Corran’s smile still glowed on his face as he left the lounge, still bright from the light and warmth that the presence of the others had so quickly come to mean to him. As he shut the door, Tynus made a joke that he didn’t quite hear, but the rest of them laughed. They were all tired from the day, but they had this time to come together and learn each other. Queen Lora said that was just as important as their training. Corran agreed.
Only three days had passed since they had all met, and yet, here they were, talking and sharing stories like a group of old friends. Shared experiences brought bonds quickly, especially those as fatiguing as the schedule Queen Lora had laid out for them. Still, the fact that they had bonded so quickly despite their disparate backgrounds amazed Corran.
Selene, for example, clearly had ancestors hailing from the far north parts of Nerrona, where the cold and the winter sun had bleached their skin and leached all but the faintest blond color from their hair. Reid had influences from the north as well, though not quite so far as Selene’s. His red hair was unheard of in the south.
Amèlia and Zain clearly had a good amount of Isurian influence on their north-Nerronan blood. Zain’s indigo-violet eye color and bright blond hair didn’t occur without Isurian blood, and neither did Amèlia’s bright blue, tilted eyes, nor did the way her ears came to a faint point.
Tynus and Chelle both had strong blood from mid-Nerrona. Their skin was darker far darker than Selene’s, though next to Corran, they looked almost pale. Like most of the Guardians, they had features that revealed their blended blood. Tynus had the pale green eyes of someone with northern ancestry, while Chelle’s thick, curly hair, while dark, had an Isurian blond sheen.
Alana, Corran guessed, had ancestors from the Cora Islands, off of Nerrona’s southeastern coast. He hadn’t seen many folks he knew to be from their, but he knew that, like her, they were said to have light brown skin and eyes of a dark sea blue.
Only Khari had an ancestry Corran couldn’t readily identify, yet despite that — or perhaps because of it — Corran found her to be the most beautiful. Her hair was so dark as to almost be black, but when the light hit it at the right angle, a russet red tone reflected from it like the dying embers of a fire. Her skin was a smooth, blended chestnut color, different from the brown skin of the folks from central Nerrona and fair different from that of folks from the north or Corran’s own skin. And her eyes. They were brown, yes, but when they caught the sun’s rays they reflected like the finest gold.
They had fallen easily into friendship. All of them, together. Even Selene, who Corran found to be rather cold and detached, seemed to like the rest of them. Yet even now, Corran felt something he had been struggling with his entire life: he worried that he didn’t belong.
That’s why he had left early. He was tired, too. He hadn’t lied to them: he was exhausted, as they all were. Still, if it had been just that, he might have remained a while longer. He craved sleep, but he also craved the easiness they had developed with one another. Their lessons and the training were decidedly not easy, nor was interacting with the Queen, despite her kindness.
Corran looked different from them. They all looked different from one another, of course, in a variety of ways, but Corran felt more conscious of his differences than, he felt, anyone else did. He had no Isurian blood, as several of them did, even if it didn’t show. He had no blood at all from the north or even center of Nerrona. His skin came from the far, far south. Tynus had joked about Corran becoming invisible at night unless he smiled. Corran had laughed, but it still bothered him to be singled out.
But, no, he had to admit that Tynus didn’t single anyone out with his jokes. He jested about Reid’s height, and about Chell’s curly hair, and the fact that Amèlia asked too many questions and always knew the answer, and about Selene never being able to take a joke, and even, quite often, about himself: about how was far too short to be a Guardian, or about how fast his beard grew. Then he joked about how he was jealous of Corran for having no hair at all.
That one had hit Corran a bit too close for comfort. There was no animosity in Tynus at all. Corran liked him quite a bit, in fact, and they got along well. Still, he hoped he could find a time to talk to Tynus about the things he would rather not have made into jokes. He thought Tynus would understand, but that didn’t make it any easier to bring up the subject.
Nobody in Corran’s family had hair. In fact, his entire village was that way. As a group, they had emigrated to this area, which had once been called Minasora and would soon be again, when Corran’s grandparents had been but children. His parents didn’t talk about why their grandparents had left their home to start anew in this cold place full of pale people. He had asked, as a child, but he’d never gotten a true answer.
His village had been built by his great-grandparents in the style of the people from the south, for that was the only thing they knew. He knew that their first winter had been hard, for their construction was meant to help them withstand heat, not cold. Now the village stood as a reminder of the marriage between the north and south, with bits of architecture borrowed from both styles. Only the people remained, in appearance, purely southern.
So, when Corran’s parents had saved up enough money to send him to a boarding school in the Hold’s capital, so that he could receive a decent education, he had stood out. The kids there had made endless note of his skin color, yes, but it was his hair and his eyes that had been the source of endless amusement for them. They called him bald, and told him he looked like an old man, though his skin was smooth and unlined. They told him his eyes, with their brilliant golden-yellow color, were like those of an animal.
They told him their parents said he didn’t belong here, because his great-grandparents had stolen their land illegally from the Lord of the Hold, and it was by his grace and kindness that they had even been allowed to settle here. He hadn’t known anything about that. He had grown up thinking of Qelhold as his home, because that’s how his parents had presented it. He had left school feeling like an interloper.
Nothing about the other Guardians should have made Corran feel that way, except that when he looked at them, he expected to feel it. They were kind. They all felt, for one reason or another, like they didn’t belong. They all struggled with this new reality for one reason or another. Not just their new home, here, or their lessons, or the physical demands made of them by their arms trainers; or the reality that the Queen that each of them had seen as something like a distant star was now a close and present reality in their life.
No, the true difficulty here was adjusting to their companions. Perhaps that was part of the reason Corran felt like he didn’t belong, even though, in a paradox, the fact that this experience was something new and challenging to all of them made him feel closer to the Guardians in a way he’d never felt with anyone else, not even his family. They were all undergoing something similar, yet singular. Each of them would interpret and evaluate their experiences, related as they were, in a different way.
Corran had seen his companion, as they all had, on that first day, when Queen Lora had brought them together for the first time to perform the ceremony that bound them to these gifts from their gods. From what the others had said, however, he felt like his picture of her lacked clarity when compared to the others. He had the impression that she was female, with a more human form that what the others had described, and though he had only seen her for the time it took to blink, he thought she might have been made out of stars.
He knew she was with him, here. He sensed her presence, in the way he felt when someone was standing close enough behind him to feel their body heat on his back, or the way a room felt less empty if someone else was there, even if he wasn’t talking to them. Sometimes, he thought she might be talking to him. He would get the vague sense that he had missed something someone had said, but when he turned and listened, nobody was there.
Amèlia, of course, had already connected with her companion in full. From what he’d seen of her during lessons, she seemed like the sort of person who learned quickly and easily, at least when it came to the nonphysical stuff. He felt sort of bad for her during the physical and martial training, since she definitely struggled the most out of all of them, even including Reid.
Speaking of Reid, he, too, had found some measure of success in connecting to and communicating with his companion, as had Zain and Alana. They had each even been able to demonstrate their ability to draw intentionally on their companion’s power. Corran had not yet been able to do so. He could feel it inside him, just barely, but only because it felt different and new; otherwise, it felt oddly natural. He thought of learning to use it like figuring out how to flex a muscle he had never used, like when he’d figured out how to wiggle his ears.
In the quiet of his room, Corran decided to dedicate some time to trying to connect to his companion. He hadn’t yet learned her name, and he didn’t really know how to talk to her, but he had to devote some effort to figuring it out. Queen Lora had said it would take time for some of them, and that they should not compare themselves to the others, for everyone had their own personal journey to undertake. She also said they should devote as much time to developing their connection as they could.
Corran sat, legs crossed, on the plush rug that shielded him from the cold stone floor of his room. In his home, his parents’ home, there had been no northern-style furniture. Corran still found it more comfortable to sit on the floor, when given the opportunity. The muscles of his legs and back ached from the day’s exertions, but something about the familiar posture felt good in spite of the soreness.
Not knowing what else to do, he spoke aloud. “Are you, ah, there?”
No answer came. Not out loud, at least; not that he could tell. He couldn’t be sure, because he had that feeling again, like someone had spoken but he had missed it because his concentration was focused elsewhere.
“I want to get to know you,” he said. He might as well continue on. He knew that Amèlia talked to and constantly questioned her companion. “I can feel that you’re here. I just haven’t quite figured out how to listen yet.”
Silence. He focused on the ambient noise of the room. Given how many people he knew to be bustling about the castle, even at this hour, the level of quiet that he could achieve in his room still astounded him. He could hear the faint sound of the misty rain against the stone of the castle walls, and the sound of his own breath, rising above that.
He felt her beside him, or perhaps behind again. In a way, he supposed, she was inside him. Queen Lora said that they were one being now, despite the separation of their thoughts and bodies. Did his companion really have a body? Queen Lora said so. She said in time, the Guardians would learn to bring their companion’s bodies into solidity. None of them had achieved that, yet.
His focus drifted as his thoughts wandered, and, to his surprise, he heard something. Not with clarity enough to make out the words, but he heard a female voice in the air, soft, and with a song to it, like crystalline chimes. He felt a hand on his shoulder, and from the corner of his eye, he saw what looked like a shadow filled with stars. When he strained to listen once more, the voice faded from his perception, as did the hand.
Corran’s mind leapt to his time practicing archery, with his uncles at home, yes, but also here, under the guide of Queen Lora’s instructors. When he tried hard to focus on what he was doing, when he strained to direct the arrow to the target and concentrated to hard on what he was doing, he missed. He had found, long ago, that he met with much more success if he let his mind settle into a place beyond focus, where he was aware of everything around him without taking in any one thing to the exclusion of all else.
When he entered that state, he hit the target. He hit it every time. He deflected blows in the training yard that should have caught him off guard. He reacted faster, without having to think about what he was doing, because his body knew what to do.
He hadn’t know what to make of this state of focused non-focus until he’d been reading a book about Cinashe’s monasteries during his time at school in Qelhold. The monks there practised something that sounded like what he did, though of course, he was untrained. Thereafter, he’d thought of it as a blessing from Cinashe, God of Light and Perception, and had thanked his god frequently in prayer.
It hadn’t occurred to him that this mental state, which he wouldn’t dare to call what the monks achieved out loud but which he thought of by their term, lightness, would be useful to him outside of training and archery. Yet now, it seemed, it could be.
He let his mind and his thoughts slip into that space, into the lightness. His eyes went slightly out of focus. The world simultaneously blurred and became more clear, as, without moving his eyes, he could focus his attention on any one part of what he saw within his field of vision.
He saw her, kneeling to his side, her own eyes focused upon his face. She looked like a hole in the air, piercing straight through the world to the vastness of the starlit night sky. Brilliant points of light, shining like tiny jewels, glowed within the deep darkness of her being. The formation of those glittering lights was all that gave form to her face and eyes, which were wide with the brightness of a smile. Her hair flowed down over her shoulders and body. Within it, the lights took on hues from violet down to a dark pink at the ends. They seemed to be drifting in a cloud of color. Her eyebrows and her long, full eyelashes mirrored it in coloration.
Her body had the shape of young girl, but for one thing. She had a hand on his shoulder, and one on his knee, and he felt another caressing the back of his neck, and then there was one more, folded across her lap, barely visible except for the way it changed the shape of her outline.
“Hello,” Corran said, unsure of what else he might say. “I’m Corran.”
“I know,” she said, in that voice that sounded like music made of crystals. She reached up to run a hand through his hair. “I’m Immerine.”