A volley of gunshots rang out from the crushed ship. By the more intact ship, separated from it by a swath of sand, people returned fire. I could make out movement, a few flashes of red—the red hair of the Rajel, probably—and swift black shapes I couldn't make heads or tails of.
"Fralenn, join us!" said a voice to my right. "There is shelter and food and glory for all!"
The shredded skin of the ship whipped back to reveal a metal skeleton that gleamed in the sun. Cautiously, I guided Tokani toward the ship. A bullet sang past me, but I made it into the protection of the giant ship's huge shadow before any more shots could threaten us. Daru met me behind it along with Samari, their rifles at their sides.
"I'm glad you made it," said Daru, tucking a strand of golden hair behind his ear. He held out a hand, palm up, in greeting; I laid mine on his. Samari offered hers as well, but she regarded me with barely concealed disdain, her wheat-blond hair swirling about her shoulders.
"Have you ever seen such a thing?" said Daru. "A giant beetle with people inside!"
"I saw them yesterday riding before the storm. They're not beetles—they're technology from Rajel."
"Rajel?" His brow furrowed.
"Ah! Then it's doubly fortunate we attacked them. We will award you the killing blow of their chief."
I laid my hand on his arm. He froze, looking at me quizzically, something else in his eyes I wasn't quite sure of. "No, Daru. This isn't right."
Samari turned to him, swishing one hand into the air. "I told you! She's Ardayn—her heart is soft, like the belly of a tora." She nearly spat the words. I never knew Samari thought this way of me—we'd always been friends, almost sisters, though it was true there was a wildness to her I'd never understood. And I'd been gone so often lately that I hadn't realized how much of a warrior she'd become; I saw something fierce in her eyes that was entirely Kasi—and alien to me.
"Compassion isn't a weakness," I said, knowing full well that compassion for enemies was a foreign concept to the Kasi.
"Why this love for your enemies?" Samari's disdain turned to perplexity.
"They're not my enemies. Revall's my friend and he's half-Rajel. Besides, I'm not Ardayn."
Samari's eyes narrowed. "You can't deny your blood."
"They denied me. They killed my parents. If the Rajel are the enemies of the Ardayn, perhaps they're my friends."
Samari raised an eyebrow. "I'll never understand you, tribe-less one. Why come all the way out here if you didn't want to fight?"
"I want to stop you."
Samari laughed. "You'd sooner stop a sandblast."
"They're not a Sedd-hepai tribe. They didn't attack you; they're vulnerable out here. Can't you just leave them alone—or help them?"
"I will fight them to my last breath—or until my chief orders me otherwise."
I nodded, knowing I was wasting my breath arguing with her. I'd have to convince the war chief—Samari's father— if I was to convince anyone. But, as Daru and I followed Samari toward the ship, I wondered whether it was a good idea to stop the Kasi. Perhaps the Rajel had been coming to Ardaynenn to attack it. Perhaps these Rajel weren't so innocent after all, though I hated the idea of these magnificent ships and their brave crew being senselessly destroyed in the desert.
Samari led us through a huge crack in the side of the ship, and I walked on sand, huge, pillow-like structures flapping above me, some of them ripped, some of them hissing as if air was slowly escaping. Metal, crumpled like crushed insect legs, clanged against the sides. A whale….The word, along with a picture of a giant beast I'd never seen, floated into my mind. This is like being inside a whale, beached on the sand.
Tokani snorted, sidestepped, her whole body tense. "Easy girl," I said, my voice echoing louder than normal in the giant chamber. Half-buried in the sand was a large black shape—the hint of a tail, a neck twisted back, broken—
"A demon," said Samari matter-of-factly. "The storm killed it. Another killed several warriors before we brought it down."
"I helped bring it down," said Daru, pulling down his robe to indicate a bloody slash across his collarbone. It looked deep, but he hadn't bothered to bind it.
"That looks awful!" I said, my stomach turning. "Are you okay?"
He nodded. "I paid it back in blood."
"You certainly did," said Samari. "Since yours is a mere scratch. The other warriors killed it."
Daru's eyes flashed. "I will prove myself this day!"
"And no doubt preen before the Ardayn girl for doing no more than your honor demands."
Daru clenched his fist, looking about to attack Samari. I laid my hand on his arm; he startled, then pulled gently away.
A groan above me. I looked up; a man was bound to a bent metal frame, blood soaking his shirt. Tangled dark red hair hung over his face, half-concealing bruises and dirt and blood. Below him lay other bound Rajel prisoners, though they hadn't warranted the treatment of being on torturous display.
Samari pointed to him. "That's their chief. He had these protecting him." She dug into her robe and showed me a round golden disc on her palm. It looked like a medal, carved with the head of a king. Samari tucked it back into her robe.
We walked up to the wall of the ship, light showing through tears and bullet holes. The Kasi were lined up along it, aiming their rifles through the holes or reloading.
"Father," said Samari.
One of the men turned around—tall, imposing, his white-blond hair tied back. Chief Maji. A smile burst across his face.
"My child!" he said, sweeping one arm out in welcome. I let Tokani's reins drop and ran toward him and he wrapped me in an embrace. He smelled like sweat and horse. He pulled back to look at me, his hands on my shoulders. "My lira, your presence gives me joy. But why did you brave the Enemy to join us? Have you decided to become a warrior after all?" A smile tugged at the side of his mouth; he knew as well as I did I would never go on raids with the Kasi, though I'd defend them to my last breath.
I shook my head. "I saw these…beetles yesterday. They're not your enemy. Can't you stop the raid?"
"Ah, so that's why you came. You braved the sun so you could defend people you never met?"
"They were caught in the storm. Otherwise they wouldn't even be here."
"Perhaps the storm gave them into our hands. Perhaps they were coming here to attack us."
"I don't think so."
"Because if they'd attack anyone, they'd attack the Ardayn."
"Why is that?"
"Because they're Rajel."
"Rajel…you mean the enemies of Ardaynenn from across Sedd'hepai?" I nodded. Maji looked incredulous. "So they traveled across the great desert in these—these—"
"Skyships," he repeated, stumbling over the foreign word, though he had some of the same reverence in his voice that I had for the ships.
"I don't know if they came across the desert. They might've come down from the north."
Maji nodded thoughtfully. "So, you want me to spare these Rajel? Aren't they the enemies of your people?"
"They're not my people."
Maji squeezed my shoulder, his eyes as fathomless and black as obsidian. "If you have no other tribe, you have us."
"But she will not fight with us, even though she's of age," said Samari.
Maji's face hardened. "She does not have to fight to be under our protection. Unless she betrays us, she'll always be one of us."
"Can you bring the Rajel under your protection too?" I asked. "They were lost in a sandblast, like I was when you found me."
"I cannot stop a raid. The Sun must be appeased."
"But these are not Sedd. They're helpless."
"Not so helpless, my lira. You did not see their demons."
"They're not demons. They're—" I searched my mind for the word. Revall had taught me about fearsome black reptiles that the Rajel used in war, and I'd read about them in the histories, though I'd never thought I'd encounter one. "Restet." A chill ran through me as I said it, feeling the age-old horror it contained for my people. "They're reptiles. Like tora."
"Not like tora!" said Samari with a laugh.
"Have the Rajel killed any of your people?"
"Just wounded," said Maji. "We've been merely testing their defenses so far."
"Then it's not too late. You don't need to take vengeance. You can stop this, tell them it was a misunderstanding. Or just leave and forget they're here."
Maji frowned. "The Kasi do not retreat."
"Then we'll make an agreement. We can give them their lives in exchange for their provisions."
"We can take it anyway."
"But you don't need to kill anyone."
"You have a soft heart, Fralenn. You hate to see death. Even when it's necessary."
"Today it isn't."
He tenderly touched my cheek. "Have you spoken to the gods, to know this?"
He smiled indulgently. "I will consult with the other chiefs about your proposal." He walked along the line of warriors and tapped the shoulders of two other men, who followed him to a place in the sand and sat cross-legged beside him in conference. As Samari took her place along the wall, aiming her rifle through a hole, Daru showed me a broken tank full of water. I let Tokani drink and took my flask from her saddle. Warm water flooded over my tongue, making me feel a little better, though I still felt a little shaky, and unsteady on my feet after the tension of meeting with Maji. After I refilled my flask, Daru led me not far from the prisoners where the spoils were piled. He reached into one of the semi-ripped boxes and took out a strip of dried meat. "It's very good," he said, handing it to me. I tore into it ravenously. It had a smoky, salty flavor and was very tough.
"More?" asked Daru. I shook my head. "They've also got this." He tore open another box and sifted what looked like yellow sand through his fingers. He tossed some into his mouth, then offered some to me. I tried it; despite its dustiness, it tasted rather sweet and I devoured a few handfuls before I got tired of its dry grainy texture.
We rummaged through the boxes and found one full of jars, some of them broken. Carefully, I reached into one and took out a vegetable stalk. It was salty but crunchy and full of flavor from spices I'd never tasted before. I ate some more and handed the jar to Daru. He gave me a handful of dried fruit of all kinds and I dumped them into my mouth, enjoying the many different tastes blending together. "More?" Daru said and offered me some. Instead, I dove into the box full of fruit and buried my hands in it, reveling in the abundance of food. I tossed some up into the air and let them shower over me, catching some in my mouth. Daru laughed and followed suit and he took my arm and we danced in the rain of sweet dried berries, catching some in our mouths, letting others scatter onto the sand.
"Vertetsk savages," said a voice. I stopped, looked up. The man bound to the pole had spoken in Rajel. I hadn't understood the first word, but I got the gist of it. I didn't blame him for cursing us. Guilt flooded me that I'd been reveling in the spoils. I might not have attacked them, but I'd been stealing as surely as if I'd been part of the Kasi. I was benefiting from their raid, when I was trying to get it to stop! I had been forgetting myself. At the same time, I resented the Kasi being called savages, but part of me wished to distance myself from their behavior.
I stepped up to the man, Daru's hand clasping mine. "I'm sorry," I said, carefully pronouncing the clipped, sing-song Rajel words, savoring their exotic taste. "I shouldn't have done it." I hadn't even been that hungry—I'd just been astonished at so much food! But on their journey of course they'd need a huge store of it.
The man looked down at me, his eyebrows lifting in surprise. "You speak Rajel."
"I'm sorry for how they've treated you. Maybe I can get them to take you down and treat your wounds."
"I doubt they would be so generous."
"You're not a threat now that you're injured."
He smiled rather unpleasantly. "You'd be surprised." He laughed but it came out more like a cough and blood splattered the front of his gray shirt.
Daru took a step in front of me. "You will speak to Fralenn with respect!" His words were in Sheshan; he didn't understand a word of what the man had just said.
I laid a hand on his arm. "It's all right. I think we should take him down, treat his wounds."
"He's the enemy chief!"
"He might not be the enemy for long, and it'd make it easier if he looked favorably on us."
"Only Chief Maji could approve such a thing."
"I'll ask him." I looked back up at the man, switching to Rajel—which was limited and badly accented, I knew. "I will see what I can do. I want peace between us."
The man smirked. "Peace. I doubt these people know what peace means." His expression turned to puzzlement. "But you—you are not even one of them, you're Aden. You negotiate for them, yet you show compassion for us. Why? Who are you?"
"I'm Fralenn. I've lived here in the desert most of my life. I have a good friend who's half-Rajel."
"I see." He still looked perplexed. He shifted in his bonds and winced with pain. "If you could resolve this, you'd be able to work miracles."
"I know the war chief. Maybe I can convince him to stop. Maybe he has already…." I looked to where Maji was in conference, the three chiefs gesticulating with argument. Doubt hit me. I had to know. At least help this man who was in pain.
"What's your name?" I asked.
"Commander Doma Kalle."
"It's good to meet you."
He smiled but it came out more as a grimace.
I strode past the circle of prisoners. One of them, a girl about my age, looked up as I passed, an imploring look in her eyes. She had long hair as red as the fur of a fox and large eyes the color of dawn. She looked terrified, as if she'd run away in panic if she could.
"Why do you talk to the enemy?" said Daru. "I don't understand why you want to help them."
I stopped, anger and frustration building up inside me. Though they were my friends, sometimes the Kasi could be so unreasonable. I looked into Daru's startled dark eyes. "The Rajel didn't attack you, you attacked them. They only defended themselves. Can't you see it from their eyes?"
"I do what my chief tells me."
I shook my head. "Then can't you at least admire them for their valiant effort to cross the desert, brave the storm?"
He nodded. "They are foolish, but courageous."
"And they've built this magnificent ship! Can't you appreciate how wonderful it is?"
"It didn't grow from the ground?"
"No! And they did it all without magic."
He gasped. "How could such things be?"
"I don't know. They're just—much more advanced than us."
"And yet we prevailed over them!"
"Because they were crashed, vulnerable. If they were at their full might, no one could stand against them."
"Then it is good that we've attacked them when they're vulnerable. We have the advantage now."
I could see his military thinking. But weren't there more important things than war? Why not try to be friends unless it was impossible?
"You can prevail when they're weak. But perhaps this is just the vanguard. Perhaps there will be more ships. You would never be able to stand against the Rajel Empire."
"The Ardayn did. The Kasi will too."
"The point is, it's better to have powerful friends than powerful enemies. If they come and realize you've attacked them, they'll come down on you mercilessly."
Daru clenched his fist. "Then we will fight them. We will fight them to the last Kasi child, the last tora."
I raised my arm. "But you don't need to!" I made a frustrated noise and walked away—almost running into Maji.
"I hadn't thought of that," said Maji, "what you said about powerful allies. Even so, it is done. We will make a treaty, if possible."
"Really! Oh, thank you!" I flung my arms around him and he laughed heartily, swung me around like when I was little, then set me down.
"It was a hard bargain, little one. Vona dissented, but he'll have to follow my lead with a majority. Kanai agreed on condition that you'd help me."
"Of course! I speak Rajel, you know."
"Good. Then let's—"
A cry from the front wall. I ran over to it with Maji and Daru.
"They're coming!" said Samari.
"Look!" She indicated a torn space in the fabric.
Across the sand, five black shapes with riders were running at full speed toward us, their powerful hind legs covering ground effortlessly.