“I don’t understand why I can’t hit you.” Auri was feeling frustrated, and it came across in her voice. Five years of training, four hours every day before her lectures and four hours after. They had sparred thousands of times at this point, and while Talem was much bigger than she was, he had nothing like her ability to shift metal. His power had something to do with perception, although she did not entirely understand how it worked. All he had for fighting her was a stone-tipped wooden spear, but he had a way of moving around that always left him a way out, and a way back in. Like he always knew where you weren’t looking, what you weren’t protecting.
“Even with your freaky steel arm, and your weird metal shaping powers, you still only have the one brain. I’ve said before, I’m not fighting your power, I’m fighting you.”
He had a point. Talem had been royalty before the kozan had found him, a Duke’s son. That meant he had been training with weapons since he could barely stand, and it showed. Tall and muscular, Talem looked like he had stepped out of some heroic fairy tale. In many ways, he had. The kozan had gotten to him quite late because his gift was so subtle. He may never had been caught at all, if he hadn’t been such a show-off. Winning a duke’s tournament at eleven years old wasn’t normal, and unfortunately for him there had been kozan in the crowd. It took a special gift to go through that many fights without making a single misstep.
Talem’s form was more than flawless, it was perfect, in a way that Auri suspected only he himself could truly appreciate. He was a mix of superhuman agility and minimal movements, regal posture and animalistic aggression. His royal heritage couldn’t hide his predatory nature. Though he had high cheekbones and straight features, he had eyes so black it made him look like a cat preparing to pounce. In some ways Auri thought he didn’t look completely real, as if someone had blended two opposing concepts and it had somehow worked. If they had not been such close friends, she might have a crush on him the way so many of the other girls did. Instead, he had filled the space left behind by Iri as best he could. She suspected that she was doing something along those lines for him, too.
“I’m faster than you are, and stronger,” she complained, slapping aside the speartip he was resting on her shoulder. “So what’s happening? Why can’t I win?”
Talem laughed in response. That was his most annoying trait. Whenever he laughed, he was laughing at someone, a loud guffaw that fell into a condescending chuckle as he shook his head. She wanted to smack the grin off his face, but instead she just looked away.
“You aren’t faster. Your weird metal shaping is, sure, but you aren’t. Not yet, anyway. Lift as much as you like, move as fast as you like, you’ll still never be quicker or stronger than your mind. You’re trying to hit the place where you think I’ll be, so I make sure to be somewhere else.”
“That doesn’t make any sense!”
“Look, badger. You follow me with your eyes, you see which direction I’m going in, then you try to hit where I’m heading. The thing is, you can’t predict me. Not exactly. You aren’t clairvoyant or a mindreader, and even experience will only take you so far. So what can you do?”
Auri flexed her metal arm. It wasn’t steel, exactly. A while ago, she had been given a shipment of a newly discovered metal called alum. No one knew how to work it just yet, or even how to refine it from ore in an effective manner, but that didn’t matter to her. While the flesh and bone of her arm was gone, something of it had remained in spirit. She filled that space with her metal most of the time, reforming her missing limb with her gift. She could move the steel out of the way when she needed to, however. Then she could reach with the ghost of her arm through a wall to get at the metal on the other side, or through stone to get at the ore. After spending days shifting through different mixes of alum and steel, she had found an alloy that worked for her. Not quite as strong as steel, but at a fraction of the weight, it had made her much faster than when she was lugging around the cast iron from an anvil. Not fast enough to win, though.
“I don’t know! You say I can never know what you’re going to do, that’s… that makes it impossible, Talem.”
His chuckle died away, and he straightened up, taking on a serious tone.
“I never said you couldn’t predict me at all, I said you couldn’t do it exactly. You can’t see which way I’m going to go, Auri, but you can see all the ways I could go. For most people that’s not enough, but what do you have that other people don’t Auri?”
“I have weird metal shaping powers,” she droned, rolling her eyes as she repeated his words.
“You sure do, and a freaky metal arm. So where does that leave you?”
She was about to yell at him again when she got his meaning. Her eyes went wide at the realization.
“I can come at you in all of them.”
Talem clapped his hands and laughed again, still as annoying as ever, although she thought he might not be trying to sound like such an ass this time.
“Right on!” His pleasure quickly died down to a thoughtful smirk. “Hmm,” he said. “In retrospect I feel like I probably should have kept that to myself.”
“Wait a second,” Auri exclaimed in abrupt offense. “Did you just call me slow in the head before?”
He just grinned at her. “To be fair, it did take you a while to catch on.”
“You’re a dick, Talem.”
“You don’t know what a dick is, kiddo.”
“What’s all this talk about dicks?” Kaplen asked as he came up behind the two of them. They both turned to stare at him. “I ain’t so sure you should be tryin’ to take on Talem’s manners Auri. We got our hands full with just the one fox in this compound.”
Over the last half decade, cadettes had come and gone. New faces had returned from the front and familiar faces had been sent out. Talem had grown from a young boy into a young man, and she herself had followed. Time passed quickly in the compound, every hour filled with tutors and training and lessons from the veterans. The only thing that never changed was Kaplen. He had not aged a day. Unlike most of the other kozan, he never went on missions or to the front. Instead he tended to the gardens, and to the people in them. She thought that perhaps that was something to do with his gift, although once more she did not know exactly how it worked. All she knew was that whenever they lacked a facility or resource within the vast confines of the castle’s outer wall, they would simply have to tell Kaplen, and within a day or two it would be as if it had always been there.
“What do you want, old man?” Despite his tone, Auri knew Talem liked him. As far as she knew, everyone did.
“Gettin’ up there yourself, fox. Hot damn you’re gettin’ tall, boy. Gonna be a silver fox like me in a decade or two, no doubt about it.” Kaplen smiled at them, and sat down on a treestump that she couldn’t remember if had been there a moment ago. “Anyhow Talem, I ain’t here for you, but you can stay if you like. Here for the badger.”
“For me?” Auri raised her eyebrows. She had talked to Kaplen quite often, but whenever he sought her out while she was in the middle of something, it was always because some part of her training was over and she was transitioning into something new.
“That’s right. You got a visitor. Someone you ain’t seen in a long time.” She felt her heart jump in her chest, and then immediately plunge back down as he kept talking. “No sweetheart, it ain’t your brother. You know the rules. No, m’afraid it’s someone you ain’t too keen on seein’ again.
“As you know,” he wasn’t giving her an opening to ask any questions, even though they were popping up faster than she could put words to them. “We’re plannin’ a siege on one of the hives down in the pales. The compound’s near empty ‘cause of it, and the usual rotations’ve all been extended. Still, even with everyone, we’re expectin’ some big losses, and the ones who’ve done their five years are gettin’ a chance to put their affairs in order before the attack.”
“What does this have to do with me?” There had been a lot of talk about the planned siege of Hive Brute, as it had come to be known. They were finally going to make real progress, take down one of the monster nests, kill the thing at the center of it all. The idea was that something in there was making the monsters, and that when it died the region could be reclaimed. Auri wouldn’t be a part of it though, she was far too young. Only the ones with experience from the front were allowed to go, and that left both her and Talem out. Considering some of the horror stories that came up from the south when veterans returned, she should have been relieved that that was the case. The truth was, she was disappointed.
The pales were where the kingdom ended and the old world began. No man’s land that was behind the front but outside the kingdom. It was what had been taken from mankind when the enemy had attacked almost a century ago and started a war that would last almost half a century. Only the kingdom had been left in the end, and its border was now the only border that mattered. A line in the sand that had not truly moved in all the time since the cataclysm. Now they were planning to advance in the first true offensive since the founding of their order. It was a bitter thought to consider that it would all happen without her.
“Basia’s back, and he wants to see you.”
She narrowed her eyes and spat on the ground. Basia, the one who had taken her arm, had left her writhing in agony for weeks, who still made her wake up in cold sweat. The way the stories went, she had taken out his eye in the fight and left him half-blind. She couldn’t even remember what he looked like. All she could see was the dark silhouette in the middle of a gale of fire that enveloped her and everything around. When she snapped back to the present, she found that she was clutching her steel arm, and forced herself to stop and fold her hands in her lap. It was best not to show that kind of sentimentality here, even when it was just Talem and Kaplen.
“What if I don’t want to see him?”
“We don’t always get what we want, badger. He took his five years at the front early to keep out of your way while you got settled in. He deserves his shot at makin’ amends, and you’re gonna give it to him. It’s that simple.”
Auri huffed out loud at being told what to do. “I thought you said you weren’t the boss.”
“I ain’t. You gon’argue?” Kaplen’s tone was never anything but congenial, but his raised brow suggested that he was more than ready to engage her if she tried to put her foot down. She chewed on it for a few seconds before she hung her shoulders and conceded.
“No.” Her voice was flat. No one argued with Kaplen. Perhaps he wasn’t in charge in any formal sense, but if there was a leader of the kozan beyond the king, it was him.
“Good girl,” Kaplen was all smiles again. “Here’s what’s gonna happen. Basia’s requested to take you on a mission. I’m thinkin’ he wants to show you something. He ain’t never acted out of turn, but seein’ as the two of you shaved some pieces off each other the last time you met, I want you to take Talem with you. We don’t normally send three on a mission, but considerin’ the two of you bein’ cadettes I think we can make an exception. How’s that sound?”
Auri and Talem exchanged a surprised look. Kozan always travelled in pairs, but outside of the compound or the pales, having three of them together was rare. It could only mean that even Kaplen didn’t trust Basia completely. She could see that Talem had reached the same conclusion. He wasn’t smiling, not even a smirk.
“What kind of mission?”
Kaplen shrugged. “Thinkin’ it’s better he tells you himself. We talked it over, and I like what he’s tryin’ to do. It’s somethin’ you both need to see.” He paused for a moment, mulling his words over in his mouth like a wad of tobacco. “Havin’ said that, look out for each other. That man’s got the shakes somethin’ fierce.”
Auri had heard of the shakes, she had even seen the one or two broken beings who still hung around the compound, too far gone to be useful ever again. Most kozan got it eventually, though some lasted longer than others. Whatever it was that happened down in the pales and near the front, it wore at them. Withered their minds and filled their dreams with horrors until they couldn’t sleep. When it went far enough, it was like their souls stayed down there in the land of monsters even after their bodies came home.
They jumped at every sound, pulled themselves into corners and forgot to blink until their eyes cracked and bled. Their hands shook so bad they could barely feed themselves. That was where the name came from, a constant trembling that left them unable to hold either weapon or pen. Retirement wasn’t much of a reward for the kozan, even if the king went to great lengths to care for them. Better to die doing your duty, than pay the price of survival. Talem had told her he thought that was why the king always kept a few of them around.
“It was up to me, we wouldn’t send him back, but we need his fire. Powers like his are rare. The enemy can’t adapt to burnin’, not like most other things.” Kaplen got up, and Auri noticed that she couldn’t see the stump he had been sitting on anymore. “Look, badger. Give him a chance for me, alright? We need him.”
She was a bit surprised by his change in tone, enough that it took her a moment to find her voice and answer.
“I’ll try. He burned my arm off, Kap.” She was rubbing the steel where her skin should have been again, playing along its articulated lines with her fingernails. “I can’t promise anything.”
“Kap?” said Talem. “I like that. Look, Auri, ‘Kap’ is right. I’ll have your back. ‘Sides, this’ll be your first mission. Even if it is Basia, that’s pretty great right?”
“I guess. I don’t know.” He might have a point, but she still felt like she was slipping back into a hole she had only recently managed to crawl out of. “I think I’m done training for today.”
Kaplen was already walking away when Talem put an arm around her shoulder. She was still fiddling with the metal on it when she felt his hand there and clutched it. Of the limb she had lost, all that remained was a phantom from the past, given substance by her gift. It had reached through her dreams into her memories and pulled out an ornate gauntlet, with crooked lines and jagged edges that shifted like clockwork when she moved it. Not even Talem had ever asked her why it wasn’t smooth. The peaks and grooves that made its silhouette were clear to her, though. She had known what they were the second it had crept out of that anvil and become part of her. In her dreams, it was still burning.