“So… what are you going to do with your free time?”
Onyx crunched his face up and looked back at Nike.
Nike nodded xyr head.
“Yes, just trust me. We’re going to get some free time.”
Onyx never fought Nike’s intuitions, because they were always right. When Xilo and Poppy strolled into the common room Nike was patiently waiting with xyr purple eyes staring straight at Xilo. Xilo, unnerved by this direct eye contact, inquired Nike about xyr staring problem.
“Do you have something to say, two-spirit? Out with it.”
Tootsie clinked his little claws together nervously. Nike had learned not to say “nothing.” It was a habit that Xilo had quite literally beat out of xyr. Now, xe usually just lied.
“Lady Xilo, I am anticipating the lesson.”
Xilo looked unimpressed.
“Shift your eyes.”
After a lesson about small unit leadership, Poppy and Xilo finished class and left the trio three hours for meditation. Nike was confused. Where was the announcement about free time? Xe couldn’t have been wrong, xe read it clearly from Xilo’s thoughts. Nike kept xyr eyes fixated on Xilo as she left with her back turned back to her quarters. She stopped suddenly in the doorway after she realized that she never heard Nike’s chair push back in.
Nike kept looking as if Xilo hadn’t said anything. Normally she would have a punishment in mind for her closed mouthed behavior but instead she just smiled.
“You can’t believe everything you hear, see, and feel. Even truths can be lies.”
Stunned, Nike got up and slowly pushed in xyr chair. Since it was early Tootsie had joined Onyx in their meditation room. They were chatting furiously about which arms were the best. Nike decided to stand in the doorway and listen.
“Look, a sword is nice, it’s balanced, but it cannot compare to a mace. That ‘simple stick with a ball in it’ can crack through even the heaviest barks, even yours.” Tootsie stated.
Onyx sighed, moving his arms in a swinging motion.
“You’re forgetting that swords tend to have a longer reach, faster swing, and you have the ability to thrust.”
“First of all, you can thrust with a spiked mace, second of all, I haven’t forgotten anything. Osk’s education must have diminished since my departure, because I am almost certain that we learned that in a pitched battle shorter weapons may be more advantageous in a close quarters fight.”
Onyx raised his voice, “So use a short sword!”
Tootsie shook his head.
“So, let’s say you fight a Erodesean as big as you are, as rare as they are, they exist. You have a sword, they have a mace. Now, take a look at your body. We’ve been training for a month now and after getting beaten for half of that time Boreit has managed to increase the thickness of your bark by about three inches. That’s five inches of solid bark give or take. So, let’s say the impact of your blade digs deep, three inches into his bark and I’m being generous here. You did some damage, but you have stopped nothing. He comes down with his mace and the impact alone shatters through your bark and creates internal wounds beneath your skin. You see what I am talking about now?”
Tootsie stared at Onyx who had completely ignored him. He had instead been studying his own burn lacerations. Nike decided to step in and said “Hello you two.”
Tootsie and Onyx looked up in xyr direction.
“About time, were you standing there just listening to us?”
Nike lied “Nope, was in the common room.”
Tootsie smiled at Nike, knowing she had been there the whole time. He got up and began to leave, intent to give the two privacy.
“Ah, Nike is back. Well, I hope he will give you more attention than I.” Tootsie turned from Nike back to Onyx, “On a serious note, I was asked by Lady Poppy if you could extend my nails further. This is as far as they grow with your current artistry, but she said you might be able to do more.”
While Nike giggled and sat on xyr mat, Onyx gently grabbed Tootsie’s arms. Looking them over, he touched the metaled fingernails fascinated by their hardness.
“I love this metal. It isn’t normal iron. It will take me awhile but if the Lady sets time for me to work I can probably grow this. Can I take a piece?”
Tootsie obliged, allowing Onyx to safely take about an inch off of his pinky. He melted the metal easily, now used to the nature of metalworking.
“Another piece?” Onyx joked as he put the small section of metal in the crevice of his burnt bark.
“You may not! I won’t have you steal my fingernails for your experiments, I only asked for you to lengthen them.”
Onyx rolled his green eyes.
“I see, your… assets. I will still need more samples to work with, let me know when you have the time to get me some more.”
Tootsie laughed, then sarcastically bowed.
“By your leave, my liege, may your days be ever prosperous.”
Onyx and Nike smiled, Nike waving.
“And to you too, Sir Iron-Nail!”
Onyx shifted over giving Nike some space as he took his place on his mat. Nike screwed xyr face and asked, “You didn’t like my pun?”
Onyx smiled, Nike just now noticing burn marks on his neck.
“If I give you any credit, you’ll outgrow your own bark.”
Nike pouted, “Maybe the real problem is people don’t compliment me enough, ever think of that?”
Onyx shook his head, “While Boreit terrorizes us up and down the hills of Wenshe, who do you think gets it the worst?”
Nike shrugged xyr shoulders. “You do, but what does that have to do with me receiving praise?”
Onyx, palms up, made a confused face. “I don’t know.”
Clearly getting quicker because of their training, Nike jumped and flipped behind Onyx who just sat still in the same place smiling. With an imaginary knife in xyr hand xe whispered menacingly.
“You don’t know welp? Well, I do, and this blade means today will be your last. You don’t know, you die. You don’t move, you die. You do something about this, maybe you’ll have a chance.”
Onyx laughed heartily, his voice bouncing off the walls. His eyes were a mirthful orange.
“You just said, verbatim, the exact thing Xilo told you a few days ago. I’d call you a clown, but you do have a knife to my neck.”
Nike put xyr imaginary knife away and lithely jumped off Onyx’s head and back onto xyr mat.
“Think that was scary? I was worried when Boreit tossed you into that tree. You really get under his bark, what’s your secret?”
Onyx couldn’t stop laughing.
“I-I don’t know! You know what? I think he hates it that I’m bigger.”
Nike shook xyr head.
“No you didn’t! Really, the ‘bigger’ argument?”
“Yes, I think I’m having some two-spirit intuition here, he’s threatened.”
For the next thirty minutes Nike and Onyx twisted their sap laughing, rolling over, and imitating their instructors. After they had calmed down, an awkward silence ensued after Onyx’s eyes briefly went pink then back to green. Seeing this, Nike tried xyr best to hide xyr emotions. Onyx too tried to resist the urge to make any move.
Only a foot apart, they were already relatively close, their spirit bond making them feel connected in ways they couldn’t imagine.
“Hey, um, you have any idea how to help Tootsie?” Nike asked.
Onyx paused for a second, then, looking Nike in xyr eyes, he opened his mouth and tried to speak. His spirit whirling and twirling, he couldn’t hold it back any longer. As his eyes went red, he craned his head down to meet Nike’s. Xe tried, but could not resist. In that moment, before their lips could touch, Nike knew that Onyx loved xyr. Xe could feel the conviction in his spirit, the want for xyr touch, the thought that if he failed, this would be it. He could feel xyr worries. The fear of the unknown, the fear of him.
As their lips touched, their spirits embraced each other, the warm feeling of energy cascaded down their bodies, reached into their veins, and blossomed in their hard wooden hearts. Lips locked, Nike jumped on his body, xyr legs wrapped around his neck. Xe was scared, but the feeling of pleasure and longing drove xyr forward. Blue and green light throbbed from the pair as they embraced.
Xe could feel every body part they touched together hum with energy, the feeling intensifying with every moment. His bark, his spirit, one was hard the other soft and fragile. Xe cradled the piece of him that he held dearest, made him vulnerable. He allowed it, allowed xyr to find access to the fragments of his spirit he had not yet put together. Where xe found violence, there was none for xyr. Where xe found fear, xe eliminated its presence.
Finally, after hours of embrace there was a moment to meditate. Though instead, they laid awake as Nike laid on the chest of xyr new spirit partner. While they relaxed, nothing mattered. Not the loss of their families, not the war, not their training, nothing. Tomorrow would come whether they liked it or not.
Tulip and Boreit sat crouched fifty meters from the House. Boreit looked at his mother. Well past adulthood, she looked more like a tree than a person. He felt an odd disturbance in her spirit. It wasn’t joy, sadness, or fright. It was finality. Though, he surmised she was always hard to read. Her smile said otherwise, so perhaps he was wrong.
“Boreit. They are bonded.” Tulip said with a sense of wonder.
“In all my years under the eyes of the Great Star, I have yet to bond with a mate.”
Boreit stood up and walked away leaving with a thought.
“Perhaps, it is because your “mate” is Lunu.”
With Boreit gone, Tulip’s eyes grew sad. In the darkness, alone, she wasn’t the terror that most feared. The hunter who had killed a king. The turncoat who installed hundreds of spies in the Lunu’s communities. When she was much younger, only a hundred years old, she meditated visions of ruling her own kingdom. Now, she had it. Later in her life, she had met her spirit-mate and wished for a sprout of her own. She had this too.
As Tulip took one last glance at the two Erodeseans bonding she knew she had ultimately failed. What was a kingdom without respect? What was mate without their embrace? What was a sprout without the love? Her whole life had revolved around power, moving the chess pieces around the board in her favor. Onyx and Nike were her last hope. The truth was, nobody knew what the mad princess was planning.
“One to rule them all, another to rule them.”
She smiled as she left in the darkness knowing that it might be for the last time.