.. | absolution | chapter 2
God be damned, he should have known better.
"Meera, Meera, wake up," Ash said, shaking her shoulder as he rose hurriedly from their shared bed. He cast about for his clothes.
"Hmmn?" Squinting in the early morning light, Meera rolled her shoulder back and lazily reached for where he'd been laying. "What it it?"
"It's morning," Ash asserted. They were going to be late. Late! Today of all days-
At his words Meera gave a cry and shot up. "I told the keeper to wake us at first light!" she insisted. "Damn it!" Already half-dressed, Ash tossed her clothes to her.
"I'm going to go ahead," he said, knowing it would take her too long to get ready. "I'll make up something-"
"Ash!" Meera caught his arm. Heart still beating fast from his rushing, Ash stopped in his tracks.
But she didn't say anything. She really didn't have to. Whatever she was afraid of- idle talk, rumors, attachment or lack thereof, he wasn't going to do that to her, or himself. Reading her eyes, Ash touched her cheek with his hand.
"See you there," he said. Meera gave a relieved little smile and pushed him to go on.
Perdin snorted displeasure at being ridden so without proper warm up. Ash spurred him on, forcing him to go all out, though even at this speed he knew he’d still never make it in time not to be missed. Perhaps if Aristide-
His hasty thoughts were interrupted by a curious sight up ahead on the tree-lined road. A lone figure, moving very fast- running- and it looked nothing like one of his own people. Sun-copper skin, black hair; it actually took Ash several moments to register what he was really seeing: a Galilani Subject. Loose. A young male, unfettered and barely clothed, was running for his life away from the gates of the Compound and straight for him. The creature was so concerned with looking over his shoulder that he hadn't even seen Ash riding towards him.
"What the?" Ash gasped, maneuvering his horse to the inside of the road where he could intercept the fled Galilani. If this creature had indeed escaped then he must have slipped away without anyone seeing, for no one was chasing him yet. But how had he scaled the gate?
The Galilani turned his eyes in the direction he was running and spotted Ash. Without missing a beat he veered off the road into the brush with amazing speed, flinging his arms out in leaping down the sloping terrain and disappearing. Ash shouted to his horse and followed. Over the sound of Perdin's pounding hooves he couldn't hear the Subject's heavy breathing but could imagine how exhausted he must be, and yet the creature was jumping obstacles as if they were nothing. With striking agility he leapt a series of fallen trees and bush on the downward slope of the hill and swerved again, glancing over his shoulder just in time to see Ash's horse take the trunks in one bound.
He led a chase to rival any marathon trial runner, but as fast and nimble as he was, he was no match for a horse's four-legged speed. As soon as the terrain flattened, Ash brought his horse alongside the running young man. To cut him off could hurt him, and the Galilani appeared unfazed to have a loping horse so nearby that he continued to run. With a quick decision, Ash gauged the distance as best he could and slid from the saddle with a graceful leap. His hands landed on their target and he tackled the Galilani to the ground with such force that both went rolling for several feet into the grass.
The Subject was stunned from the fall but managed to get up in decent time, enough to make it a few feet away before Ash managed to wrestle him down again. The Galilani grunted and fought with all his might, his strength considerable for one so small and lithe in frame. He certainly had spirit, and would not give up his hard-won freedom easily. But well-honed skill was on the trainer’s side; Ash pinned him down to stop his flailing legs from kicking and dangerous hands from clawing his face. After several timeless moments passed the exhausted Galilani finally lay subdued, chest heaving, teeth clenched, almond-shaped eyes staring defiantly up at him, a bold, intelligent striking blue.
It Ash stopped dead. He flipped his long hair back over his shoulder to make sure he was seeing correctly, seeing exactly what color those bold eyes were. An almost ghostly blue, one shade darker than the sky above at noonday, a shade of blue Ash rarely even saw in his own people.
Impossible. In all his time he'd never seen a Galilani with such a color before, it was unheard of. Eye color was one of the traits that fed popular thoughts that these people were a separate animal; their complete resemblance to each other. They all had the same compact build, the same black hair, copper skin, brown eyes.
For a split second he thought he may have made a mistake in his attacking the young man and considered letting him up. Yet his scant dress- a simple wrap about his waist- was that of most of the newly shipped Galilani Subjects, and his silence was telltale. What else could he be?
Only seconds later they heard the sound of horses' hooves pounding the earth, following the trail Ash's own mount had left. Still pinned to the ground the Galilani arched his neck and back to look about, to see where his next attackers were coming from.
"DeWinter, what on earth?" It was the voice of his superior, Sejan. Ash looked behind him and saw the man dismounting with several more guards following.
"I was in town," Ash explained, letting his grip loosen a little on the Galilani's wrists. He would have plenty of bruises come later; he didn't want to contribute more.
The guards dragged the smaller Subject out from under him and bound his hands behind his back. Even as they threw him atop a horse the Galilani's gaze remained fixed on Ash, quite unreadable. In a moment, they were gone as quickly as they'd come.
Sejan handed Ash the reins of his retrieved horse.
"Didn't even see him escape until he was hightailing it over that gate," he said. "Never seen anything like it in my life. We'll have to bandage those hands up, or is that yours?"
Ash looked at his own arms to see smears of blood across the white linen of his loose sleeves. It wasn't his own; the Galilani must have cut his up in climbing the gate whose iron had the texture of roughened sand for just that reason.
He wiped his hands on his trousers. "Hn, not mine. Did you see those eyes?"
"Mmm. I'd heard about him from the harvesters. Said they weren't even sure what he was at first, but he's Galilani all right."
They mounted up and headed back for the Compound.
"This doesn't look good, DeWinter," Sejan said after a few moments of thinking in silence. "First day and already causing trouble here."
"He's got some spirit," Ash mused. He was looking off in the direction the Galilani had been taken. He was thinking about those eyes.
But his supervisor was shaking his head. "There's a list a mile long of his exploits since the moment he was harvested. Someone should have put a stop to that long before they left the Valley."
As he listened Ash began to get a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. Just as soon as he'd found this Subject, it now sounded as if he would loose him.
"I just have a bad feeling about that one," he superior continued. "The rest are always so subdued, but this one-" he shook his head ruefully. “I've a mind to cancel him; he'll only cause more trouble."
"No, don't do that," Ash said quickly. To cancel a Subject meant just that. To kill him. It was simply too troublesome to transport one single Galilani all the way back to the Valley, and one so errant as that, Sejan would not want to run the risk of his getting free again. The simple fact that he'd attempted to make such a daring escape showed that he was not like his brethren. This one had a brain in him, an intriguing idea after so many years of working with virtually mindless bodies. He would be stubborn, put up a fight, resist his training.
So what had Ash interjected for? Why should it matter that one odd Galilani should be sacrificed to maintain the integrity of their practice? It had certainly been done in the past- crazed violence, poor health, cowardice. All this small one had shown was a little spirit and brainpower. That he would be a troublemaker was a given, but Ash couldn't let go of what a creature like that would be capable of once he was trained in the right manner. If his own talent for training was so out of the ordinary, what would it be like to apply it to a Subject that was as remarkable as that one? The potential seemed boundless, but even more so, the challenge of it was enthralling.
For the first time in over two years he began to feel that old enthusiasm again.
They'd been riding in silence. Ash lifted his head and said, "Let me take him. Please, I want to."
Sejan gave him a suspicious sidelong glance. "Why so eager all of a sudden? For a while now you've been moping around here like you'd lost all interest. I had meant to speak to you about it."
He had been loosing interest, he could feel that now, now that the fervor that had driven him in his early years was suddenly back. Something in those strange blue eyes had excited him, awoken him. Made him want this challenge.
"Trainer's intuition," Ash answered, trusting that his superior wouldn't question him more about it. Sejan took several moments to consider the idea. By the time they had reached the Compound gates, he was grudgingly nodding his head.
"Very well. But I urge you to think about what you're getting into. You know as well as I there is a certain personality type that works best with the kind of work we do here, and this one is most certainly not it."
"I know," Ash acceded. "Imagine that. He has a mind of his own."
Though he unofficially had his Subject already, Ash followed etiquette and stood outside the Compound on the back run to watch as the newly arrived Galilani were unloaded and handed off. After being drawn out of the carefully guarded covered carts that took six horses to pull, the Subjects now stood in fragmented lines, almost nude and looking very frightened to be so out in the open and surrounded by strangers. Until now, as far as Ash knew, they'd been held at a center near where they'd been harvested in the Valley, so they had not yet seen much of the outside world. He could only imagine, as he did every time with a new shipment, what his people must look like to these creatures. The Galilani were a small, slender people, dark-haired and dark-eyed, of course now with the exception of his own Subject. Menserja-born, at least the higher-class folk at least, were taller and broader, and much more pale by comparison. Light hair and light eyes must make them strikingly odd-looking to the Galilani, as was evident in the expressions of some of the more bold Subjects as they stood there watching their Menserjan keepers mill around.
Aristide came to stand beside him, his sudden presence snapping Ash from his thoughts. His friend looked clean and refreshed, nothing of the drunken fool he'd been last night. His cropped hair was smoothed down, and he'd actually made ceremony to wear some of his nicer garments.
"Kind of sad, isn't it, Ash?" Aristide said softly.
"Hmm?" Ash broke a light, thoughtful stare down onto the grassy relay fields. He was thinking once again about his new Subject, wondering what he would call him and how he would go about instilling trust after basically having attacked him earlier.
Aristide gestured at the line of human figures a few hundred feet away from where they stood on the gravel run. "This. It seems sad to me."
"Why?" His eyes picked out those Subjects that stood out from the rest; the ones who broke away and ran, those who sat down and refused to move, the ones who looked around themselves and cowered like small children. He had his own definition of sad when describing this day. He could bet it was different from his fellow trainer's.
"It's like we have to start all over again," Aristide murmured. "We work so hard to turn them out and then a whole new shipment comes and wipes out any feeling of accomplishment. I suppose it just gets repetitive."
Ash made a non-committal sound, if only to relate that he'd heard his friend speaking at all. It did get repetitive; he'd felt that way for a while now. Perhaps Aristide was just finally losing a little of his youthful edge. The thought made Ash smile to himself, but his friend didn't catch it.
"Well, I've got mine picked out."
Both Ash and Aristide turned at the sound of Meera's voice. As she walked up to them she looked well-dressed and well-kept, a stark contrast from an hour ago. Ash calmed his nerve a bit, lest the flush show in his cheeks. Accompanying her words, Meera pointed down to the young female she'd already claimed as her next Subject.
"I've got my eyes on that one there," Aristide said, pointing to a petite girl near the end of the line. She looked small and rather frail, but alert.
"Tsk. Always with the females," Meera said, crossing her arms. Usually the female Subjects went to female trainers, though Meera was only one of four.Aristide turned his nose up. This was an old discussion. "They're less resistant," he said. "And smarter."
"But more temperamental," Ash put in.
"Yeah, yeah." Aristide waved his hand to change the subject. "Which one are you looking at, Ash?"
"He's already inside. It's a special case."
Both Meera and Aristide exchanged glances. Ash chose to ignore their doubtfulness; they could question him all they wanted, so long as they did it silently. He flicked his hair back behind his shoulder and started down the hill. "Come on, Aristide, let's go get your girl before someone else grabs her."
It was near evening by the time everything was said and done, when all the Subjects were assigned to their handlers and had been brought into the Compound where they would spend the next year of their life. Tonight, however, they were resting peacefully in a warm chamber that was strewn with blankets, cushions and pillows and whatever else they would need to be comfortable. Usually they were all so exhausted from their travels that the chamber was a ghostly sight to behold; their tired bodies spread out everywhere and silent as the grave in sleep.
While they got to rest, their trainers began their work in the form of research and paperwork. It was a part of the job that Ash particularly hated, though it was always interesting to see where your own Subject had come from. Their family history was possible to trace due to the tattooed number on their wrist, put there by the handlers at the Agade Valley facility where the Subjects were first harvested.
How they were kept track of out there in that wilderness, Ash couldn't fathom. But they managed to do it somehow- keep track of births and deaths, wandering tribes and intermingling of clans. When they were harvested they were then branded, and that number could trace back through family lines to see if their siblings, parents or any ancestor had been taken for induction; often trainers would use this history to find out which ones fought better, lasted longer or broke too easily. But beyond that even, their career could be mapped by what service they went into; did they succeed; did they perish.
Ash heaved a sigh as he replaced this year's listbook, slightly frustrated. This gophering wasn't turning out the results he wanted.
Until now all of the Subjects he had trained had come from the Moenjodaro clan, which was by far the largest and most used of the tri-clans. There were three main groups in all, with the Oruoijka and the Akerandijka, each of which split off into smaller tribes that had to be kept track of, though they were constantly on the move. In fact, within the last hundred years the Akerandijka clan had all but disappeared after years and years of a sedentary existence. They'd been the main tribe used back when the slave trade had started, as the Moenjodaro was now, but to read old manuscripts they had just slowly faded out like a cloud of dust into the wind, or in this case, the Agade Valley. But they had once been very populous- hell, this Compound had been named for them.
Given that history, Ash fully expected to find that his new Subject was Moenjodaro, since all the others from this shipment were, but surprisingly, this wasn't the case. In fact, Ash found as he began rummaging through old documents and lists that his new Subject had virtually no history at all.
He stared at the binding of the book he'd just replaced with a slight, frustrated scowl. All he had found on his new Subject was a reference number. No family line, no history, no descriptions. Had someone misplaced the information? It was impossible that there'd be nothing on his Subject at all; every family had something. The handlers at the Valley facility had to have had something in mind when they gave him a number, but why wasn't that information here? And what was that reference number in the book for anyway? Its format was that of an identification number, but when he'd tried to look it up there had been nothing to actually reference it to.
Ash rubbed his eyes. It was late; perhaps he just wasn't looking hard enough, or in his exhaustion he could have easily missed a line somewhere. Tomorrow he would check the other clan lines; maybe someone had mixed them up.
The trainer heaved himself up, giving up on the task for now. To boot, it was nearly midnight and he still had yet to make a proper acquaintance with his newest project. It had always been a practice of his to meet as soon as possible as a sort of imprinting technique, but he already realized he would have to work even harder at this one, given the roots of their acquaintance.
Ash locked up the records room and stretched his sore muscles. He then made the walk to the other side of the Compound where he found the guards on duty lounging against the outer wall, playing at coins and cups.
They snapped to attention as he walked by. Ash nodded his head briefly to them. "Slow night, Keri?"
The nearest guard tipped her head to him. "Quiet as the dead, sir."
Lovely thought. Ash shook off the morose reference and entered the holding chamber silently. For several moments he surveyed the dimly lit room, making a quick head count as he listened to the gentle breaths of sleeping bodies.
It was an unnerving treat to see them like this before the hustle of the next day would usher them onto their new lives. This was the most natural state he'd ever seen the Galilani in; it often made him sad to think of the changes that were about to come. From this gentle state they would be initiated to think differently, act differently, become a virtual killing machine if need be. They would learn a language that was not their own, adopt a culture and gods they did not believe in, and they would have no memory of their lives before. Ash knew bitterly that his unease over their unavoidable future was why he couldn't let himself think about it too much. This was his job and he was sworn by it. What say had he in the higher order of things? If he decided to leave the Compound, surely there would be someone else to eagerly take his place who would not possess the scruples he did. They might be crueler in their techniques perhaps, less patient, or at least not have his sensibility.
Silencing his thoughts, Ash took a few more steps in and tried to make a count again. With the scuff of his boots on the floor his presence became very known as forty-three pairs of eyes suddenly fixed on him. Unsettling as that was, it concerned Ash less than the fact that there should have been forty-four.
It was still chilling, however, the way they all gazed unwaveringly like a herd of prey animals with a predator's scent on the wind. Even more jolting was how they all appeared as little copies of each other. The only differences were subtle hair color, and of course his own Subject's odd blue eyes, which, by the way, happened to be the pair that was missing. A stab of ice penetrated his chest for a split second as he wondered if the Galilani had managed to escape again.
Ash searched out with his eyes the darker back corners of the room in hopes that his Subject had just chosen a more secluded spot to nest. His heart beat slowed to normal again; there, in the corner farthest from the door he saw a pile of pillows with a foot comically protruding out of them.
Ash tread over the cushions carefully, trusting that all these Subjects had hopefully seen enough of his people by now to not be so frightened by him. Though they didn't move away, their eyes followed him curiously, with one female even daring to reach out and touch his odd-colored hair before she scampered over the cushions to hide behind several of her companions. Ash allowed a little smile as he crept over the cushions towards the back; his hair almost always drew attention the first time; most of them had probably never seen blond so close before, and certainly never so long.
Upon reaching the pile of pillows, Ash knelt and sat back on his haunches, cocking his head at the bare foot that stuck out right in front of his face. This one had taken nearly all the pillows in the chamber and obviously had put up a fight to keep them, as none of the others even came near that corner. From the pile he heard an odd, soft purring sound, occasionally interrupted by a soft snore. He waited and listened, trying to figure out if such a distinctly cat-like purr was really he was hearing. Gently, he began to remove the top cushions from the pile until the warm body beneath was exposed.
His Subject lay sleeping, peacefully unaware that he was being studied. Ash would have thought that he would be the most alert of all considering the display he'd put on earlier in the day, but it would seem this was not so. The fact that his Subject was so dead to the world made Ash wonder if they had dosed him with something to calm him down after that fiasco.
He didn't like the idea of sedation, but it did give him a chance to study the Galilani well for the first time. His palms had been bandaged up with a white gauze that offered a stark contrast to the sun-dark of his skin. He was actually quite attractive upon a lingering look, though he couldn't have had more than twenty years on him. Lithe and slender but still muscular of frame, as Ash had noticed before, he appeared the picture of health but for his damaged hands. However, the visibility of his ribs was the slightest bit too distinct, as was the curvature of his hip and the contoured muscles that underlay his belly. Though he was by no means a wraith, the first thing Ash wanted to do was make sure he put on a little weight, just to fill out the slightest bit.
His thick, shaggy black hair was spread across the cushions around his reclined head but for his forelock, which by the tilt of his head hung over his right eye. Thick eyelashes, high cheek bones and gently curved lips even alluded to more feminine qualities, though masculinity still rested in the set of his jaw and physical build.
He was quiet fine to look at really, as far as Galilani went, but Ash tried to ignore that. Physical appearance mattered little in the large scheme of things. Gently he reached out to shake his Subject's shoulder. The Galilani wrinkled his nose as a child would and opened his eyes lazily, the picture of innocence and virtue. Until his crystalline eyes focused on Ash, that is.
The Galilani sat up in shock, more than upset that his trainer had managed to catch him so unaware. In his heavy lids and slowed movements though Ash could see his grogginess; they must have drugged him. He could never have gotten so close so soon otherwise.
"Shh, calm down," Ash cooed, using his voice to soothe. He fished out from his pocket a few tidbits of choco sweets he knew would be welcome after a long trip. He made them into an offering on the flat of his palm.
"Go on, take it," he whispered.
The Galilani stared at him for several long moments, nostrils flaring as he assumedly detected the choco scent. Unable to ignore the enticing aroma, he focused his attention on Ash's outstretched hand. Greedily, he snatched the sweet cookies and shoved them in his mouth. He then looked back at Ash, chewing as if it was a second thought.
"See? I'm not so bad," Ash said, extending his hand again. The Subject swallowed and licked his lips. He didn't flinch from Ash's touch but showed surprising trust in him instead, allowing him to brush back the thick mane from in front of his right eye, though it fell right back again naturally. It looked as if his bangs had once been shoulder-length as the rest but had been hastily and unevenly razored off to half its length. The Galilani didn't seem to notice how it obscured his vision while he kept very steady, very focused eyes on his trainer.
For several minutes Ash sat there with his new Subject, holding his gaze and speaking in low tones to him. It eventually paid off- after only a few moments he lost all hints if distrust, with the help of more sweet treats. More importantly, he suddenly began showing earnest interest in Ash himself. At one point he reached out, as they all did, and inspected his hair, his pale hands and odd clothing in turn, even directing great curiosity to Ash's boot laces, which he promptly undid and kept for himself.
With a smile, Ash didn't fight him for them, though normally he shouldn't have allowed the Subject, especially this one, to have such a toy with which he could hurt himself or others. But he tolerated the theft as he sat there watching his Subject tie knots into the lace until very little of its length was left. He then discarded the toy and began looking for something else of Ash's he could play with, searching him with his bandaged hands.
After more than an hour sitting there, even after all of the other Subjects had fallen back asleep, Ash found it hard to make the decision that this was enough for tonight. It was late, his body was tired and he knew his Subject was as well. It wouldn't do to keep him up so long that he'd be exhausted tomorrow when the real training began.
As he moved to stand up, his Subject's eyes followed him curiously, for a moment evidently not realizing that the trainer meant to leave him now. The Galilani followed him all the way back to the door like an obedient pup, close on his heels until finally Ash turned to face him again. His look was endearing, as a beautiful young child.
"You've certainly changed your mind about me, haven't you?" Ash reached out and tickled the underside of his chin as he spoke, just as one would a child. It was then that he knew he had made a real connection- his Subject smiled at him for the first time. His expression was so genuine in fact that Ash found himself returning it despite himself. He wondered if any of his previous Subjects had ever looked so candid before, so forthright with their emotions.
As he turned to leave, the Galilani jerked him back with an iron grip on his arm and Ash nearly fell with the force of it. Alarmed for a moment, he subsided when he realized that the smile was now gone, replaced by quite a different emotion.
"Are you... pouting at me?" he asked with due incredulity.
The Galilani quizzically tilted his head.
Ash fished out his last sweet and put it into the gauzed hands. "And here I thought you were going to be some amazing, blood thirsty warrior-" He watched his Subject suck on the choco before biting into it. More softly, as if realizing it for the first time, "but you're nothing but a little cub."
He recalled the soft purring noise and thought for another few moments. He was reminded of the Third goddess in Menserjan common theology, who by legend often took the form of a black panther while on earth. Panthera.
"A little panther's cub," he mused. "Would that suit you for a name?" He reached out and brushed back the stubborn black mane from his Subject's eyes.
"Tomorrow," Ash promised him with a smile. "I'll see you tomorrow and you can show me what you can really do."
The Galilani grasped his wrist gently and leaned into his hand like a cat bent on being petted. Ash used the opportunity to gently slip the door open and make his escape, wondering if ever there'd ever been a Subject more aptly named.
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