The fondest memory Aza had, that was both sweet and agonising to recall, was when he was ten and Ala was seven, and they both sat at their mother’s feet during a terrible snowstorm.
Mom always had a sixth sense for these things – so in the week leading up to it, she had crunched through the frosty woods they made their home in, Aza close at her heels, soaking up her hunting wisdom, and brought back plenty of game to dry and store for a long, cold blizzard. When the snowstorm hit, she centred them both in her bedroom, every blanket they possessed gathered into the cosiest, warmest nest, the howling of the wind muffled when them buried underneath it.
It had still been cold, but Mom made everything seem less scary. She had lounged under the blankets with them, her mouth curled into a lazy, confident grin like there wasn’t a terrible, violent snowstorm battering at their little hut in the woods, her soft voice cutting through the howl of the wind with a gentle ease, telling them Ala’s favourite bedtime story: the Coeurl and the Bluebird.
Aza remembered that night very very fondly. It had been warm, and lovely, but so painful because that was lost to him forever. Ala was forever twelve years old, never to grow up, and his Mom… who knew where she was now. Aza never went back to their little modest hut in the woods – he couldn’t remember which woods they had been, couldn’t remember… he couldn’t remember what she looked like at times, either.
Blond hair, long, with bright yellow eyes and… but the details were indistinct and even her voice…
But he remembered that story. Remembered how she spoke about the Coeurl that had gotten lost, had wandered deep into the snowy wilderness, alone and hungry and afraid… when a Bluebird appeared to it, and led it to its new home with its persistent singing of hope.
Aza, even at that age, knew it to be a silly little story. But. He still remembered it.
Aza woke up with the burn of water up his nose and the taste of salt on his tongue.
He didn’t cough so much as heave, mindlessly digging his fingers into the grainy sand beneath him as his lungs spasmed and crushed tight behind his ribs. He coughed up water – and maybe a bit of vomit – and by the time he was done he felt empty and shaky and dizzy. And hurt. He hurt a lot too.
He stayed half-hunched over the sand, eyes still squeezed firmly shut as he breathed raggedly. Water swirled at his feet and legs, crashing waves, the cry of gulls, the…
Aza opened his eyes, straightening up as he swallowed down the sharp stinging in his throat. A pale yellow beach met his blurred sight, craggy rocks towering high with trees drooping over their edges. He forced himself to look over his shoulder, to see the vast stretch of the Ruby Sea glittering behind him – with no sign of the storm and the prison ship that had been caught viciously in its grasp.
He sat there for… he didn’t know how long. The sea looked calm as anything, deceptively, and Aza didn’t know what to do with this miracle. One he didn’t even want. He had spent the beginnings of his journey from Kugane in a state of pleasant apathy. He didn’t care what happened to him anymore. Ever since he freed himself from that disgusting animal and- then-
Aza shivered, his mind going very very blank when he thought of THAT. He didn’t want to think of THAT. The damp, coarse sand on his palms itched, suddenly, feeling sticky and he could smell copper and no- stop. Thinking. No.
He scrubbed at his face, his eyes stinging when he rubbed sand into them, and clumsily got to his feet. His bindings were still on his wrists – about a foot of chain to give him some form of mobility – but his feet were free at least. Free to… do something.
His lungs still burned, and his head felt stuffed full of cotton. He… he didn’t know what to do. When the ship had started to tilt, when the prisoners took their chance and began the riot mid-storm, Aza had just sat there and waited for the Twelve to sort him out. Whatever happened… it was pointless without- no. Not thinking about it.
He should have drowned.
Aza stared at the sea and took a few slow, wobbling steps forwards. The water lapped at his shins, pleasantly warm and gentle, and Aza took a few more. He could feel himself shaking from head to toe, his heart thumping wildly in his chest, but – it was for the best, really. Whatever miracle the Twelve pulled, it was wasted on him. He shouldn’t- he couldn’t-
That terrifying, focused determination that gripped him was abruptly shattered by the scream of a child.
Aza went rigid, hearing it echo and quieten – then start again- to be cut off abruptly. A child – a girl? He turned away from the sea, the scream triggering old instincts, old- protect Ala- sounded like Ala, but there was- no way? She couldn’t-
The silence dragged on and Aza, his earlier plan forgotten, stumbled towards it source.
There was an unpleasant sense of déjà vu as he reached a squat, clump of rocks clustered at the edge of the beach, the yellow sand hardening into barnacle encrusted tidepools. Aza clumsily splashed through them, ignoring the sharp bite of rocks and pain cutting into his bare soles, until he reached the edge of it, scooting close and peering round-
To see two burly pirates manhandling a small Au Ra child.
“Gods, this lil’ bugger has some sharp teeth!” The one grappling the child snarled – a rugged looking Hyur with an ugly, scarred face and bulging biceps. He easily held the child by pinning her arms down her sides, ignoring her little feet and scaly tail thwacking him in the shins. Her mouth had something like a wad of cloth jammed right into it. His hands had bleeding cuts, like teeth marks, all over them, “Should knock ‘em all out!”
“Oi, oi, y’know th’ Boss wants their faces pretty like,” the other pirate – a young, bored looking female Roegadyn drawled. It was her that had Aza frozen in terror, his breathing caught in his throat. That was First Mate of Captain Loetrlona; Haergeim. He remembered the bottom of her boot with an intimacy that he wished he didn’t have.
Loetrlona’s cronies. He forgot – they prowled the Ruby Sea constantly. They- they picked people up along these beaches – those sold out by people smugglers, trying to escape Yanxia and, those who didn’t pay the Ruby Tithe and became stranded on one of the many islands littering the sea they- no. Aza couldn’t- he couldn’t. Loetrlona would break him. He killed her main source of income. He.
“Pfft, that was for Lord Musa,” the Hyur sneered, “But ‘e’s not about anymore, is ‘e? What’s we even snatchin’ children fer, if that pervert’s dead anyways?”
“There’re loads of other perverts in Kugane,” Haergeim said, not moving to help as the Hyur started to haul the struggling child into their boat. “Xaela Au Ra fetch high prices anyways. No one really wants to brave the Steppes lookin’ for them barbarians.”
“Lucky for us them smugglers found ‘er then, even if she is a biter,” the Hyur said cheerfully, swinging the child around like she weighed nothing. At this point the Au Ra had stopped kicking, her pale, furious face streaked with tears.
“We’ll just muzzle her. It’ll give ‘er exotic points, or some shit,” Haergeim said carelessly, inspecting her nails, “Just hurry up and secure her. I want to get back before sundown.”
The Hyur muttered something, but went to work trying to juggle a squirming child and a length of rope he grabbed out of the boat. Aza remained squatted behind the rock, too petrified to move, too terrified at the thought of them spotting him – recognising him – taking him back and. The best thing would be Captain Loetrlona outright killing him. The worst thing would be her keeping him and selling him to a new master.
A new master he’d… no. He’d kill them. He’d kill them. He could do it. He could. He knew how easy it was now.
His breathing was short and ragged in his throat as he watched the Hyur pin the child down – ignoring her muffled whines of outrage – pulling her hands together and. Haergeim was looking the other way, towards the looming cliffs and their drooping trees. He could get away but.
The Au Ra child was dark haired – slightly curly and messy, bunched around her protruding dark horns in a way that was painfully painfully familiar. She was pale and small and – was probably around Ala’s age, and, she was crying now, angry, frustrated tears and muffled screams as the Hyur finished off his tying with a pleased grunt and.
It was too much. A large part of him was screaming to slither away like the wretch that he was, finish his job of throwing himself into the sea and spitting in the eye of the Twelve’s miracle. A last bit of spite for a pathetic creature like him. But another part, the part that still remembered Ala clumsily going through her archery drills and getting dirt on her nose and crying when Loetrlona stomped her boot down on her tail was howling and it was difficult to- to separate that.
He remembered Ala, sprawled out beneath him, his hands wet and her chest- no.
Ala was in the Hyur’s hands, crying and frightened and no, no no no
Aza, didn’t really remember what happened.
Before he realised, he had shot across the distance between him and the Hyur. Before he realised, that thin chain connecting his wrist-shackles was tight against that burly man’s throat and he heaved his entire weight behind it. The Hyur leapt to his feet, gurgling and thrashing wildly, and Aza just – clung on, leaning back and letting gravity do the work as he practically dangled off the thrashing Hyur’s back. Haergeim was yelling – angry- enough to make his pulse rocket from memory but-
Strong, broad hands grabbed at him, but Aza just – there was a lot of yelling, his pulse was roaring and his heart was pounding and after a few confusing seconds where his body registered someone hitting him but his brain just plain punted the pain aside, like he was a distant spectator of his own body and not the current occupant, the Hyur sagged against him and Aza wrenched his hands up, freeing his victim from his pseudo-garrotte and-
“YOU FUCKER!” Haergeim was screaming right into his face, grabbing the chain with one hand, jerking it down so hard he almost headbutted her in the chest, “YOU PIECE OF SHIT. I KNEW WE SHOULD’VE DROWNED YOU ALL THOSE YEARS AGO!”
A knife dangled at her waist in a loose sheath.
Aza’s mind went clear. In a nice, numb sort of way. Haergeim let go of his chain to grab him by the neck instead, squeezing tight, her other hand drawing back to punch him in the face – her knuckles were already scuffed – oh, she had been hitting him earlier. Hmm. Well then.
He grabbed the knife and had it rammed up to the hilt inside her, just below her breastbone, in one smooth, easy movement.
Haergeim’s eyes bugged out wide – it looked so comical that Aza let out a strained, high-pitched laugh, feeling red, hot blood over his fingers, sticky, and suddenly it wasn’t funny, because it wasn’t Haergeim staring at him in dumb, open-mouthed shock it was Ala’s pale, stunned face, her mouth open as she let out that breathy “oh”, confused, staring at him, blankly, the knife right in her chest and her blood sticky and warm on his fingers and-
Aza was on the ground.
Haergeim was on the ground too, moaning quietly as she curled around the knife in her gut. Aza could feel himself shaking, his hands over his mouth, his stomach feeling like it was going to crawl right out of it. Oh Gods. His mind was caught on-
It was like it just hit him. Ever since- ever since he killed the disgusting animal, Ala’s de… d-death hadn’t… he had existed in a state of numb apathy. He hadn’t cared about anything. Hadn’t cared when the Sekiseigumi arrested him. Hadn’t cared when he was sentenced to a life of hard labour. Hadn’t cared when the storm hit the boat. Hadn’t cared…
But now his mind was stuck on Ala, pale, confused, staring, her tiny chest red and wet and the knife deep in – and, he realised, he killed her. He killed her. The realisation of it all almost made him scream, leaning over under his forehead pressed into the coarse sand, hands pressed tight over his mouth, breathing through the horror of it all until slowly, slowly, slowly, he… the apathy was crawling back in because, he couldn’t think about it. He couldn’t. Don’t think about it.
Aza didn’t know how long he lied there. Haergeim had gone silent. The Hyur was in a messy sprawl on the floor.
The Au Ra child…
Aza slowly lifted his head. The Au Ra child was huddled next to the boat, the water lapping around her as she stared at him with wide eyes. His hands were still sticky with blood – smeared all over his face – he must look terrifying. He is terrifying. But- he did this for a reason. He had to think that. He needed to… he could free her, at least.
He picked up the knife – and instantly dropped it. The sensation of its grip against his palm, damp and warm with blood and- oh Gods, no. Fuck. Shove that memory back down now.
The Au Ra girl was staring at him.
“I’m…” Aza croaked, and realised this was the first time he had spoken in almost a week, “I’m not gonna hurt you.”
The girl’s stare turned sceptical.
“I was… these guys caught me before,” he explained, forcing himself to pick up the knife again. It hurt. Oh fuck, no, the sensation of holding it was almost too much, but he needed to – just until he freed the girl. He got to his feet, ignoring the urge to vomit, “They sold me. They would’ve sold you too.”
The girl shrank away from him as he advanced, her eyes wide with terror as he leaned down, grabbing her wrists and-
Cut through the ropes.
He cut through her wrist bindings and her feet – and as he reached to ungag her she scrambled away from him. She climbed over the edge of the boat and tumbled headfirst into it with a solid thump. Aza let her do it, dropping the knife like it burnt him, and focused on his breathing.
Time drifted again – he was hungry and thirsty, he noted detachedly, and couldn’t remember when he last ate and drank – and the girl eventually poked her head over the edge of the boat, staring at him suspiciously.
Aza stared back dully.
“…you’re scary,” the girl whispered to him – but it was a fierce whisper, defiant – kind of like what he would’ve done at her age. Did do. Got his shit kicked in by Loetrlona because of it.
“Yeah,” he rasped, “I am.”
“Are you a murderer?” the girl asked him, with the sort of careless curiosity only a child could have.
Aza’s stomach rolled, because – yeah. He was that. With Mast- the disgusting animal, it was easy to compartmentalise that murder. He was an animal. A disgusting creature that wasn’t a person. Ergo, it wasn’t murder. Ala, though. Ala.
“Yes,” he whispered, his voice barely louder than an exhale.
The girl watched him for several long moments.
“I think you’re crazy,” she decided, but then climbed over the edge of the boat, gingerly standing before him. She, pointedly, picked up the knife, and held it with a confidence that spoke of experience. Her chin was tilted proudly, her gaze defiant – Aza had no doubt she would shank him if he tried anything.
“But you saved me, so you’re okay,” she continued, when he didn’t reply. “Why’re you chained up?”
“Prison,” Aza answered, finding talking exhausting. He found himself listing to the side slightly, “Where’re your parents?”
The girl instantly paled, “Oh no! They must be… I’ve been gone for hours!”
She scampered away. Aza didn’t watch her go.
He thought himself alone, and was contemplating the whole drowning plan again, but a few minutes later she returned, frowning at him warily, still holding the knife firmly in her hand but letting it dangle, relaxed, at her side.
“Crazy guy, are you gonna just sit here?”
Aza tilted his head, letting his gaze drift over to her, “…yeah.”
“That’s dumb. At least come back with me. Daddy will want to say thanks for saving me.”
That sounded like too much effort, but the girl, despite her frown, looked worried, and Aza realised that they were still in the wilderness. Aside from slavers, there were also wildlife and other unsavoury types roaming the place – all terrible threats to a young child, armed with a knife or not.
Aza wouldn’t be much help, but maybe he could be a meatshield, or a distraction or something…
Do this one thing, something in him whispered, don’t let her be another Ala.
“Okay,” he said, and got to his feet. The world spun a little – he was really thirsty – but the girl moved forwards, taking his hand in a tight grip. The blood was tacky, and he almost flinched, but the girl just tightened her grip.
“My parents call me their little Bluebird,” she told him with utmost seriousness, “So you can call me that too. What’s your name?”
“That’s a dumb name,” Bluebird told him, “But okay. I’ll protect you, Aza, don’t worry.”
He almost laughed. But he realised he was shaking still, was gripping Bluebird’s hand just as tightly as she was, and said nothing as the child strode forwards confidently, pulling him along whilst holding her knife aloft in the other hand, as if ready and primed to stab anything slaver-shaped.
“You won’t be sold again, Aza,” she told him confidently, “And I won’t be sold at all! We’re gonna meet Daddy, and he’ll protect us both, you see.”
Life must be so nice, viewed so simply, Aza thought idly. But it was comforting… even if he didn’t deserve it. He’ll just lead her home, then… he’ll figure the rest of it out, maybe.
He let this little Bluebird lead her to his home, listening to her idle chatter, but didn’t feel that much hope. Yet.