The Nichan Smile, Chapter One

Three nichan boys hid in the thickets.

The oldest, Mora, served as a defense between his younger brothers and the potential danger he’d accidentally led them into. The one in the middle, Beïka, pulled on his eldest brother’s tunic. Caught in the cold of early winter, he shook and sweated all the water out of his body at the same time. To his right, the youngest of the boys breathed with the same discretion as boiling water. As mist filled his sight, he covered his mouth to stop condensation from betraying their presence. 

This one was called Domino. And what he saw over his brothers’ clenched shoulders and the dark foliage was as ordinary as it was frightening. 

Humans. Two men. 

They weren’t the first humans the three nichans had met. Kaermat, the coast village where they’d grown up and just left in a hurry, was home to more than one representative of this species. Domino had been around them near and far since his birth. However, these two individuals were different. Their tight-fitting garments, cut from many pieces of gray fabric pleated here and there, were not Torb. Domino had never seen such clothes. They seemed foreign; from the north, perhaps. Or the east. And although their attitudes didn’t display any form of threat, the sabers they wore at their waists didn’t send the same message. 

One of the men got up. He was tall for a human and wore his dark hair cut short under a dirty sheet hat with worn, leather-rimmed edges. His pale, sunken face was speckled with red around his eyes, mouth, and nostrils. He coughed, rummaged the walls of his throat, and belched deeply before spitting a blood clot into the campfire—it hissed as it died on the flames. His companion, sitting by the heat, didn’t flinch, although the projectile passed close by his ear.

“Fuck it,” grunted the spitter, lifting his hat to scratch his head. “I’m done. Get the rope ready. Let’s get it over with.”

“Where are you going?” asked the other when the first one retreated from the camp.

Stepping over the tall grass, the human untied the belt holding his thick pants on his hips. “I’m gonna take a shit. Wanna help?”

“Don’t get lost like last time. I won’t come looking for you.”

The first man marched in silence, didn’t even make any sign to indicate that he had heard this statement. Before disappearing between the trees, the man threw his hat back with the same exhaustion that weighed on his every move. The hat flew through the camp and fell back to the child who rested by a haversack, eyes closed, face down.

A child.

Not two, but three humans. 

The youngest of the three nichans stretched his neck to get a better look at him. This little human was a pale, tiny, scrawny thing. His crown of blond hair stuck to his forehead by a thin layer of grime. His arms were like twigs, so frail a simple gust of wind could have twisted them. He kept them wrapped around scratched knees bent against his chest. He wore thin, stained nightclothes and boots on his feet. 

Is he sleeping? Domino wondered. 

He moved up a bit to try to discern the little human not through but over the blackish leaves this time. Before he had a chance, the man by the fire sneezed his lungs out, frightening the birds perched in the branches and almost snatching a stupefied cry from Domino. The child tucked his neck in, made himself as small as possible while the sound of sputum disturbed the camp. When the man took his hands away from his face, his palms were stained with blood. Like his friend who’d left to relieve himself, his skin was studded with red dots, his bloodshot eyes darkened with deep circles. 

“Faces, witness me.” The man slid his palms down his pants, painting streaks on the fabric. “You’re not worth a damn.” Silence. 

Even Domino held his breath, his pulse still running too fast in his veins. 

“All this trouble for a kid,” the man added, wiping his nose on his sleeve before angrily pulling at his collar. “Look at that costume. Why am I going through all this shit? For what, huh? Five hundred myrts. You Sirlhains don’t know how to estimate a man’s life. Mine’s worth more than five hundred fucking myrts. Whereas yours—hey! You listening, or . . . ”

A deep frown showed behind the myriad of red dots puncturing his skin. On the other side of the camp, the child had still not reacted, as if asleep or too weak to open his eyes. 

“Oh yes, I forgot,” the man said with a bitter sneer. Then he spoke words unfamiliar to Domino.

This time the little human raised his head and opened his eyes. And what eyes! Amber, like fire, and black extending from edge to edge. His heart hammering against his ribs, Domino stretched his neck out to look at them. 

Even at six, he knew humans looked no different than his brothers and him. “We are bigger and stronger than them, but our camouflage is good,” Ako, his mother, told him one day. “The Gods did a good job.”

This child looked human, but his eyes, not so much. Was the reflection of the campfire to blame for this illusion? But Domino couldn’t guarantee his own eyes were failing him. Night was never far, even in the middle of the day.

“That’s what I thought,” the man continued. “You’re not only an abomination, you’re also a bit of an idiot. Don’t worry, it won’t last. I’m done too.” 

He left the rolled-up blanket he was sitting on—each movement evoked those of a man responsible for carrying the weight of the world in addition to his own—and rummaged through the bag next to the child. The boy tensed as the man approached, closing his trembling arms around his knees. From his bag, the man pulled a rope and a flask. He hesitated, then unscrewed the cap and drank a good shot of whatever it contained. He coughed even more, enough to startle the little thing curled up at his feet, eyes wide open behind the hair that hid half his face. When the man handed the bottle to him, the child retreated into himself, eyelids fluttering fast as if a slap had been close to meet his face. 

“You’re right,” the man said. “You don’t start fires without fuel.”

He poured the rest of a brownish liquid all over the boy. On his clothes, his hair, his white hands. With such a small body, a single flask was enough to soak him. Beyond the bushes, Domino clenched his fists. He looked at his older brothers. From them came no reaction, no movement, no sound. To remain undetected was essential. Domino couldn’t grasp how they’d come to be this close to these humans. Hunger, exhaustion, or both? But he’d understood for some time that he, Mora, and Beïka would stay under cover until the danger had passed. There was no telling what reaction these two humans would have if the brothers were discovered. 

But more and more, a cold, suffocating presentiment swelled in Domino’s chest. It warmed him to the point of discomfort and pressed on his bladder. He understood what that feeling was when the man in the camp grabbed and unrolled the rope hanging from his arm, prepared a simple knot, briefly tested its strength, and then passed the noose around the child’s neck, like a thread in the eye of a needle. 

The child jumped again when the man grabbed him and set him on his feet. 

Domino froze. A small, flesh-colored wing with a thin, translucent membrane darkened from the middle to the tip, and another, much larger, opened and closed and stretched in frantic motions behind the child’s back.

Wings! A little boy with wings. 

A worried look in his eyes, his frail body trembling, probably cold to the bone, the human boy swayed on his legs. The man tightened the knot around the child’s throat, as unfazed as a man trimming his nails. Then he knelt down to take the boy’s shoes off. It was too much for the child, who shouted in a broken voice and pushed the man away with force, as if pain came from revealing his toes. 

With one hand the man captured the child’s bony wrists. “Don’t be a pain, not now,” he said without interrupting his work. “We’ve been this far. Just let go.” The first boot fell on the side, then the next one opened under clumsy fingers. 

The little human struggled all the same. His naked foot struck the man, missed him, and the child collapsed when big hands laid him flat against the wet earth and anthracite grass. Keeping the child down seemed to be a trivial concern as the second boot was quickly removed. The child screamed again. It was the cry of a trapped animal, mad and heart-wrenching.

“Shit!” Mora swore as the child fell backwards, his unnatural wings disappearing under his body.

The curse was spat in a breath. Domino snuck a quick glance at his brother, whose dark olive complexion had lost its color. When he turned his attention to the child still resisting his captor, feet kicking like those of an upturned beetle, the second man was walking back to the camp, feet sinking deep in the ground, finishing tying his trousers. 

He looked up at the ashen sky, darkened here and there by the inky stains of the Corruption, and pointed to a branch. His companion nodded, grabbed the end of the rope snaking on the ground, and threw it over the branch. The other yawned as he pulled the rope. The little boy’s body was soon dragged along by the traction. Pulled by the neck, the child was yanked up, and up, and up until his feet were several inches off the ground.

Beïka gasped. Mora reached back to silence his brother. 

Behind them, tears covered Domino’s cheeks. 

The little human struggled, his feet shaking in the air. On his back, his most developed wing flapped in the wind as if to fly away. The other hung lifeless, useless. The child tried to grab and loosen the rope holding his throat. Impossible. Those skinny arms were far too weak. Beneath the dirt, his white face turned scarlet. He was no longer screaming. 

A deadly silence choked the air.

Domino panted in the same erratic rhythm as the child’s legs, this icy feeling exploding in his chest. It was what he had sensed without being able to name it. He had known things would turn badly. He had felt death coming. His breathing quickened. He ignored the mute warning Beïka sent him through a black glance. Nothing mattered more than that suffocating child; nothing mattered more than the echo of the screams he had uttered before . . . 

That damn rope. 

It was going to kill him. 

Those men were killing him.

A scream shook the forest, betraying its peace for good.

Everyone looked in Domino’s direction when he stood, screaming, full of rage and sorrow, his dirty face streaked with tears. There was nothing his brothers could do to stop him. Too late for that. Domino was already jumping over the bushes, charging at the two men who were putting the little boy to death. 

It all happened in a handful of heartbeats, like in a waking dream. One man drew his blade. Mora and Beïka rushed after their little brother. The other man shouted something, let go of the rope, and put his hand on the hilt of his saber. 

The little human crashed to the ground. Without thinking, Domino threw himself on top of him, covering him with his barely taller frame. But it was enough to shield the other boy. 

Domino shifted his eyes to his brothers. With grins stretching from ear to ear, both of them had pulled out their long fangs. Their claws stretched out. Their skin was now as dark as night, like smooth leather, their eyes completely black. 

They were already fighting. The hangman fell first in a hissing gasp, his mouth lacerated and spitting waves of striking red blood. Ruby flesh slapped the earth nearby. The tongue had been cut clean.

At only seventeen, Mora was already taller and more vigorous than the remaining human. The latter held his weapon in both hands, trembling but his eyes bright with resolve. Mora and Beïka circled around him. With agility, they avoided the edge of the blade, which passed within a hair’s breadth of their tensed muscles. The miserable man lost his balance, the weight of his weapon—or his own exhausted body—dragging him. 

It offered a perfect opportunity for the nichans to attack. 

Mora grabbed the man’s arm hard enough to force his hand open, his sharp claws biting into the flesh. He squeezed harder. The man screamed as his skin and muscle parted from his bone. The blade fell to the ground. With a desperate growl, the human tried in vain to claw the nichan in the face with his free hand. It soon got stuck in the vise of Beïka’s jaws. 

The man was left with only his voice to scream some more. Blood colored the scene, from his shoulders to the crackling fire. Domino turned away his ever-watery eyes. Ignoring the screaming and the humid sound of crushing bone, he stared at the child he protected. Still alive. The stench of alcohol and filth burned his nostrils. Then he discovered the boy’s luminous eyes up close. Black and amber, fringed with short blond eyelashes. These eyes gave him back his gaze. The little human then coughed, his wheezing breath pathetic at best. 

Hurrying, the young nichan freed the boy from the rope encircling his neck and pressed a hand to his shoulder. 

“Breathe,” Domino said, his face wet, snot running from his nose to his lips. “You breathe, okay?”

The human was still shaking. He pushed away the hand Domino had put on him and rolled to his side. He squirmed on the floor, as if in pain. 

No, Domino thought. He’s trying to run away from me. 

A red, wrinkled, bloody burn marked the delicate skin of the child’s throat. His squirming was that of a suffocating fish on the bank. His irregular breathing seemed too shallow to fulfill its goal. Yet not for a moment did he stop slowly crawling away. 

A rough hand grabbed Domino’s arm. The child thought the end was coming for him. In his shock, it took him a full second to recognize his brother Beïka standing next to him, his mouth dripping with human blood, his eyes filled with anger.

“You fucking moron! What is wrong with you?”

A resounding slap collided with Domino’s cheek and the child cried again, trying to push his brother away as much as free his arm of his grip. “Let me go!” 

“You want to get us killed, huh?”

“No!”

“Then what’s your problem? Are you a hero? You’re not a hero. You’re just an idiot.” Beïka hit his brother in the face again. 

Domino screamed, defended himself with his fists, then showed his teeth. 

Before the enamel met the flesh, their elder brother approached and shoved them apart. In the icy air laden with black dust, Mora gauged the other two nichans from his full height, holding each of them by an elbow. When he freed them at last, leaving bloody imprints on their brown skin, Domino stepped back and returned to crouch beside the human still crawling away. 

Mora stared at the two children and for a moment opened his lips, the vague shape of a word modeling their curve. Whatever he wanted to say never came out. Instead he turned to the two bodies lying in the middle of the camp. 

Domino dared to look in their direction. There was blood everywhere, more than he had ever seen or thought two humans could contain. Only human blood. A severed arm lay a couple steps away. The tongue had not moved, like a dead worm lying in the grass. In the small camp, the atmosphere had darkened, slowing down the shy light of day. Black particles, thicker than smoke but thinner than ash, drifted all around them, following the current of the wind. But the thick mass they formed came down like snow toward the corpses.

The Corruption. It loved death and embraced it. Soon it would cling to the surface of the two bodies, wrapping them in its black veil, making its way through every orifice. It would attract spirits.

“They must be buried,” Mora said.

He searched the camp, messier than it had been minutes ago. He quickly put his hand on the shovel the humans had brought with them. Another token of death. One never left a human or nichan corpse out in the open, for no one wished to share this world with spirits. Even a child as young as Domino knew this fundamental rule.

“We’re not leaving?” Beïka asked as he scanned the surroundings loaded with death, as if new assailants were about to attack them.

Domino mirrored the reaction, the nape of his neck stiff with cold and shock, his cheek burning with pain. He instinctively leaned over the little human boy, ready to shield him again if any other fool charged them to seek revenge. 

The shovel sank into the rocky ground. Once, twice. Then Mora stood up, spotted a second shovel, and pointed at it. “First the dead,” he reminded his younger brother. “Help me.”

Beïka sighed. “We should just leave. Who cares about them?”

“Right now, Beïka. The sooner we get it done, the sooner we’ll leave.”

An infallible answer. 

They dug a hole and threw the first man in. They did the same for the second dead man, throwing arm and tongue with their respective owner. Wet earth covered both graves, blocking the black dust’s path. The Corruption dissipated, drifting away with the wind. 

Then silence, and as the area cleared, a bird called in the distance. 

Domino’s brothers knelt down, side by side. The young boy didn’t miss a single step of the ritual that followed. 

Hands raised to the sky, Mora recited a few words. “This is your bed for the days to come and for all eternity. Find rest and forgiveness, for we have forgiven you. May you reach the realm of the Gods. Faces above, bring us the Light. Let it shine on the way.”

It was over. 

Mora approached the travelers’ haversacks and searched them, soon to be followed by Beïka. They found leather flasks filled with water, but for some reason, Mora disposed of them. In the end, they set aside matches, a cloth bag filled with flatbread and dried meat, and a square satchel rattling with the sound of clashing coins. The same bag snatched a smile from Beïka before Mora took it from his hands.

Then came the turn of the human child. 

“Domino, come here,” Mora called, but the little nichan refused, pressing himself by reflex against the child who had finally given up running away. Domino knew Mora wouldn’t beat him—he never had. Yet he feared the punishment he would have to face as well as the disappointment in his brother’s eyes. “By the Faces, Domino!”

Mora walked through the camp, cleared now that the dead were out of the Corruption’s reach. He stopped near the two children and lifted his little brother’s chin. No surprise or annoyance appeared on his face when he discovered new tears in the youngest child’s eyes.

“Why did you save him?” the teenager asked.

The answer was obvious to Domino, but under his brother’s insistent gaze, he answered anyway. “He’s very small and he was in pain.” His sobbing resumed. Air was pain in his lungs, and he took a deep shaky breath.

“You could have been killed. That child . . . You saw his wings? He’s no ordinary human; he’s a Vestige. Do you know what that is?”

The word was familiar, but Domino shook his head nonetheless. Adults said so many things, gave so many orders, then added more words as to make everything confusing. How could he remember everything?

“Mom told you about it, Domino. Everyone in the village talks about it. Vestiges can be dangerous.”

“No, not him,” Domino said, shaking his disheveled head. “He’s very small. He can’t hurt. The others wanted to hurt him, but we don’t hurt children, do we? We don’t put ropes around their necks. We . . . we can’t . . . we can’t . . .”

Breathing turned into a beloved memory as emotions grew inside him, filling all the available space. It was no longer a question of finding his words but rather of freeing himself from the crushing weight resting on his chest and thoughts. 

Mora applied a tender hand to the little boy’s tousled hair. “I know, calm down. Breathe, Domino.” 

“We . . . He comes with us, right? He’s hurt.” Domino swallowed a boulder-heavy sob, raising his eyes to his brother’s face.

Mora thought for a moment, watching the surroundings, then looked down at the small figure lying in the vegetation. “We can take him with us, but . . . No, no, no. Don’t be too happy. Domino, if the clan doesn’t want him, there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s not up to me. Do you understand what that means?”

“He’s . . . nice,” Domino said to defend his cause, sniffling between words.

“Do you understand, Domino?”

“You want to take it with us?” Beïka asked. He swayed from right to left behind them, his patience about to fail. “You said it was dangerous.”

“I said he could be.”

“That’s enough for me. I say we leave it here. Mama wouldn’t want that thing with us.”

He’s not a thing.

“He’s coming with us,” said Mora. “It’s too dangerous for him out there. He won’t survive on his own.”

“So what?”

“We didn’t take all these risks to leave him behind. Now shut up! He’s coming with us.”

A smile appeared all over Domino’s face, and he turned to the blond child. Having squirmed in all directions, the young human had pushed back the hair previously stuck to his face. On his dirty skin was a fresh burn, pink and swollen in places. It covered the left cheekbone and part of the child’s forehead. Domino failed to suppress a gasp. When his hand reached out in spite of himself, the human turned away, burying his face in the plants on which he lay.

“It’s all right,” Domino told him. “We’ll be there soon.”

“I don’t think he speaks our language, Domino,” Mora said.

Mora carefully grabbed the human who, once again, struggled. The teenager didn’t seem to mind this reaction, for a nichan would always be stronger than a human. After a while, the little boy resigned himself, letting Mora carry him, his thin arms hanging along his body. 

Walking beside his older brother, Domino grabbed the tiny, pale hand swinging in the air and squeezed it once. When the human boy lowered his strange eyes toward him, Domino offered him a bright smile. As if touched by a flame, the human snatched his hand back.

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