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Sundew

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You look at the guy and he’s familiar. The way he moves, the way he wields his sword. Fighting is a dance that everyone teaches differently. And his screams Qun, the efficiency of it, the economy of his steps. He looks at you, though, and flinches. He thinks you don’t notice, but you do, because you’re not a moron. So it must be fresh. You wonder. He’s bred and build for battle, every inch of him is a soldier, so Antaam. His Trade is really good, and in a fight, he uses his bulk for intimidation as much as actual fighting, like he’s unmovable. Maybe he’s not even aware he’s doing it, but that’s a Beresaad soldier if you’ve ever seen one, vanguard in every inch of him.

If you just watched, you could guess at his secrets. With enough time, and enough patience, you’d eventually know without even speaking to him. You’ve never been patient. You want to know.

Meraad sees you coming because you want him to. His eyes track you until you sit down on the ground in front of him and he pointedly doesn’t stop sharpening his sword. If you wanted him comforted, you’d take out your daggers and polish them, offer him some common ground, but having him on his back foot works for this conversation, so you just sit and look.

“So,” you say.

He looks at you like you might try and spit poison his way. Oh, the Beresaad trained him well enough that his face doesn’t give it away, it’d fool any human around, but you know better. Mistrust is written into the lines of his knuckles, the way he holds his head.

“Hello,” he says, in Trade. “Kasaanda, yes?”

Well, nice of him to remember names. He’s been here a week, and you’re a popular sort, so it’s not that surprising, but you’d bet he’s memorised not just yours. Seems the type.
“Yeah, that’s me. Figured we could have a chat, you ‘n me.”

He narrows his eyes, just a little, and looks down at the sword.
“What do you want to talk about?”

Hmm. He doesn’t want to have this conversation. Time to fuck it up. You switch to Qunlat, and it makes him twitch, the same way it did when you greeted him with shanedan. “Oh, you know. Being Tal-Vashoth. Defecting from the Qun.”

The rhythmic grind of his whetstone against the blade stops.
“I’m Vashoth,” he replies, too fast, in perfect Qunlat. Yeah. Good fighter, bad liar. It would always be that way if you weren’t the living exception to the rule.

“Oh, of course.” His eyes flicker up to you, just sitting there, head tilted, smiling. He looks back down at the sword and resumes sharpening it. The rhythm of it fits over the cantos his tama would have taught him. “I’ll just talk about me then. Bound to be interesting for someone who hasn’t experienced it at all. I defected six years ago in Rivain. Took off one night and never looked back. I mean, I could, I have my asala with me still, but eh. Bit late now. I like it down here. Life under the Qun just wasn’t for me. I chafed, you know? Being told what I can and can’t do, who I can and can’t fuck, what kind of love is acceptable. That everyone else who’s not us is a thing.”
He twitches at the last one, again, and it’s like scenting blood. Maybe you’ll never get out of the thrill of cracking people’s secrets, but at least you’re not using them any more.

“I had to go,” he says, looks like he bit into a bitter orange. He’s staring at the blade of his sword, like he’s zoning out. Might be bad. You don’t want him going full asala-taar right here.

“Yeah, you did. Me too. We wouldn’t have gone if we didn’t have to. It is to be.” He flinches just a little at the asit tal-eb, which, yeah, you thought he might. “Funny, isn’t it? They tell us we all have a place to be in, and then we run because we can’t have it any more. That’s the place we have to be in, then, by their logic. If it all has to be, then we have to be away.”

He doesn’t say anything to that, but the line between his brows deepens. He has handsome horns, and the way he holds his head tells you he’s lost the left one pretty recently. Keeps compensating for a weight that’s not there any more.

You switch back to Trade, watch him relax just a fraction.
“Glad you got out, either way. Makes it a bit less lonely out here.” You scoot closer and pat him on the knee in a friendly and consoling manner. He seems to appreciate the gesture. Playing at being clumsy at social interaction gets people who are genuinely clumsy at social interaction to like you more easily.

“I don’t know if I am.”

“Out or glad?”

“Glad.” He meets your eyes and oh, yeah, this is the rawest topic on his mind. “I’m out. I’ve given up my entire future. My entire life. My asala. It’s all gone, and I’m going to die surrounded by bas. Like an animal. For nothing.” His look is fucking intense. He’s latched on to you now, like you’ve got some Tal-Vashoth wisdom you can bestow on him to make this easier to bear.

“If it was for nothing, then why did you go?” A simple enough question, really, and it does the job of yanking his mind onto a different track. He looks at the sword again. Weapon-fixated Antaam soldiers. At least he has a comfort item.

“They were going to re-educate me.” His voice is rougher. “Again. Fucked up the first time. Didn’t notice. Maybe the second time would have helped. Maybe I already spent too much time around the bas. I don’t know. But I couldn’t go again. My… my kadan, he said I should go. Be part of the whole. But I couldn’t. I had to leave.” He’s been struggling, it’s plain to see; he had nobody to talk to about this, and you’re here. You’re not going to mention what exactly you did in Rivain before you left.

“So, you went for yourself,” you nod sagely. “To be your own person. Like me. I get it. It’s what I did. And I’ve turned out pretty well, wouldn’t you say?”

His eyes snap back to you and you feel his gaze, know he’s sizing you up, the piercings in your ears, the tattoos on your arms, the braids in your hair. The jewellery. All the signs of indulgence, the markers of being different. Things that aren’t done in Qunandar. You smile serenely.

“Are you happy out here?” he asks, and oh, he doesn’t quite trust your smile. Smart man. You trace the line of one of your tattoos down your neck to where it disappears under the shoulder of your vest, and his gaze is on you like a touch. Less like you’re made of poison. More like he wants a taste.

“Oh, yes. The freedom is amazing. The bas don’t treat each other well, but might makes right here, and you and I are strong. I think you’ll do just fine if you let yourself enjoy things.” You tip your head a little. “Tide. You could be quite a force of nature here, surrounded by little humans and elves. A prized fighter. Quite unstoppable, like the sea.”

“I’m named for the prayers of the dead,” he says, and oh, alright. Maybe a mis-step, there.

“I think you’ll see that there’s a lot to live for out here,” you encourage. “Indulge. Fight, and win. Travel, perhaps. I think seeing the world you’ve been let loose on is a good first step.”

He seems to mull over your words in his head a bit.
“What are you named for?”

The guy wants a change of topic, and that’s okay. You’ve got his secrets. Let him sit on your words a while, think on them.
“Kasaanda? They call it sundew in Trade. I named myself for it because I sparkle prettily in the sunlight, and because I’m more dangerous than I look to stupid little flies.”

You feel his eyes on you again, on your lithe shape, on the daggers at your waist, on the capped points of your horns, on the curl of your smile. It almost makes you preen.
“You look plenty dangerous.”

“You’re not a stupid little fly, then. Good. That means you’ll survive out here.” You rise, and his eyes follow, and they linger. You’re a freedom, a confidence, a security he can’t rationalise wanting yet, so he wants you instead. The thought rises in his mind, so obvious if you know what to look for. Eh, why not. He’s handsome enough. “I think you’ve got a handle on the fighting and the winning. But maybe not on the indulgence, yet.”

It’s easy. You lead, he follows.
“No,” he says, “I don’t think I do,” and you don’t know if he’s had anyone but a tamassran yet, but he understands. Smart man. Quick study, if you’re lucky.

“I’ll give you some pointers, then,” you offer. Beckoning would be too cheesy, but you tip your head to indicate and he rises, half a head taller than you and twice as broad, and follows you like a shadow.