Wrote this one last year. There's an awful lot that I violently dislike about it, but hey.

Set in an army camp in a fantasy world of my own creation. Alené is a young girl being used as a figurehead for a resistance movement against the reigning theocracy. Reviews appreciated!

A crack of dusty light slithers between her eyelids as familiar earthy skin taps gently on her forehead. Whistling permeates her reluctant mind, trilling up and down the scale, as repetitive and precious as birdsong.

She pushes her body up with a halfhearted groan, shivers, and hugs her arms to her chest, because people do this when they are cold, so she imagines it must do these people some good, even if she can't feel any of the supposed effects. It is very cold in the mornings here. Jeks purses his lips even further, probably trying to make her laugh, but it is far too early for such silliness.

"Where is Niya?"

He tries to answer while whistling, but it doesn't work.


Alené pictures her, soft dark hair hiding her porcelain face as she bends forward to read carefully, defensively from those old pages, as if the words themselves could break in the mouths and hands of the brutish men she teaches. Her fingers trail lovingly over each page as she turns it, and a soft palm reflexively smoothes the cover. Alené has seen her do it in their tent, night after night, page after page.

"I'm still wearing my night clothes." She sounds very certain about this, and also very unconcerned.

"Keep the blanket on for now, then," he says. His expression tells her that she has fooled him with this clever trick, kept the warmth for just a few minutes longer. The small ribbons he has ready in his pouch say otherwise.

She slides over on the small cot, and accordingly he takes the place to her right. Deft brown hands smooth down hair so nearly white, as Jeks chuckles, it is probably painful to Ren in its near purity. Such a perfectionist, he shakes his head in mock disdain. The hands fish out the correct amount of strands. He lets the feather weight rest in his tilted palm as he twines his other hand expertly through the hair, dividing it into three equal parts. Then, with an agility that she has tried and failed to imitate, he twists his way down, three or four fingers on one hand doing the work that still takes nearly all of her clumsy digits to achieve. He ties off the braid with a sky blue strip of cloth and hands it to her for inspection.

She entertains him with her best priest impression plastered onto her little face, and lets his workmanship drop in indifference.

"I suppose it will do." She ruins the effect of the fine words with an eager smile. All children know it. It is the one that always, always asks, did I do all right? Was I any good?

He laughs, loudly, like he always does. She wonders if he really still thinks it's funny.

He nudges the worn pouch towards her, and her own hands reach up. His hair is light as well, but not like hers at all. It is the color of clay and far less tamable, flopping every which way over his head, but she thinks that part is on purpose. She takes some of the longer strands and begins her own work, her fingers probing much more slowly than his do as they dance in tandem on the other side. He prefers far more braids than the one she likes framing her face, has told her that it is traditional for a priest of Cabil, like the flutes and the spinning staffs with their colors blooming like melting flowers. She ties her first braid off as he starts his third.

She apologizes for the clumsy bumps, says it's harder when he's taller than she is, but he says it gives them personality, and even a tiny part of her spirit. She's not sure she believes that, but is glad anyway.

Ten or eleven tiny braids crisscross his hair through the freefalling wisps when he is done. She is working on her last one, positioned in a mirror image of the one hanging by her own face. She is trying to do it with only one hand, learning by imitation, but it only makes him laugh. She pouts and slaps his helping hand away. She sees him frown slightly, and feels him touch her palm.

"What are you doing?" she asks, grasping blindly for a ribbon while keeping the braid determinedly in her sight.

"Checking for calluses."


"You have next to none."


"You don't know what that means, do you?"


She finishes her work with two hands and begins the delicate task of the tie-off, careful not to let the scrap of fabric slip off the clay strands and force her to start again.

"Tough skin your palms grow to protect you."


"It happens when you work very hard. But there is a Cabil superstition that tells that calluses measure one's immersion into our tainted world, and how much one takes on their shoulders. You are, so far, free of most such dirtying."

She ties the miniscule knot with some satisfaction.

"The general doesn't make me carry heavy things."

He smiles ruefully as he pulls his pouch's drawstrings, and she receives the distinct impression that she has missed something.

"That depends on whom you ask."

He runs his hand over his latest braid as he leaves, letting the sunlight spill in through the flap and blind her as he tells her to get up and presentable in a matter much too responsible for her liking.

Half a year later, she will know exactly what he means. Half a year later, she will know everything. But knowing is different from understanding, and so she will still smile as he lets her braid his hair.