They left him for dead, despite the fact the only thing wrong with him was a bad ankle. With a bit of healing, and someone to help him along for a short time, he would have been fine.
But they’d chosen to abandon him instead.
His ankle throbbed. He shivered with the cold that came as the sun set. Propped against a tree, with nothing but the clothes on the back, miles from the Salhara border—his life was numbered in hours.
He curled his legs up, mindful of the damned ankle, shuddering as full dark fell. It was absolute and unbroken; the sky was so thick with clouds, he could not see so much as a single star.
Nameless, abandoned, it seemed a final cruel blow that not even the stars would be there to watch him die. When he’d had absolutely nothing else, it had still felt like at least the stars were there. Now, even they no longer wanted anything to do with him.
He’d never been much for tears, but it was hard not to cry alone in the dark, trying not to wonder what would kill him first—the elements, the animals, starvation, or Krian soldiers.
When the rain began to fall, he decided the elements would kill him long before soldiers or animals found him.
After he was dead, would anyone find his body? Would anyone say a prayer for him, if only out of pity? Would they throw him on a pyre and give that last small bit of release? Or would they curse him and bury his bones in the ground, never to reach the stars?
Burying his head in his folded arms, he tried to distract himself with happy thoughts. He could not think of any, not really. The cinnamon sugar smell of bread he’d loved to look at but never been able to afford. The beautiful, wealthy people he would never be. The camaraderie of his fellow soldiers, from which he’d always been excluded. He could think of plenty of happy moments, but none of them had been his moments.
Moments like those belonged to people who existed—people with names. If he’d ever had a name, it had been taken from him when he was too young to remember it. His father had abandoned him—he’d been old enough to remember that. He’d been alone ever since, and lived the life of a nameless.
Like so many other nameless, he’d thought that proving himself in the army would earn him a name.
Now here he was, somewhere in Kria, left to die alone and nameless.
He listened to the rain on the trees, flinching whenever it broke through the canopy and struck him, cold as ice. Curling into as small a target as he possibly could, he waited to die.
“Can you hear me?”
“—wha—” He lifted his head, though it was hard, and stared up into eyes that were the purest, clearest blue he’d ever seen in his life. The finest blue arcen did not have that purity, that clarity. He tried again to speak, but only started coughing.
The blue eyes vanished, and he could only just hear the rough cadence of someone speaking Krian. Was it the blue eyed man speaking? He didn’t know, but he could just follow that someone was giving orders to ‘get him back to the village, now’.
Then he passed out again.
When he woke, it was to the smell of food. Roasted meat, bread, ale.
He dragged his eyes open, and started to sit up, then thought better of it. Remaining still, he looked around his surroundings. A prison cell; so he’d been captured.
Vaguely, he recalled a voice, the rough rhythm of Krian—and those blue eyes, like the sky on a perfect summer day.
The cell was small; he lay on a cot barely wide enough to hold him. Next to it was a small table on which someone had set a tray of food. Lots of food, at least compared to what he usually got. Soldiers did not eat well at the best of times, and limited rations were not to be wasted on a nameless.
Gritting his teeth, he braced himself and struggled to sit up. It took far more effort than he liked to admit—but he did manage it.
It was only then that he realized his ankle did not hurt the way it had the last time he could remember feeling anything. Glancing down, he saw that someone had treated and bandaged it.
So he was a prisoner, but they had healed him and left him food?
Krians really were the strangest lot.
He jerked, barely avoided crying out, and then winced as the sudden movement set the world to spinning.
“Sorry,” a man’s voice said hastily, and then someone sat down on the cot.
Everything in him seized up, looking at the man. Like any Krian, he was broad, well-muscled, all hard angles and rough edge, that indefinable, untamed quality.
But for all of that, he was shockingly beautiful.
Even more than the sky blue eyes, it was the hair that startled, and the words tumbled out in slow, awkward Krian before he could remember to keep his mouth shut. “You have red hair.”
The Krian laughed, and scrubbed a hand over his short, dark red-brown hair. “Blessed by the Autumn Prince, me, even if I’m in the Verdant Army.”
He’d never seen red hair. His fingers twitched with curiosity, but he held them in his lap. Try as he might, though, he could stop staring.
“So you speak Krian, then?”
“Yes,” he replied. “But only slowly? If it is said with too much quickness, I miss it? And your words, you say them strangely.”
The man laughed again. “That is because we are near the sea, here. We have a different accent; you’re probably more used to the more proper Krian they speak in the Winter Palace.”
“Yes, this is likely true,” he replied, then frowned. “I am a prisoner?”
“Yes,” the man replied. “Though, from what I could tell, you were abandoned? I guess you could not travel on that ankle.”
In reply, he said nothing. What was there to say? The others had abandoned him.
“You probably do not know, then, that all your comrades are dead,” the man said slowly, even gently, which was confusing. Why would someone show him any sort of gentleness? “That was a little over two weeks ago.”
He stared, waiting to hear the rest, even though he already knew.
“That pattern on your sleeves—those men were all killed, and five more were killed near the border, or so I was told. I am sorry.”
“We knew the main force was dead, that is why we ran,” he said flatly. “There were six of us. We ran. I twisted my ankle. They kept running.”
The Krian nodded. “I am sorry. What is your name?”
To that, there was no reply, only a familiar twisting ache in his chest.
“Salharans and their names,” the Krian said with a sigh.
Scowling, he demanded in challenge, “So what’s your name, Krian?”
The Krian’s mouth curved in a smirk that said he would meet the challenge. It made something hot and sharp race up his spine, made his breath catch in his throat. Stars, what was wrong with him?
“I will tell you my name when you tell me yours,” the Krian replied.
He flushed and turned away, ashamed and humiliated. Kria was not so different, then. The nameless were kept apart, mocked.
Silence fell, until the Krian said hesitantly, “I—I think I should say I am sorry.”
He whipped back around, frowning, confused—and wholly taken aback by the kindness in the sky blue eyes.
“You don’t have a name, do you?”
Flinching, he turned away again.
“Now much makes sense. Well, more on that another time. Eat, rest.”
“Why?” he asked. “I am Salharan. Of no use to you. A prisoner is for—” He paused, unable to think of the word for ‘torturing,’ and finally opted for, “beatings and killing. Why trouble to save?” It was not the nature of Krians to save and help prisoners, especially Salharan prisoners.
“You’ve given me no reason to kill you,” the Krian replied. “Anyway, red hair is not native to Kria, you know. My grandmother had red hair—she was a pirate.” The Krian winked, then rose and moved to the cell door. “She washed up on shore one day, they took her prisoner. She fell in love with my grandfather.”
What was the point of such a stupid story? Why would he share such details of his family’s history with a prisoner? “You speak strange things, Krian.”
In reply, the Krian only smiled and winked again. Then he was gone.
Left alone, he picked at the food, and slowly ate it. How long had he been in the woods? The Krian had said the others died two weeks ago. They’d been travelling three days when he’d been left for dead.
No wonder he was not suffering the side effects of arcen withdrawal. He’d already started to suffer then while they were traveling, the others not willing to spare what was left of their own supplies to help a nameless. But then he must have fallen ill in the forest, right as the arcen withdrawal reached its worst points.
So now, the better part of two weeks later, his body was clean of arcen. He was surprised to realize he did not miss it. But, arcen was something else nameless did not often get. In the army, they’d given him just enough to be useful. He’d always wanted more, higher colors, had always hoped that if he could reach yellow that finally he could do something to earn a name—
To have the burden of that gone was oddly freeing.
Sighing, he finished the ale and last bits of bread, then sat back against the wall. What was to be his fate? They could not simply keep him here indefinitely—feeding a man who did not earn his keep was expensive, especially in a small village, which to judge by his cell was his location.
And who, what, precisely was the strange, red-haired Krian? He had never encountered a Krian like that one. Krians by nature were not nice or gentle, or giving to laughing and winking. The Krians who had unwittingly taught him their language had certainly been none of those things, though they hadn’t been cruel either. They’d growled in their rough speech, their rough hands upon him—
But at least the Krians had always left him coin. They hadn’t understood enough about Salharan custom to know they didn’t have to pay a nameless.
Turning away from those memories, he tried to focus on something else.
But on what should he think?
There was no point in that. He had nowhere to go. Back home? What was home, really? Another town where no one would acknowledge him, speak to him, where they would only use and discard him? At least here, he was getting fed for the time being.
He had thought joining the army would bring him so much! But he and the other nameless had all learned the same, painful lesson—nameless was nameless, no matter where you were or what you did.
Not having anything else to do, he lay down on the wobbly cot and went to sleep.
“So if you do not have a name, why not make one up?”
He looked at the Krian, baffled and annoyed. In the week that they had been talking, that was by far the most ignorant thing the Krian had so far said. “Make one up?”
“Yes,” the Krian said. “Give yourself a name.”
He gave the Krian a scathing look. “Name myself? That is—ignorance. Madness! A wrongness—how do you say—” Frustrated, he flipped back to Salharan. “A name is something given to you by another. To name oneself—that goes against everything. No man can see himself clearly enough to name himself. It is for others to see him, and name him.”
“Sacrilege,” the Krian said. “That’s the word you want. And I don’t follow—a man controls his own fate, and his own name.”
He sneered. “So when you were a babe newly born, you picked out your own name?”
The Krian laughed. “No, you have a point. But it is still my name, and if I had not liked it, I would have changed it.”
His lips curled. “A Krian could not understand the importance of names. You toss names around so much, with no care. You even give them to your swords. You give no respect to names.”
“That isn’t true,” the Krian said quietly. “Swords are named for the ones we love, so they are with us always.”
Shrugging, he only replied, “Is that why you keep me living? To understand our naming—what is the word? Traditions? You want to know our naming traditions?”
“That’s the word,” the Krian replied. “But I told you—you’ve given me no reason to kill you.”
“But you are Krian. I am Salharan. Reason enough, yes? No reason to kill, but no reason to let live.”
The Krian moved closer to the bars of the cell, curling his hands around them. “Your eyes aren’t like the Salharan eyes I normally see. Killing you seems wrong.”
He flushed, hating how unsettled this strange Krian made him feel. Was he being mocked? Insulted? Stars refuse the bastard, he just did not know! “My eyes, they do not glow,” he finally said. “That is the only strangeness they have.”
The Krian snorted. “Hardly. I have seen Salharan eyes free of arcen glow. You have sad eyes, that’s what I meant. They’re also a very pretty gray.”
“Captain!” A small boy burst into the cell, and ran to the Krian, who immediately scooped him with a stern admonition that he should not come into such a place without permission.
He looked exactly like the Krian—the Captain, he supposed. The Captain had a son? Something about that stirred the familiar twisting ache in his chest, but damned if he knew why. Stars above, why had they not simply killed him or left him to die?
The Captain and the boy slid into Krian too rapid for him to follow, until eventually the Captain turned back to him and said more slowly, “I am afraid there is a problem I must deal with. I will return later.”
But the Captain did not return. Perhaps the problem was greater than anticipated. He tried to stifle his disappointment, but it was hard. In the week that he’d been imprisoned here, the Captain’s visits were all that broke up the tedium of the day.
Here and there, young girls and boys would sneak inside to gawk at him for a minute. Obviously youths daring one another to look at the Salharan captive. But they were nearly always caught, and sent off with a cuff to the head, and then it was just the Captain again.
With those blue eyes, that red hair, both all the more stunning against the rich, vibrant green of his Verdant Army tunic. But the gentleness, the genuine curiosity in his voice, drew him just as much as the Captain’s beauty. His Krian might be unpolished and far from fluent, but he knew honesty when he heard it.
He just wished he knew why the Captain behaved so strangely.
Dark fell with no further visits, and he resigned himself to yet another long, lonely night. Had he ever known another kind?
Standing, he moved to the one little window in his cell. It was not much, his cell; he suspected that at one point not very long ago, it had simply been a storage shed. Resting his fingers on the ledge, he craned his neck to watch the stars as they came out.
“Stars watch me, stars guide me, stars grant me light,” he recited softly. “See my hopes, see my fears, see my joy, see my pain. See my greatest wish, oh stars, and see it come to pass if that be your desire. Amen.”
A name, he wished silently, as he had so many nights before. He wanted a name, and all that possessing a name could bring.
Eventually, he turned away from the window and returned to his bed.
“Would you like a bath?” the Captain asked, by way of greeting.
“Yes,” he said immediately, not caring how much fervor slipped into his voice. He could not stand the smell of himself, though he’d always tried to keep clean with the buckets of water they occasionally brought him. After two miserable weeks of that, a bath sounded like a star-granted wish.
The Captain smiled. “You’ve been so well-behaved, getting permission was easy.”
Unable to think of a reply to that, he chose to say nothing, simply stood silent and still as the door was unlocked.
The Captain beckoned him out, and he moved forward, not protesting when the Captain took firm hold of his arm and half led, half dragged him from the prison cell.
Direct sunlight stung his eyes, but when they had adjusted, he almost wished they hadn’t. He was in a small village, just as he had thought. It reminded him of where he’d grown up, in some ways. But the Krians did many things differently, and so the impression faded—but not the staring. He could feel the eyes of the Krian acutely. After a life of no one acknowledging him, it was disconcerting to be stared at so hard, by so many.
He strove to ignore it as he was led along to one of the greatest differences of Krian culture—the bathhouses. Bathing was a private affair in Salhara; leave it to the Krians to make a public production of it.
“The bathhouse is empty,” the Captain said. “I figured you would prefer that, at first.”
At first? He frowned at that, not certain how to take the odd words.
But in the end, he shrugged them aside, and followed the Captain into the bathhouse.
He’d lived in a border village for a few years; that was where he’d picked up Krian, from some of his regular ‘customers’. The village, even the Salharan side, had taken up the bathhouse custom. He was, therefore, familiar with the custom—but it was still strange.
Especially when he realized that the Captain was not leaving; that it was just the two of them there. That should be no different than the prison cell, but he tensed reflexively anyway.
But, it was not like he had not been in these situations before. Resigned, he stripped off his foul clothes and cast them aside. He loathed that he would have to put them on again after getting clean, but there was no help for it.
Moving to the washing area, he began to scrub himself with a vengeance.
When he found shaving tools, he was thrilled beyond belief. He loathed a rough face; respectable men were clean-shaven, and a smooth face was the closest he would ever come to respectability.
Thoroughly soaped and scrubbed, he slowly, reluctantly rinsed it all away. He did not want to get back into his dirty clothes, but he wasn’t sure what else to do.
“Aren’t you going to soak?” the Captain asked, nodding to the bathing pool in the middle of the room. At some point, the Captain had sat down on a stool by the entryway. Standing guard. He did not look as though he had any intention of moving.
Despite himself, he relaxed a bit. Shaking his head, he said, “I see no reason.”
“There’s no point in bathing if you’re not going to soak,” the Captain said, winking. “Sit, relax, we can discuss names again. I still think you could give yourself one, sacrilege or not.”
Realizing they would be going nowhere anytime soon, he conceded defeat and slid into the hot water of the bathing pool. It felt wonderful, and he let his eyes slide shut even though he knew better. “One does not name himself, Krian,” he said, and wondered why he could get annoyed like usual. The water was simply too nice to ruin with anger, he decided, and continued to bicker with the Captain.
“Would you like to go for a walk?” The Captain asked.
He looked up from the book he was reading. A week ago, the Captain had given him a stack of them. They were, he suspected, meant for younger people, but anything more difficult and he would probably struggle more than it was worth to read them. As it was, he was mostly doing fine—and when he struggled, asking the Captain what this word or that sentence meant was an excellent way to prolong conversation.
And his Krian was improving rapidly; he could not remember the last time he’d bothered to speak Salharan, even just to himself. “A walk?” he repeated.
The Captain held up a pair of boots.
His boots had not survived; already in poor shape when he’d gotten them, his time in the forest followed by days in captivity with no way of proper cleaning and repairing them, had left him without shoes since his first bath. When the people here had given him clothes, they’d not included shoes in the pile of pants and shirts and tunics.
Unlocking the cell, the Captain stepped inside and presented the boots. “The weather is so nice now; the Spring Lord has gifted us with a fine turning of the seasons. I thought you might like to enjoy it.”
“I would,” he replied quietly, and set his book carefully aside on the little table with the others. Reaching for the boots, he pulled them on, surprised at how well they fit. “Do these belong to another?” he asked, mildly curious.
“No, I had them made.”
He frowned at that. “It is costly to keep a prisoner, never mind give him things like boots and clothes and books. It does not make sense that you do these things.”
The Captain shrugged, and winked. “I like doing them. Come on, then. It’s a perfect day for a walk on the beach.”
Nodding, he stamped the boots to settle them, then stood up and followed the Captain from the cell. Outside, people paused to watch them, the children openly, the adults with at least a token effort of subtlety. A couple of women smiled hesitantly in greeting and, startled by the open acknowledgment, he hesitantly returned them with a nod.
Then they were past the main part of the village, walking along a sandy footpath, brushing by thin scrub and a few thin trees. Movement caught his eye, and he saw a lizard of some sort scurry out of sight beneath the scrub.
A moment later, he saw a colorful bird, then another. Then they were over the hill, and he saw the sea for the first time.
It was not until the Captain spoke, asking if he was all right, that he realized he’d stopped moving. “I-I’ve never seen the ocean. Even—even during the war, we never got this close. We kept to the woods.”
“Ah,” the Captain replied, and smiled. “I should have realized that; most of Salhara is land-locked, or may as well be.”
A hand curled lightly around his wrist, and he was dragged along.
“I played here nearly every day as a boy,” the Captain said. “Now, I must come every day to fetch my nephew home for supper.”
“Mm—the little boy, you saw him once.”
“Oh,” he replied, and hoped his strange relief did not show. “He looks so much like you, I thought he was your son.”
The Captain threw his head back and laughed. “Autumn Prince, no!” He motioned with one arm, seeming to encompass the whole of their surroundings. “I’m far too busy for a wife, even if there was a woman foolish enough to have me. This side of the mountains does not see much in the way of company. The nearest army is Cobalt, high up in the snowy peaks. Most of this land falls under the rule of Governor Alban. He’s an old man too weak for the post, but too old to leave him with nothing. So I do most of the running around, when it is needed. I will have to start again soon. Things will not quiet again until the cold comes.”
So he was leaving, that’s what the Captain was telling him—and he would not be returning any time soon.
He nodded, then voiced the only question he could ask without giving away things he did not completely understand. “If Cobalt is the nearest army, why are you part of Verdant?”
The Captain smiled. “Because I know the sea, and that’s where I was needed. I started in Cobalt, but transferred with the Lord General’s blessing. Now the fighting is over, I was permitted to return to my village, where I am most needed.”
He could not help but wonder what the Captain would have looked like in the rich blue uniform of the Cobalt Army, when he already looked so fine in Verdant.
Silence fell, but he didn’t find it awkward. The silences they shared seemed as comfortable to him as their conversations. He did not know what he would do, when the Captain was called away by duty and he had nothing but his books to occupy his days.
He turned his attention back to the ocean. It was beautiful; nearly the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. It seemed to stretch on forever, sun glinting off it, smelling of salt and spring, the water cold where it splashed against his pants. The wind was rough, but refreshing. Birds called high above their heads, and he could see fishing boats off in the distance, children playing further down the beach.
He opened his mouth to speak, but did not know what to say.
More than anything, he wanted to say the Captain’s name, to have that right. To catch his attention and—
And he dare not think about what else, because some things simply were not meant to be.
No matter how deeply you wished for them.
“So I bet you don’t know how to swim,” the Captain said suddenly.
“Swim?” he repeated, and then the word came to him. “No, I can swim. Rivers, lakes.”
The Captain grinned. “So you will be fine if I do this—”
And suddenly he found himself seized, tossed, and then he was sputtering, flailing, cold and wet, hair and clothes plastered to his skin, feet struggling for purchase—
The Captain was laughing, grinning, and faced with such—such nonsense, he could really only retaliate in kind.
So he did, lunging and shoving the Captain beneath the water, yelping when he was dragged under again himself, and from there the afternoon devolved into attempts to drown one another. Then suddenly they were besieged by children, until they were all so tired that slogging back home was almost too difficult.
Someone gave him food, and he took it with him to his cell, too happy and tired to even be too disappointed when the Captain was dragged away to attend some matter. Finishing his food, he left the dish outside the cell, then stripped off his sodden clothes and pulled on dry ones. He tied up his sodden hair with a bit of leather, then fell onto his cot and almost immediately fell asleep, a faint smile still on his face.
Three days later, the Captain woke him in the early hours of the morning, when even the Mother Star herself could not yet be bothered to rise.
He grunted and fumbled to sit up, raking his hair from his face and rubbing at his eyes. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” the Captain said, moving into the cell he never bothered to lock anymore. “I only came to say goodbye. I must go to collect taxes from the province. I will be gone at least a month, probably closer to two. If you need anything, my sister and her husband said they would help you.”
“Thank you,” he replied. “I—I hope that all goes well for you, on your journey.”
The Captain smiled. “Thank you. I have a gift for you.”
He stared, bemused. “A gift? But—why? You give me food, clothes, books, and allow me to walk around the village with you. I merit no gifts.”
Smile widening, the Captain replied, “Gifts are only about giving; they require no reason.” Reaching into his tunic, he pulled out a small pouch and tossed it.
Catching it easily, he pulled open the drawstrings and pulled the contents out, his fingers meeting cool metal.
He stared in quiet astonishment at the simple, silver star on a silver chain. Real silver. He’d never owned anything so valuable in his life. More shocking still, set in the middle of it was a small green jewel—an emerald.
The Captain had told him before that such things occasionally washed up on the shore, from long lost treasures on sunken ships somewhere out at sea.
He definitely had never owned an emerald before; he’d only ever even seen them a couple of times. “You should not give me something so valuable.”
The Captain smiled in a way that caused a thousand longing, wistful aches. “You could tell me your name,” he said quietly.
Everything in him seized up, heart beating hard in his chest. He could not take the intensity of those eyes—but he could not look away. He wished he had a name to give.
Then the Captain laughed gently, and shook his head. His mouth quirked. “Maybe when I return? Take care. I’ll see you in a couple of months.” Turning, the Captain left.
Leaving the door wide open, leaving a great deal of longing and confusion in his wake.
Heart pounding, he stood up, strode to the open cell door, hesitated—then forced himself to take another step, then another, and then he was standing in the shed doorway, staring out, the cool morning air making him shiver.
Several paces away, the Captain spoke to a small cluster of people. The he mounted his horse, and started to ride off, when a woman motioned, resting her hand on his thigh and pointing toward the shed.
The Captain half-turned on his horse, and smiled in pleased surprise when their eyes met. He lifted a hand in farewell, then turned and rode off.
He stood anxiously as the woman approached, realizing this must be the Captain’s sister, given how much alike they looked. “Good morning,” he said as she reached him, hoping his Krian was sufficient; he never really spoke to anyone but the Captain. “I am sorry, should I go back inside? I do not want to cause trouble.”
“I was actually wondering—would you like to help us? We have a lot of work to do today, and my brother won’t be around to help.”
He brightened at the offer of work, and nodded eagerly. “Please, I would like to help.”
The woman smiled bright. “My name is Greta. I’m the Captain’s sister, but I guess I sort of said that already. Come along, then, if you like. Get dressed, then you can find me in the main square.” She pointed over her shoulder. “We’ll put you to work, never fear.”
He smiled hesitantly. “Work would be nice. I will be quick.”
Putting deed to word, he vanished back into his cell, eager to have something to do beyond read and walk—and more than a little anxious to please these people who had shown him more kindness in two months than his entire country had shown him in twenty-three years.
“Salharan! Stop distracting the womenfolk!”
He looked up from chopping wood, startled, and stared blankly at Greta. “Pardon? I have not spoken to any of the women today. I have been here all morning, chopping wood.”
Greta giggled. “You don’t need to talk, Salharan. You’re stripped to the waist, soaking up sunshine and dripping sweat. Every woman in this village keeps finding excuses to walk past you. Eyes are all anyone needs to be distracted by you.”
He flushed. “I—”
Bursting into another flurry of giggles, Greta said, “Come along with me, pretty boy. We’ll leave the wood chopping to Jorg, so he can build up some fine muscles like yours. I’ve got some things that need moving.”
“Uh—yes, ma’am,” he replied, and left the ax for Jorg, one of the village’s young men. He followed Greta, snatching up his shirt and pulling it back on. Greta led him into what he knew was the Captain’s house.
It made him feel vaguely guilty, being in the Captain’s house without permission, but he was unable to resist looking surreptitiously around. The house was tidy, organized, but everywhere were splashes of color that spoke of the bright, colorful Captain. Sketches in wooden frames, figures carved from wood, odd trinkets and wall decorations that he suspected were still more treasures washed up on the beach.
Greta led him into one of three backrooms; it proved to be the exception to the otherwise neat house—it was filled with boxes, old broken furniture, and other discarded things. “All right,” Greta said briskly. “All of this needs to come out. Take it to the main square; my husband and the girls will take care of it. Then you and I are going to clean this room top to bottom. Let’s get to it.”
Nodding, he immediately set to work hauling everything out, carrying it to the square where he was further teased for his shirtless display. Scurrying back to the house, he and Greta started cleaning—sweeping, dusting, washing, and scrubbing, until the sorely neglected room was as good as new.
Then Greta sent him back to the square, where her husband had repaired some of the furniture, and the girls had fixed up curtains and a throw rug. Hauling it all back to the house, he helped Greta arranged everything, then stopped back to admire the way they’d turned a mess into a fine little bedroom.
Even if he really did not want to know who knew the Captain so well he was moving into the Captain’s home. He started to ask anyway, then realized it was none of his business.
Greta looked at him, and chuckled. “Nico should—ah, and here you are,” she said, beaming at her husband.
Taking a box Nico held, she thrust it at him and said, “Settle these things, Salharan, then come join us for dinner.” She left, dragging Nico with her, leaving him alone.
He could only stare after her, then at the box in his arms, his belongings inside it. “But—”
But nothing, as he recalled he was alone.
So…he was to stay here? Did they need the shed for something else? Would the Captain mind? What if he came back and ordered him put back in his cell?
Not certain what else to do, he settled for following orders and slowly began to put his things away around the room. His clothes in the bureau, his spare set of shoes beneath the bed. He was just arranging his books on the little table he heard the screams.
Dropping the book, he raced through the house—but stopped short when he could see what was happening through the window. Salharans. Bandits, by the look of them; they went about wherever they could, raiding for supplies and whatever else they could carry.
They were terrifying the villagers, and even from a distance he could see the blue and green shine of their eyes. The few soldiers here, even if they were Krian, were no match for green eyed bandits. He crept closer to the window, straining to see and hear without being spotted. The bandits spoke a mix of coarse peasant Salharan and poor Krian.
He could make out they were talking about treasure and pirates. So they believed the villagers were stashing pirate contraband. The Captain had told him before that plenty of people believed such tales about the village, that many liked to call it the Pirates’ Cove, even though the reality was merely that things washed up on the beach from time to time.
As they punched Greta and stole her son, Hanz, he decided that enough was enough—he had to do something, and he knew exactly what.
Stripping down to just his breeches, discarding even his boots, he kissed his precious star necklace and dropped it on the pile of clothes. Then he turned and ran to the back of the house, out the back door, grabbing up handfuls of dirt and sand, smearing it over himself, mussing his hair. Circling around to the front of the house, he prayed silently to the stars for this to work.
He also prayed that he would be able to return here.
For a moment, he actually struggled to flip back to Salharan, but then it all came flooding back. “Brothers! Brothers! Honored brothers!”
As one, the five Salharan bandits whipped around. The one who seemed to be in charge, his blue eyes glowing with arcen, demanded, “What are you doing here, little brother?”
He dropped to his knees, not meeting their eyes; remembering what it had been like to be nothing was terrifyingly easy. “Brother, I was taken prisoner months ago. Take me home with you, I beg you!”
“What is your name, little brother?”
He hung his head lower, cowering. “I have no name, brother.”
“Che,” the ringleader said. “Then of what use to me are you, nameless dog?”
“I—the village chief took claim of me. I serve his every whim—”
The Salharans sneered and chuckled, sharing knowing looks and crude gestures. If this worked, he had no doubt he’d be serving their every whim. But it would be worth it, to get them out of the village, and to later have the chance to kill them. Krians might be fierce warriors, but this sleepy little village had only older men, retired soldiers—and the Captain.
Without the Captain, he could only improvise and do his best. Hopefully his efforts would suffice.
“But I also know where to find the treasure you seek,” he went on. “The Chief, he likes to talk, when he is done with me.”
The Salharans all laughed again, and shared more smirks. Then the ringleaders motioned and said, “Take the nameless, then. He can take us to the treasure. Keep the child for insurance.”
He grunted as one of the Salharans grabbed him up roughly and threw him over the saddle—and got entirely too personal with his hands. “If you do not show us the treasure, nameless dog, I am certain we can find other uses for you.”
“Later,” the ringleader said sharply. He motioned to the other men. “Set something on fire, keep them from following us.”
He held on for dear life as they rode out of the village, and hoped he was able to kill them before they realized he was a liar. He looked at Hanz, scared and crying nearby, and winked at him in reassurance. If nothing else, he would get Hanz free.
But he could not help thinking longingly of the Captain as they vanished into the forest.
“You’re rather pretty for a nameless.”
He said nothing, only kept his head down to maintain his air of cowering fear. The last thing he needed was for these bastards to know he was no longer in need of their good opinion.
The Salharan cuffed him and asked, “How did you come to be living here amongst these filthy sword-fuckers?”
“I was injured, my brothers left me behind so that they could make it home safely,” he replied, making certain his tone conveyed that he believed they had done the right thing.
The Salharans all laughed, and the one giving him a look he knew all too well kicked him toward the fire. “Finish fixing the food, then we’ll see what else you’re good at.”
“Stop thinking with your dick,” the ringleader snapped. “I’m more interested in the treasure. You can play with the nameless after we have it and are back across the border. We’re low on arcen; I don’t want to run into any sword-happy bastard that we can’t handle.”
Another Salharan laughed. “We can handle any doddering old Krians around these parts. You saw that village, and the one we hit a few days ago. There’s no one around here that’s a threat to us.”
“Don’t get cocky,” the ringleader snapped. “That damned ice block fortress is only a few days away. One villager makes the trek and whines to them, and we’ll be up to our assholes in snowflake goons.”
Reluctantly the other four men nodded and subsided, settling for kicking or cuffing their new nameless minion as he served the travel soup he’d just finished making. One of them shook Hanz and cuffed him. Hanz, having left off crying a little while ago, had shifted to glaring mutinously and hurtling threats and insults at them in Krian, only the slightest wobble in his voice.
He started up again as he was cuffed. “Stupid, polluted, poison-drinking bitches! The Captain will get you!”
The ringleader laughed and cuffed him again, then threw him across the camp. “Tend to him, nameless. If he gets away, you will suffer for it.”
Nodding, he held Hanz tightly in his arms, settling Hanz in his lap so that he faced the camp, Hanz’s back to his chest. When the men were distracted eating and bickering, he bent slightly and murmured carefully in Hanz’s ear. “Wait until they go to sleep. I’ll take care of them. Do you know your way home from here? Squeeze my hand twice if yes, once if no.”
Hanz did nothing at first, then gave his hand two light squeezes.
Smiling, he said, “Good. The Captain would be proud. Now, if I tell you to run, do it immediately, like a good soldier. Understand?”
Two more light squeezes.
“Good,” he said. “Now, stop cursing them, or they’ll tie you up. Watch them for a bit, then pretend to fall asleep. But whatever you do, do not really fall asleep, all right? It’s very important you be ready to run when I tell you.”
Two more squeezes, these firmer than the others. Then they both lapsed into silence, watching as the men ate and argued.
And all of them snuck looks his way, when they thought the others weren’t looking. The lot of a nameless never changed, especially in situations like this, where the bandits could not risk staying in towns or villages longer than it took to raid them. Sometimes they stole women, occasionally a man, to have a ‘good time’ with—but now they had a nameless, well, that made a lot of things easier.
Despite the ringleader’s orders, he knew they would each be sneaking around after they’d bedded down to use him. It would make killing them easier—it would not be the first time he had used such methods to kill.
The only truly hard part would be getting a weapon. The Salharans would only be carrying arcen, and if he could kill the first one by some other means, stealing that one’s arcen to kill the others would make the job very easy.
But he did not want to take arcen. It reeked of being Salharan, and he did not want to go back to being Salharan…
Except, he realized abruptly, he was still nameless, because he kept waiting for someone else to give him a name. Like a Salharan. He was no babe, to be named by his mother and father. He was an adult and if he was truly to leave Salhara behind, that meant he was free to name himself.
The realization left him quietly reeling.
It was a terrifying idea, picking his own name. All his conversations with the Captain, and it had never really sunk in. Not until now. But what name?
He forced the matter aside for the moment; he had bigger problems to deal with. After the Salharans were dead, and Hanz was safe, then he would deal with a name.
In his arms, Hanz had slumped over slightly, pretending to sleep. Shifting, making a production of it, he laid Hanz out on the ground and made certain the boy’s light jacket covered him as best it could. Then he looked to the ringleader, head low, manner submissive. “Brother, the boy is asleep. Is there anything further you desire, or shall I go ahead and sleep myself, so that I am fully rested to lead the way to the treasure in the morning?”
“How far off is it?”
“The network of caves where it’s hidden is about a half day’s ride from here? They do not like to keep it close to the village, in the hopes that will keep bandits and other such at bay.”
The Salharans all laughed at that. Then the ringleader motioned. “Sleep, and make certain you have our breakfast ready in the morning.”
“Yes, brother,” he replied, and laid down next to Hanz—and barely avoided starting in surprise when the boy turned over as though restless in sleep, and pressed a small knife into his hand. Of course; Hanz was old enough to carry one to help with basic chores around the village. The Salharans would not have known to check a mere boy for a knife. “Thank you, Hanz,” he murmured soundlessly in Hanz’s ear.
Then he pretended to settle down and sleep, even though it was far too cold for him to get comfortable enough to sleep even if he’d wanted to.
But, an hour so later, the rest of them bedded down. Perhaps a quarter of an hour after that, a rough hand covered his mouth and a Salharan hissed in his ear, “Come with me, nameless.” He nodded, and the Salharan hauled him roughly to his feet, then dragged him away into the woods where they would not be caught.
The Salharan made his fatal mistake when he turned to make certain no one else had woken and noticed them.
All it took to kill a man was single moment of carelessness.
And he’d been very good at killing.
In that single moment of vulnerability he’d been waiting for, he moved forward, covered the Salharan’s mouth and nose with one hand, and with the other slit his throat. Quick, soundless, and then he slowly lowered the Salharan’s body to the ground.
When the worst of the blood had drained away, he wrapped the man tightly in his cloak, heaved the body up, and slowly dragged the man back to his bedroll.
Sliding the knife into the back of his pants, he lay back down next to Hanz and waited for the next one.
It all went wrong as he was depositing the fourth body in its bedroll.
He was grabbed from behind, thrown into a tree, and looked up in the hazy gray light of morning into the green-glowing eyes of the ringleader. “So the nameless is not helpless, or a prisoner, I would wager.”
In reply, he only said, “Hanz! Run!”
Hanz immediately sprang up and ran off into the forest.
He smiled faintly. One day, Hanz would make an excellent soldier in one of the Sacred Armies.
The ringleader stared furiously after the vanished Hanz, then turned back, green eyes flaring. “You were a shadow killer in the army, once, weren’t you?”
“Yes,” he replied.
“You were never a prisoner of those Krians. You’re a filthy traitor.”
He laughed. “I started out a prisoner, that part was true enough, but no, I’m not any longer.”
The green eyes flared again, as the ringleader called up his magic—then he struck.
He screamed as pain racked his body, and realized that his death was going to be very slow, and excruciatingly painful.
“You killed all my men,” the ringleader said. “A pity you’re a nameless traitor; you’re an excellent shadow killer.”
“I know,” he replied, and then went back to screaming. He struggled for purchase, certain that if he could just get to his feet, he would get a chance to kill the bastard—but even if he failed, and died here, at least Hanz had gotten away.
And maybe, just maybe, the Captain would find his body and burn it.
Somehow, the thought was comforting. He’d never before known the certainty that someone cared enough they would take care of his body.
He screamed again as the pain turned up a notch, this time including the deadly slicing spell that literally shredded apart a man’s body—but only slightly right now, because he was all too correct in thinking that the Salharan wanted to take a very long time in killing.
The ringleader whipped around, and they both stared in shock to see the Captain come racing at them, his sword out—and as suddenly as that, the blade was gutting the ringleader, and then he was dead.
He stared up at the Captain, not quite certain he could trust what he was seeing. “What—what are you doing here?”
The Captain grimaced, and knelt down beside him. “We were working in a village about four days from here, when we received word a nearby village had been raided by bandits. We got there too late to catch the bandits, but the next day heard of an attack the next village over. We realized they would be headed here next, but arrived a couple of hours too late.”
Smiling then, the Captain continued, “They told me you said something that got the men to leave. Greta was half-hysterical that they’d taken Hanz, but she said you’d protect him. Sure enough, what do I encounter while tracking the bandits through this infernal forest, but Hanz, who orders me to save you.”
He laughed. “I’m glad Hanz is all right.”
“Whatever did you tell them, to make them go?” The Captain asked, even as he began to check for wounds.
“That I knew where you kept the pirate treasure,” he replied with a snort. “They never doubt the word of a desperate, pathetic nameless.”
The Captain shook his head, and looked over his shoulder at the bodies. “You killed them all? How?”
“One by one,” he replied grimly, “when each dragged me into the forest.” He did not bother to explain why.
Face clouding, the Captain demanded, “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” he replied. “But I’m glad it’s over.”
They looked at each other, as the light slowly increased with the steady rising of the sun. It would still be some time before full light, but the night was definitely fading. The Captain smiled softly, and reached into his tunic, then held out the star necklace.
He stared at, then reached to take, but flinched when that proved too painful. “I’ll be fine,” he said, when the Captain frowned. “Just give me a few more minutes.”
The Captain shook his head, and chuckled lightly. “What is it with you and lying around injured in forests?”
“Maybe it’s a hint,” he said, trying to smile back, but suddenly too anxious to manage it.
Frowning in confusion, the Captain asked, “What do you mean?”
“Doesn’t—doesn’t the name Sylvester mean ‘of the forest’?” he asked, then dropped his head, too terrified to keep looking into the blue eyes he had desperately missed the past couple of months.
But then a hand cupped his chin, and forced his head up, and the Captain asked, “Yes, it does. Is that—is that your name?”
“I—y-yes,” he said, the nodded awkwardly and said more determinedly, “I like the sound of it—Sylvester. Is that a good name?”
“Yes, it is,” the Captain replied with a smile, then said softly, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sylvester. My name is Leberecht.”
“Leberecht,” Sylvester repeated, and smiled back.
Reaching out, Leberecht refastened the star necklace around Sylvester’s neck. Their eyes met, and Sylvester’s heart was pounding so hard in his chest he thought it might burst. He opened his mouth to say something, though he had no idea what—
The words never formed, though, overtaken by Leberecht’s kiss, and Sylvester realized it was exactly what they’d both been trying to say all along.