Chapter 1: Return to Ashoka

Excerpted from A Warrior’s Penance Copyright © 2016 by Davis Ashura
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Chapter 1: Return to Ashoka

‘Ware wild, wolf winds and
Hurled lightning from ashen skies.
A bitter rain falls.

—Attribution unknown

“Is the food not to your liking?” Rector asked, breaking into Jaresh’s thoughts. “You were frowning,” he further said.

“No. The food is fine. I like it,” Jaresh replied. The food was actually quite good. It was traditional Duriah fare, served at a bistro in Trell Rue where he and Rector were having lunch. Jaresh wasn’t sure what was more surprising, finding something traditional in fashionable, trendy Trell Rue or the fact that it was Rector Bryce who had asked him for a lunchtime meeting. In the past, they hadn’t gotten along very well. After a moment’s consideration, he decided it was the latter.

“I’m glad to hear it,” Rector replied with a half smile. He hesitated then, a question appearing to linger on the tip of his tongue. “What do you think Dar’El will do about the OutCastes?”

Jaresh took a bite of his meal while he formulated his answer.

The Trial to Stronghold, along with the one hundred or so OutCastes who had survived the destruction of their city, had only arrived in Ashoka several days ago, and the Magisterium had yet to decide their ultimate fate. While some people had called for their immediate eviction, the overwhelming majority of Ashokans thought the city should offer the OutCastes sanctuary.

The Strongholders, the descendants of fabled Hammer, were a destitute and shattered people, and only the hardest hearts could remain pitiless in the face of such suffering. These were men, women, and children who had lost the entirety of their homes and hope. They were bereft of everything that gave life meaning, and their haunted, broken eyes reflected the traumas that they had endured.

Nevertheless, though public sentiment favored letting the OutCastes stay, ultimately, it was a decision that would need to be made by the Magisterium. From what Jaresh understood, the Magistrates were struggling to reconcile their compassion with what duty required. They couldn’t simply overlook the laws of the city, which were clearly expressed in both The Word and the Deed and Ashoka’s Constitution.

Allowing the OutCastes sanctuary without finding a basis to do so in the city’s statutes would certainly lead to a moral outcome, but the cost might rupture the rule of law. A convenient decision could become a terrible precedent, and a future Magisterium might be tempted to render another such convenient decision, one that might not be so obviously moral. Chaos could ensue, where the plain language of the law could be subverted to mean whatever was needed at the time. It would be a nightmare.

The Magistrates had to render a decision that would stand up to scrutiny, both current and future, and to that end, it was rumored that the Magisterium had contracted with every law firm in the city to find just such a loophole that would allow the OutCastes refuge.

“I’m not sure,” Jaresh finally answered to Rector’s question. “But I imagine he’ll fight to let them stay. After all, Jessira is one of them, and she and Rukh are married.”

Rector merely nodded in thought.

His silence once again was surprising, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been. Toward the end, Mira had advocated on Rector’s behalf. She had insisted that his philosophy had slowly evolved, that he’d grown more compassionate, grown so far as to question the truths he’d once held as unassailable.

Mira.

Jaresh did his best to hide a shudder of grief. He hoped Rector didn’t notice. Jaresh had only learned of Mira’s death a few days ago. He’d never known that the stabbing knife of bereavement could cut so deep. Mira was dead, but sometimes Jaresh still found it hard to believe that she was truly gone. Sometimes he was certain it would all turn out to be a terrible delusion, that she would walk through the front doors of the Shektan House Seat, wearing a wry grin at his surprise.

And many times, he wondered what might have occurred if he’d stayed behind in Ashoka rather than gone with the Trial to Stronghold. Might Mira still be alive then? Could he have helped protect her? But then, if he hadn’t gone to Stronghold, would it have been Rukh who would have died? Had Jaresh’s presence at the OutCaste city tipped the scales and somehow preserved his brother’s life?

The questions were an endless circle, looping back on themselves and offering no solution or soothing. And they did nothing to distract him from the unalterable truth of Mira’s passing, a terrible fact that was like a riptide threatening to pull him under and drown him.

Jaresh shuddered again and took hold of his anger and anguish, mastering them as best he could before turning to study Rector. According to Bree, the man had fought desperately against Hal’El, but in the end, his skills had been overmatched. Afterward, as Mira lay dying on the floor of some dingy flat in Stone Cavern, Rector had chosen that moment to curse Karma that he didn’t have Rukh’s ability to Heal.

Pity the fool hadn’t discovered such wisdom earlier on. Perhaps all the tragedies which had happened to Rukh and Mira might not have come to pass if he had. She might still be alive, and in her place, Hal’El might be the one who was dead.

Nevertheless, Nanna insisted that such wisdom had befallen Rector. Of course, the man had likely experienced his new-found knowledge as a chamber pot emptying over his head like a curse. He probably hated his new way of thinking, despised the uncertainty of an uncertain morality.

But it was his to cherish.

Jaresh smiled bitterly, a grimace which left his face a moment later as his brother’s words came to him. Rukh had offered his advice when he had learned who Jaresh was having lunch with: “If Rector truly has changed so much, grown so much that there is no going back to his old ways, then do we not owe him the benefit of the doubt?”

Perhaps so, but it didn’t mean that Rector had earned Jaresh’s trust. For instance, the older man certainly hadn’t been told about Jaresh’s new Kumma Talents. Per Nanna’s recommendation, that was a secret known only to Jaresh’s immediate family.

“Your nanna’s voice carries much weight,” Rector said, interrupting Jaresh’s thoughts once again.

It would have carried more if he hadn’t revealed the truth about Kuldige,” Jaresh replied.

Rector grimaced. “I’m still not sure why he chose to expose such a dangerous secret like that.”

“I’m sure he had his reasons.”

“Maybe so, but the timing was unfortunate and somewhat suspicious.”

“Why was it suspicious?”

“The day before, I’d asked to rejoin the House—”

“Why did you want to rejoin House Shektan?” Jaresh challenged. “I thought you considered us only a few steps removed from ghrinas.”

“Life and Mira convinced me of the error of my ways,” Rector replied with a wistful smile. “I spoke to Dar’El, explaining my reasons for wanting to rejoin House Shektan, and I thought he took me at my word. But on the very morning he accepted my vow of obedience, he also informed the entire city about all the Kummas throughout history that he and all the other ‘Els knew had been Sil Lor Kum. Included in the list was Kuldige Prayvar. I can’t help—”

“Did my nanna know you knew about Kuldige?” Jaresh interrupted once again. A stray suspicion had come to him.

Rector nodded. “I came across the information when we were taking the Sil Lor Kum apart. It was in a ledger belonging to the Sentya MalDin, Moke Urn.”

Jaresh chuckled as his nanna’s plan became obvious. His chuckles turned to laughter as Rector’s initial confusion turned to annoyance.

“What is so funny?” Rector asked frostily.

Jaresh needed a moment to get his laughter under control, but he still grinned. “Your reappointment into House Shektan and the release of those Sil Lor Kum names was related,” he explained. “Nanna didn’t want you to have even the smallest weapon by which you could hurt the House.”

Rector still appeared confused. “Then why bother letting me rejoin?”

“Nanna has an innumerable list of aphorisms. One of his favorites is this: choose your enemies carefully and keep them near. One day, they may offer you the finest service.”

At first, Rector appeared both startled and offended, but a moment later, he threw his head back and laughed. “What greater honor can I have than for your nanna to consider me an enemy worth keeping near?”

*****

“Do you think the Purebloods actually notice any of this?” Sign asked, gesturing out to the city of Ashoka. “Do they still see the beauty all around them?”

She and Jessira shared a table at one of the Shektan House Seat’s numerous verandas. Before them, the famed, verdant hills of Ashoka tumbled down to the clear, blue waters of the Sickle Sea, reemerging in the deep bay as peaked, green prominences. The rest of the city was equally lovely with hillside homes painted in brilliant hues of sunshine yellow, summer-sky blue, pale lavender, and salmon-pink. There were also the ornate buildings manning every road and corner with their fanciful lintels and columns. And to the south was the most beautiful jewel in all of Ashoka: Dryad Park, the emerald heart of the city with its lustrous trees, fields, and meadows.

“They see it,” Jessira replied. “Why else would they work so hard at maintaining it?”

Sign smiled. “Maybe it’s part of their insanity,” she suggested. “Make their city beautiful instead of efficient.”

Jessira smiled in response, pleased to see her cousin engaged and seemingly happy for once.

The weeks since they’d left the wracked remnants of Stronghold hadn’t been easy on any of them. Salvation, much less a future filled with joy, had been an uncertain proposition. There had been the difficult trip down the River Gaunt and the ever-lingering worry of what awaited their journey’s end. Would the Purebloods offer them refuge? And if they didn’t, then where would the OutCastes go? Thankfully, the answer to the first question had been ‘yes’, so the second one had never needed considering—at least for now. The people of Ashoka had taken them in, sheltering them in a set of empty flats just south of Mount Crone. Their accommodations had been provided and paid for by the Magisterium.

While the flats were not yet their home—they might never truly be—Jessira was grateful for the refuge the OutCastes had been afforded. Just as important—at least for her—was that Rukh had elected to remain with her and the rest of her people. Early on, he’d asked if Jessira wanted to live at the Shektan Seat rather than the empty flats, but she had told him ‘no’. She couldn’t leave her people. They needed her. All of them needed one another. Rukh had accepted Jessira’s words and without further comment, he had moved their meager belongings into one of the unused flats. Jessira was thankful for his decision. She needed him near and couldn’t imagine getting through the day without his steadying presence.

“It is efficient,” Jessira replied to Sign’s earlier statement, “but anything here also has to be lovely.”

Sign’s smile faded. “I always thought you were exaggerating when you described Ashoka. I just couldn’t believe anything could be as amazing as you made this place seem,” she said. “But if anything, it’s even more beautiful than you described. The Purebloods are lucky to have such a home.”

“It’s not luck,” Jessira said. “It’s in their nature to strive for beauty.”

Sign shot her a look. “But not in our nature?” her cousin asked, sounding offended. “You don’t think our people strive for beauty and elegance as well?”

Jessira bit back an oath. Perhaps she could have phrased what she had said a little better, but Sign didn’t have to see it as an insult. She was just looking for an excuse to take offense. It was merely a pretext on her cousin’s part to have an argument, something she chose to do with an all-too-regular frequency. Following Stronghold’s death, some of the OutCastes had slipped into a dull depression, but Sign had taken a different path. She had responded by lashing out, seeing an affront when none was intended or taking provocation for the slimmest of reasons.

Jessira stared Sign in the eyes, wondering what she could say to mollify the other woman. Pointing out her cousin’s flawed thinking and giving her a proper tongue-lashing was tempting but unlikely to be helpful. Patience would be of more use.

“I’m not looking for an argument with you,” Jessira said, doing her best to rein in her annoyance. “Or do you really think I’m not proud of our people and our heritage?”

Sign tensed before suddenly deflating. “No.” And just like that, her voice had grown meek.

“Then why did you ask the question?” Jessira asked.

Sign’s head fell low. “I don’t know,” she whispered. “I’m just so angry all the time. I don’t know how you aren’t.”

Jessira squeezed Sign’s hand. “I am, but I have Rukh. Of all of us, he was the one who was least affected by what happened to Stronghold. He helps keep me sane.”

“I haven’t been very nice to him,” Sign said softly.

“He understands.”

“He—everyone here really—are so different from what I expected,” Sign continued. “I still can’t believe they took us in, especially when their laws forbid them from doing so.”

“Laws change, and what was historically thought to be true, doesn’t always have to be so,” Jessira replied. She remembered her first time in Ashoka when attitudes had gradually transformed as people got used to her presence. Some—thankfully a very small number—had forever hated her on sight, but most folk had simply left her alone, while a blessed few had been kind enough to take the time to say ‘hello’ when they saw her out and about. In the end, most Ashokans had ended up seeing Jessira as just another woman. They hadn’t regarded her as the infectious carrier of sin that The Word and the Deed implied.

“You really think people can really change that quickly?” Sign asked, distrust lacing her question.

Jessira sighed. “No. It won’t happen immediately,” she replied. “It’ll take a long time before we’re truly accepted, but the Purebloods are trying. Most of them want to let us stay, but they are conflicted. They have to decide between their teachings—the ones that tell them to deny us sanctuary—and their hearts, which tell them to take in those who are suffering. I have faith that they’ll make the right choice.”

Sign scratched at the tabletop. “You’re more trusting than I,” she muttered.

Jessira pursed her lips in sympathy. Her cousin simply couldn’t see the opportunity their people had before them or accept the generosity the Purebloods had shown them. Then again, it was easier for Jessira. She was used to Ashoka. She wasn’t a stranger here, and she also had the support of Rukh’s family. “Look around you,” Jessira finally said. “Tell me exactly where we are.”

Sign glanced around. “The Seat of House Shektan,” she said, sounding bewildered and somewhat intimidated.

Good.

“We are in the Pureblood city of Ashoka. Over one hundred ghrinas. You don’t find that worthy of trust?” Jessira asked.

Sign’s eyes widened with sudden realization, and her face reddened. “Point taken,” she muttered. “It’s just that I can’t see these Ashokans . . .”

“Can’t see them doing what?” Jessira asked. “Taking us in? They did that. Finding a way to let us stay? They’re working on it. We might even have a chance to earn our way by farming some fallow fields.” Jessira leaned forward, and she took Sign’s hands in her own. “We can rebuild our lives here,” she urged. “Some Shiyens and Duriahs have even spoken of adopting our orphans. How can you continue to doubt a people willing to do something so generous?”

“Because it goes against everything we’ve been taught about the Purebloods,” Sign said with an anguished cry.

“Then what we were taught about the Purebloods is wrong. Just like what they were taught about us is wrong. It’s time you realized that,” Jessira said, her patience finally breaking. “It’s also time you showed the strength I know you possess. You’ve wallowed in self-pity long enough. Our people can’t afford any more tantrums on your part.”

After she finished speaking, Sign wouldn’t look at her. Her cousin stared shame-faced at the table as tears tracked from the corners of her eyes.

Jessira’s heart broke for Sign. She was trying. They all were. She again took her cousin’s hands. “I know it’s not easy for you, or any of us, but if you hope for compassion and sympathy, it helps to be compassionate and sympathetic in return,” Jessira advised.

Sign reddened once more and gave a short, choppy nod of agreement before staring off in the distance.

The sounds of the city—rolling wagons, shouted cries, and the echoing undertone of the heaving ocean—filled the silence as a fitful lull fell over their conversation.

Sign picked at the tabletop. “You’re being too kind to say it, but you think I’m being a selfish bitch, don’t you?”

Jessira gave her cousin’s hand another squeeze. “With what we’ve been through, I think we all have to be understanding, but Sign . . .” She stared her cousin in the eyes. “Our people need us. Some of them forget to eat or drink if they aren’t reminded. They don’t always remember to care for their children. They need us to be . . .” Jessira searched for the word.

“Strong?” Sign supplied.

“Calm,” Jessira corrected. “They need peace. They need quiet. They don’t need yelling, and they don’t need rage.”

Sign nodded, a brief bob of her head. “I’ll try,” she said. “And thank you for being . . .” Her lips quirked. “. . . strong.”

“You’re welcome,” Jessira said with an answering smile.

Sign turned to look back out over the city. “If the Magisterium allows us to stay, we become Ashokans?”

Jessira nodded. “So it would seem.”

*****

Rukh stretched his long legs, trying to work sensation back into them. The small, cramped space of the Cellar in which he and Bree had been spending their time had not been designed for Kummas. It was tight and claustrophobic, and he didn’t like it.

The discomfort was worsened by air that was thick with moisture and the smell of moldering paper. Add in the funereal quiet, the reaching shadows in the recesses, and the long, cramped, unlit halls, and the place had an oppressive, almost menacing quality to it. Rukh wasn’t ashamed to admit that he couldn’t have lasted down here nearly as long as Jaresh and Mira had when the two of them had been searching for information on the Withering Knife. The dark alone would have been enough to drive him away—which was why he and Bree had brought brought down extra firefly lamps. The lanterns lit their cubicle until it glowed like a vibrant island of warmth in the dismal dark.

Of course, Rukh knew that even if he’d had to work with only the the dim light of the single overhead firefly lamp, he would have still found a way to persevere. He had to. Jessira’s life depended on it. Rukh and Bree were searching the Cellar for treatises on the philosophical underpinnings of the city’s Constitution. This was the work to which he had devoted himself since his return home, and even though there were already many scholars and attorneys also looking into the matter, none of them had the same intensity that Rukh brought to bear on the subject. Finding a valid reason—one that would stand up to future scrutiny—was the only means by which the OutCastes, and Jessira, would be allowed to stay in Ashoka, and by extension, Rukh as well.

And ultimately, whatever destiny Jessira suffered, he would also endure.

Unsurprisingly, Jaresh and Bree had also taken on the matter of the OutCastes’ final fate with nearly the same zealous determination as Rukh himself. The three of them had separated the work. Jaresh was to comb through historical references for when the Constitution might not have been strictly followed while Rukh and Bree focused on finding a means to undercut the primacy of The Word and the Deed as the basis for the city’s law. So far, their cumulative searches had returned empty as Jaresh quickly discovered that every law and decision in Ashoka’s long history had always had a basis in the Constitution. There had been no exceptions. Meanwhile Rukh and Bree’s quest had proven equally frustrating. There had been nothing to suggest that there had ever been a prior text, such as The Book of All Souls, that might have served as the moral basis of the Constitution.

Rukh knew Jaresh was starting to lose hope by their combined lack of success, but their failure had yet to deter Bree. She forged on, still full of grit and resolve as she worked from before sunrise until well after sunset. In this, Bree reminded Rukh of Sophy Terrell, the Hound. Mira’s amma had been equally dogged when it came to research that might affect the House’s fortune and future.

And for Bree, there might also be another inspiration for her hard work: guilt.

Earlier that evening, Jaresh had explained that for a long time, Bree had blamed herself for Rukh’s exile. It had taken her months to forgive herself, but now, with the need to find a means by which Jessira and the rest of the Strongholders could stay in Ashoka, the guilt must have come back full bore.

His sister wore a frown as she bent over an old text, and Rukh placed a hand on one of hers, forcing her to look at him. “I don’t blame you,” he said. “I never did. I never will.”

Bree, always so perceptive, instantly knew what he meant. “Have you told your wife what I did?”

“She knows, and she doesn’t care,” Rukh answered. “It doesn’t matter to her, and it shouldn’t matter to you.”

Bree smiled. “Good. I wasn’t sure how she’d react, and your wife can be . . . formidable. Not scary, but definitely formidable.”

Rukh chuckled. “I know what you mean.” He’d never been afraid of Jessira, but he always walked warily around her whenever he made her angry. “And I was serious about what I said: I don’t blame you for what happened to me.”

His first inkling that he might have misread the situation was when Bree laughed at him.

“I heard you, and you don’t have to worry about me,” Bree said after she was no longer laughing. “I know what happened to you wasn’t my fault.” She looked him in the eyes. “It was your own.” She arched an incredulous eyebrow at him. “Really. Taking Jessira on a late-night stroll through Dryad Park? What were you thinking?”

Rukh felt his face flush with embarrassment. “So you aren’t doing this out of guilt?” he asked. Even as he asked the question, he knew the answer.

And he certainly didn’t need Bree’s head thrown back with laughter to tell him the truth of his stupidity.

“Of course not,” she said. “I’m not helping you out of guilt. I’m doing so because . . .” She raised a finger as she ticked off each item. “You’re my brother.” One finger. “I love you.” Two fingers. A third finger went up an instant later. “And if I left this to just you and Jaresh, the OutCastes, including your wife, would be banished from Ashoka.” Bree smiled sweetly. “You need my help.”

Rukh sat back, abashed and with his mouth agape.

“Are you trying to catch flies?” Bree observed.

Rukh shut his mouth with an audible snap. What an idiot he’d been. How could he have believed that Bree might still feel guilt over something that had never been her fault?

They fell into silence, but something that Bree had said struck a chord with Rukh, and he replayed her words in his mind. “Why do you keep calling Jessira ‘my wife’ instead of by her name?” he asked.

“I just like calling her your wife.” Bree grinned. “It makes her more a part of the family.”

“Why don’t you call her your vadina, then? It would do the same thing.”

“For the same reason, I don’t call you Annayya, my older brother. I’m too stubborn.” A moment later, a considering look stole across her face. “Given how we both agree that your wife can be formidable—”

“But not scary,” Rukh said.

“Yes,” Bree agreed. “Given that, it might be best if she never learned what Nanna and Amma tricked her into doing.”

“It might be,” Rukh agreed. “But somehow I imagine she’ll figure it out on her own. Nanna and Amma should just tell her themselves.”

“She is your wife,” Bree said. “I suppose you know her best.”

“I’m not going to tell her now,” Rukh said with a roll of his eyes. “She’s already got too many troubles on her plate.”

“Like finding safety for her people if we can’t find a way around the Constitution.”

“My people, too,” Rukh said.

“You’d really leave with them if it came to it?”

“Like you said: she is my wife.”

“You know The Word and the Deed doesn’t actually consider you wed,” Bree noted.

“So what. Everyone else thinks we are,” Rukh replied. “Besides, it depends on the volume to which you’re referring. I saw one version of The Word and the Deed in Stronghold, and it specifically discussed ‘marriage between a man and a woman of different Castes’. A later edition had that section edited to ‘an impure relationship between a man and a woman’.” He paused as he startled in sudden insight.

Bree’s eyes were lit with enthusiasm as well. “What if earlier editions of The Word and the Deed make exceptions for people like the OutCastes?” she suggested. “It would solve everything.”

Rukh nodded, trying to tamp down his bubbling excitement. “This could work,” he said. “But I don’t think we should focus on just this one avenue of research.”

“No. Jaresh should continue with what he’s doing.”

“And I’ll continue with what we’ve been working on here, while you look through the older editions of The Word and the Deed and see if there’s anything in them that we can use.”

Bree gave him an appraising gaze. “You surprise me. I always knew Jaresh was intelligent, but what about you? When did you get so smart?” she asked.

Rukh nodded in solemnity. “I always have been. You simply lacked the wisdom to notice until now.”

Bree snorted in derision.

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