She was still sorting through them, letting unfinished tasks dangle from her fingers, when she heard someone clear her throat from the doorway. Seri startled and dropped the boards, letting them clatter onto the desktop.
A girl stood at the door. She was young, somewhere in her late teens, and taller than Raya. Seri wouldn't have immediately called her pretty, although she was striking in her own way. If Seri had seen her out on the street, she might have marked her for a valiant, but not for a hero. That was, of course, if Seri hadn't seen the pale, milky white of her armor, the marks that snaked their way up what was visible of her arms, marks of excellence and leadership and resourcefulness in battle that stood out sharply against her brown skin.
She wore her hair long, which was a vanity Seri wouldn't have expected. Black as night and straighter than Seri could ever hope to get hers. It fell to the small of her back, cutting through the white of her armor.
She realized she was staring and scrambled to her feet, thrusting her hands behind her. The valiant tilted her head to the side, unamused.
"So, you're the one Raya and Turi decided to foist on me. What was your name?"
The valiant sighed, stepping into the room. She loosened the ties on her gloves, slipping the armor off her hands. The name-mark on the back of her right hand read 'star.'
"There's no need to call me 'Commander.' You aren't part of my valor. I'm Eshai. But from the way you're acting, you've figured that much out already."
Seri nodded, her heart thudding. She hoped her nerves didn't show on her face. Eshai put her gloves down on the desk, flexing her fingers and gently rotating her right wrist. Seri wondered if something was bothering her. An injury?
Noticing her gaze, Eshai gave her a chagrined smile.
"Hurt it in a training session. Most of the valor fight well enough to keep me on my toes. I hope that doesn't disappoint you 'too' much."
"N-Not at all." Seri looked away. "I didn't mean to stare."
Eshai sighed. "It's fine. If we're going to work together, you can stop being so skittish. I don't bite."
"Yes, Com—" She caught herself, her face warming. "Er, ma'am."
Eshai rolled her eyes, but the gesture was almost fond. She slid her gloves back on without looking at them. "Well, come on. I'll give you a tour of the settlement. If you're going to assist me, you should know what we're up against."
* * *
The settlement—Seri's new home—was in rough shape. The spaces where the settlers were supposed to make their homes were nothing more than naked platforms suspended among branches in the spreading tree, the bridges rickety, makeshift things that swayed alarmingly when Seri walked on them. Eshai didn't even notice, leading her across the bridges as if they walked on solid earth, but Seri held on to the rope railings with a death grip. The town hall, a large structure in the central square, had four walls and a roof but was otherwise bare on the inside except for a serviceable kitchen. For all the comforts they had, they might as well be camping out in the rainforest.
But the air was cleaner and cooler up here. And if the civilian architecture was roughshod, anything belonging to the valor was solid. The barracks hadn't been built yet, but a platform had been designated for the purpose, and there were tarps spread over it to keep off the rain. Although there weren't many buildings, there were ballistae, great huge bows that fired arrows as large as spears, mounted so that at least two of them could be trained on any enemy that approached the village at any time.
It was necessary, Eshai explained when Seri stopped to stare. They were in the borderlands, and while the innermost parts of the known world had mostly been cleared of any beast 'too' dangerous, the same couldn't be said for this place. A lone beast wouldn't be too much of a challenge, but they tended to hunt in packs. In that case, winning a battle became a question of speed.
"You may think you understand beasts, but the beasts of the known world are tame compared to what's out here," Eshai said, her expression growing distant as she looked out at the endless expanse of green. "There are beasts here straight out of children's stories, beasts with power no one in the known world has ever seen. If you want to survive out here, you need to remember that."
Seri nodded, her stomach churning at the mention of strange beasts. She knew all too well how true that was.
Eshai looked at her, and might have been about to say something more, but a valiant who Seri didn't recognize leapt from one of the nearby branches with inhuman agility, landing on their platform. Seri stumbled, nearly falling over from the impact. Eshai barely moved, turning her head toward him.