Part One

The year 627

Shiharam

It wasn't until he ascended to the sky, far from Daein Keep, that Shiharam felt he could breathe again. He watched the scout below, following his lead as they traveled east. Back in Begnion, he had heard rumors of the ruthless King Ashnard. Shiharam knew he took advantage of being the only living heir. He knew that most of the Four Riders had retired or disappeared when he came to power. He knew that he tested his men's worth by throwing them into a pack of angry laguz.

Sub-humans. He had to call them sub-humans now.

But despite the rumored horrors—rumors he knew to be true—Daein was a better home compared to the corruption of Begnion, for him and for his men. For his daughter.

King Ashnard was worse than he had imagined. He wondered, not for the first time, why they were permitted to serve Daein at all, clearly being deserters of their homeland. But militiamen throughout Tellius knew the facts—Ashnard would accept anyone into his service, beorc or not, if he was strong enough. If he could give glory to Daein. Shiharam was unsure what kind of glory they could bring so far from civilization, but he'd take what he could get.

He glanced back at his battalion. They had followed willingly, risking their lives to escape Begnion. Many had families who would soon join them, once they sent notice of their new home. But Jill had to come along. He had no choice; he had no remaining family to watch her.

He smiled when he spotted his daughter's bright red hair, so similar to his own. She had insisted on riding with Haar. He was a good sport about it, even if Shiharam was anxious he would fall asleep at the reins.

The scout below waved, and Shiharam signaled his men to set down on the barren land. They were outside a small military camp; a little ways down the road was the town. A few residents poked their heads out of doorways, obviously curious about the newly-arrived Begnion fleet.

"This is it?" Shiharam asked, once he dismounted.

"This is Talrega," the scout answered. He motioned to a wooded area beyond the camp. "Those woods are where the sub-humans like to come through. Think they can get past us by sneaking through the north." He scoffed. "General Petrine gave you her orders?"

"Yes," Shiharam replied. "Eradicate the sub-humans." He felt sick using the term. "Sir, could you find out when my men will receive Daein uniforms? I'm afraid we won't be welcomed in this." He looked down at his red Begnion armor.

"Yes, sir." But Shiharam wondered if he even heard, for the scout was already steering his horse away. He sighed, watching his men chat amiably amongst themselves as they dismounted.

"Daddy!" Jill weaved through the soldiers' legs, beaming as she bounded toward him. Haar was not far behind, though he had a more difficult time squeezing through the crowd.

"Forgive me, commander," Haar said. "She slipped away..."

"No matter." Shiharam smiled, crouching to pick up his daughter. Already so big, he thought, setting her on his hip. Her wavy hair was wild, sticking up in all directions from the long flight. He tried to pat it down but it was beyond tangled, and she wouldn't hold still.

Jill may have been only two years old, but she was quick as a whip. She absorbed everything around her, speaking and understanding complete sentences. She knew what she liked, and her opinion was unwavering. So much like her mother.

"This is my new home?" Jill asked, looking up at the camp. He couldn't tell if she was disappointed. There wasn't much to see.

"That's right," Shiharam said.

"Can I stay with Mr. Haar?"

Haar coughed, a failed attempt to hide a laugh, and Shiharam feigned disappointment as he frowned. "You don't want to live with daddy? That hurts."

She looked back and forth between the two, chewing on her thumb, as if seriously considering an answer. "I will live with daddy and Mr. Haar."

"Will you now?" Shiharam tickled her stomach, which threw her into a fit of giggles.

The men quickly learned that the base was run-down and abandoned, but he was determined that their morale not match the atmosphere. They set to work on repairs at once, replacing splintered doors and disposing of the animal nests that had gathered in the rooms. Shiharam wondered when the last time this base was occupied. He wondered if the residents of Talrega had ever felt safe.

He had to stop thinking of them like they were separate from himself. He, too, was now a resident of Talrega. A citizen of Daein.

The villagers were quick to aid in the restoration, grateful for the military representation in their town. The mill keeper showed them the best wood to use, as the native flora was much different than that in the much-warmer climate of Begnion. The hunters informed them, too, of the local game; their first order of business was obtaining decent outerwear for the colder months.

"It always feels like winter up here," one of the hunters said, "and I'm born and raised." He puffed up his chest, proud to have survived the long Daein winters. But some of Shiharam's men grew anxious. He suspected that the cold wasn't as bad as the locals made it out to be, but he let his men believe the rumors regardless. Better be prepared.

Shiharam didn't worry about Jill at all, because most of his men acted like a surrogate father when she was around. She loved sitting on a wyvern, though the creature probably didn't notice the small weight on his back. She also busied herself with clean-up, carrying small piles of brush back-and-forth to the woods with the soldiers. Shiharam didn't want to admit it, but even at two years old she looked like a little lady.

General Petrine didn't waste time giving orders. Shiharam hadn't expected her to show up in person, but—from the little he understood of her—he gathered she wanted to see how well they were settling in. Or not settling, if that was the case.

He was grateful they had set up base right away, because he secretly reveled in the look of disappointment on her face over its improved conditions.

"Enjoying this backwater country, are you?" she spat, dismounting her horse.

"It is more than we deserve," Shiharam replied.

"Ha! And His Majesty said you'd be a bunch of stupid foreigners!"

He fought to hold his tongue. "To what do we owe the pleasure?"

"Don't think I'm staying," she said, deliberately bumping his arm when she passed by. He glared when her back was turned. "I am here to give your orders directly and have no plans to return, if I can help it." Shiharam followed her around base as she peeked into windows, sneering at the happy soldiers inside. "You are to organize sub-human hunts."

"Beg your pardon?"

"You heard me!" She whipped around to face him. "That is your duty back here, is it not? Sub-human hunts. Daein is teeming with them, and it's disgusting. You will search and kill them all."

"Yes, General."

It troubled Shiharam how easily he accepted the orders. But he was a soldier through and through, and soldiers obeyed their superiors. Every day he spoke to the villagers, and every day he heard the fear in their voices over the attacking sub-humans—even though he had yet to see a laguz anywhere.

General Petrine was good on her word, and did not stay long. It was not until she had whipped her horse, bolting out of town borders, that Haar emerged from a nearby home.

"That is one beast of a woman," he said lazily.

"I am her subordinate." Shiharam massaged the bridge of his nose. "Haar, you heard her instruction, I presume."

"Yes, Commander. I will follow through."

On the surface Haar was the laziest soldier to ever enlist, but the boy was good on the battlefield. He was only seventeen, but he was strong and loyal. There were times, too, that he subtly put his commander in place. It was Shiharam's downfall—he got too emotional; he let things get personal.

He had climbed the ranks quickly. He had been one of the youngest commanders of the Begnion dracoknights, elevating to his position only last year at twenty-five. He tried not to show favoritism among his subordinates. But there was no denying he had a particular fondness for the one-eyed soldier, just as his daughter did. Perhaps it was because Haar boasted youngest in his battalion, and it reminded him of himself. The thought brought a smile to his face. No, he hadn't been that lazy when he was his age. He would not have the position he did if he took quite so many naps.

"Commander!" One of his men bolted toward him, red-faced and disheveled. He seemed to have forgotten himself as he ran with his lance under his arm, its deadly spear pointed outward.

"Soldier!" Shiharam shouted. "Watch it!"

He slid to a stop, fumbling with the lance before it fell to the ground with a thud. Shiharam sighed. "Sorry, Commander! I have to speak with you! Haar is saying we have to kill laguz!" Haar calmly strode up behind him, looking bored.

"We are in Daein now," Shiharam said, fighting to keep his voice even, "and we will live by Daein's rules. We have been commanded to eradicate the sub-humans, and eradicate them we will."

"Commander..."

"I know you're not questioning your superior," Haar said with a yawn.

"And who are you to question me, you young pup?" the soldier spat back.

"Haar has received orders directly from me," Shiharam said, "and you will obey him. His word shall be my own."

Only Shiharam could sense that his words had an unexpected effect on Haar. When he turned away with the solider his walk was a little firmer, his shoulders a little straighter. Shiharam supposed he had just given him a promotion, but that was a matter for another time. He had other things on his mind.

Jill teetered around the group that Haar was commanding, and though she seemed to pay no attention he knew she absorbed every word. You are in Daein now. Sub-humans are the enemy. Bring glory to Daein. We must prove ourselves worthy. He looked away. He had to find his captains. He had to give his orders.

Talrega was silent come nightfall. It was too cold to go visiting after supper, so most residents remained huddled around a fire in their homes. Shiharam sat at his old, battered desk, a moth-eaten quilt draped over his shoulders. One of the village elders had left it with him, apologizing she could not provide something better, but he was grateful for the warmth. Many of the older women showed compassion; he only accepted their generosity because of Jill. He glanced at the floor beside the desk. She didn't yet have a proper mattress, but she was content cocooning herself in a mound of quilts to sleep. She hugged a ragged stuffed animal—he assumed it was once a rabbit—that she had received as a gift from one of the town matrons. Shiharam didn't want to depend on their gifts, but he couldn't deny that these little things made life slightly more bearable for them both.

There was a knock on the front door and he quickly answered, surprised to see Haar standing at the threshold. Haar was the sort to get to bed as soon as the work was done, not to be seen again until long after breakfast. He still wore his armor.

"Commander."

Shiharam pressed a finger to his lips as he ushered him inside, jerking his head in Jill's direction. She curled her body tighter as a rush of cold air swept through the open door, but didn't wake.

"If this is a bad time..." Haar whispered.

"Not at all," he said, but kept his voice low.

"Commander, I..." He paused. It was seldom that Haar was at a loss for words, and Shiharam didn't know how to respond to his stumbling. "Your orders," he finally said. "I don't mean to question them, but I'm confused why you would have me direct my superiors."

That was what had happened, wasn't it? The words rang in his head, and he still wondered where they had come from. His word shall be my own. "You are a capable soldier, Haar. I thought... no, I hoped... that our friendship had surpassed that of commander and subordinate." But he couldn't look at Haar's face as he spoke. He stared at Jill instead, remembering their lavish home in Begnion, remembering his wife's funeral. Remembering how Haar had offered to watch his infant rather than attend the funeral himself. Remembering how he came home to her crawling around buck naked because Haar didn't know how to pin a diaper. Those days were a blur.

"Commander, with all due respect, the men will question your loyalties if you continue to show favoritism."

"That's why I have decided to promote you."

Haar's one eye widened. "Commander..."

"You have proven yourself time and time again to be a capable soldier. You did not question our motives when we left Begnion. You didn't even ask where we were headed."

"That didn't matter," Haar replied, defensively. "You are the most competent man I have served under—"

"And how many superiors have you had?" He smiled. Capable or not, he was still a boy.

But Haar ignored this. "—and I have no desire to work under anyone else. I follow because I believe in your ideals. I believe you will not steer us wrong."

"Is that so?" Despite his knowledge that Shiharam had to obey, had to go against his beliefs to live a better life? But Haar had been there when Petrine gave her orders, and he immediately complied when Shiharam commanded he relay the message. He finally met Haar's eye. He was clearly struggling to stay awake; it wasn't impossible for him to fall asleep standing up. Though even Shiharam himself was fighting sleep after a long, tedious day of work.

"So are you refusing your promotion?" He couldn't hold back a hint of amusement.

Haar snorted. It could have been a snore, jarring him awake. "No, sir."

"I trust that your sleep schedule will not interfere with your duty?"

"It never does, Commander." That much, he knew, was true.

"Good. Get some rest, Captain Haar. There is much to do tomorrow." But Haar was already halfway out the door before he finished speaking. Sleep was one command he could never question.

"You sure there are la— sub-humans out here, Commander?"

Shiharam was doubtful himself. He had taken a small group to circle the woods from above, while Haar commanded a group on foot below. It had been hours, and they had yet to see any beorc in this area, let alone sub-humans. One of his soldiers had flown up beside him, questioning their presence there at all, and Shiharam had to keep his emotions in check. It would be easy to declare this a waste of time, but he couldn't return with no report at all…

Suddenly, from down within the trees, they heard a hissing screech.

"Hold your positions!" Shiharam shouted, when the wyverns began to descend. "Wait for the command!" But the command never came, and the woods went eerily quiet. He held up a hand, instructing the soldiers to wait, as he guided his beast into the forest.

The wyvern struggled going down through the densely-packed trees, thrashing his wings. Shiharam pulled at the reins, trying to calm him down. He wasn't particularly fond of this area himself, being so dark and dank, and his wyvern could sense his anxiety. But they both calmed once they hit the ground.

Haar came rushing through the brush; at the speed he ran Shiharam expected him to be panicked and injured, but there wasn't a scratch on him. "Commander Shiharam, you should see this."

Haar did not move as quickly on the way back, as if the presence of his commander eased his discomfort. When they approached the battalion, they were circled around something on the ground. Shiharam didn't have to see it to know what it was, but he pushed through the group regardless.

It wasn't like they have never seen a corpse before. But it was different, seeing the orange ears up close. The tail lying limply across his legs. He may have been unshifted, but there were still sharp claws protruding from his fingertips, as if he died before the transformation had been complete.

Shiharam closed his eyes. "Was this the only one?" he asked. The men looked at one another, silently pushing the job of spokesperson to someone else. When he opened his eyes, no one would look at him directly. "I asked if this was the only one."

"No, commander," Haar said, stepping alongside him. "There were others, but they escaped."

He glanced sideways at Haar but the captain remained motionless, his head held high. Was it possible he had grown up overnight? Or had he just failed to notice? "Every day we will come to this area," Shiharam said slowly, looking at each soldier in turn, "and we will find them. Do we understand?"

A round of "yes, Commander," was issued in unison. Many of them still looked down at the fallen laguz. Sub-human.

"Get rid of this thing," he said, turning from the corpse. A set of footsteps followed as he left the clearing, crunching over the fallen branches and leaves.

The soldiers were out of earshot before his companion spoke. "You put on quite a show, Commander," Haar said.

"Mmm." Shiharam climbed up on his wyvern.

"May I speak freely?" Haar asked suddenly, placing a hand on the beast's side, as if that would stop him from taking off. "Not as a subordinate, but as a friend."

Shiharam rubbed his wyvern's neck, feeling the rough skin grate against his palm. "Of course." But Haar hesitated before looking up. His usual lazy expression crossed his face, but there was a nervous shift in his demeanor. Not as a subordinate. He rarely thought of him as such, though he never admitted it aloud.

"I may not agree with Daein's rules, and I don't understand how King Ashnard works. But Begnion was brutal and corrupt, and I would rather be here in Daein with its questionable ideals."

"Haar—"

He cut him off. "I get why we're here. I understand why we have to hunt"—he winced—"sub-humans. I trust your judgment more than my own. I'm not here because I love Daein, Shiharam; I'm here because I vowed to serve under you. I will do what is expected for our survival. For your sake, and for Jill."

Haar had neglected to address him by title, but it was a minor fault. Hardly a fault at all; likely intentional. Shiharam thought back to their last days in Begnion. Who else would have stayed up with him through the night, planning the departure, making sure the families were kept informed? Who else would have allowed his baby to sit on his knee during meetings, when he could find no one to watch her? Who had Jill toddled to the day they left, stamping her foot until he relented and allowed her to travel with him? That journey already felt like long ago: Haar with one hand on the reins and the other around Jill's torso, crushing her against his body, her red hair flapping wildly in the wind.

To Haar's surprise Shiharam grasped his hand in both of his, squeezing tight. After a brief hesitation Haar placed his free hand over them, sealing the bond.

"You are"—Shiharam paused, swallowing hard—"my dearest friend."