Chapter 67. Private Conversations
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Meila

 

A faint rustle of scales broke through the pitter-patter of raindrops and Meila quickened her steps. This estate was a deathtrap. Yes, life in Chimgen Manor had been harsh — food and rest were scarce while hard work was plentiful, but back there she was one of many farm slaves. The farm heads were cruel but they were forbidden from crippling or killing anyone unless Domina said so.

Chimgen Domina had never been around for that.

This place had more wermajes than her old Manor had cattle! Worst of all, rather than spending time in their extravagant quarters and doing whatever wermajes tended to do all day, they kept wandering into the servant areas.

Meila didn’t worry about the smith wermaje — it was rare to cross paths with her as long as she avoided entering the smithy. The Domina surprised her — a few days after their arrival, she personally welcomed her and her brother into her Manor. Meila didn’t know how to answer the questions that Domina asked of them but she bowed deeply and praised her name loudly enough for the wermaje to nod in approval and send them away. She hadn’t asked for them since.

Unfortunately for Meila, there were more wermajes in the estate than just Domina’s family and her relatives from another Manor. Once he was gone, the lamuras brought in a horde of slaves and visited the estate almost daily. Every single one of them.

Like other slaves, she tried to avoid the areas where lamuras were often spotted. Apart from their magick that could tear her apart with the snap of their fingers, each had a tail that could crush a rampaging bull. While Yeva said that they weren’t going to touch her, Meila knew that all it took was just one of them having a foul heart when she was around.

Meila bit her lip when she heard the dreadful rustle of scales getting closer. Those lamuras weren’t content to leave her be. Whenever her tasks brought her too close, their eyes pierced her soul and made her stomach churn in fear. Whenever Yeva was busy and there were too few servants around, at least one of them would try to ambush her somewhere. Perhaps this was one of Yeva’s plots — a constant reminder of the protection Meila didn’t know she had before.

She glanced at a nearby servant only to see him look away and busy himself with some task. When it came to wermajes, everyone was out for themselves. Even if they tried to act friendly with her before in the hopes of getting to work at one of the green houses. Meila cursed him under her breath and kept walking as fast as she could. If she survived this encounter, none of them would step into her green houses. Not just the one with the black tree inside, or the few adjacent to it with fragrant herbs and spices within, but the spare ones where she grew common seedlings before planting them outside. Not like Meila needed helpers with her work anyway — the Fairy plants grew by themselves and eagerly thrust their fruits into her hands. All she had to do was reach and pluck.

A new shape emerged from a nearby corner. The local overseer. The guard of bodies, as Yeva called him when she introduced the tiger wer to Meila. For once, his presence brought relief — she often saw him watching her as well but he always kept his distance.

Viter passed her by without giving a single glance but before she could curse his cowardice Meila heard him speak.

“Greetings, noble lamura. Are you seeking the passage to your residences?”

The rustle stopped. “I do not need your assistance, move along.”

“Perhaps you should reconsider. You are entering the private quarters.”

A hint of lisp in lamura’s voice, “I simply wish to talk to that girl.”

Meila didn’t stop walking nor did she dare look back. Only when she had to turn toward the green houses did she allow herself a single glance. There was an enormous black tail but without the lines of gold — this wasn’t the lamura that was often present around Yeva but one of her kin.

And the tiger wer was standing directly between Meila and the lamura.

“Perhaps we should discuss it with Shahin Esca Yusuf-ja and the mistress of the estate present,” he replied nonchalantly to the wermaje as if he was one of their kind.

She sighed and walked past the corner. Her haven was in sight and no one was around so Meila quickly ran inside and shut the door. Only then did she allow herself to gasp for the air that she didn’t know she needed as her heart pounded inside her chest. There was a snake den near the Chimgen Manor and Meila saw with her own eyes what the single bite of a tiny viper could do to a murk. The wermaje lamuras were horrifying in comparison.

Meila took another deep breath and walked deeper into the green of the house. Here, she was safe. Her hands picked up the watering jar, crafted for her by Tuk, and a small wicker basket where she could place ripe fruits for the kitchen. Here, she had a task that she enjoyed and no one could interfere with her duties. By the orders of Yeva and Domina herself. Even Shahin Esca was not welcome here.

Yet, her sight was drawn to the crystal windows again and again. Fearful of seeing the glint of scales outside, and relieved to find streaks of rain on the panes instead. Only one lone figure ruined her calm.

Meila grimaced and opened the door. “Get in.”

Viter frowned. “The mistress said…”

“Yeva said that I can let helpers inside if necessary, as long as they are part of the estate.” She scratched her nose. “And you’ve helped me, so I guess that makes you a helper.”

Meila passed him a towel and started to look for a pot. Each green house had a small oven inside for when Samat nights got too cold for the plants, and she often used them to warm up her drinks and food. Especially when she was trying to avoid leaving this place for too long.

“Unless Yeva is expecting you outside.”

“No, my task is to watch over you.”

Meila froze. “What do you mean ‘watch over me’?”

The tiger wer shrugged. “Erf’s personal orders. As a bodyguard, I am here to make sure that no harm comes to you.”

Her hand reached out and pulled the jar of wine. She didn’t feel the gratitude anymore but still felt obligated to continue. “So all those times when lamuras hounded me, you could have been there? This isn’t the first time when one of them chased me. There were three others before her.”

“Four? There were more than ten. Most of them were much easier to discourage, this one was just too insistent.” He glanced at the window. “Erf said that they get more irritable once it is colder outside.”

Meila stared at him. “You are willing to stand in front of a wermaje because of his words? She could crush you in a heartbeat.”

Viter smirked. “This is the duty of a bodyguard. And it isn’t often when I can stand in front of a wermage and watch her squirm in impotence. It is not my duty to meddle between you and Erf, but he stood by me in front of an angry Domina when I failed her task — I am certain that he will stand by me in front of an angry lamura when I succeed in this one.”

“And if she decides that it is time to punish your hubris? She is here — Erf is not.”

He put the wet towel on the oven to dry and looked around. “You are unfamiliar with the reason behind their presence here, then. They are guests, yes — but they aren’t honourable guests. That is not surprising — few know about the details and the lamuras aren’t eager to discuss their failures either. You know Shahin Esca? She is Yeva’s slave.”

Meila couldn’t hold her gasp. “What!?”

“Shhh!” he hissed. “Keep this to yourself.”

“Does that mean Yeva is a wermaje?” Meila whispered back. Yeva did look and act like one of them, despite her murk name.

“She has no Spark, so no.” Viter sighed. “Both Yeva and Erf are unusual among your kind but this is Samat — you can find all kinds of people here if you search long enough. This Manor is but a tiny part. A better part with warm houses, plentiful food, and clean roads, but a small part nevertheless. Don’t call her a slave, however. Wermages are only bound by the ‘Servitude’ for a limited time, as the only mistress that they can have is their Matriarch.”

Meila rubbed her forehead. She understood every word he said but they couldn’t be said together like that. “How can a murk have a wermaje in such servitude?”

“Well…” Viter glanced around once again. “She tried to kill Erf about a tenday before you came here. I wasn’t told what happened in detail but Domina took her into Servitude and gifted her to Erf as a punishment. Since he, and the rest of his sadaq, aren’t here — the ownership of everything here is in Yeva’s hands.”

That she could understand. A complex tale but with one powerful being above it all — Domina herself. Her magick had to be exceptionally strong if she could command such imposing lamuras around despite being as tall as Meila was.

“Is this why they are hounding me? Because of my connection to… Erf?”

“No. From what I heard them speak about — they are attracted by the smell.”

Her eyes grew large. “They eat murks!?”

“What? No. The smell of those beans you roast occasionally. The brew that is made from them is considered a delicacy in their lands.”

Meila blinked and then blinked again. She was worrying herself all this time for something so… simple. To think that wermajes could crave for a simple drink… just like the rest of them.

“You could’ve told me this a long time ago,” she huffed.

Viter shrugged, unconcerned. “My allegiance lies with Erf alone. My orders were to protect you and provide assistance when necessary, and nothing more. Since you were trying to avoid me — I kept my distance. I am a bodyguard, not a wet-nurse.”

“Despite your master calling me his mother.”

He raised his eyebrow. “Does this ‘mother’ call my master her son?”

Meila grimaced and looked away. She stood still for a moment, watching the steamy pot of hot wine then huffed and pulled out a secret box of spices. It was small but wine only needed a pinch of this and a pinch of that.

“It will rain for some time. You can stay dry inside,” Meila murmured as she mixed everything together. “Tell me about your master and the rest of this estate as I work.”

 

XXX

“Eeugh.” Old Arash rubbed his eyes. “Mule Boy! Your medicine is making me see things!”

I raised my hand to give Chirp more space to take off. “I am sure that this is your eyes working as they should.”

“What is that ugly thing!?”

“A messenger.” I pushed aside the canvas that I was working on and rummaged through my pouches. “Taqi! Come here!”

The servant appeared, fearfully staring in the direction where Chirp disappeared to, and rushed to my side. Both servants were a bit skittish around me, but when any spear of this finger issued orders — they had to obey. As long as they weren’t busy with tasks for the entire finger or doing something directly for Irfan or the First Spear herself.

“Head to the wermage tents,” I quickly scribbled a note onto the piece of paper and pushed it with a small silver cut into his hands, “and ask for the Kausar twins. Deliver the message into their arms and tell them ‘it is ready’. Got it?”

The cut vanished and Taqi quickly nodded his head as he clutched the scroll to his body.

“Good. Now go.”

I watched him sprint for a second then sighed and pulled the canvas back. It would take some time for him to find them and probably a bit longer for the twins to show up, but I wasn’t exactly ready either.

“So you are making dresses for the wermages, eh? Is that how they make them in Samat?”

I glanced at Arash without stopping my work. After some discussion with Irfan, I was allowed to ‘medicate’ the old man under the requirement that I would stay beside him and provide assistance if my ‘purification medicine’ made him too sick. “Yes, you could say that.”

Irfan himself was not that far away, inspecting our gear and sending glances at us from time to time. This was our last night in the transition zone and tomorrow we would be setting down a fortified night camp within the Forest itself. The mood was tense and everyone busied themselves with preparations.

Apart from me and Arash, that was. My personal gear was packed and I was of little use in the general finger readiness due to my lack of field experience. Meanwhile, Arash used the opportunity to test my medicine for Irfan, slack off any work he would be forced to do otherwise, and demand my dwindling supplies of ale to ‘recover’ from his sickness.

Something that he tried once again to remind me about but I wasn’t listening.

“Greetings, Noble Lady of the House,” I said without turning my head. “How can I be of assistance?”

“What?” Arash glanced around and sucked his breath in. “Oh balls.”

“I believe that we had a discussion previously,” Lita’af spoke behind my back. “I wish to conclude it.”

“Of course. But,” I lifted the canvas, “I do have tasks that I need to finish and I have a patient to-”

“Nah fuck that!” Arash jumped up from his makeshift bed. “I got a whole life ahead of me — deal with your problems yourself.”

I blinked innocently at him. “Are you sure? You were complaining about your weakness so much that I was going to give you more ale if it continued.”

“Well, I got better!” He stomped away without looking back.

“I had to rely on the Censor, but I got your sword back.” Lita’af walked into my line of sight. “I believe you said that the blade was shorter?”

When I glanced at her, she was tiredly leaning on her Flow oar and pulling a vambrace off her right hand.

“A blade that is shorter by a finger is an arm extended longer by a finger,” she murmured and passed the vambrace into my hands. “I could offer you one of my blades but I can’t replace yours. If you even want a replacement — your Manor appears quite capable at making those in numbers and you have the means to carry small packages all the way from Samat. This vambrace was carved out from the carapace of a Thing and offers unquestionable protection and price. It will keep your sword arm safe. Safer than a mere chain on your arms.”

I put aside my sewing kit. “You have my gratitude.”

In comparison to other spearmen, I had very little chain mail on me — just two sleeves to ‘protect’ my arms and the coif under my helmet to ‘protect’ my neck. The rest of my body was either covered with brigandine or plain cloth as the main protection was my skinsuit underneath, hidden by said armour and cloth. Nevertheless, the gift was indeed welcome — Aikerim forbade me to experiment on her personal Creature trophy no matter how much I begged and I was curious about what I could discover.

“I have kept my word. Despite my non-involvement in this affair, it pained me greatly to find out that your attacker sought refuge amongst my kin. I hope that with this gift we can leave the incident behind us for good.”

I made a small bow. “I hope that you have caught the real thief. Not just a hapless servant that dirtied his hands at his master’s orders.”

Lita’af pressed her lips thin. “It had become our internal matter once you pointed out the smell on my kaftan. He might’ve taken your blade but he stained our reputation in doing so. I hope you aren’t trying to intrude. Unless this is an attempt to ask for more gifts?”

“Of course not — your gift is priceless. I am merely concerned about justice.”

She shook her head. “It is not justice that you are talking about but an ideal of truth. What makes us stronger than Things of the Forest is our ability to compromise. To settle arguments without needless bloodshed and unnecessary harm to either side.”

“Let me rephrase myself — I do not seek some public punishment nor humiliation of whoever ordered the theft. Nor am I blinded by greed to demand more and more gifts. I say it for you, Lita’af Hikmat, because you are wise. Because you can understand my words. Deliver your internal justice as you see fit but know that you can’t heal a wound if the blade is still inside. I believe that is how wermage healing works, is it not? Make sure that your justice deals with the true cause of the problem, not its symptoms.”

She sighed. “Some might claim that the real cause of those problems is you.”

“Some will say anything to disregard their faults, Lita’af Hikmat.”

Lita’af leaned further on her oar. A wooden staff of gold and blue that looked more like a sight for some archaic anti-air gun attached to a pole. “Daimonas are known for their stubbornness… They are also known for their strength. From what I’ve heard, you have shown plenty of the former. Do you have enough of the latter as well? ”

I frowned. “I thought that we had a discussion about that already.”

She shook her head. “This isn’t about that. I do not question your strength, but tell me — have you faced a war mage before? In a battle of strength and Flow, not words and reason?”

I glanced at her oar. “Are you trying to up the stakes until I lose? I have traded punches with Ramad Kiymetl Qasam and Akhtar Kiymetl Siamak before coming here.”

“Ramad Qasam is known for his use of bow and sword, not oar. So is the weapon dancer of Kiymetl. Anaise Hilal got the rank of a war mage, but she never faced the war mages of our enemies before. Yes, I am trying to ‘up the stakes’, Erf. You can even say that I am trying to teach you your limits. But tell me this — do you wish to learn them in a spar or in the middle of a battlefield?”

Lita’af stood up and stretched. “You should be the one asking me to train you. Consider my offer as another part of my gift, if you wish. So, do you wish to battle with a war mage?”

Somewhere nearby, Irfan had a coughing fit.

 

Lita’af Kamshad Hikmat

“Why are you doing this, sister?” Muramat hissed into her ear.

Lita’af wiped the sweat from her brow as she waited for Erf to get ready. Besides her brother, whom she specifically summoned here, the Kausar twins had arrived as well. Lita’af didn’t care that much — there were plenty of onlookers from the fingers anyway, including the First Spear herself.

She cast the silence around them as her hand slowly reached around her brother’s neck, grabbed him by his scruff, and pulled him closer. “I am tired of our Manor stumbling in the dark in this matter — this is not the way of Kamshad. The two punches we exchanged a few days ago told me more about the daimon than anything I’ve heard before and after. Watch him carefully brother — because I would prefer you to do absolutely nothing rather than come to me with yet another failure because someone underestimated his opponent.”

He growled at her grasp but stopped himself just as quickly. “I will do as you ask, sister.”

Lita’af sighed and let go. “Thank you.”

She turned around and gripped her oar. “Are you ready?”

Erf pulled the face guard down. “What are the rules?”

“Until the first blood and nothing else. Here, you are the warrior of Emanai while I am an enemy wermage.”

“Incapacitation?”

The First Spear smacked her forehead. “Try to survive the wermage trying to kill you first then think about capturing them as a slave!”

Lita’af nodded. “Your commander speaks true — you should listen to her more often. Slave capturing happens when the enemy is routed. When they fight — you fight.”

“Besides,” she flicked her arm, sending Erf into the air. “By your reasoning, I’ve just wo-”

A spear flew into her face, forcing her to step to the side and catch it. “Good!”

She twisted the oar with the water side facing her and aimed the focus rune at the charging figure.

“Shields up, you dimwit!” the First Spear barked.

Lita’af considered asking her to stay silent as the stream of water smashed into the shield but she did state that this was a battle, not a duel.

She was also too busy to speak.

As her oar sent wave after wave of water at him, her other hand reached through the Flow and grabbed him once again. Lita’af yanked him upward, away from his shield… and almost stumbled herself. She gritted her teeth and pulled harder, watching the ground bulging under his feet.

Her gritted teeth shifted into a grin. “Roots, I should’ve known.”

She smashed the oar into the ground, summoned his spear, and sent it flying just below his feet. Right where his magic held him to the ground. His yelp was her answer.

Erf grumbled something, huddled better under his shield and Lita’af flinched when a pebble cracked against her battle mask. When she looked back, Erf had already taken two steps toward her. And more pebbles were flying.

Plain pressure wasn’t enough and the shield had to go. Her oar twisted to the earth face, letting her rip a boulder from the ground and send it at his shield. From what she observed so far — Erf was as tough as a wermage. He did have one weakness, however — he couldn’t enhance his gear with runes. If only because there were no runes on his equipment in the first place.

And when wermages fought, armour was often the first to give. The flying pebbles could’ve turned this battle ugly for her very quickly if they managed to penetrate her gear.

His hand was strong but his pavise cracked nevertheless.

“Show me what you’ve got,” Lita’af whispered to herself as she sent another boulder right after the first. Flow burned through her body and she welcomed it with glee — depletion was never a welcome thing in her mornings and she was relieved to finally know what had caused it in the first place.

Erf didn’t disappoint. The boulder shattered from his punch and she dodged a swipe of his spear. Did she have to? Lita’af wasn’t sure, but he was a daimon so everything was possible. Another swipe - another step toward her. Erf was getting closer but she wasn’t ready to transition into melee. There were more spells to cast and more tricks to test.

Her crushing grip on his body proved useless, so Lita’af yanked him sideways, raised a wall between them, and jumped back to start the game again.

Only to feel his fingers clamp on her leg mid-jump. And then pull her sideways. In the air.

“Wha-?”

His fingers squeezed and Lita’af saw white as her bones broke under his grasp. The Beast inside roared at him as she twisted away, leaving a tuft of her fur in his fingers.

How dare he!

She took a deep breath and engulfed her prey in a stream of fire, her claws ready to peel off the charred metal and rip the cooked flesh as soon as her leg finished healing.

A white hand emerged from the plume, pushing the stream of fire to the side, away from the unscathed body of her prey. With a loud snarl, she leapt to the side and lunged at his open flank, only to twist away from the accursed fingers. Another jump and she felt her fur getting ripped once again.

The air was dangerous for her. If she wanted to survive, she had to stay close to the ground so that she could change her direction faster than he could react.

Survive?

She shook those thoughts away. He was hurt before — he could be hurt again. Her Flow claws grabbed the prey and pulled him once again as she deftly circled him around, looking for the perfect place to strike. Her pull got stronger and stronger and soon the ground started to buckle once again. She lunged with her claws wide open, ready to rend dirt, not flesh.

Right into his arms.

“Did you think that I would let you do that ever again?” The beast in front of her hissed.

She didn’t bother to respond. Unrestrained Flow rushed through her bones and flesh to resist his pressure, to break free and crush her enemy herself. She felt the heat rising within as her power grew with every heartbeat, pushing the true strength of Kamshad through her veins. Each strike was harder than the one before, each punch was fiercer than the last.

She grinned as she hit again and again, delighted by a new revelation. The enemy was strong but he was young, naive, and inexperienced. His grabs and punches hurt her flesh and ripped her fur but they were simple enough for her to avoid the worst of them. In the meantime, her flesh would mend, her fur would grow, and Flow would flow.

“Where is that speed I saw before!?” she taunted him after yet another missed punch.

“Right. No more gravity and leverage for you, missy,” he answered in a huff.

He smashed into her body and she felt herself being thrown despite holding him to stay in place. No, not thrown — he jumped. Her stomach fell into a pit when her enemy twisted through the air as if he was a fish in the stream. Punching her with the same speed and precision as if they were standing on solid ground.

Despite his roots, the daimon had no need for earth. And she depended on it.

They fell onto the ground with a thud, only for him to yank her back again and send her into the air. The beast inside howled once again as she felt herself stripped of her strength. His chest armour was too hard so her claws went for his helmet, crushing the steel, and his arms, shredding his chains. Steaming sweat rolled from her body as she tried to draw his blood before he would draw hers. Her sweat sizzled when it touched him.

It wasn’t her heat.

She suddenly realised that she was surrounded by a fire made flesh. Daimonic flesh, that was ten times hotter than her own. She knew now where the young predator in front of her hid his Spark — he used it all on his flesh alone! She wasn’t getting weaker as they fought — he was growing stronger faster than she did.

She grabbed his helmet and pulled him closer, peering into the darkness that surrounded the twin orbs of silver. “You are a master of the flesh, aren’t you?”

The orbs blinked and darkness disappeared, banished by the light of the sun. Giving her the answer she was looking for.

Lita’af laughed in delight as she let go of her beast form. “I’ve won.”

Erf tilted his head. “Are you sure?”

Her finger reached into his helmet and swiped a tiny bead of blood between his eyebrows. “It appears that I’ve cracked your shell first.”

The damn bastard didn’t even look winded beneath his mangled armour. Lita’af had to use all of her willpower not to pant and gasp in front of him. And not to laugh at his crooked helmet that looked like someone stuck an old pot with holes onto his head. She would gift him a new one later. And a chain mail — there were links scattered all over the place along with her fur. Probably a new kaftan as well — Lita’af made sure to soak him well enough before the Beast took over but it was clean and new before they started.

“You cheated. I would have drawn blood a long time ago if it wasn’t for your freakish regeneration.”

Lita’af swished her tail, silently blowing the scattered silver hair away. “Are you going to ask your enemies not to heal either? Who taught you how to swing and punch? You fight like a child wermage.”

“I am a murk, I was taught to fight like one.”

She rolled her eyes. “I don’t remember you using your sword and kattar, I expected the First Spear to remind you but-” she glanced at the frozen, gawking Hajar Kishava and sighed.

“You went at me with claws yourself.” Erf tried to open his face guard, then pull his helmet off. It was stuck. “Tsk.”

Lita’af bit her lip and pried his helmet apart. “That is why I said that you were fighting like a child wermage. Either fight like a murk with a blade or find yourself a trainer that can teach you how to actually use your wermage strength. I am appalled that you weren’t wise enough to do it already.”

“I am a Navigator, not an Operative. It was never my fate to fight. But I will keep your words in mind and do better next time.” He looked at the piece of steel in her hands and gave her a look.

Lita’af nodded. “I will get you a new helmet, you have my word. Wermages often bring spares as such incidents tend to happen often. If they wear helmets at all.”

“Right, you prefer masks carved from Cr- Things.”

“Prefer? You have seen me fight — can you imagine a steel helmet that could accommodate my changing form?” She nodded at the Kausar twins watching silently to the side. “Or horns of Enoch? A helmet that could last longer than one battle? Your pot is bent and out of shape while my mask is still intact. Why are they here, anyway? To observe the fight?”

Huare smacked her palm. “Right. Erf! The balloon!”

Lita’af tilted her head. “The balloon?”

Kirana smacked her sister and sighed. “Well, she was going to find out soon anyway.”

Erf shook his head. “Let’s call my wives first. As long as the First Spear permits, that is.”

“Wha-?” Hajar jerked away from her stupor and rubbed her temples. “Sure, my sleep will be full of nightmares already anyway. Why not yet another one?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter was edited by: Xeno Morph and UnknownPlunger.

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