Merletta found her eating her morning meal in the cantina. She sat down beside her, lounging to the side with a wide grin. Nahata eyed her skeptically then scooped a large bite of food into her mouth.
“Don’t you want to know the outcome of our hard work?”
“Not really,” Nahata mumbled, her mouth still full of food.
The crow huffed and the smile fell away. “You’re not very fun.” She sat straighter and her tone shifted with seriousness. “The lord who watched your match yesterday has already put in the paperwork for your transfer.”
Her brow rose as she took a slow sip of her drink. “My translator broke. I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”
She chuckled and leaned closer. “You are officially an apprentice to a high ranking officer.”
Nahata picked up a soft bread of some kind and ripped it in half. “Does that mean I don’t have to listen to you anymore?” She smirked as she rolled her gaze over to Merletta.
“Yes, actually, it does.” For some reason it made her smile bigger. Merletta looked as if she might explode with excitement. “I haven’t quite learned who he is but there is talk that he’s someone from the capital. That can be incredibly good or... deadly.”
“That’s not exactly inspiring,” she grouched, shoving the sweet bread into her mouth. “By the way, since you can actually understand me now...” She held the bread in view. “Why do Dev like sweets and... all this extra food.”
Merletta eyed her tray and bobbed her head. “Training burns energy. Aren’t you hungry? Don’t you crave the sugar?”
Nahata wasn’t sure if she craved it. But everytime she took a bite, she found herself scarfing down the rest of it. She didn’t hate the sweetness, although it was quite powerful.
“Honey is a delicacy. High grade honey is rather expensive.” She leaned her head into her hand and eyed Nahata’s drink. “My parents used to own a bee farm. High quality flowers. Well maintained hives.”
She eyed the hollowness in the other woman’s eyes, the way her gaze drifted off across the cantina to a distant memory. “What happened to them?”
The corner of her lips curled bitterly. “Even the crows were purged. My parents were friends with ‘the wrong people’ and it cost them their lives.” Merletta gave a short laugh then rolled up onto her feet. “Finish your meal and meet me outside. We have your new lord to meet.”
“Delightful,” Nahata cooed.
As she finished her meal, she thought back to the Lion and the arena match. She was grateful there wouldn’t be another match where she had to kill someone. But she also realized that she was expected to kill again, to take more power for herself and become more Devian. She wanted nothing less.
Merletta was outside the cantina waiting just like she said she would be. The old crow grinned in delight then let it fall away as she narrowed her eyes. “When was the last time you bathed?”
Nahata glanced down at her attire then at her hands. They weren’t exactly sparkling but she didn’t think it was as dirty as when she was working in the desert heat.
Merletta threw up her hands. “We don’t have enough time. Just stand at a distance so he doesn’t realize how... filthy you are.”
“I didn’t plan on getting close,” she remarked then smirked as the crow grumbled.
Her voice lilted, taking on a sweeter tone, “Do you want to impress or not?”
Nahata laughed. “Not.”
Merletta couldn’t help chuckling as well. “Take out your translator and listen to a few phrases you’ll need. ‘Yes, lord’ is most important.”
“How about, ‘no, lord’? I might need it more.”
She stopped suddenly and faced her. “This is no joke. If I am correct, your new mentor is secretive and feared. I still have no idea who it is. You can jest with me all you want but not with this new person.”
Her head bobbed in agreement. She peeled the translator out of her ear and listened to the sound and accent that rolled from Merletta’s mouth.
“Tiu, hem’ek.” Merletta spoke quickly but when she saw Nahata’s pinched brows she chuckled. “Ti-u. Tiu. Hem. Ek.”
Nahata copied her, tongue clumsy in her mouth, “Tiyu. Him.”
Her trainer sighed. “Tiu, hem’ek.”
She shoved the translator back in her ear and walked around her. “I’ll practice.”
“This means, ‘yes, my lord’ and you should use it often.”
“So, how do you say ‘no, my lord’?” Nahata looked over her shoulder at her trainer’s growing smirk.
“Careful, little pup. I’d hate to see you disciplined.”
She laughed under her breath. “Are you sure? I think you’d find it entertaining.”
“Perhaps,” she cooed.
Merletta led the way to the upper levels which Nahata hadn’t been to since her first arrival. She forgot how different it was from the training area. It was more lavish and there were more guards posted in front of every door and staircase. They bowed whenever Merletta approached and when they finally arrived before a set of gray slate doors, the guards turned inwards and saluted to her.
Nahata tugged at her uniform’s jacket and stood a bit taller. The doors slid open, her eyes roving past Merletta to look inside the office at her new mentor. She froze, even the breath in her lungs was stuck.
Merletta waltzed in and Nahata could see more clearly what she was looking at. Black energy, plumes of smoke shapened into the jaws of some creature, were snapping around something hovering in the air. It was a young initiate and he was screaming, feet kicking and arms locked outwards as if someone was pulling him apart. He was hoisted in the air by something, an invisible force, or perhaps it was the black smoke.
Nahata clasped her hands behind her back and forced herself to step into the room.
The man at the other end of the smoke turned his head towards her, the familiar black helmet and vestments as the man who dragged her to visit the doctor. His gaze slowly trailed back to the youth and with nonchalant disregard he let the initiate fall hard into the pristine floor.
The initiate writhed and turned painfully onto his side.
Merletta’s expression softened, a smile spreading gently. She pulled Nahata forward and in a sweet voice introduced her, “My lord, Grand General, this is Rashkah-Nahata. I am her trainer, Merletta-Ka’magwi.”
“As expected,” he stated flatly, voice distorted by his mask. He walked dismissively past the writhing boy. His words were hollow, attention elsewhere as he spoke, “Leave us. Do not fail me again or next time I shall not be as merciful.”
The youth rasped, “Yes, my lord.” He rolled up onto his knees and crawled a bit until he could stagger up onto his feet. He reached the door, bowed lowly then backed out of the room. The door hushed open and closed quickly and quietly.
Nahata rolled her attention back to the stranger from last night. He was different than she remembered. He had been cold and unusual but not so brutish. Perhaps he had taken care of her out of practical matters rather than kindness. She was a possession of his that needed maintaining.
The general rounded his desk, his darkened form gliding like a spectral ghost. Nahata wasn’t even sure she could call the man a Dev. He didn’t look or act like any she had ever seen. The others looked like spoiled children compared to him.
He sat down stiffly into his desk chair and raised his chin. “You may leave us, as well, Merletta-Ka’magwi.”
“My lord, if I may, Rashkah-Nahata is still quite unprepared to join society. Her situation is a little unique and requires someone who knows her weaknesses and strengths.”
He shifted until he was slouching in his seat, leaning his weight arrogantly onto one elbow. His tone changed, a slight lilt of humor to it, “You are dismissing my experience, crow. Careful with your words.”
She bowed and swaggered further into the room. “My deepest apologies, Grand General.”
“I will train her and build her the way I so deem.”
“My lord, I respect you too much to let you take an apprentice that is... not yet blossomed. Even as a lord of your ranking, don’t you think this is a little inappropriate?” Merletta tucked her hands behind her back and swept her attention across the room as if it were a painting to admire. “Especially as a slave, she requires more training.”
The general said nothing. He didn’t move either.
Nahata felt fear skip up her spine as her gaze swept back and forth between them.
“Allow me to attend to her. As her former trainer I know her best--”
“Stop.” He rose in one movement, a statue shrouded in black that seemed to grow taller and more frightening. “Do not test my patience or my intelligence. You have not trained her long enough to feel such... possession over her.”
She bowed her head and chuckled. “True, my lord, but she can not speak Devian.”
Nahata caught the slight turn of the general’s head as his attention fell on her. The Dev were unnerving but the one standing before her was downright chilling. She tried to stand taller, to fight against the fear that somersaulted in her stomach.
His words droned out, dark and reverberating in her ears, “I will not have a crow whispering my secrets to her relatives.”
Her laugh barked out of her. “I would not dream of it. I am not a loyalist blinded by blood ties.” She moved back towards Nahata and a little closer to the general’s desk. “My lord, I only have a strong desire to leave this place and take care of my pup.”
“Then my test of loyalty shall be for you both.” He returned to his seat and faced Nahata, full attention on her.
Even Merletta turned to face her.
Nahata stepped forward and bowed lowly. She spoke as confidently as she could manage, “Hem’ek.”
He huffed, a fragment of a laugh behind it, chilling the sweat along her spine.
Nahata rose from her bow as Merletta grinned and sat down onto the edge of the general’s desk.
“That title is for emperors.” He sat back in his chair and laid his gloved hands onto the desk. “You can not speak Devian after all.”
She balled her hands into fists and glared at her trainer. “I could have told him that...”
He groaned as if hearing her foreign language annoyed him. “You will address me as Lord Anjien or Grand-General.” He hummed, the helmet distorting the sound into a metallic purr. He rose to his feet. “When did your magic first appear?”
Her shoulders rose up as she considered the question. “How many days have I been here?”
Merletta shifted and brought one leg onto the desk with her. “It didn’t appear before then? An accident you kept secret? A strange event you couldn’t explain?”
“I’m just as shocked as you are.” Nahata lowered her chin and glared up at her. “I wouldn’t have gotten my face kicked in so many times as a kid.”
“How old are you?” Lord Anjien broke in, not at all concerned about their conversation.
She sucked down a breath and felt her shoulders shrugging again. “We don’t keep track of that sort of thing.”
Merletta swept her attention back to the general as if her point was being proven. She smiled sweetly, “She’s young, a teenager, but old enough, don’t you think?”
He pressed his fingers into his mask, rubbing against the metal as if it were his own forehead. The room grew darker, shadows climbing up the walls and the light began to flicker. He didn’t say anything and even Merletta began to stand up and straighten her spine.
Nahata stood taller, mirroring her trainer in hopes not to deflect his anger in some way.
“My lord,” Merletta sang cheerfully.
Nahata could hear the Devian language better. Neb’i. That was the proper title and she would use it the next time she had a chance. She wasn’t going to let Merletta make her look like a fool.
“Rashkah-Nahata.” Lord Anjien stood up and the shadows seemed to rise in unison with him. “Your first task as my apprentice is to assassinate one of my enemies. A test of your trust, as it were.”
She grasped her hands behind her back, her wounds throbbing but it was easier to focus on her pain than her fear. “Tiu, Neb’i.” Her heart rate quickened when he made no efforts to move, not even a word of reply.
He moved around his desk, head turned away and hood obscuring her view of his mask. “There is a colonel here on business. He will remain here for a few more days before leaving.”
The closer he came to her, the tighter she squeezed her hands behind her back. She could feel the blood moisten her bandages and forced herself to stop or else blood would drip on the floor.
He stopped mere inches away.. The cold metal of his gauntlet began to wrap gently around her throat. He turned his head, lifting her jaw as he examined her features for some detail she couldn’t begin to fathom. Finally, he spoke, pricking her attention, “Your task is to assassinate him before he can continue his voyage. Understand?”
Her lips parted as she searched for something to say, anything small and meager. The words slowly left her lips, “Tiu, Neb Anjien. I understand.”
Merletta spoke to appease him, “She will. She can follow orders without a problem.”
Nahata met her gaze and it was Merletta’s way of warning her. She couldn’t nod her head in agreement, not with his hold on her throat.
His hand fell away but only for a moment. He snapped hold of her collar and pulled her forward. He grabbed her wounded arm, prying it from her fearful grasp behind her back so that it was in plain view. Blood had seeped through the cloth.
“Have your bandages changed.” He threw her arm away. “You can’t afford to have your wounds turn septic out of foolish carelessness.”
“Tiu, Neb Anjien.”
“Meet me in the armory when you’ve finished.” He stepped around her and beckoned Merletta to follow. “Come with me, Crow. We have much to discuss and plan.”
“My pleasure, my lord.” She tossed Nahata a wink while she followed him out of the room.
The moment the doors opened and slid shut behind her, the weight of her breath fell out of her lungs. She leaned forward and pressed her hands into her thighs. It was the first time in a long time since she felt afraid, truly afraid. There was something unnerving about him.
Perhaps it was the helmet, the plainness of his attire, the way he carried himself. He wasn’t like the other Dev who flouted around, puffing up in order to look frightening. He felt frightening. The aura that seeped off of him sent a cold sweat down the nape of her neck.