Chapter Two: Conscripts and Criminals
Glowing ash floated up from the flames, dancing into the sky like dying fireflies. The sounds of the forest edging the high road brought early childhood to mind as Khes came to sit across the campfire from her new warden. Refusing to be called Master (not that Khes pushed to name him such,) Gregoire insisted on simply ‘Commander.’ The man’s status among the army was clearly a point of pride. As a warrior of sorts herself, this Khes could deeply respect. While others viewed his many scars as ugly or hardening, Khes admired them. Her own scars were less glorious and, by comparison, she imagined earned in far less brave ways.
“While appreciated,” he spoke over his cup, “you need not groom the v’nesh every night. You are not my servant.” Gregoire eyed the young woman wondering if, in spite of his assurances, she truly believed this.
“I like to do it,” Khes muttered as she poked a twig at the flames. “We can’t ever keep our own in the village. Every raid the Ganroth take them, slaughter the kirin. Simply less trouble to do without.” Dipping her chin Khes added with hesitance, “and they remind me of stories my mother told us of okapis and karkadanns. Just…silly things…” The young woman trailed off.
Gregoire’s eyes were on her, but his attention seemed divided. “Not silly. I have seen true okapis. They look a little more like deer than v’nesh, as the kirin do, but… the karkadann is just a legend.”
“I know,” a sharp reply accompanied by a bitter scowl. Fantasies of the great desert beasts were tales for children. Still, Khes had dreamed of seeing the southern deserts one day, perhaps to see the monstrous horned creature.
“You said us. Have you siblings?”
Khes jabbed at the fire and shook her head. “A brother. A foundling, truthfully. I convinced mother to care for him, but I really raised him… mostly. He is not even a man-child yet.” Lifting her eyes to his, she held his gaze with cold contempt. “You and the Venerate made me leave him behind. Again.”
Silence divided them, allowing the song of toads and crickets to invade as well as the distant laughter of the soldiers. Khes had been relieved when Gregoire set a separate camp for them. Although she had taunted J’reth with the notion, she had no desire to service the Shae in any capacity.
After a long moment, Khes attempted to be more civil. Attempted. “What do you know of me, my family or my clan, Shae?”
Gregoire smiled in amusement, unoffended by her racial distinction. “More than you imagine, Khes Adaia tu’Lihaan. No longer a girl-child, recognized by your clan as your own woman, although…” he chuckled, “you are by cycles, far older than I.”
Bitter with the lasting sting of her namelessness, Khes tersely corrected him, “I am not tu’Lihaan. Not anymore.”
Idly she rubbed at her bare hand and wrist. “I gave up my right to a name when I killed those men, when I lied, shamed my brother and my house. This is the mark of an outcast, to bear no mark at all. A child has more rights to the Erahs. My age is meaningless.”
“You wear the Iridas of the Nelenr,” he challenged as he set his empty cup aside and nibbled on a bit of jerky. “Few have that right. Is there no honor in that?”
“Why did you spare me, conscript me? What good am I to you?”
Firewood cracked, loudly spewing more fiery ash into the sky, but Gregoire was not forthcoming. Angered at his lack of response, Khes chucked the twig into the flames and drew her knees up. She did not question how he knew so much of their traditions, or of her. She knew of the Sighted and those who used falsehoods to appear like them. Perhaps all of his words had just been lies. He had ‘seen’ nothing. Maris told him everything.
Deep down she wanted to ask him what he had seen, what had happened that she woke covered in bruises and Erahs blood. It had not been her own. No cuts marked her and her nose was not broken. Khes could not be sure that he would tell the truth, if he would tell her at all. Orange light burned into her eyes as she stared into the fire and weighed her fear of exposure against her need to know.
After a time the man interrupted her brooding with a raised voice that set her on edge, “come eat, boy. So many days with only greens and berries, you must be ravenous.”
Khes straightened and spun to find the shadow that caught her eye. As the youth shuffled into the light, she gaped, “Revas?!”
“I–” the teen shrugged and hung his head. “I didn’t want you to go away. J’reth told me the Shae stole you because you killed Ganrot–”
“He told you that?” Khes was gutted.
“Is it true?” Revas studied her intensely. Khes hesitated, not certain he would understand.
“Yes,” Gregoire answered for her, ignoring her immediate glare. “Although, I did not steal her. In truth, there were very few options for Khes. Her former Master would have sought her out and returned her to his house. A lesser soldier might have executed her for such crimes. I see a different path for Khes, a better one.”
Glowering at him, Khes insisted, “which is?”
“Sit. Both of you.” The Shae’s commanding voice brought both Erahs to sit on Khes’ bed roll. “Had I realized the mouse following us was you, I would have sent you back. I still should.”
“But it’s so far! Days and days!” Revas’ protest cracked hinting that his manhood was not far off. “And they are starting migration earl–”
“Tsst. Silence! Curious hunters are one thing, inept man-children, however are a danger.” Gregoire scowled and met the youth’s eyes with a ferocity that would have tucked a vulpin’s tail. “This is nothing to play at, boy. I take Khes to war.”
Revas shifted forward on his knees eager to impress, “but I can fight! I am old enough!”
The muscles along Gregoire’s jaw rippled as he debated his options. Fear for his sister was the response expected for Revas, not eagerness to please. “I cannot in good conscience send you so far alone. You will accompany us… perhaps I can find use for a squire.”
“You said yesterday I was to be your squire,” Khes chided with a mild smirk.
“I lied to quiet your tongue.” The military commander huffed and looked between them. “Trouble me not boy, or I will leave you at the first seminary. Understood?”
Although he was nodding, Revas muttered to Khes, “what’s a semin’ry?”
With a gruff bark, Gregoire answered, “a wicked place where men may never touch a lover, fight, or play. They must eat porridge and read boring books about imaginary Masters.”
“You made that up,” Revas narrowed his eyes and sat back, hesitant in his certainty that this was a joke.
Khes shook her head and murmured, “no, he didn’t. It is what the Shae call the place their “Keepers” study. It’s a special school for the Shae’s Witan.”
Still confused the boy frowned, “but the Witan council are all old.”
“Elihaet Calihl is not old,” Khes pointed out.
Revas shrugged, “but he’s an Erahs Weyd. The Shae Keepers are–”
“Nevermind that. Eat something.” Stuffing the remainder of her meal into his hands, Khes stroked his hair then sat back and eyed Gregoire over the flames. Behind his eyes she could see wickedness at work, plotting of some sort and it made her more and more uncomfortable. His open denouncement of the Shae gods surprised and intrigued her, however. She had never met a Shae who was not fervently Omíkhlæssectarian.
Oblivious to Khes’ wariness, Revas took to Gregoire immediately. “How long did I have you fooled? I hid very well if you did not find me until now.”
“Hardly,” the old soldier snorted. “You sneak very poorly for a child of the forest. I was uncertain just who followed, until I heard the grumblings of your belly. Only a child would venture so near in hopes of sneaking food.”
Revas pouted and glanced over at Khes in embarrassment.
“You will learn, Cricket.” She comforted him with a soft ruffle of his hair. “For now, eat. I will show you how to ride the v’nesh in the morning.”
As the boy eagerly delved into the scraps of Khes’ dinner, she met Gregoire’s eyes. To her surprise he did not seem as angry as he claimed or that she would have guessed of him. With an acknowledging nod, he instructed, “finish, then both of you sleep. We start into the foothills of the Shards tomorrow.”
“We’re going into the Shards?” Revas gawped.
“Indeed. I will find you warmer garments.”
Khes rose and crossed to where he stood. “You said we were going to the Viridian Cattedrale. Ejade City is West. The Shards are North east.”
Given the Erahs’ nomadic ways, Gregoire was not surprised she knew the geography. “You are not incorrect.”
“Then we are going the wrong way… why?”
The Shae did not show irritation at her demanding. “You are not in a position to demand answers, little one. Go eat and sleep. You and I will speak come morning.”
Parting her lips to speak, Khes was startled when Gregoire’s hand clamped over them. “No. Enough. Go and be silent. My ears are weary of the noise.”
With a scowl the woman fell quiet, but did not immediately sit, instead stood with crossed arms. He eyed her a long time not moved by her challenge. Finally, Khes conceded and returned to sit beside Revas. Without distrust, Gregoire crossed from their camp to walk the ranks of his men, checking in with commanding officers. From where she sat by the fire, Khes observed his interactions. The man was stern with the men, grim, particularly with two. One she had heard called Hakken, but the other was a stranger. He had been with the guards when Gregoire took her, but none of the men had spoken to her then. This one just stared. A lot.
As the Commander spoke with the two, Hakken remained focused on Gregoire, but the other’s eyes drifted her direction several times. It did not go unnoticed and Hakken elbowed him once, and Gregoire stepped in the man’s line of sight the final time. Khes wished she could hear what was being said and spied the young knight glance her way again once Gregoire had moved on. Of all the soldiers there, that one was dressed differently. His armor was finer and he wore viridian scales. Each scale was shaped like a leaf, or perhaps a feather. Viridian was the right name for the color, not green, for it was armor of the Jaed Knights at the Viridian Cattedrale. The young Shae was not wearing the full regalia, however, only the mail and scales. His trousers and boots seemed rather worn as well, and he carried no helmet. Khes wondered if he had stolen it.
The Commander’s First was rather plain for a Shae. Chestnut colored hair tied back in traditional knots and mousy brown fur, even Hakken’s eyes were brown. In the woods, left naked, he could be mistaken for a deer or a tree. A faint smirk curled Khes’ lips at that notion, to see the naked soldier running from Erahs hunters.
This strange one, though, was more exotic. The soft velvet of angora that coated his body was a light auburn, almost red, but not quite. Lengths of burnished gold hung down his back. A few braids dangled amongst the locks but most hung freely. He wore one solitary knot at the back of his crown, with a spray of wild fringe that jutted upward in echinate tufts. Unlike Gregoire, this man’s ears were not scarred or tattered. They draped over his shoulders like ribbon tails, the silky fur reflecting the campfire light. Those eyes that kept finding her were a vibrant green, like newly grown moss dampened by dew. Khes had never seen a Shae with eyes that color, only Erahs. It was disconcerting.
Upon realizing that she was staring back at him, the Erahs quickly turned her back to him. Whatever his fascination with her, he did not deserve even passing curiosity in return.
Revas was just finishing his food and laid back with a satisfied pat of his belly.
“Better?” Khes smiled.
The boy nodded and without a care, rolled to his side and fell asleep.
Certain he slept, his breathing heavy and even, Khes glanced over to see if she was still being watched. To her relief, no audience was visible. Crawling closer to the fire, she fished a small coal out with two sticks to set it on a rock. Even away from the flames, it continued to glow a vibrant orange. The woman set a single leaf against it then bent over her knees with her fingertips to her brow.
“Ndor stand vigilant by my right and guide my arm
should I need to bring weapons to bear.
Jaa stand at my left to temper my spirit,
enlighten my thoughts and heal my heart.
Nel stand behind me to catch me if I fall,
so I may never feel the hard ground in death,
only Quirifen’s light.
For my spirit bring me peace,
for peace assert justice, and
for justice never break Her radiant light.”
The words rolled from her tongue in the Erahs language. Bending forward further she touched her forehead to the ground and whispered, “thank you for bringing Revas to me… please protect him, help me protect him.”
The dirt clumped in small patters where her tears fell before she sat up to watch the last of the leaf burn away. Seated and practicing her meditative breathing she watched the coal until it ceased to glow. If Quirifen or the other Gods sought to deliver her any omens, she had not gleaned it.
Through the bushes she spied the silhouette of a Shae. In the darkness she could not tell if it was Gregoire checking on them or if one of the others was spying, but she turned her back away. Only then did she swipe the dirt and tears from her face. Being seen praying was not an embarrassment, but it could be a danger. In many places the Erahs were punished for worshiping Quirifen. She was the imposter, a false goddess who tried to steal the light of Naaris, the “True Goddess.” Maris had not been forgiving of it either. She had been left with only whispers in the dark when she knew he had gone.
Lowering herself to sleep beside Revas, Khes sided up to her brother and hugged him close with a protective arm about his waist. In his sleep he hummed contentment, which furrowed Khes’ brow. Trailing her fingers through his cropped blue hair, Khes strained against the weight of melancholy. This was not how things were supposed to be. Revas was supposed to have a better life. Boann had not cast him out in her absence, but what had she made him endure? An Erahs’Avali rarely cut their hair unless it were punishment, a mark of humiliation. Though still eager with a childlike wonder, she could see an age in his eyes that did not belong to the eyes of a child. Sleep did not find her so easily and come the chill of pre-dawn was quickly lost.
– – – –
Hakken. Revas was assigned to Lt. Hakken Váleo as a squire. He was to be an errand boy. Khes watched her brother bound off with eagerness with a glow in his face. It had been SHE that inspired it last, not some gansalla Shae. Until now, Gregoire had kept her separate from the others, not even an introduction. Now Revas was discovered and they were being thrust into the Shaes’ midst. Trepidation gripped her chest and she was caught off guard as Gregoire stepped up behind her.
With keen observation, the elder noted, “you fear he will take to our kind and forget who he is.” As Gregoire tried to pat her shoulder, Khes jerked free. “He is not alone here, and does not have to swallow lies to survive.”
The invasive reminder soured her breakfast. “Do not speak as though you know my mind… or my experiences.”
A scowl darkened Khes’ face as she lost sight of Revas. He was off to learn how to ride a v’nesh, a lesson Khes had promised to give him just the night before.
“You have still not told me why I am here. We have been traveling for days, you followed me for two. It must be really gehesht important.” Fixing her eyes on the man, she arched a slender brow, and in spite of her diminished height of five feet, her poise would have intimidated many less seasoned men. Gregoire, however, found it exasperating to be challenged so often. Her next question, however, was far too poignant to ignore.
“Does it have to do with the Jaed Knight? The pretty-faced boy you spoke to last night. The one that keeps watching me.” Khes’ onyx eyes gleamed as she studied him. Before he had twitched a muscle, she nodded and growled, “I’ll not be some tellorath-present, I don’t care what Damin Eleyor told you.”
Mildly surprised, Gregoire grimaced, “tellorath– you learn to speak such vulgar Shae words?”
“Tellorath, tello…. dkun. Yes, I learned many of your Shae words,” she snorted. “Why not? The little ‘baby hare’… leveret… I am quite familiar with that as well. My own Venerate calls me this… a Lop-Lover…”
A faint smile tickled Gregoire’s lips as she tried to shock him, but he spoke in a grim tone, “Dkun is Proto-Ganrothic… Shae say… *ahem*…something else. It is no less offensive… moreso by cultural values. The Ganroth tend to be more crude. Most of the commonly used curses are theirs. But tello… well…” He sighed and gestured for her to follow him. “No. It is not my responsibility to see that Zakeriel is satisfied in that fashion. He is a young, handsome Shae. I am sure he can manage that on his own.”
“But he is your charge?”
“Very astute,” Gregoire nodded as he stopped walking at his v’nesh. Rummaging in his saddlebag, the man withdrew a small metal box with a fine chain strap. It was meant to be carried like a satchel. Far too decorative to be a soldier’s log or carrier bag. Khes caught sight of symbols that she recognized.
Eyes widening as Gregoire walked away with it, Khes followed. “Why do you have a Weyd’s journal?”
“Erahs Keepers! You know damn well what it is! Why do you have it?!” That they were pushing through brush to the river’s edge only made her bare her teeth in anger.
Gregoire stopped and came to sit upon a jutting rock on the shore of the swift moving waters. He inclined his head to look past her, to ensure they were not followed, then rest it on his thigh. “You should keep your voice down. If others knew of this tome…”
Khes shifted uncomfortably, “what is it that a Shae has his lop-hands all over our sacred texts?”
Although the man grimaced at her racial slur, he did not correct her. Instead he rest one hand on the silver and rose-colored metal, case-bound book, but did not open it. “I do not know what is in this. Not entirely. Few among the Shae can read the Erahs script–”
“Because it’s sacred!” Khes growled and dove to snatch it from him. She was certainly fast enough even without her gift.
Gregoire drew a deep breath and exhaled into a calm. He did not demand it back, knowing she would not harm it. “Khes, do you understand what is happening? The Ganroth, the Shae, why there are soldiers marching? Did Damin Eleyor explain anything to you?” Her embarrassed shift of gaze answered him well enough. “The Viridian Cattedrale, do you know what it is- what it really is?”
Khes felt stupid and uneducated, and the man’s patience with her only made it worse. “It’s a palace. The Jaed sits there, like a Venerate, but for the Shae and Ganroth.”
“Yes,” the man was gentle, “that is all most think of it. Even most Shae do not know, do not remember its purpose. In truth, it is so much more than just a building and the Jaed, more than just a man.” He licked his lips and chose his words carefully. “I know that the Erahs Witan teaches of Old Gods. The Shae Keepers do as well. Our stories, Erahs and Shae are cautionary tales… not the Ganroth. The Ganroth believe that it was the time of the Old Gods when they were at their glory. They call them the First Gods, and hold them to much higher esteem.”
“Then the warrior named Jaed came, and he banished the Old Gods and sat upon a throne of bloodroot that grew about them a cage, entrapping them forever, fed by the blood of every Jaed who comes after… Fanciful stories for children and church. I am to worship some lop god-king now?” the Erahs girl crossed her arms and stepped back from him, protecting the Weyd journal as of he would steal it back.
Gregoire shook his head. When spoken aloud it did all sound ridiculous. “No. I want you to protect this… and read it. You know these symbols… so… do you also know the language within?”
Straightening slow, as though threatened, the wary girl narrowed her eyes. “I am Nelenr. Of course I can read.”
“But in the language of the Weyd? I know this is not contemporary Erahs text. This is written in the language of the Ancients. Have you knowledge of that?” Gregoire was deftly containing his excitement that the girl was, indeed, exactly what he needed.
“The Ancients are called Kaudrhe!” she corrected as though he had blasphemed. Then quickly, Khes dipped her chin. “I am… not practiced… but, yes. Given some time.”
“And you will protect it, with your life?”
With sudden suspicion, Khes eyed him. “What does this have to do with your Jaed Knight?”
“Zakeriel. I think this will explain that as well. Honestly, I do not understand everything yet, myself.” Gregoire lowered his eyes to the leather-bound treasure. “He is important, that’s all I know. We have a relic to retrieve from the Tōk, a gift from them… that’s all I know. My duty is to retrieve it and take Zakeriel to the Viridian where we will see to the ascension of the new Jaed. Beyond that… I know little.”
Venturing closer to him as his volume had lowered, Khes met his eyes. “The Ganroth have sacked Ejade. They’ve broken the treatise and taken the throne.” The woman thought a moment. “If these fanciful legends are true, then they seek to free their gods.”
Gregoire nodded. “Yes. And all I have been told is that we cannot regain the seat of the Jaed without Zakeriel.”
“But the ‘seat’ is actual a seal… like a lock. Is he the Jaed. Is he magic?”
Gregoire barked a hearty laugh. “Far from it. He is a Dūsan’s bastard– that is inaccurate. A foundling, like Revas. A boy sent away to a military school by a very generous patron, but who am I to question Seers far more powerful than myself. I cannot see the future.”
“Just the past…” Khes murmured.
“Just the past.”
There was an uncomfortable silence, then Khes deduced, “so it was the Blade Spirit you needed… not me… exactly.”
The man nodded with patience. “I am not a learned enough man to comment on the existence of Fate, Khes, but it is certainly fortuitous that you crossed my path as you did.”
“Does Zakeriel know any of this?”
Gregoire considered this a moment then shook his head. “No, I do not think so. I have told him nothing, and as a soldier being ordered to war, he does not question, but he must not know you are protecting him or he will begin to question.”
“Oh, I guard him now as well, not just the Weyd book?”
Old, serious eyes leveled on her and held her gaze with severity. When Gregoire spoke there was no room to broker argument. “This book is just a reason. It is more explanation than either of us are owed. Bazl knows more than any of us can imagine and if Bazl says he is important and this is what must be done, then I do not question. You do not question.”
Khes met his eyes with understanding. “Bazl… this is an important man?”
“Not a man, per se. Just swear to me that you will do as I ask, and that whatever you learn in this journal will never cross your lips. You tell no one but Bazl.” Gregoire’s gaze and tone were deadly severe. “Swear it.”
“On your life, Khes Adaia. Swear it.”
Suddenly fearful, Khes could not fight the tremble and chill that crept over her skin. With an unexpectedly timid nod, the woman whispered, “yes, on my life, I swear it.”
“Good. Never let this leave your side and I will tell Zakeriel that he is to train you to fight–”
Khes snorted with a smirk, “truly?”
Gregoire scowled, “there are no other suggestions that are not inappropriate.”
“He’ll know I can fight. The Blade Spirit is instinct, I cannot hide it.”
Pursing her lips, Khes was about to make another suggestion when Gregoire suddenly stood. He thrust the rose-gold and palladium Weyd reliquary against her chest as he stepped in front of her.
“What is it Freil?” Gregoire spoke in a terse bellow at the shaggy, muscular Shae that was jogging toward them.
Pointing, the man barked in reply, “scouts have returned with strange reports, sir! Hak– Lt. Váleo sent me for you.”
“Why not send Revas?” Gregoire frowned then waved the shrugging Freil away. “I am coming! Khes, with me for now.”
Khes uttered a protesting syllable, but Commander Kreios had already started off in search of Hakken and the scouts. Shoulders sagging, the woman nodded at Freil who was impatiently waving her forward. Looking down at the Weyd journal, Khes wondered what it could possibly contain that Gregoire went through such trouble. Why not just ask Venerate Boann for someone to translate it? Why could this Bazl person not do it? What little he had explained only left Khes with a well of more questions.
Gregoire walked in long even strides, well over a head taller than Khes, he left her jogging to keep up. “I want to introduce you to Lieutenant Váleo formally, then you are to go find Zakeriel.”
Swiftly darting between the soldiers milling about and rushing in the same direction, Khes was beginning to worry. There was an air of distress surrounding them. Once they reached the main thickening of crowd, the men parted for Gregoire as they would for a king, and Khes stayed in tow behind him. The moment they broke free, Gregoire turned and bellowed with authority.
“TO YOUR RANKS! WE MARCH IN ONE HOUR!”
The men scurried away like scattered fruit flies. Khes simply stood in wait, those instructions, she knew, were not for her. The man flicked his wrist, indicating she should follow. As she did, he murmured, “you are about to meet the Teigne… the heir-apparent to the Jaed Seat.” The pause between statements was grim and cold. “The only heir to the Jaed Seat.”
Khes’ lips parted and she slowed some. What was the future High-King doing so far North East? Presumably to be kept safe from the Ganroth invaders, but why so far? The Shards would only serve as a corner for the Ganroth to back him into. Moreover, for him to be the last so much blood had been spilled. Entire family lineages… slaughtered.
The man’s voice shook her from her distraction and the woman bolted forward to meet the Teigne at Gregoire’s side. The two stepped forward to face a man who, to Khes, seemed sculpted of gold. His hair was a glimmering yellow and framed a sun-kissed face. His long ears draped with clips of gold along the rim of the lobes so that they seemed outlined in ornate metalwork. Though his fur was a blanched champagne, armoring him was a polished suit of plated metal, also gold in color. The breast piece was molded with the face of a stag. He was only a Shae, but Khes felt as if she was facing a god the way the sun enveloped him and gleamed from him. Suddenly Zakeriel seemed rather plain.
Gregoire had advanced and was speaking to him as Khes stood staring in surprise. She had never seen a Shae so elegantly adorned, nor one who carried himself with such an air. Maris Eleyor was a noble, one of the Deignier and yet, he had no such aura. Although she had known that the Jaed bloodlines were absolute to rule, she had not imagined that they contained any such element of divinity to them. Or so it seemed. What else could this figure that glowed like sunlight be if not divine?
“A Foeresh Erisan.” The Teigne had spoken to her. In her silent stare, he took this as a polite snub. “Is that not correct?” His smooth voice seemed to lap at her ear like the waves of a serene lake upon a stone. The Teigne smiled at her warmly, eager to impress, an odd desire given he was to be Jaed.
“A Foeresh Erahsan, your Grace.” Khes lowered to one knee but gave no emphasis to the correction. An overwhelming appreciation for her life had set in since Gregoire had informed her she was not to be executed, imprisoned or married off to J’Reth. She hoped to keep it a while longer. “A Foeresh Hallen… Your Majesty.”
“Hallen, that is…?”
“Honored Guest or Respected Stranger, Teigne Runii,” Gregoire answered as the man looked back to see Khes kneeling.
Gentle not to startle her, the Teigne touched her shoulders. “No, no. Up, up.” He seemed to tremble with embarrassment. “Please, I so dislike the formalities.”
“Yes, Sire. My apologies.” Khes kept her eyes lowered.
“No need,” he smiled. “My name is Nahiet Runii. Just Nahiet will do. And might I have your name?”
The man smiled again. That a Shae of such authority spoke to her as an equal, without condescension, was a tongue-tying encounter. The depth of his crimson eyes, nearly as black as her own, only made him mildly more intimidating, as if he could see her thoughts. The stark scar running along his cheekbone parallel to his eye added a proper balance of imperfection to make him more real. This close, though, she could see his features were more plain, a bit awkward even. Not unlike how Boann dismissed Khes’ own. By Shae standards she could not guess at how handsome they were considered. Though truthfully in Gregoire’s youth before his scarring, Khes imagined he may have well outshone them both.
“You are Erahs’Avali…yes?”
Khes colored with a faint lilac blush as she looked to Gregoire who seemed oddly amused by the exchange. Pursing her lips she nodded, “yes– but I am clanless now… and only newly liberated from slavery.” Realizing she was over-sharing, she gestured to Gregoire in hopes of directing the attention off herself. “By Commander Kreios, sire–…esh… Nahiet… m’Lord.”
The mention of slavery caught Nahiet’s attention. He stepped forward, bordering on intimate. “How were you treated? There have been servants in my home, but they were not slaves. I was not aware until recently that slavery still existed… among the Ganroth, I am not surprised, but that Shae still hold to this barbaric tradition. I thought our laws forbid it. Is there any hope that the Shae are at least kind?”
Gregoire interrupted, afraid perhaps of just how honest Khes might be. “Perhaps she can answer your questions later, Your Highness. For now, we need to discuss troop movement and, well, how you came to be so far north. Khes is due to begin training with Captain Téos today, though I fear we will be marching before that can begin.”
“Training?” He blinked at Khes but in recognition of the timetable did not press further. “Of course. Please, report to your Captain. We shall talk again later. If Gregoire has brought you to us, you are sure to be a valuable addition to our cause.” Nahiet’s eyes showed no signs of mockery, not even when he bowed to her and held a hand aloft. Gregoire indicated for her to raise her hand with palm down. As bid, she extended her hand toward the Teigne and he brushed his knuckles across hers with respect. Khes had never seen the gesture save between Deignier. No one, not even Maris Eleyor in proclamations of love had made so simple a sign toward her. The simplicity of such respect so freely given left her trembling.
Bowing from the waist, one hand’s fingertips resting at her brow, Khes reciprocated in the Avali fashion. Khes thanked him with a strained voice and excused herself. Gregoire pointed in the direction she would find Zakeriel. The woman nodded and avoided looking Nahiet over again before she left. She had thought Zakeriel’s coloring exotic when she saw him. Cleaned up he might have matched Nahiet for beauty… maybe, but the Teigne glowed. Perhaps it was only a trick of the morning sunlight, but trickery or no, it caused a slight flutter of intimidation and awe in Khes’ chest. With every effort, she quelled the flutter. He was not a god, just a man. An exceptionally strange …luminescent man.
As she strode past groupings of Shae preparing to march, Khes glanced at their faces. She could not tell if the stares were at her audacious behavior or simply because she was a lone female Erahs among scores of Shae. Neither woman nor man approached with anything resembling friendliness. In turn, however, none hassled her either.