Alliance ch 7: Unwanted
Don’t let it bother me, Ardinzo Neezon censured himself for the thousandth time. No matter what they say, I am not unwanted.
He had a family that loved him. Though, being rebuked by the emperor and slapped by his father in front of such an important figure could constitute as shame enough, he supposed. Maybe his family really had rejected him.
Still, he couldn’t bring himself to believe he belonged here among the Unwanted.
Unwanted had no recollection of their families, either handed over at birth or ripped from their mothers’ arms. Second generation troopers—sons of highest-ranking officers and the wives given them as a prize for attaining such status—were sparse. Most surnames touted by the Unwanted were made up. One wore a name like a cloak and discarded it just as easily if it didn’t retain the glory sought.
Only one’s number didn’t change.
Numbers ruled life here: identification, quarters assignment, group placement, food allotment, rankings, grades, deadlines. Numbers were the brick, mortar, and grease of this place.
This was Yakru’s largest training base, located in Aznalo District, a wide peninsula bordered by a deep, dark bay. The land on the other side of Aznalo Bay belonged to Skaelao. Constant wind had carved massive karst formations. The base’s towering pyramids seemed flat in comparison.
When it wasn’t raining, it was snowing.
That might not have been such a big deal had the concept of “inside” not been so loose. The base comprised five pyramids, all connected by covered walkways, nothing more than a rail to deter the howling wind. Ramps of similar design spiraled along the structures, granting access to a maze of cubbies where the trainees slept. Higher floors hosted actual suites for the instructors and visiting officers. High Defender Bril Dekkom’s residence was at the apex of the central pyramid.
Yet, despite the buildings clearly having tops and how Neezon was fairly certain the upper rooms were dry, precipitation fell inside the pyramid—in the mess hall, on the training fields, in the lavatories—some of it channeled to the plants coating every wall.
These were “to maintain good air” he knew, a tradition kept also in his noble home, but there he had not been involved in pruning, weeding, or anything else that repaid him with fingers full of thorns.
Frigid mist pecked at his cheeks as a bag of weeds—perfectly fine plants that had simply grown where an instructor didn’t want them—dropped into a recycling chute. The hatch bonged because he hadn’t bothered to “close it like he cared” as he had been warned a million times to do. His attention was on the horizon, languid steps carrying him to the thin rail.
Ninety percent of Yakru’s grain came from the vast fields of Aznalo District, gray waves rippling in the wind a reflection of the perpetually overcast sky. How Neezon wished a ship would appear out of that hazy line—a ship carrying his family come to bring him home. He stared, willing them to hear his wish, his need for them. Some Aylata could whisper from this distance. It was mightily unfair.
It often was with Aylata.
Had he really been here six months already? His first day was simultaneously a distant nightmare and a moment ago, edges rendered sharp by fear, excitement, and betrayal.
Lady Azlyn Dekkom liked to watch the troops, encouraging her favorites with baked sweets. Observing Neezon’s first sparring test, she had called him “at this moment pathetic but not without potential.” Patting his closely cropped hair, she had given him a caramel glazed pastry and walked on.
His new classmates had named him Pathetic for a few days, the most logical and mildest of the sobriquets bestowed upon him in the following months. Still, Neezon clung to his true name, his last connection to his family, even if he would never see them again.
He closed his eyes, trying to remember his father’s proud smile, his mother’s shining gaze, the slow, proper, and deliberate cadence to their words. When he had first arrived here, the orders barked out and the snickering gossip had sounded like a foreign tongue.
Now they were all he knew.
He had no way of knowing if his family had tried to visit him. He thought often of running away, but the emperor himself came to check on him at random intervals. And there was the collar. He scratched at the itchy cord—a tracer of some sort. It didn’t come off. He had tried.
The others don’t wear such inconvenient collars.
Spite gripped his shoulders as he scanned the busy practice yard far below. Rain poured, blurring the trainees’ straight lines. Others laughed on lower ramps, headed this way, no doubt.
His face twisted in a grimace, gaze dropping to his arms as if he could see the bruises hidden by his sleeves. Were they permanent now, layered as far as his bones? Fresh shades blossomed over yesterday’s wounds, marking how often he shielded his face. No, he was not as good a fighter as the other boys, but they were soldiers trained from birth. Neezon had never seen some of the weapons they drilled with, much less used them.
He would improve. He would stand up for himself. If there were any chance of him getting ahold of a sword, that he could use.
What he really wished for was an Ier, the laser-formed, tendrilled staff that was the traditional weapon of Aylata. For centuries, the Neezon company had per contract been the sole manufacturers of Ier, and Ardinzo Neezon knew the device inside and out. If he could just acquire one, then he would show these half-wit Unwanted.
Then what? He would have to run. It all came down to running, and he had never known a hard life. He had always had four meals a day prepared by professionals and brought to him by servants and slaves who jumped at his beck and call.
I am not unwanted.
“I feel the same sometimes.”
Neezon whirled and met a pair of bright chrysolite eyes. Their owner was of the same height and had a similar thin build, but his eyes’ coloring identified him as Aylata. His ebony attire, including the wide, pale scarf draped casually over one shoulder, marked him as a Messenger.
A young Messenger, seemingly equal to Neezon’s fifteen years, and a recent graduate as proclaimed by the shade of his scarf. Unlike most Unwanted training facilities, Aznalo did not double as an Aylata school due to its proximity to Aylata Tower in Kobolast a short distance to the south.
Neezon stepped back quickly, right hand flying to his temple. His palm faced down, first finger perched above his ear, eye peeking between second and third. “Master.”
The Aylata grinned. “Don’t do that. It’s awkward.”
Letting his hand drop, Neezon did his best not to gape. He thought the same about the salutes.
“Are you a Mind Aylata? Can you hear my thoughts?”
The Messenger gave a light chuckle. “Mind Talents don’t really work that way, or so I hear. Maybe if I had them, they’d want me.”
Neezon’s attempts not to gape utterly failed. “But you’re an Aylata. They always want Aylata.”
“So they claim,” the Messenger countered with a shrug, “but what they really value is Magni blood and extraordinary skill with limited Talents. They care nothing for ingenuity if it isn’t theirs.”
“Are you saying you don’t have an Aylata Talent?”
The grin grew, and the Messenger shook his head, soft, dark hair billowing before settling back into a spiky mess. “Oh, I have a Talent they are all too familiar with. What I mean is they want Watchers and Protectors and Defenders.
“Think about it. Defenders lead squadrons, going on to command whole legions and have the opportunity to acquire the title High Defender. Protectors are given rule of a district just because they survived to the age of twenty. There is only one Lead Protector per Refraction, and they have almost as much power as Refraction Leaders. Watchers—”
“Watchers are feared,” Neezon put in.
The Aylata nodded, hair billowing again. “Yes, no one wants to offend a Watcher, so they always get their way. Messengers live in the shadow of the other three, still Aylata but sent to do the dirty work the others won’t do. When a doctor proclaims a new son will be a Messenger, no parents jump for joy. They have another kid and hope for better results.”
“Is that what happened to you? Do you have a younger brother who’s something”—he stopped before saying ‘amazing’ or the like. He didn’t want to seem rude—“something other than a Messenger?”
The Aylata glanced sideways at him. “Inquisitive, aren’t you? I’ll make you a deal. You agree to keep me informed of anything...exciting going on around here, and I’ll consider us friends. You need friends in a place like this.”
Neezon narrowed his gaze. “First, tell me how you knew what I was thinking.”
“You whisper in your sleep.”
He didn’t know which was more alarming, the fact he blabbed his secrets while he slept or that this Aylata watched him do so. He had a divided opinion of them, half wanting to be one, half hating them. They were creepy. He couldn’t trust them. This one was different, too. His gut told him to trust this one least of all.
Yet the Messenger’s stare was so penetrating, so trustable and innocent. Maybe he did have Mind Talents.
“I’m Neezon, and if I see you around when I’m not busy, I’ll talk to you.”
The Aylata smiled. “I’m Crao.” His pronunciation made it sound more like a growl than a designation.
What an odd name.
He didn’t have time to ponder the subject. Six boys from his practice troop sauntered noisily around the corner, mottled gray jumpsuits identical to his. The pattern of dark and light supposedly corresponded with the numbers in one’s group assignment, but he hadn’t yet figured out how to read the differences.
Everyone in a practice troop was also supposedly of equal rank, but he had quickly learned that wasn’t true. The teens made no secret of their personal hierarchy, loud as they jostled for position behind the group’s self-proclaimed leader.
Crossing his arms as his peers filed in around him, this one called, “Hey! What are you doing slacking off up here? I’ve been looking for you.”
The voice sent a shiver through Neezon, his first instincts pleading for him to run, but he had just made friends with an Aylata, and said friend still stood there, right next to him.
Neezon’s confidence soared, and he stood his ground, straightening, head held high. He did not answer.
“After much careful thought, I’ve come up with a good name for the newbie,” the bully announced. “Mykuro-butt. What do you think, Scan?”
The largest laughed. “That’s a good one, Trickshot, but you’ve overlooked an important detail.”
“And that is?”
“His face’s missing the split down the middle.”
“That’s easily fixed.” Trickshot reached for Neezon’s collar.
As he swallowed, nervousness shifting his feet to pull him backward, Crao stepped between them and shoved the bully’s outstretched arm aside.
“What type of person do you want to be?”
Trickshot flinched at the Aylata’s appearance. “Excuse me?”
“At the moment, you are a person who picks on any fault you find to make your own little pedestal seem higher. You think it gives you power over them. By knocking down others, you make yourself feel tall.”
“I am tall!” the bully yelled, and Neezon had to agree with him. He was a lot taller than Crao.
“Figuratively, of course.” Crao hummed. “Emotions and thoughts are your real targets. You make self-doubt your ally because contentment is not something you understand, and how dare anyone find it before you. You are one who tramples the emotions of others because you do not understand your own. Is that the person you want to be?”
The bully shoved Crao back half a body’s length, and the Messenger extended one nimble foot behind himself to keep from tumbling over the rail.
“Don’t,” Scan warned. “He’s an Aylata.”
“So what?” Trickshot sneered. “Aylata always hide behind their Ier and Talents. They don’t know how to really fight. Besides, this one’s just a Messenger.”
He shoved Crao again, and the Aylata’s eyes slid to Neezon, the look haunting as it drove home a hollow assurance: Messengers really were held of little account.
If you have an Ier or Talent, use it now.
Crao didn’t fight back. One more shove, and he tumbled over the rail, gravity stealing him away.
Staring in wide-eyed horror, Neezon hoped Crao’s Talent was flying. Then he realized flying was not an Aylata Talent. His hope fell with Crao.
Scan grabbed the back of his collar and hauled him off his feet.
Arms crossed once more, Trickshot taunted, “Why don’t you jump, too, Mykuro-butt? You think you’re so special, I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
Neezon scratched at Scan’s arm to no avail. The ledge loomed closer. On impulse, he grabbed one of the others’ large practice shooters.
Scan snickered. “That’s not a real weapon any more than a glowstick.”
Neezon knew that. The fake shooter would only send a dull, harmless spot of light at its target, but the long, heavy casing would make an excellent club. He swung it at Scan’s head.
In evading the blow, Scan dropped him, and Neezon fell on his knees, swinging the shooter at Scan’s shins. The swipe knocked the trainee’s legs aside, and in the slow-motion state from which Neezon watched, he appeared to float for a moment before crashing to the metal walkway with a clang.
Neezon scrambled to his feet, shooter held in both hands and swung back over his shoulder, gaze shifting between the trainees closing in around him.
A familiar shout cut the air, and everyone froze. Defender Lioden Nyoki rarely yelled, and his anger was to be avoided.
“That Watcher made a mockery of my men!” Nyoki appeared around the corner, not acknowledging the group of saluting teens lined up along the rail. “And then to leave saying he was going to see the emperor. They only knew he was a Skaelao Watcher, not that he was on their side. He left them in utter panic!”
“We hold no authority over Watcher Quanko. He is Skaelao.”
“I know,” Nyoki growled. “The real question is how much authority they hold over him. He can’t just go around doing whatever he wants.”
Shock held Neezon’s breath as a second Aylata came into view: Elder Watcher Vlial Muukan.
He only knew his name from an Ier Bestowing Ceremony two years ago, the first Neezon had been allowed to attend, where Elder Watcher Muukan and his lady had come to support their son on such a momentous occasion.
Watchers slipped from one shadow to the next, more often recognized for what, not who, they were. So, even if he hadn’t recognized this one’s vulpine features, how chrysolite only seemed to grace his right eye, or the clan pattern that vaguely resembled whirlpools devouring each other, this last’s location on his left thigh identified him as a Watcher. The pattern repeated in the silver metal srassamene on his back marked him as an Elder Watcher, a title only earned by those with copious experience acting under extraordinarily trying circumstances.
Defender Nyoki had some audacity yelling at an Elder Watcher.
Yet, Muukan maintained the ideal Aylata aloofness. He let the Defender expel his bluster before countering, “You chide him for toying with them, but he did have a point. Had Watcher Quanko meant them harm, ordinary guards would not have stood a chance. At least give them a Messenger and means to contact a Watcher.”
“In a serious fight, would you win against Watcher Quanko?”
Muukan grinned. “I’ve taken down Ravi before. Held one squirming on the ground, fear heavy in his eyes.”
“Then perhaps I should assign you to guard Lady K’alaqk.”
“You know the order of things, Defender.” Muukan tsked. “You cannot assign me anything. Elder Watchers answer only to the leader of their Refraction and the Ravida, or in his absence as now, the Lead Protector.”
“And I don’t suppose you’ll volunteer.”
Disdain clouded Muukan’s tempestuous eyes. “Babysitting little girls is a task for a Messenger.”
“If you didn’t want to be involved, why come interrogate me?”
A thin, coy smirk conquered the Elder Watcher’s face. “The Lead Protector had questions. Now I have answers.”
“Glad I could help,” Nyoki grumbled, waist-length, black cape swirling as he turned away. His eyes alighted on the group still saluting by the rail, hanging on every word. Calculation flicked across his countenance.
Neezon swallowed. Defender Nyoki’s features were a little too pinched, forming a glower more easily than a smile. If the troopers here all had one thing in common, it was that they were wary of this dark-eyed Aylata who was to succeed High Defender Dekkom.
“You.” That shadowy glare singled Neezon out. “Can you use that weapon hiding behind your back?”
Uncertainty trapped Neezon’s words in a tight throat. Surely the Defender meant “use” as in actually shooting the weapon, and he hadn’t seen this model before today. He could figure out its controls if they gave him a few moments, but Nyoki took the shooter away and made a show of examining it.
“It’s not a club,” the Defender lectured. “This is a mock Angui Five, and in poor condition, too.” His eyes jumped from the dented weapon back to Neezon. “Can you tell me what’s special about the Angui Five?”
Neezon had spent long nights studying endless manuals on the various weapons of the Unwanted, and while he had memorized all he could, constantly comparing the new information to what he already knew, one fact had become clear: Shooter was a generic term for practically any weapon that shot projectiles. Though its connotation lent itself more toward high-tech weapons, excluding, say, slingshots and hands throwing rocks.
Every shooter was different. Some were smaller than his palm while others were longer than his arm span. Their triggers varied, too, some toggled by nimble fingers, the strength of a clutching hand, or activated by subtle movements of the wrist.
Their choice ammunition were darters, and that opened up a whole other class of options.
All of this swirled through his mind like one of Zalerit’s infamous winter storms and froze him just the same, words stranded in his throat.
Nyoki gazed at the model in his hands, tossing it slightly to test its weight. “Your choice weapon is a sword, isn’t it?”
Or an Ier, Neezon added mentally, but he deemed it best not to tell an Aylata that. He nodded.
Mockery danced in the Defender’s grin. “Quiet, aren’t you? You haven’t been here long.”
Six months was forever, but Neezon simply shook his head.
“You don’t get along with your company.”
Neezon looked up, trying to keep surprise from widening his eyes. He could tattle, but would this Aylata even care? They would brand him a weakling. Yes, particularly the Elder Watcher who already looked at him with disdain.
“But of course we get along!” Neezon clasped a hand on Scan’s shoulder and dragged the bigger boy closer. “We’re best friends.”
Nyoki’s pinched eyes slimmed. “You dare lie to an Aylata?” He paused, pure ire unhidden in his lowered brows and clenched jaw. Then the expression broke, making way for a small smile. “It’s that stupid, blind courage I need. This troop will be transferred to my legion.”
“That one is a nobleman’s son,” the Elder Watcher revealed. He hadn’t moved from his place near the corner. “And of special interest to our new emperor.”
“How fascinating. Seems I’ll have another question for Ravi K’alaqk.” Nyoki turned to leave.
Neezon trembled, muscles ignoring any command for stillness. What did this Defender want with them?
Before he realized it, his feet carried him forward, his right hand raised in a beckoning gesture he had seen his father use a million times.
“You have something specific in mind for us, Defender?” he queried, voice as calm and aloof as he could make it.
Nyoki turned back, gaze sardonically flicking to Muukan before the Defender answered, “I want to train a special troop to defeat a Watcher.”
Muukan’s response was something between a grunt and a chuckle.
Neezon smiled in stunned silence. He probably looked like an idiot. Both Aylata took their leave, but it was such an excellent proposal.
Continued in Chapter 8: Revenge is not Becoming
Thank you for reading!