Chapter 7: Discoveries

Chapter 7: Discoveries

Mysteries of a man,
His voice a honeyed web.
Entraps you in his truths
Of offered devotion.

Daylight and the Moon by Deside, AF 511

“Why don’t we come here more often?” Jessira asked after the hostess had seated them at a small, private booth toward the back of Masala Pull. It was one of their favorite restaurants, and in her mind, it served the finest fare in all of Ashoka: a fusion of Muran and Rahail cuisine. The food at Masala Pull had never disappointed her.

Jessira glanced around. It was still early in the evening, but already the restaurant was alive with young couples and a few families. In this, its popularity, as well as its appearance, Masala Pull was the same as it had been when she’d first visited Ashoka almost two years ago. The walls were a warm terra cotta wash, and a high ceiling with its multitude of chandeliers provided a light, airy feel. The tabletops consisted of vibrantly colored mosaic tiles arranged into various scenes of Ashokan life, but what Jessira appreciated the most were the mouth-watering aromas filling the air.

“We come here often enough,” Rukh said. “But I thought tonight could be special. No family. Just the two of us.”

“But why tonight?” Jessira asked. “Did I forget an anniversary?” Rukh had a habit of celebrating even the most inconsequential of events. It was a sometimes aggravating habit, but generally Jessira found it sweet and sentimental.

Rukh’s eyes tightened for the briefest of instances in response to Jessira’s question before he seemed to force a smile. “No. I just wanted some time alone with you. We’ve both been so busy. Me with getting the Trims ready for the Wrath and Hellfire Week, and you with settling in the OutCastes. I just thought it would be nice if we could have an evening together.” He tried to affect a nonchalant expression, but his face appeared pinched and tight.

Jessira’s eyes narrowed. Rukh was a terrible liar. She had forgotten something. He had brought her here for a specific reason, but for the life of her, she couldn’t imagine what it was. And she could tell her lack of understanding was disappointing to Rukh.

Before she could divine what she’d forgotten, dinner arrived. It was cubed chunks of chicken swimming in a spicy, buttery sauce with mustard seeds and served upon a bed of fragrant jasmine rice. A sweet, white wine with a slight hint of lemon zest served as an accompaniment.

Jessira would have enjoyed simply immersing herself in the lush meal, but the reason why she and Rukh were at Masala Pull grated on her thoughts. She couldn’t enjoy herself without knowing why tonight was so important to Rukh. It had to be something significant, or he wouldn’t have tried so heroically to hide his disappointment.

She tried to see things as he might. His last consequential anniversary had been a few months ago. He’d gone out with Farn to celebrate the the anniversary of the two men’s very first Trial, the one to Nestle when they’d marched forth from Ashoka as Virgins, and all their lives had changed forever.

Jessira inhaled sharply. Was that it? Some months after Rukh had left for Nestle, might mean . . . “Tonight is the anniversary of the first night we met,” she said.

A brief smile stole across Rukh’s face. “And,” he prodded.

Jessira glanced at her food, and the rest of the answer came to her. “And this meal—even the wine—is the same as I had the first time you brought me here,” Jessira said in a rush.

Rukh’s sunbeam smile of happiness was her answer that she had guessed correctly.

Jessira couldn’t believe he had remembered the anniversary of their first meeting or had arranged for tonight’s wonderful meal at Masala Pull. For a moment, tears threatened to fill her eyes as she was overcome by Rukh’s thoughtfulness.

He took her hands in his. “Happy anniversary,” Rukh said. He held her gaze with his. “And Jessira?”

He continued to hold her hands and stare into her eyes, and her heart beat faster as Rukh leaned forward. “Yes?” she replied, knowing she sounded a little breathless.

He kissed her, soft and tender before pulling away. “Try not to make those . . . noises you make when you really like your food. We don’t want to overwhelm the delicate sensibilities of some nearby matrons.”

Jessira’s eyes widened with shock. What the—? She remembered what Rukh and Bree had said the first time she’d eaten here. Rukh had leaned back in his chair and was wearing an insufferable smile. Jessira threw her napkin at his grinning face.

Rukh laughed, and Jessira tried to glower at him, but he just laughed harder. Eventually, she couldn’t help but laugh with him. “Happy anniversary yourself,” Jessira said in mock irritation.

“I’m sorry,” Rukh said, sounding not the least bit contrite. “But the look on your face was priceless.”

“Well get used to this look,” Jessira said, still affecting annoyance. “Especially when we get home and you want to celebrate our anniversary properly.”

Rukh took her hands again. “I’d rather take a walk in Dryad Park with you,” he said.

His statement was like a douter, snuffing out the last of Jessira’s lingering irritation. She found herself smiling. “You’re not worried about what people might say?” she teased.

Rukh smiled. “Let them,” he said. “I think we can handle anything that might come our way. We have so far.”

“And we always will,” Jessira promised. When Rukh leaned forward once again, she met him over the middle of the table and kissed him.

After dinner, they left Masala Pull and strolled to Dryad Park. Jessira let Rukh lead the way into Ashoka’s green soul. They found themselves cupped within the embrace of low-lying hills on all sides, except to the east where the Adamantine Cliffs plunged to the Sickle Sea. Though it was twilight, there was still a small group of elderly men finishing up a final round of chess. On past them, Jessira and Rukh walked beneath firefly globes hanging from the broad branches of the thick-trunked trees lining the winding walkways. The lights softened the paths with glorious hues of rose, gold, lavender, and violet.

Deeper into the park, the trails were all but empty, except for a few other couples taking an evening stroll. However, a few more twisty turns later, there was no one else about. Jessira exhaled softly in happiness. The setting was romantic and exactly what she needed. Her relationship with Rukh had so often been marked with danger and strife, so much fear and worry. It was good to share a moment where it was just the two of them, and there was no impending danger or incipient terror.

She smiled, remembering the first time Rukh had brought her here. How could he not have realized that showing her this place so late at night would have been interpreted in the worst possible way by everyone else? She glanced at him.

Rukh looked at her with eyebrows raised. “What was I thinking bringing you here?” he asked, guessing her thoughts. “You mean now, or the first time?”

“The first time.”

He laughed. “Apparently, not much,” he replied. “Otherwise, I might have actually realized what people would say when they learned we’d taken a late night stroll through Dryad Park.”

“Do you regret it?”

“Not anymore,” he said with a smile.

It was the right answer. Jessira took Rukh’s hand, put it on her waist, and pressed herself close to him.

Rukh took her to the center of the park, stopping at the crest of a small bridge spanning a gurgling stream. Lichen-covered stone pillars held up the span, and croaking frogs crooned into the night. A breeze carried the salty scent of the sea.

“This is the same bridge, isn’t it?” Jessira asked.

Rukh nodded. “It’s the same one I brought you to during our first walk here.”

Jessira leaned against the wooden railing. “It’s still like a dream,” she whispered.

“It took decades to make it look like this,” Rukh replied.

“I remember what you told me about this place,” she replied with a grin. “I also remember wondering what it would be like to kiss you that night.”

“You did?” Rukh asked, sounding surprised.

“I wondered,” Jessira clarified. “But only a little. I was engaged, after all,” she said primly.

Rukh looked into her eyes. “And now?” he asked.

Jessira laughed and put her arms around his neck. “And now, I’m married.”

*****

“Can you still hear Aia?” Jessira asked.

Rukh cocked his head and sent out a calling to the Kesarin. There was no answer. “No,” he said. “Can you hear Shon?”

Jessira shook her head. “The furthest I can hear him is about a half day’s travel away.”

“I can hear Aia a little further than that,” Rukh said. “Closer to a full day’s journey.”

“Really?” Jessira asked.

Rukh nodded, wondering why Jessira was suddenly eyeing him like he’d said something stupid or offensive. “She and I have been together longer than you and Shon,” he explained. And Aia was also smarter and stronger than Jessira’s Kesarin.

“You know it’s not a competition?” Jessira asked.

“I was just telling you how far away I can hear Aia,” Rukh protested. “It’s called being accurate.”

“Uh huh,” Jessira said, not sounding convinced. “I think what you mean to say is that it’s called bragging.”

“I wasn’t bragging. I was just telling you how far my bond with Aia reaches,” Rukh continued to protest. Jessira still wore a look of skepticism. “You asked,” he said.

Her lips turned down into a frown. “Forget I said anything,” she muttered.

Rukh rolled his eyes. What had Jessira so bothered tonight? He was about to return to his fruitless study of The Book of First Movement—as usual, the slim tome refused to give up its secrets—but something in Jessira’s posture told him that whatever had her upset had little to do with what he had just said. “You’re worried about Shon,” he guessed.

She nodded. “He’s young, and I know he’s come far this winter, but I’m worried about him.”

“He is a Kesarin. He’s one of the deadliest hunters in all of Arisa. He’ll be fine. There’s nothing he needs to fear.”

“He should fear the Queen.”

Rukh was about to launch into a series of comforting but meaningless bromides when he realized how asinine and useless they would be. Something more serious was bothering Jessira. “Why would She even notice him?”

“Because of the pouch of papers around his neck,” Jessira said. “If it catches the Sorrow Bringer’s notice, She’ll know some of the Kesarins are allied to Humanity. Who knows what She’ll do to them afterward.”

Rukh rose from the dining table and walked to where Jessira sat on the couch. He settled next to her. “Aia has an identical pouch,” he said softly.

“And you should be just as worried for her.”

“I am,” Rukh said.

“Then why did you allow her to carry something that could be traced back to Humanity?” Jessira cried, turning to face him.

“If you haven’t noticed, the Kesarins have their own minds. They aren’t ours to command.”

“But we didn’t have to tell them what the Magisterium planned,” Jessira argued. “It’s why I didn’t mind when the House Council made the suggestion that they did. I figured we just wouldn’t tell the Kesarins, and that would be that.”

“But they found out anyway,” Rukh said. “Aia and the others speak to us, mind to mind, but I think the bond that each one shares with us is deeper than we realize. It might even be deeper than the Kesarins themselves understand. I think when Aia says I am her Human, there’s something much more profound at work.”

“What do you mean?” Jessira asked.

“I think when a Kesarin chooses a Human, they bond more closely with us than even they realize. I mean, before Aia, none of them had ever sought out a Human’s company.”

“What does this have to do with the Kesarins learning about the Magisterium’s decision?”

“I think the Kesarins can understand what we’re thinking even if we don’t ‘speak’ it to their minds.”

“You think Shon knew my thoughts even when I didn’t mean to tell him what the Magisterium wanted?”

“I never told Aia, and Jaresh never told Thrum, and if you didn’t tell Shon, then it only makes sense that they must have somehow learned it on their own.” Rukh answered.

“I’m still worried about them,” Jessira said.

“I wouldn’t be,” Rukh said. “Their kind has hunted the Flats for two thousand years, and the Queen has never sought them out before.”

“I suppose not,” Jessira murmured, sounding somewhat mollified. “What if someone else spoke to them?” she asked, returning to her original area of concern.

Rukh shook his head in negation. “I asked Aia how she knew what the Magisterium wanted, and she just laughed and said something about her silly Human not being able hide anything from her,” he replied. “No one else told them.”

Jessira leaned back into the couch and frowned. “I don’t like the idea of Shon snooping around in my mind without my permission,” she said.

“I think it’s too late for that,” Rukh said with a chuckle. “The first time I met Aia, she said you smelled like my mate. Even then, she apparently knew my heart better than I did.”

“Which means she must have chosen you a long time before she actually approached our camp.”

“I suppose so.”

They settled into a silence. “I’m surprised at you,” Jessira said a moment later. “If Aia was right, then after only knowing me for a few weeks, you’d already fallen in love with a ghrina. What would your people say if they knew?”

“Weren’t you the one who wanted to kiss me when I first took you to Dryad Park even though you were engaged to someone else?”

Jessira shrugged. “It’s not even close to the same,” she said. “I just wanted to kiss you, not mate with you.”

“That’s not exactly what Aia said,” Rukh corrected.

Jessira arched her eyebrows. “But my interpretation is funnier.”

“I don’t know if your interpretation is funnier, but given that you’re an OutCaste, you’re definitely funnier looking.”

Jessira hit him in the head with a pillow.

Somehow, they ended up wrestling with Jessira lying on top of him. She had a hold of both his ears. “Say you’re sorry,” she growled.

Rukh stared into her eyes, getting lost in their green depths. He inhaled her cinnamon scent and leaned closer . . . A tug on his ears returned his attention to the here and now. “I’m sorry,” he said. She let go of his ears. “That you’re funny looking.”

That earned him another pillow smack, but he blocked the second blow and trapped her hands.

“I mean it. I really am sorry this time for what I said,” he said with a shameless grin.

Jessira shook her head in disbelief and climbed off of him. “Priya,” she said, making the word sound like a curse. “Why did I have to fall in love with such an incorrigible man?”

“I said I’m sorry,” Rukh added.

“Well thank you for that,” Jessira said, her voice filled with sarcasm.

“And I am sorry that you look—”

“Rukh,” she warned.

“—like you’ll need to change your clothes if you still plan on going out with my sister, Sign, and Laya.”

Jessira groaned. “I forgot.”

She made to stand but Rukh pulled her back down on top of him. “You know I think you’re beautiful,” he said. “Even if you went dressed in those torn up camouflage clothes from when we first met, you’d still be the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known.”

Jessira’s annoyance with him seemed to abate, and she smiled. It was like sunshine clearing a cloud. “Why do you spend so much time irritating me and then say something so lovely afterward?”

“It’s not intentional,” Rukh explained, although it mostly was. “And there’s no one else in this world I want to tease and kiss at the same time.”

Jessira rolled her eyes. “Incorrigible,” she repeated in a mutter before kissing him and sitting up. “Are you sure you don’t mind that I’m having dinner with Sign, Bree, and Laya and leaving you alone tonight?” she asked.

Rukh sat up as well. “I don’t mind,” he answered. “Besides, Jaresh and Farn are coming over, remember?”

“I forgot that,” Jessira answered. Her brows furrowed in thought a moment later. “When I first met your cousin, I never thought I’d end up liking him so much,” she said. “It’s hard to believe how grateful I am to him now, especially with how he’s helped with Laya’s baby.”

“He certainly is devoted to little Court,” Rukh said in a careful tone. He didn’t add his suspicion that Farn was equally devoted to Laya herself since that was all just a guess on his part. It made sense, though, at least to Rukh. The way Farn talked about Laya, went on about her was in the manner of a man in love with a woman.

“Why is he so devoted?” Jessira asked, interrupting his thoughts. “I never would have expected it of him.”

“He says that before Cedar died, he asked him to look after Laya,” Rukh explained, keeping the majority of his suspicions to himself. “Farn promised he would, and so he has.”

Jessira startled. She’d obviously never heard that before. “Why did Cedar ask Farn? Why not ask one of us? His family?”

“Cedar was dying,” Rukh said quietly, treading softly. Even though Jessira was the one who had brought up the subject, he didn’t want to raise painful memories. “There was no time for him to ask anyone else.”

“Well, I’m glad it turned out to be Farn. He’s a good man.”

*****

Jessira ended up staying out later that she intended with Bree, Sign, and Laya. First, they’d gone to see a play, which was a new experience for Laya, and afterward, they had dinner and a long night of talking at a coffee house. As a result, it was late when Jessira got home, and she was surprised to find Rukh still awake.

He was stretched out on the couch and reading a book. For a wonder it wasn’t The Book of First Movement.

“I thought you’d be asleep by now,” Jessira said when she entered the flat.

“Farn and Jaresh just left a little while ago,” Rukh replied. “After I straightened up, I just wasn’t ready for sleep.” He held up the volume in his hands. “I thought I’d do some light reading.”

Jessira studied the book he held. It was a well-worn copy of Sooths and Small Sayings by Tramed Billow. She shook her head. Only Rukh would consider Sooths light reading.

She sat down next to him and slipped the book from his hands. “Can we talk about something?” she asked.

Rukh eyed her with curiosity. “About what?” he asked, sitting up.

“Sign wants to start training for the Ashokan Guard, maybe even the High Army. She’s not the only OutCaste who wants to, either.”

“You?” Rukh asked, not sounding surprised.

Jessira nodded.

“Who else?”

“A few others. Men and women alike.”

Rukh appeared puzzled. “Why?” he asked.

Jessira sighed. “So that we can have a sense of purpose,” she replied. “A life has no meaning without purpose, and not all of us can pick up a new trade or become farmers.”

“But why do you want to train?” Rukh asked. “You already have a purpose. You’re helping the OutCastes settle into Ashoka. You and Bree.”

“Maybe so,” Jessira replied, “but that part of my life is also coming to an end. I did what I had to for the other OutCastes because there was no one else who could do the task as well as I could. No one else was as familiar with Ashoka or with the politics of the city and the Castes. My people don’t need me for that anymore. Most of them have managed to figure out the next step in their lives, and I need to do the same. I want to return to the one profession where I felt like I was doing exactly what I’d always been meant to do. I want to go back to being a warrior.”

“There are other paths a person can take,” Rukh said. He wore a troubled, unhappy expression. “The old stories about how everyone has a single, solitary skill they were meant to exercise just isn’t true. It’s a lie, and there’s so much more you can do with your life other than being a warrior.”

Jessira crossed her arms across her chest and tried to hold in her irritation. Why was Rukh so opposed to what she thought was a simple request? “Maybe in the future, I can do those other things,” she said, “but right now, I want to be a warrior. Besides, you’re like no one I’ve ever known when it comes to using a sword. Would you really give it up?”

“I am good with a sword, and I do love it,” Rukh said, “but I train so hard because duty requires it. It isn’t because I want to fight and kill. Not anymore. One of my fondest dreams would be to practice the art of the sword but never have to use the application of the sword.” His jaw briefly clenched. “Even more, I would love to see a world where you could do so as well. And with all the death we’ve seen, I’m surprised you still want to pursue that life when other choices are open to you.”

“The Queen is coming,” Jessira said. She took his hands in hers and stared him in the eyes, wanting him to understand her meaning and her passion. “You can’t shelter me from Her. You can’t shelter any of us. Sign and the other OutCastes don’t seek out the life of the warrior because of some great desire to kill. None of us do. They do so for the same reason that you do: because duty demands it. Protecting and defending those we love is what gives us the greatest meaning to our lives. We aren’t farmers or artisans. We’re warriors.” Her lips thinned. “Maybe in some happy future, we can be something else, but not now.”

“And that’s why you want to pick up the sword once again?”

“I never put my blade away,” Jessira answered. “Not really. I’m a warrior. It’s who I have always wanted to be. Who I still am.”

Rukh pulled her close, and she settled against his torso, her back to him. “All right,” he said in agreement, although she still heard the doubt in his voice.

They sat quietly, and Rukh idly stroked her forearms. The flat was quiet, as was the world outside.

It was a noiselessness that Jessira ended. “I fight because it is the best way I know how to serve. I don’t want to kill,” she said, picking up her explanation once again. “I want to defend the people we love, the ones who can’t protect themselves against the Chimeras.”

“Service,” Rukh said. “That’s what you’re really talking about.”

Jessira nodded. “In Stronghold, service to the community was the ideal to which we all aspired, be it as a laborer or as a leader. It’s what I believe is true. I’m not as smart as some or as pure-hearted as others, but I can fight. I can protect those who need protection. For me, I can best offer service by wielding my sword in defense of our people.”

“I understand,” Rukh said with a heavy exhalation.

Jessira was both disappointed and frustrated to sense his lingering reluctance. “And?” she persisted in as patient a tone as she could manage.

“And I’ll find out what we can do for any of the OutCastes who want to learn to fight,” Rukh answered.

His reluctance seemed to have abated, and Jessira mouthed a silent prayer of gratitude that Rukh was willing to see reason. “And what about those of us who are already trained warriors?” she asked.

“You’re trained warriors of Stronghold, but that isn’t good enough for Ashokan standards,” Rukh answered. “All of you, both the ones who are already warriors and the ones who are new to the sword, will need to be instructed as we would young Kummas. You need to master your new Talents.”

“Thank you,” she breathed in relief.

“Don’t thank me yet. You’ll likely have to study alongside the youth of various Kumma Houses.” Rukh said. Jessira could sense him smiling. “The individual Martial Masters of each House are all very much like Durmer Volk.”

Jessira sniffed. There it was again. Rukh and every young Shektan warrior’s fear of the so-called Great Duriah. “I don’t know why all of you seem to think Durmer is so terrifying,” Jessira said, rolling over to face him. “He’s nothing but a kind, old man.”

Rukh shook his head as if in pity. “Just wait until your technique has to meet his standards. Then tell me then if he’s a ‘kind, old man’.”

“I trained with him before,” Jessira said. “Remember? The last time I was in Ashoka.”

“That was when he was training an OutCaste. This time he’s training a warrior of House Shektan. He won’t go nearly as easy on you.”

Jessira made of moue of disagreement, certain he was exaggerating.

Rukh held up his hands, suing for peace. “Fine. Learn it on your own, but by the end of a week, you’ll be wishing you’d paid more attention to what I warned you about.”

Jessira shrugged. It was a worry for another time. “When do you suppose we can get started?”

“I need to ask Nanna to help me arrange it,” Rukh answered. “But I imagine it’ll be sometime after the Wrath and Hellfire Week.”

“About six weeks from now then,” Jessira said in satisfaction.

“And what do I get for doing all of this?” Rukh asked, a knowing glint in his eyes.

“The blessed, untroubled sleep of someone who did the right thing,” Jessira said with a grin.

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