No shower could clean the blood from Elowen's hands. It would take four maids and a stone for each of them to strip her dress clean, and even then she wouldn't want to wear it again. Not if it reminded her of this night and her clumsiness.
Her smock was no help against the biting wind and the overcoat she had packed was shredded to ribbons from her trek out to the small hut Olio had rented to her for training. Only a few more hours left in these woods, only a few more hours till the king sent someone out to find her, bring her back to her duties. She bit down on her pain, wrapped the scraps from her coat tight around her bleeding palm and brought her glass blade, Windfall, down in an arch, cutting the wood into splinters at her feet.
This had become a routine since her training had started six months ago. On the eve of one of the King's many physical check-ins, Elowen would traipse out to the only secluded place in Apati to ensure she was in good enough condition to pass and continue her training.
The hut was situated behind a few miles of pine trees, nestled on the outskirt of the third ring of the kingdom, Apoleia. The only people who ever bothered her here were hunters. Even then the only communication that passed between them was a nod of acknowledgement. A silent bond. I see you. We are forged from the same metal, we are kin.
Elowen had grown up in the third ring, the poorest of Apati, not too far from where she stood now. The coldest of her kingdom had given birth to her, raised her under the thumb of poverty and hunger, but she had fought her way out. Sacrificed blood in order to secure her seat at a table with the King. And now that she had it, she would not let laziness take it away from her.
Sweeping aside snow and wood, Elowen prepped the final log for splitting. It was something her mother had taught her in order to strengthen her upper body and center her energy into her core. It had come in handy especially for the fights she could not help but pick.
Even now, with the image of her mother softened into a faraway memory, she could feel her cold hands. Steady on her sides, keeping her still as she sucked in one breath and brought the blade down.
The impact was enough to shake the birds from the trees, to reverberate in her chest, but it wasn't just the strength of her blow. Someone else had caused the disruption.
Elowen's hands clutched instinctively around Windfall's hilt, her snowy skin turning even whiter. She was not alone in the forest.
Elowen started off in the direction of the noise.
The forest moved in time to the breathing of the fighters. Shaida watched, ready to interject if blood was spilt.
All of Apati's soldiers—a robust group filled with mostly immigrant children taken from their foreign homes in this kingdom and forced to strap on a sword—were wrapped into one giant circle to make room for the fighting.
Edda and Zane, second- and first-in-command respectively, stalked around one another in the center of the ring, the shadows from the pines falling like fabric across their skin. They were both stripped of their weapons, flesh on flesh the only means of achieving a victory, and Shaida could barely keep his gasps in as they struck at each other. Each time one of them hit, the other would evade just as easily as if they were swatting away a fly. It was a dance they had rehearsed time and again and even when one of them changed the footing or added their own twist, the other would always be there to adjust.
It was tradition amongst Apatian soldiers to initiate newcomers with battle. This kind of combat was different than their normal training, though Shaida would have preferred none of it if he'd been given the option. Six years holed up in the basement of the palace, treated like prisoners and worked like slaves, and the coat of combat had still never fit him, not entirely.
Even the wind tasted different here as compared to his home in the backwaters of Orfia, a kingdom filled with more than just the warmth this one lacked. But thousands of miles of land and sea separated him from the place his bones sang out for, and it existed now as only a memory.
Even now, after the years of training and fighting had numbed his soul to the sight of battle, he ached for the softer ways of the Orfians, their healing practices he could still remember. The religion he had left behind, the way it made him feel safe and whole.
There was no way to replicate those feelings, especially not here, in a kingdom where the only defense was based on a system that stole children from their families. A system that sought out immigrants over natives. There was no denying that the alleged randomness of the choosing was actually well thought out and calculated. The draft chose children who would not be missed, at least not in the eyes of the King and his subjects.
"Call foul when you see it, Shae!" Edda called to him from the ring.
Despite the snow around them and the shivers from the other soldiers, she was drenched from head to toe in sweat. It slipped from her buzzed hair and glistened on her olive skin. The jewels in her nose and ears were the only thing left from her Sciran heritage that might have marked her as anything but Apatian. Scira was a kingdom of beggars and thieves, at least that was the narrative King Deo had pushed and the one his people were forced to swallow down. It was not far from Apati but far enough that the Apatian nobility could sleep comfortably at night.
Shaida kept an eye mostly on Zane who prowled around the ring, shirtless and snarling, as Edda struck at him with the grace of a viper. Her blow landed, knocking him back a half-step. He smirked at her through the hood of his lashes, the lacerations on his face deepening, and stalked back to where he'd been. Shaida watched the muscles in his chest flex, tension building up, and listened for the familiar whoosh of his exhale air as he lunged for her.
Edda swiped her leg down, knocking Zane flat on his back. Just as quick as she felled him, she planted a foot hard against his chest. Though he smiled, his pale cheeks turned red and the color slipped well below his neck.
"Foul," Shaida spoke. He had never had to raise his voice around these men and women, never feared or worried that they would not hear him. It was simple, when he spoke they listened.
Edda released her hold on him, reaching a muscled arm down as an olive branch gesture of peace. Zane took one look at her hand and Shaida saw the cunning flash in his eyes just before he grabbed it… and yanked her down with him.
It had been a while since they'd all been able to laugh. So, when Edda's body slammed into her general's and a cloud of snow and muck soiled her fighting gear, the forest was swathed in golden noise, giggles from the younger children who reenacted the final blow, taking turns as Edda and Zane. By the time their laughter had died down, everyone except Shaida was covered in filth.
They all looked to him, strategist and informant to the King, the only one of them who couldn't let his guard down.
"Do it, Shae," Edda panted at his side. She stretched her hands above her head, breathing in the cold winter air, and grinned. "Show the little ones. They've been talking about it all week."
A soft wind blew through the boughs of the trees, moving like gentle fingers through the dark brown waves of Shaida's hair. Today was special for more than just the initiation of these young soldiers. Today was the day Shaida let them see him for what he was. Orfian… and more. It was all he'd been preparing for since the start of the year.
Kneeling in the snow, Shaida plucked one of the loose threads from his coat, sending out a silent prayer to Sheade—the god of his home—that the King would grant his request for new uniforms. He lifted his gaze to the soldiers, eyeing Edda. She nodded once and gathered the new initiates forward, gripping each of their frail shoulders in turn.
Too young, he thought. Let them at least grow up with love before you set them loose and expect them to fight.
"Where do you hail?" He asked none and all of them. They shuffled on the balls of their feet, the bottoms of their coats dripping sludge from the melting snow. Shaida wanted to close his eyes, pull himself away from this moment and the disappointment he could feel waiting for them in the eaves. He settled his dread. Today was not for himself. It was the last day of the initiates' childhood, he would not let them feel his pity.
Today he would show them magic. Then they could harden, then they could let go of their souls—just as he had done.
"Scira," A young girl answered, her nose as sharp as the beak of the ravens Apati used for messaging. The ravens that roosted above their heads now, silent but ever watchful.
"Apati!" Another yelled, her eyes as dark as coal, her hair whiter than the snow.
"Orfia!" The smallest of the children, a boy of maybe only eight years, stepped forward. Around his neck was a clear glass vial filled with an amaranth-colored liquid. Rosewater.
Once he had seen him, looked into those golden eyes so much like his own he could not look away. "What is your name?"
The boy stood a little taller, growing a few inches at even that small acknowledgment. "Sawli."
"Come forward, into the ring."
Edda came forward with him, guiding him with the same hand she had punched Zane with. She handed Shaida a sprig of pine needles. He thanked her with a smile and took both the needles and the boy's hand.
"In Orfia," Shaida began. "The first of every family is cherished, endowed with our god Sheade's beauty and wit, but the last is bemenos. Do you know bemenos, Sawli?"
It was important for not only the new initiates to acknowledge their background, but for the general and his lieutenant's—Edda and Shaida—to know them so they might be able to preserve some of their native culture. This boy was already very young, and Shaida did not know how long he had lived in Apati. If he even remembered any of the traditions of the motherland.
Sawli gave a sturdy nod and answered. "Bemenos is blessed. It is Diclo, the language we use for medicine and rituals."
Shaida assented his approval, clasping Sawli's shoulder. "Good. Then you also know of the power the name can carry, and what is granted to those who wield it."
"I am not bemenos," Sawli murmured, chin dropping.
"No," Shaida lifted the boy's face up to meet his. So very young. And his heart nearly split in two. "You are Sawli and that is good. May I see your rose water vial?"
With small yet steady hands, Sawli untwined the rope around his neck and dropped the rose water into Shaida's open palm.
Rose water was meant to clean wounds and prevent infection, but it also had spiritual properties. One vial could ward off evil spirits, or protect the wearer, even, from death. But it was only Orfian legend, and most families didn't have enough to spare to test the theory out.
The vial was small, barely bigger than the matas it probably would have cost at a market. But this one had been hand sealed, hand-laced and strung. A gift from someone who loved him.
In Shaida's other hand he clutched the pine needles, an anchor to the earth—where all things began and where they would end—and closed his fingers around the vial.
"Who do you miss?" He asked the boy.
Sawli's answer was quiet, barely more than a breathy noise. If the rest of the forest had not been tuned into the exchange between Shaida and the boy, he might not have heard him. "My mother."
Shaida closed his eyes, squeezed the vial and the needles, and gently laid his forehead against the boy's. Skin to skin, the only sure way a connection like the one he intended to make could be forged.
"Close your eyes, Sawli, and think of your mother. I can show her to you, give you the day she made you this. It will be like you're with her again."
It was a trick his sister, Nadia, had shown him. She had only learned of it from their mother who had been bemenos and had traded the secrets she learned from people's objects for food and essentials. Nadia, first-born of the two of them, had never been blessed with the gift, but she was observant enough to be able to teach Shaida what she had seen.
Shaida pushed all thoughts of his sister out of his mind, clearing his intentions to make room for Sawli's mother. When she came it was on the gust of a low, howling wind.
She was beautiful. Her sun-tanned skin was covered by a colorful shawl of alpaca wool and beads, wrapped loose around her shoulders. She was bent over a table, her dark hair braided down her back, and the rose water had not yet been poured into the vial. Someone was in the room with her, but Sawli had only asked for his mother, so that was all Shaida would glean from the vial.
Opening his eyes, he watched as the snow reworked itself. Rising, pulsing, molding itself into the shape of a woman. Shaida instructed Sawli to open his eyes and the boy nearly fell to his knees at the sight of the snowwoman—his mother.
"It's better for him in Apati. They do not have war. It is a country built on immigrants, surely they will embrace him."
Shaida felt Sawli's forehead furrow just as his own did. He tried to push through the memory attached to the vial, tried to find a more comforting image. But all he felt was worry. He dug deeper, his head aching from the effort.
"Shae," Edda's voice sounded far away. "Shae, I think someone's coming."
The vial felt slick in his hand, coated with the sweat from his palm. The needles were breaking as he squeezed them. Still, no matter how sick he made himself with searching the memory tied to the vial was not a good one.
"Shae." Edda shook Shaida's shoulder, snapping his connection with Sawli. When he looked at the boy, there were two twin streams of tears slipping down either cheek.
He hadn't been able to comfort him. He had failed him.
Shaida tied the rose water vial back onto the boy's neck and averted his gaze away from his eyes. "I'm so sorry."
Then he heard the sound of footsteps.