Aisling looked around, seeing nothing but acre after acre of Mongolian plains, stretching on and on like a never ending carpet. The Makers had taken her. Taken her and experimented on her and left her to die in the vastness of the steppes.
Well, at least she would attempt to survive, she was a Player after all and Players did not go down without a fight.
It took Aisling an hour of jogging to spot the huts in the distance, another of sprinting with short breaks in between to get to those huts. Or yurts, she supposed. Aisling knew this village was full of Donghu; she was not stupid. She knew they would probably kill her, but she was desperate. Beyond desperate. Besides the life threatening danger, she also would have to throw away every scrap of her honour for this.
She was trained as a Player, to play everything to her own survival, and not want, thus she agrees to these conditions.
Throwing dignity out the window, Aisling trudges towards the largest yurt, who, in it, she suspects, lives the leader of this village. The whole place is eerily quiet, just like the rest of Mongolia. She shuddered on the inside, and as she approached the structure, put her hands above her head in a universal sign of surrender. Slowly, she pushes herself through the thick, animal hide curtains -- and is met by the sight of a gun’s barrel pointed at her.
The girl wielding the weapon looks young, maybe fifteen or sixteen, and though her body is shaking her hands are steady. She has been trained, Aisling notes, though to do what she hasn't a clue. For a moment it's just the two girls facing each other, one who has her finger on the trigger, squeezing lightly. 0.2 centimetres more will be the end of Aisling Kopp, Player of the La Tene line. But the 0.2 centimetres stays that much, and so Aisling lives. For now.
The girl opens her mouth, and speaks in English with a harsh accent, though her voice is sweet,
“Who are you?”
There's curiosity in the voice, curiosity and fear and hatred. The hand on the gun still does not waver. Aisling speaks slowly, in a low voice, a calming voice,
“I am a tourist, a photographer, I got lost and now I'm here.”
A nervous laugh escaped.
“That's a load of bull, there's no point in lying little Player. The question is what line. Minoan, perhaps? Or La Tene? Maybe Nabatean?”
Same voice, but with humour lighting it softly. To her incredulity, Aisling’s first thought was an indignant, little Player? What do you mean little Player ? I'm not little! Not getting her priorities straight here.
How did this girl know she was a Player? How did she know what a Player was even? How did she know about Endgame? But Aisling was in no place to ask questions, so she kept her mouth shut. The girl tightened the trigger another 0.09 centimetres,
“ Answer the question! ”
Gulping, Aisling muttered,
To her utter surprise, the girls voice now became softer, almost pleading,
“Please, La Tene, tell me how the Donghu Player is doing.”
There was so much vulnerability in the voice, so much hope, that it broke Aisling's heart remembering that Baitsakhan was, in fact, dead. Sometimes she failed to remember that these Players, all of them, had family, people who would kiss them goodnight, people who would have their heart-broken if they left. And though in life the La Tene Player had hated the thirteen years old Donghu psychopath, now all she felt was remorse over his death, and… and maybe a little jealously. After all, Aisling had never had any other family other than Pop Kopp, and though she loved him, he didn't understand her most of the time. He was her grandfather, and therefore over fifty years older than her. Now, looking at this teenager in front of her, keeping a potential murderer, another line’s Player that she had at her mercy, alive, despite the danger, just for the tiny snippets of information she might gain on her -- what was Baitsakhan to her? A friend? A relative? A boyfriend? -- made Aisling seethe with jealousy. She wondered if anyone would do that for her. She doubted it.
Aisling's voice caught in her throat. No, she couldn't do this. She couldn't.
With a resounding clang., the gun fell to the floor.
“ No. ”
And then louder,
“ NO! ”
The girl collapsed onto her knees, a frozen expression of shock imprinted on her face, not even noticing when Aisling slowly dropped her hands.
“No no no no no no no…”
Tears ran down her tanned cheeks in rivulets. Her bottom lip, red as cherry blossoms, stained by blood acquired through biting down hard in attempts to stop the tears, trembled violently.
Aisling approaches the borderline hysterical girl. She could kill her, easily, but she doesn't. Instead, she gathers her in her arms, comfortingly, whispering in her ear words of comfort. Finally, when the girl has somewhat calmed down, Aisling asks her name, by presenting her own as a peace offering,
“Hey there girl, I'm Aisling, it's ok, it's ok. Can you tell me your name?”
She knows she's treating her like a young child, but sometimes that's what grief reduces people to.
The voice is surprisingly strong, for someone who just realised someone she loved was dead.
“Okay, Sarangerel, tell me about… Baitsakhan.”
It was strange referring to the thirteen year old killer as “Baitsakhan”. For so long Aisling had viewed him as just another enemy, a mindless murderer. Not once had she considered that he might have been something else, something much more.
“He was the best brother I could wish for.”
Sarangerel sighed wistfully. Aisling winces on the inside out of sympathy. A boyfriend she could have replaced. A distant relative she could have forgotten. Even a close friend she could have gotten over eventually. But a brother, forever bonded by blood… nothing could replace that. Nothing.
“Baitsakhan was a strange boy, violent sometimes, but… to me… to his family… he was caring, considerate, you understand, yes?”
Yes, Aisling did understand, she understood the bond between family, understood that this bond could change people. She understood, because wasn't that what she had done? Saved Pop Kopp even after he commuted a traitorous act, just because he was kin, just because he was blood? If they had not shared history, not shared blood, would she have done so still? A traitorous voice in her mind whispered conspiratorially, No, you would have killed him without hesitation . No , another part of her whispered, I have more mercy, more humanity in me than that . But really, did she have any moral left in her? After all the rigorous training, all the mindless killing, how much of her was still human?
“Our family is small for Donghu, only four children, Jalair and Baitsakhan and Arslan and me. Our father was killed in a hunting trip before Arslan was born, so other families liked to… pick on us. And then Jalair moved out with his wife and it was worse. Baitsakhan was the only man in our family, so he took over. Became Player to let us survive. Player and Player’s family has many advantages.”
At this she paused, her ramblings ceasing to make way for uneven breaths induced by tears. Aisling took advantage of this pause to study the girl in front of her –– Sarangerel, if she recalled correctly. Now, even in the dim lighting, she could make out the resemblance between this girl and her brother. Both shared the smooth black hair, both possessed the dark killer eyes. But unlike his, hers bared emotion. Sadness, currently. Unparalleled sadness, like an aching chasm, an endless void.
To Aisling, it looked like death.
To Aisling, it looked like hell.
“He became Player. Killed our cousin Esan to do so. Suddenly we were respected, treated like royalty. So different from before.”
Dark tresses swung in the dim light giving an eerily faint glow.
“And then, he left. For the Endgame. He was just… gone.”
The girl looked so lost, so vulnerable, that even a borderline heartless Player like Baitsakhan or Maccabee Adlai would not have been able to kill her. Well, maybe Baitsakhan was not a good example; after everything she had heard, Aisling doubted he would even be able to raise a finger on his sister. Or Maccabee. Maccabee, despite his ruthlessness, had a sense of honour. He would not kill a defenseless girl just like that.
“He came back once. During Endgame. Appeared in the middle of the night, standing right where you are now.”
She gestures limply at the space Aisling is occupying.
“He was crying, you know. His hand was missing. It broke my heart.”
Aisling had been wondering where the hand had gone. Maybe now, she would find out.
“He said the Aksumite had sliced it off. He said he had made an alliance with the Nabatean, and he had gotten a fake hand from his friend.”
Some friend he was. A backstabbing liar, more like. But weren’t they all?
“It was stained with blood. I asked him why. He said… ”
She trailed off. Hysteria was building in her eyes, she could see it.
“He said she ripped out the Koori’s throat.”
A faint whisper, almost completely blown away by the wind.
“I begged him to stay. Told him the fighting was not worth it. Told him to forget about it, let the others fight their own war. He refused. Now I wish I had tried harder.”
Broken sobs echoed around the room.
“He gave me a ring before he left. A ring and a dagger.”
Slowly, she fished out a small trinket from her pocket, and slid it onto her finger. Aisling’s breath hitched. A large stone embroidered it, shaped delicately into a flower. Though invisible to the eye, Aisling knew almost for certain a poisoned needle laid embedded within, ready to strike at moment’s notice.
It was the one the Nabatean always wore on his hand. The exact same one.
“Did he say… where he got that?”
Aisling asked tentatively. A shake of the head was the only answer she got. She accepted that.
“It was the Nabatean’s. I don’t know how he got his hands on it, though. I’m pretty sure it was Adlai’s most prized possession.”
“He gave it to him.”
“I thought you said you didn’t know.”
The girl just shrugged.
Why would the Donghu have the Nabatean’s weapon? They had been in an alliance, one had betrayed the other… that’s all Aisling knew, really. Had they been close? Why had they formed this alliance to begin with? Aisling had never really thought about it, but now that she had started, a torrent of questions came flooding through.
“What are you going to do, now that… he’s dead?”
Again, the girl just shrugged.
“I’m dead anyways. My Player’s dead, I’m dead.”
The realisation hit Aisling. Yes, with the Donghu dead, the whole Donghu would be… wiped. Gone.
“Take this to his body. Please. Avenge him .”
Aisling, lost in his thoughts, had not noticed that Sarangerel had reached out, an object in her hand. Stupid, stupid, stupid . She could have been killed in that moment of distraction. But for some reason, she trusted this girl. Even after the knowledge that she was a Player’s sister. Even after everything.
The object she held was a knife, silver and reflecting off light from the moon. The weapon of a Player, probably the dagger she was referring to earlier. Her hands trembled a little; apparently the shock was wearing of, giving in to grief and exhaustion.
“Come with me.”
It slipped before she had time to grab the words back. She cursed herself internally; was she crazy? Bringing one of the enemy with her, while Playing the Endgame… This was one of the worst moves she could possibly do.
The answer stunned her also. Who was this girl, who would go along with the Player of another Line without so much as a second thought, just for… what? Vengeance? Aisling couldn’t quite figure out her motives, and that troubled her. She was normally pretty good at figuring out this kind of thing.
For a moment the two just stared at each other, eye to eye. A moment of silence.
“C’mon, girl, let’s get goin’ then.”
A stiff nod on the other end. And then, with a quick motioning hand gesture, she led Aisling out the door, towards a patch of land. At first, the red-headed sniper girl was confused. Where was she leading her? And then she saw it. Two great stallions, one a jet black horse with a mane tossing about like the sea, a silver chain proudly hung around its neck, another a white horse with soft brown eyes.
Without hesitation, Sarangerel strode towards the dark horse, and with a leap jumped onto its back. The white horse seemed confused, neighing at her pleadingly, but she just whispered quietly in Mongolian and gestured for Aisling to get on.
Aisling, with her head held up high, swung herself onto the horse, determined not to show weakness despite the mess she had gotten herself into. The horse once again snickered in protest, but calmed down.
And then Aisling noticed. On the chain across the black horse’s neck were two boldly written words, in English, along with Mongolian she didn’t understand. The ones she did read: Baitsakhan, Donghu Player-Elect. Her heart almost stopped. For a moment, in the horse’s eyes she could see that of the small Player’s, staring back wide and pleading. So much vulnerability, none that she had seen in his in life.
A clearing of the throat shook Aisling from her musings.
Quietly, the La Tene Player and the sister of the Donghu slipped out into the darkness, illuminated only by the speckled stars in the night sky.
Stars that reflected the eyes of the dead.
Reflected the eyes of the remembered.