Nahata: A Crow's Command
The engines droned, the whole ship beginning to vibrate against her spine as they readied to leave. She finally dared to look at the other passengers who sat opposite to her. She couldn’t see their faces but she knew they were looking at her. How could they not scrutinize the former slave?
It was at least an hour before the airship made its first stop. But the guard beside her hadn’t budged. He didn’t even open his eyes.
She swallowed her pulse. Should she wake him? Check to see if this was their stop?
The desert heat spilled into the large space as the door fell open. Sand and wind rushed in and scattered across the floor. She could see the tall desert mountains in the distance and the sun blaring overhead.
She shifted in her seat, straightening her spine as her fingers curled against the edge of the metal bench. Her lips parted to say something but he shifted suddenly in his seat.
“Nearly there,” he mumbled before clearing his throat. “Unless you’re planning on running...” He peered over at her with a chastising grin.
“What war?” She hardened her tone, not at all interested in pointless teasing. “You mentioned I would be forced to fight. Who are we even fighting?”
He snorted then laughed as if she had made the funniest joke he had ever heard. His laughter finally subsided. He rolled his head away then grinned cheekily back at her. “Who aren’t we fighting? We’ve been fighting the Arpaeia the longest and then the elves and then after that the humans. There’s no end to war. We will always be at war with someone.”
Her voice lowered to a painful whisper, “What are the Dev?”
His smile trembled but it held fast. “What kind of question is that?”
“Some say they’re gods. Others, demons.” She narrowed her eyes as she analyzed his expression. He wasn’t serious enough about what she was saying. “So... what are they?”
“Gods,” he stated matter-of-factly. His humor fell away and his shoulders stiffened tightly. “We’ll reach the outpost soon. Better go take a piss while you have time.”
She swept a quick glance over to the other passengers then towards the bathroom door. She leaned forward awkwardly, not at all ready to leave her spot beside the guard. Although, she supposed he wasn’t quite a guard to her anymore. He was a ‘fellow’ soldier.
She got to her feet and stomped forward. Her legs felt weak beneath her weight, trembling and jagged after each step. Suddenly, everyone’s eyes were on her and she had to look every bit like the Dev as they did.
When she finally reached the bathroom door she almost leapt inside and slammed it shut behind her. Her hands fell onto the edge of the metal sink, cold bursting against her swollen hands. Her breath jetted out of her lungs in relief to finally be alone even if it was for a few minutes.
She peered up at her reflection then quickly looked away in utter fear. Seeing her own features, the unfamiliar outline of someone she had spent her whole life with, was unnerving. She’d seen her reflection before in pools of water and warped metal but it had never been quite so clear.
She peeked up at her chapped lips, baked and split open from the dry heat. Freckles were scattered across her red face, thick blotches along her nose. She turned away from the mirror before looking any further. Her hollowed cheeks and sunken eyes made her look sickly compared to the other Dev out there. She wasn’t surprised now that they had been staring at her. It was obvious she was a slave.
Her stomach tightened. She leaned forward in hopes the sickness and hunger would be pushed further down. Now wasn’t the time to lose her composure, what little of it that was left.
A loud bang slammed against the door forcing her to jump backwards against the sink, her gasp muffling his words. “Nahata. We’re landing. Let’s go.” The engine began to quiet. So quiet she could hear the guard walking away from the door.
Nahata, she muttered the name, letting her tongue test the sound of it. She glanced over her shoulder to the gold eyes of a Coyote, unnervingly pale as if the sun had stolen the life out of them.
She pushed herself off the sink and sucked down a breath. She had no choice but to stand taller, to look every bit as strong as them, if she had any hopes of surviving.
The transporter’s hatch began lowering as she stepped out of the bathroom. The blazing sun and burning heat outside hit her in a sudden gust. It was almost comforting, she realized. It was more familiar to her than the cold chill of Devian buildings. The hatch pounded against the ground, dust and sand swelling into the ship and Nahata’s lung.
Her escort glanced over at her, corner of his mouth deepening into a frown. “When we get out there you’ll need to get some documents made. The empire wants to track all of its... new citizens.”
She swallowed the dry air and retorted, “Lovely. One meager step closer to being free.”
His chuckle was quiet as he marched forward with the rest of the Dev. He threw out a hand across the landing pad, buildings lined up with busy customers, but one building void of people. “Over there. They’ll give you your documents.”
“Not too many Dev over there...”
“Not many want to sign their lives away,” he agreed and nudged his chin. “Go on.”
“Go on and do what?”
He clicked his tongue as he suddenly remembered. “Right. Let’s go.” He led the way through the scattered crowd of cloaked Dev, hoods drawn and elaborate masks concealing most of their features. They weren’t as frightening as the guards from the work camps. Most weren’t wearing the massive suit of armor. Their clothes were thin linens and satin. But they were unnerving all the same.
“Your paper.” He held out his hand, flicking his fingers impatiently.
She pulled the folded paper out of her jacket pocket and held it out to him. For a brief moment she saw the stamped insignia of her clan, a group of people she barely knew.
He pointed to the window they approached until she saw the women sitting behind the desk. His voice lowered, the words barely audible, “Hand them over to her.”
Nahata stepped forward and slid the paper across the desk. The woman eyed them then leaned forward. She spoke the Devian language, words skipping aggressively across her lips.
The guard spoke up, his words just as aggressive and his brow raised in challenge. The woman huffed, palms slapping down onto the table but she took the paper all the same. The guard glanced briefly at Nahata. He gave the slightest nod as if to settle any fears.
The clerk typed furiously across various lighted squares, symbols rolling out across the screen before her. When the lights flickered off and the symbols stopped rolling out, she slammed her hand against the screen.
“What’s she doing?”
The guard replied as quiet as earlier, “She’s registering you as part of the empire. Your identification card will be used to access your monthly allowance and pass through checkpoints to different sectors of the continent. The other papers will prove you’re birth, clan, and status. Don’t lose them. You don’t want to be mistaken as a rebel.”
“Rebel?” Nahata jolted curiously.
He shook his head and said nothing further.
The woman finally returned her attention to them. She slapped the card down onto the desk then followed it with more papers. She slid everything carefully inside a metal case then shoved it towards Nahata. Without exchanging any words, Nahata took the case and followed the guard towards the crowd.
“They’re yours now,” he muttered and nudged his chin towards the glass doors ahead.
She slid the case into her jacket pocket. “Now what?”
His steps slowed to a halt and he faced her head on. “This is as far as I go. Inside that building, you’re on your own. It’s a battle of wits and strength from here on out.”
“Where do I go? I don’t speak Devian.”
“They’ll give you a translator. Just speak to the woman at the counter.” He patted her shoulder and pushed her gently towards the doors. “Watch your back in there.”
She shuffled forward. When he gave a stiff bow of his head, she did the same. It was an awkward gesture, one she had never done before.
Nahata turned away from him and stepped towards the glass doors. She watched a few other Dev open the doors with a push of a button so she wasn’t too surprised when the door slid open from her touch. Magic, she wondered curiously. But the machine the clerk had used seemed something altogether different from magic.
Nahata stepped towards the large counter in the middle of the grand hall. Her attention scanned across the high ceiling. The dark gray stone of the building darkened the small orange lights scattered about the room. It was just as dark as she imagined Devian buildings to be.
She finally lowered her eyes to the secretary’s raised brow and plain slate clothes. She wasn’t dressed like the other Dev. She looked more like a piece of furniture, every inch of her matching the building that surrounded them.
Nahata’s voice was quieter than she expected it to be, a nervousness clutching at her throat, “I need a translator.”
The secretary rolled her attention down at her desk, fingers swiping across the sleek glass until her attention caught sight of something. “Rashkah... Nahata...” Her eyes swept upwards for confirmation.
Nahata raised a shoulder nonchalantly. “I guess... Unless you want my slave number...”
Her expression remained frozen, not at all moved by Nahata’s words. She lowered her gaze to her desk’s glossy surface. Her fingers slid across the glass in agile speed before grabbing something from one of the drawers. She held it out to Nahata, barely giving her a glance.
She grabbed it from the other woman and turned it curiously. “And this is...”
The receptionist tapped a finger against her own ear. She said a few words in the Devian language, the sound completely different from Nahata’s.
“The translator.” She held the device longer, not at all eager to put something inside her ear. “Just one more fun bonus added to my day...” She relented and slid the cold stone into her ear canal. A shiver ran down her spine in discomfort.
The coordinator spoke again, the Devian words quickly changing, “You should be able to understand me now. Follow me, please.”
“Can you understand me?”
She glanced at her briefly as she rounded the large desk. She ignored her words entirely and climbed the grand staircase that circled around like a serpent. Nahata followed her through the crowds of rushing Dev, making an effort to avoid them as best she could. And they seemed to avoid her as well, her presence obviously different.
They walked across a wide bridge that connected the two buildings together. Suddenly and without any prompts, the secretary halted and spun around. She bowed lowly and held out a hand towards the door. It was strange to see someone bow to her, a slave who had been shoved into the dirt countless times before.
“Should I knock?”
The secretary didn’t shift from her bow, not even the slightest. Nor did she make any efforts to explain.
Nahata swept her attention towards the door “Well, you’re completely useless...” She stepped towards it, throwing a hand out absentmindedly to where a door knob should have been. The door smoothly slid open and Nahata found herself meeting the gaze of an older woman.
The secretary left without a word and only Nahata stood there in the doorway. She had to force her feet to shuffle forward, force herself to look at the two masked Dev watching her.
Sitting proud behind a long stone desk was an older woman. She wore feathered pauldrons and a bird-shaped mask. On the other side of the desk was a Dev with fur lining his robes. His mask was faline in nature. He bowed lowly to the bird then rushed past Nahata and out the door. Whatever had transpired between them must have been serious.
She looked Nahata up and down. “Nothing but bones. And they honestly believe you’re worth the time to train.” Her chin was raised, her movements slow but stiff as she rose to her feet. She pressed her fingertips into the desk’s surface, a sheer black cape spreading out behind her with intricate feathers sewn into the cloth. “I assume you can understand what I’m saying.”
“Not like it matters...” Nahata fixed her gaze, not at all bothered by the other woman’s attempt to look intimidating. She’d met worse Dev in the workcamps.
Her lips thinned, corners deepening in annoyance. “You’re a Dev now. The only language around here is Devian.”
“And now... my language is here.”
She rounded the desk, feet almost gliding across the floor with ease. “Before you speak further, dirt licker,” she mused, words droning across her tongue as she grew closer. “Allow me to inform you of my position... and your position below it.” Her hand snapped forward like a viper and squeezed around Nahata’s throat. “I am Merletta of the Crow clan, relative of our emperor. And you are rubbish pulled out of desert dunes to live in an empire you do not deserve.”
Nahata tilted her head, glaring down her nose at the older woman. “Spitting out a royal name to an empire of rubbish seems like a waste then...”
“You’ve got backbone talking to me like that.” Her stony expression softened only slightly as she began to smirk. “Let’s see how long until it breaks.” Merletta shoved Nahata away then strolled closer to her desk. “I’ll keep things simple for your slave brain. I’m the one in charge of your training. This day forth you’ll be tested for an aptitude fitting a soldier. If you prove worthy, you’ll gain prestige as well as enter into a mentorship.”
“If I fail...”
Merletta threw her a hard look. There was a moment of silence before she continued, “You’ll sleep in the dormitory, eat in the cantina, and train in the ring. Follow my lead and you’ll live long enough to leave this place alive.” She shifted her weight until she faced Nahata completely. “I’m going to assume living in the desert gave you enough sense to find those places on your own.” Merletta snapped up a piece of paper from her desk and held it out.
Nahata reached out, pinching the page between her fingers as Merletta continued to clutch hold of it. She was getting tired of these power plays.
“Go to the armoy first and get some proper gear. Then eat. After that, you won’t have time to eat, let alone breathe.”
She snatched the paper out of the woman’s grasp, crumpling the corner of it as she did. “Finished?”
“Don’t waste anymore time standing around.” Merletta crossed her arms and leaned back against the desk. “And careful with your words. Few Dev care for your... kind.”
Nahata spun on her heel but before she could step into the hallway, Merletta added abruptly, “And get something to cover your face. I don’t want to have to look at it any longer.”
She was tempted to say something, a harsh retort, but it would have been wasted. It was somewhat liberating that no one understood what she was saying. And yet, at the same time, she found it a little boring.
Nahata descended the steps to the first floor just as the map showed. The guards posted on either side of the staircase bowed ever so slightly at her. There was a slight hesitancy as if they weren’t quite certain what to make of the slave walking around. They looked quite different from the guards she was used to. Their armor was thin, the fabrics bright red and pristine. So pristine that she was certain they’d never seen a day of combat. Their spears in hand look only there for ceremony and nothing more. Their helmets too were animalic in nature. They were simple and quite plain.
She gazed across the massive foyer, finding that every major entrance was posted with the same guards. They didn’t seem to be there to frighten people. Or to really protect anyone. And other Dev really didn’t pay them any attention. It had to be mostly for appearances. Which, she was starting to notice, quite a normal thing for the Dev.
The foyer wasn’t quite as crowded as the upper floor had been. She found the silence unnerving as she strode to the other side. At any moment, she feared someone might call her out, the sheep surrounded by wolves, the imposter that she truly was. But she reasoned she was a Coyote now. She had claws and fangs just like the rest of them. Though to be fair, she didn’t know how to use those claws yet.
Nahata stepped into the narrow hallway that led downstairs to the basement level. The armory was tucked away in the back corner, a pungent scent burning against her nostrils. It was a familiar combination of metal and sweat. It was exactly how the workcamps smelled. And the dry heat that struck her upon opening the door reminded her of the desert sun.
The blacksmith had caught sight of the door opening then looked her up and down from head to toe. His voice was raspy, the years of breathing smoke taking their toll, “By the looks of your shitty gear, you’re the newest recruit then, eh?”
Nahata lowered her gaze to the fine fabrics of her jacket and the leather of her boots. She would hardly call it ‘shitty’. She wondered if the translator had made an error of some kind.
The blacksmith shuffled between the aisles of weapons and armor, knowing exactly what he was looking for. He grabbed a set of gloves. He shouted over the roars of the fireplace, “Every initiate starts off with these. They help mute your powers, make them more docile, you see. Control.” He returned to her and handed them over, the weight of them fairly heavy.
She looked over the intricate designs carved into the metal. She recognized the archaic looking symbols. They belonged to the Devian language. Spellcrafting. It was her first time really getting a close look at them. Some of the guards at the camp wore them on their armor but she never cared ‘looking’ at the runes.
“Well. Put them on then. We have to see whether or not they’ll fit your bony arms.” He impatiently grabbed one of the bracers from her and shoved the thick material onto her hands and wrists. He gave a hum of consideration as he shifted the leather belts a slight bit. “Those’ll do you fine. Come back should they need adjusting. Or they get destroyed.”
She gave a slight nod, her attention sweeping over towards the masks. Merletta had told her to get one but part of her wanted to disobey the orders of her bitter trainer. After all, she wasn’t exactly earning any respect.
“Ah, yeah, supposed you might be needing one of those as well...” The blacksmith also looked over the masks, knowing exactly what she was thinking. “What clan?”
“Nahata,” she muttered, the name still unfamiliar to her tongue.
She cleared her throat and spoke a little louder, “Nahata.”
“Is that so...” His expression flinched, a darkness crossing it before he turned sharply away. He moved over towards the back wall where the masks were and grabbed one. It was canid, sharp teeth bared aggressively. “I’m afraid your clan isn’t quite so... common.”
A laugh jutted breathily from her lungs. “Alive, you mean.”
He made his way back to her, his steps slower than they had been earlier. He wasn’t as impatient. His voice was a bit calmer too. “This belongs to your brethren clan. Wolves. It’ll suit you well enough for now.”
She took the item from him and it was a lot lighter than she imagined. It was thin. And like most Devian things it was a show of power and status. “What a useless custom...”
The blacksmith’s voice was low, so low she wasn’t sure she heard him correctly, “Take care not to ruffle feathers... Your people can’t bail you out of trouble.”
Nahata gave a few nods of her head before tying the mask into place. She gave a slight bow before stepping out of the warm armory and into the frigid hall. Through the narrow sight the mask offered, she glimpsed Merletta walking towards her.
“Ready to go, dirt licker?”
She heaved out an exasperated sigh. “So much for eating food...”
“Don’t backtalk or I’ll throw you in solitary.” Her voice sounded almost melodic for a second, a delightfulness in her tone. “Now, listen closely and follow me.” Merletta marched down the hallway, taking a sharp turn around the corner as she spoke, “Your new... and you’re late. Most Dev go through trials and aptitude tests when they’re children. You’re an adult and you’ve only just discovered your abilities.”
Adult, she scoffed. Nahata wasn’t certain exactly how many years she’d been alive but she knew for certain she wasn’t an ‘adult’. But then again, the Dev weren’t exactly the motherly type. Maybe they actually did consider her an adult.
She stopped suddenly and faced Nahata. “Don’t expect me to hold your hand. You’re a soldier now. Soon, you’ll be an officer. It’s my job to get you ready for battle and for court... if you live long enough.” She reached into her robes and pulled out a small book. “And take this. You plan on being alive and valuable... then you need to start talking our language.”
Nahata took the book in hand but at the sight of the unfamiliar alphabet she nearly groaned. She smiled widely but her lips were thin and teeth clenched.
“You can read that tonight.”
Sweetly, through her forced smile, she retorted, “I can’t read, you moron.”
“First, we need to test your range,” Merletta continued, barely paying her any mind. Perhaps she was already used to Nahata’s comments. “I want to know what your strengths are before we put you in the arena. Let’s start with the basics.”