Chapter 3: Months and Days

Excerpted from A Warrior’s Penance Copyright © 2016 by Davis Ashura
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author.

Chapter 3: Months and Days

Time, that unknowable element, ebbs our lives in still waters when the hours are hard and races us into rushing rapids when the world is rich and sweet. We would wish it otherwise.

Sooths and Small Sayings by Tramed Billow, AF 1387

Six months later

“Why don’t you put it down for now?” Jessira suggested.

Rukh glanced up from what he had been reading, The Book of First Movement. His face was scrunched up in a mixture of concentration and frustration, but it was mostly the latter. Ever since their return to Ashoka, he had sought to unlock the secrets of The Book, and while he could still read the first line—something no one other than Jessira and a few others could manage—the rest of the pages remained stubbornly blank and unyielding. In fact, other than the one time in the Wildness when The Book had cast him back into the mind of the First Father, the slim volume remained closed and indecipherable. Rukh couldn’t understand his failure, and Jessira had watched in concern as he gradually grew more and more frustrated by his lack of success.

“I wish I knew what I was doing wrong,” he muttered. “I still remember everything that happened to Linder in those final hours of His life.”

“First Father,” Jessira corrected. She didn’t like it when Rukh referred to the First Father by his first name. It sounded too familiar and somehow disrespectful.

“First Father, then,” Rukh said. “Anyway, I remember everything that happened to him. How He discovered the death of the First Mother, His betrayal by His Daughter, and His death at Her hands. I even know what He meant by a Bow and how to make one.”

Jessira rose from the couch and crossed the short distance to where Rukh sat at the square, mahogany table at which they had their meals. “You’re not doing anything wrong,” she said. “Put it away.” She took The Book from his hands and laid it face down on the table. “Besides, we’re supposed to meet the others for dinner in an hour.” Jessira’s nose wrinkled when Rukh’s odor wafted her way. “And you need a shower.” Rukh had spent most of the morning and afternoon training and teaching at the House of Fire and Mirrors. Right now, he smelled like an unpleasant mix of oil, sweat, and dirt.

Rukh looked in her direction and a strange gleam lit his eyes. A bowl full of mangoes rested on the table before him, and he popped a slice into his mouth. He grinned around the mouthful of fruit.

Jessira knew what was coming next and she deftly sidestepped his grasping hands before he could pull her into his lap. It was an old trick. Rukh would get smelly and sweaty from teaching at the House of Fire and Mirrors, and when Jessira commented on it, he would try to pull her close and get his stink all over her.

“Not this time,” she admonished, using one finger to push him back into his chair as he attempted to rise and follow.

Rukh shrugged, a look of indifference on his face. He slid the bowl of mangoes toward her. “Want some?” he asked.

Jessira loved fruit of any kind, and just as she was about to reach for the bowl, the strange twinkle returned to Rukh’s eyes. “Oh no, you don’t.” She sidestepped away again, this time turning her back on him, trusting him not to give chase. He wouldn’t, not after she’d caught him at his trick twice. For some reason, it was his self-imposed limit. “Did you leave a mess in the kitchen?” she called over her shoulder.

“Sure did,” he replied, sounding unrepentant.

She shook her head in exasperation at his lighthearted tone. How did he move so easily and seamlessly from overwhelming frustration with deciphering The Book to a mood as chipper as the spring morning outside? Part of his charm, she supposed.

Jessira glowered when she saw the kitchen. He had left a mess.

“I’ll take care of it after I shower,” Rukh called over his shoulder as he entered their bedroom.

Jessira knew he would, but there also was no point in waiting for him. She’d take care of the dirty dishes and the mango pit on the cutting board while he cleaned up.

As she stood at the sink, scrubbing the plates and glasses, she glanced through the pass-through window, into the main room of the flat. As Kummas reckoned matters, their flat was modest, and she and Rukh were poor, but Jessira didn’t care. Their home was a cheerful space, warm and comfortable. It was more than enough for the two of them, and far more spacious than any home she had ever expected to call home. It was certainly larger than the flat in which she had grown up. Her Amma would have loved it.

Jessira paused in her work and blinked away sudden tears. It was the subtle things that so often reminded her of the enormity of what had happened, that tore her happiness aside like a flower ripped away by a hard wind. It could be as simple as the smell of cold carried on the breeze; a child’s glad laughter as she played with her nanna; or the brief glimpse of snow-capped mountains far to the west on a clear winter day. The slightest observation or sensation could set Jessira’s thoughts traveling down paths she hated to tread. Even now, many months after the fact, the pain of her loss, the murder of her home and her family, of nearly everyone she loved—the memories still left her with a catch in her throat and eyes shiny with tears. At least the pain wasn’t as severe as it had once been. It was a small mercy.

“I said I would clean the dishes,” Rukh said, breaking her out of her reverie.

She stared at him helplessly, unable to voice her pain. Wordlessly, he pulled her into his embrace. This time, Jessira didn’t try to dodge him. Rukh had showered and donned fresh clothing and smelled of the lavender soap she favored, but even if he had still been as sweaty and dirty as before, she wouldn’t have cared. Right now, she needed his warmth and his strength.

It had been his love and devotion that had carried Jessira thus far. It had been his warm presence that had lifted her up, supported her, kept her whole. Even during the times of reticence when Jessira had refused to speak of her pain, when she had shut her heart to the world, he had been there. Or when the toil kept them apart except for a few brief joyless moments at the end of a long day, he had remained a true constant by her side. She might not have survived without him, or if she had, she would likely have been a far angrier, unhappy version of herself, one more like her cousin, Sign.

Jessira held Rukh close, pressing her head against his chest and neck. She grew embarrassed when the sobs started. “Damn it.”

Rukh stroked her head, saying nothing.

*****

Jaresh stepped aside for an elderly Kumma grandmother leading a gaggle of children into a nearby park in Jubilee Hills. The grandmother dipped her head in acknowledgment of his courtesy and let the children off their figurative leashes the moment they had entered the park. Their loud peals of laughter rang out, and Jaresh grinned at their joy. How easy it was to be young.

After the children’s laughter drifted away, he turned his attention back to the others. Bree was involved in a conversation with Farn, while the final member of their group, Sign Deep, lagged behind and wore a pensive or unhappy countenance. It was a feature Jaresh had come to expect upon the woman’s face.

Jaresh could understand her sentiment, at least up to a point, but he did often wonder when Sign might once again start seeing the bright side of life. After all, Jessira seemed, if not happy, then at least content. She certainly wasn’t sullen and angry all the time like Sign.

Jaresh listened in on Bree and Farn’s conversation.

“Rector is to help with it,” Bree said in a tone of disapproval. “I still don’t trust him.”

Farn shrugged. “I wasn’t here when he betrayed Rukh, but hasn’t he been helpful since rejoining the House?”

“He certainly helped at the Magisterium,” Jaresh interjected.

Bree turned to him. “Yes, he helped at the Magisterium, and I don’t know why.” She frowned. “It’s what has me so bothered,” she mused.

Jaresh pretended to stumble and gazed wide-eyed at his sister. “You? Unaware of something? Heavens forfend.”

Farn laughed, but Bree rolled her eyes. “I wouldn’t think my admission of a fault would cause you to react with so much amusement,” she replied.

“It wasn’t amusement,” Jaresh said with a grin. “It was mockery.”

“Leave her alone,” Sign said, joining their conversation. “As far as I’m concerned, distrusting Rector Bryce is a wise decision.”

“You only say that because either Jessira poisoned you against him or you heard what he supposedly did at the Magisterium last summer,” Jaresh said. “But you weren’t there. Rector was helping your cause. He and Nanna came up with a plan to make it seem like he was trying to sabotage Bree’s testimony, but he was really supporting her.”

Sign pursed her lips. “But Bree says . . .”

“Bree just doesn’t want to admit any of this because of how much she dislikes Rector,” Farn interrupted.

“It’s not because I don’t like Rector,” Bree huffed. “I just don’t think we should trust him so easily after everything he’s done to us in the past.”

“Nanna believes otherwise,” Jaresh reminded her.

“And everything Nanna says must be the gospel truth?” Bree asked sarcastically. “He isn’t always right about everything.”

“Maybe so, but after the Magisterium, I think Rector’s earned back a large measure of trust,” Jaresh said.

“I disagree,” Bree replied.

Farn raised a questioning eyebrow at Jaresh, who shook his head in reply.

Bree had badly misjudged Rector Bryce once—they all had—but while the rest of them had seen the change in the man, for his sister, it wasn’t enough. Once burned, she was slow to forgive.

“I don’t see why the two of you are so intent on having Bree approve of Rector Bryce,” Sign commented. “Wasn’t he the one who drew a sword on Jessira?”

“The first time he saw Jessira, he had a foot of his blade out of its sheath, but he quickly slammed it home,” Jaresh said. “My brother corrected his poor manners, and after that, all he did was make an ass of himself and speak rudely to her.”

“And words can’t hurt?” Sign argued.

“You’re being purposefully dense,” Farn said, “Of course words can hurt, but if rude talk was the only reason to dislike someone and never offer them a chance to apologize, then what would you have me say about how I was treated by the OutCastes when I lived in Stronghold?”

“That was different,” Sign replied.

“Different how?” Jaresh challenged.

“Because my home is gone. My people are gone. Those who spoke rudely . . . Oh, never mind! It doesn’t matter anymore,” Sign snarled. Her eyes were shiny with unshed tears.

Jaresh frowned in frustration and confusion, not sure what to make of Sign’s words or her demeanor. What was bothering her so badly this time? He shared a glance with Farn and Bree. They looked just as uncertain as he, and Jaresh turned back to Sign. “None of that made the least bit of sense,” he said, trying to be diplomatic through his aggravation.

Sign exhaled heavily and mouthed what seemed like a prayer. She turned to Jaresh and ventured a weary smile. “Please forget what I said. I shouldn’t have spoken as I did. I’m sorry.”

Jaresh still wasn’t sure what Sign was talking about, but nevertheless, his irritation with her faded. “Consider yourself forgiven,” he said. “Just stop being an ass, and we’ll get along fine.”

Sign’s mouth gaped.

“Now you did it,” Bree told Jaresh with a chuckle. “Wait until Amma learns you called a woman an ass.”

A sense of dread came over Jaresh. “I don’t think she needs to hear about that,” he said quickly.

“Or when Jessira learns about Sign’s mopey anger,” Farn said, coming to Jaresh’s rescue.

Now it was Sign who spoke quickly. “Jessira doesn’t need to know what happened,” she said.

“Then we’re agreed. No one else needs to know what was said here tonight,” Jaresh said in relief.

I’m not agreed,” Bree said, favoring Jaresh and Sign with sunny smiles. “The way I see things, you both owe me something if you want me to keep quiet.”

“I wonder what Dar’El would think about how you belittled him earlier,” Farn mused as he flashed Jaresh a wink.

“Er . . .” Bree said. Her triumphant grin turned into a sickly smile. “Maybe it would be best if we kept this conversation to ourselves.”

Farn chuckled. “I thought you might see it that way.”

Sign came alongside Jaresh. “Your amma must be a daunting woman.”

“You have no idea,” Jaresh said. “In some ways, Jessira is a lot like her.” A horrifying thought came to him. “Could you imagine what Jessira would do if she knew I upset you?” he asked, trying to keep the mood light.

“You didn’t upset me,” Sign said.

Jaresh ignored her words. “If Jessira found out I almost made you cry . . .” He shuddered.

“You didn’t almost make me cry or anything like that, so stop saying it,” Sign warned with a glower.

Jaresh studied her face for a moment before shrugging nonchalantly. “You know, I doubt if Rukh would even protect me from Jessira if she decided to chase me around with a bared sword, screaming like a demented banshee. In his eyes, I doubt your cousin can do any wrong.”

Bree laughed. “I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s noticed it.”

“Noticed what?” Farn asked.

“You’ve haven’t seen how they are around one another?” Jaresh asked in surprise.

“No,” Farn said.

Jaresh shook his head in pretend sympathy. “How can you be so brilliant and yet so incomprehensibly dense?” he asked.

Farn glanced around amongst the three of them with deepening ignorance that eventually led to irritation. “Will someone tell me what you’re talking about?”

Jaresh clapped Farn on the shoulder. “You’ll just have to see it for yourself,” he advised. “Just watch them tonight.”

Farn growled. “I think you’re making fun of me,” he muttered. “I liked it better when we were talking about the deficiencies of Rector Bryce.”

“I thought we set him aside,” Bree observed.

“We had,” Sign replied. “And I still think you’re right to withhold your trust of him.”

Jaresh turned to her. “Rector has already apologized to Jessira, and she no longer holds a grudge against him,” he noted. “So why do you?”

Sign shrugged. “Maybe he just reminds me of everything I’ve been taught to fear about the Purebloods.”

“And I can understand that fear,” Jaresh agreed. “But maybe it won’t always be that way. When Jessira first came to Ashoka, she had to go around with her face covered up, but eventually, she decided to make the city acknowledge her.” He smiled. “We did, and she still got a lot of ugly looks, but that was it. There was nothing more to it than that. It wasn’t like what Rukh and Farn had to put up with in Stronghold. I’m told they were even attacked on several occasions with no justice being brought to bear on the perpetrators.”

Sign frowned at Jaresh. “Do you want another apology?” she demanded. “Fine. I’m sorry my people were mean to Rukh and Farn. I’m sure they found it upsetting to their delicate Pureblood constitutions.”

Jaresh blinked, both offended and impressed by her outburst. Meanwhile Bree hid a smile, and Farn looked like he wanted to grin as well. Jaresh turned to his cousin. “Why are you laughing?” he asked. “She was making fun of you.”

Farn broke into a broad grin. “No, she wasn’t,” he answered. “She was telling you to shove your opinion somewhere dark and smelly.”

Jaresh gave his cousin a pitying look before turning to Sign. There was no chance she would have the last word in this. “I can see I’ve upset you once again,” he said to Sign. “Please don’t break down into your womanly tears.”

She punched him.

“Ow!”

“Once, I can overlook. Twice, not so much,” Sign said.

“What is it with OutCaste women and their temper?” Jaresh asked no one in particular. “I think I liked it better when she was moping along and her eyes were wet with—”

“Be careful,” Sign warned.

Farn nudged Jaresh. “Let it go,” he advised. “You’re not winning.”

“Why don’t the two of you save your argument for later,” Bree suggested. “We’re going to a play tonight, remember? Let’s enjoy ourselves.”

“I’m not arguing,” Jaresh said. “I’m being assaulted.”

“I’m not sure I remember how to enjoy myself,” Sign said, ignoring Jaresh’s words. “With everything my people have been through, frivolity just seems—”

“Like exactly what you need,” Jaresh interrupted. “A smile won’t break your face.” He didn’t know why he was so intent on irritating her.

Sign threw her hands in the air. “Are you trying to say the exact thing that makes me want to punch you?”

“OutCaste women and their temper,” Jaresh muttered.

“What was that?” Sign asked.

“Nothing,” Jaresh replied.

Sign narrowed her eyes in suspicion.

Jaresh stared back with wide-eyed innocence.

“If you didn’t want a night away from the troubles in your life, then why did you come with us?” Bree asked, stepping into the conversation.

“Jessira asked me,” Sign responded.

“Well, I doubt she asked you to come along and not enjoy yourself,” Bree told her.

“I wish it were so easy,” Sign answered.

“Life is never easy,” Farn countered. “You’re a warrior. You should know this. Jessira does.”

Sign reddened. “Jessira has much more of a reason to be happy than I.”

“Then it’s time you found your own reasons to be happy,” Bree said. She took Sign by the hand and pulled her into their midst. “We’re going to see a play,” she continued. “If you can watch it without having your emotions touched, without finding an excuse to smile at least once, then Jaresh will pay for your dinner tonight and clean your flat every day for the next week.”

“Wait! What?!” Jaresh squawked.

Sign offered an interested smile and looked Jaresh up and down. “Clean my flat for a week?” she asked. “Is this a wager?”

“Witnessed,” Farn said quickly.

“No!” Jaresh protested.

“Seconded,” Bree announced.

“I never agreed to it,” Jaresh cried.

“Too late,” Farn said. “It’s been witnessed.”

“And seconded,” Bree chuckled.

Jaresh gave the two of them a flat look of annoyance. “And what do I get in return?” he asked, turning back to Sign.

Sign tilted her head to the side in consideration. “I’ll cook you dinner every night for a week.”

“Cook Heltin already does that for me,” Jaresh said. “Choose something else.”

Sign growled. “Fine. Then you’ll have my undying appreciation, and I’ll make sure no one learns that you made a weak, little woman like me cry.”

“You’re not little,” Jaresh corrected.

“But I am a weak woman?” Sign asked with an arch of her eyebrows.

“Would you prefer it if I called you a strong man?”

Sign chuckled. “Well played.”

“Well, since you just smiled, I think I won the wager,” Jaresh said.

“The wager was whether the play could make me smile,” Sign corrected.

Jaresh scowled at her before turning to Farn and Bree. “What are we seeing tonight?” he asked.

Down the Street,” Farn answered with a sharklike grin.

Jaresh groaned. “A fragging tragedy.”

“Why is this bad?” Sign asked.

“It’s not bad,” Bree said. “At least not for you. A tragedy has lots of drama, and even some death, but very little humor.”

Sign smiled in low-lidded pleasure and patted Jaresh’s cheek. He was too irritated to notice a woman not of his Caste touching him in public. “Make sure to dust the top of the dresser,” she advised.

*****

Rukh held the door open for the others as they entered the restaurant. Jessira was the last in line, and she took his hand, drawing him away from the entrance and leading them outside.

“You don’t have to hold the door for me every time,” she said. “I’m not helpless.”

“I know, but it just feels right,” Rukh said with a smile. “I like taking care of you.”

“Then thank you,” Jessira said with an answering smile. “And if you ever need me to hold the door open, I’ll gladly do so.”

Rukh gave her hand a brief squeeze. “We better head in before Jaresh starts making fun of us. You know what he says about our being too affectionate?”

“Who cares what he says?” Jessira replied. She reached up and drew him into a kiss that was just short of lingering. “I meant what I said,” she added after she’d pulled back. “I’m grateful for all you’ve done for me and for my people.”

She cupped his face, and Rukh stared into her eyes, his breath catching. He might have kissed her again just then, but they’d already drawn a few catcalls from a number of people walking by who had noticed their affectionate display.

Rukh glanced up at one particularly loud whistle and met the sly grins of a group of young Duriah men. Their smiles turned to looks of confusion when they saw Jessira. She was an OutCaste, and though her people had been granted sanctuary in Ashoka, it wasn’t the same as acceptance. Too many still thought of Jessira’s kind as ghrinas.

Expressions of disgust flitted across the faces of some of the Duriahs, but the more intelligent amongst them must have quickly recognized or realized who Jessira was. It wasn’t a difficult deduction to come to. After all, there weren’t many OutCastes in Ashoka to begin with, and there was only one who would be held in the arms of a Kumma.

For those men who had ascertained Rukh and Jessira’s identities, their grins slid away. They whispered their findings into the ears of those around them, and all the Duriahs swiftly enough wore sickly smiles or expressions of mild alarm. As a group, they gave brief nods to Rukh and Jessira and scurried away.

Jessira chuckled after they had left. “I think they’re afraid of you,” she noted.

Rukh’s head fell low in disappointment. Jessira was likely right. The Duriahs had been afraid of him, or if not frightened, then at least intimidated. It was an all-too-common occurrence he’d come to expect ever since his return to Ashoka.

It seemed too much had happened to him in the past few years. First had come his unexpected victory in the Tournament of Hume. Then had come the occurrences of the the failed Trial to Nestle and all he had learned about the Baels, Hume’s last years, and the discovery of the OutCastes. Next had followed the expedition to the caverns of the Chimeras. The accounts of what he’d accomplished in those grisly caves varied, but all the stories cast far too much glory on Rukh’s role. As far as he saw matters, he’d merely carried out his mission. He’d done as he’d been ordered and as he’d been expected. Nothing more, but Nanna had twisted the truth and managed to raise Rukh’s actions to something approaching the mythic. And finally, Rukh’s return from a murdered Stronghold. Not only had he come back with the remnants of the OutCastes, he’d also recovered The Book of First Movement from lost Hammer.

As a result, strangers no longer knew how to treat him. Whereas in the past, he could walk the streets of Ashoka with no one noticing, he was often recognized now, and when he was, many seemed to view him as some kind of icon, a living legend. Worse, he had a sense that all these people who fixed him with wide-eyed looks of awe hoped that he would reveal something miraculous, something wondrous at any moment. Their expectations were a heavy burden and the reason why Rukh spent most of his days teaching at the House of Fire and Mirrors. There, the Martial Masters, the men who had trained him and remembered him as a boy rather than a hero, treated him as they would any other warrior. Of course the students—even the older ones who knew Rukh from his earlier time at the House—were another matter. They were as bad, or worse, than everyone else in the city.

Rukh hated it. He was just a man, and no man deserved to be worshipped or held in such immeasurable esteem. A life of anonymity was a life of of freedom, and he missed it. His situation left him wondering about those who did desire fame. He couldn’t understand why they would be so foolish. Or perhaps it was merely their vanity that drove such a needy desire.

Jessira took him by the hand and gave it a gentle squeeze as she offered him a tight-lipped expression of understanding. “I know,” she said in sympathy. “And I know how much it bothers you.”

He’d long ceased wondering how the two of them so often seemed to know one another’s unspoken thoughts.

She gave his hand another squeeze. “Let’s go inside.”

Rukh nodded and held the door open for her to enter.

“You know, there are some in Ashoka who say that opening a door for a woman is a sign that the man thinks a woman helpless,” Jessira said returning to their earlier topic of conversation as she stepped past him.

Rukh rolled his eyes. “And what do these people have to say about a man holding the door open for another man? Like I did earlier for Farn and Jaresh, or when Jaresh did for me when we left the theater?”

Jessira grinned. “Oh, I’m sure they have plenty to say,” she replied. “But thankfully, I’m not so shortsighted.” She chuckled, low and throaty. “Besides, I like your sense of courtesy.”

Rukh smiled wryly. Somehow, his wife always knew what to say to distract him or make him feel better.

They paused inside the entrance to the restaurant and let their eyes adjust to the dim interior. A scattering of tables filled the space. Upon each one rested a single votive candle floating in a wide-mouthed goblet full of water. Shaded firefly lamps served as wall sconces and provided the rest of the lighting. In the back, an open kitchen allowed the patrons to see the cooks at work. The sizzle of grilling meat searing on hot skillets carried throughout the restaurant, along with the sounds and aromas of mustard seeds popping in hot oil, garam masala roasting in a clay oven, and cumin seeds frying in a pan.

Jessira inhaled. “Mmm. Smells good,” she said.

Rukh glanced around, looking for the others. Before he could ask for directions, an attendant had already noticed them and directed them to a corner booth where the rest of their group had been seated.

Jaresh exhaled extravagantly at their late arrival. “Let me guess,” his brother said in a disgusted tone. “You just had to stop and speak of your undying love for one another.”

Rukh smiled condescendingly. “One day, maybe you’ll understand what it is to be in love.” The moment the words left his lips, he wanted to kick himself. His brother had known what it was like to be in love. Mira Terrell. “I’m sorry,” Rukh said. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

Jaresh waved aside his apology. “I’m not made of glass,” he said. “I’ll be fine.” The tightening around his eyes exposed the cost of his flippant response.

Farn must have also noticed Jaresh’s discomfort. “How about a round of drinks?” he said, changing the subject and trying to lighten the mood. “Rukh’s paying.”

His suggestion was met with glad cries of agreement, and the matter was dropped.

“Not so smooth,” Bree whispered to Rukh as he took a seat next to her.

He was squeezed in by his sister to his left and Sign to his right. “Not my best moment,” Rukh agreed.

He looked around the table. Farn and Jaresh were engaged in a conversation, while Sign sipped her water, a faraway look in her eyes. She was likely thinking about the death of her city, and while he understood her pain, her obsession with relieving the past was unhealthy. Rukh hoped she would find a means to regain her once bright, sunny outlook. Back in Stronghold, she’d been a ball of fire, fearless and with nothing to slow her down.

His consideration of her unhappy state was interrupted when something Jaresh said elected a smile from Sign. She set down her glass of water and shifted her attention to the other two men while Rukh sat back in his seat and rubbed his chin. Maybe Sign was doing better than he supposed. If so, he was glad.

“It looks like she’s enjoying herself,” Bree whispered to him, apparently noticing his quizzical expression.

“I hope so,” Rukh whispered back.

Their conversation was cut off when Jaresh laughed loudly at something Farn had just told him. Surprisingly, Sign chuckled as well.

Rukh wondered what Farn could have said that could be so funny. It wasn’t in his cousin’s dour nature to be humorous or so relaxed and happy. The past few years had sparked a vast change in Farn, and as far as Rukh was concerned, it was for the better. It was good to hear his cousin laugh.

“Poor Farn. Laya’s baby bit your finger and it hurt,” Jaresh said in a faux-childish voice. “Is it still hurting?”

“Let the baby bite your finger, and we’ll see if you’re still laughing,” Farn replied.

“How did Laya end up staying with you anyway?” Bree asked.

“Amma,” Farn answered. “I was just checking in on Laya, doing what I’d promised Cedar before he died. But then Amma asked about it, and somehow she got it in her head that I was the father of Laya’s unborn baby.” He shrugged. “By the time she realized her mistake, she’d already offered up our home to Laya.”

“Then it was very generous of your amma to let Laya stay, especially after she found out the truth,” Jessira said.

“Yes it was,” Farn agreed. “She and little Court—“

“I thought his name was Cedar,” Bree interrupted.

“His name is Cedar Court Grey, but Laya calls him little Court,” Jessira explained.

“And the two of them will always have a home with us,” Farn continued. “Nanna and Amma think of him as another grandson.” He sighed. “I just wish the boy wouldn’t wake up so often in the middle of the night. Amma and Nanna try to put him back to sleep, but most nights, it’s me that ends up taking care of him.”

Rukh gave Farn a quizzical look.

“I’m the only one who has the trick of making him go to sleep at night,” Farn said in a mix of embarrassment and pride.

“What do you mean?” Bree asked.

“I rock him on my knee, just kind of bounce him up and down on his bottom, and he falls asleep. No one else can keep the right rhythm.”

“Not even Laya?” Sign asked. “Where is she during all this?”

“She’s there. Little Court sleeps in her bedroom, and I only come in if she can’t get him to go back down.” Farn wore a put-upon expression. “Which, unfortunately, is most nights.”

Sign nodded. “I’m glad she calls him ‘little Court,’” she said. “My brother would have appreciated it.”

“Court was a wonderful man,” Farn agreed. “I’ll always be grateful to him.”

“I owed him more than I could ever hope to repay,” Rukh agreed softly. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for his generosity.”

“To Court,” Jessira said, raising her glass.

After the toast, several conversations broke out as those seated adjacent to one another spoke on various topics.

Rukh turned to Sign. “Did you win your wager?” he asked.

Sign seemed lost in her thoughts again, and he had to repeat his question. She gave a slight head shake before focusing on him and smiling briefly in triumph. “I did,” she said.

“You didn’t find the scene with the old man looking for his glasses to be amusing?” Bree asked in surprise.

“I thought it was hilarious,” Sign answered as she turned to look at Jaresh. “I just didn’t think it was funny enough to laugh out loud and lose our bet.”

Jaresh smiled sourly. “I still don’t think it was a proper wager since I never agreed to it,” he said. “But here’s to your victory.” He lifted his glass in salute to her triumph.

“What was your favorite part of the play?” Jessira asked Sign.

Her cousin got another faraway expression in her eyes. “All of it,” she finally replied. “It was like a dream. I never expected something so silly—people pretending to be someone else—to be so mesmerizing and uplifting, or so sad.”

Rukh laughed. “For a moment there, you looked just like Jessira did after she saw her first play.”

Jaresh chuckled. “Or her second.”

“Or her third and fourth,” Bree chimed in. “While you were gone on the expedition to the Chimera caverns, we took her out to a couple more plays, and each time, she’d come out like . . .” She gave a crooked grin. “Well I can’t exactly describe her expression—at least not in polite company.”

“Say what you want,” Jessira replied with a sniff. “You can’t cheapen my memory. The plays were bliss.”

“That’s one word for it,” Jaresh muttered.

“Quiet,” Jessira ordered.

Jaresh studiously sipped his ale, but his eyes crinkled.

Jessira took a moment to stare him down before turning away. “Anyway, the plays helped me maintain my sanity. My time in Ashoka wasn’t always pleasant.”

“I thought you loved your time here,” Bree said in confusion.

“I did, but I also had plenty of reasons to be unhappy,” Jessira answered. “I just wish your parents had trusted me with the truth.”

Bree startled. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“She knows,” Rukh said to his sister, not bothering to answer the unspoken questions on the faces of the others.

“Knows what?” Farn asked.

“Rukh’s parents wanted to make sure I wouldn’t leave Ashoka without him, that I’d wait until he returned from the Chimera caverns and take him with me to Stronghold.” Jessira explained. “They implied some statements that weren’t entirely true.”

Rukh gave her hand a squeeze. If their roles had been reversed, he might not have been as forgiving.

Jessira turned to him. “I can’t blame them for loving their son,” she said. “And they’re my parents now, too.”

Rukh smiled in gratitude.

“Now they’re going to kiss,” Jaresh said in disgust.

“What a tragic demise for a once-mighty warrior to be reduced to such a sad, sappy state,” Farn agreed solemnly.

“I think it’s sweet,” Sign said. “My people see little enough happiness as it is.”

“Don’t backslide,” Rukh warned her.

“I’m not backsliding,” Sign said with a scowl. “And mind your own business.”

“Scowl all you want,” Rukh told her, “but I remember the bouncing young woman who was so excited when she tried chocolate for the first time. You were like a child. It’s hard to be frightened of someone once you’ve seen them like that.”

“Wait? She had the same reaction as Jessira?” Jaresh asked. “All goofy like she’d just tasted heaven?”

“Was it an expression you can’t describe in polite company?” Bree asked.

“Or maybe their reactions have something to do with them being OutCastes,” Farn suggested.

“I don’t know about that,” Rukh said. “But as for Sign, when she ate the chocolate cake, it must have been bliss.”

“Oh shut up,” Sign snapped.

She sounded annoyed, but Rukh noticed her lips twitching with suppressed mirth. “I don’t have a bet with you,” he said. “You can laugh.”

Sign chuckled. “At least now I know why Jessira keeps you around.”

“Why’s that?” Bree asked. “It’s a question we’ve all wondered about.”

“Rukh makes Jessira laugh,” Sign explained.

“You mean because he’s a fool?” Jaresh asked, his brows furrowed in feigned puzzlement.

*****

An area south of Mount Crone that directly abutted the Inner Wall of Ashoka was where the OutCastes were now housed. There, a set of fallen-down buildings that no one else wanted had been purchased for a pittance by the Magisterium and with several Kumma Houses and a few other large mercantile concerns to finance the refurbishment. The structures had originally been built during a great pragmatic awakening several centuries prior. It was a time of supposed simplicity, where function ruled form and the lack of adornment in all aspects of life—clothes, furniture, and architecture—had become nothing short of a moral imperative. As a result, buildings from that period had been designed as plain cubes and rectangular structures with flat roofs and narrow windows. It was an efficient but ugly type of design, especially in comparison to the glorious architecture of the rest of the city.

By the time the OutCastes had washed up on Ashoka’s shores, most such structures from that late, unlamented period had long since been torn down. The few remaining buildings of that era were now almost always dilapidated and in need of urgent repair, and the ones selected to house the OutCastes had been no different.

Despite her frequent distrust, Sign had been relieved that the Purebloods had allowed their people refuge, but when she’d seen where they were to be housed, she’d initially been taken aback. How would they make these wretched wrecks their homes? It had taken Jessira’s explanation to set her mind at ease. Her cousin, who had been instrumental in choosing the buildings, had reasoned that their people needed something to occupy their time and minds, a buffer to give them a chance to forget—however briefly—the terrible tribulations they had all suffered.

Sign had ended up agreeing with Jessira’s decision, and every passing day had made her ever more grateful for her cousin’s astute vision.

The work needed to bring the buildings back to life had done everything Jessira had said it would. Months of labor had been required and her people had been forced to work hard and fast. Winter had been closing in. But more importantly, the OutCastes had needed to lift one another up. There would always come a time when one of them would reach their limit, ready to give up and set aside the burden of living, when they became ensnared in a wasting weariness and were ready to drift away. In the face of such daunting needs, the OutCastes had to choose between two options: they could have clung to selfishness, or they could have reached out with loving hearts and carry those who couldn’t stand.

Sign was proud that in each instance, her people had risen up and chosen the latter path, the better one. Without fail, those who had the strength to spare had generously offered it up to those in need. The OutCastes had created ever-deeper bonds of community and caring, and the ties of fellowship and love that Sign had seen forged—had been a part of—left her humbled and in awe. She had never been more proud to be a daughter of Stronghold.

She was also grateful to the Purebloods who had pitched in to help reclaim the old buildings. Rukh, Jaresh, Bree, and Farn had done what they could, but they weren’t skilled at the work that had needed doing. Instead, they had been the loving hearts who had searched out those with the willing hands to help. They had found a number of Duriah master craftsmen to aid Sign’s people in their work, and together, the OutCastes and Purebloods had repaired all the damage done by settling foundations and wearing wind, water, and time.

The result was a small cluster of structures that, while not beautiful, were sturdy and weather-tight. More importantly, they were a place of safety, a place where the OutCastes could rebuild their lives.

“I know you think I’m imposing by walking you home,” Jaresh said.

Sign startled. They’d walked in silence for so long that she’d forgotten he was there.

After dinner, the others had headed to their respective homes in wealthy Jubilee Hills, and Sign had expected Jaresh to go with them. Instead, he had insisted on walking her to her flat. He had explained that while violence was unlikely to come her way—especially since the immolation of the Sil Lor Kum—given the lateness of the hour, common courtesy dictated that he should accompany her and see her safely home. Farn and Rukh could have done so, but it made more sense for Jaresh to take care of the matter.

“You’re not imposing,” Sign said, responding to his statement.

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” Sign said, flicking him a glance. “But I don’t want to take up too much of your time. You don’t have to walk me all the way to my front door. You can return to your own home if you wish.”

“Jessira would not be happy if I did that,” Jaresh replied.

Sign’s brows lifted in surprised amusement. “Don’t tell me you really are afraid of her.”

“You’re not?” Jaresh challenged.

Sign was about to respond with a shake of her head and tell him ‘of course not’, but instead, she paused and truly considered Jaresh’s question. She realized a moment later that while she wasn’t afraid of Jessira, she did fear disappointing her.

Jaresh nodded. “You see what I mean.”

Sign gave a wistful half smile. “My cousin has grown forceful,” she said. “She wasn’t always so, but after Stronghold’s death, any velvet softness around the ironwood mettle of her core seems to have burned off.”

“She isn’t quite that hard, but she’s also not a woman I’d want to risk angering,” Jaresh agreed. “I think even my nanna treads lightly around her.”

“Truly?”

Jaresh smiled disarmingly, a surprisingly winning grin. “No. I was just exaggerating for effect,” he answered “But the truth is I think Rukh might be one of the few people who isn’t the least bit intimidated by Jessira.”

“Then he is a fool,” Sign said, still smiling to take the sting out of her words.

“Maybe love makes him foolishly brave,” Jaresh suggested.

Sign chuckled. “Perhaps so,” she agreed. They walked in silence before Sign voiced a question that had been bothering her since dinner. “Why did Rukh seem so upset when he spoke to you about loving another?” She realized the question might be impertinent the instant the words left her lips. She put a hand on Jaresh’s arm. “You don’t have to answer,” she said in contrition.

Jaresh gave her a tight-lipped smile. “It’s fine. You’re likely to hear about it sometime. There was a woman I once loved. Her name was Mira.”

“Was?”

Jaresh nodded. He then told Sign a tale of forbidden love, unrequited and unspoken. It was so typical of the Purebloods. If not for the backwardness of their society, there was no reason why Jaresh and this woman he had so deeply loved couldn’t have married and lived out a life of joy. Instead, that love had been stillborn, killed before it ever had a chance to flower, and ultimately murdered by an evil that had its origin in the same foul demon that had destroyed Stronghold: Suwraith.

The Queen had much for which to answer.

“I’m sorry,” Sign said, somehow feeling closer to him because of his loss.

“You’ve suffered a lot more than I have,” Jaresh noted.

“Should we compare who hurts more severely?” Sign asked, her head tilted in challenge.

Jaresh ventured a smile. “I suppose not,” he said. “Grief hurts no matter how seemingly small the cause.”

Sign nodded agreement and gestured up ahead. “We’re almost there,” she noted. The buildings had grown familiar. One more turn, and they would be on her street. “Home,” Sign replied. A tingle in her fingers, a dryness in her mouth, and a quickening of her heart let her feel the weight of the word, the longing for it to be true.

“Is it home?” Jaresh asked.

“It’s not the home I wanted—that one was destroyed by the Sorrow Bringer—but it is a home,” Sign replied. She sighed a moment later. “I only wish Jessira could have lived here also. I miss her.”

“They had to move back to Jubilee Hills to help the House,” Jaresh said. “It was never because of any petty reason to have a bigger flat or separate themselves from the rest of the OutCastes.”

Sign had heard this before, and while she vaguely understood the reasons, it wasn’t the same as accepting them. “I know. Rukh’s marriage to Jessira diminished his status as a Kumma within his Caste. And by extension, it diminishes the status of your parents and House.”

Jaresh shrugged apology. “Right now, in some ways, Rukh needs to prove that he’s still a Kumma at heart. It was thought that moving back to Jubilee Hills might help him do so.”

Sign smiled even as she mentally shrugged off his explanation. There were currents to Ashoka’s politics that escaped her, and she reckoned they always would. It was simply too foreign to her way of thinking. “Whatever the reasons, I’m just glad they’re happy in their new home,” she said before pointing to the building at which they’d arrived. “This is mine,” she said. “Good night, Jaresh.”

“Good night, Sign.”

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