When Thesh came to him, it felt like he had been struck by a blast of lightning. Most of the Guardians had remained standing, but Zain, to his embarrassment, had wound up on the floor, his muscles quivering with the shock. His knees had failed him, and he’d barely had the control to soften his fall. Even so, his rear felt bruised from his impact with the ground.
In a flash sizzling white light, like electricity lancing through his mind he had seen his first glimpse of Thesh. The other Guardians had visions of their companions, too, as they joined. None of them had sounded afraid. Khari’s companion, a giant bird, sounded beautiful. Reid’s companion, a stag made of woven vines, sounded comforting. Soothing, almost. Corran’s companion took the form, mostly, of a woman.
Zain’s first glimpse of Thesh hadn’t consoled him. It had frightened him. He could still see her, when he closed his eyes, as though she’d been seared into the backs of his eyelids: a giant eel, with slick, shining black flesh, stubby limbs ending in claws, and a wickedly hooked beak, from the top of which sprouted curved horns. She was not beautiful, at a glance. She was intimidating.
He couldn’t let the other Guardians know how he felt. To them, he’d laughed and smiled and encouraged, as they’d described their companions. He was the positive guy. He was the one who laughed at jokes, even if he wasn’t very good at making them. He was the easygoing fellow who took everything in stride. He certainly wasn’t the only one who was afraid of his new companion. Was he?
He felt guilty thinking about it. He could feel Thesh stalking him through his room as he readied himself for his first sleep in this strange new place. Palace servants had unpacked his things, placing the clothes he’d brought in the closet. They’d told him he would soon have a meeting with a tailor to replace his clothes with new ones befitting of his station.
Zain’s skin crawled. He felt watched. To have someone so near that he couldn’t perceive made him deeply uncomfortable. He needed to bathe. The day had been long, as had his travels. After the long, eventless, numbing carriage ride, today had moved by almost too quickly. The Queen had bound them to their companions so soon after meeting them. It all blurred together in his mind. The ceremony, the Queen’s words, his dinner with the people he would now be spending his life with…
His companion, who now shared his soul.
The servants had readied a bath for him. This was an extravagance, to Reid, to have a bath within his own chambers. At him, they’d had only one bath, much larger than this one, which had been shared by the whole family. Here, a small stone bath was built into the wall of its own small room off of his main living space. It was full of warm water which, though he’d taken quite some time readying himself for it, had not lost any heat.
Zain took a deep breath. Thesh would be connected to him for the rest of his life. She would see him without his clothes, at some point. She was a part of him. There was no reason to feel anxiety over this. Despite her appearances, she wouldn’t harm him.
Was he the only one who felt fear toward his companion? She was just so intimidating, with those moon-white, glowing eyes. He shivered, despite the warmth the bath gave the room. What did it really mean, for her to share his soul? Would he never be alone again? Before, he would never have seen that as an issue. He was not the sort of person who liked to be alone. He loved to be around people. But now, the thought of never having time to himself again concerned him.
Another breath. Zain placed the towel and the sponge next to the wooden chair that sat next to the bath. There was nothing else to do. He stripped off his clothes, depositing them in the wicker basket set in the corner, and sat down on the chair. For decency, he laid the towel across his lap.
There was what he assumed to be liquid soap, of some kind, in a bowl on the edge of the bath. He dipped his finger in it to smell it. It smelled of flowers and spice. As he reached for the sponge, he felt something tingle upon his back, as though someone standing behind him had let out a heavy breath.
His head snapped around, and for an instant, he saw a black, curving form with haunting white eyes. Zain jumped to his feet, his heart practically vibrating in his chest. Thesh. He couldn’t see her now that he was looking for her.
“I’m sorry,” he said, closing his eyes. “I’m not used to this yet.”
He heard — not quite a murmur. Something. It was like the sound of someone speaking very far away. He knew a voice had spoken, yet he could hear none of the words. He didn’t hear it with his ears, either, which found only the echoes of his own breathing in the stone room, despite their straining.
He realized his towel had fallen to the ground, leaving him exposed. He gathered it quickly and forced himself to sit back down upon the chair. With a deliberate motion, he dipped his sponge into the water, wetting it. His finger met the surface of the water, toward the edge of the sponge. A shock ran through him, and he pulled back, surprised.
It hadn’t hurt, only tingled. It felt like when he wore socks and scuffed them against the rug his mother kept in their family room. A tiny charge of electricity. Well, Lora had told him that would be his power. Or that it was Thesh’s power, which she now shared with him. He had nodded as though he’d understood, but he felt like he still had a great deal to learn.
Curious, he touched his fingertips to the water’s surface once more. This time, nothing came of it. Queen Lora had told them that their connection to the powers of their companions would take time to develop. The manifestations would be sporadic at first. For a moment, Zain feared electrocuting himself accidentally, should he bring himself into further contact with the water.
He shook his head. Brave. He was the brave one. He’d be fine. The Queen knew all. She would have warned him of the risks of taking a bath, if his power were a fatal danger. He dipped the sponge in the water once more and began to wash himself, lathing himself with the soap and then rinsing it away with water collected in the sponge. The water dripped down to the floor, where it drained through a small grate. Even that brought wonder to him. His home had not possessed plumbing.
The familiar act of washing his body relaxed him somewhat. When he had finished, despite his concerns over Thesh’s watchful presence, he stood from the chair, dropped his towel, and stepped into the bath. It didn’t matter what These saw. She wasn’t even human. She couldn’t possibly care about his nudity.
The water tingled against his flesh in an odd way, like a constant, harmless shock. It made him itch, taking away most of the pleasant comfort of the warm water. Zain curled his knees up toward his chest, wrapping his legs in his arms. He wondered if baths would be like this the rest of his life. Itchy and tingly and uncomfortable.
Bathing wasn’t something he’d particularly cared about, before. Not for the relaxation. He liked to be clean, of course, but his mother and his sisters had enjoyed relaxing in the bath for as long as it remained warm. It wasn’t that the bath was uncomfortable, now, but that it represented a general loss of what had been comfortable about his old life.
Zain had been called to serve his Queen. He had answered without question. He knew folks with misgivings about her right to rule, but he didn’t harbor doubts like theirs. Queen Lora had been chosen by the gods. If she said she needed Zain, he believed her. It was his responsibility to follow through, and he would.
But oh, he had given up so much to do it. He didn’t know if he’d ever see his family again, or his friends. Or Tena, who he’d thought he might love enough to take as a wife, in a year or so. His life hadn’t been easy, but he knew this would be harder. The Queen have given them their companions for a reason. She said they would learn how to fight. Fighting meant violence, and death. Zain had given up the peace of his life to come here.
He had Thesh, now. It hadn’t been a comforting thought before, but now somehow it was. He wouldn’t be alone in this. He had the other Guardians, of course. There were eight other people going through almost exactly his situation. Yet Thesh was closer. She shared his soul. If he could learn to be close to her, he would have someone to help him through the change, even though she was part of it.
When he’d finished with his bath, he towelled himself dry. He wrapped himself in the robe the servants had humg upon the wall He felt Thesh as she followed him through his chambers, toward his bed. This time, he didn’t think of it as stalking. She was simply close at hand, in case he needed her. He knew that he would, someday. He would have to come to appreciate her.