Chapter 4: An Eventual Life

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 4: An Eventual Life

The days of a man’s life are as the leaves of an autumn tree—bright and bold but finite. And the Lord will shelter you long before the last leaf has fallen.

The Book of All Souls

As Bree travelled along the gravel path, she lightly gripped her scabbarded sword with one hand while her thumb rested on the hilt to keep the weapon in place. It was the proper way of walking with a belted blade, and over time, such a technique had become second nature to her. The swaying of the sword against her left hip and the rise and fall of the sageo-tied-scabbard were now simply a part of who she was.

Of course, it had taken months of hard work and training for Bree to become so comfortable at having a blade by her side. Her ambition had required long hours of tutelage by the Great Duriah, Durmer Volk, with sweltering days under a hot summer sun and chilly afternoons beneath a cool winter wind. All the time spent, though, had achieved its desired outcome. Bree had managed to achieve a certain competence with the sword, and though she strived for more than mere mediocrity, at least now she no longer felt like a helpless weakling. She could defend herself against anyone who was not a Kumma and feel confident that she would survive the encounter.

Some might have wondered why she worked so tirelessly to master such an odd skill for a woman, but the truth was actually quite simple. Never again did Bree want to feel as useless as she had during that terrible conflict when she had almost died. It had been in an otherwise unremarkable alley in the Moon Quarter, and the fight had nearly cost Bree her life. It would have—probably should have—if not for Jaresh’s swift sword. Bree, on the other hand, had merely watched as a panic-stricken observer. She had stood frozen with fear as her brother had fought for both their lives.

It had been a terrible lesson that she’d learned—of her fragility and inability to protect herself—and it was a mistake she vowed to never repeat or forget. Never again would she allow herself to be caught so defenseless, and Mira’s murder had merely steadied and hardened that resolve. Bree would master the blade, and all the other Talents of her warrior Caste, and while she might not ever have the sublime skill of her brother, Rukh, or even Jaresh, at least she would be able to fight if needed. More importantly, no one else would ever again need die because Bree was incapable of protecting herself.

“How much farther?” Jessira asked, interrupting Bree’s thoughts of swords and strength.

“Not far,” she answered. “We should be there soon.”

Bree quickened her pace, and Jessira and Sign, who were accompanying her, increased their stride to keep up. The sound of their feet crunching along the lonely gravel drive sounded vaguely martial.

The three of them marched alongside the fields between Ashoka’s Inner and Outer Walls. The wheat and corn had already been planted and showed as thin, green growths while a warm wind blew an earthy aroma of loam and manure. The breeze carried across the fields and bent the crops, causing the shoots and leaves to weave and bob in sinuous waves. It reminded Bree of waves ebbing on the ocean, especially as they broke around the rocky shoals of oaks and maples that grew in the midst of the crops. A small herd of cows lowed from a nearby meadow while songbirds trilled their melodies from their roosts amongst the branches of the trees.

“Do you really think the Murans will let us sharecrop their fallow land?” Sign asked.

“Rukh seems to think they might,” Jessira answered. From her tone, Bree could tell she wasn’t entirely convinced.

“I hope he’s right,” Sign replied, doubt also suffusing her voice.

Bree briefly glanced over at the other two women. She, too, had uncertainties about whether an agreement could be obtained with the Murans. Of all the Castes, the Murans were the most religious, and they had also been the ones who had been the most offended by the Magisterium’s decision to grant the OutCastes sanctuary. They were especially incensed by the questions raised about validity of the The Word and the Deed.

Ultimately, Bree’s uncertainties didn’t matter, and she set them aside. The decision would be made, and the OutCastes would have their answer one way or another.

“We’ll know soon enough,” Jessira said, her words an echo of Bree’s thoughts.

The gravel road they followed began a slow ascent and on the descent, they had to step aside for a wagon loaded with hay. The Muran drover tipped his hat to them as he passed.

“Do you think we’re asking the Ashokans for too much?” Sign asked after the wagon had passed.

“I think you should get used to saying that you are Ashokans,” Bree answered.

“I think I’ll always think of myself as a Strongholder first,” Sign replied.

“I can understand that,” Bree replied. “But you’re also an Ashokan now. And no, I don’t think you’re asking for too much,” she said, hoping her own doubts didn’t creep into her voice.

Sign smiled wistfully. “What a wonderful thing if the Murans feel the same way.”

“But even if they don’t, we have our lives and a chance to give our children a future,” Jessira said. “We weren’t certain we’d be able to have either a few months ago.”

“No we weren’t,” Sign agreed.

Jessira turned to Bree. “No matter what the Murans say, I want to thank you for convincing them to meet with us. You’ve done so much for our people.”

“Yes. Thank you,” Sign said. “I don’t know what we would have done without your help.”

Bree reddened, touched by the words of both women. “You’re welcome,” she said.

Jessira chuckled. “I think we’ve embarrassed you enough.”

Bree smiled. “Oh no. Keep going. I have two older brothers who seem to think that teasing me is the height of entertainment. It’s good to be appreciated for once.”

“Well we definitely appreciate you,” Jessira said. She surprised Bree by drawing her into a warm embrace before breaking out into glad laughter and throwing her arms wide. “What a wonderful, fine day it is!”

Bree took in Jessira’s display with bemusement.

“Spring fever,” Sign explained. “She’s always like this when the weather warms up.”

Bree nodded in understanding. “Rukh’s the same way.”

Sign rolled her eyes. “The two of them bad enough as it is with all their kissing and secret smiles,” she said. “Toss in spring fever . . .” She shook her head. “Devesh save us. They’ll probably strip naked and bay at the moon.”

Jessira laughed when she heard Sign’s description of her and Rukh. “Bay at the moon?” she asked.

Sign grinned back at her and howled an example of what she meant.

“You’re one to talk,” Jessira said with an arch of her eyebrows. “I grew up with you, remember? I know how you made a tradition of swimming naked in Teardrop Lake on the morning of the summer solstice.”

Sign wore an air of long-suffering patience. “Yes, but I didn’t bay at the moon. And I didn’t stare lovingly into the eyes of my lover and make everyone around me uncomfortable.”

“Husband,” Jessira corrected even as she considered Sign’s words. She glanced at Bree, who appeared to be trying her best to hide a smile.“Rukh and I aren’t really like that, are we?” she asked.

Bree held a wide-eyed look of innocence on her face. “Not at all,” she answered with a slow shake of her head. “You and Rukh are paragons of quiet reflection when it comes to demonstrating your affection.” Her overly slow and deliberate tone left no doubt that she meant the exact opposite of what she was saying.

Jessira frowned. “Do we really make others uncomfortable when we’re together?” she asked, repeating her question. “I thought Jaresh was just teasing.” She looked them in the eyes. “And I want the truth this time.”

Bree hesitated. “It’s not so much that we’re uncomfortable, but . . . sometimes it feels like everyone else might as well not be there when the two of you are with one another.”

“I had no idea,” Jessira said. She and Rukh had survived many troubles together, but it didn’t excuse the behavior Sign and Bree were describing. It gave Jessira an uncomfortable remembrance of newlyweds she knew, couples who acted like their love was so special that the very sunlight was merely a reflection of their perfect union. It was horribly treacly, and Jessira had always mocked those who behaved in such an absurd fashion.

To find out that she and Rukh were exhibiting those same foolish traits . . . Jessira dropped her head in embarrassment, hoping to hide her blush of humiliation.

“It’s not as bad as that,” Bree consoled as she laid a hand on Jessira’s arm.

“Thank the First Mother for small favors,” Jessira muttered.

“The two of you are just unusually close,” Bree added.

“You mean more than two people in love?” Jessira asked, forcing droll amusement into her voice, although in her heart she was still mortified.

Bree gave Jessira a squeeze of sympathy. “You and Rukh don’t have any reason to be embarrassed. We really were just teasing.” She smiled. “A little anyway.”

“Or a lot,” Sign added with a grin meant to take the sting out of her words. “At least you’re not like some of those couples who act like everyone should stand back and admire their love.”

Sign’s words did little to sooth Jessira’s embarrassment. She’d been thinking the exact same thing only moments earlier. Nevertheless, she managed a half-hearted smile.

“I really was joking,” Sign said, the teasing grin fading from her face. Now it was she who appeared abashed. “Don’t read too much into what I said. You know how I like to tease. Please don’t be upset.”

Jessira’s smile grew less faint.

“Better,” Sign said.

“When did you become the one who offers others encouragement?” Jessira asked, her embarrassment fading as amusement took its place.

“It took some time and the patience of a loving cousin,” Sign said, offering a surprisingly sweet sentiment. A moment later, her cousin turned away and threw her arms wide. “Just look at those fields,” Sign exclaimed, sounding joyful as she changed the subject and gestured all around them. “Compared to them, the Croft was a barren wasteland. Look at how green the crops are. I doubt this color even existed back home.”

Jessira found herself laughing at Sign’s excitement. It was good to see her cousin so enlivened and happy. In the weeks since Sign had gone out with them to see Down the Street, more and more often, the carefree woman, the one who had once lived her life with joyous abandon, seemed to be resurfacing. Sign was finally emerging from her angry shell, engaging with the world once again. And while there were crow’s feet at the corner of her eyes that hadn’t been there last summer, at least the haunted quality Jessira had grown used to seeing on her cousin’s face was no longer present so frequently. That sense of heartache might never fully resolve, but at least for now, Sign’s smiles were genuine.

“I just can’t get over how beautiful this place is,” Sign continued.

Jessira smiled wryly. “I hate to say ‘I told you so,’” she said, “but I told you so. I’m pretty sure I described Ashoka’s beauty on more than one occasion, and you doubted me every time.”

Sign shrugged. “I’ll admit it. I should have believed you. Ashoka is just as beautiful as you said it was, more beautiful than I ever imagined,” she said. “But remember, at the time, you were also going on and on about how Kummas were these otherworldly warriors, but the only ones I knew were Rukh and Farn. One of them couldn’t hold a sword, and the other one couldn’t walk a straight line without falling over. Given that, I think I can be forgiven for holding some reservations.” She sniffed. “Besides, with your taste in men, who can tell what that might mean for your judgment of an entire city.”

“And what exactly do you think is wrong with my brother?” Bree asked in a in a stark tone devoid of any humor.

Sign glanced at her, her smile slithering away. “Er. Nothing. I was just . . .”

“Yes. What is wrong with Rukh?” Jessira asked.

Sign looked between the two women, a look of concern on her face.

Bree couldn’t hold onto her irritated expression, and she broke into laughter. “You should see your face.”

Jessira chuckled with her. “It’s so red. Like a—”

“Don’t say it,” Sign warned.

Jessira disregarded the warning. “—baboon’s butt,” she finished.

Bree burst out into further laughter while Sign growled a curse. “I hate that joke,” she muttered. A look of irritation stole across her face at Bree’s ongoing humor. “I’ve been teased, and so has Jessira,” Sign said to Bree. “Just wait until you’re the object of our mockery.”

“Oh no!” Jessira exclaimed, wanting no part of Sign’s plan, whatever it might be. “Leave me out of it. She’s my sister-in-law. There’s no chance I’m helping you make fun of Bree.”

“Jessira!” Sign protested.

“We’ll have to deal with any planned mockery of me later,” Bree said as she pointed to a small lane branching off their gravel road. “We’re here.”

Sign pulled her attention back to the road and saw the turnoff Bree indicated. The lane was lined with azaleas blooming in a riot of colors, and the drive took a gradual bend, continuing on toward a large, red barn with cedar shingles. Far out in the distance, workers were busy tilling the land and working the fields.

Sign paused to take in the scene. In Stronghold, where farming was such a challenge given the hard, stony soil of the Privation Mountains high country, the Croft had been regarded with an almost religious reverence. Life began at the fields. Without them, there was no food and without nourishment, there was no life. The farmer was the center of a city.

Bree didn’t allow Sign to linger over the lovely, poignant scene as she quickly led them along a brick footpath that branched off the small drive. It curled to the left and deposited them in front of an expansive two-story building, one of Ashoka’s famed farmhouses.

A large wraparound porch seemed to beckon weary travelers and farmers to set aside their burdens and rest in one of the green rocking chairs and sip a cool drink on a warm summer evening. Clapboard siding painted a bright sunshine yellow and a roof shingled with cedar shakes continued the sense of welcome as did a set of chimes gently jingling in the breeze.

It was like nothing Sign had ever seen. “It’s perfect,” she whispered.

“Yes it is,” Jessira agreed, her voice also hushed in reverence.

“Come on,” Bree said, leading them up the porch steps.

At the top, Sign stumbled to a halt. From inside the home came the most lovely voice she had ever heard. It was raised in song, a paean to moonlight and love. “What is that?” Sign asked in a hushed whisper.

“Trellis Weathervine,” Bree answered. “She’s a student at the Larina.”

Sign glanced at her in bewilderment. “What is the Larina?” she asked.

“A school devoted to the art of singing,” Bree told her.

Sign shot her a look of incredulity. “You’re saying there is a school in Ashoka where all they do is sing?” she asked in disbelief. “Who pays for it?”

“First, they don’t just sing. They learn to sing. There’s a large difference. And second, the school is funded by donations from those who can afford it,” Bree said. “People with wealth are expected to support the arts, to voluntarily serve the city in whatever capacity they can. And anyone who hoards their money and does nothing except collect more of it are held in contempt.” Bree gave a satisfied nod. “Luckily, not too many do something so selfish.”

Sign understood what Bree was telling her. It made sense, but it also didn’t make sense. For instance, why should those who accrued wealth be held in contempt if they didn’t give it away to the shiftless? Let those without earn their own.

Also, while Trellis Weathervine’s voice was certainly beguiling, ultimately what was the point? She could only sing if someone paid her. To Sign’s way of thinking, it was a ridiculous notion. The young woman could be doing something far more useful and important with her life, something more productive. Singing didn’t build a house or repair the stonework or plow the fields or do the thousand other labors that a city needed in order to prosper. For Ashokans to pay for someone to layabout and do nothing but sing seemed a colossal waste of resources.

“The woman’s voice is certainly lovely, but it seems . . . unnecessary. Is there nothing else she can do with her time?” Sign asked, struggling to phrase the question as politely as she could.

“You didn’t feel that way on the night we saw the play,” Jessira reminded her. “Admit it. It touched you. It made you want to smile and cry at the same time, made you glad to have seen it.”

Sign opened her mouth to argue but almost immediately closed it with a click when she realized that Jessira was right. The play had touched her. It had been wondrous, heart-wrenching, and tragically beautiful at the same time.

With an almost palpable shake, her thoughts twisted into a new way of thinking and questions stirred in her mind. Could it be that the labor of the actors and those who had worked on the production hadn’t been in vain? That their creation had been a worthy use of their time and effort? That for Ashoka to afford for its people to do nothing more than perform plays, music, or song was actually how the city prospered?

Sign realized that her practical nature would just have to get used to people doing work that had never occurred to anyone back in Stronghold. Singing or storytelling as a profession amongst the OutCastes? Sign mentally scoffed.

Although . . .

Sign furrowed her brows in consideration.

When had any OutCaste actually tried to do such a thing as sing or act as a profession? And just as importantly, what if they had? Maybe such a venture would have been more successful than Sign initially imagined. Maybe there would have been more people in Stronghold than she realized who would have enjoyed seeing such performances—people willing to pay to see the kind of theater performed in Ashoka, or give money to those who could sing like Trellis Weathervine, or offer up coin to hear the wonderful Sentya musicians at the Ahura Temple. After all, look at how much Jessira loved theater and music, or even Sign, herself, for that matter.

“I suppose it’s just hard to understand how different our culture is from theirs,” Sign reflected after a moment.

“Like I told you before: Ashokans are devoted to beauty in all its forms,” Jessira added.

“And like I told both of you, you need to get used to being Ashokans,” Bree said with a smile. “There will come a time when the OutCastes will be expected to incorporate beauty into their creations.”

“You keep emphasizing that point,” Sign said. “That the OutCastes are now Ashokans. Why is that so important to you?”

“Because it’s true, and the only way you’ll stop feeling like intruders and make this city your home is if you believe it is your home, that you’re just as much a part of it as any Pureblood.”

“A lot of your people don’t believe that,” Sign said to Bree. “A lot of them will never believe that.”

“And they aren’t the ones you need to convince,” Bree said. “With time, they’ll simply pass on and their old ways with them. The fact that the Magisterium worked so hard to make sure that the OutCastes could stay in Ashoka should tell you something about where popular sentiment lies. You can make Ashoka your home if you push hard enough to demand that you belong here. Hold your heads high. Don’t ask for a place at the table. Act like one is already set for you. Most of us would be happy to scoot over and give you a seat.”

Jessira chuckled. “I appreciate the sentiment, but what a bunch of mixed metaphors.”

“Shut it.”

Sign, though, was touched by Bree’s words. They had an element of fiery truth to them, the kind that could remake a world. Why couldn’t her people make a home here? Was that not what many Ashokans had already volunteered? Now, it was up to Sign’s people to take that generous offer and make for themselves a life worthy of the Purebloods’ altruism. She blinked her eyes at the thought, working to keep the tears from spilling, hoping the other women wouldn’t notice.

However, eagle-eyed Jessira did. “What is it?” she asked.

“Dust in my eye,” Sign answered.

Bree took Sign’s hand and forced her to face her. “In Caste Kumma, as cousins raised in the same house, you and Jessira would be sisters. And once Rukh married Jessira, she became my sister.”

Sign looked at her quizzically. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because as Jessira’s sister, you’re close family to me as well. In my Caste, you’re almost a sister.”

Sign smiled, touched once again by Bree’s words. “You’re saying I have another family if I want one?” she asked.

Bree grinned. “We aren’t really all that bad once you get to know us,” she said.

“Even Jaresh?” Sign asked.

Especially Jaresh,” Jessira said. “He’s the most levelheaded one of the entire bunch.”

“And there’s also Farn and his family and a whole lot of cousins you haven’t met,” Bree added. “We love Jessira, and we want to love you if you’ll give us a chance to get to know you.” Bree gave Sign one final squeeze of empathy before swiftly straightening up. An expression of no-nonsense seriousness replaced her look of sympathy “Now, get yourself together,” she ordered. “We’re about to meet Mistress Shull, and she doesn’t like crybabies.”

Jessira tried to firm up her features and hoped Sign would be able to do the same. She glanced at her cousin, who was quickly swiping at her eyes and cheeks until they were both dry. Sign gave Jessira a quick nod that she was ready just as the door opened.

The woman who greeted them was a Muran. Like everyone in that Caste, she had emerald-green eyes like Jessira’s and golden-brown skin like Sign. Her once dark hair was now gray and pleated into a braid that hung to the middle of her back. Jessira would have guessed the woman was in her sixties, but she still stood upright and proud, wearing a conservative, dark dress that reached all the way to the floor. She was tall enough to nearly look them in the eyes, and her seamed face was reflective of a life spent outdoors. She studied the three of them with curiosity, her gaze lingering longest on Jessira and Sign. Awareness of what they were stole across her face, and her features grew less welcoming, even wary. “Bree Shektan,” the woman said by way of welcome.

“Mistress Shull,” Bree replied. “Let me introduce my vadina, Jessira Shektan”—Jessira tilted her head in acknowledgement—“and her cousin-sister, Sign Grey.”

Mistress Shull took in their appearance, and if possible, drew herself up even straighter. Her eyes were flinty, and Jessira felt a sinking sensation in her stomach. “How can I help you?” Mistress Shull asked, making no move to allow them entrance into her home.

“We have a business proposition,” Bree said, wearing an open, confident smile. “May we come in?”

“No,” Mistress Shull said. “It wouldn’t be appropriate.”

Sign bristled, and Jessira, so often the hothead, found herself in the odd position of calming someone else down. She took her cousin’s hand and gave her a slight warning shake of her head.

“Why wouldn’t it be appropriate?” Sign asked, her voice level and even.

Mistress Shull turned to her. “You know why,” she answered. “The Magisterium might have allowed your kind sanctuary, and you”—she stabbed a finger at Bree—“may have convinced them to do so and even brought The Word and the Deed into question, but we still cling to the old ways.” She lifted her head proudly.

Though Jessira wanted to smack the smugness from the woman’s face, she couldn’t afford to submit to her whims. They needed Mistress Shull’s help. Instead, she did her best to keep her features calm and relaxed. Sign, on the other hand, had no qualms about letting Mistress Shull see her anger. Her cousin glared at the Muran woman, disregarding Jessira’s look of warning.

Meanwhile, Bree’s smile slipped away, and she pursed her lips as though in thought. “I see,” she said. “I certainly don’t hold your faith against you, but when earlier I spoke to you, I made you aware of what I wanted, and yet, this is how you respond? I find it ungracious.” Bree wore a stony expression. “Obviously, you must do what you think is right, but so, too, must House Shektan, and those Houses allied with us.”

Mistress Shull blanched. “Wait,” she said, stepping outside and shutting the door. “I can’t let you in.” She shrugged in apology. “My amma would likely have an aneurysm if she saw a ghrina in her home.” Her face tightened upon seeing Jessira and Sign’s flat-eyed glares of anger. “I know you hate the word, but my amma is too old to change. It is what she will always think of you.”

The front door opened. “What’s going on?” an elderly Muran woman demanded, standing in the doorway. She was hunched over from a dowager’s hump that bent her until her head and neck were permanently parallel with the ground.

Mistress Shull stiffened and spun around. “Nothing you need to worry about, Amma,” she said, her words hurried. “Just some informal business with House Shektan.” Jessira noticed that Mistress Shull had positioned herself so she blocked her amma’s view of both Sign and herself. “You remember Bree Shektan?”

“Of course I do,” the old woman said, sounding irascible.

“It is good to see you again, Mistress Terras,” Bree said.

“You’ve grown into that sword,” the old woman noted before hobbling forward. “Why do those women standing behind you look so strange?” Mistress Terras asked. “They look like a mix . . .” She startled. “What are their kind doing here?” she asked.

Jessira was surprised. Rather than furious, Mistress Terras sounded curious.

“We were discussing a proposal with your daughter,” Bree said. She sidestepped Mistress Shull. “This is my vadina, Jessira Shektan, and her cousin-sister, Sign Grey.”

Jessira took a risk and offered her hand to the old woman, hoping Mistress Terras would shake it. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Mistress Terras,” the old woman said, gathering Jessira’s hand in her palsied one and giving it a brief shake. “Are you the one married to Rukh Shektan?”

“I am,” Jessira replied.

“They say you left your home to be with him, helped him retrieve The Book of First Movement.”

“I did,” Jessira answered.

Mistress Terras broke into a broad grin. “Then you must come back and tell us all about it one day,” she exclaimed. She leaned in and spoke in a conspiratorial whisper. “Did you really befriend a Bael, a Tigon, and a Shylow?”

Jessira nodded.

Mistress Terras cackled. “How wonderful. I never thought I’d live to see the day.”

The door opened again. A more youthful version of Mistress Shull stood in the entrance. She was either a younger sister or a daughter.

“Lace,” Mistress Shull called out. “Please come and help your ammamma into the house. It’s almost time for lunch.”

Lace took in the scene before her with remarkable aplomb. “Of course,” she said. She took Mistress Terras’ hands in her own and drew the old woman inside. “Why don’t you help me with the food, Ammamma,” she suggested.

Mistress Terras allowed herself to be guided inside. “Did you see the two ghrinas, Shull?” she asked Lace, mistaking her for the older woman. She cackled again. “One of them said she was friends with a Bael. Liars. What’s your name again, girl?” The door shut behind her.

Despite Mistress Terras’ unpleasant words, Jessira felt a surge of sympathy for the old woman. Her mind was obviously not right. Her thoughts clearly clouded by old age. A tragedy.

“How long has she been like this?” Bree asked, her voice laced with sympathy.

Mistress Shull swallowed heavily. “It started a few years ago, but we always explained away her forgetfulness as being due to age. But over the past six months, it’s slowly become worse.”

“I’m so sorry,” Bree said. “One of Nanna’s closest friends, Garnet Bosde, suffers a similar affliction. I know how painful it can be.” She dipped her head in apology. “Nevertheless, we have important matters to consider. Will you discuss them with us now?”

Jessira felt a stab of loss at the reminder of Garnet. The old man had always been kind to her, treating her like a granddaughter . But time, that undefeatable enemy, had stolen Garnet’s mind and memories. She had visited him once after her return to Ashoka, but he had no recollection of her. He’d quickly grown afraid and upset at seeing her, and she’d been forced to beat a hasty retreat. She hadn’t gone back since.

Jessira mentally sighed and turned her attention back to the Muran woman standing before them.

Shull had her dress still clutched in her hands, and she took a deep, shuddering breath. “No. You can stay,” she answered in a voice that slowly grew stronger. “But now you see why I didn’t want you to come in.”

“And do you really think so poorly of us?” Sign asked. She had moved to stand next to Jessira.

Mistress Shull proudly met Sign’s gaze before seeming to suddenly deflate. “I do not know,” she said with a heavy exhalation. “Sometimes I’m convinced you are an affront to all that is holy, to Devesh’s very sight; that the likes of you and your sister are only here in blessed Ashoka because of her”—she pointed at Bree—“blasphemy.” She sighed. “And other times, I wish I could be like my daughter and see you as simply being a different kind of people.”

“We aren’t the ones capable of discussing theology with you,” Bree said, “but we are the ones who came here with a business proposal. You can hear us out if you wish.”

“And if I say no?” Mistress Shull asked.

Bree gave her a sympathetic smile. “You have to look after your family, and I have to look after mine,” she answered. “We would go to Clan Sunhewn.”

“Well that won’t do,” Mistress Shull muttered darkly. She appeared to gather herself up and stood straight once again. “I’ll hear you and your friends out,” she said.

“Relatives,” Bree corrected. “My vadina and her cousin-sister.”

Mistress Shull nodded acceptance. “Sit down and let’s hear this proposal of yours.” She led them to a set of chairs around a low, glass-topped table. All four women took a seat. “So what is your plan?” Mistress Shull asked.

“The OutCastes are farmers, and they would like to sharecrop some of Clan Weathervine’s fallow fields,” Bree said. “It would profit both of you.”

Mistress Shull was shaking her head before Bree had even finished speaking. “You know I can’t allow that. No Clan can,” she said. “Though what you said to the Magisterium about The Word and the Deed caused many to wonder about our beliefs, most of my Caste and Clan remain devoted to what we’ve always been taught. We would never allow an OutCaste to work alongside our own.”

“What if the OutCastes farmed your land but never worked alongside members of Clan Weathervine?” Bree suggested.

Mistress Shull frowned. “I don’t see how that’s possible,” she said. “When would they work? At night when the rest of us have retired from the fields?”

“No,” Bree replied. “There is land your Clan has rights to but has never worked. Mount Crone.”

“Mount Crone?” Shull’s eyes widened in understanding, but again, she shook her head. “That land is too rocky to be properly farmed.”

“Not for them. Stronghold was in the Privation Mountains, and so were their farms,” Bree explained. “They’re used to working land that’s stony.”

Mistress Shull glanced in Jessira’s direction, her face full of skepticism. “Murans are born farmers. It’s what we do. You’re saying you can work land and cause it to bloom in places we cannot?” she asked in disbelief.

“Not at all,” Jessira answered, keeping her voice even and nonconfrontational, which was a challenge for her even in the best of times. “We’re not better farmers than Murans, but necessity taught us what you never had to learn. When Stronghold was founded, the surrounding land was far from ideal, but it was all we had to work with. Our choice was to either make the rocky soil bloom or starve.” She gestured around them. “For you, it’s different. You have these lush lands.” She smiled as she gazed about the glorious fields. “Your fields are so bounteous that even a Kumma might bring it to life.”

Mistress Shull chuckled. “Let’s not get carried away,” she said, “but I see your point.” She fell silent as she tapped her chin in consideration. “You really think your people can do this?”

“Absolutely,” Sign answered.

“And Clan Weathervine will share in the profits?” Shull asked.

Bree nodded. “Which is where I come in. I’ve been authorized to negotiate on behalf of the OutCastes.”

Mistress Shull turned to her. “Then let us begin. But remember: we bargain hard.”

Bree smiled, predatory and anticipating. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

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