The scream went on and on in the Sangheili's mind. It echoed relentlessly.
D'reshnaa turned over in her bed, facing the wall, not wanting to remember.
Her betrothed . . .
Why? Why had they betrayed him? Why hadn't they . . . why hadn't they let him explain everything completely?
Truth. It all came down to Truth.
Standing, she changed from the robes she had spent her sleepless night in then left her room, dressed in the formal robes befitting for the daughter of a high member of the Council.
The Elder turned from his studying of a star map, his movements methodical, sure. He had once been a commander of a fleet, but a wound taking most of his left arm and his entire left leg brought him back from the front lines. His mind had been the best thing going for him though those times, and thus as a result of that instinct for strategy, tactics and knowledge on how to handle people, he had been promoted to a higher standing among his kind by being elected to the Council by a vast majority. "My favorite daughter . . ."
"I saw them Mark him. Why did they? What was his crime? What did he do to deserve being given the Mark of Shame, Father?"
"Some things . . ."
"I know. Some things cannot be said. But sometimes they must."
Grth'trommee growled sadly in the back of his throat, sitting, indicating for his daughter to sit as well. She did, her robes swirling in a pleasant pattern, fabric sliding perfectly over fabric and skin as she did so. Her father's voice was kind. "He could not protect Halo from the humans."
"Daughter, that could border upon heresy. Curb your speech."
She lowered hr head in submission from the angry, stiff-necked pose it had taken on. Her father continued. "He focused his attention upon the Flood, and barely escaped with a third of his troops. He lost the flagship Truth and Reconciliation, and couldn't catch the Demon in time to save the holy ring."
"But he couldn't change something that was beyond him! Everyone has their limits, Father! Surely the Noble Prophet of Truth would have recognized that each has their limits! Even our great and powerful brothers of the Lekgolo have limitations!"
"True, my favorite daughter, but sometimes . . . certain individuals are required to carry a burden that rightfully belongs to many."
"This Demon . . ."
"He is formidable, daughter. A human capable of many evils towards the Covenant. He is not one to be taken lightly."
"Is there public data available for him?"
"No. My apologies, daughter."
"There is no need to apologize, my father," she replied in the same formal tone. It meant that he would get her information. "I am, after all, only a student of the dances, and combat is the farthest thing from my mind."
"'Beauty surrounds beauty, death around death.'"
"'Trust not a dance, trust not a duel.'"
"'Find truth in your soul, find truth in your society."
Sighing, the daughter concluded the saying, "'Listen to your elders, listen to your prophets.'"
"Tell me what it means, daughter."
"That males and females have separate roles. The female is to be beautiful, to know the right words to say to placate her mate, to listen to her soul and find answers to problems within the household, and to listen to her parents and the parents of her mate. The male is to be deadly upon all fronts, eager to fight for what he believes in, to search for answers in the knowledge of the world around him, and to obey the Prophets without question." She didn't touch her face, lightened slightly by cosmetics. Not one scar marred her frame, there was not one irregularity of the pure beauty she possessed. She was the perfect daughter . . .
And would have been the perfect wife.
"Father, please tell me something."
"Why did you agree to a betrothal between Zhan'kirimee and myself?"
The father stood, and moved slowly from one end of the study to another. "Why indeed, my daughter." He looked at her, seeing not her physical perfection. His gaze was centered upon her mind, her soul. "He is honorable, even in accepting punishment. Graceful as a sword. As sharp as one, mentally."
"That does not explain it to me."
Sitting beside his slightly-shorter daughter, he replied, "Because he didn't come to me as the others did, ranting about how you behaved, how your image is the most poised that they have seen." He took her hands in his, one warm and flexible, the other stiff and robotic. "No, my daughter, he came to me after the celebration of your brother's promotion into the rank of Gold, speaking not about how you looked, what you danced as, but instead about how you put everything into honoring your brother in your dance; about how you sang with your soul, not your physical body, that ancient song which I now hear my colleagues humming. He was awestruck with your genuine affection and pride."
"Is that the only reason?"
"No," her father chuckled, his right hand resting upon the back of her neck and pulling her into an embrace. His other daughters would shy away from him due to his prosthetics, and still did, but he remembered how his youngest daughter, only a few rounds old, had come up to him while he was recovering, and, ignoring the doctors and all else who were in the room, clambered up onto the bed at his right side, curling up and falling asleep in the circle of his arm. She was always there to get something that he had needed, but couldn't stand to retrieve, and always brought to him stories of her classes, of her friends, of everything from the outside world. Grth'trommee was always grateful for her voice, for her company in the lonely halls.
He came back to the present with a soul-deep sigh. "I also saw how you watched him move from group to group, then, when he finally came to your group of friends, I saw how you accepted a ceremonial dance offer from him. One, I remember, that you said was never preformed anymore due to its complexity and how it would have to be executed with precision."
She sighed, remembering the dance. The gold-armored commander with his sword, moving in positions and ways that defied normal balance, acting the part of a departed lover fighting his way back to his beloved, whose dance was slow and melancholy . . . until they saw each other again. That was when it became too complex for any but the most experienced dancer and swordsmaster to complete. There were minute distances between the two performers, ones that, if done wrong, changed a pure dance of the true love between a homecoming mate and his beloved into a seductive series of movements meant to entice.
"He never missed a move."
"And you never stopped watching his eyes."
"Father, he never stopped watching mine."
"I wish things had been different, my daughter."
She nodded, and they said nothing more upon the matter.
A week later, she was in the grand basilica of the Council. She was allowed here whenever she wanted, and actually taught here. Her skills of a dancer, and her never-ending patience for the youngest and least-skilled, were known Covenant-wide. What was more was that she also taught not only the noble-born, but anyone who wished to learn, regardless of what social level they were. Sighing, D'reshnaa walked into her classroom, where young Sangheili females were stretching, getting ready. She bowed formally to the two Lekgolo brothers who were positioned in the room for her protection, then walked forward to them. "Moin, Roin. Always here for me. My thanks."
Their nods were barely discernable, but it was more than they would give others. These two were her formal bodyguards. At least three other pairs were "allowed the privilege" of guarding her, but she knew at this point that Truth only wanted her to stay within his sights. She knew he had been plotting something concerning her for a long time . . . but until she had read everything that she could about her betrothed as well as the Demon . . . something about the humans cinched her conviction that he was up to no good.
Reaching up, D'reshnaa touched their leathery, orange skin softly, silently trusting them, renewing the trust between them. She had grown up with these two, and they loved her like a younger sister. Turning, she clapped her palms together once, and the class began.
Two hours later, she was storming her way towards the Prophet of Truth's private basilica, Moin and Roin behind her, their thundering steps marking that they, too, were unhappy. And everyone, including other Lekgolo and the eternally-antagonistic Jiralhanae, got out of the way of an ill-tempered and silently angry Lekgolo. Upon reaching the large doors, she glared at the guards. "Kindly report that D'reshnaa, youngest daughter of Grth'trommee, wishes to speak with the Noble Prophet of Truth."
One entered, leaving three to remain. And then he returned, movements ceremonial and respectful, indicating that she enter. At once, she aimed her wrath upon the Prophet, not caring. "Three Jiralhanae interrupted my training of the young, Prophet, with your order that I was no longer needed to train them! What is the meaning of this?"
The albino Jiralhanae, Tartarus, stared at her as he turned. "You will treat the Prophet of Truth with respect, female, or I shall–"
"You may leave, Tartarus. Immediately." The calm voice showed no emotion. Simmering, the white-furred alien bowed stiffly, then left. Truth looked at D'reshnaa. "And I have another use for you, D'reshnaa, daughter of Grth'trommee."
"What other use have I but to educate those whom others have no patience for?" she snapped. "And I have more than just that subject to bring to your attention."
"Kindly leave the second subject for a little later?" Truth asked. "I wish to see the little sister I used to have in your face, and you are not making this easier for me."
"I have no Prophet brother. He died to me when he turned on my betrothed. Zhan'kirimee was your friend! He was your most loyal supporter! Why did you accuse him of being unable to preform to the best of his ability!"
The Sangheili guards around the room did not move. They had seen these two argue for hours upon end, and knew that sometimes the Prophet, the youngest of the three High Prophets, needed someone who was not afraid to voice opinions to him. D'reshnaa was the embodiment of reason, of level thinking, and, most of all, she did not fear her superiors.
Truth made a dismissive wave of his thin hand. "He did not keep Halo safe. He did not protect that which was given to us to begin the Great Journey. And that is heresy."
"Heresy is speaking against the writ of the Forerunners! It is not the accusation that one cannot rise above limits that are clearly beyond them!"
Truth sighed, turning slightly away from her. "You will leave the judgement of heresy to those who understand it better. You are young, and your harsh words forgiven."
She heard the door open again behind her, but didn't care anymore. "We are of the same age, within the same centi-round! Do not call me young, for I was born before you as well! There was a time when you would have listened to me, Prophet. There was a time when you would have heeded common sense. Your lust for power sickens me. Your lust for superiority sickens me."
"You will hold your speech."
"I will not. There is more to this situation than simple heresy!" Her pause was pregnant with malice. "There is more to this universe than being of and abiding by the Covenant. I want to know what you're plotting, Truth. Something is not right with it, and it does not become you to be a contradiction of your title."
"What the Prophets do is certainly none of your business, Sangheili. Silence your malice."
"I can no easier silence my anger than I can silence my soul's yearning for my betrothed."
"You would rather die than obey the commands of your Prophet? Of your elder?" He shook his head. "You are needed, D'reshnaa. You are needed in a way that will support and honor you."
"Then say it! I am sick of your secrets!"
"You are to be wed to one of your father's peers." He paused, his gaze hardening. "Tomorrow."
"You would find me dead before I would wed one who I do not approve of. Remember that by Sangheili custom, the female can and will nullify any betrothal she does not approve of. It is the one time she may voice an opinion. And I tell you I would rather kill myself before I would wed a male that is as old as my father."
Truth was silent for a long moment. When he finally turned back to face her, he drew a dagger, tossing it to her. "If you wish to end it, then do so. Your life means nothing to me, female. I only wished to help you overcome your grief by giving you a new purpose."
D'reshnaa picked the long fighting knife up, looking at the blade. Sharp, keen, beautiful in a savage way. And then she turned her head to see her father and her elder brother watching her in shock. Turned back, looking at the knife, then ripped her sleeves off, showing her grief, her leanly-muscled, amber-brown-skinned arms catching the light. Drew the dagger up to her face, then bit the blade once, lightly, before positioning it over the upper part of her left arm. And sliced.
Within the minute, her hands were slick with her own blood, and the Mark of Shame was displayed upon her once-perfect skin. Standing from where she had knelt in ceremony, she still held the dagger, looking with distaste at the Prophet, then turned and walked towards her father and brother. Her brother backed away from her, shaking his head, not wanting to be around her, not wanting to be related to someone who willingly snapped and drew the Mark upon their own skin with metal, but her father stopped her, ripping his own sleeves off, tying one around her cut arm, stopping the blood from flowing too freely. And his voice was hard. "Prophet of Truth, I must take a sabbatical from my duties in the Council. My family needs me."
He left, his hands still carefully holding his daughter's arm. Moin and Roin followed as well, at a longer distance. Grth'trommee whispered softly, "Your courage, my daughter, inspires me. I am proud, but sad, of your decision."
"Zhan'kirimee is now the Arbiter," was her reply. "I saw that another had been chosen, and had heard from a passing Jiralhanae that it was indeed the same one who had received the Mark. I am going to him."
"There is something deeper that is happening, D'reshnaa. Something that would have happened sooner or later. You will see what I mean soon enough. At this time, I want you out of High Charity, and I want you as far away from the fighting as you possibly can get. Follow the Arbiter, if that is what you want. But follow at a distance. There are things that you need not get entangled with at this time."
"Father, I will do as you tell me."
"You always have, and I am truly blessed to have such a daughter as you." He sighed, and they were now in their own house.
The eldest daughter saw them come in, and looked down contemptuously at her younger sister. "Finally in trouble, brat? Father had to bring you home?" She smelled the blood, and laughed mockingly, seemingly unaware that their father was beside D'reshnaa. "So you're hurt, too? I hope you scar. I hope you scar badly, so that you'll be worth that scumbag human-loving heretic that was fool enough to want you."
A resounding crack between the flesh of a palm and the flesh of the elder sister's head echoed in the atrium. Grth'trommee snarled, "Out of my sight. Your impudence is ill-placed. Get to your mate's house, and stay there until I invite you back. My words are final."
The eldest fled.
"What's this, Father?" the youngest male asked. He looked up to D'reshnaa, and always tagged along behind her, his motions clumsy due to a foot that had developed wrongly while his mother was still carrying him. He was learning balance from D'reshnaa, and fighting from his twin elder brothers. While he was clumsy upon his feet, within the sparring ring he was unmatched in floor-fights.
Grth'trommee sighed. "Your sister will be leaving us. She has a long journey to undertake."
D'reshnaa looked at the armor, seeing that it was not the same type of armor that a male Sangheili warrior would wear. It was the special armor of a female warrior, shaped to fit her form in a certain way. "Is this for me?"
"Your mother wore it before she died. It was hers. You, out of my seven daughters, deserve it more than any of the other six." He sighed, his hand upon his youngest son's shoulder. "Come, Kret'trakan. Let your sister prepare herself."
Walking out, she felt the way the armor fit her form, moving with her instead of against her. Kret'trakan hobbled up to her, his face showing his sadness. "I do not want you to leave, D'reshnaa."
She rested her hand, now encased in the gauntlet that protected her skin, upon his head, smiling sadly in return. He came up to her elbow, just over her waist. With a thought, she looked at her father, and he smiled broadly, whispering, "My son, come, look what I have for you. You are old enough now to wear it."
And so D'reshnaa would not be traveling alone.
Of this . . . she was glad.