A/N: This is the redone first chapter of Obscura (aka Keyd's POV story), rewritten to match the rewrites of Tenebrism and also pulled back slightly in Keyd's timeline to start a while before the events of Alan's POV actually do. This is a different version of the story than has been posted here for the last several years, so might need to be reread when the next chapters go up or they won't make much sense. This story is intended to parallel Alan's story but also will fill in gaps in time or situations in which Keyd was not around in Alan's POV, so there will be overlap in their narratives but overall this story is also meant to stand alone. It's intended to be three books long, this is the first!

I.

The missive hung outside my tent door, a neatly rolled slip of parchment with one edge dipped in red ink. The humid air of the jungle had kept the ink from drying fully, bleeding it into the paper, veins of crimson staining the words written within.

They would be orders. After such a such a long stretch of inactivity and little information coming into the camp, it seemed unlikely to be a missive for battle. But there was going to be movement in the camp. For over a week there had been nothing, an encampment of one thousand soldiers doing nothing but sweltering in our jungle tents, waiting for any sign that we were moving against the enemy. Or even that the enemy was moving against us. But we were unsure of where they were, and scouts were finding the terrain difficult and the locals uncooperative and even hostile. Two small scouting groups had even not returned, days after they had departed.

I slipped the parchment from the loop of canvas it had been tucked into, feeling the hum of the seal beneath my fingers. I shouldered aside the canvas door flap aside and stepped into the dim light of my tent, the air somewhat cooler inside. But barely, and due in most part to the meager shade the canvas offered. As the day went on and the day grew hotter and damper, the tent would trap it all inside and become a sweltering cage. Though it was an impractical use of our abilities, most soldiers cast mild cooling barriers around the inside of their tents. I was guilty of this on occasion, but it was still morning and I'd not yet reached that desperate point.

The tent was empty; Rysa elsewhere, both our bedrolls stretched out empty within reach of each other. Beneath the canvas tent floor was a thick loamy dirt, which had been packed down after a week of us tramping around in this small space, and the whole tent smelt of it; rich dark earth and decomposing leaves and blossoms from the brilliant flowers that bloomed in the undergrowth.

I sat down cross-legged on my own bedroll, pressed my thumb to the seal upon the parchment. It required the releasing spell given only to the highest military leaders. The rank of general was far above my own, but given my second status within the government, I received these as they did directly from the agistar. Red ink had crept onto the paper in pinkish blotches and spidering veins, but none of the agistar's recognizable handwriting had blurred enough to become unreadable once I had unrolled it.

The missive contained simple instructions. Our mobile camp was to be packed up and moved, later tonight when the heat had subsided. This camp contained only about a thousand soldiers, and there were three more camps of similar sizes in various places around this jungle country. All on the lookout for clarbach scouts, or a clarbach camp. We knew the clarbach were here, but it had been impossible to find them as of yet. We even had scouts in other continents on this world, searching out any other possible presence of them, but this deep and sweltering jungle was the only place we had received a report of any true sign of them. But it had been brief, and as of yet, unrecurrent.

After sitting camped here for so many days, stalled and with nearly no information incoming, this missive seemed an abrupt set of orders. If any new scouts had returned with news of the clarbach, I would have heard of it. If not from the agistar himself, then at least from my current superior here, general Koya.

I supposed I would have to to speak to the agistar myself.

Not something I often instigated, but at least I had an impersonal reason to do so. We could have a civil conversation if we spoke of nothing else but strategy and missives and battles. Truly most of our conversations were civil and emotionless, which was why any that ventured into personal topics were...disheartening.

I swatted the tent flap open and stepped back out into the deep and cloying heat of the jungle. We'd had no forests such as this on our own world, and encountering them often proved difficult for both setting camp and for fighting. The trees here grew thick and twisted and entwined, and often what seemed to be many different trees often were a single one with many trunks, spreading its leaves in a wide flat canopy almost as thick and enclosed as any roof in some places. Enormous wide-leafed plants grew below the canopy in the spotted sunlight, brilliant flowers blooming in dozens of odd shapes and bright colors, and in between the ground was all heavy damp dirt often boggy with puddles and mud and moss, great roots writhing through the earth like the back of some long sinuous animal breaking through the surface of water. The noises here were endless—the calls of strange birds, the clicking and buzzing of insects, the pattering of moisture dripping between leaves, crushing and swishing of leaves as animals small and large snuck through them. The heat was equally endless.

We had attempted to set up camp in the clearest area we could find, but the jungle hardly provided any spare room between the uneven ground, lush undergrowth, twisting tree trunks and roots. There was little order to the arrangement of our tents. The only paths between them were what had been tread over many times by many feet, and the dark canvas tents sat in staggered attempts at rows like badly crooked teeth. It did give us the advantage of blending in, in case clarbach scouts came near. But the jungle likely gave our own scouts the same disadvantage in finding their camps.

The higher officers' tents were perched on the crest of a small hill, closer to the mountain range that crested above the treetops in brief glimpses. I passed others as I wound my way along the sloping dirt path, soldiers dressed in little more than their underclothes against the heat, lounging outside their tents. Some idly swatted at insects with fans fashioned of large fronds, others sat playing simple strategy games against each other to pass time. I saw many faces I recognized, knew their names and their families, others I didn't. Some straightened to attention as I passed, but most knew that I neither liked nor required that kind of deference. I was just a soldier here, like all of them, and this was a military camp and very little government was involved. I deserved no special treatment here, especially by any who outranked me.

I acknowledged any of them who paid attention to my passing in the proper way befitting our rankings—most were my same rank or lower. Though I did see Koya Taigichern, the younger brother of my own current superior here, who held his same ranking. He was engaged in some odd sparring match with a lithe muscular woman I did not know, both of them dancing and dodging around each other with nothing but their bare hands, attempting to grab and lock each other into a hold.

I passed them by without a word. Taigichern was a competitive and forceful man, and I had heard many stories of him enabling or undertaking overtly brash actions in both battle and in his personal life. What I saw here was fitting to my opinion of him, though there was nothing particularly egregious about a sparring match. I was acquainted with his elder brother Darbanyon somewhat better, certainly enough to know they were very different men. I didn't find Taigchern unreliable or an ineffective soldier—rather the opposite—but simply a very different one from the kind that I was, or tried to be.

As I approached the agistar's tent, the familiar crest emblazoned in red across the dark canvas door, the flaps opened and a soldier stepped into the shifting spots of light streaming down from the jungle canopy. A man I certainly recognized, Huora Kehmadjan. Likely discussing the troop movements, or perhaps simply talking with the agistar about other matters. The latter was unlikely given the missives, but Kehmadjan did have a long personal association with him.

Kehmadjan saw me approaching, and waited with his hands behind his back until I had made my way along the dirt path to him. I didn't particularly wish to speak with him, as the missive was far more pressing, but there was no manner in which to avoid him. He did hold a higher military rank than I did, so I afforded him a slight bow when I stopped in front of him.

"Your father is still a stubborn man," Kehmadjan said to me, a slight crook at the side of his mouth. Whether he was amused or frustrated was unclear. "But we will come to an understanding eventually. One day, we will see things the same way, don't worry."

"I won't," I assured him, with no guess of what he was speaking about. Kehmadjan gripped my shoulder in a friendly gesture, and I returned it, as there was no reason not to.

"He is available now," Kehmadjan said, and gestured to the tent behind him. His eye had fallen on the missive in my other hand. "There is no one else bothering him."

"Thank you." Bothering him. A strange choice of words, considering he was the last person to have spoken with him. It was only after Kehmadjan had left me and gone on his way through the underbrush did I realize why he might have phrased his words in such a way, and what he had meant about my father being a stubborn man. It should have been obvious, but it was a matter that I preferred to avoid considering. My likely engagement to Kehmadjan's daughter.

Hret Adjechyon was a few years elder than me, intelligent and well-spoken whenever I had encountered her, which had not been that often. Her family were high-blooded clarjja of the Warrior caste, well-respected and known, and since our fathers were already friends, an engagement between us was logical. I had only spoken with Adjechyon in the context of our likely match, with both our families present. It was difficult to know someone when everyone nearby was analyzing every word you spoke, every glance you shared, every common interest you held. Adjechyon likely thought me reclusive and ineloquent and odd, as that was mostly how I had managed to express myself in our conversations. Yet somehow we had been considered a good match, even beyond the friendship of our fathers.

So I knew Adjechyon would likely suffer the misfortune of being my future spouse, a torture that she did not deserve and neither of us could not avoid. It was our families who truly held the decision of our match; we had no say. Though this military camp in a humid jungle was hardly the place or the time to engage in the specifics of a possible marriage which had already been going for for years. Which was not uncommon for a man of my status and a woman of hers.

But that the topic had come up here and now was insensibly irritating. The heavy heat and oppressive moisture in the air was of no help to settle my temper. I didn't bother to announce myself or even scratch at the door of my father's tent, instead throwing the flap aside and stalking inside.

My father glanced up quickly—he had been leaning over a small portable writing desk—but did not seem surprised to find me storming in. I saw my oen mark mirrored on his face, an endlessly black curving pattern around his right eye. A flare of insensible anger at the similarity we shared roared up in me. My own mark around my left eye pricked sharply as if responding in kind.

"Do you truly think it most pertinent to discuss my possible marriage now?" I blurted out, the missive crumpling inside my damp fist. Then I took in a breath, loosened my fingers. I had better control than this. I had known since I was a child I would not chose who I would marry, and had accepted that long ago. I had known for less time that no matter who was chosen, she would be the wrong choice. Through no fault of her own—the discord lay entirely in myself.

"Keydestas," my father began, and then went still and silent the way he did when he would say nothing further on the topic. His eyes did not meet mine, sliding instead past my shoulder and focusing on the door of the tent. The engagement negotiations with Kehmadjan were something he never discussed with me, and I had grown used to that as well.

"Then let us discuss this instead," I said, in a far calmer tone. I raised the rumpled missive towards him, though he would not look at it. "Troop movement. We know something now of the enemy's positions or numbers?"

"A few scouts have returned," my father said, with the same emotionless placidity that had possessed him from the moment I mentioned the marriage arrangements. "They believe a camp lies to the north-west. But this terrain is hostile and difficult, and with the natives here refusing to cooperate—"

He let out a breath that could not quite be called a sigh, for the agistar could never do such a thing. As a leader, as a protector, he could show no weakness, no insecurity, no signs of doubt. Even in front of me. One day I would have to be the same, stand in his place and make the decisions and face the obstacles he did now. I had been trained and taught and molded my entire life to do so. That day would be long years from now, and it was not one I looked forward to with any eagerness. I could never be the leader my father was.

But, that was not relevant now. Or situation here was. The locals being uncooperative was something of an understatement. They had been hostile and suspicious, wanting nothing to do with us unless we came too near their villages, in which case they sent out their own armies to keep us away. They had no access to the Presence and could do little harm to us without the aid of its energy and power, but they were not incapable warriors. Their weapons were often tipped in poisons, and were strong and sturdy enough to pierce through gaps in our armor if thrown with enough skill. What little information we had gleaned from them was that they held the same hostility towards the clarbach, which was one of the few shreds of proof we had that our enemy was nearby in this same jungle.

"The north-west," I repeated, and glanced at the desk my father stood over. A crude map rested beneath his hands, a rough estimation of our camp and its proximity to the mountain range we had made our camp in the shadow of. Also marked on the map were the places where locals had their villages—at least, the ones we were mostly certain of—and the areas they tended to hunt and forage in. My father traced his fingers somewhere to the left of the mountain range and slightly above it, a gently sloping upwards line from our camp. I had been looking at those lushly green mountains for a week, so different from the stark brown lines they were drawn as on the map, and wondered if there truly was a clarbach camp just on the other end of them.

"It is too difficult for scouts to continue searching out that area with this camp so far away," my father said then. "We are in a poor position to accomplish any decent monitoring of the most likely area the clarbach are in, not without exhausting our scouting teams."

"Which direction do we plan to move, then?"

"Both west, and north," replied my father. "Begin to make an approach from both sides, but with care. They may have more than one camp. This camp will divide into two groups. Kojoa Arirsanya will lead one, myself the other."

"Kojoa Arirsanya," I repeated, in some disbelief. Just recently promoted to the highest rank, general Kojoa had not yet assumed command in any campaign or battle. I doubted he had even organized a mobilization of a military camp. Usually he handed off those kinds of orders to people subordinate to him.

"This is not a large operation," my father said. "Only the beginnings of one. Arirsanya has the rank and responsibility, and this is a simple execution of a simple task. He should be able to perform it competently."

It was not my place to argue with my father over whom he chose to lead others in battle. Arirsanya's promotion had even been surprising when it had occurred about a month ago. My father didn't usually favor the man, as Arirsanya already sat in council and their opinions were usually in high conflict. Still, that did not reflect on his military competence. But he had not done anything particularly noteworthy in any campaign, not that I had ever heard of, and he had never been my superior.

As artaln, I was assigned beneath no one permanently, but rather was moved from colonel to colonel where I was seen as the most useful; often joint decisions between my father and other generals. And of course my father held the highest rank and was subordinate to no one, which was why it both irked and puzzled me that Arirsanya was even here at all. All of our camps but this one had only one general. Shome Oredaiken held the camp to the east, Kbet Lahjenlehr the camp to the south, and Rfeta Dsmirchale the camp at the far north. Ours was the eastmost camp, and while my father was its acting general, he was now handing half of its soldiers to Arirsanya. Including myself—my own superior was under Arirsanya's direct command.

"Are any of the other camps moving?" I asked.

"I've instructed general Kbet to move her soldiers elsewhere. The south has a less difficult terrain and has been fully scouted with no sign of the clarbach; our presence is unneeded there. Oredaiken's camp will move towards ours and take positions counter to us, meaning to surround the area that the scouts have found the most likely for the clarbach to be in."

The most likely. So we truly still didn't know. Maybe the scouts hadn't even found anything that would even warrant moving the camp, and this was simply some plan of my father's spurred by some other motive.

"Which scouts returned?"

"Tbat Djaoussan's." My father did not sound overly pleased, but I knew why. Tbat and her soldiers had been sent out only a day or so ago, only after we had received no word and no sign of two of the previous scouting groups.

"None of the others?"

"Not yet." There was true worry in his voice, a distance in his eyes. In rare moments like these I wanted to go to him, to be more to him than just an heir and a subordinate soldier. To be someone he could speak to, and whom I could speak to in turn, share our true thoughts and concerns with one another beyond what our titles asked of us. But then I thought of how he would look at me if he knew how I truly was, the punishment he would demand for my treason, the same retribution any man or woman who suffered my same affliction would be given. How could I desire a closeness to my father when all I could show him was a false self, as my true nature was so unacceptable? My father was a lawful man, traditional and faithful to the laws of our society, and would do nothing to protect me from them.

It was unfair to hate him for that, and yet I did.

There came a sudden scratch at the tent door, and my father had barely uttered the words, "enter" before the flap snapped backwards and a lean man with a faint scar cutting across his lip strode in. Kojoa Arirsanya did not appear to know how to do anything with any decorum. He even wore the deep yellow sash marking him as a general about his waist, as if still boasting about his promotion even outside the government council. Perhaps he intended to wear it into battle as well, and pinned with his family crest medallion. He would certainly draw the attention he seemed to desire so badly if he did.

My thoughts were petty, and strengthened by Arirsanya's own clear dislike of me. The way he looked at me, always assessing and hard, as though he were always on the verge of dismissing me completely. I was young, and had some strangeness in my past and behaviors that did often cause some concern to others, but no one else looked at me the way Arirsanya did. The same way he was doing so now, clearly displeased to find me in here and taking up my father's attention and time.

"General Kojoa," I said, inclining my head towards him with my arms crossed and hands touching my shoulders. I knew it would make no difference how respectfully I treated him. But my deference was proper and gave an impression to anyone nearby, which was only my father.

"Maedajon," Arirsanya said to my father without acknowledging me—and with the presumption to call my father by his first name! "We need to speak about this upcoming...mission."

My father glanced at me then, and I felt a new fissure cracking off from the rift already split between us. He would dismiss me, and attend to Arirsanya. Understandable considering our difference in ranks, but I was his son. Yet, that had never meant anything to him. A bitter taste flooded up from my throat, a heaviness clinging against the insides of my chest and weighing down my limbs. I didn't know what I could do more, do better, to gain worth in my father's eyes.

"I see I am no longer needed," I said, and left the tent before either of them could speak another word. I couldn't even manage to meet my father's eyes before I turned away from him.

I was not a good enough son. I would not be a good enough agistar. I was likely not a good enough artaln now. I had been born with a temptation for treason as an unchangeable part of me, and though it was something I had buried deeply away, that inherent failure seemed to seep into everything that I did, taining anything I was expected to achieve or becomes. The expectations for the role of agistar would collapse the moment all its weight was fully placed upon me.

All I could do was be a good soldier.

#

I walked back from my father's tent slowly, hardly aware of anything around me. The sun beat upon my head and shoulders, but it was distant and unimportant. Insects swerved and hummed around my face and ears, and I had no energy to swat them away. A heaviness had settled down deep inside me, clinging to my bones and chest. There were far too many possible reasons for the source of it.

Yet, we had been in more dire situations in war before—despite how bad this seemed, it could be far worse. There were many worrisome and frustrating aspects to what we faced here, but none of it seemed insurmountable. None of it should be the reason for this malaise.

I suppose...the thought of the engagement could be the cause. For so long it had been such a small thing, an inevitability that was far in my future, but now Kehmadjan was becoming more aggressive, springing the topic upon my father as often as he could. I hardly thought it was my father who had initiated that earlier conversation with him; far more had been weighing on him during our own talk, and I should not have been so quick to accuse him of it. But anger at my father was natural, and came so easily. Often before I could think better of it.

That was likely another reason everything seemed so unbearable. The engagement was only forcing me to confront what I could usually forget, as politics and war were effective at providing constant ways to act as a soldier, a politician, a leader, as anything but myself. That person, no one needed or wanted. But we needed an artaln, and we needed capable soldiers, and those were roles I could fill. I had been trained by others all my life to be those things. And I had trained myself to suppress everything else.

I had always done everything I ever should have. I had gone to the amkoja. While I never courted a woman in any way, that was not seen as odd given that I would naturally be arranged into a marriage. I had never protested against that eventual marriage. I had never done anything that would suggest I had any oddities about myself. Any abnormal...thoughts. I knew I had them, but they were nothing I ever would act upon. I had decided that many years ago, once I knew that my….condition was permanent. But were I ever to be trialed for my crime, I would still be found guilty of being, and not simply of doing. Not that the distinction mattered for men and women like myself anymore if discovered; in trials for our guilt, we would all be given the same dire fate.

Yet they never felt deeply hidden enough. Some terrible defect had fused with me more inseparably than the entities that were bonded with my body. Some days I could hardly bring myself to meet other men's eyes, thinking somehow they might see something wrong looking back at them, a helpless desire that I had no control over. That I could not stop or direct into the proper form of attraction, but could only choose never to act upon. Marriage might bring all of it close to collapsing, the facade I had built and lived for so long. New things would be expected of me, things I might not be capable of.

But thinking of this was exactly what I should not be doing, the very reason that my father and Kehmadjan speaking of the engagement had angered me. This was not the time or the place to be considering this, not my future marriage nor the problems I would face in it through my own faults. This was a war camp, and all of us should have our minds set on the possibility of an encounter with the clarbach and leave any personal issues for another time. I repeated this to myself over and over as I made my arduous way back down the jungle path to my tent—there was nothing else to do now but wait until nightfall and the coming mobilization. As we would be moving throughout most of the night, napping might be wise. That would at least quiet my thoughts for a while.

A man suddenly ducked out of a tent to the left of me—a tall man, unusually so. I would have recognized him by that alone, if I hadn't already seen his face. Koya Darbanyon, my direct superior here. He saw me as well, and waited beside his tent until I reached him. I tried to sharpen my focus, assume the proper attitude to speak with him, as it was obvious he meant to speak with me, and likely about something actually relevant.

"Commander Raen," he said to me, and though he was above my rank, he dipped his head towards me. I would prefer him not to, but it was hardly an appropriate request. His eye fell upon the missive I still gripped in my hand, now more crumpled and wilted than before. "You also received the orders."

"I did, colonel Koya." We fell into step together as I continued back to my own tent. Darbanyon had not been my superior for long and had never been so before, though we had known each other for many years and served in many of the same campaigns together. My military rank was just below his, and friendliness between us would not be seen as odd, especially with his family's highstatus. He certainly did not seem averse to fraternizing with me, and had even asked me in informal occasions to call him by his casual name. I never could, of course, but the offer was... meaningful. Still, I was cautious with him. He was a man, and men…being around them often discomforted me.

"What does it sound like to you?" When I sent him a sharp glance, Darbanyon only smiled. "Don't worry, Keydestas, I've been informed already of the specifics by general Kojoa. A simple missive like this tends to travel quickly, you know."

I did know. And it was a simple, harmless set of orders. There was no real risk in talking of it or about the plans that my father had spoken of. Or what I truly thought of them. I considered the situation as we picked our way together over heavy roots that writhed us through the damp earth, pushing leaves as long as our arms away from our faces. Moving anywhere in this camp was a slow endeavor, even though my tent was not that far.

"It appears to me that we simply don't know anything, but that agistar Raen has noticed the lethargy in the camp, and is acting upon it," I said at last. "I doubt that any of our troops could leap into a battle from the state they're in now. At least moving the camp will invigorate us with some purpose. Perhaps signs of the clarbach were spotted, but I doubt that is the main reason for this."

"I thought the same," Darbanyon said. "Well, to be honest, Kir—lieutenant Enten thought the same."

He was speaking of his antshil partner, Enten Kirbeylas. I knew little of him other than Darbanyon's frequent mentions of him, and some brief interactions we'd had in several military situations. He seemed an intelligent man, far more than some of those who sat in military council, and it was unfortunate that he could never gain a position there due to the caste he had been born into. Perhaps that was one reason I found Darbanyon admirable—he put no value in his partner's origins, and had no shame of his bond with someone of a much lower social class within the military. My own bond with Rysa was a similar thing, and Darbanyon had faced cynicism for his own in the past, just as I had for mine.

"It's not an unwise move on the agistar's part," I said. I pushed aside a leaf and it dribbled a surprising amount of tepid water over my arm; rain and dew it had collected in the deep hollow of its curved shape. "I'm only surprised that he didn't do something like it earlier than this. A week of this inactivity has done more harm than good."

"You always address him like that," Darbanyon said, and when I glanced at him there was an interested look on his face.

"Of course," I replied. "That is who he is."

"He's also your father."

I would have sighed, but the humidity made the effort unappealing. "Less relevant, in this scenario."

Darbanyon made a noise as though that was a fair enough point, and ran a hand over his short hair. He had always worn it in the proper military style as long as I had known him, though there was no real enforcement of such a style. It truly only marked his clarjja status, that he adhered to it. "When you speak to him, as well?"

"Not always."

"You are an interesting person to try to understand, commander Raen," Darbanyon said, and this time I thought perhaps he was joking with me by using the title. I returned a thin smile, though I wasn't particularly pleased. I had my reasons for privacy, and I had no obligation to explain them to anyone. What did it matter to Darbanyon if I called my father agistar, or Maedajon, or father? I did not ask him what he called his father, who held a council seat on the ghereen and held the same military rank as Darbanyon himself. Did they address each other as colonel? Did I ask these things of him? No. They were personal. And while my father and I were unavoidably public for most things we did, some aspects of our lives deserved privacy.

Darbanyon seemed to understand that he had said something out of line, as the next words he spoke were, "I apologize. It's not my concern."

"Forgiven," I said. It was not a subject worth holding onto. Darbanyon often spoke before he considered carefully enough, though he never said anything of any real cruelty. Simple thoughtlessness. His antshil seemed much the opposite. They appeared well balanced that way. The same way that Rysa and I were well balanced. That was the purpose of antshil, after all. A partner whose strengths covered your weaknesses, and your strengths theirs.

Though it was truly meant for harmony in battle, complementary personalities were common in those who pledged antshil. The bond was unbreakable, and choosing such a partner was a deeply serious matter. Rysa and I had known for a very long time that we wanted it, and though she had finished her training far before me, she had waited. There was no one else she or I trusted more than each other. That bond was one thing that had blighted my reputation in the eyes of many, though it was one thing that I truly did not care about.

Compared to some, such as Darbanyon and his lieutenant, Rysa and I had not had our bond long. Only twelve years, made after I had finished training and when forging the bond would be seen as more proper. I wouldn't have bothered with such convention, but I was already under scrutiny in pledging the bond with Rysa in the first place. Darbanyon and Enten...I was not sure of the endurance of their bond. Perhaps almost as long as I had been alive.

Darbanyon was still speaking, and I had not been listening to him for some moments. But he was only talking about the weather, and how unpleasant his soldiers were finding the jungle heat, especially in maintenance of their armor. I didn't mind it myself, having been stationed in much less tolerable places—though I agreed about the armor—but many soldiers weren't accustomed to such a different climate. Especially the younger ones, who had been exposed to fewer worlds. I'd heard little complaining, but soldiers were less likely to say such things around me. Darbanyon seemed content to ramble on without expecting any response from me, though he often met my eyes as if to see that I was still listening. Each time he did, I fought against the instinct to look away.

At last, we reached my tent. On one side of the doors the Raen crest stood out in sharp white, instead of the red my father's was marked with. The other side held the generic soldier's crest in black, for Rysa. The tents around us all sported their own individual crests, as many lower ranked soldiers of high-blood were camped near us.

"I'll take my leave of you here." Darbanyon said, when my tent was only a few dozen paces ahead. "We ought to speak more often, commander Raen."

I agreed, though those words tumbled over in my mouth and did not manage to speak themselves. What I said instead was, "where are you headed?"

"Passing on the news of our move to my own subordinates, naturally," Darbanyon said, with something of a crooked smile. "I doubt generalKojoa will undertake that task himself."

"I couldn't imagine it," I agreed dryly, and Darbanyon grinned more widely at me before taking his leave, turning around and walking back the same way we had come. He had clearly gone out of his way to have this conversation with me; had not needed to come this direction at all. I took a single breath to calm and center myself once he had disappeared down the shaded path. Darbanyon was simply a friendly man, and his affable nature was rather rare among soldiers. That...that was why he disoriented me, and had since my father placed me under his command.

I let out a breath, and pushed through the flaps of the tent. Rysa reclined on her bedroll now, returned from wherever she had been, her soil-encrusted boots propped up on her mostly empty satchel of belongings. Like many of the soldiers in the camp she had stripped down to linen underthings. The trapped heat instead the tent had plastered wavy strands of her hair to her cheeks and across her forehead.

She lifted a hand lazily at me as I entered, her eyes still trained on the slim blue book she held open on her stomach. She often carried one with her even into these sparse military camps, where only the essentials were allowed. Sometimes, I did as well. But I had far less free time to spend on reading. And this jungle heat had swollen and warped the pages of her book, which curled together as Rysa tried to hold them flat with a frown. After a moment she gave up, and closed the book with a heavy puff of air.

"What did your father have to say?" she said, after a moment of looking at me.

"What?"

"You only ever make that face when you've been talking with him," Rysa pointed out, and I quickly flattened my expression back into something less tense and irritated. But it was obviously too late. Rysa only smirked at me, put her book aside, and rolled over to prop herself on her elbow. Waiting.

"We're moving camp," I said. "Tonight. Splitting up; half moving west. The other half heading north. There's reason to believe the clarbach camp is north-west of us. Arirsanya will be leading our section of troops."

"That pretentious ass," Rysa snorted. "Your father really believes he's capable enough to even handle mobilizing a camp?"

"He did get promoted."

Rysa and I held a long look then, and then she huffed out a burst of skeptical noise while I managed a smile. Arirsanya disliked Rysa nearly as much as he disliked me, and seemingly for much of the same reasons. Our differences. Though it was far more uncommon to find someone who didn't object to Rysa in some manner, whether it was suspicion about her loyalties or the trueness of her race or some other ridiculous reason. But Rysa's irregularities were known, inconcealable from the moment she had come to us from Uillad, and she had lived with everyone around her knowing her past for all the time she had been with us. My own aberrations were secrets so deep that even Rysa didn't know of them. Even our bond could not forgive treason such as that.

I couldn't bear to tell her. It would drive her from me, and I would truly be alone.

Rysa sighed then, tossed the book dismissively to the floor.

"This is no good," she said. "It reads like a history text, not a story."

I picked up the volume myself and studied the cover. The first book of Kahru Kahlen, with translations by Keeper Ahre. "I could have warned you of that," I said. "His were always dry and unbearable translations. Keeper Ibar's are far better, and her illustrations are usually done by Keeper Hral. You ought to have taken one of my copies."

"You should have warned me," Rysa said, with a little smile. She held out out her hand, and I gave the book back to her. She tucked it away into her satchel, and I began to tie the tent flaps up so maybe some vestige of a breeze might wander inside. "I didn't know you had these books. Now I've nothing to do. Are you free, or have you more family to argue with?"

"Well, my uncle and grandfather are not here," I said, and Rysa chuckled. This time I did smile, which loosened some of the anxiety burning in my chest. Though she did not know all my secrets, Rysa was the only person with whom I could act the closest to myself. Few walls stood between us, and what I did hide from her was only for my own selfish protection. Sne reminded me that beneath everything that was expected of me, beneath my role as the artaln and someday as agistar, there was still a person. Even if I gave that person's wants and needs very little thought, he existed, and Rysa valued him as a brother and friend and antshil.

I also wished I had not thought of my grandfather. If there was one thing that my father and I did have in common, it was how much Eldronrhet hated us both. I could not remember a time when he had not, nor his reasons for why we deserved so much of his ire, but he was simply one more unpleasant aspect of my life that required constant attention. He sat in council, as a Worthy and part of my father's personal gheret, held the rank of general. There was no avoiding the man. Except here in this camp, where he thankfully was not.

"Then, should I draw out a jjenj board?" Rysa's voice brought me back from my thoughts. She rolled a charcoal stick out across her fingertips, leaving light black smudges on her skin. We had drawn one a day or two ago to play, but the damp heat and our own footsteps had smeared it into nothing but a dark shadow on the canvas floor. We still had the small pebbles we had collected for it, however, in a small sack with my own belongings.

"Please," I said, as I finished tying the tent flaps up. Anything to take my mind from a mobilization lead by Kojoa Arirsanya, from an engagement to Hret Adjechyon, from a clarbach camp we could not find, from scouts that had been missing for days, from my father, from my future, from myself.

Rysa began to draw a series of small circles connected by straight and diagonal lines on a cleaner spot of the canvas floor, and I began to root around near my own bedroll for the bag of pebbles. Perhaps she knew I needed the distraction, perhaps she wanted to play jjenj in earnest, but I appreciated whatever reason she had.

#

Food that afternoon was tasteless and dry in my mouth, and I ate slowly and without any enthusiasm for it. As the last of the sunlight crept through the jungle around us and sunk out of sight behind the treeline, all I could think of was Arirsanya. He may not have liked or respected me, but in return I didn't trust him. His rise through the military and into the council was propelled by his own desire for power and respect and self-admiration, and not out of any desire to do good for our people. I didn't understand my father's faith in him, even if he had earned his rank fairly. Or perhaps not, as he had been stationed under my grandfather for most of his military time. Eldronrhet was not above pushing soldiers through the ranks that were obsequious enough, gathering a loyal following under his command. Now Arirsanya was his equal, which did not give me much comfort. There were not many soldiers with their rank

Rysa had been quiet through the afternoon, but I had felt her watching me. The reason I was forcing myself to eat was that she would worry if I didn't, and say something about it. She knew it was a sign of stress, and I had no wish to burden her with my anxieties.

The second missive of the day came later, from a captain I did not know, some subordinate of Arirsanya's who was likely one of many relaying the message to break camp and prepare to move. She scratched at the door of our tent just as the light that seeped in through the canopy had begun to disappear, casting our camp into a dusky periwinkle light and bringing a multitude of new and cacophonous insect sounds to the air.

We would take a mountain pass that had been carved into the side of the mountain range by the locals, likely a trading path between the western and eastern villages. Certainly we were not welcome on it, but it was likely the easiest route to move our camp, and as long as we didn't encounter any of the locals we would likely have no trouble. The pass was wide enough for our soldiers to move easily and without danger, and if we kept up a decent pace we could be over it well before the morning. Or, so I was told by the captain, who looked more and more nervous with each word she spoke. As though she was not if she was allowed to speak this information to me.

"General Kojoa also requests your presence, at your earliest convenience," the captain said, and I heard Rysa snort before the captain turned on her heel and nearly fled to the next tent over.

"What do you make of that?" I said, and Rysa only shook her head. It sounded like a poor plan, and likely something thought up by Arirsanya. Moving at night was better in this climate, and we'd have no difficulties with that, but taking a pass we had no permission to use, with unfriendly locals and little knowledge of the route? I could only assume it had been scouted ahead of time, and was clear and safe. Asking Arirsanya if the latter was true would likely only draw ire from him, but perhaps I could find a moment to ask Darbanyon about it.

"I suppose you should go speak with our general, at your convenience," Rysa said then. I also doubted that was how Arirsanya had actually worded it.

"I'll help with taking down the tent, first. That's most convenient," I replied, and Rysa gave me a pleased smile and went back to packing up her bedroll. I sighed as I turned my attention to my own belongings, dread about the upcoming hours heavy in my stomach.

#

Sometime later, I stood in front of where general Kojoa's tent had been—now dismantled, as were most of the others around it, bundled into easily-carried packs. Arirsanya himself stood speaking with another of his colonels, a woman whom I recognized and should have been able to name, but my thoughts were both too scattered and too focused to think on it. Both of them were clad in their full armor, and I did not see Arirsanya's sash anywhere on him now. The woman departed after a dismissal from Arirsanya, leaving in the opposite direction towards where the lower ranked soldiers had their tents down the hill.

"Commander Raen," Arirsanya said, when he spotted me. "I expected you earlier. Your father's troops have already departed."

That, I was not surprised to hear. "This was my earliest convenience, as you requested."

Arirsanya clearly did not believe that, but that did not matter. I had disobeyed no order in not coming immediately. I did not need to explain myself, and simply waited for him to continue.

"We will begin our march on the pass soon," Arirsanya said, after some moments of silence. "You and your antshil will take up the front, along with colonel Koya. You need no worry about organizing any of the troops; your effort will be spent in leading the march."

Leading, of course. Despite this being Arirsanya's operation, he would place myself and Rysa in the front of this. At least Darbanyon and lieutenant Enten would be there as well—they were soldiers I trusted. However, it was unusual that a general not front for the troops he commanded.

"Where will you be then, general Kojoa?"

"That is not pertinent for you to know," Arirsanya said, with a sharper tone. "You know I only give you the benefit of some information beyond your rank because of who you are, not because you need it. Colonel Koya will relay anything else of relevance to you."

"Of course," I said, as if chastised. Easier, with him, to feign humility. Darbanyon would likely tell me anything necessary, as he recognized the importance of sharing knowledge with subordinates. And if Arirsanya wished to march in the middle of the troops, or even at the end, it would only reflect upon him and not myself nor anyone else. "Is that all?"

Arirsanya considered me for a long moment, a hard and thorough look that seemed to be trying to find fault with anything I had said or done in this brief conversation. Finding none, he dismissed me with a distracted wave of his hand and turned away, to give his attention instead to someone else who had approached. Another colonel of his, likely, but I was likely not welcome to overhear their conversation and made my way back to Rysa at the bottom of the hill.

"In case of an ambush by locals, I assume," Rysa said wryly, when I told her of where we would be and where Arirsanya would not be. "Though it seems unlikely he would want to risk his best colonel at the front of the line."

I was personally glad Darbanyon and lieutenant Enten would be with us, especially as people of my and Rysa's rankings would not usually be considered fit to lead a troop mobilization. Having a colonel with us would at least make Arirsanya's arrangement more logical. Despite my misgivings of the general, I didn't want him to lead us into any failure. Poor decisions from any of our generals hurt our military, our goals, and our people. We could have our disagreements, our suspicions and dislike of one another, but when it came time to truly act...sabotaging one another was only harmful to us all.

#

Only the barest light lingered in the jungle by the time the camp was dismantled, packed, and shouldered on the awaiting soldiers. Dusk was falling faster under the canopy than outside it, but night still drew near and by the time we climbed the narrow slope up to the pass itself, it would likely be fully dark.

The pass, though uneven and carved roughly into the mountain's side, was wide enough for at least four horse to walk abreast on. Soldiers had been organized into formations three across in their companies, each lead by their majors who had each been awarded a dimly lit lantern. To keep our presence hidden from locals, we would use as little light as possible the entire march. Directly following behind myself, Rysa, colonel Koya, and lieutenant Enten would come a unit that possessed abilities to enhance their nighttime senses, such as their eyesight. Other such units were placed at regular intervals throughout the ranks, to keep watch for the things that the rest of us could not see.

Normally, scouts would also go ahead and report back frequently using their bejji. But the locals had proved to be sensitive to our energy, as they almost always appeared if we strayed too far from our camps, warning us off. Though we never attempted to enter their villages, they seemed convinced we would at any moment, and they seemed drawn by any use of our abilities. Sometimes inhabitants of a world could sense the Presence even if they could not access it, and it seemed these people could.

The only thing we could not easily mask or partially hide was the sound of ourselves. The easiest way to transport armor was by wearing it, and the sound of metal plates clinking and sliding against each other sounded far louder than usual echoing off the side of the mountain. Though every soldier was trained in minimizing such sounds, with this many of us there was no avoiding some noise. Even beneath the eerie cacophony of chirping insects, croaking and calling creatures from deep within the jungle that we heard every night.

For some time, our travel was quick and easy enough. Though a true darkness had fallen, the weak lanterns provided enough light to see safely by, and the specialized units scattered through the ranks proved efficient in guiding the rest. The pass sloped upwards at a constant rate as the mountain range itself stretched taller, though we had reached a plateau where the ground was more or less even-perhaps the highest point of the pass. Endless jungle stretched away on either side of us, down into an impenetrable darkness below and a sharp slope of mountain above, thick branches and leaves arching over our heads. Though the night became cooler around us, the jungle kept the air damp and heavy with moisture, and breathing felt like drinking in steam.

At one point, for a length of at least a hundred strides or more, the pass cut in front of a rocky outcropping instead of the wall of earth twisting with pale roots. The path narrowed here, as the rock jutted outwards and there was only so much earth surrounding it. Some of the stone had been chipped away by provincial tools, enough that passing through did not feel treacherous despite the steep slope of the mountain directly below. The thick clusters of leaves and branches, as well as the darkness, helped to disguise the appearance of the drop-off and how truly far a distance from the jungle floor we were.

Not long after maneuvering around the outcropping, a large shadow appeared to loom across the path ahead of us. Whether it was simply a trick of the road or jungle, I couldn't tell. But the soldiers behind us began muttering to one another, and then one spoke up, "something in the road ahead, colonel."

A heavy thrum of energy swelled in the air, and a deep purple haze began to glow around Darbanyon's chest. A lithe four-legged figure sprang forward from him, closest to a large cat in form, landing soundlessly on the pass and looking about with eyes filled with a deep purple light. Darbanyon's bejji, a manifestation of his entities that could serve as scout or lookout or messenger, to a certain distance. It bounded ahead on the path, trailing purple light and a faint mist in the air behind it. When it reached what appeared to be a smooth pale wall in the road ahead, it stopped and waited. It could have gone forward, physical barriers not meaning much to them, but Darbanyon had likely told it to stop at what blocked our way.

An enormous tree had fallen across the pass ahead, its trunk thick enough to dwarf all of us. Branches had gouged deep into the dirt, and leaves and broken splinters of wood lay strewn everywhere. It seemed the tree had come tumbling down from somewhere much higher up the mountain, as other trees on the slope above the pass lay bent or broken in a wake of destruction.

We had to come to a stop, the procession of soldiers behind us clumping up and jostling together before Darbanyon shouted back an order to halt. Even though his voice would not be heard down the entire line, the action would carry through. We ought to have risked the scouts, if it could have avoided a delay like this. We did not want to be noticed, but more important was getting over the pass quickly.

From somewhere further back, I hear Arirsanya's voice call out, "colonel Koya, report!"

"The pass is blocked, sir!" Darbanyon called back, as his bejji bounded quickly back to him and dissolved into black mist around him.

Arirsanya sounded impatient with his reply. "Certainly it should be easy enough to get rid of?"

Darbanyon glanced at me. Of course, we could simply blast or move the tree aside, but that would be more than likely call attention to us, if we sent such an enormous object crashing down the mountain. We could be nearly on top of a local settlement and not know it, as our grasp of their villages had always been uncertain at best, and now we were further from the area we had become familiar with.

"We ought to scout ahead," lieutenant Enten spoke suddenly in his low and calm voice. He kept himself very unnoticeable unless he wanted to be otherwise; I had not even seen him move up next to Darbanyon. "See what is on the other side, and further ahead. This may not even be the only obstacle."

Darbanyon turned to me, with something that almost seemed like a smile, and offered out his lantern. "Some assistance, commander Raen?"

Of course. Both he and Enten lacked the capability of flight. Rysa and I were a much better choice to look beyond the tree, with more precise information than a bejji could relay. I took the lantern from him, strangely aware of when our fingers bumped together. "Of course, colonel."

I glanced at Rysa, and she nodded. A faint tingle washed across my back and my wings unfolded off my skin, passing easily through my clothing and armor before taking a more solid form of dozens of curving shapes, interlocked in a disconnected pattern. Beside me, Rysa's own wings unfolded in a far different pattern than my own. Together we took to the air, pushing off branches of the tree for momentum. In fact, we did little more than that—using the power of our wings to easily propel ourselves from branch to branch, shaking water and leaves from them in our wake, until we both stood atop the trunk of the felled tree.

Looking beyond it, we saw only darkness ahead. There was so little light here, and even the lantern I carried showed little more than leaves rustling before us from the fallen tree's branches. Rysa gathered a handful of purple light between her fingers, drawing it out from the oen marks on her hands, and flung it out ahead of us. A soft bloom of lavender light illuminated the jungle ahead for one brief bright moment, enough to see what lay further ahead.

It was an unfortunate sight. It looked as though a long stretch of the pass had crumbled away, or even been washed mostly away by water. I had caught a glimpse of where it resumed, at the furthest edge of Rysa's light, a considerable distance away. There had been a storm three days ago; a heavy torrent of water that had nearly flooded out our entire camp in the few hours it had lasted, except those tents that were on higher ground. It had been the most unpleasant for the soldiers of lower rank who were camped lower, in ground that had turned nearly to swamp. And possibly the cause of this damage to the pass. Even with the tree gone, there would be no easy way to get this many soldiers across the missing stretch of ground. Not tonight.

Without a word, Rysa and I flew back down. I told Darbanyon of the state of the road ahead, and he only made a contemplative noise and immediately walked away from us. Leaving me looking at lieutenant Enten. His long braid, so unusual for the military, a man of the bautan faith, fell forward over his shoulder. I offered him the lantern and he took it with a nod.

"I'm sure he meant to thank you," lieutenant Enten said to me. "He has much on his mind at the moment."

"Understandable," I said, even though it was odd that as a subordinate he was the one telling me this. "We all do."

Lieutenant Enten glanced towards the fallen tree, the lantern casting shadows across his face and emphasizing the small frown there. Then he looked back towards the line of soldiers behind us, stretching away into the dark. They were holding a loose formation, and it was clear that the ones closest to us were passing the reason why we had stopped down the line. Again, I wondered if this pass had been fully scouted and how recently, if it had been at all. The storm seemed the likeliest cause of this, so more than several days ago. We had spent hours packing up our camp—aerial scouts could easily have passed its entire length and returned in that time.

Darbanyon and Arirsanya were now speaking together near the wall of earth that had been scraped into the side of the mountain, having a perfectly calm and respectful conversation. At least Darbanyon did not suffer the same dislike and vitriol from his general that I did.

"The pass is more than simply damaged; it's gone," I heard him telling Arirsanya. "Even if we removed this tree, we'll have trouble getting this many soldiers across it, especially at night. We'd call attention to ourselves. And there may be more obstacles ahead—this looks like a result of the storm." Precisely my own thoughts, not that it was something difficult to think of. "We ought to scout ahead, at the very least."

Arirsanya replied, but I could not hear him. The soldiers packed on the road behind us were beginning to mutter and move restlessly, causing enough noise to drown out their conversation. I supposed I could have shushed them, but there was hardly reason to. Also, there were others of more appropriate ranking to do so, if it were necessary. Most of them were watching Darbanyon and Arirsanya speak to one another, although a few kept their eyes on my myself and Rysa and lieutenant Enten, who still gripped the lantern in one hand.

When Darbanyon returned to us, he seemed distracted, and only made eye contact with his lieutenant. "We make camp here for the remainder of the night," he said. "In the morning, we'll send scouts, to see if moving forward will be worth the effort, or if we ought to return to where we were camped and find another route west."

"General Kojoa's plan, I assume," I said. Because it did not seem like a sound one. We had covered little ground and could easily return to our previous camp tonight. Staying on the pass, especially since it had suffered damage and might not be stable, and when we had wanted to move along it quickly to avoid alerting the locals to our presence on it...

"He finds it the most efficient," Darbanyon said, but perhaps there was some doubt in his voice as he looked back towards our soldiers clumped about on the pass. A general uncertainty hung among them, perhaps even anxiety. I certainly couldn't blame them. But...

"Those are his orders," I replied, and when Darbanyon met my eyes again I found something commiserating in them.

"They are indeed." Darbanyon paused before saying, "if you and lieutenant Kanaar would assist in relaying them to the others—"

"Of course, colonel."

#

It took some time to reassemble our tents on the pass, and we only did so because a light rain had begun to fall. If it turned heavier and we were without cover, it wasn't unthinkable that a downpour could drown us. The storm we had seen three days ago had nearly managed that, even with the tents.

Once our tent was arranged and our lantern lit, Rysa took out her fine whetstone and sword, began running the latter against the rock in smooth, even strokes. She always carried a sword with her, while I did not. Not a physical one, at least. The oen around my eye tingled as I thought of it, as if eager to be used, but I quieted it with a thought.

I needed to clear my head, be alone for a moment. As much as Rysa's presence bolstered me, the day had been exhausting, and I wanted some time to myself. To let down all the careful masks and pretenses I had to hold up, with everyone, every moment.

"I'm going out for a while."

Rysa glanced up at me, a crease between her eyebrows. "Why?"

"Make sure everything is all right. This camp is not the most favorable position. Hopefully no one has set their tent too close to the edge."

Rysa held my gaze for a moment longer, then simply shrugged and went back to polishing her sword. Such a thing was a calming act for her, a nightly ritual. Sometimes I fell asleep to the sound of it. I almost reconsidered my decision to leave, but then turned and slipped through the tent flaps into the humid air. Up on the mountain the temperature was somewhat cooler, but there was no forgetting we were still in a jungle.

The camp sat quiet as I moved through it, a languid breeze flapping at the sides of the tents as water continued to speckle down through the leaves above.. Many of the tents were illuminated from within, soldiers staying awake or on guard. The ones who noticed me nodded as I passed, and I returned the gestures. They might not see who I was in the dim light, and I certainly didn't mind that. I had no particular place to go, and there was no spot to find solitude here, but walking along the neat rows of tents let my mind wander as I did, thinking of nothing much at all.

Oddly, I soon found myself outside of the tent next to Rysa's and my own, its doors facing back towards the rest of the camp the same as ours did. The left side of the tent depicted the interlocking curves of the Koya family crest in deep black, and the right side held the generic soldiers' crest for lieutenant Enten, signifying him as coming from a family outside the Warrior caste. Though his name and his crest marked him as being without a high-blooded ancestry, it was unbefitting to the person Darbanyon always spoke so highly of.

I had no reason to talk to Darbanyon himself, to even be at their tent. And yet here I was. Perhaps we could discuss some strategic issue, or I could simply ask him about Arirsanya and what his opinions of our general were. As his colonel, Darbanyon likely would say nothing too negative about him, but perhaps he would give an opinion on the man's tactics and this specific handling of the camp.

As I lifted the tined kjene stick to scratch at the side of the tent, a soft laugh came from inside, followed by muted words. Not Darbanyon's voice—a deeper one that I knew belonged to lieutenant Enten. I did hear Darbanyon's voice speak then, and another low chuckle at whatever had been said. They were too quiet for me to hear, and I did not want to listen to them anyway without permission.

But I found myself unable to made my presence at the tent known, or to turn and leave. My hand would not move to scratch at the tent with the kjene. I could only stand in the darkness and watch their shadows move through the faint glow within the canvas, their voice so content and familiar with one another. They had the same bond as Rysa and myself, but it had always seemed as though their connection ran deeper, pure and empty of secrets and deception. When I saw them together, or heard Darbanyon speak of lieutenant Enten, it seemed they were united in a way that was more than a bond formed through their entities. More than a simple friendship or brotherhood. They seemed as one, wordlessly supportive of each other, understanding and connected even when apart.

I didn't know why I was here. I had wanted to speak to Darbanyon, but I'd had no reason to. Now I was standing outside his tent, envious and hollow, yet a heaviness weighing down my limbs and rooting me to the ground like one of the twisted jungle trees. Because he had something I couldn't. It did not matter that Darbanyon and Kirbeylas were not lovers. They had a friendship that was beyond anything I could ever achieve with another person. Even Rysa.

Such thoughts seemed a dishonor to her, disloyal to our own bond and history, but I did not discount our relationship in any way. My family had taken her in and she was a sister to me, as well as my closest friend. There had been many times when her presence in my life was all I had, the only thing that seemed worthwhile. Both of us knew what it was to be different, and to have our lives governed by what set us apart, and both were things that we could not change. But my differences were still secrets that I could not tell her, and that kept a barrier between us, perhaps one that she didn't even see.

I only wished that our bond, our friendship, could be more like Darbanyon and lieutenant Enten's. The envy was difficult to overcome, or forget. But thinking of her was what allowed me to drop the kjene, let it swing back down against the side of the tent with a soft flap of canvas. The pause of voices inside seized me with anxiety, and I quickly turned and skirted around their tent and back to my own before I could be found out, heart pounding and feeling some deep wrongness about my actions, even though I had done nothing.

"That didn't take long," Rysa noted when I pushed back inside our tent. She was done with her sword, and now rubbed absently at the oen marks on her hands, a habit of hers when she was anxious. She was likely worrying about truly important things; finding the clarbach here, Arirsanya's command of our troops, the precarious position in which we had been forced to camp. Not petty jealousies over the friendship between two other men.

I sat on my bedroll, began to undress. "It didn't."

Rysa said nothing more, and I watched her in the light out or small lantern as I unlaced my boots and undid the buttons of my vest. She sat looking towards the door and the rest of the tents camped on the pass behind us. She was still half-dressed, the damp jungle breeze lifting strands of hair around her face. In many ways she was alone as I was, though she had more chances than I did to find true companionship. While there were those who still mistrusted her, her unsure social status gave her less expectations to fulfill. Though my father considered her nothing less than a daughter now, she would not be arranged into marriage. She could and always had been able to choose whom she associated with, though she often chose me above all others. We both chose each other above all others, and there was some misfortune in the fact that for so many reasons, we could not marry. Though I would never wish to tie her into such a relationship even if we could.

Whomever I married, if the both of us were fortunate we could at least a comradeship; a mutually respectful relationship, if not a passionate one. My father's marriage to my mother had not been passionate, but I knew that he had cared for her deeply and loved her as much as he could. They had been companions, understood one another, and known how to shoulder their responsibilities within their marriage. That was something I also needed to learn, before Adjechyon and I truly became engaged. How to put away the man that I was, and how to fill the role of a dutiful husband and eventually a father, with a companion not of my choosing, for the entirety of my life.

That was all I could ever hope for. A mutual partnership. Love that came of understanding, but not of passion or intimacy. Anything else was far beyond me.