flame. Until then, farewell!"

She barely registered what Theradine said, already sinking into the comfort of the lounge. The world felt like too much, so Aloy decided to close her eyes for a moment, just to tune some of it out. A pleasant, fuzzy feeling crackled in her fingers and toes, radiating up into her limbs, and gradually, her muscles loosened and relaxed. A few minutes later, the front door slammed shut, but she was no longer conscious enough to hear it.

The door creaking back open was what woke her. Aloy was about to ask if Theradine and Ailah had forgotten anything when she realized that the light in the house had totally changed. Instead of the neutral hues of midday, the first floor was lit with a soft, orangey glow. With a frown, she sat up. Somehow, she had slept the entire day away.

Footsteps sounded a moment later, accompanied by Nil stepping slowly through the doorway. He turned to her, a smile spreading over his face as he caught sight of her, and Aloy's breath caught. The light streaming in from outside washed half of her husband's face in golden light, turning the black strands of his hair into glistening strands of fine gossamer, while the other half was obscured by the cool, dark shadows of the evening twilight hour. Distantly, she wondered if she was still dreaming.

He walked towards her then, and her eyes followed, unable to be torn away from the mesmerizing sight in front of her. It was only Nil clearing his throat which broke her free from the spell, and Aloy realized two things. One, the expression on his face had turned to uncharacteristic apprehension, strange on such a normally confident man. Two, he was holding something large and wrapped in parchment paper behind his back. His Adam's apple bobbed in his throat as he lifted it and held it out to her.

Perplexed, she took the package from him, finally managing to avert her eyes. Whatever it was, it was oddly shaped and very heavy.

"Nil, what is this?"

"It's a gift," he replied elusively. "Something you'll be needing very soon. Open it and see."

Sparing him a last confused look, Aloy then tore into the paper.

When the last shreds of the parchment fell away to reveal the contents, she didn't even think to stifle her shocked gasp.

There, in her lap, sat a fine leather quiver. And more importantly, beneath that was the achingly familiar curve of a hunting bow. Unable to help herself, she brushed trembling fingers over the smooth carved wood of the grip, over the metal of the pulleys, over the decorative feathers and beads. It was beautiful, better crafted than any weapon she'd ever seen, much less held, in her life. When tears sprang up in her eyes, it wasn't at all a surprise.

"This is...this is mine?" Aloy whispered, her voice wavering with the force of her emotions.

"It is," Nil confirmed, his voice warm. "You'll have to do some adjustments in terms of resistance, but yes. She's all yours."

She finally got a hold of her racing thoughts. "What did you mean about me needing it soon?"

"Well," he drawled, "you can't go on a hunting trip without a suitable weapon."

Jerking her head up, Aloy stared at him through wide eyes. "Wait. What are you talking about?"

"In a week's time, I'm going to be taking you out of the city for a few days to go hunting together." His eyes crinkled in the corners. "And in a couple of days, you'll have suitable hunting clothes and armor too."

"So that's the surprise Theradine mentioned!" she cried.

Nil gifted her with a lopsided grin. "It is indeed."

Her grip on the bow tightened. "Nil, this is…"

"The only caveat is that we must be discreet so that word does not get back to Jiran," he continued. "If anyone asks, we're touring the Maizelands and a few nearby estates in the Jewel because you're curious about Carja agriculture. Understood?"

Giving a nod, Aloy kept her head dropped. The tears were so numerous now that she could barely see through them, not to mention her head had begun to throb insistently. Nonetheless, she managed to say, "Thank you. This is... incredibly thoughtful."

"So it pleases you, then? You'd like to go?" The note of anxiety in his voice was unmistakable, and she wondered what he had to be nervous about.

Aloy chuckled wetly. "Are you kidding me? Of course I want to go. It's been over a month since I've even held a bow. But..." Confident that she was no longer on the verge of bursting into tears, she lifted her head. "Why are you doing this for me?"

"Someone like you shouldn't be caged up like this, Aloy," Nil said quietly. "I'm very much looking forward to seeing you in your element."

"Why do you care so much, though?" she pressed. "Not that I'm not grateful, but...it doesn't make sense."

"Regardless of the circumstances of our marriage, you're my wife, Aloy. You deserve to find some measure of happiness in such a cruel world," he said. "That's all."

Aloy obviously wasn't going to get very far with this line of questioning. It occurred to her then that perhaps Theradine had been correct in this assessment that she had been deceived by appearances when it came to Nil, and that gave her hope - hope that she could begin to grow closer to him, hope that it would enable her to do what needed to be done. Hope that someday soon, she'd get to go home.

And yet, as she took in both the gentle smile on Nil's face and the grey warmth of his eyes, she couldn't help but feel a stab of unease in her heart. If she had all of this fledgling hope, then why wasn't it filling her with as much joy as she would have expected?

Her head took that exact moment to give another throbbing pulse, more painful than before, and this time it was accompanied by a roiling wave of nausea. Sucking in a breath, Aloy bent forward over her bow.

Nil was kneeling by her side in an instant, his hand raised as if to touch her. "Aloy? What's wrong?"

"Nothing, I just - " Greasy nausea overcame her again, and she carefully exhaled through her nose. "Ugh."

A steadying hand was laid on her shoulder. "Are you feeling ill?"

"Damn Theradine," she moaned, burying her face in her hands. "Damn him and his stupid mead."

A cough that sounded suspiciously close to a laugh sounded from beside her, but Aloy was too sick to lift her head and glare at her husband.

"Well, that would explain a lot. Always has a bottle on him, always willing to share. And I take it you're not very used to alcohol either."

All she could muster was a low groan.

That hand on her shoulder moved to her back, where it began to rub in small, slow circles. If Aloy wasn't feeling as though she was about to vomit, she might have minded that he was touching her so intimately. But right now, it was the sole comfort combatting her misery, so she leaned into it.

"Why don't we get you up to bed? I can make you a tea for that hangover that should help a little bit. Otherwise, I'm afraid this is the sort of ailment you need to sleep off."

"Been...been sleeping all day," Aloy gasped.

"And so you'll sleep more," Nil said decisively. "Come on, let's go. Don't be too proud to lean on me if you need to." His tone took on a sly note. "Otherwise, I might have to carry you."

"All right, all right, I'm getting up." Summoning her best scowl, Aloy stood on unsteady feet. The room around her wavered and spun dizzyingly, and out of instinct, she grasped at Nil's arm.

"Easy," he murmured. A thick arm wrapped itself supportively around her waist. "I've got you."

Gradually, they made their way over to the stairs, and as Nil began to help her up the steps, Aloy grew increasingly aware of the way he was touching her. The heat from his forearm warmed her lower back, and with how she was half leaning on him, she could feel the shifting of his powerful muscles beneath his bare skin as he half-carried her. She began to feel rather warm herself, but stubbornly dismissed it as body heat from her husband - nevermind the fact that once they had reached her bedroom and he had helped situate her in her bed, that warmth mostly remained.

After pulling the covers up and over her - an action which Aloy attempted to protest, because she wasn't a child who needed to be coddled, thank you very much - Nil lingered in the doorway for a moment, backlit by the machine oil lamps in the hallway.

"I'll fetch you that tea I spoke of, but did you want anything to eat?"

Her stomach churned violently at the thought alone, and she shook her head vehemently. "All-Mother, no. I think it would end up all over me if I tried."

"Understandable," Nil chuckled. "I'll be back in a few minutes. Try to relax, okay?"

"Okay." Aloy gnawed at her lower lip. "And Nil?"

He had been halfway out the door, but he turned back to face her. "Yes?"

"I, uh…" She twisted her fingers in her lap. "Thank you. For everything."

Aloy couldn't make out his face through the darkness, but when Nil spoke, his voice was warm and a little husky. "You're welcome, Aloy. And in the future, if there's anything you need or want, you have but to ask."

He took his leave then, and Aloy reclined back on to her mess of pillows, wondering why, for the life of her, she couldn't seem to quell the pounding of her heart.

Chapter Text

"Just have to tighten it up a little bit more here and...there!"

Aloy drew back the string on her bow, giving a triumphant grin as it pulled with the perfect amount of resistance. She had spent the afternoon meticulously adjusting the tension, and as picky as she was, finally getting it right filled her with a sense of accomplishment she hadn't felt in a long time.

Satisfied, Aloy leaned back in her chair. Two more days, and, even though it was only for a short amount of time, she'd be back where she belonged.

With her anticipation for the hunting trip at the forefront of her mind at all times, the past five days had crawled by at a snail's pace. A few times, Aloy's impatience had nearly boiled over to the point of her pestering Nil about leaving early, but she had managed to restrain herself so far. The trip was already enough of a gift, and besides, she had no idea what his prior obligations were.

A guilty pang echoed through her as she realized that she still didn't actually know where her husband went or what he did during the daytime hours. Every night, he would inquire about what she occupied herself with that day, and Aloy knew it was likely a lot less than whatever he was doing, on account of his being a kestrel. There was no way an elite soldier of his caliber didn't have a multitude of duties to attend to.

"Well, he hasn't exactly been the easiest person to get along with," she muttered to herself, although her words rang hollow in the face of the hunting trip and the brand new bow she held in her hands.

In truth, Aloy was beginning to feel as though she was being ungrateful, and it wasn't an emotion she relished. Since court, Nil had been nothing but kind and considerate of her. No longer did she dart up to her room the second he stepped in the door - instead, evenings were spent together in the living area, spread out over the brand new couches and chairs he had ordered. Sometimes they talked, but most of the time they sat together in companionable silence. Nil would spend his time either reading a scroll or sharpening his sword and variety of knives, while Aloy, not keen to fiddle with her Focus with her husband around, mostly tinkered with her bow. He would offer suggestions on how best to modify the weapon which, to her chagrin, were helpful and innovative more often than not. Whatever she felt about him, she had to admit that his knowledge on the subject of weapons nearly surpassed her own.

In any case, guilt and personal feelings of ingratitude were useless and more than a little silly in this situation when she'd be ending his life in a few short months, Aloy reminded herself. She'd have to do better with worming her way into his good graces while staying emotionally detached.

Now was as good as of time as any to consider her options for carrying out the assassination when the time came. Striking while they were both at home seemed, at this juncture, to be the best option - perhaps she could creep into his room in the dead of night with one of his many knives in hand, impaling him through the heart or neck before he had time to react. Or maybe she could bide her time in some shadowy corner of the living area and wait for him to come home at dusk, arrow drawn and at the ready for a clean shot through the head.

But oddly enough, the thought of those silver eyes widening with betrayal and fear right before the moment of his death did not give her the usual delicious satisfaction. Instead, her throat tightened and her stomach rolled uneasily. As it often did these days, Rost's voice rang out sternly in her head.

Now's not the time to get soft, Aloy. Remember who he is and what you've been sent here to do. With all that he's probably done, he's hardly human anymore. It's no different than putting down a crazed boar.

An even knock sounded at the door, startling her out of her thoughts. Aloy placed her bow down with a knitted brow. Visitors weren't a common occurrence - in fact, the only one she'd ever had was Theradine dropping off her brand new hunting clothes a few days ago (and immediately demanding she put them on to show off his hard work), and no one had ever called on Nil.

Her opening the front door revealed a man in simple yet well-made clothing, holding out an elegantly bound scroll.

"A royal summons for Aloy Khane Argir," he announced, bowing his head. "Good day, my lady."

An intense wave of anxiety rolled over her as she took the scroll. The messenger immediately darted back into the street, leaving her standing in the doorway and staring at the summons in her hands as though it might grow teeth and bite her.

"Might as well get this over with," Aloy sighed.

Holding her breath, she undid the shiny golden twine holding the scroll together and slowly unrolled it. As her eyes skimmed over the expertly penned glyphs, she released that breath, and a fond smile tugged at her lips.

My newest but no less dear friend,

I hope this correspondence finds you well. Promptly at the first bell tomorrow afternoon, my brother and I are hosting a private luncheon in the Palace of the Sun and would very much enjoy your lovely presence. You need not fret about our father rearing his ugly head at any time - he will be spending most of the day holed up in his war room and therefore shouldn't be an issue. Even if he does appear, we have a multitude of ways to spirit you away so as not to draw notice.

Yours,

His Royal Highness Sun-Prince Kadaman

P.S. Another friend of ours will be in attendance, which should be cause for excitement - a little bird told me you two have already been well acquainted.

Well, that solved the dilemma of how she would be frittering away her last day before her and Nil's expedition. Spending time with the friendly Sun-Princes - as well as Talanah, Aloy was pleased to note - sounded much more exciting than pacing around the house all day and checking her gear dozens of times.

When Nil arrived home later and she tentatively broached the subject, he was in full agreement.

"You don't need to ask my permission to go do these things," he said with a shake of his head. "Besides, they're all good people. I'm happy you're becoming friends with them."

After a moment's hesitation, Aloy asked, "And what about you? Did you want to come along? I mean, they were your friends first."

Nil sighed, carding a hand through his hair. "I have much to do tomorrow, seeing as we'll be out of the city for two days. I'm not certain Kadaman would look kindly upon seeing me so soon after our last encounter, anyway. Blood spilled, even between friends, tends to be a fraught situation."

At Aloy's alarmed look, he snorted. "Well now, don't look at me as though I've stolen your kill. It was a sparring match, it happens. We both roughed each other up, and it was nothing permanent. The only thing truly wounded was his pride, and he'll forgive me for that soon enough."

Despite Aloy's overwhelming skepticism, she let the subject drop.

The next afternoon was overcast, but Aloy felt more exuberant than she had since coming to Meridian. The only dampening factor to her mood was a slight amount of tension over the possibility of running into the Sun-King, but she tried to take Kadaman's words about him being busy all day to heart.

Sure enough, she was able to give an obviously bored guard stationed outside of the Palace of the Sun her name and be led inside by an attendant without any incident.

There, in a much smaller and cozier room than the space the court event had taken place in, were Kadaman, Avad, and Talanah, wearing a colorful mishmash of casual silks and relaxing on couches littered with a variety of plush pillows. Upon seeing her, the three all lit up at once and called out a variety of greetings.

"Aloy, my dear!" Kadaman cried, lifting his arms. "What a vision of beauty you are today! Come, choose something to eat and sit with us. We've been waiting for you."

"Good to see you all too," she grinned.

Her eyes trailed over to a low table, where an impressive spread of meats, nuts, fruits, and pastries were all arranged artfully into a lovely display. Grabbing a fragile looking plate, Aloy piled as much food as the small surface could hold, her stomach already rumbling in anticipation for the mini-feast she had picked out for herself.

"Hungry?" asked an amused Talanah as Aloy plopped down beside her unceremoniously.

"Oh, yeah," she replied, her fingers already closing around a slice of chilled turkey. "I haven't had a chance to eat yet today."

"Go ahead and have your fill, then," Avad said encouragingly. "There's far too much food for the four of us to finish, anyway."

"I'll have to have a word with the kitchens about how wasteful this all is," Kadaman sniffed. "I know how much father enjoys his excesses, but the least we can do is hand off the leftovers to the staff, if not citizens in need in Meridian Village. Perhaps that will be my next project."

Avad grimaced. "And you know I'm in agreement. Just make sure father doesn't catch wind of this scheme of yours, or it'll be both of our heads. Again."

"So," Aloy said after swallowing a mouthful of berries, "what brought all this on?"

Kadaman sent her a devastatingly handsome smile. "Is it not enough that I missed your spectacular presence, my dear?"

"You know, brother, you could attempt not flirting with every person you come across for once," Avad muttered under his breath. "In case you've forgotten, she's married."

"Not exactly willingly," Aloy interjected.

"Oh, believe me, I have not forgotten," Kadaman sighed, resting a hand over his heart. "Indeed, her and Sahad's marriage is the very reason why I no longer have the opportunity to pursue - "

"As for the reason we requested your presence here today," Avad said, loudly enough to drown out his brother, "we found out that you had met Talanah in the markets and believed it would be an enjoyable diversion to spend a few hours together. That's all."

"We spend a lot of time together as it is," Talanah added. "You get along with all of us, so including you was easy."

Warmth pooled in Aloy's belly at Talanah's words. Was this what having actual friends was like? If so, it was something to be treasured - and something that would be hard to let go of when it came time to flee Meridian, she realized.

But she pushed that thought aside for now, instead remarking, "You've all known each other since you were children, right?"

"We have indeed," Kadaman confirmed. A conspiratorial look on his face, he leaned in close. "And at one point, it was intended to be much more than that. Did you know that Talanah and I used to be betrothed?"

Aloy's eyes widened as she looked between the two. "No, I didn't."

"Here we go," Talanah groaned. Avad bent forward to give a conciliatory pat on the knee.

"Not a day goes by that I don't regret the untimely dissolution of what would have assuredly been a most happy union." Kadaman held out his arms to Talanah beseechingly, but she shoved them away with a stuck out tongue and a wrinkled nose.

But also present was the faint blush Aloy had seen on her face in the market, she was interested to note.

"I didn't know you two had that kind of, um, relationship."

"Oh, no," Talanah laughed. "Trust me, we've only ever been friends. It was arranged for us, much the way yours and Sahad's was."

"Do any Carja have the option of choosing their mate?" Aloy asked, exasperated. "Or do you all marry whoever someone else tells you to?"

"Highborn nobles generally don't have a choice," Kadaman said with a rueful smile. "Especially not those of us belonging to the Radiant House."

Aloy nodded her understanding. "And what happened? Why was it dissolved?"

"I think we'd better start with why it was arranged in the first place," Talanah said thoughtfully. "I was born into an ancient noble House - on the same tier as Sahad's, actually, due to the fact that both of us can trace our lineage straight back to Araman the Founder's most loyal followers. With the exception of very rare cases" - here she gestured to Aloy - "the nobility only marry within their class, and the consort of a potential future Sun-King must be especially highborn. It was a natural match."

"What parents you happen to be born to is a ridiculous way to determine capability," Aloy pointed out. "Nothing about that seems natural."

"I don't think anyone in this room would disagree with you, Aloy," Avad reassured. "Unfortunately, everyone outside of it holds a very different opinion on the matter."

"The betrothal was arranged back when we were children, when our father was less - well, you know," Kadaman added.

Talanah's lips twisted. "And you already know about how my father and brother's noble actions in the Sun-Ring led to the 'disgrace' of my House. There was no way his Radiance would allow his heir's consort to be a disgraced noblewoman." She cocked her head in thought. "Speaking of which, I've always thought it was strange that I wasn't immediately thrown into the Sun-Ring the second I stepped foot back in Meridian. I guess your bunghole of a father was feeling charitable that day."

"I may have had a word or two with father about using you as a living example of what happens to one's family and status when they act against the supposed 'will of the Sun'," Kadaman said off-handedly. "All while acting suitably grateful for his breaking of our arrangement, mind you."

Talanah's gaze shot to him. "Kadi - I didn't know - you never told me - "

"You give me far too little credit, dearest," he tsked. "As if I'd sit by and allow someone I care for as deeply as you to be thrown to the machines." Kadaman held her gaze for a few seconds longer, and right at the moment where Aloy began to feel as though she was intruding on something deeply private and personal, he went on.

"Naturally, our betrothal meant that we were encouraged to spend quite the amount of time together, hence why we all ended up as close as we are." He sighed mournfully. "We were so very fortunate to have forged such a deep friendship. I've watched many a poor match lead to the mismanagement of an estate, and with the entire Sundom at stake, I am of the opinion that at least a favorable rapport is vital. I think of the potential often - what a marvelous team we would have made!"

"I'm of that opinion too," Aloy said. She popped a handful of nuts into her mouth, satisfied at the crunch they made beneath her teeth. "Being, you know, a part of one of those 'poor matches'."

"And how are matters between you and Sahad?" inquired Avad kindly. "Surely they've improved."

"If they haven't, I'll be vexed," Kadaman muttered. "Especially after the very thorough lesson I taught him in the sparring rings."

Aloy fought a smile. Apparently, Nil and Kadaman held polar opposite views on who had come out on top in that particular conflict.

That smile faded slightly but remained as she stared down at her mostly cleared plate. "Honestly, they have gotten better. Nil has actually been...kind to me. Although I'm not sure how much your little spat had to do with it."

Kadaman pulled a face as he flopped back onto his couch. "Ugh. Not that I'm not glad to hear it, but why does Sahad insist on going by that ridiculous nickname of his? Who would want to refer to themselves as a synonym for nothing?"

"Knowing him, he probably finds it funny," Talanah commented dryly.

"Kadaman, hush," Avad reprimanded before turning his attention back towards Aloy. "That's wonderful to hear. We'll all have to spend time together at some point."

"I think I'd like that," she said after a moment, surprising herself with her surety.

Avad's answering smile was as brilliant as the sun, but there was a calculating gleam to his eye that had Aloy wondering what exactly he was thinking.

"And if he decides to misbehave, we are more than capable of keeping him in line," Kadaman added primly.

A sudden commotion outside of the room drew Aloy's attention from the brothers, and a second later the door flew open. Accompanied by a string of excited exclamations, a richly clothed little boy who appeared to be somewhere between the ages of three and four bolted into the room. He made a beeline for Kadaman, who opened his arms and let out a joyful, surprised laugh when the child crashed into him.

"Kadi! Kadi!"

Picking him up, Kadaman exclaimed, "Itamen! Escaped again, I see."

"Our little brother," Avad explained to a half confused, half amused Aloy with a grin. "He's supposed to spend his days in the nursery and gardens, but as you can see, he has quite the taste for freedom."

At that moment, a very harried-looking woman bustled into the room. Upon viewing those assembled, her expression morphed into one of horror, and she fell to her knees at once.

"Your - your Highnesses! My ladies!" she gasped, bending over so far that her forehead touched the floor. "Please, forgive me, I only turned my attention away for a sole second - "

"No, no, none of that," Kadaman said firmly. "On your feet at once, please. We all know how slippery this little one can be, and in any case, I am not my father. You have nothing to fear from any of us."

The woman raised her head from the ground, her face crumpled with overwhelming relief. "Oh, thank you, Your Highness, thank you so much - "

"Gratitude is not necessary here." Kadaman said with a finality that was not to be questioned. His gaze grew fond as it dropped down to his little brother. "You know, I believe that we'll take care of Itamen for awhile. It's been far too long since I've spent time with my favorite little brother."

Avad shot him a mock hurt look. "I thought I was your favorite little brother."

"You are not nearly as cute," Kadaman chuckled, giving Itamen's close-cropped black hair an affectionate ruffle.

"Sorry, Avad. I'm inclined to agree with Kadi," Talanah said with a grin.

Itamen's attendant clearing her throat had everyone's attention snapping back to her. With a bow of her head, she edged towards the door. "As you wish, Your Highness. I will wait outside and will come when called."

When the door shut, Aloy's gaze drifted back over to the young prince - only to find him staring back at her through enormous brown eyes.

Never having actually interacted with any children in her life and unsure of what else to do, she gave a little wave. "Um, hello."

Mutely, Itamen climbed off of Kadaman's lap, keeping that wide-eyed gaze locked on her the entire time. He took a few paces towards her, stopping at her knee to study her intently.

"Kadi, 'vad," he said, raising a stubby little finger to point at Aloy. "Her hair. It's orange."

"Itamen, that wasn't very polite," Avad admonished. "That's not how a prince greets people, and we don't point either. Now, what do we say when meeting a lady for the first time?"

Itamen eyed his big brother sullenly, then lowered his hand and stuck it out further. His face pinched with concentration, he said, "Sorry, lady. It's very...very nice to meet you."

A delighted smile burst onto Aloy's lips when she realized he was offering her his little hand to shake, and most of her nervousness thankfully died away. "Really, it's all right." Solemnly, she engulfed his hand in her own and shook it. "My name is Aloy. It's very nice to meet you too, Itamen."

"A...Awoy," Itamen tried.

"Aloy," Kadaman corrected immediately. "Try again."

"Awoy."

Avad interjected this time, drawing her name out precisely and slowly. "A-l-o-y."

"A-w-o-y."

Itamen's intense frown of concentration was quickly degrading into a pout, and although she didn't know a lick about children, Aloy knew enough about people in general to understand that this probably wasn't headed anywhere good.

"Hey, you did your best," she said, offering the child a serious nod when he lifted his brown eyes to her. "You can call me whatever is easiest for you."

Kadaman seemed as though he wanted to protest, but a pointed look from Talanah silenced him.

After a moment of consideration, Itamen raised his arms with a serious, expectant expression on his tiny face. Confused, Aloy glanced around at the other adults in the room.

"I think he wants you to pick him up," Talanah offered helpfully.

The urge to smack her hand over her own face was high. "Oh. Right."

Biting her lip in concentration, Aloy bent over and slid her hands beneath the boy's arms and lifted him gingerly, just as she had seen Kadaman do. Itamen was surprisingly heavy for his small stature - maybe twice the weight of her bow, but way more awkward (not to mention terrifyingly fragile) to hold. Once she had set him down in her lap, however, he rearranged himself until he was in a vastly more comfortable position, much to her relief.

Talanah chose that moment to lean forward eagerly. "So, Aloy. Have you given any more thought to going hunting with my guardian and I? Did you bring it up to Sahad?"

"My, how scandalous and unladylike of you two," Kadaman drawled, throwing a wink in Talanah's direction in response to her dirty look. "I love it."

Aloy bit her lip. There wasn't any harm in letting them in on their plans, was there?

"Actually, Nil and I are leaving tomorrow to do just that," she finally admitted. "We're supposed to be gone for a couple of days in the Jewel."

Talanah's expression was one of mild surprise. "Oh, really?" She shrugged. "I guess I'll have to steal you away some other time. We'll work out the details soon."

Meanwhile, a massive grin had spread over Kadaman's face. But before he could open his mouth to say anything - and he clearly wanted to - Avad threw a hard kick across his shins, eliciting an excited giggle from Itamen.

"Sun and shadow - " The crown prince bent over to rub at his leg with a wince. "Little brothers, behave yourselves!"

"Mind your language in front of Itamen, older brother," Avad shot back.

Raising a brow, Aloy decided that she was better off not getting involved in whatever that was about. Instead, she turned her attention back to Talanah.

"I meant to ask," she said softly. "What happened to that little Nora girl from the markets? The slave."

"My guardian and I got her away from that fu - um, I mean, awful man and out of the city with no issue," Talanah reassured. "By now, she's probably already made it to the borders of the Sundom, where she'll be taken in by other displaced Nora. It's not the easiest life, but it's better than slavery, and she'll at least be among her people again." Her eyes wandered over to the oldest prince. "And once Kadi's on the throne, we can end slavery once and for all and start working on a better solution for those unable to go back home to their tribe."

"I'm glad to hear it," Aloy said, relieved. "Kadaman's a good man, and I think he'll make a great leader. Much better than Jiran, at least."

"Kadi's very good," Itamen interjected sagely.

"Yes, he is." A small, private smile tugged at the other woman's lips. "With him on the throne and me as Sunhawk, I think there's a lot we can accomplish."

Aloy rested her chin on her hand thoughtfully. "Does he know what you do with the slaves?"

"I can hear you two talking about me over there, you know," Kadaman called out, amused. "To answer your question, Aloy, of course I do. How do you think we're able to smuggle so many people out in the first place, entirely without suspicion? Being a part of the Radiant House has a few small benefits - in this case, the use of secret passageways in and out of the city, the existence of which are only supposed to be known by the Sun-King and his family." A mischievous glint flickered in his eye. "Oops."

"Oops!" Itamen echoed, clapping his hands together gleefully.

"Now, don't go repeating any of what I just said to father or the courtiers, little brother," Kadaman chided.

Itamen gave a grave nod.

"By the Sun, you must learn to stop being so free with your words," Avad muttered sourly. "It will be the death of you one day."

In the presence of such fine company and despite the excitement of departing for the hunting trip the next morning, the afternoon wound down far too quickly for Aloy's tastes. Moments of total relaxation had been almost entirely non-existent since she had come to the Sundom, and she wasn't keen on leaving her new friends behind to go home to the ever-present tension between her and Nil. But when the fifth bell finally chimed its somber tune, Aloy carefully deposited Itamen - who had only wandered from her lap for a few brief moments over the span of the last hours - onto the floor and reluctantly rose to her feet.

"Well, I have to get going. I have to be up pretty early tomorrow morning, and I have a few things I still need to pack."

"Bye bye, Awoy," Itamen said mournfully, wrapping his arms tightly around her leg. Bending down, she gave him an affectionate squeeze around the shoulders in return.

"Be good for your brothers, little one."

Talanah hopped to her feet as well, surprising Aloy by leaning in for a quick hug. "I hope you have a fantastic time, and you'd better tell me all about your hunt when you get back."

"Yeah, yeah," Aloy laughed. "I'll be sure to keep you in mind when I go in for the kill. I'll definitely have some trophies to show off when I get back."

"Are you sure you can't stay awhile longer?" Kadaman asked with a frown. "It's a very sacred Carja tradition to share a couple of drinks with friends before a hunt, you know. It would be awfully offensive for you to leave without partaking."

Avad rolled his eyes, then shot an exasperated look at Aloy. "Don't listen to him. He's making that one up."

"Fine, I am," Kadaman huffed. "But I insist that you and Sahad join us for an evening of merriment sometime soon."

"I'll make sure to bring it up to him," Aloy laughed. "Promise."

After receiving shockingly affectionate embraces from both Avad and Kadaman, Aloy bid the group farewell and headed back towards home. Her steps were light and exuberant the entire way, inspired by the good feelings left behind by spending an afternoon among friends and her anticipation for tomorrow. Not even the usual haughty stares of the Carja city-dwellers could dampen her mood today.

When she burst through the front door, mouth hanging open and ready to speak with Nil about final preparations for their trip, Aloy was, strangely enough, disappointed to find the house as darkened and as empty as it had been when she had departed earlier that day.

"I hope he's not out so late that he oversleeps tomorrow morning," she muttered to herself.

Still, there was plenty she could do by herself, so Aloy decided to head upstairs and give her bow a final check and ensure - for the umpteenth time - that her supplies were arranged to her liking.

She was sitting on her bed and sorting through a pile of metal shards to determine their suitability for arrowheads when her gaze wandered over to her desk - where yet another whittled figurine sat on top of a sheet of parchment paper. Frowning, she set aside the shards, slid off the bed, and paced over to it.

The note beneath the carving read:

Aloy,

Anticipation can draw one as tight as a wire, but the clever fox knows how to be patient and when to strike. Excitement for the thrill of battle builds like a storm, and it's always followed by the sweet release one craves.

Sleep well tonight, for you'll need the energy. I'll see you in the morning, before the Sun's rising.

Nil

"Well, this wasn't here this morning," Aloy murmured as she picked the figure up. "When did he find the time to drop this off?"

This time, the tiny wooden creature appeared to be a fox. Curved slashes for eyes and a pointed nose framed by curled whiskers stared adorably back up at her. Aloy didn't even bother to fight the smile that grew on her lips as she turned it over in her hands.

After a heartbeat of consideration, she neatly folded up Nil's note and dropped it into the drawer affixed beneath the desk. And instead of hurling the figure into the fireplace as she had twice before, the Seeker deposited it back on to her desk, where, lit by the warm glow of the fire, it held vigil over her for the rest of the evening.

Chapter Text

After a night of restless half-sleep, Aloy woke just before dawn. With only the faintly glowing embers of the coals in her fireplace as light, she threw on her clothing - her usual going-out silks - as quickly as humanly possible. Her grin was so enormous that her cheeks hurt, and, for a moment, she felt as carefree as a child again.

Nil had come home late last night, so she hadn't had a chance to run a final supply check with him. Intent on fixing that, she burst out of her room and strode towards her husband's room, that smile still stuck on her face. Aloy threw his door open as she called out an exuberant greeting.

And stopped short when she took in the scene in front of her.

Lying spread out on his back, Nil was definitely awake, having propped himself up on a couple of colorful pillows. That wasn't what had made her freeze, however. It was the mortifying realization that her husband appeared to be entirely naked but for a red silk sheet wrapped around his lower half, the hem dangerously low on his hips.

Nil raised a single eyebrow, a sly grin slowly splitting his lips. "Well, good morning to you, too. I see you're already ready to go."

Aloy's mouth snapped shut. Heat bloomed in her face and neck until she was certain that she was in danger of spontaneously catching on fire.

Holding her hands in front of her, she backed away slowly. "I - I - sorry - I, um...I'm going to go. Downstairs. I'm going to be downstairs."

Nil's grin only grew wider.

Once she hit the hallway, Aloy slammed the door shut and booked it down the stairs, sure she was moving even faster than she had that time a particularly aggressive Scrapper had been pursuing her through the Embrace. She didn't stop until she slammed into the wall opposite the stairs. Leaning against it for support, she pressed a hand to her heart, which seemed to be in imminent danger of pounding its way out of her chest.

"Okay," she breathed, stepping over to the table where their packs sat once she had calmed enough. "Okay, focus on final checks. That's a good distraction."

But no matter how she busied herself, Aloy still couldn't quite get the image of Nil's bare torso out of her head. The swell of his chest, the carved muscle of his abdomen, the way it drew the eye down to his -

Clenching her jaw tight, she slammed a bundle of arrows down with so much force that they burst apart and spilled all over the floor with a loud clatter.

"Woah, there. Need some help with that?"

Bracing herself, Aloy turned to face her husband. He was fully clothed in casual silks of his own, and she released the breath she had been holding since she had nearly broken her neck fleeing down the stairs.

"Um, yeah. Sure. That would be nice."

Thankfully, Nil didn't say a word about what had transpired upstairs, instead helping her run through the checklist she had so painstakingly put together a week ago. The careful avoidance of their encounter helped immensely, and Aloy was gradually able to relax.

"And your new armor from Theradine? Did you pack that too?"

"I did," Aloy confirmed, patting at her bag. "It was one of the first things I took care of, actually."

Nil nodded in satisfaction. "Good, good. Once we're far enough away from the city, we'll both be able to change. I'm glad you had the foresight to dress in your normal clothing, because going out in full armor doesn't exactly scream 'delicate noblewoman touring the Maizelands'."

"I'm not an idiot, Nil," she muttered, picking up her bow.

"My apologies. I never meant to imply otherwise." His eyes narrowed as he looked her over. "Although…"

Striking as unexpectedly as lightning, Nil's arm shot out to snatch her bow straight out of her hands.

"Hey! Give that back!" Aloy cried, reaching back out for it just as fast.

To her frustration, Nil held the weapon high out of her reach with a decisive shake of his head. "No. A woman carrying a weapon would be incredibly suspicious to the guards posted at the gates, so I'll be holding on to this until we stop to change."

"But…"

He pinned her with a flat look. "Do you want this trip to end before it's begun?"

Realizing that he had a very good point, Aloy deflated. "No. You're right."

Placing her bow back on the table, Nil dug into his pack and pulled some small item out, holding it out to her.

"However...here. I've been meaning to give this to you. Strap this beneath your clothing, now and whenever you leave home in the future. It wouldn't do to leave you totally defenseless."

The object was a dagger, short and curved, with long straps capped by buckles affixed to the sheath. More gratitude flooded Aloy as she took it from him and examined it, surprised by the tiny blade's weight.

Hesitantly, she raised her eyes up to his. "Thank you. I will."

Nil was nothing if not efficient, something which Aloy was relieved to find. The pair managed to finish up their packing and make it out of the house just as the sun's first rays were warming the metal and brick of Meridian and stirring its inhabitants. There was a lingering chill in the air while the pair headed towards the Great Elevators which would carry them down into the Maizelands. It only served to fuel Aloy's excitement, with how it recalled memories of frost-kissed mornings in the Embrace, when all the world seemed to be holding its breath.

With the lack of foot traffic, they made it to the Great Elevators in under fifteen minutes. The view was stunning, although Aloy couldn't help but feel unusually anxious as the machine lowered them gradually down to the foot of the mesa. If any part of the mechanism failed - no. She wouldn't think about that. Instead, her attention shifted to the solid presence of her husband, and she poured all of her focus into matching her breathing to his. It helped, if only slightly.

The walk through Meridian Village was even shorter, and soon enough, they arrived at an impressive gate - the exit out of the city. A couple of guards stationed there were leaning on their polearms, but both snapped to attention as soon as they caught sight of Nil.

"Good morning, sir!" one of the guards greeted as the couple came to a halt at the archway. "What business do you have outside of the city?"

Nil's expression froze over, just as it had on their wedding day. Aloy's stomach sank.

"What authority do you have to question the comings and goings of a kestrel, soldier?" he responded, his voice deep and dangerous.

The guard drew back, fear sparking in his eyes. "Sir, with all due respect - surely you're aware that it's proper protocol to question all travelers coming in and out of the city - "

"I believe remaining at attention at all times is also proper protocol," Nil interjected cooly. "And I didn't see either of you following that particular order."

"Yes, sir. We'll be sure to remember that, sir." The guard's grip on the handle of his weapon tightened. "Still, orders are orders. I ask again, sir: what is your business outside of the city?"

"At ease, soldiers. If you must know, I'm taking my wife here out on a tour of the Maizelands," Nil sighed. "She's a simple creature, having come from a tribe which can't comprehend Carja ingenuity. I thought that such a trip might serve to educate her on higher subjects, so that speaking to her isn't such a bore. Surely you understand."

Aloy's fists tightened so much that they began to tremble.

Apparently having taken Nil's order to be at ease to heart, the other guard took that moment to chime in jovially, "Oh, I get it, sir. She's a pretty one, all right. What I wouldn't give to take her out for a roll in the maize sometime myself."

Nil paused, then slowly angled his head towards the soldier. The glare twisting his expression was as sharp as a spear of ice.

"Savage or not, that is my wife you're talking about, and she belongs to me. Taking what belongs to another man is the highest dishonor, soldier," Nil said, deathly calm, "not to mention a crime."

The man stood stock still, but his eyes bulged as Nil leaned in, as closely as a lover might.

"How lucky you are that my mood today is forgiving." A polite smile replaced the loathing on his face. "Just a word of friendly advice: I'd be more discriminating with your words in the future. Otherwise, well..."

The implied threat hung in the air, and the guard whipped his head up to croak, "Open - open the gates! Quickly! And hold at attention for a superior officer!"

With a grating creak, the gates rose haltingly upward, lifted by great chains as big around as one of Aloy's thighs. She had to force herself to focus on the intricacies of the mechanism, otherwise the appeal of smashing her fist into her husband's haughty face might just win out over her flagging self-control - especially when Nil barked out a familiar, "Come, wife."

Follow she did, a thunderous look on her face the entire time she stomped after him. Once they had crossed a bridge over a gently flowing river and were well out of earshot of the pair of soldiers, Aloy wheeled on her husband furiously.

"What is your problem?" she fumed. "What, can't resist the urge to talk down to your disgusting, savage wife? Does it make you feel powerful to lord over someone else who can't defend themselves in front of others?"

Nil was at least in possession of enough intelligence to look taken aback.

Darkly encouraged by his reaction, she bent towards him and jabbed a finger at his chest. "I'm not putting up with it anymore. The next time you talk to me that way, I won't hold back. You can deal with the embarrassment of having your little pet beat your face in. Let's see how much that improves your reputation."

"Aloy, I - I thought you knew," Nil said, regret, of all things, choking his tone. Weariness settled into the lines of his face, and his shoulders drooped. "This is my fault, I suppose. I should have been more clear about my intentions."

"What I want to know is why," she snapped. "Why you treat me one way at home and another when we're around others, why everytime I feel like things are getting more tolerable, something like this happens. I feel as though I'm living with two men, and I don't know which is my actual husband."

Nil's gaze dropped to his feet, and he sucked in a lungful of air before lifting it back up to her. "I know. I know, and I'm sorry. But you must know that everything I've done - the abhorrent way I've treated you - it's all been entirely for your protection."

Now Aloy was the confused one. "What do you mean?"

"If any of the nobility beyond those you've befriended, especially Jiran, knew how much I truly cared for you, they would have your head and mine." His granite eyes softened. "You should know that I hate every second of this farce, and I mean none of what I say to others about you. In truth, Aloy, you're one of the most intelligent and capable people I've ever met, and I've enjoyed your company far more than most others I've known. Know that out of all the women who could have been chosen to become my wife, I'm glad it was you."

Stunned, she stared at him blankly.

"Wait. You...care for me?"

A flash of panic flared in Nil's eyes, and abruptly, he turned away.

"There's a copse of trees and boulders a ways ahead. We should head there now to get changed into our armor, for the dangers lurking outside of the city are numerous."

Before she had a chance to respond, Nil stalked away and up the road. She followed in a daze, feeling all the while as though she hadn't yet awakened for the day and was still dreaming. Everything about the past month and a half had been dragged sharply into focus: from how kind he had been initially at their wedding, to, in retrospect, how painfully obvious it was that he had been putting on a show for the other nobles. His hesitation, his pleas for her to listen to his explanation - if she was being honest with herself, Aloy actually felt quite stupid. It was an unpleasant feeling, and not one she was keen on experiencing again.

She fell into step at his side, and that uncomfortable silence that had all but disappeared since he had told her about the hunting trip came back with a vengeance. By the time they reached the area he had indicated, Aloy was relieved to take her pack and scamper off behind a large rock.

At the very least, she could shift her attention to just how good it felt to be out of the city and back in the wilds again. She took a moment to close her eyes and tilt her head up, to listen as the sounds of birds and other wildlife filled her ears, to allow the clean air to caress her, to breathe in the scent of foliage and earth. In the distance, she was certain she could even hear the rhythmic, mechanical thumping of a herd of machines passing through the area, and the thought of how much she had even missed those made her smile. Regardless of what transpired between her and her husband over the next couple of days, she had this, and it was the closest feeling to home she had experienced since leaving the Sacred Lands.

Eventually, she opened her eyes again and bent over to dig through her pack, a different kind of excitement filling her. The armor Nil had ordered for her was, as with her bow, far finer than anything she had previously possessed. The top part consisted of a light blue breastband and a vest made of indigo silk trimmed in gold, complete with leather arm guards and metal armor for her shoulders and forearms. It showed off her stomach in the strangest way, but Nil had assured her that between the heat of the Jewel and the vigor of battle, she would soon be thankful for it. The bottom half was made up of a belt with many pouches, leather leggings, some of the oddest footwear Aloy had ever seen, and yet more armor for her shins. Topping it all off was an impressively crafted metal headdress which gave the impression of a bird spreading its wings in flight - and secretly, despite its function being purely decorative, it was her favorite part.

Stripping down to only her bottom underwear was easy enough, but Aloy ran into trouble the moment she attempted to pull on her leggings. They were tight, purposefully tailored to be as form-fitting as possible, but that also meant that they took quite a bit of effort to tug up around her legs. So much, in fact, that one particularly rough tug born out of frustration had her losing her balance and falling back onto her behind with a surprised cry.

"Aloy? Aloy!"

Clad in only a loose pair of purple pants, Nil came running out from behind a grouping of trees, panic spread over his face. His eyes dropped down to her a second later, and Aloy's arm flew up to cover her naked breasts just a little too late. That damned blush of hers spilled over her cheeks, stronger than ever.

An impressively vibrant flush to match her own crept up Nil's neck, and he whipped his head to the side so rapidly that she was surprised he didn't injure himself.

"Sun and Shadow, I'm sorry. You had been taking awhile, and I heard your cry - "

"No, it's okay." In an attempt at levity - anything to dispel the cloying awkwardness between them - she added, "I guess we're even after how I walked in on you this morning, huh?"

Nil's shoulders relaxed, and Aloy was sure she saw a smile on his face as he walked away to finish changing.

When he emerged sometime later, he was wearing a much different set of clothing that she would have expected - except for his favored purple pants, of course. Sitting atop his head was a headdress of familiar red feathers, but in a much different style than the one he wore with his kestrel armor, lacking the mask and therefore the intimidating quality. A red scarf was looped around his neck, and beneath that he sported a similarly hued vest corded with gold. Gleaming white armor covered not only his shoulders and the leather bracers on his forearms, but also twin tassets resting on either side of his hips and, inexplicably, functioned as an enormous and entirely too sharp belt buckle. Aloy studied the entire odd ensemble with a confused frown.

Holding his arms out, Nil spun around once with a cheeky grin. "This is traditional Carja hunting armor. What do you think?"

"Well, you're certainly more...colorful than usual." She folded her arms over her chest. "An entirely bare torso again, though? Really? What do the Carja have against wearing shirts into battle?"

That grin became coy. "I've never thought too hard on that, but perhaps it's intended to function as a distraction for the enemy."

"I highly doubt a machine will be distracted by a naked chest, no matter how impressive," Aloy intoned.

"Impressive, huh?" he said, then gestured to her. "Well, look at you. You're one to talk, what with a bared midriff."

She wrapped her arms around her waist self consciously. "At least this could be useful for flexibility! And at least mine didn't come with that ridiculous buckle which looks as though it could disembowel you if you move too abruptly during a fight!"

Nil shook his head skeptically. "Regardless of your opinions on function, we'll both have some level of protection while hunting - and look good doing it, to boot. Speaking of which, Theradine told me to inform you that your entire outfit has been coated with an experimental substance intended to resist fire. Not sure how much I buy into that, so try not to get cocky and run into any open flames."

"I'll be sure not to," Aloy muttered.

With that, Nil finally handed her her bow back, and she slung it over her back while shooting him a look of gratitude.

The initial walk into the Jewel was uneventful to the point of dullness. Still, there was no telling when she'd have another opportunity to leave the city - although with Talanah's offer of a hunting trip, she hoped it would be soon - so, continuing as she had earlier, she resumed absorbing every last bit of lush scenery she could. Aloy was so caught up in this simple joy, in fact, that she didn't have the time to react when something lunged out of the brush and straight at her.

Her shout of surprise was immediately cut off by the cool steel of a blade digging into the tender skin of her throat - and that was the exact moment she realized that her assailant was very much human.

"Try n' hold still, yeah?" a breathless male voice growled in her ear. "Don't wanna have ta hurt ya. Well, any more than necessary." His attention turned towards Nil. "You. Hand over yer shards and I'll free the lady."

Through the blood pounding in her ears at the shock of being so caught off guard, Aloy could just make out the sneer which slowly twisted her husband's face. Something about it chilled her down to the bone.

"I think not," he replied, eerily calm. "I think what's actually going to happen here is that you're going to release my wife, and then maybe I'll let you beg for your pathetic life. Just a warning - I'm not the merciful type, and my patience has already been tested once today."

The man guffawed, then jerked his head towards the tree line, where several people in ragged clothes and a hodgepodge of armor were emerging. "See my buddies over there? Yer gonna have ta get through all of us if yer spoilin' for a fight."

Nil threw back his head and let loose a deep laugh that contained far too much glee for the situation at hand. "Oh, what a tease you are! It must be my lucky day. Bandits have always been my favorite prey."

In his confusion, the man relaxed his hold on Aloy the slightest bit, and that's when she took her chance. Her hand snapped up, fingers wrapping around the bandit's wrist. In an expert motion she had used not too long ago, she simultaneously squeezed and twisted the joint as hard as she could. The move worked - with a pained scream, the man dropped his knife, effectively freeing her from his grasp.

In the time it took to bolt back to Nil's side, Aloy managed to unhook her bow and draw an arrow from the quiver at her hip. It was a good thing, too - because in the space of the next heartbeat, the first volley of arrows came screaming towards them from the group of bandits in the trees. Thankfully, both of them were able to handily dodge every last projectile.

"Six of them, including the trash on the ground," Nil informed her, already aiming his own arrow in the direction of their foes. "Call it an early test of your skills. Let's see what you're made of, girl."

Aloy, having fought a plethora of machines, was no stranger to life and death events. What was new, however, was an enemy of the human variety in the same sort of situation. So when the normal rush of battle-induced adrenaline pulsed through her veins, it was mixed with a very alien terror that had her breath coming harsh and fast and sweat coating her hands and brow.

Regardless, when she loosed her first arrow, it hit its target as intended, spearing an unfortunate bandit woman straight through the eye. As she dropped to the ground with a gargled cry, nausea churned in Aloy's guts, and she had to swallow to keep the contents of her stomach contained. Beside her, Nil let loose a thrilled yell.

"That's my girl! Keep it up!"

As she drew another arrow, the man who had assaulted her in the first place stumbled to his feet, clutching at his wrist. Nil gave him little room to recover - throwing his bow aside for the moment, he instead pulled out the curved sword clipped to his belt. Darting forward, he savagely impaled the bandit straight through his belly and twisted the blade. Aloy wasn't entirely sure, but she could have sworn she heard a blissful moan escape her husband as he yanked the sword out and was coated in a thick spray of the man's blood.

Sickened further, she redirected her attention to her own targets. The count repeated over and over again like a mantra in her head: two down, four to go. Another gigantic man brandishing a battle axe had broken free from the others and was coming up on her left too quickly for her liking, so she leveled her next arrow at him. It went just a hair wide, and furious disappointment stabbed at her as she fumbled for another arrow. Just as the bandit was about to swing at her, she managed to bury her projectile into his unprotected neck. His steps faltered, and Aloy had to roll out of the way to keep from being crushed beneath his large mass.

Meanwhile, Nil had retrieved his bow and dispatched another two with stunning precision, leaving only one very uncertain bandit standing.

"Come now," Nil crooned, drawing back his bowstring with a disturbing relish. "Come and meet your death. I promise to make it swift, even if it's far more than scum like you deserves."

The bandit glanced between the two frantically, seeming to rethink his chances. The instant he turned to flee, however, Nil lazily dropped his hold on his bowstring, burying an arrow straight into the man's back. He fell to the ground with a muted thump, and then there was silence.

Aloy promptly fell to her hands and knees and vomited her breakfast up into the dirt.

Her body heaved and jerked painfully, both from that and the sobs which wracked her. The terror of the last few minutes, the shocked death faces of the bandits, the copious amounts of blood - these all played on an endless loop through her thoughts. All she could do was wrap her arms around herself and squeeze tight. It felt as though it was the only thing holding her together.

She felt her husband's presence by her side seconds later.

"This is all normal the first time, you know." There was a clipped excitement in his voice, and everything in her was repulsed by it. "Happened to me, happens to everyone. Don't worry, you'll get over it soon enough. Your ears will ring later in the - "

Finally finding her voice, Aloy screamed, "What the hell is wrong with you?"

There was another moment of quiet, and then Nil kneeled beside her. "I'm simply enjoying what I'm good at, Aloy. That's all."

"The rumors. What happened at Cinnabar Sands. It's all true, isn't it?" She shuddered.

"Yes. I never once denied any of it."

Finally, after steadying herself as much as she could, she managed to lift her eyes to meet his. By some small miracle, most of the bloodlust seemed to have faded from them.

"What happened to you?" she whispered. It was a question Aloy knew she probably shouldn't have asked, but one she had anyway.

"That's a very long story, but I suppose I can summarize." Nil appeared thoughtful. "To start, I was like you once, although I was no more than a boy when I went through what you just did. Every first son of both high and low blood, to be enlisted in the military at the age of ten, by order of Sun-King Hivas - Jiran's father, and I was born near the end of his reign. I learned how to kill early, and I learned how to do it well. In time, I grew to enjoy, even prefer it, because I watched what happened to those who weren't able to adjust to the violence of battle. They tore themselves apart in agony, some even taking their own lives over the atrocities they were ordered to inflict on others." His expression hardened. "I didn't want to meet such an end. I wanted to survive, and so I did what I had to. This is only what such a life has made of me."

"You prefer killing humans?" Aloy's grip on herself tightened. "Why not hunt machines, especially when you're not at war?"

"Machines lack both the challenge and the excitement of human quarry." Nil shook his head. "Besides, they don't get that look in their eye…"

"You're a monster," Aloy choked out. "Someone should put you down."

It didn't escape her that his end would most likely come from her hand. Ice encased her insides, and her fingers dug into the leather on her arms.

"I don't lie about myself or what I am," Nil said matter-of-factly. "I've only ever presented you with the truth of my nature and nothing more. What you see before you? It's all that I am, and that level of honesty is more than one can say for most people."

Instead of responding, Aloy buried her face in her hands.

"Men like me have been wounded beyond healing, Aloy," he said quietly. "It's not something that can be fixed with a salve or tea. Between the nightmares which rip me from sleep into a cold sweat, the constantly unsettled nerves, and - I mentioned it just now - but my ears...afterwards, they ring without end, like the fighting hasn't yet ceased, and then it's like nothing is real. It's as though I'm being tormented, as though most of me has slipped into darkness and only a shade remains. I try to ground myself, to remind myself that I'm still here, but oftentimes, I can't without - "

He cut off abruptly. When she was finally able to look at him again, Nil was wearing a troubled expression.

The gears in Aloy's mind began to turn, and she said, "You said that bandits were your favorite prey. What if...what if you only went after people like that? People who hurt and kill others."

"I'm a soldier, Aloy," he reminded her. "And we are at war. I'm afraid that's not possible. I've slain many a good man on the battlefield."

"At least they chose to fight, unlike the other victims of the raids!" she snapped, loudly enough to carry throughout the trees and startle a few nearby birds into flight. Nil's expression remained unchanged.

Aloy sagged. "Look, I don't think anyone is ever beyond change, even if they've been hurt. You could at least try."

"I did, once," he replied, his gaze somewhere far away. "And it's only brought those around me trouble."

"And you can try again," she said intently, leaning a little closer to him. "I know you have it in you. The way you treat me, the others...there's a good man in there somewhere. You're not totally gone, Sahad."

Shock burst on his face at her use of his real name, but it soon gave way to consideration.

"Perhaps. But we've idled here long enough."

He rose to his feat as gracefully as always and took a deep breath. When he turned to offer her his hand, all of the kindness she had come to know from him was glowing on his face, and it only bolstered her belief in her previous words. She accepted his hand and rose to her feet.

Glancing down at himself, Nil grimaced. "Well, we've made quite the mess. I may enjoy the killing part, but I don't actually enjoy walking around covered in blood once the fighting has ended. What do you say we find a nice stream and clean up a bit before heading out? There should be one nearby, if I'm remembering correctly." He squeezed her hand, and she settled her gaze back on him. "This hunt is a big deal to you, so we ought to look our best."

He was offering her a genuine smile, and Aloy realized that he seemed to be trying to cheer her up, so she forced out a nod. And despite the circumstances, when Nil finally dropped her hand to move on ahead, she felt oddly empty and cold.

Chapter Text

True to Nil's word, there was a small creek cutting through the jungle floor only a few hundred feet from where they had been ambushed. The gentle bubbling of the water had a welcome grounding effect on Aloy, and it seemed to do something similar for her husband. He stared down at it for awhile with an inscrutable expression, some of the tension which had built up in him easing. His captivation lasted so long, in fact, that she had to speak up to get his attention.

"Nil?"

"Forgive me for my indulgences." He tilted his head towards her. "I'm not sure why, but I've always been drawn to all forms of water. Rivers, rain, lakes...they're somehow calming."

Aloy knelt down by the water's edge, eager to wash the blood and sweat off of herself. "Huh. I guess I never really stopped to consider it beyond bathing and drinking."

"It's constant, yet always flowing and changing," Nil remarked as he crouched down beside her. He dipped his bare fingers into the stream, then pulled his hand out and examined the remnant water droplets as they quivered then broke free and rolled down the digits. "Like life itself, I suppose."

Aloy lifted an eyebrow. "That's awfully poetic of you. Actually, I've noticed that with a lot of Carja. Is poetry another large part of your culture?"

"For nobles, at least, the arts are a crucial part of our upbringing," he explained. "Despite Hivas' attempts to gut them entirely in favor of martial pursuits, tradition ultimately won out. Even young noble boys enlisted in the military were expected to receive an education befitting of their station. So between lessons in the barracks on effective disembowelment techniques, we sat with the Sun-Priests at the Temple of the Sun to learn the higher arts of poetry and song."

She gaped at him. "Are you telling me that you can sing?"

"Yes, yes," Nil said dismissively. "That's not unique to the nobility, either. It's a useful diversion when on a long march, so most soldiers are capable of belting out a tune."

"Oh?"

At Aloy's interested look, he shook his head and chuckled. "Perhaps you'll hear my voice later, if our trek is particularly long. Not now, though. Right now, both of us should focus on cleaning up."

Suddenly shy, she ducked her head. "Yeah. You're right."

At least washing up was a decent diversion from the odd feelings creeping through her. Using cupped handfuls of water, Aloy began cleansing her uncovered skin. Unfortunately, some of the blood spatter had managed to get onto her bared stomach and had already begun to crust, so she bit her tongue against the icy chill of the water and the scrape of her nails. It was unpleasant, but the only other option was to walk around covered in dried blood - not exactly her idea of suitable hunting wear. Something her and her husband had in common, she supposed.

"You know, I've often thought about what I'd do if I hadn't been pushed into the military," Nil commented after awhile, once Aloy had stripped her armor and the leather parts of her outfit to clean.

"Besides lazing around being a spoiled noble?" Aloy asked before she could stop herself.

Full of good humor as usual, Nil let loose a hearty laugh. "Hah! No, my father would have never allowed it. My upbringing before I was handed off to the barracks was incredibly structured, believe it or not."

"You've spoken of your mother, but I've never heard you talk about your father," Aloy said softly.

Instead of pushing back or shutting down as she would have expected, Nil heaved a resigned sigh. "Because that story isn't a happy one, and I don't often like to dwell on it. My memories of my mother, on the other hand, are all very dear to me."

Feeling as though she needed something to do with her hands, Aloy returned her attention to cleaning her armor. "People have brought her up often when I've spoken about you. It sounded like she was a wonderful person."

"One of the best I've ever known, even though I was young when she passed into darkness." A pause. "You're very much like her, actually."

Aloy scrubbed at her armor a little more forcefully, unsure of what to say to that. Instead, she asked, "So what would you have liked to do, beyond running an estate?"

"I won't have to worry about that until my father dies," Nil said. "In the meantime, I very much would have liked to dabble in the arts. Beyond poetry, I've always enjoyed using my hands. Carving especially is an interest of mine."

Realization hit Aloy upside the head. "The figures...the ones you've been leaving on my desk...you made those?"

"Well, where exactly did you think they came from?" he questioned, amused.

"I don't know. I guess I just assumed that they were trinkets you picked up in the markets." Swallowing, she stared down at her lap. "You made those. For me. No one's ever made anything for me, beyond what my guardian crafted out of necessity. And I…"

"Oh, I'm aware that you disposed of them." When her gaze shot up to him, Nil was oddly nonplussed. "It's all right, Aloy. Circumstances being what they were, I understand why. I don't regret making them, for the sole fact that carving keeps my mind from wandering into unsavory places when I'm alone. Besides…" His grey eyes warmed. "I saw that you kept the fox when I stepped into your room this morning to make sure you hadn't forgotten anything. That one came out rather well, don't you think?"

"It's nice. Silly, but cute," she admitted, turning over a cleaned plate of armor in her hands contemplatively. "I haven't had the kind of life that allows for owning things that don't serve an actual purpose, so it's not really something I'm used to, but...thank you, Nil."

"You're more than welcome," he responded cheerfully. "To me, bringing even the smallest happiness to someone I care for is a purpose in and of itself. And just so you're aware, I have plenty more planned, so keep an eye out. You'll have a lovely little menagerie of wooden creatures soon enough."

More at ease now, Aloy snorted. "Okay, that seems a little excessive. I'm not a child in need of toys to amuse myself with."

"No, but they're something to brighten up your room in a miserable situation," Nil countered, his tone not leaving any room for argument. "Now, enough talking. Let's finish up here and be on our way."

Not nearly as miserable of a situation as it used to be, Aloy thought, keeping her eyes trained on him for a couple more seconds before returning to her task.

It didn't take long for both of them to finish up, Aloy first on account of not getting as up close and personal with their foes as Nil had during the fight. As she snapped both armor and accessory back on, however, the sound of her husband politely clearing his throat stopped her in her tracks.

"Yes?"

"You missed a spot. On your lower back, there's some blood," he explained.

Craning her head around as far as it went while turning, Aloy eventually gave up with a frustrated huff. "Well, it's obviously in a place I can't see."

Nil angled his head up towards the canopy. "It rains often enough in the Jewel. You could simply wait for that." At her wrinkled nose, he continued, "Or…"

"Or?"

"I have a spare cleaning cloth in my pack and could take care of it for you," he offered.

"Oh." Aloy shrugged and turned around so that her back was to him. "That's fine with me."

There was a rustling as he dug into his bag, and once he had found the desired item, Nil bent over to dip it into the stream and then squeeze it out. The instant the water-laden cloth touched her back, she startled from the sudden cold. A heartbeat later, one of his hands settled on the tuck of her waist - a reflexive attempt to steady her, Aloy supposed, and it did its job well enough. But all she could fixate on was the heat from his palm seeping into her from such an intimate spot, the slight pressure from his fingertips digging into her skin. Goosebumps peppered her skin, and she had the fleeting thought that it wasn't just because of the chill of the water.

"All done," Nil murmured in her ear a short time later, and that's when Aloy realized just how close they were.

Abruptly, she took a step away from him, remembering just in time to mutter out a few words of gratitude.

Shrugging their packs on again, the pair pressed on into the Jewel. As the time crept closer to midday, the temperature rose and the air swelled with moisture. Although Meridian had a tendency to reach blistering temperatures during the daytime hours, the city generally lacked this level of choking mugginess, instead mostly remaining dry. Aloy would never say it out loud, but the further they went into the jungle, the more grateful she became that Nil had decided on this style of hunting gear for her.

"I thought it would be wise to warn you of a specific danger in these parts before we go too far off the road," Nil said after awhile. "Stalkers are incredibly common in this area of the Jewel, almost to the point of infestation. We must be careful."

Aloy's brow creased at the unfamiliar machine name. "Stalkers?"

"They're a fairly recently discovered machine which moves on four legs and possesses a long, whip-like tail," he said. "Highly aggressive and territorial. Their primary method of attack is to shoot dart-like projectiles, but their most dangerous attribute is that they somehow have the power to become almost completely invisible."

"If that's the case, how will we know when we enter their territory, then?" she asked, her interest stirred.

"Stalkers have a nasty habit of leaving mines around their nests in order to alert them of any trespassers," replied Nil. "You'll want to look out for those as well. And believe me, you'll know when you find one - they make an awful, high-pitched noise and send a signal flare into the air. It's best not to set them off."

Rather than fear, it was heady anticipation which had Aloy's heart quickening. A real challenge, the first she had faced in months. In truth, fighting the smaller, more docile machines of the Embrace had become more routine than exciting in the past year or so, and those she had seen on the journey to Meridian had only whetted her thirst for something new.

Nil, as usual, noticed her shift in demeanor and gave her an appraising glance. "I know that look. Patience, huntress. We'll find quarry to sink your teeth into soon enough."

Aloy narrowed her eyes at him. "Huntress?"

"Isn't that what you are?" he asked. "I felt like it was an apt nickname for you."

"I guess I don't hate it," she muttered.

"In any case, I understand the restlessness that goes along with being barred from hunting your preferred prey in a long while, and machines are clearly yours." His tone became wistful. "The wait before blood is shed, like the scrape of a blade across your teeth - "

"Nil, I could really do without the bloody metaphors right now," Aloy interrupted loudly.

He shot her a hurt look. "It was an attempt at mutual understanding, nothing more."

"Why are you so weird - "

All of a sudden, a loud, metallic sound - like a hawk's cry, but more twisted and amplified - cut Aloy off. Grabbing her arm, Nil dove to the ground with her in tow. They dropped into the broad, leafy bushes covering the jungle floor together, his hand flying to her upper back to keep her pressed into the earth. Before she could ask him what the hell was going on, he pressed a single finger to his lips, then jabbed it upwards.

A great shadow fell over them. Through the thick canopy above, Aloy could just barely make out moving metal glittering through the gaps in the leaves. It definitely was a machine, and whatever kind it was, it was enormous. She watched as it appeared to circle overhead once, beating its powerful wings, before flying off in a southward direction.

"What was that?" she asked breathlessly, nearly a full minute after the machine had left, after she had time to get a grip on herself.

"It's called a Stormbird," Nil explained in a hushed voice, as though the machine could still sense them. "It rivals the Thunderjaw as one of the most dangerous - not to mention aggressive - machines there is. This one circles endlessly over the Jewel, where it can see almost anything that's not under the cover of the trees. If you're unfortunate enough to be spotted by one, well...you should be prepare to be dive-bombed and lobbed with balls of electricity." His expression grew grim. "Once, I witnessed an entire company of men devastated by one. Not many walked away that day, and those that did were horribly injured. Only the most experienced of machine hunters are any match for a Stormbird."

"That's it," she whispered. "That's the quarry I want to hunt."

Nil's gaze was unreadable, and as it swept over her face, Aloy began to fear that he would refuse to accompany her to hunt the machine (either way, she was hunting it). But then, just as she was starting to accept the reality that this would be a solo affair, a wide grin broke out over his face.

"Very well, huntress. We'll hunt your Stormbird. But first…"

She leaned in eagerly. "What?"

"Why don't we get up to talk about this?" Nil suggested. "Not that I don't enjoy having you so close, but lying down and speaking like this is starting to get rather uncomfortable."

Aloy wasn't sure she had ever scrambled to her feet faster.

As with everything, Nil took his time, rising to his feet and then stretching languorously. She crossed her arms over her chest and over her racing heart, mildly irritated.

"Right," he said, turning back to her. "First, you're going to need to convince me of your machine hunting skills on a lesser target." Aloy opened her mouth to protest, but he held up a hand. "After your impressive display this morning with the bandits, I don't doubt your prowess in battle, huntress. Quite the opposite, in fact. But it will be a massive feat to take a Stormbird down, and as I always say, never enjoy the killing more than the challenge. Otherwise, we could both very well end up dead."

"I hate to admit it, but you do have a point," she grumbled. "It's been awhile since I've hunted a machine, but still, I have - "

Her fingers twitched, and Aloy was about to raise them to press against her Focus before she remembered who she was with.

Nil cocked his head. "You have…?"

"Good...good instincts," she finished lamely.

"And I believe that," he said with a nod. "But instincts, no matter how refined, aren't enough in this case."

Aloy gave an exasperated sigh. "So, what do you suggest we fight first, then?"

"Why don't we see what we can find?" Nil hummed. "Plenty of dangerous machines out here, and with enough time, one or more will find us."

Thus, the decision was made to head further away from the road and deeper into the jungle. After a certain point, Nil had to pull out his sword to cut through the tangle of vines and other such flora blocking their path - one of the reasons why the blade was curved, he explained to Aloy, other than the fact that it was ideal for slicing into flesh, both human and animal.

Luckily, the pair came upon what appeared to be a Stalker nest very quickly. Nil had been about to step forward when Aloy's Focus gave a chirp of warning in her ear, and her hand shot out to catch the back of his vest.

"Nil, wait. There's a mine nearby."

He halted at once. Surreptitiously, she scanned the ground, then pointed at a softly glowing disc, just barely visible only a few feet to his left.

"There."

"Good eye, huntress," he said slowly. "Very good, in fact. We'll have to be quiet and much more careful going forward. Tap my shoulder if you see anything."

Their pace slowed to a crawl, their steps exacting. As they crept further into the nest, the mines increased in their frequency, and Aloy kept her Focus on and scanning constantly to make sure that neither of them came close enough to setting one off. There were a few close calls - some by her own design to keep him from getting too suspicious - but they managed to maneuver without incident.

By the time they came upon a small clearing, however, he turned to her with pursed lips, and an uneasy knot formed in her stomach at the wariness written into the lines of his face. It had her brain scrambling to cook up a reasonable explanation, because she didn't trust Nil with this and wasn't sure if she ever would. If he had knowledge of her Focus, there was a small chance that he would attempt to seize the beloved item from her. The thought alone was enough to make her hands clammy and her breath quicken, and she resolved fiercely to herself to never allow anything to happen to it. If she had it her way, he'd never be any the wiser about her most precious possession.

"Aloy," Nil started, "I know you're more than capable in the field, but this defies reason. How are you able to - "

A subtle ripple of movement behind him caught her eye. He must have seen her change in expression, because in the next moment he simultaneously whirled around and crouched low to the ground. Silently, Aloy followed suit.

"There it is," he said, just barely audible enough to be heard. "Do you see that slight shimmer in the air? Take a few moments and observe the way it moves. Be patient, and don't lose it. It should move into visibility, and once it does, we should strike."

Her breath picking up with excitement, Aloy nodded her understanding and tapped at her Focus. Despite its near total invisibility, the machine lit up in her vision as it prowled around in front of them. Just as Nil had described, the Stalker was long and crept low to the ground, taking advantage of its stealth abilities and agile movement to keep itself undetected for as long as possible.

"No wonder these are such a problem in the Jewel," she murmured.

"Indeed." Nil pulled his bow off his back and nocked an arrow quietly and precisely. Aloy followed suit. "Stalkers are a very common request from Jewel estate owners for the Hawks at the Lodge to take care of. Whether they actually deem to do so or not is another story."

"Another reason Talanah probably takes issue with them," Aloy remarked.

He nudged her gently with his shoulder. "That may be the case, but we're here for a reason. Eyes on the prize, huntress."

"I can both talk and pay attention, you know," she groused, but Aloy turned her attention back to the Stalker and its Focus readout anyway, deliberating on how best to negotiate her words to balance what the device was telling her without arousing Nil's suspicion any further. "With that stealth...there has to be some sort of generator doing that. They wouldn't happen to be vulnerable to electricity, would they?"

Thankfully, he seemed more impressed than anything else. "They are, actually. That bow I got you is more than capable of handling shock arrows, too."

"I know," she intoned, indicating the quiver on her hip. "It's why I picked up the proper supplies and made some before we left."

Nil leveled her with a pleased grin. "Clever girl. I should have known not to underestimate you."

The Stalker took that moment to move just a little closer. Aloy held her breath as she drew back an arrow. A quiet creaking noise beside her told her that her husband had done the same.

The machine popped into view, and without a word, Aloy and Nil fired their first arrows.

Both slammed into the Stalker with perfect aim. It gave a mechanical roar as it dodged to the side, then disappeared once again, leaving a crackle of static electricity behind from their shock arrows. The pair were on their feet in a flash - there was no use bothering with stealth any longer when their position was already compromised.

"Focus on the stealth generator on its side so we can even the playing field a bit!" Aloy called out.

Nil jerked his head around to her in astonishment. "How do you know that - "

The bark on a tree only feet away from him wavered, and she drew another arrow. "On your left!"

Nil just barely had enough time to dart out of the way before the Stalker rematerialized for a few seconds and took a swipe at him with its deadly metal claws. To her relief, her husband was faster, and it swung harmlessly at the air instead. Before the machine could activate its stealth again, Aloy managed to ping it with another shock arrow, exhilarated satisfaction bursting in her as it began to seize up and jerk.

"The generator! Now!"

The uncanny dexterity she had developed over her years of training hadn't wavered even slightly during her time in Meridian, something which Aloy was pleased to note as her fingers rifled through the selection of arrows in her quiver and seized on one of the harder pointed ones. And it was also oddly pleasing to have a partner in battle who could keep up with her move for move - despite the close call, Nil was already drawing another arrow. He let his fly only seconds before hers, and both burrowed into the generator. Sparks flew from the part, but it wasn't quite enough to disable it. Having shaken most of the electricity from itself, the Stalker vanished again into nothingness.

"Shit," Aloy muttered. "So much for getting lucky."

Nil, apparently, had heard her. "It'll take far more to down a Stalker than just a couple of well-aimed arrows, wife of mine!"

"Don't - " Aloy had to save her breath to dodge out of the way as the invisible machine unexpectedly wheeled around and lunged at her " - don't call me that!"

"Why not?" he hollered back, and she could just make out his smirk and he fired off another projectile into the Stalker's side. "You are my wife, aren't you?"

Another shock arrow, and the machine gave a crackling groan.

Good, Aloy thought. Getting closer.

"Yeah, but it's not something I like to be constantly reminded of!"

"Ah, Aloy," Nil sighed. "That's why I like you so much. Perhaps fighting machines won't be such a bore with you by my side."

Before she had time to unpack any of that, the Stalker rematerialized a few yards in front of her as thunder growled somewhere nearby - one of the rainstorms Nil had described as being common to the Jewel, she figured. The machine's mechanical parts had begun to fail under the pair's arrows, slowing its movements severely and giving it all the appearance of having taken on a limp.

Aloy knew a perfect opportunity when she saw one. Pulling back one more hardpoint arrow, she slowed her breathing, took aim at her target, and released.

The force from the projectile slamming into it had the stealth generator finally detaching, and, unable to hold back, she let out a shout of joy, backed by yet more thunder.

"Got it! Just a few more!"

Rallied by the knowledge that the end was near, Aloy and Nil were merciless in their barrage. Unable to slip into invisibility anymore, the machine seemed to grow desperate - several times, it attempted to twist around and hit them with its ridiculously long tail, but both of them were far from spent and able to dodge out of the way every time. It left wide openings that the pair took advantage of, but it was her precise arrow through its 'head' that finally took the Stalker down with a grating screech and an impressive spray of sparks.

"We did it!" Aloy cried, savoring the long-missed thrill of a triumphant battle as it spread through her like a drug. "Nil, we - "

Her words died on her lips as she turned to face him. Her husband was standing as though frozen with Chillwater, every line on his face tightened.

"Nil?"

Confused, her eyes followed to where he was staring. Her stomach fell to her feet.

Several pinpricks of red lights among the brush glared back at her. Standing only maybe ten yards away were not one, not two, but three Stalkers, lit eerily by the fading light. Aloy took an instinctive step back.

One had been manageable to take down. Fun, even. Two would be a challenge. But three?

"Well, I guess all of those mines had to come from more than one," she said weakly.

"Easy, Aloy," Nil said calmly. "Keep your head clear and your wits about you, and we might have a chance of walking away from this."

Her clammy palms tightened their grip on her bow. "Right. Yeah."

"When they go invisible, keep on your feet," he said, slowly reaching back into his quiver. "Don't stop moving for any reason, or it's over for both of us. Do you hear me?"

Lightning flashed in the distance, highlighting the grim expression on Nil's face further. Numbly, Aloy nodded.

"Good. I don't plan on me or you dying today," he growled, nocking an arrow. "So let's do this."

Their stare-down with the Stalkers ended the moment she pulled back an arrow. The two on either side split off from the one in the middle, and then all three disappeared at the same time. Aloy fired her arrow off at the machine in the middle before bolting off into the brush as fast as her feet would carry her. She just barely registered Nil booking it in the opposite direction, and unease gripped at her gut. Hopefully, they'd both be okay on their own.

As she crashed through the jungle floor, Aloy spared a frantic glance backwards and touched her Focus - the dimming light had made it yards more difficult to discern the telltale shimmer of the machine's camouflage, but the web of the device outlined everything of interest in the surrounding area. Luckily, only one of the Stalkers had followed after her. Deciding she liked those odds well enough, she pulled out a couple of shock arrows and nocked them - a technique she had only used a few times in her life - while simultaneously whirling herself around.

Breathe. Aim. Release.

Even with the high stress of the situation, her skills had not abandoned her. Another arrow buried in the metal hide of the Stalker was enough to disable it temporarily, and Aloy was certain she had never fired off hardpoint arrows as quickly as she did then. A particularly well-aimed one had the machine staggering and then crashing to the ground, and she was about to pull out another to finish it off when a familiar scream echoed not too far from where she was. Her head whipped in that direction.

"Oh, no," she whispered, her heart lodged in her throat. "Nil."

The stunned Stalker forgotten, Aloy jumped into a sprint, moving even faster than she had running away from the machine initially. Wildly, she scanned the trees and the brush, her heart pounding in her ears as yet more thunder groaned above her. The wind had picked up, rustling the leaves and branches of the trees, and the jungle was so alive with sound that she could hardly hear herself think.

Thankfully, she didn't have to for much longer. A flash of red caught her eye and, thanking the universe and whatever non-existent gods might be listening that her husband favored obnoxiously bright colors, she ran to his side - and was unable to stifle her horrified gasp at what she found.

Nil was lying on his side and struggling to draw breath, and his belly was coated in a sticky mess of blood. His bow was nowhere to be found. When he caught sight of her, he lifted one shaky, blood-coated finger.

"Be...behind you."

Hot fury fueled her movements as she turned in the indicated direction. The two other Stalkers, although clearly in bad shape, were too close for comfort and still creeping towards her. Defensively, she stepped in front of her husband and nocked yet another arrow.

"Come on," she hissed. "Just come and try me."

Not even giving the machines a chance to move forward another step, she loosed her arrow before yanking out another. It smashed into the face of the one on the left, granting Aloy a brief moment of grim satisfaction.

Unfortunately, the Stalkers took that moment to slip into active camouflage. With the afternoon light nearly wholly swallowed up by the blackened clouds of the storm, it was almost impossible to see them without her Focus, and that took time she couldn't afford in the form of slowing down and scanning. Jerking her bow around while she searched, she continued to draw and release arrows, only a few finding their intended targets. She knew from her successful hits that the machines had begun to creep in a slow circle around them, and for the first time since this ordeal had begun, Aloy realized she might not make it out of here alive.

"Aloy," Nil wheezed from behind her. "Aloy, just g-go."

"No," she said with a fierce shake of her head, as much of a rebuke as to clear some of the moisture from her eyes. "I'm not leaving you."

The crunching of leaves alerted her to one approaching from the right, and she automatically fired off another arrow. It sailed disappointingly off into the brush.

"No," she whispered, backing up slowly, closer to Nil. "No, I can do this. There has to be a way."

As if the universe had been listening, the heavens chose that moment to open up, pouring a deluge of rain down upon them. This wouldn't have been more than a minor irritant, except for one key factor: despite being invisible, the Stalkers were not incorporeal. The raindrops bounced off of them, revealing their position perfectly.

Her morale restored, Aloy threw herself into battle with a vengeance. Most of her fear had fled, replaced by powerful adrenaline which had her muscles working in perfect harmony with her reflexes as she maneuvered around the Stalkers, smoothly enough that it almost felt as though she were dancing. Nil had already done a number on the two machines, and it was only a matter of time before the first one collapsed to the ground under the deluge of her arrows and didn't get up again.

She was about to aim the finishing shot at the second when, out of nowhere, Nil darted past her. Aloy just caught the gleam of metal before he lunged forward, skewering the machine on his blade like the sticks of meat peddled in the markets. It too fell with a mighty roar. Blinking rapidly, she lowered her bow, then looked her husband up and down dumbly as he turned to face her, a pleased grin on his face and blood still trickling down his belly.

"Well, wasn't that exciting," Nil drawled. "I suppose hunting machines isn't so bad with a capable partner at my side."

"How - how are you standing?" Aloy sputtered.

"I wasn't mortally wounded or anything like that, huntress. This looks worse than it actually is, because I've always been a heavy bleeder." Nil at least had the sense to look sheepish. "One of those bastards lashed me across the stomach with its tail. Stunned me for a bit, knocked the breath right out of me and gave me some nasty-looking cuts to boot, but I'll survive." That grin rallied and then grew suggestive. "Why? Were you worried for me?"

Her face heated, and she was thankful for the low light. "No! You - ugh!"

Annoyed and tired of standing in the rain, Aloy stalked off to crouch down beneath a large, gnarled tree.

Some of the mirth faded from Nil's expression as he settled down beside her. "Unfortunately, it also managed to tear my pack clean in two." He waved a hand off to the side, and sure enough, his destroyed pack laid in pieces several feet away. "Including my tent."

"That's your problem," Aloy huffed.

"That it is," he sighed. "My bedroll survived, thankfully. It might be a little wet, but I've slept in worse conditions. I know it's still a little early, but I think after that escapade, we should call the day now. So, why don't we see about setting your tent up and getting you out of this rain?"

Despite her irritation with Nil, she was exhausted and not about to turn down help when freely offered. After collecting the remains of his pack - luckily the rations he had brought along were mostly intact - they set up the shelter, and she even helped Nil drag his bedroll over beside it. After peeling off her soaked top layers, she made to crawl inside the tent, but something gave her pause. She watched as her husband settled down on top of his bedroll with a relieved groan and began to remove his armor, noticing then how shaky his hands were and how his entire body had been overcome with tiny shivers.

He was deliberately suppressing them, she realized.

Squeezing her eyes shut, Aloy heaved a resigned sigh. "Nil?"

He didn't pause in what he was doing. "Yes, huntress?"

"You can...you can share my tent with me tonight." She held the tent flap open expectantly.

His answering smile was rueful. "Don't worry about me, Aloy. I'll be fine out here."

"I'm too tired to argue about this," she snapped, that heat creeping back into her face. "Just get in the damn tent, Nil."

A pregnant pause hung in the air, Nil's quiet voice the only thing eventually breaking it. "As you wish, huntress."

The space inside, thankfully, was just big enough for both of their bedrolls. This was something Aloy had thought impractical at the time he had given her the tent, but now she was glad for it. There was enough space for both of them to spread out, and Nil got to work bandaging his wounds with her supplies. Under her blanket, she was blissfully comfortable and dozing in seconds.

The only problem was, Nil was most definitely not. In addition to his tent, the Stalker had also shredded his blanket, and once he finished tending to his injuries, he was left to curl in on himself to maintain warmth.

Aloy could only handle this pathetic sight for a few seconds before caving. "Fine. Get under the blanket with me too. It wouldn't be good if you died of hypothermia and left me stranded out here."

Nil huffed a laugh, not even attempting to argue this time. "All right, all right. I'll do my best to keep space between us."

With a gulp, Aloy turned over to face the side of the tent as he slid under the covers. True to his word, Nil was careful not to touch her, but she could still feel the beckoning warmth emanating from his body.

"Rest well, Aloy," he murmured. "Tomorrow, we hunt a Stormbird."

She didn't respond, but the trace of a smile curved her lips all the same.

Chapter Text

Aloy slipped back into consciousness gradually and reluctantly. Wrapped in her blanket, she was blissfully comfortable, and something firm and warm was curled against her back and draped over her waist. She arched into it and gave a dreamy smile. It shifted behind her, molding to her body in response to each of her movements.

There was another thing, too - something hard cradled against her backside that had an unfamiliar heat blooming in her lower half. Whatever it was, it felt nice, so she continued to press back into it. A soft moan escaped her when it pushed back.

At her utterance, the weight on her waist stiffened then lifted off of her, the solid presence behind Aloy leaving her entirely. A frown pulled at her lips. Finally able to pry her sleep-heavy eyelids open, she twisted around.

Only to find her husband staring wide-eyed at her from across the tent.

Understanding hit Aloy like a charging Strider, banishing every trace of sleepiness from her.

"Aloy," Nil said, his voice strained. "Sun and Shadow, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to…"

Violent heat flooded her face and neck. Her eyes shot up to the ceiling on the tent, because Aloy felt as though she might actually combust on the spot if she kept looking at him.

"No, it's, um, okay," she said faintly. "We were both asleep. Next to each other. It happens. Right?"

Nil cleared his throat. "Right."

"We should get ready to go," Aloy added hurriedly. "You know, to hunt."

"I'll let you dress, then," Nil replied, and before she could say anything in response, he fled from the tent.

Aloy stared at the entrance for a full minute before flopping back onto her bedroll with a frustrated groan.

It was to her great relief that the rest of the morning passed uneventfully. By the time she dressed and emerged from the tent, Nil had started a fire to heat water for the gruel mix they had brought along - not her favorite, but it was filling enough for the active day ahead of them. The rain had passed overnight, leaving rays of sunlight to poke cheerfully at her through the holes in the canopy, and bright birdsong accompanied them as they meandered their way through the jungle post-breakfast and campsite takedown. Thankfully, the mood left over from their mortifying wakeup dissipated relatively quickly, and by the time they had oriented themselves and were heading towards one of the Stormbird's frequented locations, their conversation was back to the friendly and easy banter of the previous day.

Their success in tracking, however, was limited. Privately, Aloy had decided against using her Focus for this hunt unless absolutely necessary, determined to prove that she could track without it. After the first hour with no trace of the machine, she was mildly put out but no less eager. By hour three, frustration began to creep up on the edges of her tolerance. When midday rolled around, she was highly considering saying to hell with it and activating the device's scanning function anyway.

Nil must have noticed her frustration. He halted mid-step, leaving Aloy to walk a few places ahead before she realized he was no longer beside her.

She turned to him, concerned. "Nil? What's wrong?"

"Well, we've been going for awhile, huntress," he said lightly. "I believe it would be a good time to break for lunch."

"We can't stop now! We haven't even found anything yet," Aloy protested.

"And we've also been walking all morning without rest," Nil reminded her. "You don't want to deal with an empty belly during the stress of battle, do you?"

"I guess not," she grumbled.

He shot her a crooked grin. "Besides, I've brought special rations for lunch today. Perhaps we could make a picnic out of it."

"A picnic," Aloy deadpanned. "In the middle of the jungle."

"Well, why not?" Nil said, nonplussed. "It's a lovely day."

Although his explanation offered next to no clarity, she nodded reluctantly. "All right, fine. A picnic. Still have no idea why you'd go through all the effort."

"This trip was supposed to be for your enjoyment," he replied with a shrug. "I'm simply attempting to maximize that."

Instead of responding, Aloy pushed ahead - while also pushing back the warmth spreading throughout her from her husband's thoughtfulness.

Large clearings were a rarity in the Jewel due to the density of broad-leaved trees, so it was a surprise when they stumbled upon one after only a short walk. The day was sunny and warm, highlighting the tropical flowers dotting the ground and exotic birds flitting about, creating a lush symphony of color. Aloy felt herself relaxing almost instantly. Here was a moment of peace in an otherwise eventful couple of days, and she admitted to herself that Nil might have had the right idea while he spread out his bedroll and gestured for her to sit.

As Aloy made herself comfortable, her husband rooted around in his hastily repaired bag. She watched as he produced foodstuff after foodstuff - from cheeses to cured spiced sausages to crusty bread and fruits.

"Do you think you brought enough?" she asked with a raised eyebrow.

"Oh, I don't know," Nil hummed as he sliced through a sausage. "I could have brought a tea set too, but I figured that would make too much noise and attract even more machines than we saw yesterday."

Surprising herself, Aloy laughed. "You make a good point. I think I've fought enough Stalkers to last me a good while." Some of her mirth faded, but her smile remained as she accepted a chunk of sausage from him. "Seriously, though. You didn't need to do this for me. I would have been fine with just jerky and gruel."

"Ah, but that wouldn't have allowed us to slow down and take the time to enjoy ourselves," he replied. Taking a bite of a hunk of cheese, Nil gave a contented sigh. "Besides, after being miserable in Meridian for so long, you deserve this. You've done remarkably well for someone removed from her element and dropped into a strange new world."

Aloy refocused her attention to the meat in her hands, shoving into her mouth as her heart inexplicably sped up. While she was still chewing, she grabbed at a roll of bread, taking a huge bite of that the moment after she swallowed what was already in her mouth.

Nil regarded her with wry amusement as he consumed his lunch at a more human pace. "Looks like I was correct in suggesting this break. You're apparently ravenous."

Unable to talk with a full mouth, Aloy only nodded frantically, not quite able to look her husband in the eye.

Still, the silence between them throughout their meal was nothing if not companionable. Nil's food choices, as always, were mouth-wateringly delicious, and Aloy made sure to sample each one before finally throwing in the towel. Her stomach fit to burst, she leaned back on her hands, happy to find that most of her disappointment at not finding the Stormbird had been quelled for now.

"Well, what did you think?" Nil questioned as he tossed an apple core aside. "Good lunch?"

"It was," Aloy answered. "Although I think I may have eaten a little too much."

"In that case, why don't we take a moment to rest before we return to the hunt?" he suggested.

A trace of restlessness stirred in her, but she was able to banish it easily enough. Nil had gone above and beyond for ber, and besides, a belly stuffed this full would only slow her down.

"I guess that's all right."

He beamed at her, and much to Aloy's chagrin, her heart went haywire once again.

"So, did you do this sort of thing back home?" Nil asked after a few seconds. "Picnicking, that is."

"No, not at all," Aloy replied with a shake of her head. "With as much time as Rost and I spent in the wilds, there was no point in making an event out of something as simple as eating outside." She frowned. "Although I guess when you live somewhere like Meridian, I can see the appeal."

"Rost," Nil said with a tilt of his head. "Your guardian?"

She drew her knees up to her chest and hugged them tight. "Yeah. He was."

"What was it like?" he asked. "Growing up in the Sacred Lands? If it doesn't bother you too much to answer."

The thought of home, while still a sore spot, didn't sting as much as it once had. Aloy blew out a contemplative gust of air before saying, "It was a good life, and stupidly, I didn't realize how lucky I was until I came here. I could go outside whenever I wanted to be alone, to hunt game and machines or to just run through the valley of the Embrace to clear my head. We lived in a little cabin on a mountainside, and although we were outcasts, we always had each other."

Surprise rounded Nil's eyes. "You were an outcast?"

Aloy gave a bitter chuckle. There was no harm in disclosing the worst details of her life, was there?

"Yeah. Since I was found abandoned as a newborn baby. And no one ever told me why or who my mother was. I spent my entire life training for the opportunity to get those answers, only to have it all ripped away from me by this stupid treaty."

"Nothing about this situation was fair to you, and it angers me greatly," he said softly. "You deserve to have those answers, and you deserve to have Rost back. I regret how much this arrangement has hurt you, and if I had a way to release you from it, know that I would. There's nothing honorable about uprooting an unwilling woman and taking her as a wife."

Unexpected tears blurred her eyes, and she stubbornly swiped at them with a hand before letting it drop to her side.

Old anger roiled in her guts. "Did you know that the Matriarchs only gave me a single day to prepare? We got a knock on our door one morning, and just like that, I had to face leaving everything I had ever known, the only person who had ever given a damn about me, and my only chance at finding out why no one wanted me. I sacrificed everything to save the lives of a tribe that has only made my life miserable, and the worst part is, most of them are probably relieved that the motherless curse is gone."

Her husband examined her for a moment before carefully, haltingly laying his hand over hers. It was pleasantly warm and engulfed hers completely.

Whether from the mess of her emotions or something else, Aloy didn't immediately pull away from him. Instead, she stared at Nil mutely.

"For what it's worth, Aloy, I'm sorry. I often wish we could have met under better circumstances, because I enjoy your company, and I know the others do as well. I know that this doesn't mend the gaping wound within you, but there are people here who care for you."

"I think I would have liked that," she murmured, keeping her eyes leveled with his uniquely beautiful silver eyes. "Meeting you in a better place, at a better time."

Before she even realized what she was doing, Aloy found herself leaning towards her husband, and though being tugged on by some invisible thread. It wasn't until she was mere inches from Nil's face, when she could feel the gust of his breath brushing over her skin, that the knowledge of how close they actually were caught up with her. With a breathless exhale, she lurched away from him.

Nil remained unperturbed as always. With a slight smile, he reclined back onto the bedroll, staring up at the fluffy clouds drifting lazily above them. The calm mood enveloping him was infectious, and Aloy soon found most of her tension once again dying away.

"Where do you go?" she asked eventually. "You know, during the day."

Surprise crossed his expression, and along with it, that stubborn pang of guilt jabbed at Aloy.

At least I'm asking now, she thought to herself crossly.

"My duties take me to several places, but I'm usually at the city barracks," Nil explained, "training with the other kestrels and drilling soldiers I outrank. It's where I used to live before we were wed, actually."

"Oh, really?" She offered him a grin. "What, couldn't have me living in the barracks too?"

"I couldn't exactly have my wife sleeping in the same room as forty other repressed men who haven't touched, much less seen a woman in ages," he said, very drily. "And so a house it was."

"Even against that many men, I could probably handle myself," Aloy replied archly.

Nil smirked. "I'm well aware of that now, huntress. I understood that after our very first conversation, and then my concern became for their welfare."

This elicited a startled laugh from Aloy, one that swelled in both volume and intensity until her full belly ached in the best way. All the while, Nil watched with a crooked grin, his chin propped up in his palm and obvious affection shining in his eyes.

Once she had finally managed to calm her laughter, a new revelation came sharply into clarity for Aloy: in a strange turn of events, she now considered her husband a friend. She couldn't deny it anymore - his generosity, his wry sense of humor, their shared passions - all of these factors made spending time around him a true joy. Her regard for him matched that which she held for Talanah, Avad, and Kadaman, and somehow that realization wasn't quite as jarring as it once might have been.

What was jarring was the ever-present knowledge that the day was rapidly approaching where she'd be expected to take Nil's life. The only problem was, Aloy wasn't sure how she'd be able to bring herself to do that anymore.

Her husband - and not just him, but an entire generation of men, if the previous Sun-King's mandate was anything to go by - had been irrevocably damaged by the customs and politics of their tribe, just as much as she had by hers. Was the answer really to put him down, to deny him a chance to ever find any semblance of normalcy or freedom? It was undeniable that Nil was trapped between his orders and the sense of honor and justice he held onto for dear life. Wouldn't Aloy be just as bad as he if she resorted to the violence of murder?

There had to be a way, she thought as she looked him over, her heart a leaden weight in her chest. There had to be a solution to this that didn't end in his death or hers.

It was just a matter of figuring out what that might look like.

Regardless, thinking about her dilemma right now wouldn't do Aloy any good. What she could do for him, however, was to begin the process of bringing him back into the fold of old friends. It was a small effort in the grand scheme of things, but she felt it could be a step in the right direction.

"You know, when I had lunch with everyone, Kadaman wanted to have a few drinks for luck on the hunt," she broached.

Nil rolled his eyes, but there was humor dancing in them. "That sounds like him."

"I didn't take him up on it," she continued. "He was upset, but he also told me to ask you if we could make up for it sometime."

"I already told you that you don't need to ask my permission - "

"He meant both of us, Nil," Aloy interrupted.

Her husband sat up a little straighter, blinking rapidly. "Oh. I see."

"You don't have to if you don't want to," she added, her hands fidgeting in her lap. "I can go alone, but I thought it might be nice - "

"Relax, huntress," Nil said. "Of course we can do that sometime. I will warn you that - if the past is anything to go by - we tend to get fairly, hm, spirited whenever alcohol is involved. As long as you can handle that, there's no issue."

The line of Aloy's shoulders sagged slightly. "That actually doesn't sound half bad. I could use a spirited evening with how miserable living in the city is."

"Do I need to worry about you getting too far into the bottle?" Nil teased. "Actually, I wonder how well you can even handle your alcohol after your dress fitting with Theradine. Perhaps - "

He was cut off by a screeching cry resounding throughout the area. At the familiar sound, Aloy was on her feet before her brain could catch up, already reaching for the bow on her back.

"The Stormbird!" she cried. "Nil, let's go!"

When her gaze darted back down to her husband, he was already throwing things back into his pack and securing his bedroll. It only took a couple of seconds more for him to stand, and after a shared look of excitement, the two broke out into a steady jog in the direction of the sound.

Less than a mile to the south they came upon what Nil described as the telltale signs that a Stormbird had been in the area - a ring of freshly smoking burnt trees very recently struck by lightning. Aloy raked her eyes over the smouldering wood, searching for any hint of the direction the machine had gone in. They caught on a couple more downed trees to the southwest, and without checking to see if he was following her, she bolted off in that direction.

"Blood's on fire, huh, huntress?" Nil laughed as he fell in step beside her.

"Can you blame me?" she shot back.

"Not at all." When Aloy glanced at him, his smile was toothy. "I'm thrilled to see you come alive like this, actually."

When she refocused on her path ahead, Aloy was wearing a smile of her own.

Another ten minutes of following the trail the machine had left behind (including the charred remains of the unfortunate hunter who had run into it and likely caused it to attack in the first place), and the treeline came to a sudden stop near a river. The pair skidded to a stop, then dropped down to their bellies to observe the scene in front of them.

It was Aloy's first good look at the magnificent beast, and she took her time taking it all in. Enormous, segmented wings propelled by several engines carried a formidably armored body of the avian persuasion over an area of the jungle which had been clear-cut for wood. In the Stormbird's center was a glowing core - a power source, perhaps, and where they'd likely need to focus their fire.

"Does it ever land and attack from the ground?" Aloy whispered.

"Oh, yes," Nil replied. "They're more than capable of ground and diving maneuvers, which makes them even more of a threat. You're going to need to be prepared to move. A lot."

Refusing to scan the Stormbird with her Focus at this juncture would be foolish, so Aloy did her best to activate it as subtly as possible. She had already been successful in finding it without the device, and that had been challenge enough - anything further would be bordering on a death wish.

Several parts and their vulnerabilities lit up all over the machine, and Aloy squinted intently as she read through the information scrolling over the net-like display of the Focus. Yes, the Stormbird was intimidating in both aggression and size, but the latter also meant it possessed a number of very large and very volatile targets.

"Do you see that canister of Blaze on its lower back?" she asked. "We should focus our attention on that first with fire arrows. I think if we can take that out, it should create enough of an explosion to do some serious damage to it. We just need to make sure we're far enough away from it when that happens."

Nil nodded slowly. "An interesting but difficult strategy. One that will require a great deal of finesse with aiming."

"I think I can handle it," Aloy said. "But we'll need a plan of what to do after, and if I can't pull this part off, then we'll move onto that."

"Fair enough."

"The core in its center seems like it powers everything and will be very hard to miss," she pointed out. "If we can disable that and its lightning gun, this hunt will be over."

Her husband nodded again, although that suspicion he had regarded her with yesterday was once again tugging as his expression. By some unknown grace, however, Nil didn't say anything this time. Instead, he returned his attention back to the Stormbird - and despite his continued insistence that he didn't enjoy fighting machines, Aloy was pleased to note that he was practically quaking with anticipation.

Nil took that moment to unhook his bow from his back and draw an arrow. “Ready on your command, huntress.”

“When it circles back around this way, we'll strike,” she said, watching as the machine swooped around a nearby mesa and headed back in their direction. With that gigantic wingspan, it closed the gap between them in no time at all, backlit by the early afternoon sun. The instant its great shadow fell over them, Aloy cried out, “Now!”

Their arrows took flight simultaneously. With plenty of time for careful aiming, both hit their intended target of the Blaze canister, and she had to keep herself from whooping with premature glee. Stormbird or no, those canisters were fragile and unstable and would break as easily as on any other machine.

Unfortunately, this machine wasn’t going to make that task easy for them. With breathtaking agility, the Stormbird screeched furiously and wheeled itself around mid-air, setting its sights on the pair. Electricity crackled over its metal hull, and Aloy barely had enough time to heed Nil’s shout of warning as it let loose its first volley of lightning. Diving out of the way, she then whipped her head around desperately, relieved to find her husband no worse for the wear. Their eyes met, understanding surged between them, and without any hesitation they booked it in opposite directions.

Split between two targets left the machine more vulnerable but no less deadly. While Nil attempted to keep its attention rooted on him and him alone, Aloy fired off arrow after arrow. However, with such a tiny target on such agile prey, most of them missed their mark. Only one ultimately managed to ping off of the canister, but it was almost enough - the casing cracked, and a wild jet of flame spewed from it, licking at the air hungrily.

“Just one more,” Aloy muttered under her breath. “Just buy me a little more time.”

As though the Stormbird had overheard her words, it switched its raptorial gaze from Nil to her. The core in its center surged with energy and heat. Aloy bellowed out a curse as a burst of electricity rushed towards her, followed by the machine itself swooping down with its wicked claws extended as though to pluck her up off the ground as though it were really a bird of prey and she were nothing more than a rabbit. With a hasty lunge to the right, she was able to avoid most of the attack - all but for a stray bolt of static. A stuttering cry escaped her as her body seized up and jerked uncontrollably for several long and precious seconds. Thankfully, it wasn’t enough to fell her, although bursts of pain from her abused nerves clawed their way down her limbs and into her fingertips and toes. All she could do was bite her tongue against it and draw another arrow - because, due to his rapidfire attacks and constant taunting calls, the machine had returned its attention to her husband and left its back wide open.

Just one more arrow.

With a yell born of both frustration and triumph, Aloy released her hold on the projectile and watched it fly home.

It took only a second longer for her to recognize her mistake.

The canister would explode, damaging the Stormbird - but also Nil, who stood directly beneath the machine.

Aloy’s feet carried her in the direction of her husband before she had time to register any conscious thought. Leaping towards him with outstretched arms, she tackled him to the ground the moment the Blaze ignited. A booming explosion filled her ears, and the world around them went white. Moments later, scorching heat fanned over her back, and despite bracing herself for the agony of badly burned skin, it never came - the fireproof nature of her outfit did its job, and any burn she acquired would be mild. Distantly, she made a mental note to give her thanks to Theradine later.

Relief swamped Aloy as she searched her husband’s face. Unconsciously, she brought a hand up to run her fingers over the angle of his cheek, as though to ascertain for herself that he was alive and untouched. With eyes as wide as the moon, Nil stared back at her, looking as though he wished to speak. But there was no time for her to listen; another of the Stormbird’s angered calls sounded behind them, telling her that it had already mostly recovered.

Rolling off of Nil, she helped him up while keeping an eye on the machine. In addition to the fire damage sustained to its body, its wings had to beat harder now in order to keep its massive frame aloft, and its movements weren’t nearly as smooth or as rapid as they had been prior to the explosion.

“The lightning gun and core now,” Aloy panted. “It’s almost over. We can do this.”

Pride mixed with something else - an odd emotion she couldn’t quite identify in the moment - shimmered in Nil’s eyes. “Thanks to you, we can.”

The pair jumped back into action. With the Stormbird slowed as it was and with their targets much larger this time around, actually hitting the beast was a much easier affair. At the same time, the physical demands of the fight - particularly dodging that awful lightning gun and leaping out of the way of its dive bombs - meant that Aloy’s strength and stamina had begun to wane. The engine itself was their best chance to end this quickly, but it would still take a large amount of near-perfect shots.

If she had been by herself, it would have been a terrifyingly close call. But with another equally skilled warrior in the mix, the odds overwhelmingly favored them. When Aloy managed to steal a glance at her husband, she was impressed at what she found. Tireless military precision guided each of Nil’s movements, and not once did he panic or break under pressure or stress.

Aloy had fought her battles alone for the sweeping majority of her life, and if someone had asked her a couple of days ago, she would have told them that she preferred it that way. But now, she couldn’t imagine accomplishing any of what she had in the past twenty four hours without her husband at her side.

In perfect tandem, they fired off a final volley of arrows at the Stormbird. Together, they watched as the projectiles burrowed themselves into its chest. The engine core flickered once and then died completely. With a horrible grinding sound, the machine’s hydraulics locked up, and in a shower of sparks, it fell to the earth. It jerked once, as though to rise back up, only to collapse once more. Then, all was still.

Her chest heaving with the effort of her breathing, Aloy stared at the lifeless machine for a long time. Gradually, a smile bloomed on her face, so wide and so jubilant that her cheeks ached in protest. Throwing her bow aside, she turned to Nil and threw her arms around him without a second thought.

“We did it!” she cried. “I can’t believe - Goddess, Talanah is going to be so jealous!”

Nil dropped his bow as well, and she felt the wide span of his arms engulf her in order to give her a quick squeeze.

“We did, huntress, and you have every right to be proud,” he said, his voice a tad husky in her ear. “Now, why don’t you go and see if you can find a trophy to bring home to show off to Talanah?”

He released her, and something fluttered in Aloy’s chest when the reality of the fact that she had embraced him of her own accord caught up with her. Relievingly, that unsettling feeling was quickly overwhelmed by heady excitement - because, for the first time in a long time, she had a machine to strip for parts. For all she enjoyed fighting, she had always enjoyed the aftermath even more.

Aloy dug zealously into the Stormbird while Nil watched. Every so often, she handed him a useful item, and soon enough, both of their packs were bursting with valuable supplies - Chillwater, Blaze, even a few thick cords of Crystal Braiding. But none of those were what she was after. For the true prize, she’d need both her acquired skill at dismantling delicate parts and a little bit of luck.

It took around an hour of careful delving into the carcass to reach her destination. Holding her breath, Aloy pushed aside a tangle of wires. When her eyes found what she had been searching for, she released that breath in a disbelieving gasp.

Before her, nestled safely in the Stormbird’s chest cavity, sat a perfectly in-tact heart.

“Congratulations, huntress.” Nil had wandered over to where she was crouched by the machine, and when she glanced up at him, the softest of smiles had settled on his lips. “I don't normally approve of taking trophies, but I believe that this one is well-earned.”

Her heart flooded with warmth. “Thank you, Nil. But you know as well as I do that this is equally your kill.”

“Oh, no,” he chuckled. “This was your hunt, and I’ll happily cede the spoils to you.”

“Fine. I won’t complain about that,” Aloy shrugged as she placed the heart in its own pocket on her bag.

Her husband’s expression grew contemplative. “Before we left, I assumed that this trip would be entirely for your enjoyment, something I was happy to oblige. Yes, this was your hunt. But honestly, I enjoyed it too, and not just because of you.” His gaze refocused on her, full of wonder and even more of that strange emotion she had noticed during the fight. “Perhaps...yesterday morning...you were right. Maybe there is another way for me to exist in the world.”

Aloy’s eyes widened as his words sank in. Before she could reply, however, Nil turned and headed back towards the treeline and, presumably, the road. It took some effort to peel her stare away from the perplexing man, but she managed long enough to spare a final glance at one of her greatest kills, a mournful pang resounding throughout her at the knowledge that their hunt was over. With a quiet sigh, she slung her bow over her back, picked up her pack, and followed her husband home.

Dusky hues were kissing the stone of their house by the time they made it back hours later, exhausted yet satisfied. The dimming light reflected back at Aloy from the windows, catching her eye and leading her gaze downward. It settled on the flower boxes she had almost forgotten about, still barren of all but loamy soil. She studied the containers with a thoughtful frown.

“Hey, Nil?”

He turned back to her from where he had been working on unlocking the front door. “Yes, huntress?”

“You said you had seeds for these.” She gestured at the boxes. “Do you still?”

“I do,” Nil confirmed.

“Good.” Aloy lifted her eyes to him, a genuine smile spreading over her face. “Because I think it’s about time to plant them.”

Chapter Text

Life for Aloy was starkly different after the hunting trip. No longer did she feel as though she was being held hostage in her own home - instead, with all pretense peeled away like dead skin from a healing burn, she was now living with someone she considered a friend. Her new reality heralded several changes: that her bedroom was now used only for sleeping, that she no longer felt anxious about bringing up most subjects in conversation, that she actually began to look forward to the sun's setting, because it meant that Nil would soon be home and her hours spent alone were at an end.

It didn't hurt that he always looked happy to see her, too - a simple joy Aloy hadn't experienced much of in her life.

A couple of weeks after they arrived back home and during one of his rare days off, Nil helped her plant the flower seeds as she had requested. He explained to her that they were a variety of wild prairie rose; robust, beautiful, and sure to thrive in Meridian's climate.

Digging her fingers into the earth felt good in a way that Aloy couldn't quite articulate. She had never encouraged anything to grow before, and the tiny, partially broken seeds she held in her palms seemed to resonate with the weighty potential for life. After years spent honing the skills necessary to bring death, after her encounter with the bandits in the Jewel, this responsibility, while new, wasn't unwelcome. In a way, taking care of something else alive was soothing - and maybe just a little bit healing, too.

"I began germinating these right after we were wed," Nil explained, patting down some soil. "You actually asked about them at just the right time. Rose seeds take awhile to get to the right stage for planting."

Aloy spared him a curious glance from where she was digging half-inch holes as he had instructed. "Is gardening another one of those lofty noble pursuits?"

"No, no," Nil chuckled. "It was of special interest to my mother, actually, with her love of all things beautiful. She taught me most of what I know." His expression faltered. "Much, however, was lost with her death. I didn't have the opportunity to practice any of it until now."

"Then we'll have to make up for lost time," Aloy said determinedly. "Either way, I'm sure she'd be proud that you're doing this at all."

Nil opened his mouth as if to say something, only to reconsider and shut it. Eventually, with a tiny smile touching his lips, he did say, "Thank you, Aloy. I believe she would be, at least with this."

Time whittled away like wood beneath Nil's carving knife. One month passed, and then two. She spent time with her friends, she spent time with her husband (unfortunately, their respective schedules hadn't yet lined up enough to allow them to all spend time together). Under different circumstances, Aloy would have allowed herself to let her guard down, perhaps even go so far as to sink into the fragile and tentative happiness she had carved out for herself in her new life. But like a looming spectre in the back of her mind, there was the constant knowledge that one day - maybe sooner, maybe later - a Nora would arrive in Meridian.

A Nora would arrive in Meridian, and she would be expected to kill one of the only friends she had ever made and abandon the rest. Aloy would be expected to go home to the Embrace and somehow find a way to exist in Nora society, while so many continued to suffer under the bonds of slavery and Jiran's tyranny. The impotent rage she felt around the subject was an odd feeling for sure; even though she hadn't wanted to, much like the circumstances which had led to her reluctantly accepting her role in the treaty, she found herself caring about those who were suffering more than she ever thought possible.

She spent more time thinking through a solution to her dilemma than she did anything else. With abilities such as his, Nil had the potential to do a great deal of good, but he was also a lifelong soldier duty-bound to carry out the bidding of one of the most reprehensible men in recent history. At some point, there would be another raid, and he would be expected to murder and lead more innocents into slavery and sacrifice. If Aloy asked, if she pressed, if she pleaded, would he listen to her? Was he even capable of turning himself around in such circumstances? She wasn't certain. As much as he cared for her, he had his life to consider. Even the slightest step out of line could mean his sacrifice in the Sun-Ring, and she would lose him anyway.

And if she didn't put him down, the Nora would surely find out. She would never be able to return home or see Rost again, and the concept alone had her chest aching with hollow agony.

It was an impossible situation, and with seemingly no way out, Aloy did her best to keep her determination and resolve steeled at all times. There had been no challenge too great for her to overcome yet, and she wasn't about to give up searching for a solution to this one.

Her obsession with this conundrum was so encompassing, in fact, that she almost walked right by a man standing outside of her home one day on her way back from picking up dinner and a new bow modification at the markets.

With a frown, Aloy slowed and then stopped completely a few paces away. Something about the older gentleman was familiar in a way that she couldn't quite place. He was staring up at her and Nil's corner rowhouse, his hands clasped behind his back.

In any case, he didn't seem to be much of a threat. Moving her packages to her other arm, Aloy cleared her throat.

"Can I help you with anything?"

Startled out of whatever reverie he was lost in, the man turned and blinked owlishly at her with grey eyes. A genial smile ringed by a grey goatee soon followed, spreading over his face as he looked her up and down.

"Yes, I believe you can. Your name is Aloy, correct?"

"Yes," she sighed. "And I won't ask how you know that, because I'm pretty sure that half of the damn city does at this point through word of mouth alone."

The man laughed, but it was kind. "Yes, yes. You are indeed the one who has all of their tongues wagging. A burden for you, I'm sure."

"I'm pretty used to it at this point," she responded drily.

"Still, you have my apologies for such an informal introduction. Let's fix that now, shall we?" Sweeping an arm out, he bent elegantly at the waist. "Ligan Khane Argir at your service, my lady."

Aloy lurched back in shock, nearly dropping her bundle of packages in the process.

"What? Wait - Khane Argir. Does that mean - "

"Bluntly put, I'm Sahad's father." Here, he paused. "Which would make you my daughter-in-law. It's a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance, Aloy."

Aloy was unable to do much more than gape at him. Her brain felt as though it had been frozen in time, only capable of replaying Ligan's words on loop. It only began to chug along again as her eyes roved over his face - over silver eyes the same as her husband's rimmed by the same markings, over grey hair and a goatee which had both obviously once been black.

"You were at our wedding!" she exclaimed.

"I was indeed," Ligan confirmed with a nod. "As estranged as my son and I are, it was my duty as head of our House to attend and see him wed. And I don't take duty lightly, especially considering how I was unable to fulfill the rest of my obligations as father of the groom." A familiar, amused glint shimmered in his eyes. "Besides, my late wife would have my hide if I had missed out on such a momentous event."

Finding herself more at ease now, Aloy shifted the items in her arms into a more comfortable position and asked, "So, what brings you here, then?"

"Truthfully, I had hoped to catch you alone," Ligan confessed. "Sahad's presence would have...complicated matters greatly."

"I'm well aware of that," she said. "But you didn't answer my question."

"I thought it would be lovely to get to know my new daughter," he replied, innocently enough.

Aloy wrinkled her nose in distaste. "The Carja have such strange ideas about family. I hope you don't expect me to call you father."

Just as it registered that her words may have been a smidge rude, Ligan leveled her with a wide grin that made him appear years younger.

"My, what refreshing candor! I like you already. No, no. Just Ligan is fine."

"Ligan," she confirmed. "Well, here I am."

"Here you are," he repeated, his tone a touch softer. "There is much to discuss, but this is not the place for the sort of conversation I'd like to have with you. My intention was to invite you - and only you - to my home to have dinner sometime soon."

Aloy pursed her lips. "If you were intending on tonight, I'm afraid that Nil - I mean, Sahad and I already had plans for dinner."

"I supposed as much," Ligan replied with a shrug. "But what of tomorrow? Are you similarly engaged?"

She thought it over. "I don't think so."

"Then will you do me the pleasure of coming by tomorrow evening?" he asked. "Say, around the sixth bell?"

"I guess." He handed her a slip of parchment, presumably with the location of his home in it, and her eyes narrowed as she looked him over. "But I do have one question."

"Yes?"

"Why now? I've been here for months, and you're just now showing up?"

"Ah, you cut to the quick. How refreshing," Ligan said lightly. The lines on his face deepened in the next moment, however. "Perhaps I needed time to rally my courage."

Aloy frowned. "Courage? For what?"

"To begin making the necessary strides to get my son back." This time, his smile was weary. "But I must be off. Farewell for now, Aloy. I look forward to tomorrow."

Before she could react, Ligan turned to walk away, with long, loping strides surprisingly jaunty for someone his age. Aloy stared after him long after he had rounded a street corner and disappeared.

When Nil found her later that evening, she was draped out on the couch, deep in thought.

The cushions shifted as he eased himself down next to her with a weary groan. "Well, this looks serious."

Aloy barely spared him a glance. "Nil. Dinner's on the hearth."

"I see that," he said. "And what about you?"

"I already ate," she replied absentmindedly.

"Aloy." Nil twisted himself to face her fully.

"Hm?"

He gave an amused huff. "I meant you. How are you? You've been lost in thought often lately."

That got her attention, and she managed to summon a sheepish smile. "Yeah, I know. Sorry about that."

"Is there anything you'd like to talk to me about? You know I'll listen."

His eyes were kind and concerned. Aloy exhaled slowly as she glanced down at where her hands were folded in her lap. She had spent much of her day torn over whether or not she should tell her husband that she had plans with the father he hadn't spoken to in years, and it hadn't been an easy decision. By now, she knew that Nil wouldn't prevent her from going, although it had the potential to put a wedge between them. But if she decided to lie, there was a good chance that he'd find out anyway, and that division could become wider yet.

In short, if she was going to bring this up, now was the time. Her decision made, she raised her eyes to his.

"I ran into someone today on my way home."

He angled his head to the side with a frown. "Oh? What one person would be cause for so much concern, huntress? You're acting as though you bumped into the Sun-King himself."

"No, but it might as well have been." Aloy pursed her lips. "It was Ligan. Your father."

Nil stiffened at once. His only visible movement was a slight twitching in his jaw.

"I see."

The truth had been flung out into the open, and there was no reason to be coy. "He invited me to dinner."

"And?"

"I accepted."

When Aloy finally managed to look at her husband, he had balled his fists in the fabric of his skirt so tightly that they were white and trembling.

On impulse, she reached out for him, to touch him, but he jerked away. Hurt pulsed through her, and her hand dropped.

"I won't stop you," Nil said quietly. "I have no right, and...I know you. You're so curious, you want to cut straight down to the bone with everything. I understand why you accepted."

"What happened between you two, Nil?" she asked, as kindly as she could. "All I want is to understand."

Raw pain and grief contorted his face for a brief moment before he smoothed it away as he always did. Instead, a sneer yanked at his lips. "No need to make an enormous deal of it. It's simple, actually. He loathed what I ultimately became, and he threw me away like I was garbage."

Something in Aloy's chest squeezed tight, and the urge to comfort him in what few ways she could came back with a vengeance. "He didn't act like he hated you when I talked to him. Actually, it seemed like he wanted to fix things. He said that - "

"As much as I'd like to believe that, mending our relationship is far beyond the realm of possibility, Aloy," Nil interrupted dully. "That hasn't changed for years."

"Then why would he bother with me at all?" she countered.

"He mentioned duty at some point, didn't he?" At Aloy's silence, his lips thinned. "And there it is. He's the head of our House, and seeing as you're a part of it, you technically fall under his responsibility. My father has always been staunchly honorable, and although he and I are estranged, that wouldn't apply to you. He's simply doing what he feels is the right thing." He choked out a bitter laugh. "Which apparently he couldn't bring himself to do with me."

This time, Aloy didn't hold herself back. Striking as quickly as she would in battle, she laid her hand on his shoulder, giving it a tight squeeze. Nil shuddered under her touch once, like a wounded machine, but didn't try to pull away.

"I think it's worth trying," she said softly. "I'm going to go to dinner tomorrow night, and I'm going to see what I can learn. It's not to spite you."

"I know." He closed his eyes. "I know. Just don't get your hopes up."

"I'm not sure I know how to get my hopes up anymore, but thanks for the warning," Aloy muttered.

It was enough for Nil to at least crack a smile, and some of the tightness in her chest eased.

"Maybe that's something that can actually be mended." His hand settled over hers where it still sat on her shoulder, and for a moment, Aloy wasn't sure who was comforting who. "But in any case, I'm ravenous, and I'd like a chance to eat.

"Then I'd better get out of the way before you get too hungry and decide to eat me," she deadpanned.

Potent heat flashed in Nil's eyes for the briefest of seconds. "Careful, huntress. One day I might just be tempted."

Mercifully, he rose to his feet before he could see just how far the red had spread over Aloy's face, or the way she crossed her legs to quell the strange ache suddenly pulsing in her center.

--

Aloy stared down at the piece of parchment paper clutched in her hands, then up at the door in front of her. It was like any other door in Meridian - although the house it was attached to was certainly larger than most - made of wood and bronze and etched with the angular patterns the Carja favored.

Yes, it was exactly like any other door. Except for the not so small fact that her husband's father was lurking somewhere on the other side.

Raising her fist and all of her courage, Aloy knocked firmly.

Seconds later, she could make out the distinctive sound of footsteps on wood. Just as the sixth bell began to chime its somber tune, the door eased open.

"Ah, Aloy." Ligan was wearing a polite smile which revealed nothing of his mood. "I'm glad you came, and in such lovely attire too."

She spared a glance down at the dress she had chosen for the evening - something long and flowy and purple Theradine had described as 'conservatively cut' - then dragged it back up to Ligan hesitantly.

"Thank you. It's, um, good to see you."

"And you." Ligan stepped backwards, gesturing inward. "Please, come in. Dinner is moments from being ready, so if you'll follow me back to the dining room…"

The older man set a brisk pace down a long hallway, and Aloy had to lengthen her stride to follow him. All the while, her eyes darted over what she presumed to be her husband's childhood home; from mosaics and paintings and tapestries to ornate vases and sculptures and oil lamps, the residence was beautifully furnished and a feast for the eyes. Despite the level and variety of decoration, it was all so thoughtfully arranged that the place somehow avoided looking gaudy or overwrought.

"Your home is very lovely," Aloy commented as they came to a halt where the hallway intersected another room. Something about leaving silence between them made her throat itch with the overwhelming need to fill it.

"None of it is my doing, I'm afraid," Ligan replied with a pleasant laugh. "This was all Sahidi's work, and I haven't moved a single bauble since her passing. Don't have the impeccable eye for it she did."

Aloy nodded mutely, as unsure of what to say as she usually was when Nil's mother was brought up.

Thankfully, Ligan dropped the subject, sweeping an arm towards the adjoining room instead. "The dining room is right through here. Feel free to choose your seat - there's no need to practice the usual decorum amongst family, hm? I'll be a moment while I check on one of the servants in the kitchen."

"No need to hide the fact that you keep slaves from the Nora savage," Aloy bit out before she could stop herself.

Her brain caught up with her careless words a second later, but before she could form a single word of what would assuredly be an awkward attempt at smoothing things over, Ligan shook his head and chuckled.

"Slaves? Oh, no. I can assure you that all three of my staff members are here of their own accord and paid well." He flashed a charming, far too recognizable grin at her. "And you, my dear, are anything but a savage."

"Oh." Aloy blinked once. "My apologies - "

"With how most of the nobility behaves, I can't blame you for thinking that way, of course," Ligan interjected. "If you want my actual viewpoint on the matter, well...I've heard that you've become close friends with my young ward. That, along with what I hope are still Sahad's opinions, should tell you enough.

"Your...ward," she said slowly. "Wait - are you talking about Talanah? Talanah Khane Padish? You're Talanah's guardian?"

"I am indeed," he answered with a curt nod and a knowing smile.

"You - you're the one who helps her get them out of the city!" Aloy sputtered.

"And if they prefer to stay in Meridian, I offer them employment and shelter," Ligan added. "I trust you understand why this information is sensitive and cannot leave this household, Aloy."

She nodded hurriedly. "Of course. I'd never tell a soul."

"If Talanah and Sahad trust you, then so do I." Ligan tilted his head to the side. "Now, please. Find a seat, and I will be back shortly with our meal."

The nobleman strode off at once. Her mind whirling with all she had just learned - yet more strange revelations - Aloy wandered over to the sublimely set table and collapsed into the first chair she could find in a distinctly unladylike manner.

It was yet another puzzle solved. So many things made sense now - most of all, Nil's initial reaction when she had asked him if she could go hunting with Talanah.

"Her guardian. How could I have forgotten - yes. I suppose he would be there, wouldn't he."

She now understood why he had reacted the way he had, as well as why he and Talanah had omitted this piece of information from her. It was a sensitive subject, one neither her husband or her friend had wanted to dwell on, and she understood. She did.

Still, this knowledge didn't stop a tiny pang of hurt from pricking at the eternal wound in her heart.

Once again, Aloy the outcast had been left in the dark.

By the time Ligan returned with a bulky middle-aged man trailing behind him balancing several platters, she had managed to compose herself enough to give the appearance of propriety - or how she had observed other noblewoman acting, at least.

"I hope you like stuffed goose," Ligan said as he settled down in the seat across from her. Even in his advanced age, his movements were as measured and as graceful as his son's, and Aloy's lips quirked with an involuntary smile at the similarity. "Talanah mentioned that you enjoyed turkey, so I figured another sort of fowl would be appropriate."

"Goose is fine." She bit her lip. "I mean, it's great. I like it. Where is she, actually? Talanah."

Ligan appeared pleased, at least. "I'm glad to hear it. As far as Talanah goes, she's spending some time at the Palace as she often does, presumably with the young Sun-Princes."

The metal platters clinked musically on the table as the servant set them down. The room remained silent as he carved into the tender meat of the goose, depositing a neatly cut slice onto Ligan's plate and then onto Aloy's before turning to his employer.

"Is there anything else you require of me, sir?"

"No, thank you, Fergeld. You're dismissed."

With a quick bow, the large man exited back into the hallway.

There was little conversation as the pair tucked into their respective meals, something she was relieved to find that Ligan didn't seem to mind - much like Nil hadn't during their first weeks together when quiet between them was the norm. The goose and all of its trimmings were as delicious as anything Aloy had eaten since she had come to Meridian, and she briefly wondered if she was becoming spoiled for the simpler palette of Nora cuisine. Out of what she hoped was politeness, she made sure to try a little bit of everything - although for someone with tastes as indiscriminate as hers, this was no great feat.

"So," Ligan began as the they took their final bites. "I thought I might ask you a few questions. If it wouldn't bother you."

Relaxed enough in his presence now for some of her initial stiffness to have loosened, Aloy shrugged. "Sure. I don't mind."

His gaze was intent. "Sahad. Tell me, does he treat you well?"

Well, Ligan definitely didn't waste any time in getting to the point.

"It might be a surprise to you, but yes, actually. He's been more than kind." If there was a touch of defensiveness in Aloy's tone, she didn't care.

"Good." Ligan steepled his fingers on the table in front of him. "I'll admit, I was concerned after what I saw at the wedding."

"It's all an act," she said flatly. "He's doing it to protect both of us from that monster you call a king."

"I had my suspicions, but it's nice to hear them confirmed," he sighed. "That also leads me to believe that he's not as lost as I had once assumed."

"He never was," Aloy shot back, unable to keep the bite from her tongue. "From what I understand, you gave up on him, and all that did was make him worse."

Instead of bristling at her words as she might have expected, Ligan seemed to shrink in on himself. Weariness lurked in every wrinkle on his face.

"I know that, Aloy. Trust me, I know. Does he know that you're here?"

"Of course. I wouldn't keep this from him."

Surprise spread over his face. "And he was amenable to that?"

"He doesn't hold my leash, if that's what you're implying," she snapped. "He was upset, yes, but he has no control over what I do or where I go. Regardless of what you think of your son, I'd appreciate it if you didn't imply that he's somehow hurting me."

Ligan held up his hands. "Peace, Aloy. I never intended to allude to anything of the sort."

Crossing her arms over her chest, she waited for him to elaborate. Ligan took a deep breath and then dropped his hands to the table.

"Our history is long and complicated, and context in this situation may be of aid, especially since I'm assuming that Sahad hasn't spoken much of what happened."

"No, and I didn't think it was right to press him about it," she responded tersely.

"That was wise of you," Ligan acknowledged.

"But…" Aloy eased up, just a bit. "I'll listen to what you have to say. If only for his sake."

"Then I shall start at the beginning." He leaned back in his chair, angling his head back thoughtfully. "Sahidi and I were betrothed not by our own choice, as I'm sure you know is custom among the higher-born nobles."

Aloy snorted. "Talanah explained that much to me, as ridiculous as it is."

"Still, I was besotted almost immediately." There was a faint, far-off smile tugging at Ligan's lips. "It took her more time, but eventually we grew to love each other deeply. By the time Sahad was born, we were as happy as any other young family. And Sahidi...she adored our son. Doted on him day and night, refused a nursemaid - an unusual choice for a lady of her station. And as he grew, Sahad loved her just as much in return. Her little shadow, she often called him."

An image formed in Aloy's mind then, of an indistinctly beautiful woman rocking a tiny baby with a crop of jet black hair to sleep at her breast. Her throat closed up.

"Sahidi...Sahad...he's named after her, isn't he?" she managed to ask.

"Yes," Ligan confirmed. "It was by her request, and how could I refuse? She lit up in a way that made her more radiant than the Sun itself when the three of us were together. We were all so happy then."

His smile broke and then dropped, and Aloy braced herself.

She already knew how this story ended.

"Sahad was eight years old when we found out that she was with child again. Rather than growing jealous as many other younglings his age have a tendency to, he was thrilled with the prospect of a younger brother or sister. He would lay his head on her stomach and speak to the unborn child, sometimes for an hour or more. Sahidi never minded, of course. She only burned brighter and more beautifully." Grief creased the corners of Ligan's eyes. "When Sahad was nine, both his mother and the baby passed upon her birth. I lost my wife and my daughter within minutes of each other, and I realize now that this was the precursor to losing my son as well."

Tears burned in Aloy's eyes, and she wiped them away hurriedly, before Ligan could see.

He heaved a heavy sigh. "Sahad was...inconsolable. He shut himself off from me - from everything, really. Perhaps he would have mended in time, if not for the old Sun-King's mandate."

"For every family, a male child to be enlisted into service," Aloy recalled.

"Yes. And it was only a few short months later that the summons came." Ligan lifted his gaze to stare at Aloy pleadingly. "Please believe me that I tried everything I could to relieve him from it. I called in every favor I was owed, attempted to bargain, bribe, offer whatever I could - but it wasn't enough. I risked being branded a traitor to all the Sundom if I refused to joyfully deliver my son into the hands of those who would turn him into an instrument meant only for killing."

The fact was, Aloy did believe him. And she was beginning to understand that nothing about this situation was simple.

"And so with a final embrace and kiss, I dropped my only child and heir off outside of the city barracks at the tender age of ten," Ligan continued, his eyes steeling. "He was allowed a sole weekend a month to come home. At first, I didn't notice anything unusual. He was as he had been since his mother's death, if slightly more subdued. But as time wore on, as he grew closer to adulthood - his sixteenth year to us Carja - I began to notice a change in him, and it frightened me."

"A change?" Aloy prompted.

"There was this vicious streak that hadn't been there before. His mother had always had a temper that burned as hot as flame, and at first, I assumed it was simply him taking after her. But it grew to be more than that - by the time he entered his second decade, he spoke of killing as fondly as one might a dear friend. Apparently, he had a talent and a relish for it I hadn't anticipated in a boy who had once been so mild-mannered. With Jiran on the throne and the raids on the other tribes growing more frequent, he rose through the ranks quickly." Ligan gripped the edge of the table. "I heard stories...horrible tales of the bloody feats my son had performed on the battlefield. Many congratulated me for producing such a fine soldier who brought much glory to the Sundom. I only despaired."

"What was it, then?" Aloy asked after a tense moment of silence. "After all that, what made you finally cut ties with him?"

Scarcely daring to breathe, she waited for his response.

Chapter Text

Ligan dropped his eyes to his hands, as though he were ashamed. "I'm aware that Talanah has told you about the massacre of my fellow Hawks of the Hunter's Lodge, where she lost her brother and father. That day, I also lost many a dear friend, her family among them. So when Sahad came home a few days later, speaking of a great battle at Cinnabar Sands and his role in it, I could not bear to hear of any more bloodshed or death. In my sorrow and helpless rage, I told him to leave and to never come back. The look in his eye...it was like he had regressed back that frightened little boy who had just lost his mother." He sagged in his chair, looking more fragile than she had yet seen him. "I realized too late that he had not come to me to brag, but to plead for absolution."

"I've heard of this battle before," Aloy frowned. "But what I was told of it doesn't match up to what you've described. It painted Sahad as - triumphant. Thrilled with the destruction he had caused."

"The truth has become twisted by hearsay, just like everything else in this damned city - pardon my language," Ligan said bitterly. "Aloy, he was the sole survivor of that battle. In one day, he lost every last soldier under his command, along with nearly every friend he had made over the previous decade. And I was too proud to see how much it had destroyed him, and how it solidified the terror he has become."

Aloy wrapped her arms around herself as tightly as she could, because if she didn't, she felt as though she might come undone.

"And so, here we are." Ligan bowed his head. "I take responsibility for my part in all of this. It may be selfish, but all I want now is my son back. I'd do just about anything to have that happen."

She could have been furious on behalf of her husband. She could have gotten up and left, never to return. But as she studied Ligan, a man whose requests she had every right to refuse, all she saw was a broken old man who had lost almost everything good in his life - some by circumstance, some by his own actions. And then she thought about Nil and his refusal to even try to mend these severed ties, not to mention his balking at his potential for change, and Aloy realized too that he wasn't entirely without fault. Theirs was a horrible situation borne out of tragedy and circumstance, but that didn't mean it was irreparable.

Yesterday, Nil had been wrong. What was broken could always be fixed, and although it may not be as it once was, it could perhaps become something new.

Still...

"A question," Aloy said, finally loosening her hold on herself. "I asked Sahad this, and he didn't have a real answer. Why now? Why me?"

Ligan's brow wrinkled. "I thought that would be obvious."

"Not really."

"You're closer than anyone has been to him in years, Aloy. Talanah has told me how fondly you speak of him. The fact that he took you hunting of his own accord, the implications of such a daring move, and now seeing you rise to his defense - I thought that, in time, perhaps you two…" Seeming to catch himself, he shook his head. "He cares for you, I'm certain. With such a positive influence in his life, I believe that he could be set upon the right path."

"It shouldn't have had to come to this, Ligan," Aloy said, feeling more weary than anything else by now. "You shouldn't have to rely on someone else you barely know to accomplish what you're too afraid to."

"I'm more than aware of that." He leaned towards her over the table. "I have no right to ask it of you, but please, Aloy. I will kneel before you and beg if I must. Please do what you can to bring him back. He doesn't have to speak with me ever again, but the knowledge that he's found some measure of happiness and healing would be enough for me. It's what any parent desires for their child, and more than that...it would mean that I didn't fail my beloved Sahidi, not entirely."

Aloy angled her chin up. "There's no need to beg. I came to this decision on my own, and it wasn't for you. It was for Sahad, because he deserves better than the lot he's been given in life."

We both do.

Ligan exhaled, a slow draining of air that had him deflating in relief. "Thank you. You have no idea what the depths of my gratitude are for your role in this."

She thought of Rost, of her own lost and unknown mother - of what it might be like to have hope for a family again. "Actually, I think I do."

Cleaving the quiet of the evening in two, a bell began sounding in the distance. Aloy shot to her feet when the last chime sounded.

"The eighth bell," she realized. "I need to be getting home. I told Sahad - "

"Don't let me keep you," Ligan interrupted, rising to his feet as well. "But first...if it's not too much trouble, I have a final favor to ask of you."

"What is it?" Aloy asked, not bothering to attempt to keep either the wariness or the impatience from her tone.

He bowed his head. "One moment, if you please."

Ligan stepped out of the room only briefly, and when he returned, he was cradling something in his arms as carefully as if it were a newborn child. Aloy's curiosity must have been written all over her face, because he held it up for her to examine in the next moment. It was a small golden vase, painstakingly etched with complicated patterns and studded with a rainbow of tiny gems that glittered prettily under the lamp light.

"I want you to give this to Sahad."

When he held it out, she took it, surprised by how light it was. "Sure. But what is it? Some sort of keepsake belonging to Sahidi?"

"It's an urn. Inside is half of what remains of his mother and his sister," Ligan explained, his voice strained. "I should have done this a long time ago, because he deserves to carry a piece of them with him too."

Her heart seized painfully at the magnitude of what she held, and Aloy clutched the vessel to her breast protectively. "I can do that."

Ligan swept his eyes over her as though he was evaluating the truth of her words, then nodded slowly. "Good, good. Now, if you'll follow me, I'll see you out."

He led her back to the front door, leaning against the frame and watching as she stepped into the street. Before she could get very far, however, Ligan called out to her.

"Aloy!"

She twisted back around to find her father-in-law gazing at her with so much hope that it seemed to spill out of his body and into the air surrounding him. For a moment, she felt as though some of it had reached her, too.

"Thank you, daughter. For all that you've done, and for all that you've yet to do."

With a dip of her head as acknowledgement, Aloy turned and started back home, her heart paradoxically lighter and heavier than it had been when she had first come here.

The house was almost totally dark by the time she made it back, all but for a dim light shining out from the window in Nil's room. She stared up at it for a few heartbeats, wondering what she could possibly say to him about what had transpired this evening. Then, gathering herself as much as she could, Aloy closed the gap between herself and the front door. On the way, however, a flash of green caught her eye through the last light of the dying day.

With muted satisfaction, Aloy realized that the roses had finally sprouted.

The urn seemed to grow heavier in her arms with every step she took up the stairs and closer to Nil. Her heavy task at the forefront of her mind, she raised her hand to knock on a door for the second time that day.

There was silence, and then: "Come in."

Hesitantly, Aloy pushed into the room. Nil was lying on his back with his hands clasped over his chest and his eyes trained on the ceiling. His entire being seemed to resonate with a nervous energy, and it took several seconds for him to finally look at her.

"Aloy," he said dully. "You're home."

She took a single step towards him. "I am."

His eyes trailed down to the precious burden she carried, creasing with confusion. Aloy cleared her throat, then gestured to the bed.

"May I?"

Nil rose into a sitting position gradually and gracefully. "Of course. Please."

He waited until she had settled down gingerly on the edge of the bed before he finally asked, "What do you have there? Is the old man now attempting to bribe me with some expensive family heirloom?"

There was the usual biting humor present in his voice, but this time, it was mixed with cold notes of fear.

"No." Aloy swallowed. "No, it's not a bribe, Nil - Sahad. Not at all."

She held the vessel out to him then. Confusion overcame him as he took it.

Once he had judged its weight, however, painful realization bloomed over his face.

"It's an urn. Inside, there are ashes."

There was a sharp gasp followed by a low, agonized noise, as though the knowledge of what he held had physically wounded him.

"Mother," he whispered, his voice breaking over the word as he brushed his thumbs over the cool metal surface tenderly. "Mama. And...little one."

When Nil finally looked at her, his grey eyes were over-bright, and Aloy found that hers were a little wet, too.

"Your father wanted you to have something of her and your little sister," she said, clearing her constricted throat. "He told me everything, and I think he wants...he really wants to try."

He fixed his attention back to the urn, turning it over in his hands several times, running his fingers over each lovingly carved decoration, every painstakingly set jewel. The vision of his face crumpled with sorrow and yearning was almost too much for her to bear, but Aloy endured it as steadfastly as she had every other difficulty in her life. In this moment, she knew that he needed her to stay by his side, and she wasn't about to let him down like so many others had.

"Do you know why it is, Aloy," Nil said, his voice quiet but steady, "that I keep my hair long?"

Perplexed by the sudden change in subject, she frowned. "No? You've never mentioned it. I just assumed it was a personal choice, because from what I've seen, it's not unusual among Carja men."

"Oh, don't mistake me - it's very personal." A faint smile touched his lips. "It's because my mother adored my hair. She loved touching it, playing with it, and especially braiding it. When she died, I kept it just the way she liked it as a way to honor her. In fact, once I was enlisted in the military, I let go of most of my personal possessions, but I kept my hair. It's the dearest thing I own."

"I see." Worrying at her bottom lip, Aloy stared down at her hands as she twisted them in her lap. There was little in the way of comfort she could offer him, but perhaps… "You know, Nil, I'm pretty good at braiding hair."

When she glanced up at him, she was relieved to find that his eyebrows were raised in amusement, banishing most of his anguish for now.

"Well, with hair like yours and what I know of Nora grooming habits, I kind of figured."

"I could braid yours," Aloy offered. "If it would help." At his initial silence, self-consciousness welled up in her. "Of course, if you don't want me to, that's fine too. It's probably a little childish - "

"No, it's not. Not at all," Nil interrupted hoarsely. "I'd love that, actually."

He eased the urn onto his bedside table with infinite care, then maneuvered himself around until his back was to Aloy. Rucking up the frustratingly long skirt of her dress, she shifted more onto the bed herself, crossing her legs and studying the length of his hair. It was still tied up in the usual Strider's tail he wore when leaving the house to attend to his duties, so she reached up to let it free. It tumbled down Nil's bare back in sooty locks, coming to rest over the light tan of his skin and reminding her of thunderclouds rolling over the desert.

Her hands may have been a tad shaky when she lifted them to run her fingers through the strands and tease out any tangles. Nil didn't seem to notice, however; he merely tilted his head back and gave a soft sigh of contentment, and Aloy's lips quirked where she noticed his eyes had slid halfway shut.

"So," she began conversationally in an attempt to lighten the mood, "What sort of styles did she favor for you?"

"Oh, all kinds," Nil mused as she separated a chunk of his hair from the rest. "But I think her favorite was a couple of braids on either side, then tying all of it together in one big Strider's tail. Especially for court events when we were all dressed in our finest. Sometimes, when we danced together at those, she would twirl me around and call me her 'handsome little nobleman'."

"I bet that was embarrassing for you at the time," Aloy said wryly, beginning to weave his hair into the first braid.

"Not as much as you might think," he said with a shrug. "I was never embarrassed when it came to how much I loved my mother."

She hummed. "From what I remember, from around that age and up until I was about sixteen, everything Rost did was embarrassing to me, even though there was never anyone around to see it. It's funny how silly all of that seems now."

"And funny how you'd give just about anything to go back in time to relive it all again, if even for a single day," Nil said wistfully.

Aloy didn't realize that her grip on his hair had tightened until her husband gave a hiss of pain.

She loosened her hold at once, hastily finishing up the braid. "Shit. Sorry."

As she tugged a bead out of her own hair and used it to secure the plait, Nil angled his head back towards her.

"I suppose I ought to get the Behemoth in the room out of the way now," he sighed. "I can tell that my father is serious if he gave you my mother's ashes to hand off to me, and it's left me wondering what transpired between you two this evening."

Aloy's hands stilled in the midst of separating more of his hair. "Are you sure? A lot's happened tonight, and I'm willing to wait to talk about this."

"Please, Aloy." Nil's face was full of more pleading than she'd ever seen from him. "I want to - need to know."

"Fine. He told me everything that happened, from before you were born to your falling out after Cinnabar Sands." Absentmindedly, she combed her fingers through a lock of hair.

Nil tensed beneath her touch. "Ah. Tell me, what did he say about that day? That I was out of control? That my existence was a mistake? That I'm a murderous wretch who doesn't deserve to carry the Argir name, much less his mother's?"

Aloy stilled. "He said all of those things to you?"

"Oh, yes," he hissed. "That and much, much more."

Her temper snarled inside of her, horror and fury both churning in her guts, and she knew she had to get a hold of herself before it blinded her to reason. Drawing in a deep, centering breath, Aloy willed herself to calm.

"No. He obviously didn't." Her fingers got to work again weaving his hair together, and it helped to ground her further. "What he did tell me is how much he regrets what happened that day - and what happened before, for that matter - and how much it all continues to torment him."

Nil coughed out a disbelieving laugh. "How much it torments him? I was left with no one. No family, no friends, not even my men." Bitter resignation weighed down his next words. "Although I suppose it's fitting for someone as far removed from humanity as myself to be left alone."

"It was the same for him, Nil," she reminded him. "Ligan didn't have anyone left either."

"But he had what I didn't: a choice," he said flatly. "He chose to disown his only child, and as far as I'm concerned, he made this bed for himself. If lying in it has only brought him misery, that's his burden to bear."

"But he's trying to fix things. Like you said, the urn is proof enough of that," Aloy protested. "When do you move on from all that happened?"

"I don't know. Perhaps I never will." Nil's shoulders sagged, as though a heavy burden had been laid across them. "And honestly, it's for the best. The fewer people around me, the less risk there is for someone to get hurt."

"But you want to be around others, don't you?" she said quietly. "And that's the hell of it. It's hurting you to be so set apart."

Nil said nothing in reply.

Everything in Aloy cried out for her to do something, anything, so she loosened her fingers until his hair fell from it and slid down his back like spilled ink. Then, ignoring all of her reservations, all of her worries that seemed so selfish now, she bent forward and wound her arms around his neck loosely, lowering her head until it was pressed against his shoulder. It would be easier this way, with him unable to see her face and the way it filled with blood at his nearness. Nil froze beneath her.

"I know what it's like, Sahad," she murmured. "Better than anyone else. I lived that way my entire life. Watching everyone around you able to enjoy the company of others, envying experiences as meaningless as small talk with a stranger. Simple things which people take for granted. After awhile, you even start to get jealous of the conflicts, the fights. It's a horrible, lonely existence, isn't it?"

"Yes," he said, his voice barely above a whisper.

"You know, coming here to Meridian has been one of the worst things that's ever happened to me," Aloy continued. "But at the same time, it's been one of the best. I'm constantly made aware that most of the city loathes my existence, but that's nothing new to me. What matters is that, for the first time, I've found people who want to be around me. I've finally experienced what friendship is like." Her hold on him tightened. "Most of all, from you. Even if I didn't see it that way at first."

"Aloy…" His voice was tight with pain.

"It probably makes me selfish," she chuckled wetly. "I miss Rost like crazy and I want more than anything to see him again, but his absence doesn't ache the way it used to. I don't think about him every minute of every hour of every day anymore. Instead, I've started to look forward to outings with Kadaman, Talanah, and Avad. I've started to look forward to the sun setting, because it means you'll soon be home."

Nil shuddered beneath her. "You don't know why you're here, do you?"

"What do you mean?" Aloy lifted her head from him.

"It's my fault you were even brought here," he said miserably. "You, this marriage...they were meant to be a punishment for me."

"Oh, that's all?" She shrugged. "I already knew that. Jiran made that very clear at court."

"Aloy, you don't understand." Nil attempted to wriggle out of her hold, but she only held him closer, until he gave up with an exasperated huff. "You're here entirely because of my own actions. Because I refused to obey a direct order, your entire life was changed inexorably for the worse."

"Stop that," she muttered, resting her head against him once again. He was warm, comfortable, and still had need of her presence, so she wasn't about to loosen her hold just yet. "I just finished telling you that it hasn't been all bad, and besides, it's not like you stole me out of the Sacred Lands yourself. Adding the marriage to the treaty was Jiran's idea, not yours."

He bowed his head. "It doesn't matter. I tried to go against my orders and do the right thing, just once, and it only birthed more misery. This is why I don't make decisions for myself."

"The right thing…" That tiny spark of hope she kept nurtured in her heart flared. "What was this thing you did, Nil?"

"I was ordered to slaughter a couple of Nora children on my last raid," he said. "I couldn't bear it. I couldn't look into their frightened little faces and steal their lives away. What honor, what glory is there in killing those who can't defend themselves? Instead, I created an opening for them to escape, and I was found out. If I had been anyone else, I would have been slaughtered in the Sun-Ring immediately upon my return to Meridian. But I suppose Jiran still saw use for me, so he elected to punish me in a different way. At my hearing, he told me that if I loved animals this much, I should have one for my wife." His voice began to waver. "It's a punishment, all right, although not in the way he believes. The truth is, Aloy, I would have rather faced execution a thousand times over than have ripped you away from home and all you've ever loved. I'm a lost cause, while you hold all of the potential in the world."

"You're wrong," Aloy responded fiercely. "About everything. None of this, none of what happened to me was your fault. What you did was good - it was more than good, actually. It was heroic. You risked your life to help those who couldn't fight back, and you know what? You can do it again."

"But - "

"Please, Sahad," she said, holding him tighter and squeezing her eyes shut. "If I'm all that you claim me to be, listen to me. Trust me and my judgement."

Something settled over one of her hands then, and Aloy realized that he had covered it with one of his own.

"Oh, Aloy." Nil heaved a heavy sigh. "You're far too good for someone such as me. I told you once that I'm glad it was you who became my wife, and every minute I spend in your presence only makes me more certain of that fact."

"Maybe." The ghost of a smile appeared on her lips. "Or maybe we're both exactly what the other needed. For the record, I'm glad it was you, too."

Nil leaned back into her, just for a moment. "I do trust you, more than I've trusted anyone else since mother died. Perhaps I should take that to heart from now on."

"You're damn right you should."

With one last squeeze, Aloy reluctantly unwound herself from around him. The emptiness she felt in the absence of his touch was immediate, and she had to resist the urge to fill it by either wrapping her arms around him again or even worse - stooping to the frankly embarrassing level of hugging herself.

"Still want to finish up those braids?" Nil asked, rolling his head back to look at her. "If you don't want to, I understand. This evening has been fraught with all manner of stressful situations, to say the least, and you deserve rest."

"You should know by now that I don't make a habit of leaving things unfinished," Aloy replied primly, picking up the mostly unwoven hair she had been working on previously.

Nil gifted her with her favorite crooked grin, looking sillier than usual with his face nearly upside down. "I'd encourage you to retire for the night, but if I'm honest, I was hoping you'd say that. I'm very selfishly enjoying your company here."

"Then I won't leave until I finish with your hair," she declared, tugging at the half finished braid for good measure. "Although if I stay, you do have to promise me one thing."

His expression changed from mirth to affectionate regard, and her heart skipped a beat in response. "For you, anything."

"Promise me you'll think about working things out with your father." Before he could protest, Aloy silenced him with a stern look. "I'm not asking you to do it today or tomorrow or anytime soon. But both of you have faced enough hardship for one lifetime, and neither of you deserve to be burdened with more."

"I suppose I can at least consider it," Nil said, resigned. "But I can't promise that it will happen."

"That's all I ask for."

"Then for you, I shall endeavor to use my time wisely." His voice, rather than carrying his usual casual wit, was as serious as she had ever heard it, and Aloy decided that maybe she could start trusting him too.

It hit her then that she might have found a solution to the conundrum which had consumed her since the hunting trip - an answer that she scarcely wanted to admit to herself, much less place her fragile hopes in. It would all depend on Nil and how far he was willing to go to redeem himself for the atrocities he had helped to inflict in his tenure as a soldier. Only time and life or death circumstance would tell what those limits were.

But if he was serious about his intentions, if he was serious in his trust and devotion to her, Aloy might just have found a way to not only fulfill the task the Matriarchs had bestowed upon her, but maybe even also have discovered an opportunity to turn the tide of the war.

There was no telling now, however, what the outcome might be, and it was useless to fret over it in this moment of peace. Instead, Aloy busied herself with her husband's mane once again, marveling at the silkiness of the long strands and how smoothly it wove into plaits. In no time at all, Nil had several small braids scattered throughout his hair. Picking up the hair tie she had set aside earlier, she gathered up every last lock into one big Strider's tail, using the woven band of fabric to secure it. Her task completed, she leaned back and studied her work with a frown.

Apparently sensing that she was done, Nil scooted around on the bed until he was facing her.

Aloy couldn't help herself. She stared.

"Well?" he asked, a knowing smirk on his lips. "How do I look, huntress? I'm not quite wealthy enough to own a looking glass, so I'll need to take your word for it."

Logically, Aloy knew that her husband was an attractive man. Between the piercing silver of his eyes, the angle of his cheekbones, and the fine sculpt of his body, most people would, at the very least, find him aesthetically pleasing. Even so, appearances were normally something she paid very little attention to, being of no material use to her. Even when her hatred of him had faded, she had based her entire opinion of him on who he was rather than what he looked like.

But now, with his hair done up in a familiar style - one very similar to what a male Nora Brave might wear, actually - she found that this aspect of him was, very inconveniently, impossible to ignore.

Especially with the way Nil was looking at her - a mixture of gentle teasing and softness that had a riot of butterflies exploding into a frenzy in her belly.

You look good. Too good, actually. So good that it's doing things to me that I barely understand, and the worst part is that I don't entirely hate it, was what she wanted to say.

"You look fine," Aloy said instead.

Despite her tepid words, Nil beamed at her as though she'd given him a precious gift.

"High praise coming from you, my lovely little wife. Why, I must be the most beautiful man in all the Sundom to have earned such a glowing compliment! It's a shame that I'll have to take these out so soon."

"I'm not lovely or little, my giant pain in the ass husband," she intoned.

Nil sniffed. "Compared to me, you are absolutely both, and I refuse to change my opinion on that."

"Whatever." Aloy rolled her eyes, then started to pick herself up off his bed. "If we're done here, I'd like to settle in for the night. Today was exhausting."

"Well, I understand that," he drawled. "Go on, then. Take your leave."

As she moved past him, however, Nil captured her hand in his for a final time.

"But first, allow me to thank you for spending so much time with me tonight." His expression had become sedate and thoughtful. "Your company has helped me more than I could ever express."

In the face of his naked gratitude, she softened as well. "You're welcome. And if you need me in the future…" Aloy angled her head towards the door. "You know where to find me."

Keeping his eyes bolted to hers, Nil brought her hand up towards his face, just barely brushing his lips over the smooth, freckled skin.

"Goodnight, Aloy," he murmured.

With her heart attempting to beat its way up into her throat, she only managed to force out a nod once he had released her from his gentle grasp.

"Goodnight, Nil."

Without a second glance, Aloy turned and pushed out of his room and into the hallway - because if she spent another moment in the presence of her husband, she wasn't sure she'd be able to leave at all.

Chapter Text

"I think you're going to be excited when you hear what I have planned for us tonight," Nil said in a sing-songy voice.

Raising her head from her latest project - crafting a brand new spear - Aloy scowled at her husband with as much irritation as she could muster. He had already shattered her concentration once by arriving home hours early and slamming open the front door with a jubilant greeting, causing her to jump and a mess of parts to spill all over the floor. Needless to say, she wasn't exactly feeling tolerant of his eccentricities at the moment.

"Probably not, especially since I apparently don't get a say in it," she grumbled.

"Don't assume what spoils you'll receive before the kill," Nil chided. "This is something you've been wanting to do for awhile now, and I managed to talk my way into getting my duties relieved tomorrow to make it happen."

That had Aloy perking up. "Another hunt?"

"I should have known you were going to assume that," he sighed, deflating slightly. "No, no, huntress. Not a hunt. But something almost as fun."

"Then I have no idea what you're talking about, and I probably don't really care," she said matter-of-factly, returning to her pile of parts.

Nil slapped a hand over his ample chest. "Beloved wife, you wound me. Won't you at least hear me out?"

Aloy rolled her eyes. "Fine. Make it quick."

"Your wonderful husband managed to convince Talanah, Avad, and Kadaman to come by this evening," he announced proudly, sliding into the chair across from her. "Well, I suppose there wasn't much convincing on Kadaman's part. Especially when I asked him to bring the older vintages of wine from the Sun Palace stores."

"Oh." She set her spear down, frowning. "That's actually...nice."

"I know. I've been trying to find a way to make it happen for you."

Nil stared at her expectantly, and Aloy's surly demeanor finally broke. Fighting a grin, she crossed her arms and leaned back in her own chair.

"Fine. You were right. That is almost as good as hunting. Good job, Nil."

The way he lit up in response to even mild praise was enough to get a fond smile out of her. Aloy wasn't above admitting that she was stingy with her compliments, but his reaction made it well worth it everytime.

Two weeks had passed since her encounter with Ligan, and it was like an invisible barrier had been lifted between them. Aloy would often follow Nil up to his room as the night wound down, where they'd spread out together on his ridiculously large bed (at her teasing, he had expressed that he enjoyed some excesses he hadn't had access to while living in the barracks) talking and relaxing in each other's company until her eyes grew too heavy to hold open. Now that she was fully comfortable in her husband's presence, she found it difficult to stomach being alone when he was around, and this had her lingering later and later into the evening.

The best part was that Nil didn't seem to mind any of it - especially not the way casual touch had grown commonplace between them. The comforting brush of his fingers over her arm here, a steadying hand on her lower waist there, and once Aloy had even placed a pillow on his legs and laid her head there while he read her passages from some kind of obnoxious serialized story he had admitted was a guilty pleasure of his.

What was especially bewildering to Aloy was how quickly she grew accustomed to this new aspect of their relationship. And not just that - she had actually begun to crave his touch, that physical reassurance that he cared for her as much as he claimed. Honestly, she wasn't quite sure if this was a good or bad thing and was beginning to wonder if that really mattered in light of how content she had become.

As she eyed his hand where it sat innocently on the table, her own fingers flexed with the want to reach out and grab it, but she managed to quell that impulse for now. Best not to press her luck with something still so fresh and fragile.

"So." Aloy cleared her throat. "What time can we expect our friends?"

Nil's gaze slid to the window, where the late afternoon sun was streaming in and scattered by the metal of his mother and baby sister's urn. "I'd say they should arrive in a couple of hours. You have some time to prepare yourself."

"Prepare myself?" she asked, raising a brow. "You sound like you're expecting a fight."

"Well, you never know when Kadaman is involved," he mused. "He has a tendency to become belligerent over the strangest things when he drinks."

"I've noticed you two have a tendency to apply qualities of yourself to the other, actually," Aloy quipped. "Which means I should probably watch out for you."

"No, no." Nil waved her off. "I'm the cheerful sort of drunkard. Why waste the good mood alcohol inspires on pettiness? In any case, that wasn't what I was referring to. I meant that you may want to take the time for yourself, perhaps even have a nap. These nights do often drag on."

"I'll take your word for it, but I don't think that will be necessary. It's not like I do anything particularly exciting most days."

"As you wish." With a wide yawn and a stretch, Nil rose out of his seat. "As for myself, I believe I'll take that nap. An early day doesn't leave much energy by the Sun's setting."

"Oh." Aloy sat back, fighting the disappointment that was welling up in her chest. "Okay. I guess I'll see you in a bit, then."

A sly grin spread over his face like oil. "You're welcome to join me, if you'd like."

By now, he had to know the effect his words would have on her, and sure enough, Aloy's cheeks pinked in response.

"I think I'll pass. It wouldn't be very restful anyway, with you spreading out all over me and snoring in my ear," she replied tartly.

Nil shrugged as he headed towards the stairs. "Your loss."

It wasn't until Aloy heard the door close upstairs that she admitted to herself that she might have actually been just a smidge tempted by his offer.

"Ridiculous," she muttered to herself, picking up a length of twine. "He wasn't serious anyway."

Despite her obviously correct rationalizations, her traitorous mind latched onto the possibility that Nil had been serious. And despite her reservations and her lack of sleepiness, it might have been nice to snuggle up against him for a spell - to drowse with his solid warmth and comfort at her back, to have the weight of his arm curled securely around her waist, to maybe even feel all of that heat and hardness pressing against her backside like it had the morning they had woken up together in the tent -

"No!" Aloy yelped, leaping to her feet.

Seconds later, something came crashing down the stairs at a breakneck speed, and Nil - now only half-dressed - appeared, his face painted with panic and worry both.

"Aloy? What's wrong? I heard you cry out - "

"Nothing!" she snapped. He startled, and she managed to reel herself back in. "Nothing. I, ah, pinched a finger in one of my tools. Sorry. I'll try to keep it down."

With a sigh of relief, Nil carded his fingers through his hair roughly. "Good. Don't apologize. I'm glad it was nothing serious. Did you need me to look at it? Did you need a bandage or anything?"

"No, I'm fine," Aloy said hastily. "Really. Go take your nap."

Nil didn't look terribly convinced, but after a quick once over to ascertain that she was indeed still in one piece, he shrugged and turned to head back up the stairs.

Once she heard his door shut yet again, Aloy let out a miserable groan, slumped in her chair, and buried her head in her hands.

"What's happening to me?" she whispered.

Diving back into her work took longer than usual, but somehow, she managed. Pouring her attention into measurements and navigating precise movements with her tools had always been her escape, one of only a few activities that lulled her brain into a trance that almost nothing could shake her out of.

This time, it took a loud knocking on the front door to rip Aloy from her intense focus. When she jerked her head up in surprise at the sudden noise shattering her peace, she realized that several hours had elapsed. Rather than lazy sunlight streaming into the window, there was only the dull glow of the light from the oil lamps lining the street.

"Damnit," she huffed as she shoved out of her chair. "Nil!"

There was no response, meaning he was probably still asleep. Aloy wanted to be irritated, but with her friends waiting outside, it was difficult to feel anything other than excited anticipation.

A broad smile had spread over her face by the time she pulled upon the front door. There in front of her were Kadaman, Avad, and Talanah, all wearing the most casual clothing she had seen them in, the former two bearing several large glass bottles - the wine Nil had requested.

Kadaman stepped forward first, engulfing her in a tight hug with his free arm. "Aloy, my radiant gem! It's fantastic as always to see you."

"Kadi," she greeted warmly, having taken on the nickname for him herself some time ago. "Avad, Talanah. I'm so glad you all made it."

"It was only a fifteen minute walk," Talanah replied with a shrug. "It's not like we had to fight through the Jewel Stormbird to get here, although I doubt that would have slowed me much."

"Still jealous of my perfect Stormbird heart, I see," Aloy said cheekily, standing aside to let them in.

"You won't be boasting when I take down Redmaw by myself, girl," Talanah volleyed back as she pushed past her, giving her shoulder a friendly nudge on the way.

Avad was the first to step inside, and he glanced about curiously. "This is a lovely home, Aloy. Did you handle the decor, or did Sahad?"

She snorted. "He did. Pretty things aren't really my specialty."

"I agree that it's tastefully decorated, but he should have sprung for something larger," Kadaman sniffed. "He can obviously afford it, so I'm not sure why he's slumming it - "

"I shared a one room cabin with my guardian in the Sacred Lands," Aloy interjected, folding her arms over her chest. "Trust me, this is more than enough. It's almost too much space for me, actually."

The smug look Avad leveled his brother with was almost enough to have her breaking out into an undignified fit of giggles. Shaking her head to clear that urge away, she headed towards the stairs.

"Go ahead and make yourselves comfortable. I need to go wake Nil up and let him know you're all here."

"I shall come with you," Kadaman declared, already stalking past her. "I've always wanted to see his bedroom."

"That's a little odd, Kadi," Aloy remarked. "Besides, he likes to sleep without clothing. It's better if I go up by myself and knock."

"Oh?" The glint in the prince's amber eye was pure mischief. "Even better."

"No need," drawled a voice from above them. "I'm already awake. I hate to disappoint you, your Highness, but you missed your opportunity."

Nil slowly descended the stairs then. Much to Aloy's relief, he was fully clothed this time, red silk shirt and all. But before she could catch his eye, she turned to Avad.

"I think I need a drink," she said. "Mind helping me out?"

Avad gave her a winning smile, holding up the bottles. "Of course. Let's just take these over to the table, and if you could fetch me a few glasses…"

While Aloy rummaged around for appropriate drinkware (which she really should have done before everyone arrived), the others greeted her husband.

"Sahad," Kadaman sighed. "How wonderful to see you outside of the training grounds. It's been far too long since we shared a night of frivolity and merriment."

"Not a lot of time for those things with all that your father demands of his kestrels," Nil responded drily.

"It's on my list of policies to fix once I ascend to the throne, my dear friend."

"Hey." Talanah jabbed an elbow into Kadaman's side. "We talked about this. Less politics, more fun. That's what tonight was supposed to be for."

"Ow." The prince grew sullen. "Why does everyone insist on assaulting me with such grievous physical abuse over the most minor of missteps?"

"Probably because you never learned to hold your tongue," Avad said, uncorking a bottle of wine with a loud 'pop'. "That, and you always take said abuse without much complaint."

"Good evening, Talanah," Nil said evenly. "I'm glad to see that you still hold Kadaman's leash."

"She most certainly does not - "

"Always, Sahad," Talanah said loudly, drowning out her former betrothed's protests. "And I'm glad to see that Aloy has done the same with you."

"Unlike Kadaman, I never once denied it." Aloy felt her husband's presence by her side a moment later. "Having a lady in one's life only makes it all the sweeter, and it's my pleasure to serve her."

Kadaman groaned. "Serve her, he says. Why, he's already that - ow! Stop elbowing me, you obnoxious woman!"

"Again, not a lady," Aloy muttered under her breath as she handed a few glasses off to Avad.

Nil didn't reply to that. Instead, he draped an arm over her shoulders for a quick hug. "And hello to you, Aloy. How's your finger?"

She blinked up at him. "Huh?"

"The finger you pinched? Earlier, while you were working on your spear?"

"Oh." Her cheeks flushed. "It's, um. Fine. Better. So much so that I almost forgot about it."

He gave Aloy that tiny, secret smile she'd never seen him give anyone else but her. "I'm glad to hear that it won't be getting in the way of tonight. Wouldn't want your fun to be ruined."

"Yeah." She attempted a smile. "Me too."

"Hello, Sahad," Avad greeted politely. Both turned to face him, and he held up two goblets filled with rich, crimson liquid. "Wine for you as well, I'm assuming?"

"Well, I requested leave tomorrow for a reason," Nil said, taking one glass while Aloy swiped the other. "Thank you kindly, Avad. I hope Kadaman hasn't run you too ragged since we last spoke."

In an unusually undignified manner, the prince rolled his eyes. "No such luck. You know, I'm certain that if he weren't of the Radiant House, he would have been challenged to many a duel by now for the offense he's caused."

"And I would have bested each and every one of my unfortunate challengers!" called Kadaman from his side of the room. "Jealousy doesn't suit you, little brother!"

"Nor does acting as though you possess Sahad's skill and cunning suit you," Avad retorted.

"Why don't you all get some wine so we can go sit down?" Aloy said.

Thankfully, the three without a glass took her suggestion, and soon enough the group was spread out over the living area's two lounges - Aloy was glad she had procured another one recently - nursing their drinks. Kadaman and Talanah occupied the smaller of the two, while her, Nil, and Avad settled into the larger. It was a tight enough arrangement that she had to press into her husband slightly to give the Sun-Prince an appropriate amount of space, but with the wine burning pleasantly in her belly, she found that she didn't actually mind all that much.

"Try to go slowly tonight," Nil remarked, looking down at her nearly empty glass pointedly. "You wouldn't want to fall asleep prematurely."

"That was one time," Aloy hissed. "And I swear that mead was suspiciously strong. Theradine had an agenda."

Nil smirked. "Or you're just unwilling to admit that you can't hold your alcohol well."

As she glared at him, Aloy could practically feel Kadaman's eyes on them.

When he chimed in, his voice was delighted. "What's this I hear? Our sweet little Nora is a lightweight?"

"No. And for the love of All-Mother, both of you need to stop referring to me as little just because you're a few inches taller."

"Now you know how I feel," Avad muttered, taking a sip of his drink.

"Oh, yes," Nil said deviously. "A single glass of mead courtesy of Theradine had her sleeping an entire day away."

Kadaman laughed, bright and clear. "Ah, so she's not invincible! To be fair to her, Sahad, that man's mead is a touch on the strong side. The wine we brought tonight is child's play in comparison."

"Thank you!" Aloy cried. She was not about to admit how her head was already pleasantly light and that the world had gone slightly woozy around the edges.

"Hey, a woman as talented as Aloy has gotta have her weaknesses," Talanah piped up.

Kadaman rounded on her with a flat look. "And when have you ever admitted to any of yours, my dear?"

"Never, because a noblewoman from a House as high as mine doesn't have any," Talanah said loftily, sticking her nose in the air.

It was such an on point impersonation of a typical noble that Aloy had to bite back a laugh. "Other than your complete and total lack of humility, anyway."

"No, she's correct," Kadaman crooned, leaning in close to Talanah and batting his bronzed eyelashes. "Perfect in every single way, the best prospect for Sun-Queen this tribe has ever seen, beauty and strength both in one delightful package…"

While he sang his praises to Talanah - who was growing increasingly redder with each passing second - Aloy directed her attention to Avad, the wine having loosened her lips significantly.

"So, how long has that been going on?" she whispered.

"Sun and Shadow," Nil muttered, taking a swig from his cup. "Let's not. It's too painful."

"I assume you're speaking off this dreadful dancing around of their mutual romantic feelings," Avad whispered back, his expression one of extreme weariness. "The answer to that is far, far too long, and I have witnessed most of it."

Aloy examined the two for a moment more before asking, "Is it common for people to be this dense in regard to feelings?"

The younger prince bit his lip, as though he was holding back saying something. A few seconds later, he finally said, "It's not uncommon. I'm afraid I can't relate, however."

"Nor can I," Nil said with a shrug.

Once again, Avad looked like he was suppressing something. Aloy frowned.

"Are you talking about a lack of experience?"

"It's not that." Avad drummed his fingers on the lounge. "My last, erm, romantic prospect was just...rather direct."

Now her interest had been stirred. "Oh? Who were they?"

A fond smile settled on his lips. "Her name was Ersa. She was an Oseram slave who I struck up a friendship with. Eventually, I helped her escape the city, although that was sometime back. Before we parted, she expressed interest in something more, but I felt as though it wouldn't be on even grounds, so I refused her - with the caveat that perhaps we could pursue a relationship of a sort in the future. It was probably all wishful thinking, truthfully, and I doubt she even remembers me. Still, sometimes I like to believe…" The dreamy haze in Avad's eyes abruptly dissipated, and he shook his head as though to clear it the rest of the way. "Look at me, going on like this. My apologies."

"No, it's okay," Aloy said softly. "You sound like you were very attached to her."

Avad rested his chin on his hand. "I was. I still am."

"Attached to her magnificent physique and bulging muscles!" Kadaman crowed.

Apparently, he had been listening in.

"Kadi," Talanah hissed.

Avad turned to fix him with a scowl. "Yes? And what of it? Ersa is very well-endowed, and I find great beauty in that."

"Oh, don't get me wrong, little brother," Kadaman replied as he poured himself another glass from the bottle he had kept snug against his side (was that his third or fourth, Aloy wondered), "here, at least, you have fantastic taste. Not my personal preference, but I can absolutely see the appeal."

"A woman who has a fair shot at besting you in battle is certainly attractive," Nil added, brushing his fingers over Aloy's shoulder.

"You'd know all about that, wouldn't you, Sahad?" Kadaman grinned. "Tell me, when you two are in bed together, who is the one - "

"I wouldn't complete that sentence," Nil said calmly.

"We've never once been in bed together!" Aloy barked at the same time.

"By the Sun! Aloy, you don't know what you're missing," Kadaman sighed, his golden locks fanning behind him in a wave as he flopped back onto the couch. "You're allowing such a fine male specimen's talents to wither under disuse! Shadow take me, and you as well for your wasteful selfishness!"

"I highly doubt my more carnal skills have entirely diminished over the course of three and a half months, Kadaman," Nil intoned.

Something thorny, dark, and ugly welled up in Aloy, something she didn't have a name for. Whatever it was, it made it so that when she spoke, her tone was more snappish than intended. "Oh? And you know from experience?"

Kadaman sent her a pathetic glance, looking for all the world like a kicked animal. "No. Unfortunately not, and it was not for lack of trying."

"We've spoken about this several times," Nil said, amused. "You're simply too much for me to handle, Your Highness."

"Boar shit," Kadaman moaned. "I was so close, I swear it, and then you took that ridiculous vow of chastity."

Odd, cloying disappointment replaced the strange feeling in Aloy. "What vow?"

"He swore off any and all extramarital affairs the instant my father told him of your betrothal," Kadaman groused. "And here you are, not even taking advantage of the fact that you have him entirely to yourself. An outrage, truly. Sahad's prowess is legendary among the barracks, and I am certain that would extend to the fairer sex as well."

Stunned, Aloy sat back and straight into her husband's chest. Rather than jerking away as she once would have, however, she remained, allowing his touch and presence to ground her.

"It wouldn't be honorable," Nil rumbled behind her. His fingers began to comb through her hair as they often did in idle moments when she was close and he was thinking. "Regardless of our marital relations, I remain loyal to my wife and my wife alone. Perhaps you should consider taking a page from my book."

"Yeah, Kadaman," Talanah joined in. "Perhaps you should."

The crown prince looked between them all, a pout forming on his plush lips.

"Now you're all ganging up on me! What undeserved cruelty!" he cried. "I am not wed, and I am under no obligation to anyone but myself!"

"Ah, but you were betrothed to Talanah at one point," Avad interjected. "And yet…"

Talanah crossed her arms over her chest with a severe look, and Aloy could just make out a bolt of panic flashing across Kadaman's face. She couldn't help the sharp grin that split her lips then.

"Dearest, no," he said frantically, leaning towards her. "Please, love, don't be cross with me. You never mentioned anything - I would have - "

She burst out into a fit of laughter then, nearly spilling her drink in the process. "By the Sun, you should see your face! It's fine, Kadi. Really. We were both so young when the betrothal was dissolved. You were barely an adult, and I didn't even know what sex was. Besides…" Talanah sat back, a wistful look floating over her expression. "It doesn't matter anymore."

"Cruel, cruel, cruel," Kadaman muttered, passing his drink from one hand to another. "Using me as your plaything to mock and deride. Me, your future king!"

Pushing Aloy away gently, Nil rose to his feet almost as gracefully as he would if he were sober.

"Aw, does my liege need comforting, perhaps?" he purred, taking a few steps towards Kadaman.

That dark feeling returned, tearing its way into Aloy's chest and up into her throat. As she watched the two men with bated breath, her jaw locked up so tightly that her teeth creaked in protest.

Kadaman perked up instantly, his gaze darkening. "Oh, I believe I am."

"That can be arranged," Nil hummed.

"I am looking away now," Avad announced after sharing an exasperated look with Talanah.

Nil's dark hair was a curtain framing his features as he bent over the prince, gradually, carefully inching his face closer and closer. Kadaman tilted his head up, his eyelids drifting down.

Tension tied Aloy's muscles into knots, but she couldn't look away, and just as she was about to open her mouth, to say something to stop the scene playing out in front of her, a horrific sight for reasons she couldn't understand...Nil stopped in his tracks. A smirk replaced the heat in his eyes, and he lifted his hand and patted at Kadaman's cheek as though he were a petulant child.

Kadaman's eyes shot open. Aloy downed the rest of her drink on the spot.

"Comfort can be provided by one of your many other lovers, I'm sure," Nil said brightly, standing up straight once again.

Kadaman's only response was to give a defeated cry and fling himself back once again.

When Nil returned to Aloy's side and sat back down beside her, she didn't lean into him as she had before. It was as though there was an electrical current crackling over her skin, almost the same as when she had been shocked by the Stormbird on their hunt, and none of the tension had dissipated from her. At the same time, she was deeply relieved that nothing had transpired between the two men - yet also angry with herself for being so relieved. Whatever she was feeling, she knew that touching her husband in any way would only serve to heighten her confusion.

The night went on, and still, Aloy kept her distance. As usual, Nil didn't seem too bothered by this turn of events, seeming to sense her change in mood and give her the appropriate amount of space. Conversation morphed from teasing and prodding to the mutually shared experiences of battle (although Avad was mildly poked at for his lack of good stories beyond training mishaps). Her husband didn't go too far into the bloody details of his exploits, for which she was thankful. In fact, by the end, the discussion topic had mostly changed to machine hunting, which, with alcohol involved, naturally became a matter of comparing trophies and challenging one another.

"Come, Talanah, you cannot truly believe that you'll be able to handle Redmaw alone!" Kadaman protested.

"Do you doubt my skill?" she returned heatedly.

"What - no!" Kadaman slammed his empty cup down on his knee. "For even the most skilled of hunters - which I assure you, my dear, you absolutely are - such an attempt would be suicide!"

"I could go with her," Aloy offered. "I think with the two of us in the hunt, we could handle it."

"Hm." Talanah's expressive eyes narrowed in thought. "I'd have to see what you're made of first."

"Believe me, I said the same thing at the beginning of our hunt," Nil said. "She proved herself in every possible way, besting even myself in machine combat. Aloy is more than capable of handling herself."

Pride and gratitude burst in her chest at his words, and forgetting herself in the increasing haze of her inebriation, Aloy laid a hand on his knee and squeezed.

"And I need to assess that for myself," Talanah replied. "So, Aloy. How do you feel about coming along on my next hunting trip? Say, in about a month's time?"

"Yes!" Aloy blurted excitedly, jumping to her feet. "Absolutely!"

A second later, the walls begin to twist and waver around her. Shaking her head only made it worse, and she stumbled backwards. "Woah. Shit."

Nil was on his feet and beside her in the next instant, his hands a steadying anchor on her arms. "Well, I believe that's our cue. While it was lovely to have you all over, I think it's about time to end this evening."

"Oh, come on," Kadaman whined. "Just a little longer!"

Nil spared him an unimpressed glance. "No. Out."

"Kadaman, come," Avad said with a sigh. "It will take time and both Talanah and myself to get you home with as much as you've had to drink."

"But - "

"Shut it, Kadi," Talanah commanded, rising to her feet and grabbing his arm. "Let's go."

As usual, the prince wilted under her touch. "Fine. Thank you...thank you all for the fine company. Even if you're all a bunch of rude, classless chuffs. Goodnight and fare - farewell."

With that, he stood on unsteady feet and stumbled in the direction of the door, Talanah keeping a firm grip on his arm and his brother trailing close behind.

The goodbyes and promises to see each other soon were mercifully short. Once the door slammed shut, the events of the night and all of the alcohol she had consumed caught up to Aloy at once, and with an exhausted exhale, she drooped against her husband.

"Come on, huntress," he murmured in her ear. "Let's get you up to bed."

Nil maneuvered her towards the stairs, his hand a guiding pressure against her lower back as they ascended. Once they reached her room, Aloy collapsed onto her bed, entirely too drunk and tired to even think about changing into her sleep clothes. Besides, the silks and pillows adorning her bed were so comfortable, and moving from this spot felt as though it might actually somehow wound her.

Only one thing was missing, and it had her cracking her eyes open and peering at Nil as he rearranged her until he could pull the covers up and over her.

"Do you need anything else before I retire?" he asked, bending over to smooth a few sweaty strands of hair from her brow.

"Could you - " Aloy licked her suddenly dry lips. " - could you stay tonight? I'd, um, really like that. If you could sleep here. With me."

For a moment, Nil looked as though he were in physical pain. And if she didn't know any better, beneath the troubled lines creased around his eyes, there was a hint of longing there, too.

"Oh, Aloy," he said quietly. "I'm sorry. I can't."

"Oh." Tears stung at her eyes, but she managed to blink them back. "It's okay. It was...it was stupid of me to ask anyway. Just forget it."

Ashamed, Aloy turned over onto her side. And when Nil said a soft goodnight, lingering for a long moment at the door, she didn't respond, too busy trying to quiet the massive void which had opened in her chest enough to sleep. He extinguished the oil lamp hanging by the door, and everything went black.

Chapter Text

The sky hadn't yet lightened in the east when Aloy slipped out of her front door. Despite the early hour, there was an impatient energy nipping at each of her steps as she made her way towards a place she didn't particularly relish returning to, but had to in order to begin this long anticipated day.

The back of her cloak fluttered behind her as she walked, and it wasn't only intended to ward off the chill of the early morning. Concealed beneath it on her back was her bow and the spear she had spent weeks perfecting. Even though hardly anyone was out, it was a necessary precaution Nil had advised her to take before she had left the house.

"Even a single person seeing you with weapons is one too many," he had explained as he buttoned up the front of her cloak for her.

"If anyone saw me, I could just knock them out," Aloy mused.

Giving her a cheeky grin, he flipped her hood up for her. It only grew when she stuck her tongue out at him.

"I would normally approve, my fierce huntress, but let's try not to cause any incidents while we're out, hm?"

"Yeah, yeah," she muttered, heading for the door. "I'll see you tomorrow evening."

She just caught his expression as it softened into a fond smile. "Be safe, Aloy, and hunt well."

Talanah and Ligan were both waiting outside when she turned the corner to their street. The former was practically bouncing with just as much excitement as she felt, and Aloy couldn't help the wide grin she gave as she picked up her pace to meet them.

"Hey, Aloy!" Talanah laughed as she grabbed her for a quick hug. "Right on time. Wouldn't expect any less from you."

"You know it," she said. A bit of her good mood faded as she gave a polite nod to her father-in-law. "Ligan."

"Good morning, Aloy," he greeted. "Well, the Sun waits for no one. Are you two ready to depart?"

"I was ready yesterday," Aloy replied cheekily.

"Well, then." Ligan held out a hand. "After you."

The trio took a different path out of the city than her and Nil had on their trip. Rather than descending into the Jewel, they traversed the bridge Aloy had initially come into the city on. Unfortunately, the guards posted there didn't initially show their group the same respect they had when her husband had been present—instead, they sneered and whispered amongst themselves inaudibly, until one of the wiser ones pointed out who she was and they all fell into nervous silence.

Aloy set her mouth in a firm line as they passed, making sure to hold her head high. Good. Let them fear Nil hearing of how they mocked and jeered at her. Although she would never dream of telling him about any of this—dirty looks and insults didn't warrant the certain death of a duel with him—it pleased some dark part of her to know that her association with him made them quiver in their boots. It was power in a situation where she hadn't often had any, even if it wasn't her own. Maybe one day, their deference would be based on her actions, and her actions alone.

Once they had crossed the bridge, the party turned east and towards the desert. Aloy's curiosity grew with each mile traveled—especially since Talanah hadn't revealed what they were to be hunting on this trip.

"So, what's out this way?" she asked after they were a few miles from the city.

"Eh, just lots of herds of the less aggressive machines," Talanah said with a shrug.

Aloy frowned, a little insulted. "What, you don't think I'm capable of handling anything more than that?"

"I know theoretically what you can do, but I've made a habit of trusting my own eyes with these things," Talanah explained. "Don't take it personally. There are a few Behemoths around, though, if you're looking for something more challenging after we take out some of the smaller prey."

She spared a furtive glance back at Ligan, and then lowered her voice. "Is it because of him? Are you worried for his well-being?"

"By the Sun, not at all," Talanah laughed. "Look, I know you two got off to a rough start, but don't let that—or his age, for that matter—color your opinion of him completely. Ligan is one of the finest hunters the Lodge has ever seen. I'm pretty sure the old man can still move if he needs to."

"I guess that makes sense," Aloy admitted. "Nil had to get his talents from somewhere."

"Oh, yeah. Before he even went into the military, Sahad went along with Ligan on hunting trips much like this one." Talanah tilted her head in thought. "He's been at it for a long, long time. I'm pretty sure he received his first bow when he was four, actually."

Aloy blinked in surprise. "Four? That's even younger than I was."

"Machine hunting is a time-honored pursuit among Carja noble families, especially those with several generations of Hawks in their bloodline," Talanah said. "Before the Derangement, even the younger members of the Radiant House used to partake. Oh! Speaking of which…"

Talanah leaned in, and Aloy raised an expectant brow.

"Kadi wanted me to apologize on his behalf," she said in a hushed voice. "For what happened that night we were drinking with you and Sahad."

"What for?" Aloy asked, confused. "And he couldn't do this himself why, exactly? We've seen each other a few times since."

Talanah rolled her eyes. "His Highness finds it difficult to apologize in person. Don't take it too hard. He's always been like this. Probably has something to do with his image."

"Sounds like him," Aloy muttered. "Again, what did he feel the need to apologize for? Getting too drunk and calling us all chuffs?"

"Nah, that's normal for him," Talanah said with a wave of her hand. "It was about how he behaved with Sahad. He told me to tell you that it was out of line, and he should have been more respectful of your relationship."

"Okay, first of all, how much of this apology was inspired by you?" Aloy questioned wryly.

Talanah shot her a sideways grin. "Surprisingly little this time."

"Second of all," she continued, "No apology is necessary. It's none of my business what Nil chooses to do."

"So, how long have you been doing this?" Talanah hummed.

"Doing what?"

"Lying to yourself."

"I'm not lying to myself about anything!" Aloy cried. She winced, glancing back at Ligan (who thankfully, remained as unperturbed as Nil tended to) before lowering her voice again. "Really. It's fine. Tell Kadi not to worry about it."

Talanah snorted. "Uh huh. That's why you were the perfect picture of jealousy."

"We're not talking about this," Aloy said flatly.

"Whatever you say."

Even though she dropped the subject, the other noblewoman's face was a picture of sly knowing. Forcing herself to tear her gaze away, Aloy set her jaw and focused on the road ahead.

And definitely not on her husband and how much she secretly wished that she had been the one receiving his attention that night.

To Aloy's relief, a sizable herd of machines came into view over the next bend, nestled in a slight valley where the verdant jungle was just beginning to fade into the drab desert. As Talanah had said, there was nothing particularly dangerous in the mix - the group was mostly composed of Grazers, Striders, and a couple of endlessly pacing Watchers, all washed in the glare of the rising sun. The biggest threat was a pack of Scrappers scanning the terrain to the south, and the vicious little machines barely qualified as one in her opinion.

Still, this was what Talanah had expressed an interest in hunting this morning. With a resigned sigh, Aloy unhooked her bow from her back and turned to face her hunting partner expectantly.

"Is this what you wanted?"

Talanah's eyes scanned over the herd before she nodded in satisfaction. "Yup. Looks perfect to me."

"I believe this is my cue to leave you two ladies to your devices," Ligan interjected from behind them. He patted the bag draped over his hip. "There's a nice, shaded grove of palm trees over there where I can perhaps get some work done and observe."

"Sounds good," Talanah replied. "We'll let you know if we need anything, or if one of us is grievously injured or anything like that."

There was an edge of humor in his grey eyes. "I don't think it will come to that, but just in case, I did bring medicinal herbs and bandages."

Aloy watched him wander off and sit neatly beneath a broad-leaved tree before turning back to Talanah.

"Well, I suppose we ought to get to it if we actually want to fight something challenging today."

As both women lowered themselves to the earth and began to creep forward into the sheltering brush, Talanah said, "You can't just go after the big ones all the time, Aloy. What if you need a part from a specific machine or to help someone else out on the road? It's important to keep all of your skills sharp, and that means occasionally going out of your way to practice on the little ones."

"Is this about me, or about you and your goal of becoming Sunhawk?"

"It's relevant to both of us," Talanah shot back, making sure to keep her voice low. "I understand that being unable to hunt for so long has made you eager, but it's important not to get overzealous, because that can easily lead to making very stupid decisions."

"This is rich coming from someone who wants to tackle Redmaw all by herself," Aloy muttered.

"As a matter of fact, I don't want to fight Redmaw alone anymore." When Aloy looked her way, Talanah was staring at her pointedly. "I met another hunter with a lot of potential, realized that going at it alone would be one of those very stupid decisions I mentioned, and reevaluated. I have no problem admitting I was wrong."

"I don't have a problem admitting I'm wrong," Aloy protested. "Really. I've done it before."

"Like when?"

"Like…" Aloy furrowed her brow in thought. "Okay, you have a point that it hasn't happened recently. But to be fair, I've been right about most things since I've come to Meridian."

Except for your husband, her brain reminded her unhelpfully.

Talanah didn't say a word in response, but the way she was fighting a self-satisfied smile had Aloy glaring at her.

The pair had reached the edge of their chosen tangle of tall grass, and thus fell silent as they watched the movements of the herd. Aloy's fingers rose automatically to her Focus, but stopped centimeters away. Seeing as all of these machines were native to the Embrace, their behaviors and weaknesses were as familiar to her as the back of her hand. With a little bit of keen observation, she could memorize the Watchers' patrol paths. Activating her Focus would strip what little potential challenge this fight would have away, and she wasn't about to waste a rare opportunity to get out and hunt. Her mind made up, her hand dropped back down to her bow.

A Watcher took that moment to head in their direction, its path taking it a mere two feet from the grass line. Aloy knew a perfect opportunity when she saw one. Setting her bow on her back as quickly and as silently as possible, she instead grabbed at her new spear.

"I'll take down that Watcher to start," she whispered.

"And once all hell breaks loose, I'll try to cut off as much of the herd as I can before they can escape," Talanah replied in a hushed voice, an excited grin tugging at her painted lips as she elbowed Aloy's arm. "To a good hunt."

"A good hunt," she echoed.

The Watcher stepped in front of Aloy's line of sight, and she struck.

The takedown was magnificent. Sparks flew as she buried her spear into the machine's wiry innards, and it went down with a mechanical groan. As expected, a nearby Grazer alerted to the motion and noise, its light turning from blue to red as it jerked its head towards the duo. The rest of the herd followed suit, a sea of blinking yellows and reds, and a few of the more skittish ones attempted to make a break for it.

But Talanah was faster—much faster. Aloy watched in awe as the noblewoman's assault of arrows had several escaped Grazers skidding to a stop before barrelling around in a panic and galloping in the opposite direction - where they met her own volley of arrows. A couple crashed to the ground, sending clouds of sand puffing into the air. Despite the ease of her prey, the adrenaline which coursed through her veins had a triumphant grin bursting over her face.

"Aloy! To your right!"

As usual, there wasn't time to celebrate. The Scrappers to the south—four of them, by her count—had finally closed the gap between themselves and the rest of the herd, and they wasted no time in leaping at the women, metal claws extended. Spear in hand, Aloy whipped around and skewered one in the throat in midair. It flailed its mechanical limbs uselessly as she summoned all of her strength and threw the machine off somewhere to the side, the motion tearing a wide gash in its metal hide. It landed with a loud crash.

Talanah finished picking off an errant Strider attempting to escape before turning her attention to the three remaining Scrappers. They weren't the most intelligent of beasts, but they more than made up for this deficit with the ferocity and swiftness of their attacks. Both women made a point to stay light on their feet, dancing around the machines and dodging when necessary - and that meant a lot. To her surprise, Aloy found herself struggling to draw breath, and she once again cursed how soft and out of shape city life had made her.

Maybe Talanah had a point about keeping even her basic skills sharp.

One attempted to lunge at Talanah, but she rolled out of the way neatly and exchanged her bow for the glaive she had once explained to Aloy that she favored in a lightning quick motion. With polearms in hand, the two stabbed and sliced their way through the remaining Scrappers. Aloy made short work of a particularly bouncy one, waiting for it to slip up and fly just a hair wide of her before pinning it to the earth with the blade of her spear and a triumphant cry.

The last one was no match for the barrage both Talanah and Aloy assailed it with, and after only a few well-placed strikes, it too came to a grinding halt, a thready wisp of smoke escaping its carcass like a last gasp.

Twirling her glaive around, Talanah gave a loud exhale as she pounded the blunt end into the dusty earth.

"What did I tell you?" she said with a beaming grin. "Plenty of action to be had, even with the little ones."

"I guess it wasn't that bad," Aloy admitted.

Her grin fading somewhat, Talanah lifted her eyes to the clear blue skies, as though she was worried it might rain.

"Well, come on. Let's strip these guys for parts before we decide what to do next."

With a smile of her own, Aloy got down to business. Her first target: a relatively untouched Grazer lying folded in on itself a few meters away.

"So, in your expert machine hunter's opinion, how did I do?" she asked, once her hands were buried wrist deep in the belly of the machine.

Talanah hummed thoughtfully over the Scrapper she started with. "I'd say that if you were that skilled at navigating court, you'd have even Jiran charmed by now. So, pretty great."

She barked out a short, humorless laugh. "Yeah, the first and only time I went to court was a total disaster. It's not like it matters anyway. Hunting is the only skill I've ever really needed."

"I think it matters a lot in your current circumstances, actually," Talanah rebutted. Aloy caught her eyes narrowed in thought as she looked her way. "You know, I'm pretty good at putting on that boar shit 'delicate lady' act. Want some friendly advice?"

At Aloy's doleful look, she held up a hand. "Hey, I guarantee it will make your next visit to the Palace of the Sun way less painful."

"All right," Aloy replied reluctantly. "It's not like I have anywhere else to be anyway."

"There's more than one way to be strong, Aloy," Talanah chided. "Not everything in this world revolves around fighting. Sometimes, talking and turning on the charm is what you actually need to survive. In the Sun-Court, it's vital. The excuse of 'savage Nora who doesn't know any better' will only appease that decrepit fuck sitting on the throne for so long."

Despite herself, Aloy felt her lips pulling into a smile at her friend's candor. "If you're implying I'm not charming, I already knew that."

"But you can pretend to be," Talanah insisted. "Believe me, I know what it's like to have those assholes looking down on you. They want you to get upset. They want you to do something outrageous, because it's just more gossip to fuel them. My advice? Beat them at their own game."

"And how exactly would I go about doing that?"

"Be the picture of politeness, grace, and poise," Talanah answered. "Wear your finest dress—but never the same one twice—every time you're ordered to go. Ignore or redirect any insults. Always keep your head, and above all else, remember that this is one big game to them. You can view it the exact same way as a battle, honestly. It's all about strategy, and if you play your cards right, the night will eventually end, and you'll walk out of there with your head held high and your dignity intact."

Aloy nodded slowly. "Yeah. That all makes a lot of sense, and...honestly doesn't sound so bad. Maybe it could even be a little fun." She studied her friend with a frown. "You know, I'm starting to see what Kadi meant."

Talanah's steady hands faltered for a moment. "What do you mean?"

"You would have made a hell of a Sun-Queen."

"I did spend the first part of my life getting ready for that role, you know," Talanah said lightly. The tautness of her face, however, belied her tone.

"Does it bother you?" Aloy asked softly. "That all of that got taken away from you?"

"No." Talanah shook her head. "At least, not the title part. I wasn't particularly attached to the idea, but I was always okay with it."

"Kadi, then."

"That obvious, huh?" Talanah laughed weakly.

"Oh, yeah," Aloy said emphatically. "To everyone."

"I won't lie to you. I'm not ashamed to say that I've been in love with him for a long time, and there's nothing that can be done about it." She dug into the Scrapper with more vigor. "Kadi feels the same, as if he hasn't made that abundantly clear. But he doesn't want to put me in danger by pursuing anything, and I get that, I really do. But sometimes…"

"You wish things could be different," Aloy finished for her before brightening. "And they could be, once Jiran dies—"

Talanah gave a firm jerk of her head. "I don't like to think about what-ifs and longshots. It's likely that Kadi will be married to someone else long before that happens. I made my peace with that fact a long, long time ago." She shrugged. "So hey, let's not dwell on this."

"Talanah—"

"You know, since you're prying into my personal affairs," she interrupted loudly, "let's talk about yours a little. Specifically of the Sahad variety. Fair's fair."

Rubbing at her nose with the back of an oil-streaked hand, Aloy groaned. "I already told you, there's nothing to talk about."

"That act isn't going to work on me," Talanah said bluntly. "I was honest about Kadi, and now it's your turn to be honest about Sahad."

"You want the truth?" Aloy snapped, throwing up her hands. "Fine. The truth is, I don't know what it is I'm feeling. There are parts of Nil that are awful. The way he enjoys killing other people, downright revels in it and it—it's revolting. I was sick the first time I saw it." Her shoulders slumped. "But at the same time, I see the good in him. His sense of justice and honor, the things he does for me, the way he cares about me...he makes me feel things I've never felt before, and I'm so confused. For the first time in my life, I have no idea how to move forward, and I hate it more than anything else I've ever been faced with."

Talanah was silent for the span of several seconds before speaking up again.

"You're falling in love with him." Her gaze was sympathetic when Aloy managed to bring herself to look at her. "It feels pretty awful being so stuck, huh?"

Hearing those words spoken out loud wasn't as startling as she would have thought. Frightening yes, but unsurprising.

Because deep down, in her heart of hearts, Aloy knew that Talanah's words were the truth. And that maybe she had known that for longer than she was willing to admit to herself.

Swallowing back her unease at this revelation, she nodded. "Yeah."

"I won't tell you how to move forward," Talanah said. "That's up to you and Sahad to decide when the time comes. But as your friend, what I can do is make sure you're prepared for certain...hm…eventualities."

Perplexed, Aloy tilted her head to the left. "Eventualities?"

"Put delicately, there are herbs that women take which can prevent us from becoming with child," Talanah explained. "I can pack some up for you when we get back."

"All-Mother, no!" Aloy cried. "That's not necessary. Nil and I aren't going to - "

"Remember what I said about stupid, ill-thought out decisions?" Talanah's deep brown eyes were piercing. "Even if you don't think it'll happen, it's always better to be prepared."

Burying her face in her hands, Aloy rubbed at it vigorously. "You're not going to let this go, are you."

"Nope."

"Fine," she huffed. "Whatever. I'll take the stupid herbs, even though I'm never going to go to bed with him. Are you happy?"

"Once a day, preferably in the evening," Talanah advised. "And they take a few weeks to be effective—usually until your next moon cycle—so nothing before then."

Aloy rolled her eyes. "I really doubt anything is going to happen in the next few weeks, but sure. Great. Thank you."

"You're very welcome," Talanah replied cheerily. "Now, let's get back to taking these apart—"

A chorus of ear-piercing cries cut her off, and she was on her feet in less than a second. Alarmed, Aloy jumped up as well.

"Shit," Talanah cursed under her breath, scanning the skies as she had earlier, and Aloy knew now she hadn't been looking for rain. "Glinthawks. Should've known they'd be attracted by the downed machines."

Aloy had only seen the small, bird-like machines from afar once, during her journey to Meridian. From listening to Radid's discussion with his men, she was aware that they mostly scavenged scrap metal but had a nasty host of attacks, including the ability to shoot gobs of frozen Chillwater at their target. Essentially, they were tinier, colder Stormbirds that usually traveled in packs of three or more.

Knowing that she would need the range, Aloy grabbed for her bow. "Where?"

"It sounds like that came from the east." Talanah squinted into the early morning sun. "I can't quite see, though..."

As soon as she finished speaking, a startled yell reached them, and the two women looked at each other with wide eyes.

"Ligan," Aloy breathed.

Without waiting to see if Talanah was following, she booked it out of the valley and back up the hill. Her friend called after her, but between the blood pounding in her ears and the intensity of her anxiety, she could barely hear it. All Aloy could think, over and over again, was how destroyed Sahad would be if he lost his only remaining family.

The sight that greeted her as she crested the hill only spurred her panic onward. Three Glinthawks hovered in the air above her father-in-law, snapping and firing off the occasional burst of ice. Ligan had brought a bow—leaving the safety of the city without one was considered beyond stupid—and he had it aimed at the glowing center of one of the machines, looking more irritated than anything else.

Why he wasn't more afraid, Aloy didn't know. She jumped into action without giving it much of a second thought, nocking an arrow as she ran. The projectile pierced through the air, missing the center and pinging harmlessly off the metal hide of the machine. Still, it was enough to get its attention off of Ligan; the Glinthawk twirled around to face her, making her its target—but also allowing her a much clearer shot.

Unfortunately, the machine was fast. Before she could even think to grope around for another arrow, it dived at her in a similar way as the Stormbird had. Aloy leapt out of the way just a hair too late; one of its claws managed to catch on her back, shredding the fine silk of her hunting top and digging a gash into her skin. Hot pain exploded from the wound, and she had to shake her head to clear the wooziness from it.

The Glinthawk gave her zero time to regroup. Icy projectiles rained down on Aloy from above, and although she was able to dodge out of the way of each one, the cut on her back stung and throbbed with every movement. Gritting her teeth against the biting pain, she fired off a couple more arrows, at least managing to hit it in its core this time.

But it wasn't enough. The machine was nearly unaffected, and to add insult to injury, a second one tore away from Ligan to pursue her. Unlike with the Stormbird, she hadn't given herself the time to observe and scan with her Focus, so she had no idea what kind of arrows to use or what any of its weak points were. Just as she was beginning to realize she might be in for a long fight, her father-in-law's voice rang out, confident and strong.

"Aloy! Get down!"

Figuring she ought to listen, Aloy dove to the ground. Seconds later, a resonant boom sounded above her, the force of it shaking the pebbles beneath her. A couple more crashes followed, although the noise from these was much less deafening.

Not wanting to waste anymore time taking out the rest, she hauled herself back up, bow and arrow at the ready - only to find three Glinthawk carcasses surrounding her and a frowning Ligan stalking towards her, bag in hand.

Aloy stared at him, at the disabled machines, at a grinning Talanah sidling up to them, her eyes as wide as dinner plates. "Wait—what? How? Did you—"

"I believe I saw that you were injured," Ligan interrupted her. "May I take a look?"

"Yeah, I—sure." Obediently, she turned, her mind still charging as fast as an ornery Strider. "What did you do? I didn't see a Blaze canister. How did they explode like that?"

"Fire arrows in their core," Ligan responded. "If you time it right, you can take out more than one at a time. It was a trick I used often as a young man." He paused, his fingers pressing into her back lightly. "May I?"

Aloy nodded, then hissed out a breath between her teeth as he prodded at the edges of the wound.

Ligan pulled away at once. "My apologies."

"Oh, don't be so dramatic," Talanah teased, having finally reached them. "That's nothing."

Aloy shot her a dirty look. "Would you like one too? Because I can make that happen."

"Let's not fight, ladies," Ligan said, amused. "Now, Aloy, if you'll come with me, I can apply a poultice and bandage and you'll be no worse for the wear. Thankfully, it's not deep enough to require stitches."

"I think I'll take care of stripping these machines," Talanah said, already edging away. "You know, before more Glinthawks decide to show up and someone else gets wounded."

Giving her friend one last exasperated look, Aloy tagged along after Ligan. He led her to the cluster of palm trees he had been sitting beneath, clucking his tongue and planting his hands on his hips as he examined the mess of scrolls scattered over the earth.

"How tiresome. Everytime I endeavor to complete some paperwork, I'm interrupted. If it's not man, it's machine." He turned to face Aloy, a kind smile replacing the annoyance on his face as he gestured to the ground. "Please, sit. This won't take long at all."

As promised, Ligan was efficient. Whatever poultice he had created was an effective one, too; the instant the cool mixture of herbs touched Aloy's skin, some of the pain in the cut numbed, receding back until she could barely feel it anymore. She hadn't realized how tightly the pain had wound her until then, and her shoulders drooped as her muscles loosened.

"Thank you for saving me back there, and fixing me up now," she said hesitantly, as he pressed a fresh bandage into her back. "I thought I was going to be the one saving you and, well…"

"Think nothing of it, Aloy. I'm only fulfilling my duty to you," Ligan responded. "And I may not be as spry as I once was, but these old bones still remember how to hunt. I became a Hawk for a reason, you know."

"Yeah," Aloy chuckled. "I see that now. I guess I shouldn't have let appearances deceive me."

Having finished his task, Ligan stood and offered her a hand up. Without any reservations, she took it, even managing to summon a genuine smile.

Perhaps her father-in-law wasn't so bad after all.

The next afternoon saw the group heading back into Meridian. In light of Aloy's wound and much to her chagrin, they had decided to take it easy for the rest of the previous day. Talanah had suggested that if she wanted to have a full hunt next time, she ought to be more careful, and earned a sharp elbow to the ribs for her trouble.

Still, they managed to get a decent enough hunt in the next morning. A couple of Sawtooths happened to wander by their campsite, and with fire arrows at the ready, Aloy and Talanah rushed into the fight with renewed zeal. No further injuries were suffered, but Talanah's pride may have been a tad wounded when Aloy stole the killing blow out from under her nose.

Now, with her bag laden with all sorts of spoils from the hunt (and the herbs Talanah had insisted she start taking), Aloy pushed into the front door of her home with a groan.

As expected, Nil wasn't yet home. Pushing back her disappointment, Aloy trudged up the stairs, finding herself more exhausted than she would have expected. Once in her room, she threw her bag to the side, the machine parts within rattling noisily against one another. She made to get into bed, but something gave her pause.

Pursing her lips, she turned her attention back to the bag.

And stared.

Finally, with an irritated sigh, she yanked the flap open and pulled out the sizable silk bag of herbs. Undoing the drawstring, Aloy peered inside cautiously, as though it contained a venomous snake.

"Yup, these are herbs, all right," she muttered to herself stupidly.

Before she could second guess herself, Aloy reached in, pinched out the serving Talanah had advised her to take, and swallowed down the bitter leaves.

Chapter Text

When a couple of polite knocks sounding at her bedroom door woke her later that evening, Aloy's first conscious thought was slight irritation with herself for falling asleep. Stifling a yawn and blinking the sleep from her eyes, she sat up gingerly, careful to not agitate the cut on her back.

"Come in," she called.

The door creaked open, and Nil entered, wearing his day clothes and a fond smile.

"Aloy," he greeted warmly. "May I sit?"

She nodded blearily. "Go for it."

"You must have had quite the adventure to have taken a nap," Nil commented as he stepped around to her side of the bed and lowered his weight onto the mattress. He opened his arms for her, and Aloy leaned into his familiar embrace. "I've only known you to do that when you're drinking."

"Eh, it was all right. Not the most exciting of quarry, but—oh, ow."

Nil's arms had wound around her, their weight just barely resting on her, but it was enough to send ragged streaks of pain shooting through the nerves into her back. At her utterance and resulting wince, he pulled away from her quickly.

"What's this?" He frowned, looking her up and down slowly. "Huntress, you look as though you're in pain—wait, are you wounded?"

Aloy sighed. There was no getting anything past her husband, so she might as well come out with it.

"Yes. I was too slow and got snagged by a Glinthawk claw on my back. It really isn't that bad, especially after Ligan took care of it. Didn't need to be stitched or anything like that."

Nil's lips curled. She immediately regretted her loose tongue.

"Did he now? And he couldn't have helped you fight it off before you were injured?"

"As a matter of fact, he did," Aloy snapped. "For your information, he saved my ass by downing three at once. It was pretty amazing, actually."

To her utmost surprise and contrary to all of his previous reactions to anything involving his father, Nil backed down.

"I—I see." He took a slow, deep breath. "Well...that's good, I suppose. The old man's always been a skilled hunter, and I can't fault him too much for using said skills to help you. And I know how quality his herbal mixtures are, having been on the receiving end of them many times."

"Yeah," Aloy said, offering him a tentative smile. He seemed to be trying, and at that moment, it was more than enough. "Whatever he used fixed me right up, and I was even able to hunt a couple of Sawtooths this morning with Talanah."

Nil inclined his head towards her bag, still resting on the floor. "And you brought home plenty of spoils, I see."

"Nothing too special," she said. "Just some supplies that might come in handy for arrow-making."

"Special it not, it saves us some shards and a trip to the markets," he said with a shrug. "Well done."

Pride pulsed through Aloy at the praise, as minor as it was, and her gaze dropped to her lap as her cheeks heated.

Stupid. Just because you acknowledged that you might have feelings for him doesn't mean you need to act like a love-addled adolescent.

"Regretfully, I come bearing news of the undesirable variety," Nil said after a few beats. "Two items, actually."

Aloy eyed him dolefully. "What now? Am I to be thrown into the streets? Gored by one of your kestrel friends? Married off to Jiran?"

That got an amused huff out of her husband. "No, no. As if I'd let any of that happen. But if that's what you consider bad news, then what I actually have to say will be a pleasant surprise."

"I'm listening."

"Firstly, we have another mandatory court appearance coming up in less than a fortnight." At her groan, Nil laid a placating hand in her arm. "Now, now, huntress. His Radiance has probably already moved on to some other diversion for entertainment, so I'll doubt he'll pay you much mind this time. As with most royalty, boredom is quick to set in for him."

"Well, it turns out Kadi got something from his father after all," Aloy said archly, before shaking her head. "Honestly, it's not a big deal. Talanah and I had a talk about court while we were hunting, and I think it's going to go much better this time around."

"Good." There was a pressure on her forearm as Nil squeezed, and it had her eyes rising to meet his. "As long as you understand that I must behave as I did last time, and that I mean none of what I say."

At the apprehension clear on his features, she offered him a reassuring grin. "I get it. I'll just have to bite back this time around. Well, at least around the other nobles."

"Ah, while I look forward to what sport that will make, try not to allow yourself to become too feisty," Nil advised. "Otherwise I'll be accused of growing lax with your leash."

"And wouldn't that be the worst thing that could happen," she muttered.

"It would be if Jiran was feeling particularly creative with his discipline that evening," he said, a frown tugging at his lips.

Aloy rolled her eyes. "Don't worry. I'll behave. Mostly."

Nil sat back, apparently pleased. "Glad to hear it."

"So, what's the second thing you needed to tell me?"

Worry returned to his face. "Ah, yes. That." A light blush, of all things, spread over his cheeks. "It's in regards to our marriage."

Crossing her arms, Aloy waited patiently for him to continue.

Nil cleared his throat. "In a month's time, we will have been wed for half a year."

"Huh, I suppose it has already been that long." She furrowed her brow. "Is that period of time significant to the Carja for some reason?"

"Only for married couples," he said carefully. "After six months, most wedded women are already with child. If one is not, certain rituals must be performed in the Temple of the Sun. This particular one wasn't always required, but since Jiran has taken the throne, his desire to grow the Sundom's army by any means necessary has eclipsed everything else."

"It's not like we've done anything that would actually lead to a child," Aloy said, amused. "In any case, a ritual doesn't sound like that big of a deal. Even if it means seeing that awful priest who married us again."

Some of Nil's tension broke for the moment. "You have no idea how much I wanted to sink my blade into his guts for the way he treated you."

"You know, I'm not sure if that would have been a better or worse first impression," she hummed. "So, what's the ritual?"

The words came out in a rush. "After being blessed by a Sun-Priest, we must take a ceremonial bath together and come together under his, ah, guidance."

Aloy blinked, then straightened her spine very slowly.

"Wait. 'Come together?' Is that just a nice way to say—"

"That I am expected to bed you with another man in the same room." To his credit, her husband appeared weary and disgusted both. "Yes, Aloy. That's exactly what I mean."

She wrapped her arms around herself, as though she were already bare. "Are you serious? I've never—I can't—Nil, being naked and bathed by another woman was difficult enough for me."

"He won't actually be watching," he reassured quickly. "There's a screen, and I believe that with enough...creativity, I suppose, we could lead him to believe that we are coupling."

"So you want us to fake sex," Aloy deadpanned.

"Would you rather us actually perform the ritual as intended?" he shot back.

The real answer to that question was far more complicated than Aloy would have preferred, but she managed to spit out a sharp, "No."

"That's what I thought." Removing his hand from her, Nil slid off the bed. When he turned to face her, his expression held nothing but kindness as he offered her a hand. "Now, if you'd like to join me downstairs, I've brought home dinner. Fish stew tonight."

The warmth of her husband's hand burned her as Aloy allowed him to help her up, and she did her best not to think about how, in a few short weeks, he'd be standing in front of her much like this—but entirely naked.

-

As Aloy stared up at the lamp-lit Palace of the Sun, she was entirely devoid of the apprehension she had felt the first time she had come here all those months ago. Rather, a sense of determination and confidence swelled up within her. This time, she wouldn't quail under the jeering of pompous noblemen and haughty noblewomen. With Talanah's advice fresh in her mind and her finely-garbed, intimidating husband on her arm gazing out over the gathered crowds like a cold sentinel, she vowed that she wouldn't show any of these people even a suggestion of weakness ever again.

Queuing up tested her immediately, just as it had last time. A well-endowed noblewoman didn't even attempt to hide her distasteful glance before leaving over to her friend and whispering audibly about Aloy's color choices being far too gaudy for the occasion.

Well, it was as good a time as any to test her new strategy.

"My, Sahad, it's as though some of these ladies lack the services of a skilled tailor like Theradine," she said, very loudly. "Are tops not supposed to contain breasts, not practically split them in half?"

Nil vibrated quietly at her side, the motion only cresting in intensity when the noblewoman shot a scandalized look her way.

"I have to say, the cut of your tongue is admirable, huntress," he murmured in her ear, his voice quivering with suppressed laughter. "That ought to keep them quiet for two minutes, at least."

"If only," Aloy muttered.

Sure enough, her peace only lasted maybe thirty seconds before a nobleman with a head of dirty blonde hair streaked with white approached them, his face red and twisted with fury. Beside her, Nil straightened to his full height.

"Sahad Khane Argir," he snapped. "Mind telling me why you haven't muzzled this wife of yours yet? It's awful enough that she's allowed to be at court, and now she's insulted my daughter so crudely. I won't stand for it!"

This man was either very brave or very stupid. If Aloy had to guess, it was probably a little bit of both.

"And what would you like me to do about it, Jahidin?" he rumbled. "Because, savage or not, you've now insulted my wife and myself. Would you fancy a duel, perhaps? I'll be at the sparring rings all day tomorrow if you can summon enough courage to face me."

"Don't test me, boy," he snarled. "I may just take you up on that offer."

"Oh, I sincerely hope you do," Nil said silkily. "Although I'm not too certain how you believe you'll be triumphant. Pray tell, when was the last time you even picked up a blade?"

Beneath his beard, the man grew even redder.

"As sure as the Sun's rising, the Sun-King will hear about this...this impertinence!" With a final jab of his finger in Nil's direction, Jahidin stalked off.

When Aloy peered up at her husband, he appeared to be entirely unbothered, as though the conflict that had just transpired had been a simple chit-chat about the weather.

"So, how often do you challenge people to duels?"

His grin was a hair too sharp for her tastes. "Far more often than you'd like, I'm sure."

Uneasiness slithered through her belly. "Yeah, I'll bet. Just...just try not you get yourself injured or anything stupid like that. All right?"

Miraculously, Nil's expression softened, and the words that followed weren't his usual teasing. "I'm one of the most skilled duelists in the Sundom's army, huntress. Don't waste your worries on me. Besides…" He gripped her arm tighter. "I've made a habit of being more restrained as of late. It wouldn't do for you to be left all alone at the mercy of a hostile tribe, hm? It's not just my life hanging in the balance anymore."

"Oh." Aloy blinked. "Thank you. I guess."

For a moment, Nil leaned forward, his intentions unclear. But in the next beat, he pulled back, something like sheepish guilt flashing over his face.

"Of course."

Strangely, despite the ballroom being as packed and as lively as it had been last time, Jiran wasn't present on his hammered bronze throne when they arrived. Before she had a chance to comment on that, however, Aloy's eyes caught on a very familiar face gliding in their direction, his golden hair unfurling like a flag behind him.

"Sahad!" Kadaman called, gesturing towards them in his usual gallant yet barely-restrained way. "You and your lovely wife—come with me, this way! I have something I must, ah, discuss with you!"

"Sun and Shadow," Nil groaned beside her. "I didn't even have time to grab a drink first."

Aloy bumped her hip into his. "What, scared of your childhood friend now?"

"More like highly irritated by," he said under his breath. With a sigh, he followed after her anyway.

"Hey, Kadi," Aloy greeted as she fell in step beside the prince. "What's going on?"

"You'll see soon enough if you follow me," he replied primly. "Out to the balcony and down the stairs to the gardens. Quickly now!"

"If this is another one of your wild goose chases for a bed partner for the evening, I swear I'll go extra hard on you the next time we spar," Nil threatened.

"Promises, promises," Kadaman tsked. "A bed partner, perhaps...only if I'm very, very lucky this evening. Now, come, my dear friends!"

Aloy shared a bewildered glance with her husband before trailing after the prince.

The staircase he led them down was attached to a balcony, a winding set carved into the side of the tower. It was a bit of a hike to get down, but the evening breeze was pleasant and the lack of traffic did good work in clearing Aloy's head. By the time they reached the bottom, she was more curious than anything else. Whatever it was, with Kadaman involved, it was bound to be interesting at the very least.

The gardens were abundant, dripping with flowering vines and ivy and full of color even in the waning light of the evening. Cobbled paths cut through neatly trimmed topiaries in concentric circles, the smallest of which surrounded a pleasantly bubbling fountain adorned in motifs featuring the Carja Sun and angular Glinthawks. Sitting on the edge of the fountain and kicking her legs idly was perhaps the last person Aloy would have expected to see here, and she lit up instantly.

Remembering to keep her voice lowered at the last second, she called out a hushed, "Talanah!"

Kadaman's grin was unabashedly wide as the noblewomen slid off the stone of the fountain to meet Aloy in an affectionate embrace. She was dressed up as well as the rest of them in tones of pale blue and gold, her shiny black hair loose for once and splashing down behind her like a waterfall. Once she had released Aloy, she stepped over to the prince's side, whose arm immediately fell over her shoulders.

Aloy raised an eyebrow. That was new.

"So, what are you doing here?" she asked. "I thought you were banned from court."

Talanah grinned cheekily. "Oh, I definitely still am. Kadi?"

"My father is not feeling well this evening, Sun be praised," Kadaman said. When Aloy perked up, however, he sombered somewhat. "Unfortunately, he will make an appearance to torment the court at some point—just not for long. In any case, it was the perfect time to sneak my magnificent lady into the palace, even if she cannot be a part of the festivities."

"As if I'd want to be," Talanah snorted.

"A bold move," Nil observed. "And perhaps a little stupid. Not unexpected coming from you, of course."

Kadaman sniffed. "Some of us are not permitted to have the object of our affection be seen by our sides publicly. Thus, we must improvise. Do not worry, my friend—I am doing all I can to keep her concealed and safe."

"And I can take care of myself," Talanah snipped, though her tone was light. "But it's sweet of you to be so concerned, Sahad."

Interestingly enough, Nil didn't protest the prince's words about objects of affection, only making a mild, noncommittal noise in response. The tips of Aloy's ears warmed, and her gaze dropped quickly to her feet.

"Regretfully, I believe we must return to the ballroom," Kadaman sighed. "If my father makes his entrance and we're not present, well...let's just say this evening will likely cease to be pleasant. Once he leaves, however, we are free to spend our time here."

"Are you sure?" Aloy asked. "I can stay out here and keep you company, Talanah."

"We were both specifically ordered to attend tonight, huntress," Nil reminded her. "Jiran expects your presence as well."

"Hey, don't worry about me," Talanah grinned. "It's a nice night, and I'd much rather be spending it outdoors than in a stuffy room full of even stuffier nobles."

"My thoughts exactly," Aloy grumbled.

As though it caused him a great deal of agony, Kadaman unwound his arm from Talanah, glancing up at the arched windows of the ballroom with an anxiety unusual for him. "Let us make our reentrance before we're missed."

With a promise to return as soon as they were able, the trio trudged back up the stone stairs, silence ringing out until Nil broke it.

"So. You and Talanah."

Kadaman's steps fumbled, before he said, "Yes. Talanah and I."

Even in the dark, Aloy could see her husband's thoughtful expression. "I would say it's about time, but I'm honestly surprised you went for it."

"I know you believe it to be foolish in times such as these," Kadaman said quietly, more serious than Aloy had ever seen him. "But I cannot deny her—or myself—any longer."

Nil's angular face was grave. "I don't need to remind you of the consequences if you're caught."

"I know." Kadaman exhaled as they came to a halt at the top of the stairs. When he turned to face them, warm light from the oil lamps sparkled on the metal of his outfit, and a pained smile was on his plush lips. "You must understand, Sahad. I would sacrifice myself a thousand times over to ensure her safety. As long as I still draw air, no harm will come to her."

Nil held his unwavering gaze for a time. Something passed between the two men, something that spoke of years of trials and friendship, and Aloy had the sense that she was intruding. Eventually, seemingly satisfied with whatever he saw there, her husband nodded firmly.

"Well, let us give ourselves up to the slaughterhouse," he drawled. "Although something tells me that one of those would be far more entertaining than this."

Despite the fact that they had only been gone for a quarter of an hour at most, when the group re-entered the ballroom, the usual whispers began. Amusingly, most of the nobles were not only aware of Kadaman's pining for Nil, but were now speculating that in space of the short time they had been gone, some kind of salacious tryst had occurred between the three of them. It was all Aloy could do to keep from breaking out into a fit of laughter, and she could see that her husband was fighting a similar outburst.

Less entertainingly, it turned out that Kadaman had been correct to usher them back as quickly as he had. Mere minutes after they had blended back in with the crowds, a royal herald appeared by the entryway to announce the arrival of the Sun-King.

He had also not been exaggerating the state of his father's health. Jiran's weathered face was drawn and mostly drained of color, and there was a sluggishness present in his movements that hadn't been there the first night Aloy had attended court. Nevertheless, his cutting cruelty remained intact when he summoned the couple to kneel before him as they had months ago.

But this time, Aloy was familiar with the game he played.

"Young Sahad," he sighed. "I see you took my advice about outfitting your wife in proper attire. Well done, boy."

Nil bowed his head further. "Thank you, Your Radiance."

"It's not as if fine clothing does much for her, but at least she cannot be considered truly offensive anymore," Jiran sniffed. "Although you ought to learn to hold your tongue if you ever want the opportunity to be rid of her. One of my advisors just informed me that this thing insulted his daughter, a well-bred lady of the court, and your immediate response when he confronted you was to challenge him to a duel. While your fighting spirit and lust for the blood of those who spite you is admirable, try not to cut a path through my staff, hm? You've already done a number on my officers, and well-trained soldiers adept in war strategy are a rare breed these days."

"Yes, Your Radiance. I'll see to it, Your Radiance."

Aloy could feel the moment Jiran turned that calculating gaze onto her. "And you, girl. Do you have anything to say for yourself?"

"No, Your Radiance," she responded immediately, making sure to keep her voice as deferential as possible.

"No, you wouldn't, would you?" Jiran scoffed. "Animals do not possess the ability to string together a complete sentence, much less a coherent one."

This time, the insult rolled off of Aloy as easily as a tumbleweed over sand. "No, Your Radiance. We do not, Your Radiance."

It was enough to appease the Sun-King—at least for now—and he settled in his seat with a slight wheeze. "At least you have intelligence enough to know your place here. Very well. I tire of the sight of the two of you, so be off."

The relief Aloy felt over the short length of the encounter must have been palpable, because once her and Nil were a safe distance away from furiously gossiping courtiers and Sun-King both, he turned to her and offered her a broad smile framed by a few locks of raven hair which had escaped from his Strider's tail. That and the way he was towering over her at his full height, so close that she could feel his breath ghosting over her face, had her heart stumbling into a sprint.

"You did wonderfully, sharp-tongued wife of mine," he said lowly, the affectionate notes in his voice mostly obscured by raucous laughter and lively music. "I hope his words didn't cut you too deeply this time."

"Nope," she said, popping her lips on the 'p'. "Really, I'm just looking forward to him leaving so we can spend some time with actual people, not these—to borrow a word—animals."

Nil's laugh was deep and pleased. "That's my girl. I'm sure it won't be too much longer." Turning back towards the crowd, he once again offered her an arm. "In the meantime, let's see about getting a drink to make this headache of an evening more bearable."

Gratefully, Aloy took it. "Definitely not opposed to that."

Unfortunately, Jiran did not retire as quickly as she would have expected. The king stuck around like a stubborn blemish, leering over the more scantily clad nobles and slaves in attendance and calling others before him for either praise or condemnation. One unfortunate soul even got dragged off to the dungeons for the crime of a slight error in his taxes, and Aloy's hatred of the man flared even hotter. It was clear that whatever ailment was plaguing him had soured his mood for the evening, so with wine in hand, she made sure to keep to the edges of the party and out of his sight.

It didn't escape her notice that Kadaman managed to slip away at some point, presumably to return to Talanah, a notion which had her sighing and pursing her lips. She could only hope that the two were at least being discreet about the affair. In between terse conversations with people whose main goal seemed to be insulting either her intelligence or appearance, Nil managed to allay some of her fears by whispering in her ear that both Sun-Princes had personal honor guards loyal to them and them alone, and they were likely concealed among the gardens, keeping watch in order to divert anyone who threatened to intrude. Still, Aloy couldn't help but worry. These were her friends' lives at stake, and she couldn't help but wonder if the pursuit of a relationship in such dangerous circumstances was truly worth the risk.

It must have been a full hour later that Jiran finally left, slowly and ploddingly. In stark contrast to the simpering and kowtowing on full display earlier, the entire room seemed to breathe a sigh of relief once he made his exit. The music hitched up in volume, the conversation grew more relaxed, and even the lamps seemed to burn a little brighter in his absence.

Aloy's relief was mixed with excitement. Eager energy subsumed her as she tugged Nil's arm in the direction of the balcony and stairway down to the gardens.

"Come on! Let's get out of here."

Nil's lopsided grin came more easily than it had all night. "As my huntress commands."

Back down the stairs they went, swallowed up by the consuming darkness a night sky vacant of the moon brought with it. Aloy had to admit that her friends had at least chosen the best possible time for their secret rendezvous, for she could scarcely see her own hands in front of her face. Thankfully, Nil's warm hand on her lower back was a reassuring guide through their trek, and he only lifted it once they had reached the bottom and the risk of taking a tumble had passed.

"What are they?" Aloy frowned as her eyes scanned the gardens, seemingly devoid of anyone but her and Nil.

"Hush," he murmured, flicking his gaze about as well. "We ought to be quiet out here, so as not to draw attention to ourselves."

"Good point."

Years of practice in the art of stealth had Aloy automatically sinking into a crouch, as though she were avoiding detection from a machine. Beside her, Nil chuckled softly.

"I don't think that level of discretion is necessary, but I can't fault you for having the proper level of caution."

Together, they crept through the gardens, the training both had received having them stepping carefully enough to dampen the sounds of their footfall, even with the obstacle of their ornate evening garb. It was tedious work, and after a full ten minutes of searching, Aloy began to feel a tad silly. Just as she was about to turn to Nil and call off the hunt, the gentle fluttering of fabric caught her eye.

There, a ways off the path and just barely visible through the protective shell of an artfully hollowed out bush, sat Kadaman and Talanah both, pressed very close together on a bench. Aloy was about to raise her hand and call out to them in greeting, when Nil's captured her arm in his grasp.

"Aloy, I don't think we should interrupt them right now," he breathed, his voice barely audible.

She made sure to keep her voice to a hushed whisper as well. "What? Why not?"

His features softened. "Well, look at them. They don't often get moments such as these, and perhaps we should allow them to have the rest of the evening to themselves."

She turned to squint at her two friends with a frown, at first unsure of what Nil was talking about. It soon became apparent, however—the couple was entirely wrapped up in one another in a passionate embrace, decorative headpieces discarded off to the side and the fine silk of their outfits wrinkled and askew. Their faces were pressed together, Kadaman looking as though he were devouring Talanah. When Aloy realized that was because his tongue was shoved into her mouth, fire burned in her cheeks, and she tore her gaze away.

As if drawn by a magnet, it landed on her husband's face instead. To find that he had already been staring at her.

Automatically, her lips parted. Silver eyes dropped down to them, the pink tip of his tongue darting out to wet his lower lip. His hand still gripped her forearm, and the gentle heat from it stoked some of the flames that had suddenly ignited in her belly.

Mesmerized, Aloy took a step closer. Nil's breath hitched as she pressed into him just slightly, but he didn't pull away as she might have expected. Instead, he continued to regard her through heavily lidded eyes, the rise and fall off his chest quickening. Slowly, she shifted her weight to the tips of her toes, craning her neck upward, closer to her husband, to his addictive warmth—

A soft moan—from Talanah or Kadaman, she wasn't sure—slicing through the night had them springing apart like guilty children who had been caught stealing sweets.

With her heart stampeding like a frenzied Strider, Aloy stared down at her feet. Mortification squeezed her in a vice grip, and she knew her face must be ablaze with blood.

Ever in control of himself, Nil recovered quickly, coming back to her side as though nothing had just transpired between them.

"With our friends otherwise, ahem, preoccupied, we ought to head out now." There was an apology—and maybe a tinge of regret—present in his tone, but it did little to soothe her in the moment. "What do you say to an early night?"

Aloy couldn't bring herself to look at him, not yet. "Yeah. Yeah, that sounds, um, great."

All Aloy could feel was a keen sense of disappointment as they made their way to the gates lining the edges of the garden and out the entryway, Nil towering ahead of her the entire way, an impenetrable shadow in the darkness.

There was no getting past it, no more useless lying to herself. She had wanted Nil to kiss her. She had wanted him to do to her the things Kadaman was doing to Talanah, to have his large hands fisted in her clothing, to feel his body flush with hers, all while he consumed her whole.

And now he seemed to be ignoring not only what they had shared only moments prior, but now her as well.

Stupid, silly tears welled up in the corners of her eyes, and she dragged a hand over them roughly, disgusted with herself.

But once they had left the palace, after they had crossed over the bridge and into the city proper, Aloy felt the brush of callused skin over her own. Startled, she jerked her eyes up to her husband, finding only kindness and affection shining from his face. She had been so lost in her own dour thoughts that she hadn't realized he had slowed his pace to match hers.

"May I?"

As if in a dream, Aloy nodded. Roughened fingertips caressed her knuckles for a brief moment before his thick fingers twined with her own. Something about the contact, as chaste as it was, felt strikingly intimate and had her mouth going dry.

It stayed that way the entire walk home. He didn't let her go until they were outside of their house, and that only happened because Aloy's eye was caught by something they had failed to notice on their way out—the first prairie rose had bloomed in one of the flower boxes.

Chapter Text

"Well, are you ready?"

Aloy glanced up at her husband, then back at the building in front of them.

"I guess," she exhaled. "No point in delaying the inevitable."

Nil nudged her arm gently with his own. "Don't look so dour, huntress. It's just me."

"Yeah. Just you and me, both entirely naked. With a Sun-Priest added in for extra fun," she muttered.

"I swear to keep my eyes firmly on your face," he said, tone as serious as it had ever been. "If it makes you feel more comfortable, I can seal the vow with my own blood." Nil patted a leather sheath at his hip. "I have my dagger right here, in fact."

Aloy wrinkled her nose in disgust. "Okay, that's really not necessary. I believe you. You don't need to smear blood on me or whatever to prove it."

His hand dropped back to his hip as he shrugged. "Fine by me. Although, if you happened to catch a glance of me…" He smirked. "I wouldn't be too put out."

With an irritated huff, Aloy stalked away from him and towards the Temple of the Sun, her cheeks blazing the entire way as she tried not to imagine what she might soon see. The instant she entered the building, however, she stopped in her tracks. So suddenly, in fact, that she felt the pressure from Nil's hands on her back as he came up short behind her and had to use her to steady himself.

Horror built in her as she took in who was waiting for them beneath a stone arch, wearing neatly pressed robes of crimson and a haughty expression.

It was the exact same priest who had married them.

"Good morning, Khane Argir," he said, completely ignoring Aloy as he dipped his head in deference to her husband. "I trust you are prepared to perform the ritual."

Nil's chilly mask slid into place as it always did around others, and Aloy braced herself.

"Yes, yes," he said lazily. "I hope this will not take too terribly long. I have many tasks to accomplish today and do not wish to spend any more time with this awful excuse for a wife than necessary."

The priest's lip curled as he spared her a glance. "I understand, my Lord. I do not relish this mockery of our holiest of customs either, and I will endeavor to be as expedient as ritual allows."

"I'll hold you to that," Nil said, holding the man's gaze with his own intently.

The Sun-Priest stepped back and tugged at his collar nervously. "Well, if you'll follow me, I shall guide your, ah, wife to the room she'll be prepared in first, and then we shall see about attending to you."

When the man turned, Nil's arrogant demeanor melted away, and he sent Aloy a crooked grin before reaching out to tangle his fingers in hers to give them a reassuring squeeze. She managed to summon her own smile in return.

Into the heart of the temple they went, the labyrinthine passages vaguely familiar even though six months had elapsed since the last time she had been led through their carved depths. In her current circumstances, it was almost comforting to think about how uncertain and afraid she had been coming here the first time around. Then, she hadn't had anyone to assuage her fears about the path that lay before her. She had been wholly alone, thrust into a strange new world she didn't understand and expected to learn how to navigate a way of life bafflingly foreign to her.

Now, Aloy had friends and a husband—people who truly cared for her, people to laugh with and confide in, people who had her back. The Carja could be odd at times and more than a little complex in regards to their customs, but if she had learned anything, it was that they were only as human as the Nora were. Meridian was huge, yes, but it was like any village in the Embrace; full of people capable of doing both good and evil, with most simply trying to carve out a quiet life for themselves in the day to day.

It was, for better or for worse, the place Aloy now considered to be her home.

As she stole a glance at Nil, a stoic and yet soothing presence at her side, she also realized how content she had become with that fact.

All too soon, they halted before a very familiar door. Aloy cocked her head as she studied it, her curiosity and confusion overriding her reluctance to part from her husband.

"I'm...taking a bath to have another bath?"

"You must be cleansed of the impurities you've brought with you first," the Sun-Priest snapped, "so you do not taint the waters we have blessed for this occasion. Now, enter."

Nil's face was mostly unreadable when Aloy glanced up at him, all but for a gentleness around the eyes. He gave her the barest of nods, her cue to do as the priest said.

Biting back a sigh, Aloy pushed open the door and braced herself for yet another awkward encounter.

The woman inside straightened from where she had been pouring some sort of oil into the streaming water, her ruddy face brightening as she caught sight of Aloy.

"My lady!" she cried. "Oh, it's so wonderful to see you again!"

"Kanah," Aloy said, surprise and joy both overtaking her.

Perhaps this wouldn't be as awkward as she initially thought.

"My, my, my," the older woman cooed, bustling forward. Stubby fingers tugged at her clothing, the going-out attire she had decided on that morning. "You look even more lovely than you did when you were first delivered to this city! What fine silks! And that hair of yours—has it grown brighter and longer?"

"It's good to see you too," Aloy chuckled, allowing Kanah to work on removing her dress. "You're looking well."

"Not as well as you." Having made quick work of the complicated fastenings, Kanah helped her out of the top half of the garment. "Married life seems to suit you, my lady."

Aloy shrugged. "Eh, I guess it could be worse."

"I would like to give you my condolences for the necessity of you being here today, however," she sighed, tugging down Aloy's dress until it fluttered down her form and pooled at her feet. "To be empty of a child after so long…my heart aches for you, truly."

"Don't worry about me," Aloy laughed. "I really don't think I'm ready to be a mother yet, so I'm not too horribly bothered."

Kanah tutted. "We take the Sun's blessings as they come. I still hold to what I said when we first met, my lady, about you being a wonderful mother, and with that handsome husband of yours...what beautiful children you'd make!"

Unbidden, the image of a tiny face boasting enormous pale green eyes and framed by black hair filled Aloy's mind's eye, a flight of fancy that was more grounded in fantasy than reality, and her heart skipped a beat.

"Maybe. I guess that's what we're here for, anyway."

Kanah patted her back in a distinctly motherly way, and Aloy almost managed a smile. "And I truly hope that the Sun shines upon you and Khane Argir this day. Before that can happen, however, we must prepare you. Undergarments off, please!"

Having another bathe her was far less uncomfortable than it had been the first time around, as distasteful as it was with the knowledge that her attendant was not here of her own accord. That fact kept Aloy from relaxing entirely and had her hands moving to complete as many tasks herself as she could. Kanah was as much of a force of nature as she had been during her wedding preparations, however, batting her hands away and insisting that she be allowed to do her job. At least the older woman let her clean her more intimate parts, just as she had before.

Once Aloy had been thoroughly soaped up, rinsed off, and toweled dry, Kanah wrapped a soft robe around her, tying the sash into a pretty little bow with expert fingers. Stepping back, the older woman examined her with pursed lips.

"Not as much preparation and prettying up as your wedding day, my lady, but I suppose that isn't important when you're soon to be bare and wet again anyway."

"Still, thank you for your hard work," Aloy said softly. "And your kindness."

Kanah beamed at her. "It's what I would do for any of my daughters, my lady." The many lines on her face softened. "Especially for one who does not have her own mother to dote on her."

Overpowering emotion welled up in Aloy, and it had her spontaneously surging forward to wrap the older woman—the first person in Meridian to have shown her an ounce of kindness—in a tight hug.

"Oh! My lady—you shouldn't—your robe!" Despite her fervent protests, after a couple of seconds had elapsed, Kanah sighed and patted at her back once again. "There, there. It's all right. Now, let us get you out of here and hope that we don't see each other again in another six months, hm?"

Forcing out a nod, Aloy pulled away from her, a little embarrassed at her sudden outburst.

"Yeah. You're right. I won't forget you either way, Kanah."

The older woman waved her off. "You have far more important matters to be worrying about someone such as me, my lady. Please, allow me to lead you to the ritual bathing chamber."

The path to said chamber was surprisingly long. Aloy was glad that the robe Kanah had dressed her in was modest, for they passed several stern-faced Sun-Priests along the way (although none of them so much as glanced in her direction). The stone floor was almost unbearably cold beneath her bare feet, having absorbed the chill of the night without having the opportunity to be warmed by the heat of the sun, and she desperately hoped that this bath that she was to be taking would actually be hot.

Finally, Kanah halted in front of a towering door carved into three vertical panels and painted with a variety of stylized people, machines, and, of course, the six-pointed Carja sun. Mildly interested, Aloy leaned forward to study it. The triptych seemed to tell the story of the founding of Meridian, with several human figures being guided to what looked like the great mesa by a Glinthawk. Before she could look too deeply, however, her guide cleared her throat, and she snapped her gaze back over to her.

"In through here, my lady. May the Sun light your way."

Bowing her head and clasping her hands in front of her, Kanah backed away slowly. Aloy watched her a moment longer before returning her focus to the door. Eagerness and trepidation warred within her, as her desire to be by her husband's side again fought tooth and nail with her anxiety over what they were expected to do and how they would successfully defy that.

In any case, it didn't matter anymore. She was already here, and the time for second thoughts had long since passed.

Setting her jaw, Aloy pushed inside of the room.

The first thing she noticed was the sheer size of the space. Vaulted ceilings arched high above, held up by sturdy walls that must have been at least thirty feet away from either side of her. Along one wall sat an ornate folding screen—where the priest would wait out the ritual, she assumed. The wall which stood opposite to her was mostly hollowed out by an archway which opened to the outside, allowing several lazy beams of late morning sun to cascade down and warm an expansive square pool cut into the center of the room. The bath was floored with a dizzyingly intricate mosaic which seemed to depict more Carja history and myth, but she didn't have time to examine it.

Because there, standing on the other side of the water and clothed similarly to her, was Nil. His raven's wing hair was tied back in a tight braid, a few strands escaping to whisper over his face. Grey eyes were warm as they swept over her form, and Aloy couldn't help but feel as though she'd already shed her robe.

"Step forward," commanded the priest from where he stood on the side of the pool to her right, "and hear the words I speak on behalf of the Sun."

Her gaze still locked on her husband, Aloy let her feet guide her to the edge of the water.

The Sun-Priest raised his arms. "O radiant, holy Sun, I beseech you to hear my humble prayer this day. Hear me as I speak on behalf of your faithful servants: Sahad Khane Argir and his wife, Aloy Khane Argir.

May your rays shine down upon man and woman both, warming and guiding them along the Sunlit path you have laid out before them. Flood the barren womb with your light, as you do with fields of maize and wheat. Coax it into accepting seed, and nurture that seed to take root and grow. Encourage that which sprouts, so that it may flower and bear the fruit of life. And when that fruit has ripened, allow it a safe entrance into this world. Shine upon this new life, so that any child resulting from this sacred union grows healthy and strong beneath your blazing beams."

The Sun-Priest lowered his arms until they were in line with the pool.

"When I step away, shed your earthly coverings and enter the water, filled with holy energy and warmth, as naked as you came into this world. As man and woman, as husband and wife, come together as is your privilege and duty, and open your bodies and hearts to the Sun's radiant, life-giving power."

Dropping his arms, the priest lifted his chin and abruptly turned on the spot, heading towards the screen on the other side of the room. Aloy watched him until he disappeared behind the wooden panels. Then, and only then, did she slowly turn her head back towards Nil.

She only found a gentle confidence and reassurance set into the angles of his face as he nodded at her. His fingers dropped to the knot in his sash, and without any other option left to her, Aloy followed suit. Together, they untied the flimsy ribbon of silk keeping their robes intact, their eyes remaining riveted to the other's the entire time.

The fabric whispered over her skin as it slid down her form, drifting down to her rest at her feet like a leaf in autumn. In the bottom periphery of her vision, she saw Nil's robe do the same.

As she took her first steps down and into the water and towards her husband, Aloy wasn't sure what she had expected to feel. Perhaps embarrassment or awkwardness. Anger at being forced into such a compromising situation, maybe. Whatever she had expected, it definitely wasn't this all-encompassing sense of peace, nor the warmth pooling in her belly at the way that Nil respectfully kept his eyes on her face the entire time.

The water was pleasantly hot as she slipped into it, tendrils of steam carrying with them whatever scented oils had been poured into it—bright citrus mixed with something earthy and sharp, if she had to guess—straight to her nose. Thankfully, the concoction also had the benefit of creating a murky sheen over the surface of the water, and once Aloy had knelt down until only her head poked out and ascertained that her body was mostly obscured, she managed to fully relax.

Hesitantly, Nil waded towards her, the water lapping at his belly button. Aloy had to suppress a grin at his trepidation. Between his armor and the way he insisted on lounging about the house without a shirt most of the time, this state of undress was at least familiar to her.

Nil didn't stop until he was about a foot away from her, and as he sank down beside her, all mirth fled from her. Aloy was acutely aware of his body—of the sharp cut of his muscles, of the way water droplets beaded and rolled down his lightly tanned skin, of the way that nothing stood between them anymore but a few scant inches.

Of the way she deeply, desperately wanted him.

"Are you all right, huntress?" he asked softly, his voice a deep caress over her ear.

Her trance broken, Aloy nodded hurriedly, sinking down further.

"You don't need to be afraid," he murmured, the words an echo of an earlier, much more uncertain time. "It's only me."

"I know," she whispered.

Nil offered her that uneven grin she so loved, and the sight alone soothed most of her remaining fears. "Shall we get started with this ruse, then?"

"I guess." Aloy peered up at him, making sure to keep her volume low. "How are we, uh, doing this?"

He shrugged. "Some moaning, some grunting, with increasing intensity over time. Normal noises made during a, ahem, spirited tryst." Her uncertainty must have been obvious, because he added, "I'll begin, and you can follow my lead. Just make sure to splash around a bit too. This doesn't have to last longer than a couple of minutes."

"That won't wound your masculine pride?" Aloy asked archly.

"Not at all," Nil replied good-naturedly. "I don't like to boast, but I'm more than capable of satisfying a partner in less time than that, anyway."

Before she could comment on that, her husband cleared his throat. Then, with a giant grin plastered over his face, he left out a soft, breathless gasp.

Aloy jumped a little at the sudden noise, and she desperately hoped that Nil would believe her resulting blush to be caused by the heat of the water rather than the needy heat suddenly roaring in her core.

At his encouraging nod, Aloy gave a quiet, uncertain little moan of her own. Something dark and sensual flickered in Nil's eyes for just a moment, and it had a delighted shiver creeping up her spine.

"That's a good girl," he groaned, loudly enough to carry throughout the room. "Keep going."

The whimper that spilled from her was wholly unintentional, as was the shifting of her thighs which caused the water to heave and ripple around her. Try as she might, Aloy couldn't get rid of the images which sprang up in her head—the hard line of Nil's body against hers, his roughened skin brushing over hers, those big hands roaming over her body, that delicious hard heat pressed into the place she needed it most.

With a hard gulp, she did her best to mentally kick those thoughts away.

"Maybe you should get creative with that tongue of yours, love," Nil suggested, his grin growing wicked.

"Sahad," Aloy tried, her voice high-pitched and desperate as the endearment, as false as it was, had her heart soaring.

Briefly, she wondered what his tongue was capable of.

His moan this time was louder, hitching as it crested in volume. Again, the noise she made in response was involuntary, and Aloy dizzily realized how little control she actually had over herself at the moment. All she knew was the heat thrumming through her veins, and it was all she could do to hold herself back from touching Nil in some way. Because if she did at this juncture, she wasn't sure if she would be able to stop, and she knew where that could very well lead.

A voice sounding suspiciously like Talanah's echoed in her head. At least you're still taking those herbs.

"Aloy," he sighed, the way his tongue curled around her name only burning her more. His fingers fluttered over the water, sending several droplets scattering over her face.

The sensation was enough to grant her a few seconds of solace, giving her enough clarity of mind to draw air into her starving lungs. Once she believed herself to be steady enough, Aloy summoned a sharp cry. Regardless of the mess of thoughts and feelings this situation was inspiring, she needed to focus so that their act could proceed as planned. She didn't want to consider what would happen if they were discovered to be faking a highly sacred ritual.

"Just a little more," Nil moaned, his chest rising and falling as his breath came in harsh pants. "Keep pleasing me, wife. Keep going."

While she fought against her more insistent thoughts of the ways she could potentially please him, Aloy could only wonder how he was keeping this façade up so easily as she matched his breathing, utterances, and splashes.

Maybe a lifetime spent around the cutthroats of the Sun-Court and the military has perfected his acting skills, she thought faintly.

Much to her relief, it seemed as though he intended to end the ritual sooner rather than later. The sounds they made crescendoed, surging in both volume and intensity, until Nil gave a wild cry which had a want bursting in her center so fierce that the gasp which exited her in response was totally automatic.

In the space of the minutes after, the only audible sound was their strained breathing, and Aloy couldn't quite tear her eyes away from him. A flush had spread over his face, and it made her already beautiful husband more attractive than he had a right to be. It was the sound of his voice, slightly hoarse but loud enough to carry across the room, which broke her free.

"We've obviously finished," he called in the direction of the screen the priest was presumably still sitting behind. "Do you require anything more from us?"

There was a shuffling before the Sun-Priest said, "No, nothing more. I will take my leave now, and you are free to take yourself dressing and exit as you please." A slight cough. "Within reason, of course."

"I can assure you I won't dally here with her," Nil said lazily. "

"Very good, my Lord. May the rest of your day be filled with light, and may you be blessed with a healthy son."

Nil kept his gaze trained on the screen until the sound of a door opening and shutting echoed throughout the chamber. As he turned back to face Aloy, bright sunlight caught on every divot of his body, every angle and curve.

Every scar.

Despite his preference for going without a top ever since their first day of marriage, Nil had made a habit of keeping his forearms and hands covered by leather bracers when he was around her. Bare before her, he could hide the jagged criss-cross of white, raised lines scattered up his limbs no longer. Aloy's eyes trailed over them, sorrow spearing through her heart with every inch traveled.

As he had before, Nil caught her looking, and that familiar panic eclipsed his expression But this time, before he could turn from her to escape, she stilled him with a hand to his bicep.

"Nil," Aloy said weakly. "These…"

He remained frozen beneath her touch. "Are nothing you need to concern yourself with, Aloy."

The warning in his tone was crystal clear, but stubborn as always, she persisted.

"Yes," she said softly, firmly, "they are."

He said nothing, did nothing, so Aloy pressed on.

"These weren't created by another's blade, were they."

"No, they weren't," Nil said quietly.

Ever so carefully, she trailed her fingers over the textured skin, her guts twisting with every new raised patch she found. "Why? Why do you do this to yourself?"

"I—" He looked away, as though he couldn't bear to face her. "Why do you care? It shouldn't matter to you.

The pleading, confused edge to his voice had Aloy's heart breaking in two. "Because I care for you, Nil. And I'd like to help. If you'll let me."

Her husband was quiet for a long time, but she had become a patient woman. When he spoke again, he seemed smaller and more fragile than she would have ever thought he could be.

"It's...a reflex I have. When I've been too long without the thrill killing brings, it's like my mind almost detaches itself from my body and my skin crawls. The only thing that seems to bring me back to reality is pain and the sight of blood, so I use my knife to inflict it on myself. It grounds me. More importantly, it keeps me sane, and helps keep my honor intact."

"Oh, Nil," Aloy whispered.

He looked back at her then, regarding her with, to her surprise, a tiny smile. "Honestly, you speak of helping me, but it's been better since you've come into my life. Your presence...and if you're not around...the animals I carve for you. Doing something with my hands helps, although not as much." Seeing that she was about to speak, he shook his head, amused. "You don't need to apologize again for tossing them into the fire. The making of them was the important part."

"You know you can come to me, right?" Aloy searched his eyes. "If you ever feel the urge to do this, to hurt yourself...we can talk about it. I'm here for you, okay? Even if I'm sleeping, you can wake me up, and I won't be upset. I'm always just the next room over."

Nil's hand covered hers, warm and grounding. "I appreciate that, huntress. And I think I'll take you up on that if it happens again." His brow creased as he gave her a pained smile. "Anything to keep that look from your eye, because I can't bear seeing you so upset, especially on my behalf."

Without a second thought, Aloy surged forward and threw her arms around her husband's neck, bringing him down for a fierce hug. It didn't matter that they were both naked, that her breasts were pressing into his chest so intimately. It didn't matter that they had both just faked coupling for an unnecessary ritual. All that mattered was that Nil was hurting, and he needed her right now.

His arms wound around her just as quickly, and he pulled her close with a choked gasp. Their embrace lacked any of the tension which had existed between them earlier; they were simply two lonely people in need of comfort, desperately seeking the company of another soul. Aloy pressed her face to his shoulder, closed her eyes, and simply breathed him in—the bath oils melding with his wonderfully familiar scent, the surprising softness of his skin, the firm anchor of his arms around her.

Eventually, a very large, very insistent part of him she had only felt once before against her hip.

In the next instant, Nil de-tangled himself from her, jerking back. Sucking in a slow, deep breath, he squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose.

"Sun and Shadow, I'm sorry. We probably shouldn't have—it's because—"

"We're both naked and pressed up against each other?" Aloy offered helpfully.

He cracked an eye open at her cautiously. "Yes. That."

"It's okay, Nil," she said, swallowing back the laugh which bubbled up within her. The levity of their current situation had dispelled some of the heaviness which had hung in the air, but she didn't want to chance upsetting him again. "I understand. It's a natural reaction, just like it was last time. I was the one who decided to get close anyway, so I feel like I should be doing the apologizing."

"Don't apologize," he muttered. "You're right. It was a very natural reaction to embracing a very naked, very beautiful woman."

Aloy blinked before slowly saying, "You think I'm beautiful?"

Nil stared at her, bewildered. "Of course I do, huntress. And before you try to argue, it's an objective fact."

"Uh, not to me." The tips of her ears heated. "Beauty isn't really something I've ever concerned myself with, and besides, all of the other nobles seem to believe I'm the ugliest woman to have ever existed. Not that it bothers me."

"The other nobles are in dire need of a functioning pair of spectacles," Nil said drily. "And in need of actual taste, for that matter. They believe themselves duty-bound to think any non-Carja to be a hideous beast, which you most definitely are not." He shrugged loosely. "Their loss, in any case."

"Oh." Aloy shifted, unsure of what to do with herself. "Thank you, I suppose. For the compliment."

"You're very welcome." With a sigh, he angled his head in the direction of the main door. "Well, I suppose it's about time to dress and take our leave. I don't know about you, but I'm finished with this horrible place."

"As you Carja say, thank the Sun," Aloy muttered.

Despite her raging desire to sneak a glimpse of what she had felt digging into her twice now, she kept herself firmly in line, making sure to face the opposite direction while she dried off and dressed. Thankfully, once she finished and turned back to him, Nil was fully clothed, and her breathing came just a little easier.

He sauntered over to her, a thoughtful look ruling over his expression. Aloy tilted her head.

"Ready to go?"

"Yes." Here, Nil hesitated. "But first, I wanted to thank you, Aloy."

"Thank me?" She furrowed her brow. "For what?"

"For putting up with all of the pompous nonsense the life of a noble brings. For playing along as perfectly as you did today. And…" The grey in his eyes was as soft as summer clouds. "Most of all, for your concern for me. No one has shown me this much regard since my mother died, and the fact that someone such as you has chosen to...frankly, it gives me more hope for myself than I've had in years."

He took that moment to offer Aloy his arm as he usually did when they went out, and she took it at once, grateful to have his touch back.

"Everyone deserves to have at least one person who cares about them," she said, her lips quirking into a smile. "I at least had that growing up as an outcast with Rost. And I'm happy to be that person for you."

Sterling eyes glimmering with too many emotions to name, Nil bent forward to press his forehead against hers. His eyes fluttered shut, as did hers, and together they shared a moment of quiet peace before leaving the temple and reentering the chaos of Meridian.

Chapter Text

"Will that be all, my lady? No extras today?"

"I think so," Aloy said to her favorite produce stall-keeper as she reached for the shard pouch on her belt. "I'm finally starting to get better at preparing food for cooking, so that means less mistakes that need to be gotten rid of."

"You're a smart one, so I knew you'd get it eventually," the keeper laughed. "Now, let's see what all you have there—potatoes, onions, squash—ah yes, that'll be fifteen shards today."

With a nod, she dipped her hand into her shard pouch. But when her fingers hit the bottom and groped around, they found only a couple pieces of metal—certainly not enough to pay for the vegetables she held.

"Damnit," Aloy sighed.

The fruit seller regarded her with a frown. "Is everything all right, my lady?"

"It looks like I'm going to run back home and grab some shards," she admitted sheepishly. "I guess I didn't realize I was running low."

"It's not a problem, my lady." He held out his hands with a friendly smile. "I can hold these for you until you get back."

"Thank you so much," she replied, handing them over. "I won't be longer than a half an hour!"

The keeper bowed his head. "Take your time. I'm here all day, after all."

After giving her fervent thanks, Aloy whirled around and headed back in the direction of home, cursing her absentmindness all the while. It had never been like her to be this distracted, but after certain recent events—well, her head had been stuck in the clouds more often than not.

Clouds of a distinctly Nil-shaped variety.

Ever since they had faked their way through the fertility ritual a few weeks ago, her husband refused to leave her mind when he was away. From the moment he left for the barracks to the time he arrived back home, no matter how Aloy tried to distract herself, the thought of him always crept back into her mind like a camouflaged Stalker. Even when she had gone on another overnight hunting trip with Talanah and Ligan, all she could think about the entire time was how much she wished Nil were also fighting at her side.

It wasn't just his friendly company she craved, either. More and more, the image of his powerful, naked body wading towards her through the bath would pop into her head at the most inopportune times. Especially the way the water droplets had rolled down the tanned curve of his chest to wet the dips of his abs, all while he gazed at her through those narrowed, darkened eyes, as though she were his prey, and his intention was to devour her—

No. Aloy would not be indulging in those thoughts right now, in the middle of crowded city streets.

They would torment her the most right before bedtime, inspiring an intense, dull ache in her center that had her shifting her thighs in an effort to relieve it. It never worked, and more often than not, Aloy would huff in frustration and flop onto her side, staring at the mosaics on her walls until she finally slipped into a troubled sleep.

Even there she wasn't safe. Flashes of skin and a silky smooth voice wove through her dreams, as though her subconscious were punishing her for mentally avoiding the subject during her waking hours. Sometimes, after the more visceral ones, Aloy would wake to find her inner thighs coated with sticky wetness. On those mornings, looking her husband in the eye was near impossible.

It had taken her long enough to admit that the feelings she possessed for Nil might be more than friendship. Now, Aloy was beginning to realize that she was no longer satisfied with the state of their relationship, and she was starting to feel the urge to do something about it. Being the type of person she was—determined to chase after what she wanted—she might have attempted to pursue him, even if said feelings were not reciprocated. She might have asked for him to kiss her, to come to bed with her, to finally relieve the tension that seemed to coil tighter every time they were together.

There was a lot Aloy might have done, if not for the fact that the concept of being his wife and mate in truth made her miserable with guilt.

Friendship was one thing. Useful, even, in her current situation. Romantic love was an entirely different beast, and the thought of what Rost's reaction would be to that development was enough to keep her up at night.

It was this subject that consumed Aloy as she rushed back home down a vacant residential street, and what distracted her enough for a pair of arms to reach out from an alleyway, wrap around her, and drag her bodily out of sight.

The cutting edge of metal Carja armor gnawed at her skin as she struggled and snarled against her captor. Strong, masculine arms covered by gloves held her firmly in place no matter how hard she kicked or writhed, and murderous rage built in her like a storm. Aloy's hand was just darting down to unsheath the dagger concealed in a fold of her outfit when her assailant finally spoke up breathlessly.

"Goddess, calm down, girl! I'm not your enemy! I'm a Seeker, just like you. The Matriarchs sent me."

It took every ounce of effort in Aloy to disengage from her fight instinct. Gritting her teeth, she flexed her hand over her knife sheath once before dropping it. Finally, the man released her from his hold.

"You couldn't have gotten my attention another way?" she hissed.

The man's eyes were apologetic against the backdrop of the deep brown skin of his face. To her surprise, he was fairly young—maybe only a few years older than her. From his well-muscled form and skill at handling her, she also guessed that he was a Brave, and a talented one at that.

"Yeah, sorry about that. Being here, away from the Sacred Lands and among the faithless, has made me really jumpy." His expression brightened. "You're an amazing fighter, though. I can see why you were chosen by the Matriarchs for this task."

Begrudgingly, Aloy allowed her guard to drop slightly.

"I know I am, although I think it's mostly because I was an outcast, and therefore expendable to them." Her eyes narrowed, her voice demanding when she said, "Besides a Seeker, who are you? How did you even get into the city?"

Taking his helmet off with a relieved sigh, he shook his dreaded hair out. Homesickness—something she hadn't felt in a long, long time—swelled up in her at the sound of clay beads clacking together.

"The name's Varl, and I already know that yours is Aloy." He stuck out a gloved hand, and she took it cautiously to shake. "It's nice to finally meet you, especially after how much I've heard about you from Teersa. As for getting into the city—well, it wasn't easy. I had to steal these clothes from an unsuspecting soldier and lie through my teeth to get in."

Aloy raised an eyebrow, crossing her arms over her chest as she looked him over. "Well, I'll give you that it's pretty impressive that you've made it this far. But why are you here in the first place?"

"I bring with me very important news," Varl said, sombering. "Not exactly good news, but news I'm sure you'll be glad to hear."

Sickly dread wrapped Aloy in its hold as she waited for him to continue, because she already had a very good idea of what this news was.

"We've gotten word through several reliable sources that the Carja are set to break the treaty and have their army march for the Sacred Lands in two weeks time," Varl informed her. "Most importantly, your mate is to be one of their leaders."

"My husband," Aloy corrected absentmindedly, her heart sending so much blood rushing to her ears that she could barely hear anything over it.

He waved a hand. "Whatever the faithless call their mating bond. Strange enough that it's an unequal partnership, but the fact that it's intended to be for life…" Varl shook his head in disgust. "In any case, you'll be relieved to know that he won't have any claim to you for much longer, because it's time for you to carry out the task for which you were sent here."

"The task I was sent here for…" Bile splashed at the back of her throat. "To assassinate him. My husband."

"Yes," Varl confirmed. He bared his teeth in a biting grin. "One less Carja, many fewer dead Nora. You're doing great work, Aloy, and Goddess bless you for it."

She said nothing, only stared at him uncomprehendingly.

Under her gaze, he shifted, tugging at the leather and metal of his armor. "I should probably be on my way back, though. There are many preparations to be completed, and as a Brave, I'm responsible for helping with a great deal of them."

"Yeah," Aloy managed. "You probably should."

Placing the helmet back on his head, Varl offered her a smile.

"When you make it back, why don't you ask around for me in the Embrace? Since you're not an outcast anymore, you'll probably need someone to show you around. You'd probably like my sister too, even though she and I don't exactly get along. She's younger than me, about your age, and it would probably be nice for you to have a friend."

She pushed out a nod. As unwelcome as the news he brought was, she had to admit that he seemed kind, and that perhaps under different circumstances, they could have become friends.

Maybe you still will be, that little voice in her head chimed.

"I'll keep that in mind, Varl."

With one last look, Varl, fellow Nora and Seeker, symbol of all she had once pined for and harbinger of that which she had been dreading, turned to go.

"Good luck, Aloy, and may the Goddess guide you."

"You too," she said dully.

Aloy wasn't sure how long she stood there in the alley staring into nothingness. The vegetables she had been meaning to purchase for the dinner she had been looking forward to preparing for Nil were long forgotten, left behind at a stall she had no intention of returning to today. She wasn't sure she would be able to stomach food anyway.

Eventually, her feet began to move of their own accord, faithfully carrying her in the direction of home. The sun was at its apex by the time she reached the front door, hours having passed since she first set out that morning to run errands in what she believed would be an otherwise unremarkable day. Automatically, she unlocked the door and pushed it in before wandering over to the couch in a haze. Carefully, she sat down. Numbly, she stared down at her hands.

"Kill him," she breathed. "I have to...kill him. Nil."

Wrapping her arms around herself as though she might fall apart if she didn't, Aloy bent forward until her forehead was nearly touching her knees. It was then, and only then, that she allowed her quickly faltering grasp on herself and the storm of emotions inside of her to finally wane.

The tears welled up immediately, accompanied by enormous, wretched sobs that tore through her body as agonizingly as shrapnel. Her breathing came so hard and fast that she could barely catch it, and with her lungs aching and burning from the effort, it felt for all the world like she was drowning.

In a certain sense, she felt as though she actually was. Awful pictures cycled through her brain at a fleeing rabbit's pace. The thought of Nil's face, lifeless, cold, and unseeing, dominated her mind's eye, no matter how hard she tried to rid herself of it. And there she was, standing over him with either knife or bow, triumphant as she wore his blood spatter like a badge of honor. It was what the Nora wanted. It was what Rost wanted.

But it wasn't what Aloy wanted, and it hadn't been for a very long time.

It was clear that, until today, she had been existing in a dream, a fantasy. This day was supposed to be far off, a hazy and undefined unreality that may or may not come to pass. It wasn't supposed to happen, at least not this soon.

"Time," Aloy choked out, through tacky saliva and bitter tears, "I was supposed to have more time."

Eventually, like all things, the tears ceased. They dried and crusted over her cheeks, hardened her fine eyelashes with their salt. She didn't bother to get up and wash her face. She didn't bother to do anything at all.

Not for a long time.

The dagger was a heavy weight in her clothing. After a while, she reached for it, her fingers closing around the leather hilt. It was smooth, well-balanced. The blade was sharpened to a deadly point. With careful aim and enough swiftness, it would kill.

Unsheathing it had a metallic zing reverberating through the air, and Aloy considered the weapon unfeelingly. Nil would be home soon, wearing the armor he had left in that morning. The armor that had dug into her as he had bent to embrace her while his palm had run over her hair affectionately. The armor that left his chest bare and unshielded.

All it would take was one good, strong thrust. With the element of surprise on her side, it would be all too easy. Nil trusted her. He would never see it coming.

Her heart in her throat, Aloy held the handle of the dagger with both hands. She stared down at it.

She waited.

It was maybe a half hour later when the click of the lock alerted her to his homecoming. Early today, then. Her grip on her blade tightened, almost to the point of pain. There was a shuffling noise, and she jumped to her feet. The door swung open, and her husband walked in.

Aloy stayed rooted to the spot, unable to move. Unable to do more than stare at him wild-eyed, her chest rising and falling as though she had just escaped a herd of machines.

Like the sun revealed by parting clouds, Nil brightened the moment he laid eyes on her.

"Huntress! What are you…doing..."

He trailed off as his eyes dropped from her face, locking onto the weapon she clutched so tightly. His hand immediately flew to the pommel of the blade at his hip.

"Aloy, what's wrong?" he asked urgently. "What happened?"

She opened her mouth, but no sound came out.

Concern flashed in Nil's eyes. He stepped forward, reached out for her, but Aloy stumbled back. His hand froze midair.

"Aloy," he said softly. "Please. Tell me what's wrong. Did someone hurt you?"

The worry in his voice was what finally freed her from her stupor. Her fingers loosened, and the dagger tumbled to the wooden floor with a loud thunk, accompanied by a dry sob. Nil was by her side in less than a second, wrapping a comforting arm around her and guiding her back down to the couch.

"Let's sit here, and you can go ahead and talk when you're ready," he murmured. "I'll wait all night if that's what you need."

The gentle whisper of his fingers over her skin was enough to almost make her break down again, but Aloy managed to maintain a grip on herself, just barely.

Nil stayed silent as she knew he would, never faltering in touching her. He was always touching her, always considering her wants and needs above all else. With his friends and her, he was a good, caring man.

But to most others, he was a terrifying monster from a child's cautionary tale brought to life. Somehow, he existed in both states at the same time, possessing so many conflicting traits that she was sometimes unsure which were more likely to ultimately win out.

Maybe neither side had to. Maybe there was a way for that monster to be tamed and harnessed for a greater purpose.

It would take trusting him more than she had ever trusted anyone before. It would mean leaving everything she had known before Meridian behind, potentially forever.

Including Rost.

It was the hardest decision Aloy had ever made, and yet also one of the simplest. For what was the alternative to the choice that she was quickly coming to accept? Kill her own husband, the man she knew now that she loved with all of her heart? Abandon her friends, those who cared for her regardless of her status in society? Both were unthinkable—as unthinkable as leaving Rost's side had once been.

An image, perfectly preserved despite nearly seven months passing since it had occurred, appeared in her mind. Of Rost standing before a gate, of a final embrace before a long journey. Of being handed a curiously heavy necklace which had once belonged to another.

Gradually, the memory faded, and Aloy said goodbye.

With her heart paradoxically heavier yet lighter than it had ever been, she lifted her eyes to her husband.

"I know. I know what's happening in two weeks."

Nil stilled.

"About the raid in the Sacred Lands," she continued, her voice carrying far more confidence than she herself felt. "About how you're going too. Don't try to lie to me about it."

Blowing out a breath, he carded a hand through his hair. "I would never outright lie to you, Aloy. I was planning on telling you tonight, in fact."

"And were you going to tell me where it was?" she asked quietly.

"Yes." When she glanced up at Nil, the only thing she found on his face was firm conviction. "You're my wife, and I—you deserve to know."

"You're going to kill people," Aloy whispered. "A lot of people. Innocents."

Nil stayed silent for a moment, his expression indecipherable. When he stood without warning, Aloy jumped a little, a harsh gasp escaping her lips when he unsheathed his blade. Fear sparked in her heart as she recoiled into the couch, wondering if the agonizing choice she had made had all been for naught. If she had been wrong about everything.

Her terror fled as he sank into a kneel at her feet, swallowed up by confusion.

"Nil?"

He held his sword out to her, pommel first.

"Take this and point it at my heart," he said, voice revealing nothing.

Without any other choice, Aloy did as he said. The curved weapon was surprisingly lightweight in her hands, and it only shook slightly as she held the tip to his chest.

Carefully, keeping his eyes on hers the entire time, Nil wrapped his fingers around the blade tightly. Her breathing quickened as blood welled up and escaped the seal created by his skin, but his expression didn't waver once.

"Aloy Khane Argir," he began solemnly, "I, Sahad Khane Argir, kneel before you beneath the all-seeing light of the Sun. With my own blood as a covenant to bind my words, I hereby make this vow to you:

When I leave the Sundom for the Sacred Lands, the land of he who raised you, I swear on my blood and House not to harm anyone who does not deserve it. I swear to stay this blade when I can, and if I cannot, to grant a quick and merciful death. I swear to impede those who cause great harm and turn this blade on them instead. With my blood to bind, I swear this all to you."

Aloy began to tremble as his words pierced her and wrapped around her heart, as his blood dropped down the polished metal of the blade and left macabre trails. He went on.

"If I fail to uphold this oath in any capacity, you may run me through with this blade—my own, therefore making my death a dishonorable one of the highest order. On my house, on my blood"—His eyes softened minutely—"on our marriage, as the Sun to bear witness, I swear it."

Gratitude, relief, and so many other powerful emotions she couldn't name in the moment flooded through her like a burst dam. Gently, she reached forward to pry Nil's hands away from the blade, creasing her brow at the deep cuts in his palms. Once it was far enough away to not hurt him anymore, she tossed it aside, crawled off the couch and straight into his lap, and threw her arms around him. Hopefully, he wouldn't notice how violently she was shaking. She suspected he wouldn't, on account of the fact that he was too.

"I believe you," she murmured. "I trust you."

Nil's arms finally came up around her, to hold her tightly, and his voice was hoarse as he said, "I would do anything for you, Aloy. Anything. But this...this is for myself, too."

Overwhelmed and incapable of speech, she buried her face against his neck, where his pulse beat steady and sure.

"I need to know one thing, however. The dagger," he said softly. "Did you intend to kill me? Answer honestly, as I did with you."

"I…" Aloy swallowed. "I don't know. I don't know what I was doing. It doesn't matter, because I didn't want to. I haven't wanted to kill you for so long now."

Nil pulled back, and she mourned the loss of his warmth. Blood-spotted fingers slid under her chin, gently encouraging her to look at him.

"How did you know of the raid? Someone must have told you in secret, because any soldier revealing marching orders prematurely would be executed for treason."

He had done so much for her, gone to lengths that could easily see him dead, all for her happiness.

It was time to repay the favor.

Taking a deep breath, Aloy said, "Because I was given orders of my own by the Matriarchs, to put you down. I was made a Seeker and allowed to leave the Sacred Lands without becoming tainted in their eyes, so that I could one day return home. Today, another Seeker showed up and informed me that it was time to fulfill those orders."

Nil didn't seem surprised in the slightest. "I see."

"But I couldn't." Her grip on him tightened. "I could never kill you, and the truth of it is, I don't want to leave Meridian anymore. I don't want to leave my friends or you and go back to a life where, even though I'm no longer an outcast, everyone will always hate me. Here, at least, I'm...I'm…"

"You're loved," he completed for her.

"Yes," she whispered.

"In case you're wondering, I'm not angry with you, Aloy. About any of this. Nothing you've done has been outside of the bounds of reason, especially with the position your tribe is in. You've been very brave, actually, and it's an admirable trait." His fingertips ghosted over her hair. "One I adore in you."

Her throat closed up so much that she couldn't respond. Needing something to do with her hands, to quell the cantering of her heart, Aloy wormed her way out from Nil's embrace and rose from his lap to her feet on shaky legs.

"You should sit on the couch," she said, cursing the tremor in her voice. "I'll go get something for your hands."

With a deep chuckle, Nil grinned up at her. "I could handle it myself, but that look you're giving me tells me I have no choice, so I suppose I'm your willing captive."

Crossing her arms over her chest, Aloy pinned him with a pointed look until she did as he said, trying in vain to suppress the twitch of her lips. Once he was situated to her satisfaction, she bolted into the pantry, which housed supplies as well as food. Before grabbing the wound salve and bandages, she took a moment to herself, bracing herself against one of the many wooden shelves built into the walls. Finally, she allowed the smile she had been suppressing to break free, so wide and full of relief that she must have looked ridiculous.

For the first time in a long time, she didn't just think that things had a chance to turn out okay. She knew they would.

When Aloy re-entered the living space, Nil was still sitting on the couch obediently, cradling his injured hands in his lap so as not to get any blood on the fabric of the cushions.

"Ah, my beautiful, gentle nursemaid returns," he drawled.

Her cheeks pinked as she strode over to the water basin to wet a bandage, then back over to him. "I won't be gentle if you're not a good patient."

Nil held out his hands without any fuss. "As you wish."

With the damp bandage, Aloy began sopping up the blood as carefully as she could. Thankfully, it hadn't quite congealed yet and wiped off easily enough. As she was applying the salve, her husband spoke up.

"Do you remember the time I did this for you?"

"I try not to," she muttered. "It was kind of embarrassing."

Nil appeared contemplative. "You liked me a lot less back then, and still, you let me tend to your burn. That always stuck with me and gave me hope."

"Hope for what?"

"That you wouldn't always hate me," he said quietly. "Even though it was well deserved."

Aloy's heart swelled until it was fit to burst, and she struggled to keep her hands steady as she wrapped the bandages around his palms.

"It wasn't deserved, actually," she said, keeping her eyes on her task. "I let the circumstances blind me, and that wasn't fair to you. In any case, I obviously don't hate you anymore. In fact…" She flitted her gaze up, peering at him through her eyelashes. "I'm going to miss you while you're gone. A lot."

With his fully bandaged hand, Nil grabbed hers. "I'm going to miss you too, huntress. More than I have words to express."

-

Two weeks later, just before dawn when the sky was warming to the promise of a new day, two people stood just outside of a quaint townhouse in a still sleeping city. In the space between them was a vow and so much left unspoken, the words teasing at their lips.

"Two months, huh?" Aloy said to her husband, the words hushed in the silence of the early hour.

"Two months," Nil confirmed, his expression wistful. "I would say that it will pass quickly—for me, it usually does—but something tells me that won't be the case this time."

"Yeah," she exhaled. "I don't think it will for me either."

Nil tugged her into his arms then, resting his chin on her head once she had settled into his embrace. "When are you heading to my father's house?"

"In a couple of days, I think," Aloy replied, nuzzling into his neck. "I figured some time to myself would be nice."

"Good. I'm not totally thrilled at the concept of you staying there, but at least you'll have Talanah to keep you company," he said wryly.

"I'll probably be seeing a lot of Kadi too." Aloy rolled her eyes. "Probably way, way more than I want to, actually."

"You know how he is," Nil chuckled. "One stern word and he'll back off. He'll pout, but it works all the same."

"I guess," she sighed. "And hey, you've got Avad to keep you company, so you won't be alone."

"And all of the men under my command," he mused. Aloy tensed up against him, and he gave her a squeeze. "Don't worry, huntress. I speak only of companionship, nothing sordid. I'm a faithful, married man."

"Who said anything about worry," she huffed.

They fell into silence then, their parting imminent. All that knowledge did was make Aloy cling to him harder, as though she could keep him there with her through sheer force of will.

But as much as she wanted him to stay, she knew it was imperative for him to undertake this mission, for there was much to be done.

There was the slightest pressure on her forehead, and then it was gone. Confused, Aloy lifted her head to gaze up at her husband.

"I'm sorry," he murmured, his hand settling on the back of her head to stroke her hair absentmindedly. "I should have asked your permission. I just wanted to—in case I don't return—"

Aloy silenced him with a kiss of her own to the soft curve of his cheek. Nil inhaled sharply, and his eyes slid shut.

"You'll return," she whispered, her lips still ghosting over his skin. "You have to. Because I—"

"Save your words for if...when I get back," he interrupted her throatily. Those silver eyes were wide open, and it was like they could see straight through her. "If I do all that I promised you, say what you have to say then. And I will too."

With a slow, soft breath, Aloy nodded.

"Okay."

"Okay," Nil echoed.

He pulled her close then, crushing her to him to the point of discomfort. But she didn't mind, because she needed this. She needed to feel his body molded to hers, the sharp bite of his armor digging into her skin, the firm swell of his muscles. When the tears came, she didn't bother wiping them away.

Eventually, as the sun rose to sit atop the distant mountains like a crown, Nil pulled away from her. The light from its rays caught in his eyes as he backed away, imbuing the silver of his iris with gold, as though he were brimming with the potential of the new day itself.

"Farewell for now, my huntress," he said softly. "I'll come home to you as sure as the Sun's rising, so don't worry for me too much."

"Goodbye, Sahad." Aloy managed a faint smile. "I'll try not to."

She watched as he continued to back away, keeping his eyes on her until he reached the end of the street. Then, with a final crooked grin and a wave, he rounded the bend and disappeared from sight.

Later, Aloy made her way to the city walls, lined with the families of other departing soldiers. With the morning sun in her eyes and hope held like a fragile creature in her heart, she watched the departing procession as they headed east, and for a moment, even though it was likely wishful thinking, she could almost feel her husband smiling up at her.

Chapter Text

If Aloy had thought her days had dragged by when she had first come to Meridian, it was nothing compared to her existence now.

As she had told Nil, she took a few days to herself at home. Her existence was lonelier than ever—although she was used to spending most of her time alone, she always had his return to look forward to in the evenings. It was astonishing how, after only a little over half a year of his company (a great deal of the first part spent at odds with him to boot), she had already grown so used to it that his absence ached almost as much as Rost's had at first. She was only able to stomach a couple of days of total solitude before throwing her few vital possessions into a rucksack and heading towards Ligan's home.

Before she left, however, Aloy lingered in the doorway of Nil's bedroom, her gaze drifting down to his depressingly empty bed. There, on top of the duvet, was a red silk scarf, as neatly folded as the linens beneath it. A smile flickered on her lips as she thought back to the morning he had departed.

"I think I'll leave this here for you," Nil hummed, holding up the length of fabric. "Usually I bring it with me, but it might be nice for you to have something of mine while I'm away."

"But that's your favorite hunting scarf," Aloy protested. "Didn't your mother have it commissioned for you?"

"Yes. It's one of my most precious possessions." He smiled. "And I'd like you to keep it safe for me while I'm away."

Unable to respond through her tightened throat, Aloy watched as he placed the folded fabric on the bed and brushed past her on his way out the door to begin his final preparations to leave.

Before she had a chance to second guess herself, Aloy scooped up the scarf and shoved it into her bag, her heart clenching in her chest as it brought with it a wave of her husband's scent. She stood in his doorway staring for entirely too long before heading down the stairs and slipping out the front door, determined to at least attempt to enjoy herself over the next few weeks.

Talanah was there waiting for her on the front steps of Ligan's home when she arrived that evening. The two greeted each other with a tight hug, the gesture going a surprisingly long way to comfort Aloy. It reminded her that, even if Nil was gone, she still had friends who cared for her just as much as he did.

When they parted, Talanah took a moment to study her.

"That bad, huh?" she said softly.

Aloy managed to force out a small smile. "I think I'll be okay."

"I know you'll be okay, but that doesn't mean your heart isn't hurting," Talanah said, blunt as ever. "Which is why I made sure to have all of your favorite foods were prepared for dinner tonight and told Kadi to stay away for a few days, which was quite the feat."

"You didn't need to do all of that," Aloy protested. "I don't mind if he comes by. Really."

"Uh huh." Talanah rolled her eyes, grabbing her arm to pull her up the stairs and through the front door. "One of these days you're going to have to start being honest with me, you know."

Aloy didn't bother humoring that with a response as she allowed herself to be led inside. Once they had entered the opulent front parlor, however, she frowned, glancing about the darkened interior.

"Where's Ligan?" she asked. "Usually he'd be here to greet me."

"What, you miss your father-in-law that much?" Talanah teased. "And here I thought you hated him."

"I never hated him," Aloy muttered. "I don't even dislike him anymore. It's just still a bit awkward being around him because of...well, you know."

"Because of that ridiculous feud between him and Sahad," her friend sighed, crossing her arms over her chest. "He's not here right now. There's an event at the Hunter's Lodge tonight. He wanted to stay behind, but I told him it was probably better if you had time to adjust to staying here with just me."

"You don't have to keep looking out for me like this," Aloy said, exasperated. "I'm an adult who can take care of myself and my own emotions."

Talanah tapped at her chin with a finger. "Do you complain this much when Sahad dotes on you?"

"As a matter of fact, I do," Aloy retorted.

"For some reason, I feel like you're lying to me," Talanah said drily. "In any case, dinner is probably about ready, so let's go get some comfort food in you. You can't take issue with that."

"Just watch me," she grumbled, but followed after her friend all the same.

The food was excellent as always, due entirely to Ligan's cook Fergeld. Once he had deposited dishes heaped with meats and vegetables on the table and left the dining room, Talanah explained that he was an Oseram hailing from far to the north of the Sundom in a place their tribe called the Claim. Upon buying him from another noble, Ligan had offered him safe passage out of the city, but he had insisted that he wanted to stay, as there was nothing waiting for him back home. He was as huge and as hairy as he was quiet, but Aloy got the sense that he was kind. It didn't hurt that he could fry up some of the best fish she'd ever had in her life.

After dinner and a lively conversation about the best kind of arrows to use on a Thunderjaw like Redmaw, Talanah led her upstairs to the many bedrooms of the house, opening the door to one on the far end of the hallway. Silk-adorned windows built into the back wall faced a verdant courtyard dotted with a rainbow of blooming tropical flowers. The other woman suggested that she thought Aloy could use the peace and quiet. As run down as she felt despite doing almost nothing all day beyond walking a mile or so, she wasn't inclined to disagree.

After exchanging a few more words with Talanah, Aloy decided to turn in for the night. She idled at her bag for several minutes before pulling out Nil's scarf, her face heating as though she were doing something illicit. Crawling into bed as rapidly and as haphazardly as if she was being pursued, she stared at the fabric in her hands for a few seconds. Then, doing her best to ignore the fact that what she was doing was probably at least a little strange, she brought it to her face, her eyelashes fluttering shut as her husband's scent filled her nose with its warm spiced musk and metal notes.

With her face pressed into the scarf, Aloy slept better that night than she had since its owner had departed.

So began the next few weeks of Aloy's existence. Talanah's—and surprisingly, Ligan's—company went a long way to make the days far more comfortable for her. In a strange turn of events, when she wasn't conversing with her friend about either hunting or the state of the Sundom, she was spending time with her father-in-law in his study.

Curiosity had carried her there the first time, on an evening where Talanah had gone to see Kadaman at her insistence. Despite her protests that she would be fine without him for another few days, Aloy could see the eagerness and longing brimming in her deep brown eyes, so she shooed her off firmly. Just because she had to be without the one she loved didn't mean her friends had to suffer with her.

Without much else to do and the city mostly shuttered up for the night, Aloy wandered the halls of the home. The Khanes of House Argir had collected much in the way of interesting items over the centuries its members had taken residence in this place, but that wasn't what ultimately caught her eye. It was an otherwise unassuming tapestry hanging on the wall, tucked away in a less-traveled back hall.

The figures painted on it were instantly recognizable: a grave but stately looking man with an impressive crop of tied back black hair, a breathtakingly beautiful woman with a beaming smile as bright as the sun and with eyes as blue as the sky it hung in, and—on her lap—a tiny, wide-eyed little boy who couldn't have been older than five, his grin large enough to match his mother's.

A sad smile curved Aloy's lips as she leaned in for a closer look, sorrow piercing her heart all the while. She lifted her fingers to ghost over the faded paint, as silly as it was, to see if she could imbue herself with some of the happiness that had once existed here, when the polite sound of a throat clearing caught her attention.

Jumping back, she snapped her head to the right to see Ligan regarding her with his usual distantly kind smile.

"I'm sorry," Aloy blurted out. "I was just looking - I wasn't going to - "

He held up a hand. "It's quite all right, Aloy. I simply heard you wandering around in this part of the house and thought I might check up on you." Stepping towards her, Ligan peered over her shoulder. "I see you've found our old family portrait."

"Yeah." She shifted awkwardly. "It caught my eye, and I was curious, so I thought I might take a closer look."

"My, Sahad was so big even then," he sighed. "Quite the little scamp, you know."

Aloy summoned a hesitant smile. "I'm sure. I've heard stories from a few people now."

Ligan tilted his head. "Would you like to hear more?"

"Well, there's not much else to do, so I suppose I don't have much of a choice," she replied wryly.

"Oh, it won't be so bad," Ligan chuckled, dropping a polite hand to her upper back. "Let's head to my study, where it's far more comfortable and warmer than these old stone halls."

That was the beginning of many nights Aloy spent in the company of her father-in-law. Out of everything she had expected from coming to stay here, growing comfortable enough to relax in his presence wasn't one of them. It was shockingly easy, actually; the stories he regaled her with regarding Nil's childhood were in turn hilarious (especially the one about how he had somehow gotten the idea to attach tiny splinters of wood to the shells of several snails in order to get them to duel), adorable, and heartrending.

It wasn't a surprise that Sahidi was a common occurrence in Ligan's tales as well, and every time she was brought up, Aloy would lean in eagerly to hear another tidbit of information about her. Perhaps some of her fascination stemmed from the fact that she lacked a mother herself, and the idea of such a wonderful one was the stuff of fantasy for her, but most of it was truthfully due to her curiosity how Nil had come to be the man he was today.

"He has her clever tongue," Ligan told her one evening, his eyes fond and somewhere far away. "And her sense of justice. Honestly, I'm not actually sure the boy got anything from me beyond my looks."

"I don't know," Aloy said. "Both of you seem to be obsessed with honor to a ridiculous degree."

She knew by now that her father-in-law could take a good-natured jab, and as expected, he grinned at her.

"Why, thank you. I did make sure to teach him some things."

A month crawled by. Even though most of her days were uneventful and would have been obnoxiously boring without the company of Talanah, there were a few bright spots—namely the weekly hunting trips they went on with Ligan.

Now that she had been convinced of Aloy's skill in battle, Talanah suggested fighting the larger, faster, and more dangerous machines. Stalkers became a normal part of the hunt, with the pair usually taking down at least one during their time in the wilds. There were Shellwalkers, Ravagers, Behemoths, and Tramplers aplenty, each bringing more challenge than the last. Around the middle of the second month, they even managed to take down a Thunderjaw as practice for the day where they would encounter Redmaw, and she had never been prouder of herself than the moment the great machine crashed to the ground with a mighty roar.

With so much time spent in the field, Aloy could feel her old skills returning more and more every week. By the time she had entered the second month of Nil's absence, she was back up to the level she had been at before she had come to Meridian, if not better on account of the additional skills she had obtained fighting new machines. If her husband had been there beside her, she was sure she would have been the most content person on earth.

Of course, Talanah noticed and, pointing the thin tip of her glaive in Aloy's direction after felling the Thunderjaw, had demanded that she start coming along on their hunts each week once Nil had returned. She had readily agreed, a smile coming to her lips when she thought of how proud he'd be if he could only see her now.

At Aloy's insistence, Kadaman did eventually make a few appearances. On his first visit, he was better behaved than she had ever seen him, leaving about a foot of space between him and Talanah and keeping his hands folded in his lap at all times.

He didn't pry, he didn't tease, he didn't poke, and Aloy suffered through exactly ten minutes of this charade before she put her foot down.

"Kadi, by the Goddess, please stop doing this." she sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. "Or I might have to duel you myself.

He blinked once before offering her a bland smile. "Why, there's no need for any of that sort of base violence here. What am I doing that's offending you so?"

"You're acting like someone just died, and it's weird," Aloy replied, exasperated.

"I simply did not want to bother you, my dear," he said gravely, "in what I'm certain is a very sensitive time for you."

"I promise you that this is way more irritating than anything you usually do," she said tersely, sending Talanah, who was doing a very bad job at stifling her laughter, a heated glare.

"Dearest Aloy," Kadaman began, "We are all of us aware of the extent of your feelings for Sahad, and it would be of the utmost rudeness for me to express my feelings for my darling Talanah in front of you so blatantly while he is away at war. Trust me when I say that it is of no bother to me to restrain myself for a mere few hours."

Aloy clenched her jaw shut so tightly that her teeth ached. "First of all, as I've told Talanah several times, I'm not like Itamen, a child who needs to be protected and coddled. Second of all, it's not as though you two are trying to couple right in front of me. I'm more than capable of handling a few of my friends being affectionate with each other."

Talanah finally ceased in her futile attempts to hold back her laughter, the sound of it bouncing off the walls of Ligan's parlor and filling up the room. With a weary groan, Aloy fell back onto the couch and covered her face with a hand.

"I told you!" Talanah crowed, jabbing a finger into Kadaman's chest and ignoring his resulting pout. "I told you it was a bad idea, and now you owe me twenty shards."

Aloy's eyebrows shot up to her hairline. "You placed a bet on me?" She squeezed her eyes shut briefly. "You know what, I don't know why I expected anything else from you two. Of course you did."

Kadaman had the audacity to look hurt. "Really, is it so awful that your friends are attempting to look out for you? My apologies for caring for a dear friend enough to cause myself minor discomfort, because apparently that's considered offensive to my lady."

"The intention isn't awful, but this goes way further than just looking out for me," Aloy said, rubbing at her face. "Just please, if you actually want to consider my emotional well-being, act like you normally do from now on. I want you to be my friend Kadi, not Kadaman of the Dawn's Rising, future Sun-King and ruler of all the Sundom."

"It's like I also told you, Kadi," Talanah piped up, her voice still dancing with humor. "The only one who's allowed to take care of her like that is Sahad, and she'll bite the head off of anyone else who tries to take on that role."

"I'm not even going to respond to that," Aloy intoned.

"You know, I believe it would also be wise of me to keep my lips sealed on this matter," Kadi said delicately. "But if it's all the same to you, Aloy…" His shoulders relaxed, and he shuffled over the couch to close the gap between himself and Talanah before throwing his arms around her and planting a kiss on her head. "I admit that it was quite miserable for me to keep up such an act. Even a few hours spent in my beloved's presence without her touch is like being deprived of water in a long march through the desert, and now that I may hold her in my embrace again, I am like a once shriveled flower rejuvenated, my petals in full bloom…"

As Kadaman prattled on and doted on an increasingly redder Talanah (who looked as though she wasn't sure whether she should kiss him or snarl at him), Aloy finally smiled as warmth pooled in her belly. This was what she was used to, what was comforting in its familiarity. For now, seeing to the happiness of her friends was enough to her—and perhaps she had a similar sort of happiness to look forward to experiencing for herself very soon. After that, the four of them would be able to spend time in each other's presence, and there would be no more hesitation over what expressions of affection may hurt another party's feelings. Now, if only the same were obtainable for Avad and the woman he had spoken so fondly of...

Over the course of her stay at Ligan's, Aloy did have to return home occasionally to look after the home and water the flower boxes, especially when it hadn't rained in several days. To her delight, around the third week after Nil had departed, she noticed that more flowers had started to bloom, and she knew it wouldn't be too much longer before the hardy stems were overflowing with pretty little pink and yellow petals.

She didn't just stop by, either. Some days, Aloy felt the urge to be alone, and that usually translated to her staying overnight and sleeping in the comfort of her own bed. She slept easier on those nights, when, in the minutes between consciousness and unconsciousness, she could fool herself into believing that she would wake the next morning to her husband's grinning face just down the stairs as she had for so many months.

On one such night, after nearly two months had elapsed and his absence throbbed in her chest more than usual, she paused before entering her room. Turning slowly, she faced Nil's bedroom instead, worrying at her lower lip as she considered finally doing something which had been tempting her over the last several weeks.

It was Aloy's eye catching on his scarf draped over her bed that finally broke her. The fabric had long since lost any trace of his scent - entirely her doing, for she slept wrapped up in it every night - but the undisturbed linens in his room would probably still carry it. Making up her mind before her indecision got the better of her again, she slipped into her husband's bedroom.

The space was exactly as she had left it, neatly folded blankets, carefully arranged pillows, and all. Gingerly, as though he might burst through the door at any point and chastise her for what she was doing, Aloy lowered herself onto the mattress. Nil preferred a much softer bed than she did, and she sank into it as one might be swallowed up by quicksand. Immediately, his scent surrounded her, and it felt as though she was finally able to breathe again after holding her air for a long time.

A shaky sigh left her as she lowered herself all the way down, her eyelids drooping shut the instant her head touched the pillow. If she turned off her brain just enough, she could almost pretend that this was just another night of the many they had spent in each other's company, and she was drifting off while he read to her in his smooth, rich voice.

Aloy was well aware of how pathetic she was acting, especially in light of how she never would have dreamed of doing something so inane as pining for someone else before. With little in the way of distraction, however, her mind was more often than not consumed by longing and worry both, and what-ifs began to slither their way into her thoughts. What if Nil wasn't able to break free from the bloodlust which had consumed him for years? What if he was found out and executed for his treason?

What if he was slain on the battlefield before she had the opportunity to confess her feelings to him?

Not for the first time, Aloy cursed herself for lacking the courage to do something before he left, even though her abstention was most likely the right call. Her understanding of how Nil had become the man he was today only extended so far and didn't include him continuing down his current path. As much as she might love and want him, she refused to become romantically entangled with someone who wasn't endeavoring with all of their might to become better than they were. It wasn't her responsibility to guide him down the split path which lay before him; it was up to him to find the correct way through that darkness by himself.

Still, if the worst came to pass and he came home to her in an urn, she knew she would regret her inaction until her dying day. It was an awful situation to be in, and having already made her choice, all Aloy could do was deal with whatever consequences might come out of it.

Or whatever rewards.

Rewards…

With her eyes closed, the images that formed behind them were even more vivid than they usually were, and in a desperate attempt to ground herself, Aloy gripped at her blanket.

Another side effect of Nil's absence had been an increasingly colorful imagining of what might happen between them upon his return. This had started out sweetly enough, involving simple gestures of affection like a heartfelt embrace, perhaps a kiss if she could find the courage for it. But it hadn't been long before those thoughts had descended into those of a more lavacious nature, even though Aloy hadn't a clue of what anything more intimate might be like.

As she had once told Rost, she knew what sex was—mechanically, at least. But the nuances escaped her entirely, and truth be told, she had never so much as seen another person naked before her husband(and even then she hadn't gotten the full picture). Aloy knew that Nil was, so to speak, in possession of the proper equipment(seeing as she had felt it twice over now) and that coupling with her husband would very likely involve being penetrated with said equipment.

But what else was there to be done in the act beyond the obvious? People talked, but it was always frustratingly vague, and they often made liberal use of euphemisms she didn't quite understand.

That didn't stop her brain from conjuring up ideas, however, especially now that she knew what her husband's naked body felt like against her own. His skin was soft in places, rougher in others, and the way those hands of his felt running over her bare skin...Aloy gave a little shiver as she recalled the sensation. A heat which she had grown very familiar with since the ritual bath grew in her center, and as more wanton images sprang up in her head, her hand crept down towards the waistband of her sleeping pants.

Despite feeling the urge to touch herself, to do something to relieve the ache which now seemed to be her constant companion, Aloy had so far resisted. But after almost two months of separation from her husband and his homecoming close at hand, she couldn't help herself anymore. Lying in his bed had only exacerbated the issue, and her face warmed as she wondered what he might say if he found her this way.

There would be surprise in those steel eyes initially, but in the realm of her fantasy, they would quickly become molten with desire. He'd stalk over to the side of the bed she was splayed out on as gracefully as he did on a hunt, pinning her down with his gaze alone the entire time. Aloy's breath hitched as she slipped her hand into her pants and underwear both, even as the Nil in her head grazed his fingers over her bare arm. The goosebumps that prickled over her skin in reality would be there too, especially as that deep, lyrical voice asked her what exactly she thought she was doing.

Tentatively, her fingers brushed over the curls, a tiny whimper escaping her when she found them already damp. Perhaps, as he sat down on the edge of the bed, Nil would tug at her wrist and pull it from her clothing, only to replace it with his own hand.

When Aloy finally touched the wet heat of her sex, she couldn't help the strangled gasp she made, nor the way her hips automatically arched up into the contact, desperate and greedy for more. In her head, it was her husband's touch instead of her own, deft and skilled. He would know exactly what she needed as he always had, fine-tuning his caresses in response to her sounds and body language, just as he did on the battlefield. The bulk of his body would loom over her, his eyes piercing her, working in tandem with his fingertips to bring her ever higher.

And she soared even more as she found the tight little bead nestled between her legs, pressing into it and working it with a hungry vigor that would have surprised her had she already not been so far gone. Touching herself in such an intimate manner was rare for her, mostly on account of sharing a one bedroom cabin with her guardian for most of her life, but there was so much tension in her that had gone unreleased that Aloy knew she wouldn't last long.

Her fingers rubbed even harder, too small and too familiar, but she knew that they would be enough if she could just focus and really sink into the daydream of her husband being the one to do this to her. Ultimately, it was the thought of his lips crashing into hers, kissing her sweetly and thoroughly as his hand continued to play her like a Carja Braumdrum, that had her vaulting over the edge and into oblivion. With no reason or want to keep quiet, her cries were loud and keening, the way she bucked into and thrashed against her own hand unrestrained in its wild fervor.

Her climax lasted for hours and yet only for as long as a heartbeat. When Aloy came back down, her breathing labored and the clothing covering her bottom half completely ruined, she didn't feel the hollow loneliness she would have expected.

In its place was resolve. Resolve to be brave, and if everything went as planned, to secure what she desired from him.

She had to admit that it had been an odd experience to be so lacking in the self confidence she normally possessed in every other arena. But emotions such as love were an entirely different beast, and the circumstances of their meeting and marriage, not to mention her deficit of experience in relationships of all sorts, had made her unsure of herself for the first time in her life.

That wasn't the case any longer. If—when—he came home, she would tell him everything. She'd be the one to kiss him, because he'd wait for her to make the first move, just as he always had.

And maybe, just maybe, she'd find the happiness, belonging, and love she'd been looking for her entire life in the last place on earth she would have expected to find it.

With renewed vigor, Aloy got up to clean herself up, change into a fresh set of sleeping clothes, and take her herbs, a task which had more gravity associated with it than it once did. When she had finished all of that, the lavish comfort and familiarity of her husband's bed managed to put to rest all of these brave new thoughts for now, for which she was grateful, because another night she slept meant another day closer to Nil's return. It was enough for her to begin to doze, and with her arms and legs wrapped around a large pillow that she sorely wished was him, Aloy finally fell asleep.

Chapter Text

It was only a few days later that Aloy got the news.

She had been lounging on her bed in Ligan's home since the second afternoon bell, skimming over a weathered scroll full of accounts of Redmaw's sightings and the subsequent expeditions in search of the beast over the years. Her father-in-law had borrowed it from the Hunter's Lodge, explaining that it might come in handy at some point in the future.

Aloy wasn't so sure about that—with the number of hunters who had reached grisly ends chasing after the Thunderjaw, it seemed to serve more as a cautionary tale than anything else.

The loud thump of footsteps on the stairs shortly before the fifth bell had her frowning and lifting her eyes from the scroll. Ligan wasn't the type to run about, due to both age and bearing, so that left Talanah, but she wasn't due back from her latest rendezvous with Kadaman for another few hours at least.

It was Talanah indeed, and she was breathless when she tore into her room. Thinking something was wrong, Aloy sat up at attention immediately.

"Kadi got word from a scout, and I hurried back home as fast as I could. The army has begun to cross the main bridge. They're back."

Aloy was on her feet before a single thought beyond her husband's name could form in her head, thundering down the stairs and out the front door. Talanah called after her that she'd bring her belongings by later, but she barely heard her. Her focus had narrowed down to getting home as fast as humanly possible.

The clouds were swollen and heavy by the time she turned the corner onto her street and reached the home she had only occasionally visited in the last two months.

There was no one there.

Disappointment and anxiety both reared up in Aloy, but she forced herself to keep calm. It had been only an hour at most since Talanah had heard the news, and his trek home would likely take time.

If he was coming home at all.

Aloy pressed her lips into a tight line. No. He was on his way, she just had to be patient and wait it out, even if that wasn't exactly her strong suit—

"Aloy."

Her heart stopped in her chest as the sound of that voice carried over the rushing wind of the incoming rainstorm, the way the vowels were drawn out into a decadent purr as familiar and as dear to her as breathing itself.

Slowly, as though she couldn't quite believe her own ears, Aloy turned around.

And there, his breath coming as quickly as hers and as handsome as ever in dark, plated armor, was the man she had ached for with every ounce of her heart and body for two long months.

Her husband. Nil. Sahad.

As the first fat raindrops splattered onto the crown of her head, Aloy darted forward. It was several tens of feet, but Nil barely had time to open his arms before she leapt into the air, crashing into him and simultaneously wrapping her legs around his girdled waist. Surprise rounded grey eyes which she had only seen in dreams as he wrapped his strong arms around her to support her, and she felt tears prick in her own.

"You're home," she whispered.

"I rushed here as fast as I could," he replied just as softly, his voice as smooth as silk sheets. A giddy grin grew on his face then, so wide that it must have ached. "And I did all that I swore to you, Aloy. The raid was very nearly a failure."

Her heart swelled with a love so fierce that she needed to give it action. The fact that she had once believed that she would need to summon even an ounce of courage for this moment seemed ridiculous now, because her next choice was one of the easiest she had ever made in her life. With as much conviction as she possessed, Aloy tilted her head down and kissed her husband for the first time since their wedding day.

And this time, it was for real.

Nil was still for several heartbeats, but the rejection she had feared never came. Instead, a groan spilled from his lips, and he surged upward, kissing her back thoroughly, his fingers digging into the soft curve of her lower back. He tasted far better than Aloy had ever imagined, a flavor that was uniquely and tantalizingly him. The rain had picked up speed and now fell in a steady cadence, slicking her hair to her head in a heavy sheet, but all she could feel was her husband's body as hard and as hot as a forge beneath her.

"Aloy," he gasped against her lips. As though it physically pained him, he pulled away, his eyes searching hers. "Are you sure of this—"

"Yes." Her hands slid up, finding the sharp angles of his face. "I'm sure. Now, stop talking, and kiss me again."

Nil obliged immediately. This time, he took his time, pressing his lips to hers sweetly and slowly, and Aloy allowed her eyes to flutter shut. For weeks, this was everything she had dreamed of, marred by that ever-present fear lurking in the back of her mind that he wouldn't go through with what he had vowed to her and sealed with his own blood. All of those anxieties had vanished the moment she had seen him—she didn't need his confirmation that he had been successful when she had seen the look on his face.

Eventually, Nil broke the kiss and eased her to the ground. She clung to his sides stubbornly, earning a breathless chuckle from her husband.

"As much as I'm enjoying this, we're both soaked to the bone. Why don't we go inside and take care of that, love?"

His endearment repeating in her mind along with the beating of her heart, she finally released him. With a spring in her step, Aloy followed Nil inside, warmth bubbling in her belly when she caught his look of pure relief as he took in his home for the first time in months.

"You have no idea how glad I am to be home," he exhaled.

Coming up behind him, still hungry for the feel of him, Aloy snaked her arms around his waist and dropped her head on his back.

"Probably almost as glad as I am."

One of his broad hands settled over hers. "Well, if you'll allow me to change—and you should too—and fetch some towels for us, I thought that perhaps we could sit down and speak."

The note of apprehension in Nil's tone had worry creeping up in her, but Aloy squashed the feeling as she would an irritating bug. If her months spent with him had taught her anything, it was to believe in the truth of her husband's actions rather than attempting to read too deeply into his words.

Parting from him for even a few minutes was a mild form of torture. Aloy changed as quickly as she ever had in her life, throwing on ill-matching clothing in her haste. The thought of what Theradine might say in response to such clashing colors had her lips quirking in a smile.

She burst out in the hallway the instant the hem of her shirt hit her waistline, only to be dismayed to find Nil's door still closed. Impatiently, she shifted her weight back and forth on her feet and paced outside of his door.

A few minutes later, a distinctly amused voice called, "I can hear you out there, you know. Go ahead and come in."

Aloy didn't waste another second. Pushing open his door, she found Nil sitting on his bed, wearing only his usual pair of loose trousers and toweling off his dripping hair. Before she could approach him, however, his hand jutted out to offer her a towel of her own. Blowing out an irritated breath, she took it, draped it over her shoulders, then promptly crawled into her husband's bed and onto his lap.

"My, someone is rather impatient," he grinned, ceasing drying his hair for the moment in favor of wrapping his arms around her.

"I just got you back," Aloy retorted. Still, her self doubt reared its ugly head. "But if you're not okay with this, I can give you space. It's probably overwhelming - "

"Overwhelming was being so close to you before and not being able to do this," Nil interrupted, bending over to slant his lips over hers yet again. When they parted, he was smiling. "I don't know what I expected upon my return, but if I'm honest, this was everything I had hoped for."

"I've been thinking of this every single day since you left," Aloy admitted. "A lot longer than that, actually. You told me to save my words until now, and I did, along with everything I've wanted to do."

Grabbing at the towel on her shoulders, Nil began to gently run it over her hair. "I did the same. And now, here we are."

"Here we are," Aloy echoed.

When she glanced up at him, Nil was contemplative. "I'll admit, I'm curious. How long?"

She snorted. "A lot longer than it took for me to even realize what I was feeling. I didn't admit it to myself until that first hunting trip with Talanah several months back."

"I knew," he said quietly. "I knew since the night we all drank together, when you asked me to stay. I wanted more than anything to curl up in your bed with you, to hold you close and pretend as though you truly were mine, if only for a single night. But I couldn't. Not then."

"I know," Aloy said, resting her head on his chest. "I didn't understand then, but I think I do now."

"I wanted to be worthy of you," Nil murmured, continuing to stroke at her hair with the towel. "As I was then, I was not fit to be your partner in truth."

Aloy didn't dare to breathe. "And now?"

"Now..." He dropped his hold on the towel, gathering her up in his solid embrace. "Now, I think I've done all I can to put myself on the right path. I can't call myself a good man, not yet. But for the first time since I was a boy, I've found hope that I may one day be just that."

"That's all I ever wanted for you," she whispered. "I never expected perfection. Just a willingness to try."

"If I were a less selfish man, I would have turned you away still," Nil continued, his voice faltering. "But I'm not. I can no longer pretend that every part of me doesn't call out for you, as surely as it does for the thrill of battle and bloodshed. And now I've found that my desire for you eclipses even those things."

He de-tangled himself from her, ignoring Aloy's indignant noise of protest to instead carefully deposit her at his side. Then, slipping off of the bed, he sank into a kneel that recalled darker times—of a vow and the moment she let go of almost everything but him—not breaking their shared gaze for even a moment.

"Aloy," Nil said, taking her hand. "I need a clear answer. Will you have me? I cannot promise you anything more than I am, but I also can swear on my life that I will love and provide for you until my last breath."

"Yes."

The word left Aloy before she had time to think about it, because there was no other possible answer. It seemed to hang in the room, resonating with promise and potential so potent that she could almost feel it. Nil stared at her in silence, completely still but for a twitch in his lips. Gradually, that twitch grew into a full blown smile, and for a moment she saw clearly the carefree, innocent boy who he had once been.

He rose to his feet as unsteadily as a newborn goat, all unsurety and awkward limbs, as if he didn't quite know what to do with himself. It was Aloy who reached out to him, to pull him back tight to her chest.

Nil didn't say anything of what he was thinking or feeling, but he didn't have to. The slight shivers and soft gasps wracking his body told her enough. Patiently, lovingly she held him, and when he finally lifted his head, she wiped away his tears with her thumbs.

"Thank you, my huntress," he whispered, "for giving a near-ruined man a second chance. I only hope that I won't disappoint you as I have so many others."

"There are only a few things you could do that could lead to that," Aloy replied honestly. "And I don't believe you're capable of them. Not anymore."

Nil hummed, but didn't say anything else. Eventually, they both laid down on the bed fully, side by side and with their hands clasped tightly together. With the sound of the rain pattering a gentle tattoo on the roof drowning out all else, for a moment, Aloy felt as though they could be the last people on earth, and she wouldn't mind one bit.

-

She must have fallen asleep at some point. It was the feeling of being lifted and carried across the hall that woke her, and by the time Nil had pulled back the covers and placed her gently on her bed, Aloy was able to crack open her eyes to stare up at him.

"Go back to sleep, my love," her husband crooned, cupping the curve of her cheek in one large hand. As he bent over her, the ends of his hair tickled at the skin of her face, and he pressed his lips to her forehead. "I'll see you in the morning."

He moved to get up, but Aloy's hand caught his forearm.

"Stay. Sleep here with me tonight."

The restrained hope which bloomed in his eyes, those grey eyes she had missed, had her heart stuttering. "Are you certain?"

"Yes." Her voice didn't waver.

The smile playing on his lips was genuine as he slid into bed next to her and pulled the covers up over the both of them. Automatically, they both curled up on their sides to face each other, Nil's arm falling to drape over her waist. Everything was softer in the dark of her bedroom, only the occasional crackle of the coals simmering in the fireplace from the fire he must have started breaking the peaceful silence between them.

But after months of holding herself back, Aloy couldn't help but whisper, "I missed you."

"And I, you," Nil responded without missing a beat. "Desperately. It was the strangest thing - for the first time, something else was competing with my focus on the battlefield, that something being you. Although, I suppose keeping you in mind helped me sabotage the raid as much as I could."

An enormous lump lodged itself in her throat. "I'm so glad. I was so worried. About you, about what you might be made to do..."

"My hands are not free of blood," he said quietly. "There were certain situations I couldn't escape, but I did my best to avoid them in the first place. Killing those who would harm innocents, rather than innocents themselves - it felt as though I was helping, even in a small way, and that's not something I'm used to doing. I may have started to come to that conclusion myself, but you led me the rest of the way there."

Surging forward, Aloy captured his lips with her own just as she had earlier. She needed to touch him, she needed to be close to him, to assure him that he had made the right choice. To show him how proud she was of him, that she wanted him just as he was, baggage and all.

Nil's response was just as enthusiastic. He was firm and soft, the taste of him sweet, the way he smoothed his hands over her hair, down to her shoulders, satisfying in a way she couldn't articulate. Aloy wound her arms around his neck, melting into him, allowing herself to be kissed and doted on in ways she had only let herself yearn for in her wildest dreams.

Those hands crept downward, dragging over the arch of her hips. A spark of heat sizzled in her belly, and she gasped against his lips, pushing her own hips forward into Nil's. For a moment, just as she had experienced once before and in her thoughts and dreams since, she could feel him entirely flush against her—from the hard, velvety swell of the muscles on his naked chest molded against her breasts, down to something even harder, pressing insistently against the space below her navel. Pleasure bloomed there, rushing downwards into her core, but before Aloy could begin to even think of doing anything about it, her husband placed his palms on her waist and gently pried her away from him.

"Aloy," he said, lifting his hands to cradle her face. "Let's take this slowly, all right?"

A chill replaced the warmth in her belly. "Um, okay."

"No, no, you misunderstand me," Nil murmured, brushing his thumbs over the arch of her cheekbones. "No need to look so dour, my huntress. All I want is to take my time with you, because that's what you deserve—not just a quick roll in the sheets. That, and..."

"And...?" Aloy prompted.

His smile was sheepish. "If I'm honest, I'm entirely lacking in experience with women. I wasn't even certain I was attracted to them until the day we were wed, and I lifted your veil."

That wasn't what she'd been expecting at all. "Oh."

"Being as high in the ranks as I am doesn't leave much time for frivolous pursuits. It was easier to find another willing soldier in the barracks for a quick tryst, so I never bothered seeking out anyone else." Apprehension ruled over Nil's features. "Does that bother you?"

"No!" Aloy said hurriedly, with a firm shake of her head for good measure. "Not at all. And...you're probably right about taking it slow. I don't have any experience either." Her cheeks pinked beneath his hands. "At our wedding...that was actually the first time I had ever been kissed."

Surprise widened his eyes for a moment before sorrow creased them. "I'm sorry, Aloy. It shouldn't have been that way for you."

She shrugged. "It's not a huge deal." With a cheeky grin, she craned her head up until her lips were just barely grazing over Nil's. "If you really feel bad, I guess you'll just have to kiss me until you make up for spitting after that one."

"Oh, how you tease," he groaned. As if he couldn't help himself - and Aloy was fairly certain that was the case - he pressed his lips to hers again, and then again, until her cheeks blazed with blood and her breath came in rapid gasps.

"Are you sure you're going to be able to hold back?" she said breathlessly, once Nil had finally released her. "Because I'm not sure I can."

He hummed. "There are other ways to be intimate beyond the obvious."

Aloy scowled. "I really hope that isn't alluding to killing people."

"Not at all, my love," he purred, dropping his face to the crook of her neck to give it a quick nip. Heat flared up in her once again, leaving her to grasp helplessly at his back. "Besides, I have a suspicion that there's more pleasure to be found with you than in any kill."

"How romantic," she deadpanned.

With a sigh and what appeared to be a great deal of reluctance, Nil pulled away from her. "But for now, I think it's time that we both rest." At her resulting pout, he dropped his lips to her forehead. "Tomorrow brings a new sunrise for the both of us. There will be plenty of time for us to spend together then and from now on."

"Trying to smooth things over with poetry as usual, I see," Aloy muttered. "But just this once, I'll admit it: you're right. We should probably get to sleep."

After a final, lingering goodnight kiss that was as natural as if they had been doing it from the beginning, she turned over to the side she usually slept on. With Nil's arm curled over her waist and despite the excitement of the day, Aloy slept better than she ever had before.

Waking up the next morning was just as wonderful. Apparently her husband had stirred first, because when her eyes finally cracked open, he was gazing at her and stroking her face rhythmically. In her half-awake state, all Aloy could wonder was how long it would take for her heart to cease doing somersaults in his presence.

Nil gave her his lopsided grin. "Good morning, sweetling."

Too groggy still to protest the sugary endearment, Aloy gave a yawn instead.

"Morning." Through slitted eyes, she noted the amount of light streaming into the room. "Shit. Shouldn't you have left for the barracks already?"

"Mm, normally I would have," he hummed, tugging her into his warmth. "But seeing as we've just come back from a major operation, I have a fortnight of leave. And I'm not keen on spending it anywhere that's not by your side."

It was the best news Aloy had heard in months—besides that which Talanah had brought her yesterday, of course—and she didn't bother trying to suppress any of the relief and joy she knew was written all over her face.

"There is one event we must attend in that time, however," Nil said as he trailed his fingers over her back. "It's tradition for the Sun Court to host a gala for officers and nobles after large military operations."

"I'm assuming we're absolutely required to attend?" Aloy sighed. "No way to wiggle out of this one?"

She felt Nil nod. "Oh, yes, it's absolutely required. Twice over due to both my nobility and rank."

"Well, I guess it's only for a few hours," she conceded.

"The theme of the event itself is rather interesting as well," he continued. "And perhaps it might make this court appearance slightly easier on the both of us."

Parting from him for the moment, Aloy peered up at him. "Now you have me curious."

"A masked ball," Nil stated. "Meaning that there will be a small level of anonymity. We'll be recognizable if one comes close enough, of course, but much harder to pick out of a crowd."

"You're right," Aloy mused. "That's not so bad. Has Theradine already been informed?"

He snorted. "Theradine likely caught wind of it through the rumor mill weeks ago. These events take time to plan, and information is often 'leaked' to the relevant artisans ahead of time. I have a sneaking suspicion that he'll be calling on us to go over designs today before the Sun is set."

"So soon?"

"It's a miracle he didn't show up yesterday evening." Nil pulled the rest of the way away from her. "Which means, as much as I love lying in with you, my fierce little wife, we should both probably get up and dress for the day."

"There's always something," Aloy grumbled, reluctantly rising to a sitting position.

"Such is the life of a noble." Nil bent forward to kiss her softly, remaining close once he had finished. "On the plus side, we have each other now. For me, it makes it all bearable."

The smile she wore in response took a long time to finally fade.

It turned out that Nil had been correct: there was indeed a curt knock on the door a few hours later.

Already well aware of who it was, it was Aloy who got up to answer this time, seeing as her husband was in search of a snack in the pantry. Standing in front of her with an impatient foot tapping at the stone stairs was their dressmaker, his outfit as ostentatious yet well-put together as usual.

“Aloy, my little flame! It’s been ages.” His arms full of materials as usual, he rushed past her. “I’d love to play catch up with you, but there is much to do here and so little remaining time.”

“Hey, Theradine,” she laughed, following him into the living area. “Where’s Ailah?”

“Mm, her presence here was not required today, so she’s helping Kudiv organize his inventory,” Theradine explained as he sorted through his mess of fabrics and trim. “I assumed your and Sahad’s measurements had not changed much, although I will be checking just to be certain. There’s no room for errors with complex dress such as what I am crafting for you.”

“Ah, Theradine,” Nil said as he finally emerged from the pantry chewing on a piece of jerky. “I was wondering when you would show.”

Theradine looked him over, relief mixed in with the calculation he always regarded his clients with. “Greetings, Sahad. I’m cheered to see that you’ve arrived back home in one piece. If you had lost any parts, we would have had to take more measurements, and measurements take precious time.”

“Yes, that certainly would be the worst side effect of losing an entire limb,” Nil replied gravely, the muscles around his mouth twitching with suppressed laughter.

Aloy sent her husband a secret little grin as he wandered over to her. Theradine took that exact moment to glance back up at the two of them, his features taking on a certain slyness.

He didn’t say anything in the moment, or while he took their measurements, but she had a feeling that she wasn’t out of the woods yet.

“So,” he began, plucking a couple of scrolls from his pile, “my sources tell me that the nobility appear to be mostly split between two design directions-classic and more abstract. Knowing what I do about the two of you, I decided to choose the former avenue for my sketches. Take a moment to look these over and tell me what you think.”

Theradine handed a scroll to each of them, crossing his arms over his chest as they both unfurled their individual designs. The moment Aloy laid eyes on hers, her breath caught in wonder.

It was clear that her outfit was based on a fox—well, the mask at least. Fur made up most of the delicate creation with the exception of the ears, which were composed of a range of russet and orange feathers. The snout was intended to be crafted from what looked to be fine porcelain studded with blue gems and lined in gold leaf paint. Her eyes swept down the paper to the dress, the same hues present there as in the mask. It boasted a rich brown fur-trimmed cloak and skirt, a crimson corset-style top with artfully arranged machine parts sewn into it, elbow-length gloves also hemmed with fur, and several pieces of gold jewelry to cap off the look.

“Elegant with a touch of wildness,” Theradine commented as she finally pried her eyes away from the design, his expression speaking of affectionate regard. “I felt it was fitting for you, my lady.”

“It is,” Aloy said softly. “Thank you, Theradine.”

Bending over, he murmured, “If you’re amenable, I’d like to have a word with you alone before I depart today, for the discussion of, mm, more delicate matters, so to speak.”

Despite her confusion, she nodded anyway. “Of course.”

“And you, young Sahad,” he said loudly as he rounded on her husband. “What are your thoughts on your design?”

“It’s a bird,” Nil said from where he had sat down next to Aloy to look over his scroll. He didn’t flinch under Theradine’s withering look. “A very dramatic one.”

“You are a kestrel who has a sense of drama, are you not?” Theradine snipped. “My choices, as always, are the correct ones.”

“Yes, yes,” Nil chuckled. “Well done.”

Curious, Aloy leaned over his shoulder to have a look. It was a bird indeed, and as tastefully put together as her dress. Nil’s mask was also made up of gold-trimmed porcelain studded with jewels, but his ended in a hooked beak and was ringed by warm-hued feathers. Brown gloves decorated to resemble the talons of a raptor would cover his arms to the elbow, securing baggy black sleeves that led to a patchwork orange, yellow, and white top. A red waistband held up brown trousers tucked into boots also cut to look like talons. But what was most impressive of all was the cloak - long and trailing and made up completely of feathers, the majority of them black, she knew it would be a sight to behold once it was completed.

It reminded her of someone else, far, far away from here, someone who she would likely never see again. Despite the lump in her throat, Aloy pushed past it. She had made her choice, and there was no going back.

The longer she reaped its rewards, the more she realized that she didn't want to, anyway.

“Two different animals, but matching colors cut from the same cloth,” Theradine explained proudly. “You’ll be the most stunning couple there, guaranteed.”

“Although still reserved enough to blend in with the crowds,” Nil observed, collecting Aloy’s scroll from her and handing it back to the dressmaker. “Well, I’m satisfied here. Aloy?”

“Me too.” She gave her husband a sideways glance. “Theradine did want to speak with me before he left, though. Alone.”

Nil smirked. “Trying to steal my wife, old man?”

“If I had even the slightest interest in women and didn’t have Kudiv, I would have long ago,” Theradine informed him. “Now, shoo. You’ll have her back in a few minutes.”

“Fine, fine,” her husband said, the groan he made as he lifted himself from the couch and stretched doing horrible things to Aloy’s heart rate. “Try not to get into trouble without me.”

Theradine kept his hawkish gaze trained on Nil until he had ascended the stairs, and then he dove in for the kill.

“So. Have you gone to bed with him yet? Since your wedding night, of course.”

Aloy choked on air. “Excuse me?”

“If you attempt to play coy or lie about this, I’ll make it so that your dress is as uncomfortable as possible,” Theradine threatened.

Begrudgingly, knowing there was no avenue to worm her way out of this one, Aloy shook her head. “No. Not yet. He wants to take things slow.”

His eyes were calculating. “Mm, I see. Perhaps there is a way of speeding things up, and you’re lucky I came prepared for such an eventuality.”

With a flourish, Theradine pulled yet another design scroll from the beneath his supplies and handed it over.

Aloy frowned as she unrolled it, the contents unfamiliar to her. There were several female figures drawn onto the paper, each with a different variety of skimpy fabric covering her intimate areas. It looked as though they were undergarments failing to do their actual job, and she wondered what in the world their function could possibly be.

“Um, what is this?”

“The blueprints for a tool,” he replied breezily. “Of the more enticing sort.”

“What’s the point of all this?” she asked, setting the scroll down in exasperation. “I thought that clothes were taken off for coupling, and these barely cover anything in the first place.”

“Ah, but unwrapping an alluring package can be extremely titillating for many people,” Theradine informed her. “Although if Sahad has expressed interest in taking his time, I’d advise waiting until the night of the ball to don these beauties. I’ve been acquainted with him long enough to know that good dancing, food, and drink will prime him to want you all the more. Once he sees you in these…” He grinned wickedly. “You’re as done for as a trapped fox.”

Aloy didn’t want to admit how much the thought of seducing her own husband intrigued her, so she simply rolled the scroll back up, gave it back to him, and said, “I’ll be sure to keep that in mind.”

“Well, my little flame, I shall be taking my leave now,” he sighed, standing up and dusting himself off. “Your outfits will be delivered no later than the day before the ball, guaranteed. Do give Sahad my most affectionate farewells.”

Only pausing to give Aloy a smacking kiss on her cheek, Theradine scooped up his supplies and rushed out the door.

Seconds later, the sound of heavy footsteps lazily descending the stairs filled the room.

“Well, well, well,” Nil’s voice purred from behind her, “it seems as though I have my wife all to myself once again. Whatever shall I do with her?”

Rising to her feet, Aloy sauntered over to him, secretly delighting in the way his eyes raked over her body the entire time. Wrapping her arms around his thick waist, she stood on her toes until their lips were almost touching.

“I can think of a few things,” she murmured, before closing the gap between them and losing herself to more love than she had ever dreamed of having.

Chapter Text

What followed were two entire weeks of bliss. Without any other responsibilities beyond the ball, Aloy sank into her husband and the sweetly sensual dance of their newborn relationship. It might have been overwhelming, if not for the fact that she desperately wanted every last bit of touch and affection he gave her.

Days were often spent walking around the perimeter of the city together, Nil for once able to go to the markets with her and pick out dinners and supplies. Although the couple was strictly restricted in the level of affection they could show without risking talk and rumors, proper etiquette demanded that she was to take his arm when they were out and about. Under the circumstances, that was more than enough for Aloy, because even through the several layers of clothes they both wore, his touch felt as though it was burning her.

Nighttime was a different story altogether. Hands grew bolder in their explorations, kisses more heated, and the clothing that stood as a barrier between them lessened. One night, only a couple of days before the masked ball was to be held, they both had managed to get to such a state of undress that nothing stood between them but their undergarments. Aloy sorely wished that the ones Theradine was making for her had already been delivered. If the ravenous way Nil looked at her in even simple, utilitarian underwear was anything to go by, the dressmaker had been entirely correct in his assessment that the scraps of cloth he had designed for her would be too much for him to resist.

Still, Nil would inevitably put a stop to their activities before they went too far, and for the first time, Aloy cursed his sense of honor. As much as she admired him for retaining it in his circumstances, it now stood as a barrier to what she desired. Sleeping next to him every night was a decent consolation prize, she supposed, but it wasn’t exactly what she wanted.

“Patience, love,” he had murmured that night, the words a teasing sigh over the collarbone he had just spent the last several minutes nipping and licking at. “Soon, soon. Good things come to those who lie in wait.”

Even he had his limits, however. The afternoon they were getting ready for the ball, Aloy had noticed a distinct change in his behavior around her. All day, his touches and looks had been lingering longer and wandering more. It wasn’t until twilight had descended upon their little home and she was putting on the final layers of her outfit that she found out why.

Nil had strolled into her room, long finished donning his own costume besides the mask. Just as she had expected, he looked terrifyingly handsome with his hair swept back into a Strider’s tail secured with a red ribbon and his powerful form decorated with dark feathers and hard leather. The roguish smile he gave her upon entry only increased this effect and had a delighted little shiver working its way down her spine.

“You look simply lovely, sweetling,” he crooned, coming to kneel before her where she sat on an ottoman. His fingers fell to kohl she held grasped in her hand. “May I?”

She handed it over, lifting her eyes to the ceiling automatically as he began to draw on their markings. He was tall enough that he could easily reach her to do so, even from his spot on the ground.

“I can do this myself, you know.”

“Ah, but I want to tonight,” Nil said, his voice husky. “It’s a special occasion, after all.”

“It’s just another court event, Nil.” Aloy frowned at him as he placed the stick of kohl on her desk, having finished his work. “The masked part is more of a novelty than anything else.”

Keeping his eyes bolted to hers, one of his hands slipped beneath the hem of her dress, the caress of his long fingers wandering breathtakingly close to her most intimate area—and the brand new scrap of silken lace covering it—sending waves of want washing over her. Aloy’s mouth went dry.

“Not what I meant, Aloy.”

“You mean, tonight...you want to…" she stammered.

“Tonight, if it’s what you still desire, I would very much like to take you to bed.” For as much molten heat as Nil’s eyes contained, there was also openness and a hint of apprehension. “I feel as though both of us have waited long enough.”

“Yes, definitely,” she blurted. “I’m ready—I’ve been ready, and I want you, Nil. All of you.”

His grin was edged in suggestiveness as he gave her inner thighs a final teasing stroke before removing his hand from her skirts. Standing gracefully and offering Aloy his arm, he helped her to her feet as well.

“Then let us go and play our parts, and once the night is over…” He leaned in, placing a kiss beneath her ear that held all of the promise in the world. “...you’ll have me.”

It was as they had both expected—their costumes and the fading light of the evening went a long way to conceal their identities. The reddish fur of Aloy’s mask even had the benefit of drawing attention away from her distinctive hair, blending in with it enough so that, at first glance, it appeared to be part of her outfit. She made a mental note to send Theradine a note containing her thanks, and perhaps a very large bottle of mead.

The return of the soldiers had done a great deal to boost the morale of those in attendance. With the wine flowing generously and the excitement over the mystery of what face lay behind each mask, the atmosphere was spirited and bright, and the event space practically vibrated with energy.

With her mask securely in place, Aloy allowed herself to grimace at all of the merriment surrounding her. This cheer was due to the fact that the Carja had carried out yet another raid on the Nora, and despite the fact that she didn't consider herself a part of them and that Varl had explained that they had been aware that it was coming, innocent people had still died from the broken treaty. If Nil's account was to be believed, she had done her part to mitigate the damage, but it wasn't enough. Her gaze wandered over to the throne in the center of the room, where a man wearing a sun mask both gaudy and unsettling sat.

It would never be enough. Not until he was removed from power.

The chalice of wine Nil handed her was adequate enough to calm her nerves and provide a distraction, at least. Eager to blend in with the crowds even more, he had offered to dance with her, and she had accepted. Aloy didn't know the first thing about dancing, but she was physically adept and her teacher was a good one, so she quickly fell into the appropriate rhythm and steps.

Colors blended and whirled along with her cape behind her as they spun among the other couples. Kadaman and Avad both were in attendance, costumed in similar celestial themes; the former's appearing to be based on dawn and the latter's on midday, and both wore sun masks as their father did, although much friendlier looking than the jeering face on Jiran's. At one point, she was sure she had even spied a certain black-haired noblewoman dressed as a Glinthawk being twirled by the crown prince.

Dancing wasn't so different from fighting after all, and Aloy allowed herself to relax and go along with a flow that was as foreign as it was familiar. All the while her husband smiled down at her, leaning in to occasionally whisper a coy word or two that only ratcheted up her want for this night to end.

Eventually, the music wound down to lilting, gentle notes, and the dancers slowed their steps in response. Nil must have been feeling bold, either on account of the alcohol or anonymity, because he drew her to him until her head was resting comfortably on his chest. They swayed along to the song, a mournful tune which he had whispered was written by a nobleman who had lost his wife to illness. The pair followed no set rhythm, no step pattern of any sort—they simply moved along in perfect harmony with each other, Aloy feeling as though they existed in their own perfect little world despite being surrounded by hundreds of others.

As the last notes of the music faded away, Nil pulled back with a soft exhale, regarding her tenderly.

"Well, I suppose we can make our leave now. Are you ready—"

"His Radiance Sun-King Jiran, thirteenth Luminance of the Radiant Line, Sun Incarnate, wishes to address his subjects!"

Those in attendance turned as through they were a single being, each dipping into a deep bow or curtsy. Aloy clutched at her husband's arm firmly, determined to get through this last trial without incident. They were too close to the throne to escape notice, unfortunately, but she knew she'd be able to handle whatever he threw at her.

The Sun-King rose to his feet, his head moving from left to right as he looked over the crowd.

"Tonight is a grand celebration!" Jiran cried, raising his goblet of what she assumed was wine above his head. "Among you are several wondrously faithful men who have served the Sundom well indeed, bringing home a generous bounty of Nora sacrifices to appease the Sun. The pitiless savages were no match for your ruthless soldiers, especially not the most elite among them—my own chosen kestrels!"

"Don't listen to him, my huntress," Nil murmured in her ear as the nobles around them clapped in delight. "It's all a show. Everything I told you was the truth. Just remember that."

Aloy swallowed back her rising apprehension and forced out a nod, steadied somewhat by her husband's hand rubbing soothing circles into the small of her back.

Even though his features were entirely shielded by that eerie sun mask, Aloy knew the instant Jiran's gaze settled on her and Nil.

The Sun-King's voice dipped into a deadly, honeyed tone. "And I would be remiss not to mention the deeds of one of the finest of all those kestrels, save for my Champion himself."

Nil's hand fell from her back as he straightened automatically. That familiar arrogant mask slid back over his face.

"Sahad Khane Argir," Jiran sighed with a shake of his head. "My boy, how you have redeemed yourself! I'll admit, when I originally heard of your disobedience, my first instinct was to throw you into the Sun-Ring. But I felt as though I had a greater purpose for you, and I was, of course, right!" Fingers dripping with fine gems crept into a fold in his robe and stayed there, and Aloy's eyes narrowed. "So many slaughtered, so many captured, so many seized goods! And your biggest prize of them all - a brute of a savage who managed to cut through an, I'll admit, impressive swathe of soldiers. But he was nothing against you, young Sahad, was he?"

The Sun-King's hand pulled out of his outfit only a few inches, revealing horrifyingly familiar black, bristled fur. And poking out of that fur were a couple of glossy crow's feathers.

Her stomach dropped out.

"Nil," Aloy breathed. "Who—who is he talking about?"

Her husband angled his head towards her just the slightest bit, and through the wild feathers of his mask, she could see the pained silver of his eyes.

"Aloy," he whispered. "Aloy, please, love, I don't know—"

"But what was his name?" Jiran mused, brushing his fingers over the bottom rim of his mask in mock contemplation. "Hm...perhaps viewing this delightful trophy again will jog my memory."

With a flourish, he pulled the furred object out the rest of the way, and Aloy's world crumbled before her.

A boar's head. Black feathers. All of it, soaked in blood.

Jiran's voice was triumphant. "Ah, yes. I remember now. A loyal soldier informed me that the savage's name was Rost."

Reeling, Aloy stumbled back a few paces. Her stomach churned, sending hot bile splashing into the back of her throat. She couldn't bring herself to look at Jiran, at the evidence he proudly boasted. And as much as she didn't want to look at Nil either, she couldn't wrench her wide-eyed stare from him.

"Liar," she whispered. "Murderer."

His mouth hung open, then snapped shut. He gave her one last look, the pleading in the silver eyes she had once thought to be beautiful almost too much to stomach from a man who had committed the highest of betrayals.

And then, he turned away from her.

Through the ringing of her ears, it took far too long for Aloy to realize that the wretched screaming she heard was coming from her. By the time she had, two palace guards had already come up behind her, each grabbing one of her upper arms roughly. One tore away her mask and threw it to the ground. Through the tears burning and blurring her eyes, she watched as it shattered, and something ugly and vicious roared inside of her. Even though she knew dimly that it was useless, she still thrashed and fought against her captors, even managing to wrench an arm free in the process.

"Subdue this wild animal," Jiran snarled. "At least until it hears of its fate."

A swift blow to her head had her gasping and teetering on the edge of losing her balance as stars bloomed in her eyes, but she was wise enough to keep her mouth shut and not invite any further harm to herself.

"Much better," the Sun-King sighed, sitting back, lifting his mask, and taking a long drag of his wine. "Now, Sahad. You've done well, and I thought it would be fitting to grant you a reward in honor of your service."

Nil bowed his head, obedient beast that he was. "You're too kind, Your Radiance."

Jiran tilted his head, and bitter hatred curdled in Aloy as she realized he was probably smirking beneath his mask. "I know. This is far more than you deserve, but I am a generous master and willing to welcome you back into the fold. So, here it is: tomorrow at dawn, I shall give you the honor and pleasure of dispatching this savage in sacrifice to the Sun. Then, we shall see about obtaining a proper wife to bear your sons, hm?"

There was the slightest pause, the tiniest bit of hesitation before Nil spoke. But then, his voice rang out, confident and strong, and more of Aloy's heart withered away and died. "Yes, Your Radiance. Thank you, Your Radiance."

"You're very welcome. Guards, take this animal and lock it up in a cage where it belongs—"

"Father! Stop this at once!"

Aloy jerked her aching head around to find Kadaman storming towards the throne, sun mask discarded and ribbons flying behind him as though he were marching to war.

Jiran tilted his head downward. "Stand down, boy. I know you have grown fond of this creature, but all pets must be put down eventually. We can always find you a new one."

There had been a note of warning ringing in his father's voice, but the prince pressed on. "I will not. This madness—the ceaseless killing, the useless bloodshed—has to end."

Finally lifting his mask from his face, Jiran glared down at this son. "It will not. Not until the Derangement has ended—"

"Look around you!" Kadaman cried. "Your mindless slaughter of innocent lives had solved nothing. It is not working. It never has! You've grown so mad, so blinded by your own greed and self-importance that not only have you made enemies in every corner of the known world, you have convinced yourself that you are a god!"

"I will give you one more warning, and only because you are my son and heir," Jiran hissed. "Cease speaking, or there will be consequences far beyond what you can imagine."

Kadaman looked in all that moment like a king, standing tall and proud in his conviction.

"I will not stand down," he said calmly. "I will never stand down. Not while you continue to destroy the lives of so many. It ends now, father."

"Indeed it does." The Sun-King drew back, steepling his fingers in front of him. "Guards, apprehend this traitor as well. I hereby disinherit Kadaman from the succession of the Radiant line and strip him of all titles and honors he has earned."

"Titles and honors mean nothing to me," Kadaman spat as two more guards appeared and grabbed him.

Jiran spared him a final look of disgust before rising to his feet. "My dear and loyal subjects! It seems we will be experiencing a change of venue for the rest of the evening. But rest assured, there is still plenty of entertainment to be had!"

Confused looks and mutters spread throughout the crowd. At some point during Kadaman's speech, Nil had slipped away, and for that, Aloy was glad. At least she didn't have to stomach looking at one monster anymore.

"Since you are all already in attendance here," Jiran continued, "we shall be moving this event to the Sun-Ring." His gaze dropped back down to his son, and his lips curled. "For the sacrifice and execution of your former crown prince, Kadaman of the Dawn's Rising, now turncoat and treasonous snake."

For the second time that night, Aloy's life fell apart as several horrified gasps and cries rang out among the assembled nobility. A dry sob escaped her as Kadaman's eyes widened with fear for the first time since she had made his acquaintance. If she knew the right words to say, maybe she could have comforted him. Maybe she could have comforted them both. But words had never been her strong suit, so she stayed silent.

What was there to say to the condemned, anyway?

There was a sudden commotion in the crowds behind them, and wearily, Aloy turned once again to look. Someone was fighting their way through the mass of bodies, a picture of fierce determination and heartbreak both.

Her heart plummeted.

"Talanah," she whispered. "No."

Kadaman must have heard her, because his head whipped around, and a pained cry escaped him .

"What's this?" Jiran's grin twisted until it took over his entire face, transforming him into the hateful, deranged creature he was. "Ah, how kind of you to join us, Talanah Khane Padish. Tell me, Kadaman, was she a good bed warmer? Did she please you as a good woman should?"

At the former prince's stunned look, the king laughed cruelly. "What, you believed that I wasn't aware of your little trysts?" His face hardened. "Stupid child. I am aware of everything that goes on within this city. Arrest this whore too, guards. Perhaps it will be amusing for the savage animal to have a companion tomorrow in the Sun-Ring. Two beastly excuses for women, fighting side by side. What sport it will make!"

"No!" Kadaman screamed, thrashing against his captors. "Do not harm her! Murderous wretch, I will kill you myself, I swear—"

"Take them all away," Jiran ordered loudly. "And let us all be off to the Sun-Ring."

The procession through the city was one of mourning. Commoners lined the streets, clutching at each other and watching through hollow eyes as Jiran, his personal guard, the three prisoners, and a train of peacock nobles passed them by.

Aloy had never heard the city so quiet.

The guards had lashed her and Talanah together to impede their escape, and it made walking far more difficult. Their time spent hunting together, however, made matching up their paces easier, and Aloy made sure to huddle close to her dearest friend, who hadn't said a word since they had departed the palace.

If what she had gone through tonight could be considered horrible, what Talanah was going through was magnitudes of degrees worse. At least she hadn't had to watch Rost die in front of her.

Kadaman walked a few paces ahead of them, his head held as high as ever. Always proud, always regal, even as he marched towards his end.

In a last stroke of utter cruelty, Jiran had decided to force her and Talanah to watch as Kadaman was sacrificed. Then, they were to be locked up beneath the Sun-Ring until dawn, presumably to marinate on what they had seen all night. When morning came, it would be their turn.

Their destination loomed ahead of them, already blazing with torches and oil lamps. Aloy had always avoided the place, and a primal fear seized at her when she was finally pushed inside, once Jiran and his guard had entered and were taking their seats. A bricked over, circular space ringed by rows of ascending benches awaited her, but she only had seconds to take it in before her and Talanah were shoved up a couple of stairs to one of the first row seats—prime viewing real estate.

"Wait!" Kadaman said, twisting around in his bonds. "Let me...allow me to say goodbye."

The guards handling him looked between each other, then up at the box where Jiran sat.

"One minute," one said gruffly. "And no more."

"Talanah, my darling, look at me," Kadaman murmured, staring up at her through shining amber eyes. "Let me regard your beauty up close one last time, my dove."

Haltingly, Talanah raised her head. Tears were glittering in her enormous brown eyes, and several broke free to glide down her cheeks.

"Kadi," she sobbed. "Kadi, I can't—what am I supposed to do without you? We were supposed to...we were supposed to…"

"We were supposed to do many things, my darling," he chuckled softly. "But there's never enough time, is there?"

"No," Talanah sniffed, swiping away her tears. "There never is."

"You will continue to live your life as you always have," he said. "Just as you did after your father and brother died in this very ring. You're a survivor, my Talanah. You always have been. You survive, and you persevere. And that is exactly why I have always loved you with everything I am."

She broke down again, bowing her head and shuddering uncontrollably. "I love you too, Kadi. I always have and I always will."

He must have realized his time was running out, because he turned his attention on Aloy next.

"Aloy, all I ask of you is that you be a friend to her," he said. "For however long that is required, although I hope that it is for many years to come. And if you somehow make it out of here…" Kadaman managed a smile. "Make sure you put an end to Redmaw."

"I will, Kadi," Aloy said quietly. "It's been...it's been wonderful being your friend."

That smile grew infinitely sad. "One of the greatest joys in my life has been the privilege of making your acquaintance. Take care, my dear."

"Time's up," one of the guards said. "Let's go."

While the rest of the nobility slowly filtered in and filled the stands, Kadaman was led to the center of the ring. Aloy took a moment to scan the crowds, more out of numb habit than anything else, when something only a few rows away caught her eye.

Or rather, someone.

A sneer curled on her lips. It looked as though Nil had returned from wherever he had run off to during the chaos of the end of the ball in order to watch Kadaman's slaughter. Monster, indeed.

She should have run him through with his blade when she had the chance.

As though he felt her eyes on him, Nil took that moment to glance in her direction. Aloy was close enough to see that his eyes were filled to the brim with both sorrow and determination. And strangely enough, those were soon replaced by what she recognized as reassurance.

Before he could taunt her anymore, Aloy thinned her lips and whipped her head back around. He was dead to her now.

As dead as she'd likely be come morning.

The stands were filled far too soon, her and Talanah's bench staying vacant. Good. She didn't want any of these awful, miserable, hideous people near her anyway.

A hush fell over the crowd as a drum began to beat like the heart of a diseased beast, vibrating through Aloy's body and shaking her to her very core. She pressed closer to Talanah, as much to comfort herself as her friend.

"I'm here," she whispered hoarsely. "I know it doesn't help much, but I'm right here with you."

Talanah didn't say anything, but Aloy felt a slight pressure as she dropped her head to her shoulder.

The drums stopped.

"Kadaman, formerly of the Radiant House," a crier announced over the murmur of the crowd. "To be executed by way of Trampler, for the crime of treason and speaking against the word of the Sun! Does the condemned have any last words?"

"I do!" Kadaman called, his voice steady. "For that excuse of a man who sits upon a throne he does not deserve." The fire that raged in his eyes was so scorching that Aloy could almost feel it from where she sat. "Your end will come, sooner than you believe. Although it will not be by my hand, all that's left of me shall guide the hand of whoever puts a stop to your madness."

He spat on the ground, then began to sweep his eyes over the stands.

"People of the Sundom, hold hope in your hearts! A new dawn is coming, a new day where you shall all be free of tyranny! One day soon, the Sun shall shine upon us all once more, and there will be no more war. There will be no more strife. There will only be peace."

"Lies and madness!" Jiran cried from atop his perch. "Let us silence those forever, as we do all who speak blasphemy against the will of the Sun! Release the machines!"

There was silence, and then an awful mechanical scraping filled the air. Two Tramplers, half tied down and wildly belligerent, were dragged into the arena, several soldiers bearing polearms digging them into the machines to encourage them along. Once they were entirely inside, the discordant screeching of the main gate being closed rang out. With great haste and practised hands, their handlers undid the bonds that held them back, then made a break for it into the stands, one of them tossing a spear in Kadaman's general direction as he ran.

As much as Aloy was tempted to look away, she knew she couldn't. Not when Talanah was looking on so bravely with eyes wide open, ready and willing to watch as her lover met his death. Keeping her own eyes trained on Kadaman's movement, she rested her cheek, slick with tears she hadn't realized she had shed, on the top of her friend's head.

Kadaman had always been a naturally gifted fighter. His (often exaggerated, she had originally suspected) stories had been backed up by his brother and other friends enough that Aloy knew now that they were mostly fact, and watching him fight now, she believed it. He rolled and dodged out of the way of the Trampler's furious attacks with expert speed and skill, a credit to all of his time spent at the barracks.

With a single weapon and against two of the largest known machines, however, his strength and agility quickly waned. He managed to partially disable one of the Tramplers by piercing and therefore disabling several of its more important parts, but it was far too small of a victory for him to prevail. His offensive attacks faltered and then faded away until Kadaman was almost entirely on the defense, and Aloy could see even from where she sat the way his chest heaved with the effort of his breathing.

It wouldn't be long now, she knew. Still, she watched. As a final favor to one of the only true friends she had ever made in her life, she kept looking, because no one deserved to die alone.

It was a simple misstep that proved to be his downfall, and everything happened so quickly after that. His foot caught on a stray rock, a blunder that would have normally been recoverable. But with as drained as he was, Kadaman lost his balance. He fell to the earth, landing on his back, and the less damaged Trampler was on top of him immediately.

As with most deaths, it wasn't pretty. Still, Aloy looked. As the machine's weight fell upon his leg and broke it with a sickening crack, she looked, even as his gut-wrenching scream in response made her sick to her stomach. And when one of its deadly horns lowered and jerked forward to pierce his guts in a bloody spray, still she looked.

Kadaman had fallen close enough to them that they could hear as he coughed up a mouthful of blood. Close enough that they could see the light fade from his once mischievous eyes. Close enough that they saw the moment that his chest stopped moving.

Talanah began to shake violently, and she didn't stop for a long time. Not when the machines were dispatched by a group of soldiers, one of them losing his own life in the process. Not when Kadaman's broken body was covered in a rough shroud and carried away. Not when they were forced to their feet, dragged down into the depths of the city and thrown into a cell without food or water, still in their costumes.

With her hands freed, Aloy did all she could to comfort her friend even though she knew it was useless. She stroked Talanah's hair until it laid flat again, whispered nonsensical words into her ear, held her as tightly as she could. She pushed past her own rage and sorrow to be an anchor, even though she felt entirely adrift.

Come morning, it wouldn't matter anymore. Nothing would. So with her friend clasped tightly in her arms, Aloy leaned against the stone wall of the cell and waited for a dawn she hoped against all hope would never come.

Chapter Text

Drip, drip.

There was water leaking somewhere in the cell. Dully, Aloy listened to it.

Drip, drip.

There was a rat, big and ugly, snuffling at her fingers and toes. Absentmindedly, she shooed it away.

Drip, drip.

Talanah laid on her chest, unmoving yet unsleeping despite the hours that must have passed. Comfortingly, Aloy stroked her back.

"We're going to die soon."

Tilting her head back, Aloy squeezed her eyes shut.

"Yes."

Drip, drip.

"What's stopping us from simply laying down arms and giving up? Just letting Sahad and the other kestrels gore us?"

Aloy smiled, even though nothing about their situation was funny. "I don't know about you, but I'd like to go down fighting."

"Kadi was gored." Talanah's eyes were hollow. "There was so much blood. If he had been any closer, some of it would have gotten on us."

Drip, drip.

"I know."

"We're going to die."

Aloy squeezed her tighter. "We're going to do what Kadi told you to do, Talanah. Survive."

"Survive. And then die."

Drip. Tap. Tap.

At the sound of footsteps, Aloy raised her head wearily. There was no window, no source of light within the cell beyond that which made it in from a faintly glowing oil lamp in the passageway outside of it, but she could have sworn that it was still nighttime. Or maybe the isolation had played tricks on her mind, and dawn and doom were just around the corner.

The click of a key turning in the lock had her bracing herself.

If they wanted to take her and Talanah, she would go kicking and screaming. She would fight to the end, for the both of them if she had to.

Gently pulling Talanah from her, Aloy moved into a protective crouch in front of her. If it was a savage animal they wanted, it was a savage animal they'd get.

The door opened, and someone stepped inside.

Caught off guard by the man who appeared in front of her, a man she hadn't seen in a long time but recognized immediately, Aloy stood frozen.

"...Radid?"

"Aloy." His voice was grave, his eyes anxious. "You and Khane Padish. Come. There's not much time."

"So you're going to be one of the kestrels tasked with killing us?" Aloy snarled. Her trembling fists clenched as adrenaline crackled over her skin. "I thought you were a good man, but I'm starting to see that means something very different to the Carja—"

"No," he interrupted her. "We're here to free you, but we must hurry."

Her eyes narrowed. "We?"

The kestrel stepped aside, and another man walked into the cell.

Another kestrel, and one she knew even better. One who, even after all that had happened over the last several hours, still had the cruelty to mock her with the relief written large on his face.

"You," she seethed.

"Thank the Sun," Nil breathed. "Aloy, love. You're all right."

He took a step in her direction. Everything in her churning with rage and sorrow and heartbreak, Aloy leapt at him, intending to tear that awful, mocking look from his face with her fingernails alone if she had to.

But before she could get there, strong arms caught her and shoved her away as though she was made of nothing. She cried out her fury, twisting and fighting against her captor, but Radid held firm.

"Enough of this. We must leave, or we risk losing our window of opportunity to smuggle the Sun-Prince out of the city."

That got Aloy's attention. "Avad? He's all right? He's not hurt?"

"He's as fine as he can be, all things considered." Nil was looking at her through slitted, pained eyes. "Radid. Assist Khane Padish. I must have a word with my wife."

"Yes, sir."

"It'll be far more than just a word," Aloy spat, hatred gnarling her tone.

Nil was wise enough not to attempt to touch her, at least. Instead, he turned abruptly and stalked out of the cell. Having no other choice in her current situation, Aloy followed after him, gnashing her teeth in an attempt to take all of her bottled up anger out on something.

Once they were standing in the hallway, Nil turned back around to face her. The orange glow from the lamps settled into the lines of his face, making him appear older and far more weary than she had ever seen him. The shadow from the rest of his beard growing in around his goatee stood stark against the pale drawnness of his face, only adding to the effect. The ghost of what had once been concern whispered through her, and her fingers quivered of their own accord, as though they wished to reach out and comfort him.

She snapped them closed.

Monsters didn't deserve comforting.

"What do you have to say to me?" Aloy hissed. "Because believe me, you said more than enough last night."

"I didn't kill Rost, Aloy," he said, rubbing his hand over his face. "I didn't even know what he looked like. Just his name, because of you."

Her nails dug into her palms as she did everything she could to keep from punching him. "Just because you didn't know who he was doesn't mean you're not responsible for his murder. You lied about what you did in the Sacred Lands, that much is clear." She stepped forward. "So, tell me. How many was it, Nil? Did you live up to that precious nickname of yours? Did you cleanse the battlefield of all who opposed you? Did you laugh and laugh as the earth ran red with blood? Did you gut the elderly? The sick? Children—"

"Enough." His voice was deathly quiet, and in it was a warning. "If that's what you believe, then so be it."

Reaching to his side, Nil drew his sword. Automatically, Aloy flinched and jerked back. Pure hatred, hot and all-consuming, blazed through her.

She wouldn't run. She wouldn't bow down and let him slay her like a goat lead to slaughter. No. For all he had taken from her, for all he had done, she would fight until her last gasp.

Just like Kadaman had.

But instead of running her through with the blade, Nil dropped to his knees as though he bore the entire weight of the world on his shoulders.

As he had once before, he lifted the sword high between them. Offered it to her freely.

"If you believe that I have violated our blood vow, then this sword is yours. In that case, I have dishonored myself to the highest order, and it is your right to take it and end my life in a fitting way."

Aloy snatched it from him, the sword a heavy weight in her hand as she curled her fingers around the curved hilt. It was the chance, the opportunity she had been daydreaming about for the past several hours. Nil was wearing his kestrel armor, leaving his chest unguarded, and it would make her task simple. So simple—a single thrust of the blade through his black heart, and he would be bleeding out on the floor within seconds. Then this nightmare—part of it, at least—would be over. She would be freed of him, of the horror of his actions, of this pain that gasped and ached within her with every breath.

As effortlessly as she did with her spear, she drew the sword back. Eyes as wide as the full moon and glimmering just as brightly, Nil stared up at her, his lips slightly parted. There was betrayal, there was hurt. But there was also something familiar there, too. She couldn't put a name to it, not now. Not when he was gazing at her with the same damn eyes that she had woken up to every morning over the past two weeks.

His arms dropped to his sides. With a great, final shudder, he hung his head in resignation

In acceptance of his death, rushing to meet him.

Just as she and Talanah had. Just as Kadaman had.

One thrust, and it would be over.

One thrust, and those silver eyes would haunt her forever.

Aloy pulled her arm back further. She fixed her gaze on her target.

With a wild cry, the muscles in her arm activated with the force necessary to follow through with her intention.

And those eyes lifted to stare at her in wonder as the blade bounced harmlessly off the stone of the wall opposite to her with a clatter.

"I...I...we don't have time for this," she snarled.

Aloy stormed past him as quickly as she could so he wouldn't see the tears burning her eyes—and just barely avoided running straight into Radid at the entrance to the cell. Talanah stood behind him mutely, her face still devoid of all emotion.

"My lady," he said mildly, cocking his head. "Are you ready to depart?"

"I guess. I'd really appreciate it if someone can tell me what's going on while we escape, though," she muttered.

Stepping to Radid's side, his face and voice both as smooth as a looking glass, Nil said, "That can be arranged once we've left this place. Now, come. Quickly. Our status as kestrels only bought us a small amount of time. Here. Wear these, both of you."

Reaching into a supplies-laden bag at his side, he pulled out two cloaks and held them out. Aloy swiped them away, her gut clenching when she realized one of them was her cloak. He must have gone home to grab her things.

But there was no time for sentimentality or second guesses. She threw the outerwear on quickly, assisting Talanah with hers when her fingers fumbled over the clasp.

Raising both her hood and her courage, Aloy said, "Lead the way."

Escaping the prison beneath the Sun-Ring was tenuous work. There were soldiers posted everywhere, and Nil and Radid both had to do a lot of talking and ordering around while Aloy and Talanah stayed hidden around corners and in nooks. As frustrating as it was to not be able to contribute, she also knew it was their only chance of staying alive.

Their closest call was a stray guard doing his rounds. As they rounded their last corner, mere feet away from clearing the tunnels beneath the Sun-Ring and disappearing into the winding alleyways of the city, the group ran straight into a heavily armored man. His eyes first widened as they took in both kestrels, then creased with confusion as he looked past them and spotted the two cloaked women.

He opened his mouth to speak, but Nil was faster. With blinding agility, he unsheathed the knife on his belt and buried it into a gap in the armor on the guard's belly. His other hand clasped over the man's mouth just as quickly, and slowly, he lowered him to the ground and stayed crouched over him until the light had faded from his eyes.

Aloy expected to see the twisted relish on his face that had been there after the bandits, but when he angled his head back, there was only urgency.

"We must move with haste. Once this body is discovered, the entire city will be on alert. Radid."

The other kestrel helped him drag the corpse into a dark alcove several feet away, and without a second look, they hurried onward and away from the evidence of their flight.

Once they had reached the exit to the prison, however, Nil raised an arm as a signal to halt.

"Radid and I will go on ahead," he said. "Continue to follow us while you keep enough distance between us so that it does not appear that you're following, but do not lose sight of us. Our destination is on the other side of the city, so this will take time." His eyes flicked over to Aloy for a moment. "Patience is necessary."

"I'd be far more patient if I knew what was going on," she bit out.

Nil didn't respond to her. Instead, he shared a look with Radid, then the two men stepped out into the street.

As deeply as her anger at him ran, Aloy followed his instructions. Whatever their personal conflict was, it wasn't worth her death.

She glanced over at her companion.

Especially not Talanah's.

Once the coast was clear and the men were a safe enough distance away, she reached out and grasped her friend's clammy hand in her own.

"Are you ready?" Aloy whispered.

Instead of speaking, Talanah raised her chin slightly.

Aloy sighed inaudibly. At least it was something.

With one last breath to clear her mind and the turmoil in her heart, Aloy stepped into the street with Talanah in tow.

Meridian at this late hour was a strange place, abandoned and washed in an eerie green glow from moonlight kissing the bronze and reddish rock which the city was built from. The thick walls of their cell had made it impossible to hear the chiming of the hourly bell, but if she had to guess, she would say it was a couple of hours after midnight. Most of the populace was tucked safely into bed, while those still out and about reeked of alcohol and gazed at the two through befuddled, glazed over eyes. Even so, Aloy made sure to keep her hood drawn tight, glancing over at Talanah every so often to ensure that hers was as well.

Nil and Radid set a brisk pace. Thankfully, the moon had reached its fullest phase, and the silvery light which splashed off of the scales of their armor kept them visible. Aloy still had to hurry to keep up. At least Talanah, as silent as she remained, was able to match her speed without needing extra encouragement.

Aloy didn't dare fully breathe until they reached the first alley. Luck was on their side, for the narrow passageway was entirely abandoned, but she kept Nil's word about keeping space between them at the forefront of her mind. There were several doors lining the walls, and there was no telling when someone could pop out of one and discover them.

Two lefts, a right, another left. Aloy kept track of their direction, for if she allowed her mind to wander anywhere else but on the task at hand, she knew she would be swept away in the churning current of the horrific events of the last six hours. Not for the first time, she reminded herself that she was still alive, and that meant she still had a chance to survive, no matter how slim it was.

"Survive and persevere," she said under her breath as if to remind herself of that.

"Survive...and persevere," came another voice, hoarse but even.

Aloy squeezed Talanah's hand tighter.

When they had made a final right turn, Nil and Radid slowed and then came to a full stop by what looked like an unassuming door which would lead to any old apartment.

Apprehensive, Aloy faltered in her steps. But when Nil turned back to her, his expression was one of overwhelming relief.

"Come," he called out softly. "It's all right. We've made it."

Once they had reached the two kestrels, Nil raised his fist and knocked on the door. It was in a rhythmic pattern, Aloy realized. Like a signal, or a password.

Nothing happened for the space of several seconds. Then, with a creak that felt far too loud for the secrecy they had so desperately tried to maintain, the door cracked open.

And on the other side was a handsomely lined face so welcome that Aloy felt as though she could collapse from relief.

"Sahad." His eyes shined bright. "I'm so very pleased to see you, my son."

His eyes wandered past Nil, landing on the woman at Aloy's side.

"Ligan," Talanah croaked. "Thank the Sun."

The older man opened the door the rest of the way, expression steeped with pain.

"Inside, all of you. Quickly, now. There's no time left to spare."

As the four hurried in, Nil asked, "The prince. Is he secure?"

Ligan nodded. "Protected by his honor guard further down in the tunnels. Come with me."

As they followed after her father-in-law, Aloy caught up with Nil, all the while forcing herself to be civil.

Her efforts did little to keep the snappishness from her voice. "So, am I allowed to know what's going on yet?"

Nil kept his eyes trained ahead. "We're fleeing the city tonight with Avad and his honor guard. A voluntary exile."

"Exile?" she said in disbelief. "To where? The entire Sundom will be crawling with soldiers the moment Jiran finds out he's gone, and it's not exactly like we'll be welcome in the Sacred Lands."

"That's why we're heading north," Nil replied. "To Oseram Lands. The Claim."

"Oh." Realization caught up with her. "He means to find the woman he spoke of. The slave he helped to escape a couple of years ago."

"Yes." Nil spared her a quick glance. "Ersa."

Aloy blew out a breath. "There's no guarantee they won't shoot us on sight. It's a long shot."

"It is," Nil agreed grimly. "But it's the only one we have."

They fell into an awkward silence after that, one which hadn't existed between them since the initial days of their marriage. Unable to handle that, or really being close to him at all, Aloy eventually fell back to Talanah again.

"How are you holding up?" she asked quietly.

First the first time since that had been thrown into the dark of the cell, Talanah met her gaze fully, most of the clarity having returned to them.

"Besides the obvious?" she laughed bitterly. "At least Ligan is alive. At least…at least I still have someone."

"You have me too," Aloy reminded her. After a beat of hesitation, she added, "And Nil. For whatever that's worth."

Uncertainty crossed Talanah's face, but she kept her makeup-smeared lips sealed.

The trek through the tunnels—the secret passageways out of the city that Kadaman had once mentioned, Aloy realized—was much faster than their perilous journey through the city had been. Not five minutes passed before they descended a final set of ancient stairs which opened up to a decently sized room with a door on the opposite wall.

A group of soldiers stood at full alert in a protective ring, their weapons raised and at the ready as the four approached.

In the center, drawn but standing as tall and as regal as ever, was the sole person in the city perhaps in more danger than them.

"Avad!" Aloy cried out, headless of the many sharp objects pointed directly at her.

The guards lowered their weapons as the Sun-Prince pushed passed them, frantically looking the two women over. His eyes were red and swollen, and what remained of her heart broke even further.

"Aloy, Talanah," he said breathlessly. "By the Sun, it's a miracle you were able to get out."

"Not a miracle, Your Highness," Nil piped up. "Just a great deal of careful planning and maneuvering."

Avad nodded wearily. "And you have my deepest thanks for the work you've done over the past several hours, Sahad. Especially for preventing more senseless bloodshed."

"Your Highness," one of his guards said. "Forgive my interruption, but we must be going. Sunrise will not hold itself back, even for a prince of the Sun."

"You're right." Avad drew back. "Let us depart this accursed city."

As he turned to head out, half of his guard in front and the other half closing ranks behind him, Nil turned to Aloy, unstrapping one of the two packs he carried and holding it out to here.

"Here," he said, his expression blank. "I stopped by home and grabbed what I could of yours. Your hunting armor is in there, and I'd advise changing into it once we have a chance to catch our breath."

Mutely, she took the bag and slung it over her back, wondering why he had bothered to go through the effort, and for the first time all night, doubt pricked at her.

In the next instant, she kicked it away as hard as she could, reminding herself firmly that he was an unrepentant murder who had broken a vow and all of her trust in him. Fetching her things meant nothing in the face of all that he had done.

With her head held high, Aloy pushed past him and out the door.

Their party traveled tirelessly all night. With no breaks and food and water consumed as they walked, their pace was punishing, and the only time Aloy stopped was to rip the bottom half of her long skirt clean off, dim sorrow jabbing at her from the necessity of destroying Theradine's hard work like this. Careful to hide any evidence of their escape, she shoved the tattered cloth into her bag, breathing a sigh of relief when she was able to finally move freely. It would have to do until she had a chance to change, and there was no telling when that would be.

With tensions running high and with breath better saved for moving, words were scarce. The only actual conversation the group had was to come to unanimous agreement to only travel at night. Avoiding highwaymen and bandits would be more difficult, but they were a foe much easier dispatched than the well-armed, well-trained soldiers belonging to Jiran’s army. Machine lights could also be more readily spotted from a distance in the dark, making avoiding herds of them far simpler.

Even so, Aloy made sure to scan the area with her Focus about once every half hour. Her primary goal at the moment was securing Avad’s safety and their own, and the tool offered an extra level of security she was grateful for, especially when it caught a couple of would-be attackers stalking them through the dark. Once she had alerted Radid to their presence, the two were handily taken care of within minutes.

The dawn she had dreaded only hours prior came eventually. After hours of half jogging in clothing meant more for ornamentation than moving, Aloy now regarded the muted glow of the rising sun in the east with exhausted relief.

The deserts north of Meridian offered little in the way of cover to hide the day away, but eventually, a decently sized alcove mostly shielded by brush nestled into the side of a cliff was discovered. Lots were drawn for watches between the soldiers of Avad’s honor guard. Aloy offered to take one, but was met with blank stares. Radid had to pull her aside and explain to her that despite her close friendship with the prince, the guard trusted only each other to look out for his well-being. It didn’t escape her notice, however, that Nil was allowed to take second watch, and she had to bite down on her tongue to keep from saying anything.

Radid, however, noticed.

“He knows several of His Highness’s guards personally, my lady,” he had said quietly. “Try not to take too much offense.”

Aloy was too exhausted and too emotional to argue, so she simply nodded and headed in the direction of the tents which were being erected. She hadn’t found one stowed away in the numerous supplies in her bag(although she had found her stash of herbs, and her cheeks had flushed—more from anger or embarrassment, she wasn’t sure) and had assumed that one would be provided for her.

What she found, however, was a different story.

Nil sat crouched over the tent he had brought along for their hunting trips, hammering a final metal stake down into the sandy earth. With no other choice, Aloy steeled herself and approached him.

“Where am I supposed to sleep?” she asked shortly.

He lifted his eyes to her reluctantly. “Right here.”

“No. Absolutely not.” The urge to grab for her dagger was at an all-time high. “I am not sleeping next to you. I’ll sleep on the Goddess-damned ground if I have to instead.”

“Relax. You don’t have to be anywhere near me.” Nil looked back down, his brow creased. “I’ll be the one sleeping out on my bedroll. This was intended for you.”

“Good,” Aloy huffed. “Let’s keep it that way.”

She stalked off while he finished, heading in Talanah and Ligan’s direction with the intention of saying goodnight - or good morning, she supposed.

The sight of Talanah speaking quietly with her guardian cheered her, at least, after the near catatonic state she had spent most of the night in. Raising her head, her friend waved Aloy over.

“You two all settled in for the day?” Aloy asked.

“I think so,” Talanah said, attempting a smile. It fell apart before it could be fully formed, however. “I don’t know how well I’ll sleep, but…”

“You need to try,” Aloy said gently. “We need to keep ourselves fresh if we’re going to make it to the Claim.”

“Yeah.” Talanah bit her lip and shared a looked with Ligan. “About that.”

Perplexed, Aloy waited for her to continue.

You’ll be going to the Claim.” Talanah took a breath. “Ligan and I won’t be going with you.”

“What?” she exclaimed. “Talanah, no, you can’t go back to Meridian. They’ll be searching for you - “

“We’re not going back to Meridian, Aloy,” Ligan spoke up. “We’re going into hiding.”

“What he said,” Talanah confirmed. “The Jewel is huge and dense, and it’s easy to disappear into. So, tomorrow morning, we’ll be splitting off and heading southwest.”

“Talanah,” she said softly. “Are you sure? There machines there...they’re vicious. It’ll be dangerous.”

Her friend’s smile was true this time. “I thought you had more faith in me than that.” The corners of her lips dropped. “Machine fighting? Staying out of sight? I can handle that. What I can’t handle right now is...people, I guess. Not after everything that’s happened. I need time away, and besides, this old man needs someone to protect him. Who knows what awaits up north.”

Ligan coughed out a polite laugh as his ward nudged him with an elbow. “I’d be insulted, but I’m not the young man I used to be. She’s right.”

“I only ask that you promise me that you’ll do all you can to protect Avad.” Talanah’s gaze was intent. “I love him like a sister would a brother, and if anything happens to him…”

“I promise,” Aloy said, struggling to get the words out through her tightened throat. “I can’t...I can’t lose anyone else either. I’ll do whatever it takes.”

Talanah held her gaze for a while, as though to determine the veracity of her words. Then, she reached out and clasped Aloy’s shoulder tight. “I know you will. There’s no one else I trust to be my second, after all.”

Her heart a heavy weight in her chest, Aloy headed off to her tent to change and to finally claim the sleep which had eluded her for over a day now.

But before she allowed herself rest, she swallowed a pinch of her herbs, telling herself that it was more out of habit than anything else.

She was shaken awake after what felt like no time at all, thankfully by Talanah herself. Exhausted, she sat up and peered through the open tent flap to find that late twilight was upon them, washing the desert in striking hues of orange and casting long, purple shadows.

A breakfast of jerky and plain, boiled cornmeal was eaten in silence. Paranoid reigned over the party, with several wary glances at their surroundings whenever there was a noise or any unusual movement on the horizon, although it always ended up being a stray machine or something knocked about by the rushing wind common to this part of the desert. Already, Aloy wished they were safe in the Claim. If the murmurs of the guards were anything to go by, the trek to the border would take longer than a fortnight, and at this rate, it would feel more like a year.

At least Nil hadn’t so much as looked in her direction all evening.

Their meal ended far too quickly, and after a hasty packing up of tents and bedrolls, it was time to depart—and in the case of Talanah and Ligan, go their separate ways.

Aloy was irritated to find that Nil was choosing to linger as well, although he had the decency to stand several paces away from her. Instead of focusing on that, however, she turned her attention to Talanah, taking her in for what hopefully wouldn’t be the last time.

With a lump in her throat, she reached out to her closest friend for a final embrace. The other woman crushed Aloy to her, and they stayed locked together for an incalculable amount of time.

Once they had finally parted, Aloy had to struggle to hold back more useless tears.

“Be safe,” she choked out. “We still have a lot to do together, you know?”

“Like taking care of Redmaw,” Talanah replied, her own eyes just a tad too bright. “I promise we’ll see each other again, and when we do, we’ll have a hell of a hunt to look forward to. Whatever Avad is planning, I know he’ll do it well. When we return to Meridian, it will be to throw that shriveled prune off of his own throne.”

Aloy swallowed. “Yeah. I’m no good at farewells, but…”

“Then it’s I’ll see you at another sunrise,” Talanah said, giving her a quick punch in the arm. “Give them hell, Aloy.”

“You too, Talanah.”

While her friend did a final check of her items and buckled the clasps of her pack, Aloy stuck around to say a quick goodbye to Ligan.

It turns out that the older man was already busy with Nil. She tried not to eavesdrop, but proximity and curiosity both shot down that noble idea before it could even get off the ground.

“Your mother would be proud of you, Sahad,” came Ligan’s quiet voice.

“I’m not so sure of that,” Nil replied with a strained laugh.

“Then would it mean more if I said that I am proud of you?”

“I—I suppose.” He took a deep breath. “Even though you shouldn’t be.”

“You’re keeping the Sun-Prince safe, son. You rescued Talanah and Aloy both and have had an integral part in planning all of this. I’d say that’s enough to make any father proud.”

A pause, and then Nil’s voice carried over the wind, trembling with emotion.

“Thank you...father.”

Unable to help herself anymore, Aloy angled her head to face the two men. Nil must have seen the movement, for his gaze trailed over to lock with her. For a moment, the two stared at each other, and the secret wound within her, one that sat quietly beneath all of her grief for Kadaman and Rost but had cut almost as deep, throbbed fiercely.

With a final goodbye to Talanah, Aloy walked away.

Chapter Text

The next two weeks were an exercise in endurance of both the emotional and physical variety. Nearly all of their group, with the exception of Aloy and Avad, had been trained as soldiers and had seen battle numerous times, and long marches were not unusual. Still, the journey to the border tested even the limits of the honor guard and two kestrels, for none of them were used to being hunted by an entire army.

It was clear that Jiran had given that order the moment he had discovered that Avad had fled. By their fourth day on the road, there was a notable increase in armed patrols—single scouts were capable of moving faster than a group of people—and as a result, their party was forced to depart from the road more than they already had and brave the treacherous scrublands of the northern Sundom. The terrain was unforgiving, with Rockbreakers as a common fixture due to the ore-rich soil, so caution in every step was a necessity. The piles of dirt and rock left behind by the beasts were a common site, and avoiding them grew increasingly difficult.

Luck must have been on their side, for they only had to engage in battle with one once, when they were trapped between two cliff faces in a narrow valley. Using the information fed to her by her Focus, Aloy was able to direct the men into hitting the machine's weak points with the correct arrows. Thankfully, no one lost their life that day, although one unfortunate man sustained a deep wound across his arm that would have meant losing the limb if it had gone much deeper.

Around the start of the second week, the desert mercifully began to cede to the foothills of the looming mountains which marked the divide between Carja and Oseram territories. Then and only then did some of the group’s tension ease off—for this kind of land, with its many pine forests and perilous rock formations, was much better suited for staying hidden than the open desert had been. Morale increased noticeably, conversations relaxed, and Aloy began to believe that they might just have a shot at making it to their destination.

She continued to avoid Nil like the plague, and he seemed content to do the same. For now, at least. With someone such as him, she knew she’d have to stay constantly vigilant, for he could just as easily turn on Aloy herself as he had his word.

One early morning, as the chill crept in from the oncoming winter, Aloy approached Radid. By the estimation of the soldiers who had traveled this far north before, they were perhaps only a day’s hard travel from the border. The decision was made to call it an early night. Energy would need to be preserved, especially in Avad’s case, for the politicking and arguing that would occur at the gates of the Claim. It had left her with time she hadn’t known what to do with, and conversing with someone friendly—and despite her initial trepidation in the prison, Radid was a good man—sounded like as good a choice as any.

“My lady,” he greeted politely as she sat down next to him with a tired groan. “How are you faring?”

“The same as everyone else, Radid,” she said wryly. “Which is to say, surviving. If I asked you, I'm sure you'd answer the same way."

He snorted. “No excitement for the coming end of our journey?”

“The end of one struggle and the beginning of the next, I’m sure,” she muttered.

“Such is life,” the kestrel said simply.

“I did mean to ask, though,” Aloy broached after awhile. “About your wife and daughter. Won’t they be in danger in Meridian because of their relation to you?”

Radid raised a single black brow in surprise. “It’s very kind of you to remember them enough to inquire as to their wellbeing, my lady. But no, they’re as safe as they can be under the circumstances. The night we departed, I managed to secure passage out of the city for them both with the aid of your husband.”

Aloy’s lip curled at the mention, but she forced herself to nod.

“Who I had been meaning to speak with you about, actually.” The kestrel’s eyesight was as keen as the namesake of his rank, apparently. “If my lady is willing, of course.”

Her lips thinned. “If you’re going to convince me to forgive him or any other such boar shit, forget about it. I’m not—“

“No convincing.” He raised his hands. “Only an account of what I saw that day in Nora lands.”

Her breath hitched. “That day...you mean…”

"Yes, my lady," he said with a curt nod. "Sahad and I were on a scouting mission into unsecured territory, a normal assignment for a pair of kestrels due to the risk involved. All seemed to be well. Until we stumbled upon an injured man, too weak to escape or even walk. I didn’t recognize him immediately, my lady. It wasn’t until the events of that night that I clearly recalled his face.” Radid was somewhere far off, drifting through a memory. “But there was no mistaking it. He was your father. The man you call Rost.”

“You were there,” she whispered. “Did you...did you see him die?”

“No, my lady.” His eyes focused back on her then, as sharp as a blade. “I saw him live.”

Unwilling or unable to believe the burst of hope suddenly soaring through her like a bird attempting to take flight, Aloy shook her head. “No. No, that’s not possible. I saw it, his boar’s head. The feathers. The blood—“

“I believe that the head you speak of fell off,” Radid said, “while Sahad was dragging him, wounded but still alive, to safety. While I kept watch, he carried him all the way to a nearby cave, dressed his wounds, and left him with several days' rations worth of food and water. All the while, Rost was delirious, ranting and raving about his daughter, begging Sahad to tell him that she was all right. He told him that she was, just to calm him, and we now know that it was the truth—because he was asking after you, my lady."

Aloy's breath came faster. “That’s...that’s impossible.”

He regarded her through dark eyes before saying bluntly, “Are you so unwilling to believe anyone else's word that you’ll turn a blind eye to truth when it’s sitting right beneath your nose?”

Anger sparked within her, catching on the wings of her hope until they burst into flame. With a disgusted snarl, Aloy jolted to her feet.

“No. You’re lying. He probably put you up to this, and I don’t have to sit here and listen to this.”

“Actually, Aloy, I believe you do.”

Aloy jerked her head around. Standing a few paces away with his hands clasped behind his back and a grim expression was one of the few remaining friends she had left in the world.

“What are you talking about, Avad?”

He strolled over, lowering himself gracefully down by the fire as well. Despite the circumstances, it struck Aloy how odd a sight it was to see such a regal man, who used to lounge on cushions and fine silks, now reduced to sitting on the hard earth like any other person.

“I would not blame you for forgetting under the circumstances, but if you recall, I was a part of that raid too, as little as I wanted to be.” He angled his head to the side. “Perhaps if you will not believe the word of this man, you’ll believe the word of a friend.”

“I…” Aloy glanced down at her hands where they were fisted at her sides, slowly unfurling them before sitting back down. “I guess I can at least listen to what you have to say. What did you see, then?”

“I was not present to see Sahad rescue the man.” Avad pinned her with a stern look when she opened her mouth to speak. “I did, however, witness the fallout his actions caused.”

She wrinkled her brow. “Fallout? What do you mean?”

“A man—not Sahad—brought the boar’s head out in front of a head officer while we were meeting in the war tent,” Avad explained, “and explained that he was the one to kill the man. Jiran was not lying when he told you that your guardian carved through our men as though they were parchment paper, and proof of his death would have been lauded.”

“You may remember him, too,” Radid interjected. “A soldier by the name of Irasis.”

A chill, and not one caused by the cold, crept up Aloy’s back. “Yes, I remember him, unfortunately. I broke his arm on the way to Meridian because he tried to assault me.”

“For that crime, he was demoted and received one hundred lashes, my lady,” the kestrel informed her. “And it seems as though he’s been out for revenge this entire time.”

“I thought his story odd at the time,” Avad continued. “So too did the other leadership. This Irasis is not well-liked even among other soldiers due to his selfishness and greed, and all in attendance immediately assumed that he was spinning tales for fame and riches. I believe that was his original intention, actually.”

“Which is why I informed the other officers that he was lying about his role in the kill, and that I had seen Sahad dispatch him with my own eyes. I had no other choice, for it was clear that his next move would be to tell them what had actually occurred and jeopardize your husband’s safety. Even though he ranted and raved about what he had actually seen, no one believed him by that point, especially with my own false account in play. He was dismissed from the officer's tent to be immediately put on a double watch as punishment, and I personally kept track of his movements in the days after to ensure that he didn't return to Rost's location and kill him in truth. I don’t know how he knew what had happened, other than he must have grown suspicious of Sahad’s attempts to sabotage operations, which led to him spying on us.” Radid stared down at his lap. “For which I beg forgiveness, my lady. If I had known where this would lead…”

“There's nothing to forgive, but this still doesn’t add up.” Aloy frowned. “How did Jiran know Rost's name? If what you’re saying is the truth...then Nil...he wouldn’t have known to tell him.”

“Irasis’s doing again, I’m afraid,” Avad said, carding a hand through his curls. “He kept the boar head, taking it all the way back to Meridian. Once there, he requested an audience with the Sun-King, which I unfortunately didn't hear about until later, relaying the lie that Sahad was a friend, and that he merely wanted for him to receive the credit he was due. My father ate straight from his hand, especially once Irasis informed him that Rost was your father—valuable information with which to torment you more than he already had. I believe by that point he was looking for a reason to welcome Sahad back into the fold, and that also meant discarding you. I'm afraid that no matter what, the events of that night couldn't have been avoided with what this dreg set in motion.”

“He must have overheard your Matriarchs greet him by name the day we took you from Nora lands,” Radid added, “and known that this would get back to you somehow. It was clear from your farewell that you loved your father very much, my lady, and it’s unfortunate that Irasis bore witness to that too, only to use that knowledge against you in such a cruel way, to deliberately cause you harm.”

“And Nil...he wouldn’t have known what Rost looked like,” she breathed. “Just his name. If he had known, he would have told me what had happened immediately after coming home. That he had saved him.”

For the space of several seconds, Aloy didn’t dare move, didn’t dare breathe as their shared account of the events rang like a great bell through her head, clearing away all of her doubts about her husband. So many competing emotions overtook her then; sorrow for herself, anger for Irasis, relief for Rost, but most of all hope—hope for herself, for Nil. For their relationship, not so doomed as she had believed.

“You mean...all this time…”

“Aloy, Sahad never once lied to you,” Avad said gently. “This entire time, he’s been telling you the truth.”

“It’s odd how much I once feared him,” Radid said with a rueful smile. “When he approached me one day not long after I had delivered you to the Temple of the Sun, I feared that his intention was to ask for a duel. But all he told me was that my lady had relayed to him what I had done for her, and he wished to thank me for behaving so honorably towards you in his stead. It’s been an odd friendship, but I can’t say I regret it.”

Her heart in her throat, Aloy stood abruptly.

“I need...I need to go.” She licked at her chapped lips. “I need to go talk to him.”

“Very well, Aloy,” Avad said with a forlorn smile. “I truly hope that you both are able to work this out. Kadaman...he would have hated to see you two so at odds.”

For the first time in weeks, Aloy was able to summon a smile without effort. “Then I shouldn’t disappoint him.”

After she had left the side of the two men, Aloy stood still for a while, staring up at the pale rim of the half moon. It peered back at her, but was swallowed up by a black veil of clouds when she turned and began to stride towards where she had last seen her husband.

Nil was as she had expected him to be, alone with his arms pillowing his head, his long legs splayed out over the length of his bedroll where it sat in front of a crackling fire. The glow from both that and the lantern he hadn't yet extinguished bounced over him and turned the silver in his eyes into a warm copper. They settled on her, unreadable. Just as they had been since the night Aloy had believed the word of a madman over her own husband's.

Gazing at him for just a moment and balling up her fists and all her guilt, she walked to his side, lowered to a crouch, leaned over and kissed him.

Nil didn't move. It didn't surprise her, but it still smarted. She tried again, until his hands wrapped around her wrists, and he pushed her away gently.

"Aloy, I understand that you may be stressed—"

"Avad and Radid told me what happened that day in the Sacred lands," she blurted out.

His face remained without expression. It took some time for him to speak again. "So their word is worth considering?"

"I'm sorry." The tears that sprang to Aloy's eyes were unnecessary and unwanted, and she swiped them away furiously. "What else can I say, Nil? But can you really blame me, with what information I was given?”

Emotion finally broke through his mask, and it was disbelief. “Yes, Aloy. Actually, I can.”

“I couldn’t have known that this was all some...some grand scheme by a man out for revenge!” Aloy protested. “Jiran had his boar’s head, and there was blood on it. What else was I supposed to believe? What else was I supposed to do?”

“You could have trusted me,” Nil snapped as he sat up, his eyes creased with pain. “I made a blood vow to you. I swore on our marriage, the most important thing to me in this world, that I would honor you and your wishes. That I would do all I could to set myself upon a better path. I thought that it was enough. I thought that you would believe me.” His voice broke. “I thought that you loved me. I know now that I was mistaken.”

“But I do,” Aloy whispered. She reached out for him, but he only recoiled away from her, and her hand froze midair, then drifted back down to her side. “Sahad, I do love you. You know that."

Nil shook his head, as though to clear it of her words. “No. You do not. I may not know much about love, but I do know that it cannot exist without trust.”

“Sahad, please —“

“You sit here and claim to love me. Where was that love these last two weeks?” Grief had sunken into the lines on his face. “Where was it when I was mourning the loss of a friend I’ve known all my life? Where was your love when you leveled those accusations of total dishonor at me after I rescued you from certain death? Words I had only heard from my father and those who fear me, now spilling from the lips of the woman I loved like blood from a gaping wound.”

His tone was agonized and raw, enough that it cut through Aloy like a hot knife. For the first time in their conversation, fear slithered its way into her heart, as cold and as sharp as cracked ice.

"Please try to see this from my perspective," she begged, her voice wavering. "Things have been hard for all of us since Kadi died. That night especially, I was scared. I was confused. I had just spent the last few hours comforting Talanah, and his death cut her deeper than any of us."

Nil ran his hands through his unbound hair roughly enough to yank a few strands free. "That's the thing, Aloy. I did try to see it from your perspective at first. I gave you the grace of understanding that after all of the stress of that night, you wouldn't be thinking clearly. But the things you said...you went too far."

"I know. I know, Nil. We can work all of that out though," she insisted, searching his eyes frantically. "Can't we?"

The look on Nil's face as he drew back and away from her said enough, but his words hammered it home.

"I'm sorry, Aloy. I can't allow you to get close again. Under the circumstances, neither of us can afford the distraction. There are far more important things to be concerned with than this sham of a marriage."

A sob bubbled up within her, and Aloy choked on it. "Nil—Sahad, please. Don't do this."

He wasn't looking at her anymore. "I also wanted to inform you that after this, I intend to go and speak with Avad."

"What? Why?" she asked, the end of the word coming out high-pitched and wrong.

"Because he's the only one who can dissolve that which binds us."

Aloy's stomach roiled, and for a moment she felt like she would vomit up her dinner.

"You can't," she whispered. A tear went unnoticed as it slipped down her cheek. "You can't just go and do that. I won't let you."

"I think you'll find that in this case, I can do as I please," Nil said, unyielding as steel. "It only takes one of us to initiate a divorce, and we're not in Meridian anymore where securing one is near impossible. Avad is our de facto governor in exile, and he will do as I ask. It's not his place to refuse, only to sign off on it."

She couldn't look at him. She could barely think enough to breathe. All Aloy could do in the moment was bury her face in her hands and wish that she could wake up from the living nightmare her life had become.

How had it come to this? How, in so little time, had her life been torn asunder? She had believed that she had hit rock bottom with Kadaman's death and Nil's apparent betrayal, but she knew now that there were much worse fates.

Rage—ugly, wretched, and dark—churned within her. For all that she had lost, for the loss of all she had once hoped for. Unconsciously, Aloy clawed her hands into the dirt as though to ground herself. It didn't work.

"It's that easy, huh," she spat.

"Traditionally, there's a required three month separation period before a divorce can be finalized, but yes, it's—"

She was shaking now, and she couldn't stop any of the words boiling within her from tearing free. "It's that easy for you to throw me away like I'm nothing."

A sharp exhale. "Don't mistake me, Aloy. None of this is easy. What it is is necessary."

"Like my mother, like all of the Nora." Swaying, Aloy rose to her feet. "You know, Nil, I really thought I had found belonging in you. In the friends I made. The day you made the vow was the day I decided to stay in Meridian for good, the day I gave up hope of ever returning to Rost. And the worst part is, I was glad to have made that choice, because it was so obviously the right one. You...you all were my home." A slightly hysterical laugh escaped her. "Now, one of my friends is dead and another is in hiding and in danger, and there's nothing left with you."

"Look on the bright side," Nil said quietly. "It's not all bad. You're free of me now. You don't even have to stay to help us mount a resistance if you don't want to. You can return home to Rost and your old life, exactly how you wanted."

"You're not even listening to me anymore. I just told you that I haven't wanted that for months," Aloy gritted out, wrapping her arms around herself as though it could prevent her from falling apart further. "And unlike you, I don't abandon people when they need me. I'm not leaving Avad when he needs all the help he can get."

His sigh was heavy and weary. "Very well. If you're going to stay, I do need to know one thing."

"And why should I tell you anything?" she seethed.

Nil ignored her. "Are you capable of being civil with me? Full cooperation between all involved parties is crucial, especially since Avad is taking the first steps towards marching on Meridian and undertaking a coup. Anything less will damage our already low chances of success."

"I can do that," snapped Aloy. "Can you?"

"Yes." There was a finality to his tone, and she knew that their conversation was over.

Finally, she managed to bring herself to look at him, only to find nothing. None of the slyness or fondness or desire he had always regarded her with was present, and she realized where she had seen this face before: it was the mask he wore when they had been around other soldiers and nobles.

For the first time since they had met, Nil had cut himself off from her completely.

That nothingness spread to her as she turned to go, replacing everything she felt with apathetic numbness. It was almost a relief in the moment. At least, for now, she didn't have to feel any of the wretched storm she knew was brewing beneath the thin surface of this veneer.

As a final insult, before Aloy could bring herself to walk away, his voice stopped her.

"And Aloy? Please don't wear my markings anymore."

The nod she gave was as halting as a failing machine. With tears streaming down her face, she wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand, one side at a time, blankly staring down at the black smear coating it once she was done.

In the dark, it almost looked like blood.

Aloy stumbled off in a haze. Her world had been upended, and nothing in it made sense anymore. For as much as she had railed against them all her life, there had always been rules. More importantly, there had always been structure. Even when she was unwanted, there had always been a place for her somewhere, with someone. There had always been someone to confide in, someone to speak to about her minor worries and troubles. Now those worries and troubles were larger than ever, and with Kadaman dead, Talanah gone into hiding, Avad with his own heavy burdens to bear, and Nil closing himself off from her, she had no one.

Without anyone, she had nothing.

Unloveable. Outcast. Motherless.

Words she had heard all her life, now tearing into her deeper than ever.

Aloy wandered and wandered in no particular direction, among tall grass and pine trees and rugged rocks, until dawn found her crouching by an empty stream bed, staring at nothing.

After awhile, wetness spread over the bare skin of her face, and she glanced up. Tiny snowflakes were drifting down from the swollen, reddened sky, too quiet and too peaceful and too pure.

Winter came earlier in the north, and it seemed as though it had already arrived.

Eventually, with the bleak sun doing nothing to warm any of the chill within and without, Aloy found her way back to the camp sometime in the mid-morning using her Focus. Her clothing was damp from snowfall and shivers were wracking her body. The two guards on watch, men whose names she barely knew, stared at her but said nothing. She was grateful, for she had nothing to say in return anyway.

Aloy was still half frozen when she crawled into the tent, the thin blanket Nil had grabbed before leaving home doing very little to warm her. Between the chill and her ever circling thoughts, exhaustion from their breakneck pace was the only reason why sleep was able to claim her.

All too soon, she was being shaken awake, barely feeling as though she had slept at all—for when she had, images and memories tormented her, full of Nil's soothing voice and the endearments which he had relished calling her by. Just before she had woken, she thought she had felt his arm around her, holding her tight and close. But like all things in her life, he vanished when she looked too closely.

Avad was the one hovering over her this time, his kind face drawn and anxious.

"Aloy, I'm so sorry to wake you, but it will soon be time for us to depart."

"It's all right, Avad," she said.

He hesitated. "I let you sleep as long as I could, though. I thought you might need it."

She squeezed her eyes shut, taking a shaky breath.

He knew.

"I appreciate that."

"Sahad approached me earlier," Avad said softly. "If you need anyone to speak with, know that I am here."

"So you'll be drafting up the papers then, I assume," she said dully. "Once we're safely in the Claim."

"Aloy, I—"

Her fingers fisted in her blanket. "Nevermind. Don't worry about it. You have far greater things to be wasting your time on than this."

"Are you certain? It's of no trouble to me, truly."

"Yes, Avad." Her smile was there but empty. "Thank you for your concern. I'll be fine."

She knew that he didn't believe her, but he was also the type of man not to push or pry, and that was exactly what she needed.

"All right." He pulled away. "I'll leave you to dress, and I'll be sure to save you some breakfast. Fifteen minutes until we depart."

He left, and Aloy began her first day alone.

Nil glanced at her exactly once—when she crawled out of her tent—before snapping his head away like a severed tripwire. Aloy couldn't blame him. She was fully dressed in the hunting clothes he had commissioned for her (one of his first gifts to her, she recalled distantly), but she knew she must be a horrendous sight, with kohl-smeared eyes and a wild tangle of dull, unwashed hair she hadn't bothered to fix.

At least for now, the ache which pounded through her entire body at the sight of him was dull. If it stayed this way, perhaps this would be doable. Bearable, even.

The breakfast Avad had saved for her was her favorite kind of jerky, spiced and fatty, but it tasted like sand in her mouth. But for him, for his enduring kindness, she smiled as though she had enjoyed it.

Their final day of travel was over rough, uneven terrain that demanded her full attention to navigate—another blessing in disguise. Avad stuck close to her side, and between careful steps and the light, breathless conversation he struck up from time to time, this did a great deal to distract her. If she could close her eyes without risking a tumble into a yawning ravine, Aloy could almost pretend it was just another day, that they were all spending time together in Meridian, and the events of the past weeks were a bad dream they could laugh about.

Kadaman would laugh the hardest, she knew.

She knew they were getting close to the border when the air grew increasingly thick with choking grey smoke. Aloy didn't know too terribly much about the Oseram beyond what she had gleaned from Fergeld's few words and what her friends had commented on from time to time, but she did know of their love of tinkering with all things metal which lent them their colorful language and hardy dispositions. The smoke, then, was from the forges where they crafted their inventions, and if the numerous fallen trees surrounding them were anything to go by, this was a resource-heavy endeavor.

After a few more hours, the mostly clear-cut forest ended abruptly, spilling into a vast meadow full of high grass coated in hoarfrost waving gently at them as though in welcome—for right in front of them was a great, formidable wall composed of wood and metal. Aloy shared a wide-eyed, disbelieving look with Avad, and while they clutched at each other, half out of relief and half holding each other up in shock, she had to resist looking back to where she knew Nil was standing only a few feet back.

Somehow, against all odds, they had arrived in the Claim.

Chapter Text

Aloy had never believed in any kind of higher power, but even she felt as though there was someone looking out for them once they reached the Claim. By some grace, the guards at the border did not shoot their party on sight, refugees fleeing the Sundom being a sadly common occurrence. Furthermore, Ersa herself was apparently only half a day's travel from where they were, and the Oseram at the gate ordered them to stay where they were until she could be retrieved to verify Avad's connection to her.

Their overnight stay was the least stressful evening they'd had since their flight from Meridian. One of the more curious guards, a bald man sporting an impressive mustache, even brought down a felled boar for their consumption, along with several flasks of ale so strong that it burned Aloy's belly the second she had swallowed it and left her head and heart pleasantly fuzzy. Even the couple of glances she snuck at Nil inspired only a faint stab of pain, and she was able to sleep that night without much trouble and only a few tears.

Ersa arrived on the tail end of the next day, a formidable woman equipped with an enormous hammer made even fiercer by the long, cool shadows of dusk. All short brown hair and bulky muscle cloaked in armor of leather and ringed metal, she marched her way up to Avad, who stood at attention immediately.

"Avad!" she called, voice low-pitched and strong. "About time you made it out of that slag heap of a city."

For all of her tough bravado, there was a glint of softness in her hazel eyes, like steel in the midst of being tempered.

Avad was clearly even more enchanted than she.

"Ersa," he said softly. "It's been far too long. How lovely it is to see you again."

"The men told me what happened," she said, her voice quieting. "To Kadaman. Glad you had the good sense to get your ass up here while your head was still attached to your shoulders."

Avad gave a bitter chuckle. "It is what it is. I shall survive, and hopefully a little more."

"With the lack of meat on your bones, you'll need all the help you can get," Ersa said, nudging him with an elbow, flashing a wide grin when he stumbled back a few paces. "Good thing I've got exactly what you need, both in the way of good food and beer and connections. But first, I think we should get your little group here up to Sinterside for some good old rest and relaxation."

The prince managed the first true smile Aloy had seen from him in weeks. "You're far too kind, Ersa."

"Eh, I have a debt to repay, and I don't make a habit of leaving loose ends," she said with a shrug. Her interest shifted to Aloy, and she could see curiosity there. "And who's this little forge flame? One of your honor guard?"

"A friend, actually, originally hailing from the Nora tribe," Aloy interjected, sticking out a hand in greeting. Ersa took it to shake, squeezing so firmly that she could feel her bones creak under the pressure. Still, she didn't wince. Seemingly satisfied, the Oseram nodded.

"Well, Nora friend, do you have a name?"

She offered her a grin. "It's Aloy, and I've heard a lot about you, Ersa."

"And it had all better be good," Ersa laughed. "Or else Avad has a lot to answer for."

"I did not speak ill of you once, I assure you—"

"He's telling the truth," Aloy piped up. "All very good things."

Avad glanced down in obvious embarrassment.

"Glad to hear it." Ersa turned her gaze on the rest of the party, addressing them loudly. "Listen up, you lot! Sinterside is half a day's walk from here, and we'll leave tomorrow. You'll have real beds, alcohol, and all the meat you could want, but leave that hoity toity Carja attitude at the border. You're in the Claim now, and that means living by Oseram rules."

Aloy was fairly certain that their exhausted group would stand on their heads naked if it meant getting to safety. Sure enough, several relieved groans and sighs echoed throughout the meadow. Pleased, Ersa turned back to Avad.

"Would you like to stay here tonight with us?" he blurted out, only to wince in the next instant. "You're certainly not obligated to, of course. You probably have a bed in the guard house. I simply believe that it would be lovely to catch up—"

"Well, aren't you wound as tight as a spring!" Ersa grinned. "Sounds great to me. You can relax now, Your Highness."

Relax he did. "Good. Very good. And seeing as I am in exile, you do not need to address me as such. Avad will suffice."

"I might want to keep it as a nickname," she hummed. "You gotta problem with that?"

"None at all," Avad said, keeping his eyes fixed on her face.

Aloy had always figured that if Avad held her in such high regard, she would like Ersa too, so it wasn't a surprise when she became fast friends with the other woman. The Oseram reminded her of Talanah in a way, although rougher around the edges and even more blunt than her friend.

Despite her gruff front, however, she could see a certain canniness in the way Ersa navigated through conversations with the other guard. Not only was she intelligent, but Aloy also got the sense that she was a natural leader, and the way the Oseram men who came down from their posts that night interacted with her only confirmed it. Women in their society weren't treated much better than those in the Sundom, but they clearly respected her regardless.

It was no wonder Avad still carried a torch for her, she thought.

"How is Erend?" he asked later, when the three of them were huddled around the fire. Nil was nowhere to be found, likely spending time either alone or with the honor guard, something Aloy wasn't sure if she was more relieved or upset by.

Ersa glanced at him over her cup, impressed. "I'm surprised you even remembered that I had a brother, much less his name."

"Of course. I remember most of what we spoke of, Ersa," Avad replied.

"He's fine. Still an enormous idiot, but he's still got that heart of gold." She gestured at Aloy. "He'll probably like you a lot, forge fire. Tough but pretty is his type."

"Oh, I'm…" She trailed off, the word she had been about to say hovering in the forefront of her mind mockingly.

Married.

Ersa raised a brow. "You're…?"

"Sure I'll like him too," Aloy finished lamely. "He sounds nice."

Avad gave her a troubled look, but thankfully didn't say anything.

"Nice boys your thing?" Ersa teased.

Nil took that exact moment to reappear, settling down by a couple of men at another fire several feet away and carefully avoiding looking in their direction. Aloy's eyes stayed fixed on him for a couple of long seconds before she refocused on Ersa.

"Maybe they should be."

Ersa didn't reply to that, but Aloy caught a hint of understanding flash over her face all the same.

The next day saw them officially entering the Claim, and without the stress of danger lurking behind every turn, it was the easiest day they had yet. Sinterside was indeed only a six hour hike away, and it felt like no time at all before a bustling town situated in the nook of a soaring mountain came into sight. The buildings were squat and rounded, unlike anything Aloy had ever seen before, and they belched black smoke into the sky ceaselessly. The forests were even more clear-cut here than they had been at the border, the groaning and clanking of machinery crescendoing to a fever pitch the closer they got until it crowded the air with noise. The town was much smaller than Meridian, but somehow even louder.

Once, Aloy would have hated it. Now, she welcomed the distraction it brought. If she couldn't hear herself think, then there was no danger of her thoughts slipping into places she'd rather keep locked away.

That noise only increased in volume, for the Oseram had plenty to say as they marched into town. Most regarded them with wariness, several with outright hostility, and some even went so far as to wave various blunt objects in their direction. After the first incident of the latter sort, the honor guard closed ranks around Avad, and Aloy could see fingers twitching to grab for swords and bows.

With a sigh and a roll of her eyes, she wondered if negotiations were more likely to end up in a brawl than any actual diplomatic solutions. Having Ersa so stalwartly in their corner was looking increasingly to be their only hope of realizing Avad's plans.

"Hey, you miserable bunch of dunderheads!" Ersa bellowed, slamming the blunt end of her hammer down onto the earth after yet another person had thrown a rock in their direction. "They may be Carja, but they're refugees just as much as all of the others that have come through here, and important ones to boot! Show some respect or I'll beat you down into coal and turn you into coke myself!"

The respect she demanded applied here too, Aloy was interested to note. At Ersa's word, the crowds were somewhat mollified. The physical threats stopped, although the colorful words and insults continued as strongly as ever.

Leaning towards Avad, she lowered her voice to say, "Are all of the Oseram this, uh…"

"Spirited?" he supplied.

"I was going for something a little harsher, but sure."

"Oh, yes," he said. "And from what I know of their culture and customs, I'm afraid that this is the least of it. As far as I'm aware, their leaders—ealdormen, they're called—spend more time arguing and fighting each other than any actual decision making. I hope that won't be the case here, but from what Ersa has relayed to me in the past…"

"So you're saying there's more chance of a snowball surviving in Meridian at high noon than us pulling this off," Aloy groaned.

Avad reached up to squeeze her shoulder. "Keep hope in your heart, Aloy. The Oseram want my father deposed as much as we do. I'm certain we'll find a way."

When they were brought before the ealdormen, gathered together in one of those dome-like buildings, however, Avad's optimism began to look more foolish than anything else.

"Hang them all!" one elder man barked, banging his meaty fist onto a table with so much force that it shook. "There's no trusting any Carja, especially not a prince!"

"Why waste the shards on good wood and rope?" another interjected. "Just throw 'em out into the wilds. Machines will get 'em soon enough."

"Did any of you rust for brains listen to any what I had to say?" Ersa snapped. "Avad here wants to get rid of his father. I'm not even asking any of you for help or resources, just to offer them a place to stay in the meantime!"

"He'll bring their entire army to our gates!" a third man hiccuped. "They'll steal away our women and children and kill our men, just like they always do. Don't forget the Stacker of Corpses!"

"Peace, men," Avad said loudly, raising his hands. "I mean you no harm. My hope is to eventually march on Meridian and remove my father, and then I believe that we can resume diplomatic ties with the Oseram and even move to offer aid." He swept his eyes over the gathered council. "Including monetary reparations."

For the first time since they had arrived, the ealdormen quieted to look between each other. Aloy's heart skipped a beat. Perhaps they had a shot after all—

"This is one of their leaders?" the first man guffawed. "This skinny, pretty boy?"

The men all burst into uproarious laughter, and Aloy pinched the bridge of her nose. The wall next to her was beginning to look like an appealing place to bang her head against.

She was just beginning to lose hope when a voice chimed in, one dearer to her than any other.

"Your Highness. If I may."

Nil emerged from his place in a shadowy corner of the meeting hall. At Avad's weary nod, he stepped forward, brushing past Aloy in the process, and her heart almost stopped.

He stood at his full height, his hair tied back into a severe Strider's tail and his armor gleaming beneath the torchlight. His angular face held no trace of weakness, only intimidating confidence as his chilly grey eyes moved between each of the ealdormen.

"This Stacker of Corpses, as you call him, was my former commander," Nil said, clasping his hands behind his back. "And he will inevitably come for your women, your children, and your lives again."

Fury boiling through his tone, one of the men growled, "Are you threatening us, Carja scum?"

Nil held his head higher. "He will come again if you are foolish enough to turn us away. Sun-Prince Avad represents the only hope you have of turning the tide of this war, for there is no match in either strength or number to the Carja military. Without the backing of a member of the Radiant House, no Carja will ally themselves with you. You will be raided again, and you will continue to lose tribesmen."

"I do not have much to offer at this juncture, but I can assure you that if we are triumphant, no Carja will come for any Oseram settlement ever again," Avad added. "You have my word."

"Which means about as much as metal shavings," the first man grumbled.

"You have no other choices available to you," Nil said. "Either take this chance, or do not. But I can assure you that if you do not, another raid is inevitable, and very likely within the year. Your choice here is between life or death. Don't be so weak-minded and fearful as to doom yourself to the latter."

There was more quiet, and then the second man who had spoken said, "You know, I like this one. Carja or no, he's got a pair on him."

Laughter, along with the beating of metal cups on wood, echoed throughout the chamber once again, but this time it lacked the mocking quality it had before. Appearing to be satisfied, Nil turned, and Aloy managed to catch his gaze. Unbidden, a smile crept over her lips. For a single, fleeting moment, something in his expression seemed to relax, and it looked as though he might smile back.

Like everything else she had ever wanted, it quickly vanished, and Nil strode past her with his proud, arrogant bearing scraping at her more than ever.

In a bid to distract from the way everything in her twisted and writhed in protest at his absence, Aloy shifted her attention to Ersa.

"So, uh, what does this"—she gestured at the ealdormen—"mean? Are we going to die?"

Ersa snorted, looking distinctly pleased. "Hah! No. Just wait a moment. Avad is good at using his words, but he's way too soft for Oseram tastes. Your friend there, on the other hand, is a smart one. Played the exact right cards."

Hazel eyes settled on Aloy for a fleeting moment, and she focused on the still chuckling council. The men looked between each other and seemed to come to some sort of decision.

"Beer!" one crowed. "Beer and meat for everyone!"

A flurry of activity kicked up, and the group was ushered to seats at an unoccupied long table at the meeting hall. Still extremely confused, Aloy took her place next to Avad while Ersa wandered off to speak with a group of burly men, accepting a cup when it was handed to her.

"Did they seriously just let us live because we threatened them?" she said, making sure to keep her volume low—an easy task in the lively racket of the meeting hall.

Avad shrugged, a weary smile on his face. "I suppose so. The Oseram respond better to negotiations of a more, ah, blunt nature, and I believed the offer of substantial sums of metal shards to be enough. Apparently it was not. Sahad was wise to step in when he did."

When Aloy didn't respond, instead deciding to take a swig of her beer—rich and strong and exactly what she needed at the moment—a worried Avad seemed as though he wished to speak. Before he could get more than her name out, however, Ersa came striding back over with a man in tow, one younger than most in the meeting hall but just as intimidatingly large. His crop of hair was a medium brown, shaved into a mohawk, and impressive mutton chops of the same color bookended a largish mouth. He didn't seem to hold the same hatred for them as the other Oseram, his face open, honest, and friendly instead. Despite herself, she felt herself instinctively relaxing in his presence.

"Hey, you two! I think it's finally time for you guys to get a chance to meet my little brother. Erend, be a good boy and say hi."

Erend shot his sister a dirty look before refocusing on Aloy, his bright blue gaze lingering on her with clear interest before switching to Avad.

"Hey, uh, I've heard a lot about you," he said. A second later, he seemed to remember himself and stuck an enormous hand out. "Avad, right? I mean, your Highness. That's what I'm supposed to call you, right?"

Gracefully, Avad took his hand, ignoring Ersa's loud outburst of laughter at her brother's fumbling. "It's wonderful to finally meet you as well, Erend. Just Avad will suffice. I am no prince here, and moreover, we are guests at your mercy."

"Yeah, okay," Erend replied, a friendly grin overtaking his face. "Avad. With the way Ersa talked about you, you're skinnier than I thought you'd be."

"So says you and every other Oseram I've run into," he replied drily.

Erend let loose a barking, infectious laugh before turning his attention to Aloy. "And who's this?"

"This little forge flame's name is Aloy," Ersa butted in. "Don't worry, little brother, she already knows all about you. Including your total lack of brains."

"Fire and spit, Ersa, could you for once throw me a bone—"

"I can answer for myself, you know," Aloy replied at the same time, crossing her arms over her chest. "For what it's worth, Erend, you don't seem like a stupid man, regardless of what your sister claims. And I'm not usually wrong about people."

Before her brain could remind her of the very recent evidence contrary to that fact, she took another huge gulp of her drink, sighing when the alcohol burned away most of her thoughts.

"Just wait 'til you get to know him," Ersa said with a roll of her eyes.

"Yeah, once you do, you'll find out how great I can actually be," Erend retorted, lowering his bulky form down onto a study wooden chair. He looked Aloy over once again. "So, Aloy, you actually fight in that outfit of yours?"

She glanced down at herself with a frown, at the silk and metal plating reinforced with extra layers to ward off the northern cold. "Uh, yes? Is there something wrong with what I'm wearing?"

"No, not at all!" Erend's eyes widened to about the size of his hands, and Aloy had to hide a grin in her drink.

"Might as well stick one of your feet in your mouth now, you big oaf," Ersa sighed.

Ignoring her, Erend continued with an edge of panic in his voice. "Don't take this the wrong way, but it seems a little...skimpy. Like you're risking being run through by any old bird with a sword."

"It's treated against fire, and I primarily fight machines from a distance with my bow," Aloy explained, lips quirking. "Although, I guess if you find the sight of me offensive, I can go elsewhere."

"Don't do that!" Erend burst out. He ruffled his poof of hair roughly with a hand. "Not offensive at all. It looks very...uh, very nice on you. I just thought that, hey, if we're going to be fighting some Carja up close and personal eventually, you might want something a little studier. Y'know, like a good set of Oseram armor. Solid leather reinforced with steel."

Aloy hummed in consideration. "That wouldn't be the worst idea."

"I agree," Avad piped up. "Ersa has spoken to me regarding something similar. In terms of warding off both projectile and blade attacks, armor of Oseram make is unparalleled."

"Are you actually planning on fighting, Avad?" Aloy asked with a raised brow.

"As much as my honor guard would prefer that I not, I fear that it will become necessary," he said ruefully. "There's no telling what kind of support we'll garner here."

Ersa bent towards him eagerly. "Don't you worry about that, princeling. I've got connections all over the Claim—mercenaries, war lords, you name it. We'll find the right people for your cause."

"You've been busy these past few years, it would seem," Avad said, impressed.

"Eh, you just gotta knock the right heads around up here," Ersa replied, bending her neck until it cracked. "And that's something I'm very good at."

While her and Avad began to discuss possible avenues of gathering forces, Erend took the opportunity to lean in closer to Aloy.

"Hey, I don't mean to be too pushy or anything like that, but how do you feel about getting out of here?" His blue-grey eyes were round with eagerness. "Get away from this rowdy bunch, get some air. Maybe I could show you where the best armor smith in town is. You know, a friendly tour."

Worrying at her lower lip, Aloy glanced down at her beer, then raised her eyes. Which promptly met Nil's from where he sat across the room with the rest of Avad's guard.

They offered no hint to what he was feeling, as unreadable as they'd been since the night he had decided that she and their marriage was disposable.

"Aloy? You know what, forget I said anything. We'll just hang out here."

Her own expression hardened, and she downed the rest of her drink only to push back from the table and stand abruptly.

"No, Erend, it's fine," she said, words clipped. "A walk sounds wonderful, actually."

His responding smile was friendly and guileless as he stood as well. "Great! Just come with me, and I'll give you the grand tour. Well, it's not really grand. You know what I mean."

Giving a curt nod, Aloy abandoned her mostly consumed beer and followed after Erend, darkly pleased with herself when she didn't give Nil so much as a passing glance as she stormed past him.

As inundated with smoke as it was, the chilly air was a fresh gasp over her face after the stuffiness of the meeting hall. It helped clear some of the choking emotion within her as well, and her exhale was meant to release some of that as much as it was to breathe.

Erend was true to his word. Over the course of an hour or two, he led her around Sinterside, through markets bursting with machine parts, a variety of blunt, heavy weapons, and all manner of food, to a few of the more interesting tinker shops. He explained that he had lived most of his life here, and as dangerous as living in a border town was during such times—a fact which had contributed to Ersa's capture during a raid years earlier—he gruffly admitted that it wasn't so bad. Still, he had said with a touch of wistfulness, if the roads ever became safer, he had dreams of traveling one day, perhaps even packing up his meager life and moving somewhere bigger and more exciting.

If Avad's plan was successful, she knew that he might just have a chance at that. For Aloy, it was just another reason to fight to free the Sundom from Jiran's clutches with everything she had.

Their final destination was the much extolled armor smith, a man of little words who spent more time eying Aloy suspiciously than answering any of her questions about materials and make. Luckily, Erend was more than knowledgeable about the subject and provided the information which she needed, all while staring the smith down until he was shifting uncomfortably beneath his heavy apron.

Not keen on being the cause of an incident on their first day in the Claim, Aloy decided to shift gears. "Well, I think I'm about done here. Lots of tough decisions to make, after all."

She didn't bother thanking the armor smith before they walked away, relieved to be away from his uncomfortable half-hidden hostility and too exhausted to bite back.

"So, do all Oseram know how to fight?" she inquired.

"Eh, not all of us," Erend replied with a shake of his head. "More warriors than there used to be, though, on account of the raids. Most kids who've been growing up during those learned how to handle a weapon, although every Oseram knows how to handle a good pub brawl." He cocked his head. "Actually, if we're talking tribes, I'm surprised the Carja let a woman be a guard. Especially for a prince. That's not a common thing, as far as I know."

"It's not, and it's because I'm not originally Carja," Aloy informed him. "I'm actually Nora. Well, sort of."

"What—really?" Erend blinked rapidly as he looked up and down. "Wouldn't have guessed that. You look just like 'em. How did a Nora girl end up with a bunch of Carja, then? Let me guess, you were a slave like my sister?"

Aloy glanced down at her feet in a feeble attempt to hide any evidence of the pain lancing through her. "No, I was never a slave. It's...a very long story."

"You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to," Erend said hastily.

"No, it's all right. It's just complicated." They had managed to wander towards the outskirts of town, where there were far fewer people and a little less noise. Steadying herself, Aloy sucked a lungful of ash-soaked air. "There was a treaty."

"A treaty?" His bushy eyebrows rose in shock. "That's...not something I've ever heard of the Carja doing."

Aloy sighed. "Then it shouldn't be surprising that it was all a ruse meant to lull the Nora into a false security so that they could attack when the tribe's guard was at its lowest."

"Not surprising at all," Erend snorted. "Damned Carja bastards couldn't resist being a bunch of cowards if they tried. So, where do you come into all of that if you weren't a slave?"

"Included in the treaty…" Aloy hesitated, clearing her throat before continuing. "...was a betrothal. One that I was part of."

Erend gaped at her as her words sank in. "Wait—what—you mean, you're telling me that you're married?"

She summoned a weak smile. "Yeah. Well, I won't be soon. Another complicated story."

He looked relieved, and guilt stabbed at Aloy.

"Well, I'm sure you're happy. Especially to leave a husband you didn't even choose to marry back in the Sundom, I mean, that's gotta be a huge load off your shoulders—"

"He's here too, actually," she interrupted him. Her smile grew watery. "Part of Avad's guard now, I guess."

Erend stared down at her as comprehension bloomed in his eyes. "Wait, you look sad. That's...you didn't want it to be over, did you?"

Caught off guard by his perceptiveness and unsure of how to answer his question, Aloy's gaze fell to her feet. "Look, Erend, you're a really kind man..."

"But you're not interested in the same thing I am," he finished for her. "Hey, don't worry about it, you know? A guy can take a hint."

"I do appreciate you getting me out of there and showing me around town today," she said softly. "It really helped me get my mind off things, at least for a little while."

"Eh, I can't be too upset," Erend shrugged, and when she lifted her gaze to him that easy-going grin was back on his face. "As long as you don't blame me for taking a chance on the prettiest girl who's ever strolled into this town."

Aloy laughed, and it was more carefree than it had been in awhile. "I won't say anything."

"Any guy who would let someone like you go though…" He whistled and shook his head. "Stupider than me, and that's saying something."

"I don't know about that," she laughed bitterly. "Seeing as it was probably my fault in the first place."

"Yeesh." Erend raked his fingers through his hair. "Look, Aloy, it's probably not my place to say anything, and I'm not great with emotional shit, but...you know, sometimes you gotta fight for what makes you happy. Life doesn't have a habit of just handing free stuff to you. Maybe it's worth doing some soul searching, going after this guy, and seeing what happens. If you want it enough, I think it's something you could have."

The lump which formed in Aloy's throat was almost to talk or even swallow past.

"Thank you, Erend," she managed. "I'll keep all of that in mind."

His expression was soft. "Anytime. And hey, since you're gonna be here for awhile, if you ever need someone to kill a few hours with, just come find me. Could always use a new friend."

"I think I'd like that," Aloy replied, her smile true.

"Oh, and Aloy? Do me a favor and point this guy out to me sometime."

Her brow furrowed. "Why?"

Erend's grin had teeth this time. "So I can prove to my sister that I'm not the biggest idiot in Sinterside anymore."

Chapter Text

With the end of December came the true start of winter. The Claim was further north than Aloy had ever been before, and with the elevation of the surrounding mountains as a contributing factor, she wasn't sure she had ever been so cold in her life. Nine months spent in Meridian hadn't helped matters, either; rather than the four seasons she had grown up with in the Embrace, there were merely wet and dry seasons where not much changed beyond the amount of precipitation they received.

In truth, she didn't actually mind the cold much, having been provided with more appropriate clothes for the temperature than the silks she had in her pack. It kept her from getting too comfortable, from indulging in thoughts better kept buried deep down in the depths of her mind, thoughts that would only surface when she was lying alone at night under musky furs with woodsmoke burning in her nose in the small room she had been allotted in the inn their group was staying in.

The worst night had been the first, when she had finally gone through the bag Nil had brought her from home. Not only had he grabbed her herbs (which Aloy stubbornly continued to take for reasons she refused to acknowledge), but at the bottom, wrapped in an undershirt, were the wooden figurines he had so lovingly carved for her. When she had tugged at the shirt, they had all come tumbling out onto the floor. The fox, her favorite and the first she had ever kept, was the last to bounce off the hard ground.

Her breath had hitched, and she scooped the tiny sculpture up to cradle it in her palms. Its sly little face stared back up at her, unchanged despite all that she had undergone.

Aloy had wept that night until tears soaked through her pillowcase, rough and scratchy and in every way the opposite of what she had at home.

Maybe that was for the best. Silk sheets only called to mind memories of gentle caresses by callused hands, a mess of black hair spread over pale skin, and grey eyes brimming with so much love that it had been hard to look directly into them at times.

Eyes that were now difficult to look directly at for an entirely different reason.

It's not like Aloy didn't try to avoid him, and she was even successful occasionally. But Sinterside was a small town with nothing outside of it beyond the snow-blanketed wilds, and with few friendly faces there, there often wasn't much of a way to escape his presence.

At least Erend, Ersa, and Avad provided the companionship she craved, even if the latter two were often immersed in war planning and negotiating with whatever new mercenary or powerful warlord they had invited into town. Aloy would have sought out Radid for the occasional light conversation if the kestrel weren't constantly around her soon to be former husband.

Begrudgingly, she had admitted to herself that maybe she was being a little bit selfish—she couldn't steal all of his friends from him. Avad had chosen to stick by her side for the most part, most likely because he realized that she was lacking in options in that regard, although he was still friendly with Nil. It was fine. It was enough.

That's what she told herself, at least.

For Aloy, telling herself these things was a matter of survival. If she let herself despair, if she allowed herself to wallow in the misery of losing him, she knew that she would be lost to bitter hopelessness, and that would ultimately lead to apathy—the very last thing she needed to be sinking into in their current situation.

Kadaman's death already weighed heavily on her every single day, and it was all she could do to not bring it up to Avad. If what she was going through was difficult, she could only imagine how he must be feeling. In any case, he seemed keen on avoiding the subject most of the time, a fact which she respected.

It was always the hardest the mornings after she dreamed of him. He was often cloaked in gold, wearing his kind smile, speaking in his elegantly flowery way, and although the details were murky, she knew she always talked back. There were so many things she had wanted to say to him, so many regrets about what had been left unsaid. Even if none of it was real and he always disappeared the moment she opened her eyes to another miserable, hoarfrost-infested day, it brought her comfort to speak to him.

When Avad did bring him up, it was always in terms of avenging his death. An edge of dark anger existed in him that Aloy hadn't ever seen before, but it wasn't like she could blame him for that. If she lost someone she had known and loved all of her life, she knew that she would not react any differently.

December crawled sluggishly by, and they drifted into the new year with little fanfare beyond an extra round of drinks the night it ended and turned over into the next. There was nothing to celebrate, no reason to waste energy which would be better spent preparing for when they would march on Meridian in late spring.

Each day was colder than the last, and by the time they slipped into February and midwinter, Aloy began to believe that she may be in danger of losing her mind. Boredom had never been so complete, the chill in her bones so deep. She couldn't believe that she had ever hated living in Meridian, and her mind often wandered to balmy nights sitting on the front steps of her old home in nothing but a light set of silks, all while a box bursting with cheerful prairie roses waved playfully at her in the breeze.

To her credit, Ersa had a way of keeping their little group at least somewhat occupied throughout the winter months. In a bid to keep all of their skills sharp for the coming coup attempt and to give Avad some desperately needed instruction in hand to hand combat, she formed a sparring group which met three times a week in a small clearing about a quarter mile outside of the town gates. Besides her, Avad, and the honor guard, Erend would usually tag along, as well as a few of his buddies.

Simple sparring between two opponents was the most common exercise, but so was instruction in different weapon types, including the hammer the Oseram siblings both wielded. The first time Aloy picked one up, she had almost keeled over from the weight alone, far more used to her bow and lightweight spear. Never one to give up, she had grit her teeth and forced her way through every drill that Ersa put her through, determined to at least have a decent handle on it. It would never become her weapon of choice, but there was no telling what she might lose and what she might end up with in the furor and confusion of the battlefield.

Her sparring partners beyond Ersa were all men, all equipped with rippling swells of muscle and all incredibly talented at grappling. Rather than relying on strength, Aloy had to make use of her speed and technical skills, and she didn't always come out triumphant. Several times, one of her partners would get in a hit that left her reeling, using it to their advantage and knocking her to the ground before pouncing on her and locking her in a hold that was nearly impossible to escape.

It would be like this in battle, she reminded herself. Once they had descended upon Meridian, there would be no easing up of pressure or fair play. If she couldn't manage to win there, only certain death awaited her, so there was no choice but to get better. Every moment in their makeshift ring was spent figuring out how to be faster, how to strike a joint at the exact right angle and with the correct amount of force to have it buckling, how to win. How to survive.

A mantra Aloy had heard all of her life rang constantly in her head, and it was truer now than it ever had been before: survival required perfection.

For the first several weeks, she managed to avoid being paired with Nil. Whether it was from Avad's intercession on her behalf or pure luck, Aloy wasn't sure. Either way, it was a relief. Even if he was still watching her through those damn eyes and judging her losses—something she was sure he wouldn't be able to resist delighting in.

Of course, with the way things had been going, her luck didn't hold out forever. It was the final week in February and during a small but blissful break in the weather that Ersa called the group to attention in order to assign partners for the final matches of the day.

Aloy's heart seized up and then sank to her feet when her name was called, paired with another in a way she hadn't heard in months.

"Aloy and Sahad!"

Her first reaction was to march over to Ersa, just as she finished announcing the last pair. Taking her aside, Aloy made sure to lower her voice enough so that they wouldn't be overheard by any curious ears.

"Ersa, can I please be matched with someone else?" She knew her voice was full of desperation and pleading, but she was beyond caring. "I'll fight literally anyone else. Just not him."

"No can do, forge flame," she said as she began to undo the heavy tassets strapped to her hips. "You two haven't sparred at all yet, and it's about time you made the full rounds."

"But I can't," Aloy protested. "Sahad and I—it's too much."

The Oseram's firm expression eased the smallest amount. "Look, Aloy. I know you two have a history, and I know it isn't great. But you won't get a choice of who you're fighting when you're at war either, so you've gotta suck it up and deal with it."

Clenching her jaw and fists, she dropped her gaze to her feet.

A hand clasped her shoulder. "If it helps, you can look at it as just another way to build strength. The emotional kind instead of the physical."

Tearing away from her, Aloy spat, "Fine. I'll do it. But you owe me one."

"Fine by me," Ersa shrugged. "The show will be more than worth it."

She stormed off to the corner of the ring where Nil was waiting, his face as meticulously blank as ever. She tried to ignore how he had stripped away most of the layers he had been wearing since they had come to Sinterside, and how what remained clung to him in a way that did nothing to hide his powerful form.

"Let's get this over with," she growled.

Nil tilted his head to the side, his voice quiet when he replied, "Yes. Let's."

As Aloy lowered to a crouch, so did he. Their stare down seemed to last forever, and each second that ticked by sent more and more blood rushing to her face in anger. Anger at him, anger at their circumstances.

And beneath it all, anger at herself.

As always, she was the one to move first. Her steps were careful and measured as she began to shuffle to the side, circling him with slightly raised arms and waiting for that first hint of weakness, the first mistake which would lead to an opening where she could dive in for the kill. Nil followed her with eyes and body both, and for a while they moved around each other as though they were dancing.

It reminded her of another dance in another time, when she had been blind to how fragile her happiness really was.

This momentary lapse in focus was all Nil needed. As fast as lightning, he lunged forward with arms outspread, intending to grab her. Aloy was just barely to dodge out of the way in time, a credit to the skill she had gained in the last weeks.

Nil recovered as quickly as she knew he would, and that was when he unleashed the full brunt of his strength and skill, just as he did with every other opponent she had seen him spar with.

Aloy hadn't expected him to hold back, and she quickly learned firsthand why he always won his duels. The merciless barrage of fists and kicks he leveled at her was overwhelming, a testament of years of military training and his innate talent in all things physical. The ambivalence with which he had regarded her all winter was burned away in short order, replaced instead by a dark zeal edged in narrow-eyed lust she had only seen a few times before.

But Aloy had her own years of experience from fighting to achieve her goals, and the speed and accuracy she had honed fighting and fleeing machines in the wilds was nearly unmatched. For a full minute, none of his swings or kicks connected, although he still gave her no opening to go on the offensive.

It was a stalemate between two evenly matched opponents, and one she had been living with for far too long.

A rapid dodge to the left seconds later finally gave her what she had been searching for. Nil was just a little too slow on the turnaround, and sensing her chance, Aloy's leg kicked out with all of the force she could muster. The blow was true; her foot slammed into the vulnerable bend at the back of his knee. He may have been larger than her, but here was a weak point on him just as much as anyone else. His right leg buckled, and with a grunt, he lost his balance and fell.

Aloy was on top of him in the next instant. The feeling of his body pressed so intimately against hers sent sparks skittering over her skin and pebbled it into gooseflesh, but that was nothing compared to the way all of her frustration, all of her fury, and all of her sorrow exploded to the forefront of her consciousness. With her hips straddling his, she rained blow after blow down upon him, her fists curled so tightly that the knuckles turned a ghastly white.

Nil managed to dodge out of the way of the first few, twisting and writhing beneath her like a bucking Strider. Barely able to hold on to her position on top of him, Aloy knew it wouldn't be long before she lost her advantage and he was able to overpower her.

One of her punches finally connected, smashing into his cheek so hard that her hand immediately ached from the force. Like a wild animal and so unlike the man she had known and grown to love, he bared his teeth, a couple slick with blood, at her in a vicious snarl.

Her fist still pulled back to level another hit at him, Aloy froze at the sight.

At the way he was looking at her now, a way he never had before.

Like he hated her.

Tears were already burning in her eyes and blurring her vision when he used her lapse in focus to flip their positions. Now, Nil was the one on top with his arm pulled back, ready to strike, ready to end their match.

And yet, Aloy couldn't stop staring up at him through wet eyes. Her husband, closer to her and looking more alive than he had been in months.

"Sahad," she whispered.

Just as she had, he stilled. One of her tears finally escaped, leaving a damp trail in its wake as it rolled down her cheek, and Nil's eyes darted to it.

His arm lowered. Slowly, his hand rose to her face, until he was cupping it in his palm. The pad of his thumb brushed against her cheek and wiped away the tear.

Unable to help herself, Aloy shuddered beneath him, and as though something within him snapped, Nil surged down and kissed her.

His mouth, hard and demanding, muffled her gasp of surprise. But her biggest strength had always been her ability to adapt to any turn in a fight, so only a heartbeat passed before Aloy was kissing him back. He tasted of sweat and leather and earth, but beneath all of those, there was still that hint of spice, that heady note that was achingly, familiarly him. It wasn't gentle—nothing about this situation was—but it was everything she had wanted, everything she had yearned for. The heat of his body spreading into hers, granting her the touch she had craved all the harder in its absence, made it seem for a moment like nothing between them had changed. They were still married, still living in their home in Meridian, still exploring and learning about each other in their secret nest of sheets and pillows.

And for a single, precious second, she could even pretend that he still loved her.

But nothing lasted forever, and it was Aloy's hands rising to hold his head, to feel his long tresses cascading through her fingers like silk, that broke the spell. The instant she made contact, Nil gasped and wrenched away from her.

The loathing she had expected to find on his face was nowhere to be found. Instead, there was only raw pain, as though he was being torn asunder from the inside out, and a fierce wanting she innately knew rivaled her own.

His name had barely left her lips before he was shoving away from her, lifting himself to his feet, and stalking off in the direction of town.

With a wince, Aloy sat up. Absentmindedly, she pressed a palm to her chest, where the shoddily patched over hole within her had torn back open and grown even wider.

"So, what do you say, boys? Do we call whatever that was a draw?"

Aloy's gaze snapped over to the side.

Ersa was standing there with arms crossed and a barely suppressed smirk. So was Avad, his expression steeped in concern. Erend as well, although he appeared more uncomfortable than anything else.

And there too was the rest of the honor guard, apparently having finished their own matches, their faces a horrifying mix of curiosity, amusement, and stern frowns.

Complete and total humiliation flooded Aloy. She hadn't known they had an audience, and the fact that so many had witnessed such a moment…heat bloomed in her cheeks, and all it did was stoke the coals of her leftover fury.

She leapt to her feet, ignoring the way her sore and exhausted muscles protested the sudden movement.

"Show's over," she snarled.

With that, Aloy stomped away in the opposite direction Nil had, further away from Sinterside and in the direction of a creek she had walked along a few times. She ignored the murmuring voices behind her and the fact that they were probably about to begin laughing at her expense.

The sun did little to warm her as she walked. Its cheerful yellow light actually felt more mocking than anything else, and out of useless, childish protest, she stuck to the edges of shadows cast by trees and rocks until she finally reached her destination.

The water was sluggish, inhibited by frozen patches of ice which had formed in the bends where it pooled. Without hesitation, Aloy crouched down, scooped up a handful, and splashed it over her hot and sweaty face.

The cold was blinding to the point of pain, her resultant exhale sharp and choked but tinged in relief. As uncomfortable as it was, the shock cleared her mind and re-centered her, tugging her adrift consciousness back to the present like a jarring tether.

She didn't move, preferring to stay crouched and stare down at the swirling waters of the stream. It wasn't until she registered the sound of purposefully loud footfalls snapping over twigs and dead leaves in the brush that Aloy heaved a sigh and turned.

"I thought I saw you head this way."

Avad's amber gaze was polite and friendly, but there was still that tinge of pity that, as much as she understood, she still hated.

Turning her attention back to the water, Aloy said nothing, although she did relax somewhat. At the very least, Avad wasn't the type to come and poke fun at her.

He wandered to her side seconds later, lowering himself down beside her in the frigid stalks of grass with a soft exhale.

"Aloy…"

"Don't," she cut him off. "Don't say that you're sorry, don't say you know how it is, don't try to tell me that it's okay." Bringing her knees to her chest, she enclosed them with her arms in a death grip. "Because it's not."

"You're very much correct," Avad replied softly. "Nothing about this is okay. But Aloy, you aren't the only one suffering."

"I know." Her grip on herself tightened. "I know I'm being selfish. I know I'm being childish. It's why I went off on my own, all right? And you didn't need to follow."

"I did," he said simply. "Because you are my friend, and I care for you and Sahad both."

Despite her attempts to keep a hold on herself, Aloy's breath quickened. "You don't need to waste energy worrying about me."

Avad didn't respond for a time, and he was staring out over the stream and into the depths of the forest across from it when Aloy finally glanced up at him.

"I may have lost a brother, but you also lost a friend. I'm aware that it's been weighing on you too, you know."

"And I'm aware that it's been hurting you more," she grumbled. "Which is why I haven't come to you about it. I don't think I have the right to be whining in this case."

A hand rubbed at the golden brown skin of his cheek, and Avad looked more exhausted than she had yet seen him.

"It's not whining, Aloy. There is no reason to compare the magnitude of pain we're suffering when we're both going through the exact same thing."

The tears were back, and she was too tired to bother swiping at them. "I miss him. Kadi."

"It's very odd sometimes," Avad said with a sad smile. "I'll be distracted by writing out another contract for another mercenary, and I'll think of some small thing I wish to tell him. But the instant I turn around to speak, I remember that he's not there anymore. All my life, I had him, a brother to confide in, and there were so many times where I wished he'd leave me be."

"And now you'd do anything to hear him crack one more stupid joke," Aloy chuckled wetly.

"Yes." Avad's eyes were overbright as he leaned over and bumped her shoulder with his own. "You know, he wouldn't have allowed you and Sahad to be at odds for so long."

Despite herself, Aloy gave a quiet laugh. "You're right. He wouldn't have. Probably would have tried to annoy us both to death about it. Not like it would have changed anything between us, though."

"It might have," Avad shrugged.

Aloy shook her head. "No. Nil has already moved on. You can't…" She swallowed past the grit in her throat. "You can't force two people together when one of them practically hates the other. Not even Kadi could pull something like that off."

Avad studied her, a frown tugging at his lips. "Aloy...what do you know of how Sahad feels?"

"Enough to understand that whatever he used to feel for me is long gone," she bit out, hugging herself harder. "He tells me enough with the way he looks at me."

"Looks can be deceiving," Avad said gently. "I think you'd find that his actual thoughts are very different from what he allows you to see on his face."

"I doubt that," Aloy muttered.

"Would you believe me if I told you that we have spoken about this at length?"

Her eyes darted to him as her heart skipped a beat. "You have?"

"He is my friend as much as you are," he reminded her. "Of course I have. And you should know that he's suffering as much as you are."

Anger eclipsed the hope that rose within her almost as soon as she felt it. "It wouldn't have killed him to tell me that himself."

"He's hurt, Aloy," Avad replied matter-of-factly. "He carries around the words you said to him—the exact nature of which he hasn't disclosed to me, by the way—constantly. Above all, he wishes that he could discard that pain and simply be with you once more."

"I want to be with him again, more than anything," Aloy whispered. "If he'd let me."

"And you may find that his conviction is weaker than it once was." At her widened eyes, Avad held up a hand. "But Aloy, I must advise you to think carefully on your words this time around. Contemplate on what exactly happened to cause your marriage to crumble, and most importantly, allow him the space to make his decision on his own."

"I will," she said breathlessly. "But I do want to know something."

"Yes?"

"Why are you telling me this?" Aloy asked. "Shouldn't your conversations be a private matter?"

Avad's smile was rueful. "Perhaps it's the romantic in me, but I cannot stand to see you both so unhappy in an already miserable situation. We may be in exile, but it doesn't have to all be bad. If I must betray a friend's confidence in an attempt to nudge him towards a better life, then I will do so happily."

With that, he stood, brushing bits of grass and leaf from his clothing.

"For now, I have business to attend to and must leave you. Think on what I've said, and if you have further need of me, I will be with Ersa in my room in town."

Aloy nodded and watched him go, her heart beating faster and faster with every step he took as what he had relayed to her sank in.

If anyone else had told her that Nil still felt the same for her as he always had, she would have refused to even entertain the idea. But this was Avad—the most serious of all of her friends and yet the kindest. He wouldn't dream of giving her false hope, much less lie to her about such a delicate subject.

Which meant that Nil not only still cared for her, but that he still loved her.

Dizzying, wonderful hope bloomed within her, as beautiful to her as her lost prairie roses. And this time, Aloy didn't even attempt to suppress it.

If he still loved her, that meant that there was a chance, however slight, that what they had before wasn't lost. With only a few short weeks remaining until their separation period ended and their marriage was dissolved, she knew that she needed to act sooner rather than later.

But that didn't mean cutting the time she would spend preparing what she would say to him short. There was so much she could possibly tell him, and choosing the right words was imperative.

And then there was the most important matter of all: placing the blame for their falling apart where it was due. At this point, Aloy understood that most of it fell on her, but she had been too blind, too stubborn, too self-righteous to totally admit that to herself. Nil had given his all to her, and by refusing to trust in him fully, she had failed to uphold her end of the bargain. One person could not bear the weight of an entire relationship on their own, that she knew now.

And that wasn't even taking into consideration the words she had spoken to him that terrible night. The hatred she had spewed towards a man who had barely just begun to turn his life around, so similar to the words which had sealed his descent down a path of destruction.

Aloy wasn't any better than Ligan, but that didn't mean she couldn't still try to turn this around. And unlike her father-in-law, she wouldn't wait years to approach him, all while whatever bond remained between them festered and died.

It was then that she finally allowed the full force of the guilt and shame over what she had done to swamp her, that she finally allowed the image of his face that night, heartbroken from her actions and words, to come to the forefront of her mind. The dry sob which escaped her was involuntary, and she pressed her face into her knees as the waves of regret threatened to drown her.

"Enough." His voice was deathly quiet, and in it was a warning. "If that's what you believe, then so be it."

So be it.

Aloy realized now that those words were his first steps towards acceptance that their relationship was over.

How painful, how lonely must it have been to shoulder the burden of Kadaman's execution and the stress of their flight alone, while all the while she scorned him? One of Nil's great strengths was his ability to compartmentalize, and it granted him a great deal of self control in return, but Aloy knew him. She knew that once he had laid down the burdens of the day and was alone in his bedroll, that the thoughts would be inescapable, just as they were for her.

In a similar vein, she also needed to consider that there was always the possibility that he could refuse her again. Making peace with that outcome would be difficult, but it was a necessary evil. If he did turn her down, Aloy knew that she would need to accept that their paths would part for good, and she would need to respect that fully. Hounding him until he gave in wasn't an option, and that wasn't what she wanted anyway; any relationship formed in that way would be just as false as their marriage had originally been.

With new resolve that excited as much as it terrified her, Aloy rose to her feet. When the first rays of the sun hit her as she emerged from shadow, they somehow didn’t seem as harsh as they had when she had come here an hour earlier. In the distance, she could even make out the cracking and groaning of ice as it melted beneath its warmth.

To her, it was a promise that winter would soon end, that spring was waiting just around the corner. In no time at all, there would be new life springing up from between the spaces of that which had died in the fall—green shoots of grass, vibrant flowers, and even baby animals would soon be flooding the mountains with their wondrous displays.

Even after the long winter and death’s quiet, stifling hand, all things grew. And this time, so would she.

Chapter Text

March came roaring into the Claim with a howling snowstorm, a last gasp of winter which blanketed the world in white. It kept all but the most foolhardy inside, unfortunately also having the unintended consequence of keeping Aloy from speaking with Nil.

Time was running out before she would have to sign off on the divorce. Still, she refused to speak with him about such a delicate subject in front of others. There was barely any privacy in the common areas of the inn they were all crammed into, and Aloy doubted that Nil would come by her room if she asked him to. Despite having done all of the thinking she possibly could about the subject and picking out exactly what she wanted to say to him and how, she was forced to wait.

If the worst came to pass, however, she would suck it up and speak with him in front of Avad and the others. It may not be ideal, but she would do anything to have him back. At the very least, she would be able to tell him how sorry she actually was. And if he didn't take her back as his wife, Aloy would figure out a way to deal with that. She'd push on and survive as she always had, although with a painful new scar.

Luckily, the storm passed by the fourth day of the month. The world thawed quickly beneath the strengthening sun, enough that people began venturing outside again. Forge fires were relit, sparring sessions resumed, and time marched ever closer to the moment they would march on Meridian with the Oseram Freebooters, a formidable mercenary band with whom Avad and Ersa had recently secured an alliance.

Against all odds, somehow their plans were beginning to come together. There was a more than decent chance that Jiran's reign would soon come to an end, and the general mood among the honor guard cautiously began to edge towards hope, especially after such a harsh winter. Nights were easier, with alcohol consumed more to relax than to ward off both misery and the pervasive chill of the north. Sometimes, with the warming weather, their little group even moved outside to sit in front of one of the many bonfires scattered throughout town, although the Oseram still went out of their way to avoid them.

It was on one of these nights that Aloy finally took her chance. Nil had looked her way a few times that day, sending her heart into a sprint everytime, and some instinct told her that it was now or never.

She was sitting next to Avad as usual, opposite to Nil, watching as the flames from the bonfire caressed and flickered over his skin and imbued him with an unearthly glow. As was often the case lately, his face was somber and drawn, and her heart ached at the sight.

She should be sitting there beside him. She should be doing everything she could to make him smile again.

Nil caught her staring, and his expression closed off as always. Without a word, he rose to his feet and stalked off.

Aloy couldn't take it anymore; she had thought so much that she was sick of it, their marriage was to be dissolved in a matter of days, and all of this combined with watching him walk away yet again made something inside of her break and give way. Stumbling up, she hurried after him, ignoring the look of concern Avad gave her.

She followed Nil as he rounded one of those squat Oseram buildings she had grown familiar with in the last few months. With their surroundings providing as much privacy as they were ever going to get, she took her shot.

"Nil!" Aloy called. "Wait!"

He kept walking.

Once more, she told herself. Just one more try.

"Please, Sahad," she begged. "I only want to speak with you a final time, and then I'll leave you alone."

To her shock, Nil stopped in his tracks, although he didn't turn to face her. The moon hovered in front of him, kissing the edges of his form in silvery light and making him appear as though he were only partially grounded in reality.

Like a dream that she was grasping at the last threads of.

"Say your piece."

Gulping, Aloy stared down at her feet. There weren't words for what she was attempting to communicate, but all she could do was her best.

That's all either of them had ever done.

"I know I hurt you." She took a shuddering breath. "I won't ask for you back. I won't even ask for forgiveness. All I want is for you to listen, and then you'll never have to hear from me again."

The tension in his frame grew, but Aloy pressed on.

"I've never had to trust anyone besides Rost before I came to Meridian. I was so used to everyone hating me back in the Sacred Lands, and the fact that so many people actually liked me all at once? Just for who I was?" She gave a bitter laugh. "With the way my life had gone up to that point, I was overwhelmed. And then Kadi...so much happened that night, and I didn't stop to think. But..."

Aloy lifted her head.

"That didn't give me the right to not believe you. You had never given me any reason to not trust you, and I was too stupid to realize that. The things I said to you were beyond horrible, and you'll never know how much I hate myself for even thinking them." Tears pricked in her eyes. "I know...I know that I have no right to ask for even your friendship anymore, and that's okay. I've spent the last few weeks coming to terms with that. But I want you to know how sorry I am, and I want you to know that I love you. I think I always will, no matter where my life takes me, because you were the first one who taught me what love was. I'll never forget that."

Nil's shoulders began to quiver and shake like a leaf just barely tethered to its branch.

"I know that you're a good man," she said. "You've proven that time and time again, and despite what happened between us, I hope that it doesn't ruin any of the progress you've made. You have the potential to help so many people. We both do."

Wrapping her arms around herself, Aloy took one long look at the man who had formerly been her husband, drinking in the sight of him, memorizing the shape of his body, the way his hair curled to his shoulders—everything she could in these last moments they had alone.

"I'll go now," she said quietly. "I'll sign the divorce papers without complaint, and I won't speak to you again outside of war planning. Goodbye, Nil."

"Aloy—wait."

The desperate note in his voice had her stopping in the midst of turning. Her heart stuttered, hope attempting to take flight in her chest like a fledgling bird.

No. Hope had no place here. Not anymore.

But when he turned around, something on his cheeks glimmered in the scant light, and Aloy realized that his face was streaked with tears.

"If I'm honest, being without you has been like wandering through darkness," Nil choked out. "You hurt me, yes. But this separation has hurt far more than anything I've experienced since mother died.

"You don't have to do anything out of pity—"

"It's not pity," Nil snapped. In the next second, he deflated, and all of the bite left his words as he dropped his gaze to the ground. "When you refused to trust my word, all I could see was my father's disappointment, all I could hear is what he said to me after Cinnabar Sands. It shook my faith in what little good I have done. But Aloy..."

He lifted his eyes to her, soaked with moonlight and more resolve than she had ever seen from him.

"I want to be better. I want to be the man you've always seen in me. I want to do it with you at my side." Nil opened his arms, the intensity of his hope filling the space between them. "And I will forgive you a thousand times over if it means that I can have you as my wife again."

The next few seconds hung suspended in time, like the delicate crystal chandelier that had so captivated her in the Palace of the Sun, with its many faceted sides reflecting the dancing light from the setting sun on to the stone walls around it. With perfect clarity, Aloy saw all of Nil and all of her and how they both reflected off of each other. No matter which side he showed or what way he turned, he had always been seeking out the light, even in the darkest of nights when it felt as though morning would never come. Right now, he was ablaze.

After three months spent without his touch, Aloy didn't waste another second more. The tears burning in her eyes finally tumbled free, and she ran to him, gasping as he caught her up in his embrace.

"Now and always," she sobbed into his shoulder, broad and warm and everything she had been missing. "I'm never leaving you again."

"And you have my word as well," Nil whispered into her hair. "Never."

Gentle fingers snaked up to push on her chin. Aloy obliged, tilting her head up, and he closed the distance between them to lay on her lips the sweetest kiss he had ever given her.

The world righted itself again in a single instant, and she innately recognized the feeling she was awash in, down to her fingers and toes.

Home.

She had missed the feeling of his lips moving over hers, the way his hands would cradle her face like she was precious to him. She fully, joyously believed now that she was—he had loved her for far longer than she had him and had gone through a great deal of strife to keep her safe from the machinations of the Sun-Court and to see to her happiness. He had even been willing to let her go, likely knowing that they would never meet again.

That wasn't going to happen, not in this lifetime or the next. When Aloy wanted something, she fought for it with everything she had, and she wanted her husband. She wanted Nil in all of the ways a wife wanted a husband, a mate wanted a mate. There would be no more holding back, no more cautious easing into their relationship. If the events of the past few months had taught her anything, it was that life was too short and fragile to play it safe. Tonight, she would finally take her husband as her lover.

As much as it pained her to do so, Aloy parted from him with a soft gasp. Clasping her hands over his, she brought them to her lips, rallying all of her courage for her next question.

"Can we, um, take this somewhere else?"

Amusement danced in Nil's eyes, a sight she had sorely missed. "Somewhere else? I'm afraid you'll have to be more specific."

She knew that he was teasing her, but all it did was make her smile. "You know what I'm talking about. My room. More specifically, my bed."

"Are you sure about this, my huntress?" he murmured. "There's no need to rush into anything."

"I think that after everything that's happened…" Aloy shook her head. "There's no telling what tomorrow could bring. Both of us have waited for this for long enough, and I'm ready now. More ready than I was back in Meridian."

Nil examined her through serious eyes. Whatever he found in her expression seemed to satisfy him, and he laid his free hand over hers where they were still clasping its twin.

"I'd love to go to bed with you, Aloy," he said softly. "So lead the way."

Without any hesitation, she tugged him in the direction of the inn, their hands remaining folded together the entire time. They had to pass by the fire where their friends and the guard were still huddled, and Avad glanced their way when they walked by. The beaming smile Aloy sent to him inspired one of his own, and Ersa even offered her a wicked grin full of encouragement. Her heart fuller than it had ever been, she led her husband inside.

When the door to her tiny room clicked shut, she finally let her grip on his hand drop. Beneath her bliss, nervousness began to creep up despite her attempts to banish it. Nil seemed to fill up most of the space with his form, and when he stepped forward, so close that his clothing whispered over hers, Aloy gave an involuntary shiver. Somehow, she had forgotten how much larger he was than her.

His palm cupping her cheek was all it took to steady her and remind her that it was only him, that there was nothing to be afraid of here. That long absent but beloved warmth from his touch seeped into her as she regarded him through hooded eyes, while his thumb began to stroke over the flushed skin of her face.

"Just a reminder that I still don't know much about lying with a woman beyond the basics," he said wryly. "Advice only goes so far."

His comment was clearly inspired by a similar nervousness to what she had felt only seconds earlier, and Aloy smiled up at him in what she hoped was a reassuring way.

"We'll figure everything out," she promised. "Together."

"Together," Nil breathed, before closing the gap between them.

Their kiss before had been all emotion, all joy at their reunion. This one was more urgent, edged in heady lust familiar to her from the two precious weeks they had spent in bed together. What was new was the knowledge that this time, he wouldn't be holding back or stopping.

His hands gripped at Aloy's waist, pulling her as close as she could get, until she could feel every hard angle of him through his many layers. Both of her hands laid against his chest with fingers spread out, the rapid thrum of his heart a steady cadence beneath them. It sped when Nil deepened the kiss, his tongue delving into her mouth with a sensual vigor that had her knees nearly buckling beneath her.

He may have lacked experience when it came to bedding women, but kissing was a skill her husband excelled at. Nil guided her in a practiced rhythm as his palms smoothed over her back, down to her hips, his fingertips brushing dangerously close to Aloy's backside several times. As eager as he was, she arched into him, his every touch making her nerves sing in delight.

Eventually, those clever fingers wandered up to the fastenings of the fur-trimmed coat she wore, undoing them with expert skill and not hesitating to push the bulky clothing off of her and onto the floor. His lips parted from hers, only to drop to the tender skin of her neck while he worked on removing the rest of the layers covering her top half. All the while, teeth and tongue worshipped and tormented her in turn, dipping lower and lower with every undone button. Aloy could do nothing more than clutch at him desperately, the sensation burning through her and settling in her core more intense than it had ever been before.

The slight chill of the room nipped at her naked skin, and she realized dizzily that he had already gotten her down to only her breastband. Slowly, Nil inched her towards the bed until the backs of her knees hit the edge, catching her off guard and causing her to lose her balance. Aloy fell back with a surprised cry, her hand darting out at the last moment to grip onto her husband's scarf. The silk unraveled from his neck and fluttered down until it laid over her exposed stomach, a stark red pool against the pale expanse of skin.

Nil watched her fall back, his eyes darkened with lust as they trailed over the length of her body. Her chest heaved with effort, quickening as she met that gaze, followed it as he bent forward to plant his hands on either side of her head before ducking his head down to nip at her collarbone, as though he couldn't resist tasting her in some way.

"Beautiful," he murmured against the ridge of bone. "You've always been far too beautiful."

His fingers dropped to her belly, splaying out over silk and skin, before drifting lower. Aloy's heart pounded all the harder in her chest as they reached the waistband of her trousers, tugging at the tie which kept them up playfully.

"I think," she managed to say, "I think we should even the score in terms of clothing. You're looking a little overdressed."

Delight flashed in Nil's eyes as he lifted his head. "Oh? Is my little wife getting greedy?"

His casual use of the title had so much relief and joy coursing through Aloy that she had to bite back an enormous, silly smile.

"Yes, and I'm not afraid to admit it," she said pertly.

A rumbling chuckle exited Nil before he lifted himself off of her to do as she asked. After removing his leather bracers, he undid the clasps on his own top, shrugging it off before beginning work on the knotted white undershirt most Carja wore in cold weather. Her husband made a show of it, tugging the fabric up slowly over his abdominal muscles and flexing in an entirely unnecessary way as he worked it over his chest and arms.

Normally, Aloy would have rolled her eyes or made some biting comment, but in the moment, she was enraptured. As common of a sight as his naked torso had been to her when they had lived in Meridian, she hadn't seen it in months due to the season and their circumstances, and her anticipation ratcheted up with every newly revealed inch. By the time he had tossed the article of clothing on the floor, her heart was pounding in her ears and so much need was aching in her center that she could barely think straight.

Still, she kept herself present long enough to rake her gaze over his forearms. Her relief was so great at what she found—or rather, what she didn't find—that she knew she would have collapsed if she hadn't already been lying down.

No new scars.

"Come, sweetling," he said, running a gentle hand along her arm. "Let's get you into a more comfortable position."

It took mere seconds for Aloy to scramble up the sheets until she wasn't hanging half off the bed and her head was on the pillow, and only seconds more for Nil to join her, crawling up the length of with a distinctly Stalker-like grace. Every movement was infused with his dark sensuality, his trek ending in him caging her hips in between his thickly muscled thighs. Tilting his head down, he slanted his mouth over hers in another heated kiss, this one more aggressive than the last.

With his body flush against hers, Aloy could feel that wonderfully hard firmness digging into her hip, and she gave an involuntary moan at both the feeling and the knowledge that she would finally get to have all of him tonight. She arched up into him desperately, Nil making a pleased noise of his own in response. As he moved back several inches, his fingers wandered down, the pad of his thumb stroking over the point of her hip bone momentarily before he finally, finally pushed his hand past the hem of her trousers.

Blinding bolts of pleasure arced through her as Nil grazed over the thatch of curls between her thighs. Hesitancy dogged his every movement as his fingers slipped lower, silver eyes remaining trained on Aloy as they began to move, slowly and with a little clumsiness.

"You'll have to tell me if what I'm doing isn't working, love," he said, his voice a touch hoarse.

Her eyes fluttering shut, Aloy nodded hazily. She wasn't sure if there was a wrong way for him to touch her, for every new stroke had her straining into his hand more. Copious amounts of wetness aided his every movement, and it was with distant embarrassment that she realized she had become this aroused from his kisses alone.

Nil was nothing if not a fast learner. He fine tuned the brush of his fingers over her slit based on what got the most reaction out of her, and it wasn't long before he found the tiny bud tucked in her folds. A gasping cry rose from her at the first touch, tearing a ragged curse from him in response.

Emboldened, his other hand ripped the last flimsy bit of cloth on her torso up, exposing her breasts to the air. Aloy slitted her eyes back open and watched as he cupped one in his palm, the scrape of his calluses over a peaked, sensitive nipple having her squirming even more beneath him. Everything felt too intense, the two articles of clothing she wore too much, and there was an aching emptiness in her core she knew she wanted filled soon.

As though he could read her mind, Nil took that moment to carefully press a single finger inside of her. More slick fluids eased his passage, the stretch far better and more satisfying than anything she could do to herself, yet still somehow not enough. Aloy's eyes were wide open now, pinned on him as he spread her, the need within her reaching a fever pitch.

"Sahad," she gasped. "Please."

Clearly pleased with himself and gaining more and more confidence each passing second, he whispered, "Patience, patience. There's a lot to get you ready for."

To illustrate, Nil pulled the digit out of her before pushing back in, harder than he had the first time. Aloy's hand flew to his wrist, where she gripped it hard, digging her nails into the flesh there. A hiss escaped him, and his eyes narrowed further as he picked up the pace, the fingers of his other hand plucking and toying at her nipple. She was helpless to do anything but ride the rising tide of her pleasure, uncaring that the noises she made and the half-formed words which fell from her would have been mortifying under any other circumstance.

But not with her husband. Never with Nil.

In a total reversal and to Aloy's shock, he was the one to lose patience first. Only a couple of minutes passed of the absolute euphoria of his finger pumping in and out of her with growing speed and force before, with a frustrated snarl, he yanked his hand from her trousers. Before she could get a single word in, he was undoing the tie at her waistband, movements steady despite the wild desperation she could see in his eye.

Despite her lack of speech, he caught the glint of amusement in hers anyway and bent forward to bite at her earlobe in retaliation. Aloy could feel him smirk against her neck as she yelped in response.

"Quiet, now. Wouldn't want everyone else to know what we're up to."

"I'm pretty sure they're already well aware," she replied breathlessly.

"Then we shouldn't disappoint them," he grinned, before pulling her trousers and undergarments down without warning.

Aloy couldn't help it; she flushed. Naked beneath his hungry gaze—not for the first time, but these were far different circumstances—she felt more vulnerable and exposed than she ever had before. After he had pulled her final layers of clothing off and threw them aside somewhere, Nil simply looked at her. His expression was thick with awe, as though he were seeing her for the first time. When their eyes met, there was a depth of emotion swimming in his that she hadn't seen in a long, long time, and she had to swallow back emotion of her own before it choked her.

"Aloy," he murmured, bending forward to lay a kiss on her brow. "My perfect Aloy. Come here."

Nil slid his arms beneath her and scooped her up before reversing their positions so that she was the one straddling him now. As he laid back on the pillow, his palms continued to run along every curve of her body, into the tuck of her waist, the swell of her breasts, the plane of her stomach. His touch was reverent, bordering on worshipful, and Aloy felt more blood rushing to her face.

Not to be outdone, she laid her own hands on the broad slope of his chest. Nil stilled in his movements as she carried out her own explorations, only breaking when she brushed over his nipples with her fingertips.

"Huntress," he said, voice tight.

Aloy took pity on him and slid down his hips, working at undoing his pants. The rise and fall of Nil's chest grew more rapid as she began to pull them down, holding her breath the entire time.

With a final tug, that which she had wanted for months now finally sprang free from its confines.

A low noise escaped her as she took in the sight of her husband's cock for the first time, and Aloy pressed her thighs together uselessly. It was flushed with blood, drooling a clear fluid at the tip, and most notably of all, very large. She wondered how it could possibly fit inside of her, but the thought of another challenge to overcome only had more wetness pooling between her legs. It turned out that he had been right about needing to prepare her after all.

Curious, she reached out and wrapped her fingers around the base. Nil gave a wheezing exhale, jerking up into her hand, and dark delight filled her as she realized how much control this levied her over him. An experimental stroke had him biting back a moan. Aloy did it again, and again, until his hand shot out and stilled hers.

"Please, sweetling," he groaned. "As wonderful as this feels, I'd rather not spill in your hand, and if you keep going…"

Reluctantly, Aloy loosened her grip on him, instead focusing her attention on pulling his trousers all the way off. In no time at all, they were on the floor, leaving both of them entirely naked.

By now, she had shed her anxiousness like a second skin. All that remained was eager want, pulsing through her veins along with her blood with every beat of her heart. But before she could lift her hips and position herself over him, Nil's voice stopped her.

"Wait—Aloy—we've nothing to prevent the conception of a child." His expression had taken on an unfamiliar anxiety. "And with things the way they are—"

"It's a good thing that I never stopped taking my herbs, then," she interrupted him with a tiny smile. "We're completely fine."

Her husband sagged with complete relief, pressing his eyes shut for a moment. "Good. That's good. I suppose I should be thanking you for holding out hope."

"And I should be thanking you for grabbing them from home in the first place," she replied.

They shared a few seconds of soft, intimate laughter, before quieting as the weight of what they were about to do—a pleasure denied to them for far too long—settled down upon them. Nil's hands fell to her hips, and he helped ease her up, helped guide her to the correct position. There, Aloy hovered for what felt like an eternity, the head of his cock just barely ghosting over her folds as the entire world seemed to hold its breath.

"Slowly, now," Nil breathed.

She took his words of caution seriously, sinking down as gradually as she could. The tip pressed against her, and then into her, and his hold on the curve of her hips tightened. With every successive inch, she was spread further, and more and more ecstatic pleasure sang through her nerves until she bottomed out completely. There was some discomfort from the sheer amount of stretch, for Nil was indeed on the larger end from what she knew, but he had prepared her well, and she somehow knew that it would soon pass.

For a while, Aloy was still, all but for an uncontrollable tremor which vibrated her entire body. She was so full of Nil, both within and without, and it was overwhelming. There was comfort in the fact that he seemed to be as affected as her, with the way his lips were parted and his breath came in ragged gasps.

And beneath it all, brimming in his eyes, there was pure, unabashed love, all for her and her alone, and Aloy knew that she was reflecting it right back.

Her first movements were slow and tentative. But the force of sensation which slammed into her with every rock of her hips left her reeling and greedy for more, so it wasn't long before she began to chase after it with a vigor she usually reserved for hunting down a machine.

Her partner in everything, Nil matched her stroke for stroke. His grip on Aloy became an anchor point for him to hold her steady while he thrust up into her. The noises she made mingled with his own, only serving to spur her on, desperate to please him and to take her own pleasure from him in turn.

Her peak built and built, an insistent pressure wound up within her that always seemed just out of reach. It had her bucking her hips harder, moving faster, arching forward until she was clutching at Nil's chest as a lifeline. A rare flush had spread over the arch of his cheeks, sweat beading at his brow, and soon he was curling up to slant his lips over hers in a hot, opened mouth kiss.

It was a symphony of sensation—with his hands roaming all over her, his cock inside of her, and his tongue delving into her mouth, Aloy finally found her completion. All of the pleasure, all of the pain of the last few months, all of the remnant tension between them wound up within her and burst. A wild cry wrenched itself from her as the world exploded and her vision went white for a couple of very long seconds, enough so that she could barely hear when Nil gasped her name against her lips as he too found his oblivion.

In the aftermath, after her ears finally stopped ringing enough for her to hear again, the soft gasps of their labored breathing was the only sound to break the quiet of the room. Nil eventually helped ease her off of him, and, exhausted, Aloy fell to his side. The bed was small and he took up most of it, but she didn't mind. It was an excuse to lay curled up in his arms, the only place on earth she wanted to be at that moment.

As much as she wanted to stay awake to speak with Nil, to bask in the fact that he was truly here with her and that she wouldn't wake from a dream this time, her eyes closed almost immediately as the events of the day caught up with her. There was a soft pressure against her temple and then a shifting as she felt covers being tugged out from under her and then drawn back up.

"Sleep well, love. I'll be here in the morning."

It was that quiet reassurance which laid to rest Aloy's remaining fears, and she slipped off into the most restful sleep she could recall having.

When she woke hours later, Aloy immediately knew that she had slept in. The sunlight streaming in through her window was strong, and with a sigh, she threw an arm over her face.

A quiet exhale beside her reminded her that she wasn't alone.

When she glanced over at him, her heart stumbling in her chest as she recalled the events of last night, Nil was smiling lazily at her.

"Morning, sweetling," he yawned, draping an arm around her and pulling her close. "I hope you weren't planning on going anywhere anytime soon."

"Not by choice," she murmured, rolling to her side and snuggling in closer. "But Avad probably has need of us soon."

"I'm fairly certain that if Avad wanted our presence, he would have sent someone to fetch us already." One of Nil's fingers toyed with a curl in her hair. "I don't believe we'll be bothered at all today, though. It's not like there's anything particularly pressing going on at the moment."

"True," Aloy hummed.

Bending over, Nil kissed her sweetly before easing himself up with a groan. "I would, however, like to find us some breakfast." When Aloy made to get up as well, however, he shook his head firmly. "And you will stay right here until I bring it back."

"But—"

"I won't hear any protests," he said. A soft smile tugged at his lips. "It's been too long since I've been able to care for you in the way I like. Allow me to have this."

Reluctantly, she settled back down. "Fine."

After a quick kiss (which Aloy intended to deepen, but he caught on separated from her with a stern look), Nil pulled on his clothes and left, and without much else to do, she let herself doze. It was several minutes before he came back, balancing a couple of dishes and wearing a crooked grin.

Aloy rose to a sitting position and accepted a plate, not even noticing when her blanket slipped down and exposed her chest. She did, however, note Nil's appreciative once over, and she had to bat him away when he sat with his own food and reached out to touch her.

"I'm actually hungry," she informed him. "So you can wait."

Nil gave an overwrought sigh. "Well, it's a good thing then that we have plenty of time." At her questioning look, he continued. "I ran into Avad downstairs. He told me to inform you that he doesn't want to see either of us for the next three days, and to, quote 'return with clear heads and hearts to focus on planning and training.'"

The mention of the Sun-Prince reminded her of something else, and with her appetite suddenly muted, Aloy stared down at her plate.

A hand laid on hers. "Aloy?"

"Are we still married?" she finally asked. "Regardless of what happened last night, I wasn't sure…"

Gentle fingers pulled the plate from her lap, and Nil placed their food on the bedside table before reaching out and crushing her in his embrace, forcing all of the air out her until she gave a gasping squeak.

"Avad threw the papers into the fire last night." He finally loosened his hold on her enough so that she could breathe properly. "So, yes, huntress. We're still married if you want to be."

Aloy leaned into him. "I do. More than anything. As long as it's what you want too."

"Then I do as well," Nil replied, giving her a final squeeze before detangling himself from her with a thoughtful look. "Which reminds me…"

His hand dropped to a pouch on his belt, Aloy's confusion clearing when he produced a tiny black stick, worn down on one side.

"Lift your head," he said softly, sliding his fingers over the swell of her cheek.

She complied, her heart in her throat as she desperately tried to hold back her tears.

As he had twice before, Nil drew on the Argir markings. The first time, she hadn't wanted them or him. The second time, she still hadn't quite understood their true meaning.

This time, Aloy cherished them and all that they stood for.

Belonging. Companionship. And to the both of them, a symbol of their love for each other.

When he finished, Nil regarded her for a long moment, brushing his thumbs just beneath the marks.

"There," he murmured. "And if that's not enough to prove it, we'll have to get married again here."

She couldn't hide the tears shining in her eyes, but there was no need to hide anything from her husband. "I don't think that's necessary."

"A party might be good for everyone, actually," Nil mused. "I should speak with Avad and Ersa—"

Before he could complete his thought, Aloy leapt on top of him, silencing him with a kiss. Their breakfasts laid forgotten as she pressed him down into the sheets, much more important matters taking precedence. Soon, they would have to return to their duties. But for now, she was content to take the time allotted to them and make up for all of the lost months, to finally fix what had been broken.

Chapter Text

As reluctant as she had been at first, Aloy eventually came around to the idea of a second wedding. Despite the fact that they were already legally married in the Sundom, something about deliberately choosing to undertake the ritual again made their marriage feel more real. The way Nil's face lit up when she told him made it more than worth it, in any case.

With spring flowers woven into their unbound hair, Nil and Aloy were married once again in Oseram territory one late afternoon in April. There was no pomp or circumstance, their outfits made of simple linens and tanned leather rather than painted machine parts and fine silks. The vows they traded as they interlocked hands lacked the religious weight of the Carja tradition, instead consisting of promises to keep the hearth of their home and marriage always burning bright.

Clothed in white and the golden light of the sun, Nil had never looked more beautiful to her.

And when they sealed their vows with a kiss, no gossiping, cruel nobles awaited then. Instead, there were cheerful yells, congratulations, plenty of beer, and the warmth of friends. They were swept up into a lively reception, and it was hours before they were able to escape and retire to bed.

"You know," Nil mused as he lowered himself down on top of her, "this is the first time I've felt as though you were truly my wife."

Despite the heated situation, Aloy couldn't help but give an undignified snort. "Took you long enough."

"Two weddings and a year," he said with a shrug. "I caught up eventually."

"You did," she replied, plucking a stray flower from his hair. "And for the record, I feel the same."

There was no response, because Nil elected to cover her mouth with his own in an enthusiastic kiss instead.

The months they spent together in the Claim were some of the best of Aloy's life. War planning was a heavy weight bearing down upon her, but she wasn't alone. While she had possessed ample companionship in Meridian, the freedom she had now had eluded her, the rules and expectations which came with her status in society winding around her like a gilded cage. Things weren't perfect, but with her husband by her side, they came close.

Spring was warmed away beneath the strengthening sun far too quickly, and June soon arrived. With an watertight alliance secured between the Freebooters, it was time to begin their journey back south.

None of the anxiety and quiet terror which had defined their original flight accompanied them this time. With forces numbering in the hundreds and the might of powerful Oseram cannons in their possession, there was instead grim purpose and the beginnings of confidence in most of the men.

The further into the Sundom their small army traveled, the clearer it became that not only had others heard of their march, but that Jiran had grown paranoid. Scouts returned with information that most of the Carja military had retreated back towards Meridian, and to their surprise, also brought back with them defected soldiers. These weary men spoke of increasing brutality and bloodshed and of how the Sun-King had lost popular support among the nobility and commoners alike after Kadaman's execution. Morale had dropped so low among military ranks that several dozens of men had joined their forces by the time they were closing in on the holy city, while others laid down arms and fled once they had caught sight of them.

The Spire appeared long before the city did, a black blade cutting through the horizon. It inspired mixed feelings in Aloy as she regarded it from her perch on a scrubby hillside one late afternoon. They were set to arrive in Meridian tomorrow, and from here she could just make out the violent glare from the sunlight reflecting off of its metal structures.

Never far from her since their reunion, Nil found her there only minutes later. He settled down beside her with a sigh.

"So. Do you think you're ready?"

She gave a short laugh. "I don't know if there's any way I'd ever be ready for something like this."

"True." Nil's fingers found hers, a gentle, steadying pressure. "More importantly, how are you feeling?"

He often checked in with Aloy these days, and his concern was enough to inspire a tiny smile.

"I'm not sure. Strange, for one." Her gaze drifted back out over the distant skyline. "It was home for so long, and now we're set to march on it. I guess I'm just wondering what comes after the smoke clears."

"That's something we can figure out," he replied, tilting his head until his cheek rested atop hers.

"We just have to survive this first," Aloy whispered.

Nil's grip on her hand tightened. "If I'm honest, I've never been more afraid marching into war. I used to anticipate it, the heady scent of bloodshed on the horizon as thick as incense. But now...Aloy, you're my wife and my partner in battle, and my place tomorrow will be at your side. Know that if the moon sees fit to claim you for her own, then I will gladly follow you into darkness. Either way, I can't lose you."

She said nothing, only buried her face into his shoulder. If she had spoken, she knew that she might break.

When they went to bed that night in the seclusion of their tent, Nil took his time with her. It was as though he were memorizing every last inch of her with lips and fingers, each touch meant as much to arouse as it was to comfort. For a time, it worked. But even as Aloy fell apart beneath him, shuddering and sobbing and clutching at him desperately, the knowledge that this could be their last time alone together circled through her head like a macabre dirge.

Even in the safety of his arms, sleep was elusive. She tossed and turned, and so did he, until they both gave up around an hour before dawn. From his place beside her on their shared bedroll, Nil stared at her. Aloy stared back. His thumbs ghosted over her face, and there were no words shared.

Eventually, they got up. Nothing but the rustle and clank of their armor could be heard as they got ready. She tightened a few of his buckles, he made sure her forearm guard was attached securely, and then they had prepared as much as they could.

Before Aloy could crawl out of the tent and into the new morning, Nil pulled her in for a final kiss. Then and only then did she allow all of her fears, all of her desperation, all of her anxieties free, pouring it into the vigor of her movements against him. His fingers trembled a little as they dug into the seams of Aloy's armor and into her sides.

"I love you, Aloy," he rasped as they parted. "I'll do everything I can to protect you, I swear it."

"And I'll do the same for you," she whispered back just as fiercely. "Partners, remember?"

His grin was weak. "Until the end."

Together, they exited the tent, leaving everything except their weapons and resolve behind.

Avad was waiting for them with the rest of the leadership on a ridge overlooking the city, resplendent beneath the harsh glare of the rising sun. Ersa was by his side—and there was Erend, Radid, a few other Oseram, and…

Aloy nearly dropped her bow.

"Talanah!" she cried.

She stood proudly off to the side, wearing her golden and blue hunting silks reinforced with extra plates of metal and a familiar grin on her painted lips. There was also a heaviness that hadn't been there before, and it lent her a harsh determination that would have had Aloy thinking twice if she were on the receiving end of the glaive strapped to her back.

"Aloy," she said, lifting her arms with a mock pout. "What, no hug for me?"

With a joyful laugh, Aloy ran to the closest friend she had ever had, throwing her arms around her in an enthusiastic embrace. It didn't last long before she pulled away, so many questions flooding her brain with so little time to spare.

Before she could ask any of them, however, Nil strolled to their sides.

"Glad to see you made it to the fight," he drawled. There was a glimmer of fondness in his eyes which matched what Aloy felt, curiously dampened by a hint of apprehension. "How's the old man?"

"Your father is fine, Sahad," Talanah informed him. "I had to argue with him, but he's far enough away from the city still that he should be safe from harm."

Nil's relief was palpable as the line of his shoulders eased.

"Thank you, Talanah. I won't forget all that you've done."

In her usual display of affection, she dug an elbow into his side. "You're welcome. Try to make it worthwhile, yeah?"

"I swear it," he said softly.

Before their conversation could continue, Avad called them all to attention, looking for all the world like the leader he would become if they were successful. With her stomach twisting itself into anxious knots, Aloy gave him her full attention, while her husband and best friend did the same.

His amber eyes swept over all those gathered as he began to speak.

"This day is one long anticipated for all of us. We have all of us lost friends. Family. Our homes. At certain points, hope. It hasn't been an easy road for any of those gathered. Know that I sympathize with each and every one of you."

Avad's chin lifted, the golden tones in his skin blazing beneath the new dawn.

"But today, we have an opportunity to end the suffering of others. Halt the senseless killing. Remove my father from his throne, and bring about a new day, not just for the Carja, but for every man, woman, and child in every tribe. My brother…" He faltered for a moment. "My brother Kadaman's last words were those of hope, and I believe he looks down upon us now. He swore that his spirit would guide the hand of whoever sought to overthrow the Sun-King, and today, that is all of us."

With an elegant flourish, he drew his sword, holding it high above his head.

"For all of those we have lost. For all of those who are trapped in bondage. For our future and that of our children. With the Sun blazing at our backs, with our cause true and righteous, we shall be triumphant. If any of you should fall today, know that it was in service of a cause greater than any of us. We fight not just for Meridian, but we fight for the world!"

The responding cry was fervent, Aloy joining in with as much vigor as she could muster. The banging of hammers on soil and the thump of swords against armor rang out in the next second, filling the air with furious noise. In the midst of it all, she locked eyes with Nil. The smile they shared inspired in her almost as much hope as Avad's speech had.

This was real. This was happening. At the end of the day, they might just be able to go home.

Grave purpose sank in once all of the sound had faded away. With the leadership in attendance, Avad and Ersa laid out the plan they had been working on for months, one Aloy had heard several times now and knew almost by heart.

"We'll start with cannon fire aimed at the outer walls," Ersa explained. "Nothing more, nothing less. Avad doesn't want to damage any infrastructure or hurt any civilians, and I'm of a mind to agree. Wouldn't be a good first impression for a brand new king if we took out half of Meridian along with Jiran's cronies."

"Once the wall defenses have been suitably weakened, we shall march," Avad continued, holding up a few fingers, "in three groups. The first shall enter through the gates, the second shall enter through the aqueducts and into the Palace itself, and the third shall scale the walls behind the Temple of the Sun."

"Which means it's time to hand out assignments," Ersa piped up. "So listen up."

This was information Aloy hadn't been disclosed, and she straightened as she listened for her name. Ersa went through the first two groups—Talanah and Erend would be a part of the gate group—before announcing that she and Nil would be taking charge of the Temple of the Sun group. Scaling the wall would require careful maneuvering and a great deal of physical finesse, both things her and her husband excelled at.

Avad himself would be sneaking into the palace through the aqueducts. Aloy tried not to worry. There was no choice—he had relayed to her that a Sun-King could only be deposed by another member of the Radiant Line—but he would be surrounded by his most loyal guards, not to mention a very strong, very talented Oseram woman who would protect him with everything she had.

Without any further fanfare, Avad rolled up his scroll and turned his attention towards the city.

It was time.

Aloy and Nil fell in line near the back with Avad, Ersa and the Oseram bearing cannons taking point. As they closed in on the city, kestrels lining the parapets of the walls came into view, easily visible from the violent red feathers of their masked helmets. Thankfully, Nil was dressed in armor of Oseram make, as was most of their company. There would be no confusing of targets, at least. A small reassurance, but it was something.

There was little noise beyond the clanking of armor and heavy foot fall as they approached. War had always been described to Aloy as an unbearable riot of smoke, sound, and blood, but no one had ever mentioned the oddness of the calm before. It could have been any other bright and sunny morning on their trek south, where the nighttime chill of the desert had begun to cede to the oppressive heat of the day.

The harsh glare of arrowheads aimed at them from Meridian was a stark reminder otherwise.

At Ersa's barking order, they came to a halt. There was a long moment where the two sides stared each other down. It was broken when the many dozens of soldiers stationed along the walls drew back their bowstrings.

Ersa raised an arm, then stepped back behind the line of cannon bearers. The rest of their small army stepped back as well.

"On my command."

She dropped her arm.

"Fire!"

With a unanimous roar from those that wielded them, the might of the cannons was unleashed. The earth shook as the first round slammed into the outer walls, and although she had been anticipating it, Aloy still stumbled back a couple of paces, her ears ringing. Fiery explosions lit up all over the great structure, stone crumbling in several areas. More importantly, the rounds took out several groupings of soldiers.

Only seconds later, a hail of screaming arrows rained down upon them. The Oseram armor did its work—one bounced harmlessly off the leather and ringed metal draped across Aloy's shoulders as she ducked to protect her head, and Nil merely stepped out of the way of another beside her. Only a couple managed to get in a lucky hit between layers for a few unfortunate men, and she hardened herself to it the best she could. The first losses today, but certainly not the last.

The minutes after could only be described as ordered chaos. Cannonfire was traded with arrows, the latter growing less and less in number as the air grew thick with smoke and more enemy soldiers were taken out. Aloy could do nothing but watch, every inch of her skin crawling with the desperate want to give the anxious energy crackling within her an outlet.

Finally, after a fifth round of cannonfire, no more arrows answered them. Ersa gave the ceasefire order, and the men lowered their weapons.

Everyone held their breath and waited.

Seconds ticked by, and the smoke gradually cleared.

The sight which awaited once it had finally dissipated was the most beautiful thing Aloy had ever seen.

The cannons had worked; the walls had been breached, and there was no army rushing out to greet them.

Without skipping a beat, Ersa turned and cried, "Commanders! Rally your men and charge!"

After a quick glance back at the members of their squad—Radid among them—Aloy's gaze shot to her husband, and she gave a decisive nod. He returned it.

"Temple group!" Nil bellowed. "Forward march towards the western wall!"

Like a well oiled machine, they moved forward, Aloy stealing an impressed glance at her husband as she fell in beside him. She had known in theory that he was a talented soldier, but seeing it in action was an entirely different matter. There was an extra veneer of confidence she had never seen from him before. It told her that he was in his element, a top player in the battle which would be his theatre, and she was ready to gladly place all of her faith in the tactical decisions he would make today.

Scaling the walls of the city behind the temple was the easy part. No resistance greeted them as they grabbed onto protruding bits of stone and stuck their boots into the nooks of the masonry, and it took far less time than Aloy would have anticipated to clear the wall. With Nil close behind, she hefted herself over the very same balcony on which they had been married, drawing her spear the instant her feet touched the ground —an action which proved to be necessary.

Standing with polearms at the ready further into the temple were a measly three guards, a sight which cheered Aloy. Apparently, Jiran and his military advisors hadn't expected anyone to come up this way. As Aloy darted forward, she could hear the thump of Nil's feet as he landed behind her. Seconds later, an arrow sailed by her and buried itself into the surprised eye of one of the men. She met a second with spear raised, setting her jaw as it slammed into the blade of his weapon which he had just barely raised on time.

The scuffle that followed was short but brutal, metal clanging into metal as they fought. A feint to the right had the soldier leaving himself wide open, allowing Aloy to bury her spear into an unguarded weak point she knew existed in the side of regulation Carja armor. With a sharp cry, her foe fell before her.

By now, the rest of their party was gathering behind her, and Nil had taken care of the third soldier cleanly and efficiently. When she turned to face him, the zeal she had seen from him during their long ago fight with the bandits in the Jewel was a hungry gleam in his eye, but she also realized that the sight wasn't as off-putting as it had been back then. The ugly effects of his traumatic upbringing were as much a part of him as his honor or his kindness and love towards her, and Aloy also knew that his bloodlust had since been tempered into a fine, tightly controlled force he would use to do much good today and in the future.

"What now?" she questioned after she had regained her breath.

Nil stood quiet for a moment, as though he was listening for something over the distant sounds of fighting building like a vicious storm throughout the city.

Finally, he said, "We should head towards the Sun-Ring."

"The prisoners and slaves," Aloy realized. "There will be heavy resistance, but—"

"They must be freed," Nil finished for her. Drawing his sword, he gave her a meaningful look before marching forward and towards the streets of Meridian.

Chaos greeted them. With most of their forces breaching the walls, the city was in an absolute panic, with commoners and nobles alike clamoring for escape. Smoke and noise crowded the air from several fires and skirmishes which had broken out all around them, some of them surprisingly between soldiers and city dwellers. At the sight of their party emerging from the Temple of the Sun, most people screamed out their fear and bolted in the opposite direction. Neither Aloy or Nil paid them any mind, allowing all of them to flee past them as they clashed with the city guard.

Making their way to the Sun-Ring was a grueling task made more difficult by the appearance of a couple of kestrels from out of an alleyway once they had taken out most of the guard. One raised his sword and aimed it at Nil.

"Traitor!" he snarled. "Ready yourself to die beside your Nora whore, just as you deserve!"

"Oh, I think not," Nil said lazily, drawing his own blade. "You know, as one of my former brothers in arms, I was going to give you as painless of a death as I could manage, but for insulting my wife so grievously, I think I'll make this one hurt."

With an infuriated cry, the kestrel who had spoken lunged forward. The other wheeled on Aloy and the four Freebooters flanking her—the others aiding the flight of civilians nearby as her and Nil had ordered—before drawing his own weapon and beckoning them forward.

Aloy was once again reminded why kestrels were considered elite soldiers. Even with five others bearing down upon him, their opponent held his own, deflecting or dodging out of the way of their every attack. The skill in hand to hand combat she had seen in her husband and Radid was on full display here, and she had to remind herself several times to use the speed advantage her smaller mass granted her. This bear of a man was larger than Nil, and the slice she managed to get in across his bare chest did little to slow him.

Beside her, her husband continued to taunt his opponent. Having stepped back for a moment and with her own enemy otherwise occupied by a couple of the Freebooters, she spared a glance in their direction. Nil appeared to have the upper hand, a nightmarish grin plastered on his face as his sword met the other kestrel's and he bore down on him. The man managed to deflect him this time, but she could see the way sweat poured from him and the effort breathing took.

She also saw the moment his eyes fixed on her, and the intent which sparked in them the second after.

Unfortunately for the kestrel, Aloy wasn't nearly as worn out as he. When he went to charge her, she leapt out of the way, swung her spear around, and shoved the deadly tip into the soft flesh at the base of his belly and deep into his innards, before slashing outwards. Apparently, she also lacked his overconfidence in battle.

"Damn," Nil sighed as he closed the gap between them to crouch before the man. "It appears as though my wife has decided to be merciful today. You're a very lucky man, you know."

The only response the rapidly dying man gave was a string of curses followed by a moan, and Nil shook his head before standing once again.

The Freebooters had actually managed to take down the other kestrel on their own, although one sustained a deep cut to his leg that left him unable to walk and had Aloy wincing internally. Her sympathies didn't extend to the two kestrels who lay sprawled over the stone and bleeding out.

"One of you, staunch the bleeding and get him to as safe of a place as you can," she ordered. A few of the other mercenaries who had been aiding civilians had joined them, so she turned to address them as well. "As for the rest of you, we're still heading towards the Sun-Ring. Just a little more and we're there, okay?"

Less and less opposition delayed them the closer they came to the site of Aloy's worst memories. Most of the enemy forces appeared to be retreating towards the palace, and her heart sank as she watched several cut through innocent civilians attempting to flee the destruction along the way. Helplessness threatened to consume her, but she hardened herself to it almost instantly—they were here to end this senseless bloodshed once and for all, and she'd do her part to bring that about. As much as she wanted to and as bitter of a medicine as it was to swallow, she couldn't save everyone.

A familiar set of stairs led her down to the cells and cages beneath the Sun-Ring. Mercifully, it appeared as though the guards normally stationed there had abandoned their posts, and a sea of terrified eyes reflected back at her from the dark, some of them heartbreakingly small.

Nil and the rest of their party worked tirelessly at her side to cut through locks, to wrest open doors, to help the dirty, the tired, and the hungry to escape into the open air.

"Adults, aid children if you can!" she cried over the noise of the steadily growing stream of people flooding the space around her. "As fast as you can, flee the city or find a safe place to hide! Avoid any soldiers or fighting, and stick to alleyways and abandoned homes!"

When the last of the cells had been opened and prisoners and slaves numbering in the hundreds had been freed, they did a final check to ensure that no one had been left behind before emerging out of the dank passageways and back into the light.

If Aloy had thought Meridian to be in disarray before, what greeted her now was almost incomprehensible. Bodies crowded the streets as what must have been thousands clamored over one another to safety. Crying and screaming and the guttural groans of the dying were all she could hear, and she stumbled back as the acrid scent of blood and fire filled her nostrils. With her vision blurring out and breathing suddenly becoming difficult, disorientation began to set in. She didn't know where to look, didn't know what to do. There were too many people, too many injured and dead, too much for her to handle—

A gloved hand wrapped around her bicep moments later.

"Easy, huntress. Breathe, let it all fill you, and then let it go."

She did as Nil said, and after a few repetitions, it made things just a little easier. As she lifted her head to give him her thanks, however, she found her husband's gaze fixed on some point several feet away and twisted with the most rage she had ever seen from him.

A wordless snarl ripped itself out of his chest. Nil began to march forward before breaking out into a full on sprint, barreling towards something he had seen through the messes of people.

Without a second thought, Aloy followed after him, just barely able to keep up with his breakneck pace. The crowd parted for just a moment, and that was when she saw him.

Irasis.

Her own fury howling within her like a trapped beast rattling at the bars of her ribcage, Aloy's focus narrowed down to a single point. She unhooked her bow, tore an arrow from the quiver at her hip, and drew the bowstring back until her hand sat firm against the anchor point of her cheek as she continued to stalk forward towards the man who had almost taken everything from her.

Nil didn't bother with a weapon, but that didn't matter much when it came to him. Irasis, standing with his sword held aloft over a terrified young slave girl, didn't have any time to react before her husband slammed his fist straight into his nose. Even from her position still several feet away, Aloy could hear the sickening crunch as the bone gave way from the force of the blow.

Almost immediately after the other man dropped his weapon and went down with a startled and pained yell, Nil was on top of him and dragging him up roughly.

"Get up, coward."

Aloy had arrived behind him now, viciously pleased by the naked fear she saw in Irasis's eyes.

"No, no, no," he wheezed. "Don't do this! I'm innocent—"

Another punch to the side of his face silenced him, and his expression was dazed as his head rolled back.

"Already knew you were a liar," Nil spat. "But I'm not who you should be begging for your useless life. As much as I'd love to be the one to tear your guts from your belly and watch the life fade from your eyes, you're not my kill."

Confusion muddled the soldier's expression further. Nil let his hold on him drop, stepping aside as Irasis landed on his backside with a pathetic whimper.

When Aloy stepped forward with her arrow still drawn, recognition and hatred both lit in his eyes.

"You," he hissed.

"Me," Aloy said, pulling her string back further. "Got anything left to say for yourself?"

Irasis spat out a slimy, blood-coated tooth onto the ground, where it clicked over the stone. "Shadow-shrouded bitch. I should have had my way with you when I had the chance. At least then I would've gotten something out of this."

Her grip on the end of her arrow dropped the second he finished speaking. With a muted thump, the serrated arrowhead burrowed itself straight between his eyes. Irasis fell back and didn't speak again.

Aloy didn't spare the man on the ground a second glance, instead electing to lean against her husband with a quiet sigh and no words as sudden exhaustion turned her bones and muscles to jelly. His hand came up to cup the back of her head briefly, and he gave her a comforting squeeze before lifting his head to scan the area around them, where the traffic had already begun to thin.

At that moment, one of the Freebooters came racing up to them, entirely out of breath but with excitement and wonder both written over his face.

"Commanders," he gasped. "Jiran's remaining forces have been ordered to retreat west. The day appears to have been won."

Aloy looked at Nil, and Nil looked back.

"Avad," they said in unison, before booking it towards the Palace of the Sun.

By the time they reached the other side of Meridian, a great deal of the city had descended into an eerie quiet, as most people had by this point either barricaded themselves into their homes or left entirely. The streets were littered with the dead and dying, although Aloy and Nil both ordered their men to help where they could. Sometimes, it was to staunch and bandage a survivable wound. Mostly, it was to put those beyond saving out of their misery.

Her exhaustion was soul deep now. Even Nil, who she had expected to be enlivened by the violent events of the day, had grown somber and drawn. He touched her often as they walked, small brushes and quick pats to her armor or limbs. Aloy recognized it for what it was: reassurance.

We made it, she realized dully. Somehow.

But their victory wasn't something she could allow herself to totally believe until they regrouped with the others.

Until she found out the fate of the monster they had come to depose.

Aloy could have collapsed when she saw Talanah and Erend waiting by the bridge to the palace. Both were covered head to toe with mud and blood, and the latter seemed to be nursing a wound on his side, but they were alive and mostly whole.

The looks of abject relief on their faces matched that which she felt.

"Aloy!" Erend bellowed, waving wildly before cursing and tucking his arm back at his side. "Over here!"

With what remaining energy she had, Aloy jogged up to them.

"Status report," Nil demanded from behind her as they both came to a halt.

"This part of the city is entirely secured," Talanah said. "And most other parts too, as far as I know from the runners we've gotten. Looks like a bunch of kestrels, soldiers, and a good chunk of the nobility headed west."

Nil grimaced. "Let them. I doubt Avad would want us to chase after and pick off retreating forces, as much as they deserve it."

"Speaking of Avad" —Aloy glanced about— "Where is he? Is there any news from the aqueduct team?"

Talanah shook her head, looking grim. "No. That's why we're waiting here."

Their group fell into quiet then, but it was far from peaceful. Nil crouched down, Aloy paced, Talanah and Erend shifted on their feet. All of them kept their eyes trained on the bridge of ivy and stone and metal, searching for movement, a sound, a sign. Anything.

For a long time, there was nothing. No one came over the walkway, no one approached them from the city. The world had come to an ashy, death-soaked standstill.

And then, at the far edge of the bridge, something caught the sun, reflecting it back at them as it moved. Nil was on his feet instantly, and then they were all leaning forward to look. No one moved, no one drew breath.

Aloy tapped at her Focus, and the domed net of wired light lit up all around her. It was a person. No, two.

And the names with which it identified the two—

"It's them," she breathed. "It's Avad and Ersa!"

Her feet moved before her mind did, and she could hear the footfalls of the rest of their group behind her as she ran. As Aloy drew closer and the two came into clearer focus, she could see that Ersa was supporting Avad almost completely, although he didn't appear to be injured from what she could tell. Her gaze dropped.

In his hand was the source of the reflection she had seen: a sword, slick with blood.

Everyone, including Aloy, slowed as they neared the pair. She had no idea what to say, what to ask, what to do.

But that didn't matter, because as soon as they had reached him, Avad lifted his dropped head, where amber eyes burned more brightly than ever from the tears which still fell to coat his cheeks.

"I've done what I must. My father is no more. Meridian…" He took a soft, gasping breath, half anguish and half disbelief. "Meridian and the Sundom have been liberated."

There was no feeling of glee, no great burst of triumph or celebration. All Aloy felt was simple relief, as though she had shrugged off her cloak on a too-hot day and could finally breathe again.

But there was still Avad and his pain, and it spurred her on. Before she could think to second guess herself, she stepped forward, her arms coming up and around her friend and Ersa. Next came Nil, his embrace strong and sure and holding them up as much as the Oseram was. Then Erend and Talanah were there, and they were all hugging and Aloy didn't know whose tears were seeping into the linen at her back, but it didn't matter.

She could have lost everything else, and it wouldn't have mattered one bit. She had her husband. She had her friends. They were all alive. They were all safe.

High above them, the sun shined on as it did on any other afternoon. But to Aloy, with the long nightmare which had consumed both herself and the entire known world finally at an end, today it felt just a little bit brighter.

Chapter Text

Holding her hand above her eyes to block out the glare of the sun, Aloy lifted her head and squinted.

"Well?"

She pursed her lips before finally saying, "It could be worse."

There was a soft chuckle beside her, and then the sensation of thick arms winding around her waist from behind. With a sigh, she leaned back.

"It could be, but it's still pretty bad."

"Yeah," Aloy admitted. "But it's not unsalvageable."

Her gaze wandered down the reddish brick of the place she had once called home, over the destroyed flower boxes and torn out framing of the windows. She wasn't certain if the damage had been courtesy of Jiran or what was coming to be called the Liberation, but she supposed it didn't matter either way.

It had been two weeks since the events of that day, and already they had faded into an almost dreamlike state for Aloy. Nil had explained to her that such a reaction was completely normal and likely her brain's attempt to take the edge out of the horrors she had witnessed. She supposed she ought to be grateful, especially with the work that had to be done.

All things considered, it was surprisingly little. Avad's insistence on only bombarding the outer walls of the city with the Oseram cannons had saved Meridian from deeper structural damage, and cleanup went quickly. The citizens who hadn't fled were generally eager to help with the cleanup, and most welcomed their new Sun-King readily, if with some wariness. The scars which Jiran had left behind in the psyche of the Carja people would take far more time to fix than brick and metal.

When it came to Avad's state of mind, however, Aloy wasn't as certain. He had been too busy aiding in relief efforts and setting up his new government for her to gain much insight into what he was feeling, but it didn't escape her notice that he was quieter now. There was a weight on his shoulders that had been building since his brother's death, and it bore down on him more heavily than ever.

Despite all of that, however, she knew he would ultimately be okay. He had a purpose to serve far greater than himself, and Aloy could already see the wheels in his head turning. It told her that change would come whether the Carja people wanted it or not. She knew that it wouldn't be easy, but she also knew that with Avad at the helm, she could trust that it would all be for the better.

Already Talanah had petitioned the Hunter's Lodge for membership, and with a couple of Hawks lost in the fray and the backing of the Sun-King himself, Sunhawk Ahsis had no choice but to admit her. The disgust on his face as he stormed out of the Lodge that day in conjunction with the pride on Talanah's as she emerged behind him had Aloy bursting with more pride for her friend than she had ever been before.

If Kadaman had still been alive to see her reach this first of her many goals, she knew he would have felt the same.

As for Erend and Ersa, neither showed any hesitation in their decision to make a home out of Meridian. The latter had been immediately promoted to the position of captain of Avad's new personal guard for her crucial role in the Liberation, with her brother serving under her and the Freebooters who had decided to stay filling out the rest of their ranks. The remaining advisors and nobility had already made moves to protest the promotion of Oseram to such high positions, but the Sun-King held firm in his decision.

Aloy and Nil had checked in on both Theradine and Radid around halfway through the first week, relieved to find that not only they, but their families had survived unscathed. The dressmaker in particular had been unusually serious and somber as he embraced the couple, whispering his worries and fears about their status through half-choked laughter.

Nil, always knowing the right thing to do and say, had broached the topic of their need for new hunting clothes, and Theradine had snapped to attention immediately, promising in his overenthusiastic way to deliver to them the finest hunter's outfits in all the world in a week's time.

Those who had defected to Avad's side before the Liberation had all received full pardons for whatever crimes they may have committed under Jiran, and that included Nil. The Sun-King had come to the decision that risking one's life for his cause was enough in the way of repentance, and those who had indeed died that day were also granted posthumous pardons.

The evening after Avad had made that decree, while they had been lying huddled together in an absurdly huge bed in one of the many rooms of the palace, Nil had confessed to her that he wasn't certain that he would escape punishment for his actions, and that even a death sentence wouldn't have been out of the question. For her part, Aloy knew that Avad would never have sentenced such a close friend to death, but she still held her husband just a little bit closer all the same, acutely aware of just how fortunate they had been.

Those who had surrendered in the aftermath weren't so lucky. Avad intended to launch an investigation into the prior actions of those who had been a part of his father's regime, and with Nil, Radid, and the pardoned soldiers already having given their testimonies, it likely wouldn't take long. What was interesting was the fact that he wished to attempt to set up a system of rehabilitation through imprisonment rather than the constant executions which had defined his father's reign. Aloy wasn't certain how this would pan out, but in her opinion—and surprisingly Nil's—it was worth a try.

That brought them to the present, finally returned to the house they hadn't dared come back to until now. So many memories, both good and bad, had defined Aloy's stay here. If she were honest, she wasn't quite sure how to feel anymore. It had been her home for the better part of a year, but when she asked herself if it still was, she had no answer.

As she looked the corner house over once more, her eyes dropped down to the cracked stone of the foundation, where a splash of color caught her eye.

"Wait. Nil, look."

Her husband followed her pointed finger with narrowed eyes, and they widened when they landed on what Aloy was gesturing at.

His arms fell from her, and they walked over to crouch down beside one another.

"Well, would you look at that," he said with a half-grin. "They made it after all."

Bright pink blooms stared up at Aloy from where they grew out of cracks in the masonry, so vibrant she almost felt as though they were smiling at her. Without hesitation, she smiled back.

"I guess you were right about them being hardy."

Nil studied them a moment longer. "You know, they almost look like they're thriving more here. Maybe the boxes were holding them back."

"They do seem happier," Aloy agreed. "I think we should leave them like this."

"I'm inclined to agree." With a sigh, Nil rose to his feet, brushing off the red and purple hunting clothes he wore. "And even if I didn't, they're your flowers."

"Our flowers," she corrected as she stood too. "And our home."

He seemed to sense a bit of how she was feeling, just as he always had. That comforting arm curled around her once again.

"It'll be here when we come back, huntress. Whenever that may be."

Aloy sucked in a breath, held it, and then let it go.

"You're right. It will be."

"For now, though, I think it's about time we head out," he said softly. "Anyone else you want to say goodbye to before we leave?"

Aloy shook her head. "No. I think we spoke to everyone. There's no point in delaying the inevitable."

With a final, lingering look, they grabbed their packs, slung them over their backs, and turned to head towards the great bridge out of the city.

Fearful whispers and glances still followed Nil wherever he went, but they were greatly lessened now. Word of his deeds during the night of Avad's flight and beyond had spread through word of mouth as virulently as his bloody exploits as a kestrel had, and most people seemed to accept that he was no longer a threat, although they were still wary. Aloy couldn't blame them, but she knew it wouldn't matter much soon anyway. With where they were going, people weren't exactly in abundance.

Their feet carried faithfully them through the city gates, over the bridge, and into the deserts beyond Meridian. Perhaps Aloy ought to feel some deep sensation of loss, or at the very least a little sad.

But as she slid her hand into her husband's and they turned their direction to the east, all she knew was a buoyant lightness. It bubbled in her chest, spreading outward into her limbs and up into her head until she couldn't help but break out into a massive grin. And when Nil looked her way, he reflected that joy right back at her.

He had been right, of course. Their home would still be there when they came back, whenever that might be, and so too would their friends. In the meantime, they had each other and boundless freedom of the untamed wilds.

After a lifetime of nothing, to Aloy, having someone to share her life with was everything. And so, with the sun and Meridian at their backs, she and Nil moved forward and into the world.