Chapter Twelve: Opportunity
Jelana’s voice drifted up the stairs, calling Adrie and Fia to breakfast. Adesina sighed softly and got up from her chair. She was about to walk out of the room when something outside her window caught her eye.
There was a small bird with a red string tied to its leg. It flew up and landed on her windowsill. Adesina cautiously approached the bird and removed the string. It immediately flew away. The string laid in Adesina’s hand, and she looked as if it were a problem she’d rather not face.
It was a prearranged signal between herself and Kendan. It meant that they were to meet as soon as possible. This, of course, would mean breaking her promise to Ravi. She stood conflicted for several minutes, staring at the string in her hand and turning the situation over in her mind.
On one hand, she had promised Ravi that she would only go to school today. On the other hand, she had her duties as a Shimat, and Ravi understood her obligations.
Adesina closed her hand into a fist, her mind made up. She gathered her things together and calmly walked down the stairs. Jelana scolded her mildly for keeping breakfast waiting and urged them to hurry so they wouldn’t be late. She and Fia were met at the gate by their usual companions, and they walked to school together as they did every other day. Just before they reached the school, however, Adesina turned to Gainor with an expression of panic on her face.
“I left something important at home. I must go back for it.”
Both Deasa and Rina looked ready to ask some concerned questions, but Gainor simply laughed at Adrie’s absentmindedness and waved a petite hand.
“Hurry back. I will explain to Master Nabil.”
Adesina jogged away without looking back. She slipped along the back streets, away from the prying eyes of the city. She kept her quick pace until she arrived at the small grate in the western wall.
A survey of the surrounding area told her that it was safe for her to exit the city through this unnoticed hole in the wall. Adesina crawled through, covered it behind her, and stood with her back against the wall, preparing for the dash to the cover of the forest. It wasn’t just a matter of getting to the trees quickly. She had to run unseen by the sentries. She had never yet been caught, but it took all of her focus and skill.
Adesina sat in a crouch with her eyes closed, imagining a swift wind sweeping close to the ground. This was another trick she had learned in the early years of her Shimat training. She was not sure how it worked, but it had never failed her. Adesina imagined that she was one with the wind, that her steps were aided by its strength and speed.
A quick glance told her that there were no guards looking in her direction, so she immediately sprinted towards the forest. Whether it was a trick of her mind or a reality, it seemed to Adesina that she was running even faster and quieter than what her Shimat skills normally allowed.
She was soon safe in the cover of the trees, and paused to catch her breath. She reoriented herself to which direction she needed to go and continued on her way. Adesina walked deeper into the forest until she reached the hidden cave. She studied her surroundings carefully to make sure she wasn’t being watched and then entered the cave by crawling on her stomach.
Kendan was waiting for her, seated at the far end of the small cave with a small lantern by his side. He stood as he greeted her with a wide smile. Adesina ignored the irregular rhythm that her heart beat at the sight of him and returned the smile halfheartedly, anxious for him to get down to business.
He handed her a scroll, which she quickly unrolled. Her eyes scanned the words before her and then darted back up to Kendan’s grinning face, hardly able to believe what she had read.
Kendan laughed and threw his arms around her. “Congratulations, Adesina.”
She returned the embrace with a breathless laugh of her own. Her mind wavered between the sensations she experience from the feeling of his arms around her and the elation of having her first assignment. “But you said that it would probably be another year before my standing in the High City was secure enough to risk any sort of mission.”
He pulled back just far enough to study her flushed features. “I suppose the Sharifal changed her mind.” His expression became more serious. He released the embrace in order to hold her firmly by the shoulders. “You have earned this honor, Adesina, and I am proud of you.”
Kendan’s face hovered close to Adesina’s, his eyes silently questioning hers. He looked as if he wanted to say something else, but instead he cleared his throat and stepped away. Her heart was pounding so loud she was sure Kendan could hear it. In order to cover the noise, she began talking in a hurried voice.
“Is this all the information I will need?”
She knew the answer before Kendan gave it.
“Yes, of course.”
Adesina busied her eyes with the scroll, but soon her preoccupation became genuine.
She was to kidnap a man.
The scroll detailed times and locations of where this man could be found. It gave a rough description of the man’s physical appearance, focusing mainly on what the man would be wearing, which was definitely unlike anything worn by everyday citizens of the High City. Adesina frowned and looked up at Kendan. “This is to be executed tomorrow.”
He nodded. “I know.”
“How does the Sharifal expect me to be successful with so little preparation time?”
Kendan gestured to the scroll. “It does not require much preparation. You will not be on your own in this mission.”
Adesina continued reading. Her instructions were to incapacitate the man as quickly as possible and turn him over to another Shimat. A time for this exchange and location within the High City were also given.
“How are you going to get another Shimat into the High City in order to transport this man out?”
A brief smile crossed Kendan’s face. “You are not the only Shimat in the High City.”
She stared at him in shock. “What?”
Even when Kendan repeated himself, Adesina couldn’t believe her ears. “Who is it?”
He raised an eyebrow. “You know I cannot answer that. This Shimat is well placed and we cannot risk discovery.”
Her eyes narrowed. “If you already have a Shimat in the High City, then why am I there?”
“Every Shimat serves a different purpose. Location is merely a means to that purpose.”
The young woman sighed, suddenly feeling weary, unaccustomed to such a flurry of emotion. “So I am to kidnap this man and turn him over to another Shimat?”
Her companion looked disturbed by her tone. “Yes, but please be careful. It may seem simple to you, but this man is highly dangerous. He is a cult leader, and he uses fear, uncertainty and lies to control those around him. Avoid direct contact with him if at all possible.”
Adesina smiled at the concern in Kendan’s voice. “I will be cautious.”
He grabbed her hand to prevent her from leaving. “He is a magic-user, Adesina. And he will use those skills against you if he has a chance.”
The smile faded from her face. “Are they really so dangerous?”
A haunted expression flickered in Kendan’s eyes. “The forest we passed through on the way to the High City, that was the work of magic-users. They plant ideas in your mind, make it difficult to know what is real and what is imagined.”
Adesina nodded slowly. “I understand.”
She handed the scroll back to Kendan and waited until he burned it. They stood in silence for a few moments, looking at each other in uncertainty. Then, as she started to turn away again, he grabbed her wrist once more and pulled her back to him. This time he wrapped one arm around her waist to press her close, and the other hand grabbed the back of her neck to bring her into a passionate kiss. His lips were hot against hers, and her mind spun as she kissed him back.
After a few blissful moments, they parted. Kendan breathed in the scent of her hair and murmured, “Be careful.”
Adesina wasn’t sure what she said in return, her thoughts were so muddled. She turned and crawled out of the cave, stumbling more than once as she got to her feet. Unable to express her happiness with a shout, she settled for running through the trees.
She could see nothing but Kendan’s face before her, and could not force herself to think of anything else. She ran in circles for a while, reveling in the giddiness she felt. Unfortunately, such self-absorbed elation could not last in her Shimat-trained mind. She turned in the direction of the High City and began running, this time to make up for the time she had wasted earlier.
The cool air helped in settling her thoughts back to the task at hand. Dreams of Kendan would have to wait for after her assignment.
This was a mission that would require particular care. Not just because her target was so dangerous, but also because Adesina had to find a way to capture this man without being seen by the people who were supposed to be serving as her alibi.
She slipped through the grate and rushed to the school, arriving just in time for the lunch break. Her friends waved at her with expressions of relief on their faces.
“Where have you been?” demanded Gainor.
“We were deciding whether or not to come after you,” said Deasa.
“We were so worried,” added Rina.
Adesina gave a careless laugh. “Why were you worried? It is not as if anything could happen to me while in the High City.”
The girls exchanged glances. “Well,” muttered Rina, “it is the spring.”
Adesina frowned. “What do you mean?”
Gainor got the look in her eye that said she was about to share a juicy piece of information. “Spring is when the traders come to the High City.”
Gainor nodded. “Yes! Outsiders that come into the High City to trade.”
Adesina had noticed that, in spite of the High City’s aversion to Outsiders, they did a lot of trading. In fact, they relied so heavily on outside resources that they probably could not survive at all if that trading ceased.
The young Shimat had a sudden realization. She had wondered about the description of the man she was to kidnap, but now it made sense. Her target was an Outsider.
Rina misinterpreted the expression on Adesina’s face and placed a comforting hand on her arm. “You do not need to be afraid, though. They are not allowed beyond the Square, and they are watched closely.”
She was spared the need to answer by the approach of Aleron.
“Adrie! Are you going to the shop today?”
Adesina nodded absently. “Yes, of course.”
His face lit up with his sunny smile. “Great. I will meet you by the gate after school.”
She tried to ignore the significant glances passing between her friends as Aleron walked away. Apparently it was impossible for them to imagine a normal friendship between a boy and a girl.
The bell rang for them to return to class. Adesina sat at her desk for the remainder of the school day with her mind far away. She went over all of the information given to her and coupled it with what she knew of the High City. A number of plans began forming in her head, each with back-ups and variations. Some she had to dismiss due to a lack of time and materials, others proved too complicated. She was still filtering through them when class ended.
Adesina met Aleron by the gate, and they began walking towards the Square. He chatted as they walked, but Adesina had a hard time paying attention.
“Adrie, did you hear what I said?”
Aleron laughed. “I thought not.”
She forced a brief smile. “I am sorry, Aleron. I am a bit preoccupied today.”
He grinned. “Yes, I noticed. I could have blurted out my deepest, darkest secret, and you would not have even reacted.”
The Shimat rolled her eyes. “Even on a normal day, I doubt you would have any secrets that merit a reaction.”
Aleron looked skeptical. “I am sure I could think of something to shock you.”
Now Adesina’s smile was unfeigned. “You really think so?”
He appraised her with a glance. “I can see that you do not.”
She shrugged. “You have lived in the High City your entire life, Aleron. Your life experience is limited. What could you possibly know about deep, dark secrets?”
His earnest brown eyes searched her face. “Do you?”
Adesina immediately became wary, but she kept her voice light. “Do I what?”
“Know about life’s deep, dark secrets?”
She gave a careless laugh. “Well, I definitely know more than you.”
Aleron looked as if he were about to pursue the topic, but changed his mind. “What a surprise,” he said jokingly. “You always know more than me. No matter what we are talking about.”
Adesina shrugged again. “I cannot help that I am smarter than you.”
They both laughed, and the subject was dropped.
“How is your mother?”
Aleron looked surprised at the new direction their conversation was taking. “Fine,” he replied automatically. After another moment he added, “As always.”
She gave him a questioning glance. “You say that as if it were a bad thing.”
He quickly shook his head. “No, of course not. It is just…”
“What?” she urged.
He sighed heavily. “I feel so restless here. Day after day, month after month, year after year, everything is the same. I suppose it is not so difficult for someone who has grown up here, but you have seen all that the world has to offer. Do you not get tired of the monotony?”
Adesina’s cover story automatically formed into a response. “Yes, I have seen what the world has to offer: murder, slavery, hatred, corruption…”
Aleron looked troubled by her reply. “It cannot be all bad,” he reasoned. “Surely there are things that you miss.”
She found herself thinking of all the things she had left behind at the Shimat fortress. It was true that there were things she missed, especially when confronted with the everyday drudgery of the High City.
He studied her face with his unnervingly perceptive gaze. Adesina often had the uncomfortable feeling that Aleron knew more than what he let on. Sometimes she was certain that he saw right through her disguise. This feeling had become more and more frequent of late. His gaze was always open and frank, but surprisingly difficult for Adesina to read, which disturbed her.
She had begun wondering whether or not to mention him to Kendan. If her cover was blown, her Shimat contact needed to know about it.
“I suppose there are some things that I miss,” she said hurriedly to hide her discomfort, “but I do not regret my decision to come to the High City.”
Aleron shrugged, trying to appear casual. “I just feel that you and I are meant for something greater.”
She couldn’t bring herself to argue with him when deep down she felt exactly the same way. She thought about her response carefully before putting it into words. “I am here because I need to be here. There are certain times in life where we are required to give up what we want for what needs to be done.”
He nodded thoughtfully but didn’t say anything. By this time they had arrived at the Square. They parted and each went to their separate shops.Hass was nowhere to be seen, but he had left a list of things that he wanted Adrie to finish by the end of the day. Adesina looked around the empty room. It seemed larger than usual, and unnaturally silent. She looked over her shoulder, half expecting to see Ravi appear in the doorway, but no one was there. She chided herself for being so foolish and went to work.