“Khari, do you think we belong here?”
Reid sat awkwardly against the wall of Khari’s tent. He knew he was welcome here, and he knew that Khari didn’t mind his presence, but he still felt slightly uncomfortable. He liked Khari. He was pretty sure she didn’t mind him, either. He’d just never felt quite as connected to her as he had to Alana or Tynus. Khari intimidated him.
“Yes.” Khari didn’t hesitate. She didn’t even look up from the book in her hand. “The Queen sent us here. We must belong.”
“That’s…” Reid struggled to find the right words. Khari’s conviction was part of what made her intimidating. Her conviction, and her intensity. “I don’t think that’s what I meant.”
“We’re here for a reason, Reid.” Khari lowered her book into her lap, meeting his eyes. A flame, steady as a candle, hovered over her shoulder, given them a source of light and a welcome warmth. In its light, her brown eyes took on a golden hue. “These people need our help. They need the Queen’s help.”
“I know that.” Reid started to lean back. The tent wall gave way immediately, causing him to jerk awkwardly. From the side, Héan gave him a mocking flick of the eyes. The tent was too small for him to manifest, but he was there, nonetheless, as he always was. “That’s not the part that I’m questioning.”
“Okay.” Khari set the book to one side, turning so that her body faced him entirely. “Talk to me, Reid.”
Outside, the sounds of the soldiers moving about the camp created a steady backdrop of noise. Reid had always liked the sounds that came with large groups of people: laughter, distant chatter. The sounds of metal clanging, whether it be pots over the campfires or darker things like weapons. Tonight, it brought him no comfort.
“Lora trained us.” He began slowly. He didn’t know where to start, or how to end up where he wanted. “She taught us how to fight. She taught us, well, a lot of things. She gave us our companions.”
He reached up to scratch at Héan’s neck, feeling the soft moss that covered him. Héan gained just enough solidity to enable the gesture, then faded back away. “I wouldn’t trade Héan for anything, but sometimes I still feel like this isn’t right.”
“Do you trust Queen Lora?” Khari leaned forward, her eyes locking on Reid’s in a way that made him want to turn and leave the tend. For a moment, he swore he saw the shadow of Din’s face above her shoulder, eyes peering at Reid like blue-white stars.
“Yes!” The answer came quickly and honestly. Lora had given him everything he had now in life. “Of course I trust her. I don’t have doubts in the Queen.”
“Then what?” Khari raised herself up, no longer leaning forward, but she looked far from relaxed. She held her back straight in a way that made her look, even in the dim light of the tent, like a queen. “You doubt something.”
“It’s me.” Reid’s own back deflated, sending him forward, his elbows resting on his knees. He looked down at his hands, and at his forearms. They were leaner and stronger than they’d ever been in his life, but he didn’t feel strong. “I don’t feel like I’m supposed to be here.”
“Ah.” Khari relaxed, just enough so that she didn’t look quite so imposing. “Why, though?”
“I don’t know.”
“You do, or you wouldn’t have brought it up.”
Khari was not as easy to talk to as Alana, or, in a way, Amèlia. Alana was open about herself, which made everything he said to her feel easy. Amèlia… well, people were open to her, so there was no sense in trying to hide most things from her. She probably knew all of the things he wanted to talk to Khari about already, and she wasn’t even here. She was back at the castle with the rest of the Guardians.
But then, maybe some of that wasn’t true. Maybe, in a way, talking to Khari was easier. She was always so direct. She didn’t see much point in dancing around what she wanted to say, and she didn’t tend to have patience for other people doing it, either.
“I guess I worry that I’m not strong enough for this.” Reid pressed his hands together, feeling his own strength in a subtle way.
“You are. Maybe you worry that you’re not, but you know that you are.”
“I’m not strong like you, though.” His words came out embarrassingly quiet.
Khari laughed. Reid looked up at her in surprise, his mouth gaping, which just made her laugh even harder. “What’s so funny?”
“You!” Her laughter left as suddenly as it had come, but the mirth still remained, sparkling, in her eyes. She pointed at him with one finger. They weren’t close enough for her to touch him, but his sense-memory felt it jab into his chest nonetheless. It was something Khari did often. She got it, she said, from her mother. “You are strong! You’re stronger than I am, you goof. At least physically.”
“But that’s not —”
She waved him to silence with the same hand she’d just used to point. “That’s not what you mean. I know. Listen, you have to know you’re at least the second best fighter. Out of all of us.”
“What?” Reid shook his head, taken aback.
“It’s true. Second to me, of course, but think about it. How often do you even feel like you struggle, when you spar against the others?”
“Well, Tynus and Zain are pretty good, and Chelle…”
“Stop. None of them are bad — none of us are bad, thanks the Queen — but you’re better. You’re good. It’s time you noticed it and acknowledged it.”
“Well, thanks, but I don’t like to think that way. I don’t like to be better than other people.”
“It’s not about you being better, really, and it’s not about putting them down. It’s about you having some confidence in yourself. The Queen chose you. She chose you and I to come here. Reid, we’re the first to go off on our own. That means something.”
Reid sighed. She was trying, and he could see that, but her words didn’t really make him feel better. He searched for the words to describe the problem. It was a simple one, really, but he feared she wouldn’t understand. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and said it anyway. “I don’t want to fight, Khari.”
“I don’t want to hurt people. It’s not me. It’s not Héan, either, and ever since he’s been a part of me it felt even less like me.”
“They’re not people, though, Reid.” He could hear the forced gentleness in her voice. It didn’t come easily to her, and it didn’t suit her. “They’re khaiborn. They’re part-demon. They don’t even belong on Aia.”
“They were born here, just like you and I.” His hands knotted into fists in his lap. “They’re not humans, but they’re people just as much as isurians and quetal and orose are people. They just don’t look like us.”
Khari folded her arms across her chest. “I’m not suggesting we go out on a campaign to round up khaiborn children for slaughter, but even if they are people, these khaiborn are bad people. Bad people need to be dealt with. Somehow.”
“Why can’t we make peace with them, though?” Reid felt oddly desperate. In truth, he had no love for khaiborn. They were ugly, cruel things who, outside of this conversation, he’d never thought of as people in his life. “Maybe if we tried to help them, they wouldn’t try to attack this village.”
“Queen Lora knows the way of things.” Khari spoke firmly, because she was reinforcing something Reid already knew. “She told us how events will unfold. We’re merely here to enact them. A number of khaiborn will attack this village tomorrow. We’re here to protect them. We’re not even the aggressors, Reid. We just know the way things will go because we have the Queen on our side, guiding us.”
“I know.” Reid dropped his head into his hands. “I just… my power isn’t even made for fighting. Héan’s power, I mean. Our power. What am I supposed to do?”
To Reid’s surprise, Khari shook her head, a light smile curling the edges of her lips. “Reid, I love you like a brother, but you can be such an idiot sometimes.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re here for a reason. We both are. You fight well, and I fight well, and my power is strong — though fire is going to do a fat lot of good against these khaiborn. But your power is strong, too. Realms, you’re going to be the most important person out there tomorrow.”
“Reid, we’re not the only two people who will be fighting. If the captains are smart, you won’t be fighting much at all. You’ll be far away from the front line, doing something far more important.”
“Nobody else out there can make people stand back up once they’re down. You can.” Khari ran a hand through her hair. “In a way, it’s silly how much training we’ve gone through. We’re only people. We’re only nine people. Tomorrow, we’ll be mostly figureheads. You’ll have hard work to do, Reid, and so will I. I won’t mince words about that. But you won’t have to hurt anyone, not even the khaiborn. Not if you, and the captains, recognize what your real role should be.”
“I guess I never thought of it like that.”
“I don’t know why not.” Khari grinned. “Do you listen when the teachers talk about strategy, or do you just sit there and stare off into space?”
Reid blushed. “I listen.”
“At dawn, we meet with the captains.” Khari shifted her weight to her knees, then crept closer to Reid. She punched him lightly on the shoulder, then leaned in for a hug. He accepted it. When she withdrew, she kept her hands on his shoulders. “They’ll ask us for our input, though we both know they’ll have a plan already. We’ll make sure they treat you right.”
Reid felt a warmth somewhere up and to his left, removed from his body and yet part of it. When he looked, he could see Héan, lit bit an orange-yellow glow; and for the briefest moment, he could see Din, as well, pressed forehead-to-forehead with Héan, eyes closed and serene.
“Thank you.” He drew Khari back in for a second hug, realizing as he did so that he didn’t feel intimidated by her at all in that moment.
“Anytime.” She winked at him, and punched him lightly on the shoulder. “We’re a team, right? We’re a family. Everyone belongs here.”
“You’re right.” Reid pulled his legs underneath himself and made his way to the exit. “Thank you, again, Khari. Sleep well.”
“Sleep well, Reid. See you at dawn.”