Chapter 6: Challenges

Excerpted from A Warrior’s Penance Copyright © 2016 by Davis Ashura
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Chapter 6: Challenges

Those who think to thieve from starving wolves are fools. We know them by their torn-asunder corpses.

—Attribution unknown

Rukh’s brows furrowed as he pored over the papers laid out in front of him. In a short time, he was expected to give a full accounting to the Shektan House Council of everything Aia and Shon had related regarding events in the Wildness. There was a lot to cover, and Rukh had written it all down—Hal’El Wrestiva, the increased breeding of the Chimeras, and the supposed summertime attack by the Queen. Everything was included in the papers, even a map revealing the location of western breeding caverns. Rukh just wanted to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything. Even the smallest detail might turn out to be important.

“Are you ready to go?” Jessira asked him. “We’re going to be late if we don’t leave soon.”

Rukh glanced up from where he sat on the couch, looking at the clock on the mantle above the fireplace. “We’ve got time,” he said.

“Only if we run,” Jessira replied as she began pacing before the fireplace. “You know it’s rude to keep people waiting?”

Rukh exhaled heavily. Jessira hated even the threat of being late. Tardiness was one of her pet peeves. “Let me just get these papers together,” he said, stuffing the documents he had been studying into a leather satchel.

“Who else will be at the meeting?” Jessira asked.

“The entire House Council,” Rukh replied. “I don’t think . . .” He trailed off when he looked over at Jessira. Whatever else he was about to say melted from his mind like ice on a hot summer day.

Jessira stood by the dining table with one foot resting on a chair as she laced her sandals. She wore a sleeveless summer dress, pale yellow and made of soft silk, that normally ended a little north of her knees. Right now, though, the dress had hitched itself high up on her thighs, and Rukh found himself tracing the lean, muscular lengths of Jessira’s long legs. They were a paler shade of golden-red compared to the rest of her skin but were also softer than the silk dress she wore. He noticed a small mole well up her inner thigh.

“Stop staring,” Jessira said without bothering to look his way.

Rukh grimaced. How did she always know when he was looking?

“Because you’re a man, and men stare,” Jessira replied to his unspoken question.

Rukh shrugged, not bothering to argue the point since she was right.

To his disappointment, Jessira took that moment to straighten up, and her dress settled about her legs and hips, hiding what had been so beautifully displayed only seconds earlier. She walked over to the full-length mirror in the corner near the couch and studied herself from all angles as she smoothed down the dress. When everything met her approval, she turned to Rukh. “Are you ready?” she asked, hands on her hips and an arch to her eyebrows.

Her question had levels of meaning, and Rukh didn’t bother answering. Instead, he stepped over to Jessira and cupped her face in both his hands. He kissed his wife briefly but tenderly on the lips. “I’m ready, priya” he said.

As they exited their flat, Jessira took his hand and pressed up against him, and as always Rukh couldn’t help but breathe deep her faint cinnamon scent.

Jessira smiled when he did, and she squeezed his hand for a brief instant. “What do you suppose your nanna will do after he hears what we have to say?” she asked as they stepped onto the streets of Jubilee Hills.

Rukh paused to get his bearings before answering.

It was twilight, and the streets were thick with people making their way home or heading out to Semaphore Walk or some other part of Ashoka for an evening of good food and entertainment.

“I imagine he’ll hear us out,” Rukh said. “He’ll want us to verify that Aia and Shon are reliable—which they are—and then pass the information on to the Magisterium.”

“And we’ll have to prepare for war,” Jessira said with a sour grimace. “First Stronghold, and now Ashoka. When will our people finally have peace?”

“Which people are you talking about?” he asked. “Ashokans or the OutCastes?”

“Both,” Jessira answered. “As far as I am concerned, we are one people.”

Rukh smiled. It was a lovely sentiment, and one he hoped more people would eventually embrace, but right now, it was a faraway fantasy. However, there was also no reason to point out the obvious. Jessira knew it just as well as he did.

“Then I think we’ll only have peace when Suwraith no longer plagues the skies of Arisa,” Rukh answered.

Jessira snorted. “We might as well wish away a typhoon.”

“Which is another way of saying never,” Rukh replied.

“It’s a nice dream, though, isn’t it?” she asked in a wistful tone.

“Yes it is,” he agreed softly.

How fine it would be to live in a world without Suwraith, to live a life without fear, to have a life where only one’s hopes and dreams spurred a person forward.

As they walked along a busy boulevard, Rukh inhaled the living night. He imagined himself sparkling from its energy. The city was lit like a firefly from the lamps blazing atop their light posts, and in that moment, Ashoka seemed more vibrant than he could ever recall. It felt exuberant and ready for the impossible as groups of people flocked about with an infectious enthusiasm. Their excitement bubbled over, filling the city’s streets with wonder and hope, and in that moment, Rukh realized that while reality might be too hard for his soft desires, tonight, this beautiful place of friendship and fellowship was dream enough.

He pulled Jessira closer to him, avoiding a boisterous group of people who weren’t paying attention to those around them.

As the group passed, Jessira remained close and rested her head on his shoulder. She’d braided jasmine blossoms into her honey-blonde hair, and Rukh took in the fragrance. He loved how her natural cinnamon scent interwove with the delicate, sensuous aroma of the flowers. He kissed the top of her head.

Just then, a group of men stared a little too hard at the two of them, likely seeing a Pureblood and an OutCaste. Rukh stared back just as hard. The men quickly dropped their gazes and shuffled on their way.

“They weren’t looking for a fight,” Jessira murmured after they were out of earshot. “They were just curious.”

“How can you tell?”

Jessira looked up into his eyes. “Because whenever I go out, I always get plenty of stares. Most of the time, people are just being curious.”

“And sometimes they’re being jackholes.”

Jessira chuckled. “That sounds like something Farn would say,” she replied.

“Just because the Magisterium said the OutCastes could remain in Ashoka doesn’t mean everyone is going to welcome our people with open arms.”

“Our people?”

“I’m an honorary member, remember?” Rukh said.

Jessira smirked. “And I know how hard you fought against liking those of us from Stronghold.”

“I think you’re not recalling events correctly,” Rukh replied. “It was the people of Stronghold who attacked me, not the other way around. And here in Ashoka, we have to be careful that people don’t react to you in the same way.

“They haven’t so far, but if they did . . .” Jessira gave a tight-lipped smile. “They’d find out my sword isn’t just a decoration.”

Rukh gave her a disbelieving stare. “How is that different than what I just said?”

“Your way is more cynical,” Jessira replied.

“Sometimes the cynical way is the right way,” Rukh countered.

“And sometimes it’s a cynicism that is based on nothing more than fear, and not on truth,” Jessira answered. “Besides, like I said, I can take care of myself, but I also think you need to be more understanding of your—” She corrected herself. “Our people. How else can we hope to coexist?”

Rukh blinked as he considered her words and began to chuckle softly. When had Jessira become the voice of reason?

“Your influence must be rubbing off on me,” Jessira said in response to his unspoken question.

*****

“What a Devesh-damned disaster,” grumbled Durmer Volk, a blocky, older man in his late sixties. His affected gruff attitude had always amused Jessira, especially when it caused the younger warriors of House Shektan to stumble over themselves in order to avoid insulting ‘The Great Duriah’. Even Rukh wasn’t immune to the older man’s intimidating persona.

Jessira covered a smile when Durmer scowled. While he had always been kind to her, his generosity would likely not extend very far if he saw her amused by his anger. Then would surely come the thunder and growl for which he was famous.

Thankfully, Durmer noticed none of Jessira’s silent scrutiny. Instead, he seemed lost in thought as he stroked his thick, luxurious mustache. It was a dull gray now—sometime in the winter, he’d finally stopped coloring it—and he smoothed it along the entirety of its length as it swooped past the corners of his lips before tumbling down to his jaw.

“How can we be sure that what the Kesarins heard is the actual truth?” asked Janos Terrell. “Maybe this is all simply a misinterpretation of what they were told.” As had so often become the case, Janos was the hawk-faced voice of logic and patience in the House Council. It was a surprising role for him to have assumed, given that he’d only been elevated to his present position less than six months ago. After the twin murders of his wife, Sophy, and his daughter, Mira, by Hal’El Wrestiva, Janos had thrown himself with abandon into the destruction of the Sil Lor Kum. Given Jaresh’s absence with the Trial to Stronghold, more than anyone else, it had been Janos who had decrypted Ular Sathin’s slim volume that had described in detail the web of businesses and deceit by which the Hidden Hand had gained their wealth.

Later, when it came time to elect a replacement for an ailing Garnet Bosde, who had formally resigned his post on the House Council a few months earlier, Janos had been the natural choice. He’d accepted the honor, and as before, he’d embraced his new work with the same passion with which he’d hunted down the Sil Lor Kum. Despite the tragedy of a murdered wife and daughter, Janos had never threatened to retreat into a sheltered shell. He had remained vigorous and alive, an example from which many of the OutCastes could benefit.

Jessira found herself wondering where the man found the time or the strength. Beyond tearing down the Sil Lor Kum and becoming one of the hardest working members of the House Council, Janos had also recently adopted an orphaned niece.

“There’s no need for alarm until we can verify the facts as they’ve been presented to us thus far,” Janos added.

“I don’t see how we can verify any of this information,” said Teerma Shole. “We can’t go into the Wildness and interrogate the Baels or search amongst the Chimeras for Hal’El Wrestiva. Nor can we send a scouting force to the western breeding caverns to verify that they truly have increased their reproduction.” Her voice rose as she finished her statement.

Teerma was the newest member of the House Council. She had been elected a few months ago to replace the fallen Sophy Terrell, but her relative inexperience had never caused her to curb her tongue. She was forceful to the point of being blunt or even abrasive. Perhaps her attitude came from being widowed in her late thirties and having to raise her children on her own. It couldn’t have been easy for her.

Of course, Teerma could have made her life simpler if she’d only chosen to marry again. She was young enough and pretty enough to have done so, especially with her ample curves and womanly features, attributes that left Jessira looking on with envy. However, either Teerma hadn’t found the right person or she didn’t care to look. Regardless, as far as her work on the House Council went, she was said to be diligent and dedicated. In fact, she had already earned a reputation for such devotion to her duty that some were calling her the next Shektan Hound. It was a reference to the late Sophy Terrell, a woman who had been equally admired and loathed by House Shektan’s enemies for her unstinting hard work.

“We can verify it,” Janos replied, his voice remaining collected in the face of Teerma’s passion. “But instead of sending our warriors, we can simply ask the Kesarins to act as our eyes and ears. They can bring back the information we need.”

“But do they have the intellect to do as we require?” Teerma challenged. “You’re asking us to trust our lives and the lives of our children to what are essentially wild animals.”

Her question was met with a reflective quiet by everyone in Dar’El’s study. Jaresh and Bree sat at adjoining chairs before the fireplace and shared a brief whispered talk while Satha Shektan and Durmer remained quiet. Dar’El stood behind his desk, arms clasped behind his back and head bent in thought. Rukh, on the other hand, had arisen from his seat on the couch next to Jessira and paced to stand beside his nanna. He stared through the leaded glass windows at the gardens and wore an expression of longing.

Jessira wasn’t sure if he’d actually heard Janos and Teerma’s debate.

“They can do it,” Rukh said, answering her doubts as he turned back to face the others. “The Kesarins. There’s a way.”

Dar’El took a seat behind his desk and gestured for Rukh to return to his own as well. “Explain,” he ordered in his inimitably terse fashion.

“The Kesarins are wild, but they’re not simple animals,” Rukh began after he had returned to Jessira’s side. “They can speak and reason. You’ve all read my after action reports. They’re the reason I can Heal and the OutCaste warriors have the Talents of Caste Kumma. More importantly, some of you have spoken with Aia and her brothers. You know they aren’t dull creatures.”

I haven’t spoken with them,” Teerma muttered irritably.

Rukh quirked a half smile. “Then you’ll have to trust those of us who have.”

“I still think you’re asking us to give over too much of our future to creatures whose ultimate motivations we can’t know for certain,” Teerma replied.

“It is a lot to accept,” Satha Shektan, Rukh’s amma, said in surprising agreement. “But I also think it’s a dice roll we’ll have to take.” She leaned back in her chair. “Do we really dare do nothing if what the Kesarins say is true? Or do we take the least worst measure possible and hopefully find a way to survive Suwraith’s rage?”

“I’m not proposing we do nothing, but as Janos said, we don’t need to panic either,” Teerma said, sounding exasperated and rather impolite.

Rukh’s amma turned her gaze to the other woman and arched her eyebrows in a silent, challenging question. Though Satha was a beautiful woman who rarely raised her voice in ire, those same quiet qualities could sometimes lead a person to forget the truth about her. When needed, Rukh’s amma could be as intimidating as a bared blade, and right now, when she stared a challenge at Teerma, it was the other woman who looked away first.

“Then what do you propose?” Satha eventually asked Teerma.

“Send out a troop of scouts to the Hunters Flats and learn the truth from the lips of the Baels,” Teerma replied. There won’t be as much risk for misinterpretation. And if we send our warriors in the company of the Kesarins, the other great cats of the Flats won’t be as likely to attack our scouts.”

“The Queen can see through our Blends,” Jaresh reminded everyone. “It happened to the warriors of Stronghold. Their scouts had no chance to warn the city.”

“We only have the word of one Bael to corroborate such a fantastic claim,” Teerma said.

“A Bael who both my sons and Farn Arnicep happen to believe, and the events at Stronghold tend to confirm the Bael’s claim,” Satha replied before looking to Dar’El. “But how much of what we decide tonight will really matter?”

During most of tonight’s meeting, as was usually the case, Rukh’s nanna had listened without saying much. He had worn his typically inscrutable expression, occasionally stroking his chin or idly rubbing the ruby earring punched through the scar in his bisected left ear. Now, Dar’El rose to his feet, and while he lacked Rukh’s consummate grace, he was still a warrior in the way he moved. He remained in fighting shape, but a different sort of battle, one not involving swords, obviously occupied his mind. It was a concern reflected in his brooding eyes.

Dar’El cleared his throat and seemed to hesitate. “What we decide tonight may not matter,” he said, couching his words carefully. “We can shape the decision to come, but ultimately that decision is not ours to make. The Magisterium will be the final arbiter.”

“But whatever it is that we decide is something they’ll probably go along with,” Rukh said, rather than asked.

Jessira nodded understanding as did a few others in the room, but other members of the House Council still appeared unclear. Among them was Janos.

“I had thought we would be presenting our findings to the Chamber of Lords,” Janos said. “Our House has a high standing there, so it only makes sense. Now you’re saying that we’ll present our findings to the Magisterium. Why?”

“Because the Magisterium has ultimate jurisdiction,” Dar’El replied.

“True,” Janos agreed. “But I still fail to see why they would care what we suggest.”

“Because the three Kesarins that have chosen Humans—” Jaresh grimaced. “I hate that they think they own us.”

“They know they don’t own us,” Jessira said with a faint smile as she recalled the one time Shon had tried to order her about. It had ended with him pleading for her to rub his chin.

“At least not in the way you mean,” Rukh added. “Depending on the situation, they might treat us like we’re an older sibling or a younger one. They can behave like we’re a foolish friend who needs their protection and guidance or like an uncle or aunt who must be obeyed.”

Bree shook her head. “They sound like giant, domesticated cats,” she muttered.

Jessira laughed. “They actually admire domesticated cats,” she said. “Domesticated cats live with us and among us, but in their hearts, they’re still wild hunters.”

“And because the three giant domesticated house cats”—Bree quirked a grin—“the Kesarins with whom we have close contact also happen to have only chosen members of House Shektan as their Humans, it follows that the Magisterium would base their decision on what we recommend.”

“And what have we decided?” Janos asked.

“I think we should do as you suggested earlier,” Jaresh said. “If the Kesarins will allow it, we should attach a small pouch with paper and pencil to their necks and have the Baels answer precise questions of the simple ‘yes’ and ‘no’ variety about the nature of the coming attack.” He glanced around. “We do trust the Baels now, don’t we?”

Durmer grumbled into his mustache but finally nodded an assent, and so did Satha.

Dar’El nodded as well. “The Baels will write down their information, but we’ll have the Kesarins to confirm those findings. Any objections?” he asked, glancing about the room. Nobody voiced further disagreement. “Then that is what we’ll do,” he said, bringing the meeting to a close.

Teerma, who had been perched on her chair, grinned in delight as she rose to her feet. Her even, white teeth flashed. “Has it always been this way?” she asked as the others prepared to leave. “Has this House always been on the cusp of history, or is it only a recent occurrence?” She gestured toward Rukh, Jaresh, and Bree. “With everything these three have done in the past few years, is this the type of excitement I can look forward to as a member of the House Council?”

“Beware of a life lived in interesting times,” murmured Janos in response.

Teerma threw her head back and laughed. “But what a grand life to live!”

Jessira smiled at the other woman’s excitement, amused at how quickly Teerma’s mood shifted. A moment ago, she had been agitated and annoyed, but it hadn’t taken her long to move on to acceptance and laughter. It was a rare and admirable quality to let go of irritation and anger so easily. Rukh had that same trick, and Jessira wished she did, too.

“You’re wrong,” Rukh whispered to her. “You and I are both too stubborn to let go of our irritation so easily.”

Jessira smiled. “Some might even say I’m hot-tempered,” she said.

“Not in my hearing,” Rukh replied with a smile. His eyes flicked to Jaresh, who seemed to be listening in on their conversation.

There was a silent entreaty on Rukh’s face, and Jessira grinned, understanding his design. She made sure to stare as soulfully as possible into her husband’s eyes. She even fluttered her eyelashes. “I don’t care what the world thinks of us, so long as we have each other.”

Jaresh groaned in abject disgust.

*****

After the House Council concluded its meeting, Satha and Dar’El shared a cup of tea. He brewed it, and she stirred in the milk and sugar. It was a tradition that had developed early on in their relationship. Following any formal gathering, the two of them would afterward share a cup of tea and analyze how they thought the meeting had gone, or just as often, they would simply talk about their family. By now, it had become a decades-old custom.

Satha settled into the couch and took a sip of her tea. “Rukh and Jessira’s relationship is odd,” she noted.

Dar’El glanced at her over the lip of his cup. “How so?” he asked.

Satha took another sip of tea as she formulated her thoughts. “Have you noticed how they’ll say something or make a comment that is utterly nonsensical? It has nothing to do with the topic at hand and most often simply comes across as apropos of nothing. No one else understands what they’re talking about, and yet there is a meaning to their words. It’s just that they’re the only ones who know what it happens to be. It’s like they have their own private language.”

Dar’El smiled. “We have something like that as well.”

Satha shook her head. “We have something that approaches what Rukh and Jessira share, but it took us years of marriage to get to that point. Those two have only known one another for a couple of years.”

“But remember how much time they spent alone together in the Wildness,” Dar’El reminded her. “They’ve been traveling about like no one I’ve ever heard or read about, journeying from one end of Continent Ember to the other and back again in the space of a year. And most of that time, it was just the two of them. They had to rely on one another for everything. Such shared hardships are bound to form unfathomable bonds between two people.” He shrugged. “It was certainly the case between me and my brother warriors during my Trials.”

Dar’El’s explanation made sense, but it still struck Satha as being incomplete. His words weren’t enough to explain what she’d noticed about Rukh and Jessira. “I suppose some of that might be true,” Satha finally relented, “but I think Rukh and Jessira’s bonds go deeper than what you’re describing.”

Dar’El nodded. “Their bonds are deeper,” he agreed, “but the two of them have something I never had with my brother warriors: they’ve loved one another completely and totally almost from the first.”

“And it took us years to get to that point as well,” Satha reminded him with a half smile.

Dar’El chuckled. “I’m trying to imagine what we would feel for one another if we had also shared the dangers of the Trials,” he said. “Words fail.”

“Are you jealous?”

“No,” Dar’El said with a warm smile. “I have you. What need do I have to be jealous.” He drew Satha toward him, and she nestled against his chest. “Does this set your mind at ease about our son and his wife?”

“I was never worried about them,” Satha said

“You sounded worried.”

“Having interest in something inexplicable isn’t the same as worry.”

“Then what were you worried about?” Dar’El asked. His eyes twinkled.

Satha let him see her eye roll. “I already told you,” she said in mild exasperation. “Rukh and Jessira have this innate ability to communicate, one that doesn’t require words, and yet, it might even be more accurate than spoken language.” She frowned, unaccountably irritated with Dar’El. “You truly haven’t noticed?” she asked.

Dar’El shook his head. “I suppose I might have noticed something,” he allowed. “But I also didn’t pay it as much attention as you seem to have.”

“Watch them next time they’re together, and you’ll see what I mean,” Satha urged.

Dar’El nodded. “I will,” he promised. “Now tell me what you think about the Kesarins.”

Satha’s lips thinned. She didn’t share Janos and Teerma’s uncertainty about the reliability of the Kesarins. She believed they had spoken the truth. “I think we’re in trouble.”

“And yet, two summers ago, Rukh carried a very similar tale to us of Suwraith planning a strike against Ashoka,” Dar’El countered. “How do we know this isn’t a similar false alarm?”

Satha snorted. “We both know your question is rhetorical,” she replied. “If you truly believed that, you wouldn’t have so drastically reduced House Shektan’s investments in the upcoming spring Trials. You made those reductions in funding even before the Kesarins came to us with their information.”

“It isn’t just a decrease in investment,” Dar’El said. “We’ve also been stockpiling supplies.”

“You’re certain that Suwraith can see a person’s Jivatma?” Satha asked. “Even through a Blend?” It was a question they had both wrestled with accepting ever since they’d learned of the possibility from Rukh. If true, the information was devastating. Any Trial sent out would face sudden and immediate destruction from the Sorrow Bringer. There would be no chance for the warriors to defend themselves against Her devastating fury.

Satha shivered. If the Queen truly possessed such an ability, then it would mean the end of their way of life. The Trials would be over. The cities would become solitary and isolated with no more sharing of new knowledge and skills. It would be the end of their civilization.

“I am certain enough,” Dar’El answered. “You know as well as I that the Magisterium and Chamber of Lords have interviewed many of the OutCastes on the nature of their army in Stronghold. The only means by which the Chimeras could have approached so close without any warning would have been if Suwraith had killed all their scouts. And the only means by which She could have managed that is if She could, in fact, see through a Blend.”

“Which is also why you think She’ll come here.”

“Yes.”

Satha sighed and kissed Dar’El on the forehead. “What a terrible future our children face.”

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