Chapter Two: Lives of the Fortress
It seemed to Adesina that she had only just closed her eyes when she heard the bell toll, signaling the time to rise. The clear resonating tones reached every corner of the fortress, keeping every Shi punctual.
With a heavy sigh, Adesina rolled out of her cot and straightened it to its normal, tidy state. She walked over to the washstand, splashed some cold water on her tired eyes, and began preparing for the day. She put on her loose, dark grey training clothes and tied back her long straight hair.
Like her eyes, Adesina’s hair was unusual in color. It was a silver so lustrous that it could not be mistaken for grey in any light. The locks that framed her face, however, were black.
A quick glance in the mirror showed Adesina that all was in proper order. She made a small adjustment in the tie of her belt, but nothing else seemed amiss. She allowed her eyes to stray from the details of her clothing and take in the rest of her appearance.
She was a bit undersized due to the extreme physical toll of her training, but she was not disproportional. She was slender but strong, pale but healthy. A light sprinkling of freckles dusted the bridge of her nose, and her almond-shaped eyes were narrowed in a speculative gaze. She tried to decide if she was beautiful, but had no frame of reference with which to judge.
Her gaze lingered on her hair and her eyes, the two features that seemed to isolate her from the rest of humankind. She had never been given a satisfactory explanation as to why she looked so different from everyone else. It set her apart—made her feel like an outsider.
Such social and emotional isolation had hurt her as a child. As she had trained, she had hoped that her growing skills would create some sort of bond between herself and her classmates. Her unique acceleration merely added jealousy to the list of things that alienated her from her peers.
With a heavy sigh, Adesina turned and walked briskly out of the room. She joined the throngs of students walking from their sleeping quarters to the mess hall. Most of them had businesslike expressions on their faces, but a few of the younger Shi looked anxious. Adesina could relate, for she remembered all too well what it felt like to be a new student in the Shimat fortress.
She was greeted in the mess hall by a petite girl her own age whose name was Lanil. Her diminutive stature, in combination with her large blue eyes and benign expression, often led others to underestimate her as a warrior. Adesina envied her this advantage. No one who looked at Adesina took her for granted. Her abnormal coloring alone was enough to make people think twice before approaching her.
Lanil glanced at Adesina’s undamaged cheeks and smiled confidently. “Whom did you mark?”
Lanil giggled in delight and clasped her hands together. “Good! She deserves it.”
Although they were the same age, Adesina had five years of seniority over Lanil because of her early start in training. Lanil and Adesina were both “Shar Children,” meaning that they had been raised in the fortress as opposed to being brought to the Shimat by their parents when they were old enough to train. They had been the best of friends until Adesina was taken away from the nursery—the only friend that Adesina had ever had. They remained closer than most students, but the years had changed them.
Lanil remained caring and sympathetic, in spite of her rigorous training. It was generally assumed that she would take a job in the fortress after she finished her schooling, rather than being given an assignment as a warrior. Adesina, on the other hand, had become more hardened with every year. Her peers treated her harshly due to her youth, and the level of expectation of her teachers drove her to extremes she would not have known otherwise.
Now this unlikely pair stood in line together to receive their rations—one of the few times they saw each other anymore. It was a nutritious but boring meal that was calculated to give them enough energy until their midday meal. Adesina received her wooden tray with a sort of weary resignation.
Lanil smiled at Adesina and hummed to herself. Most of the other students resented Adesina’s youth, but Lanil was genuinely happy for her.
“So? Does this mean you advance?”
Adesina shook her head and held out her bowl for her portion of porridge. “I still have to meet with the Sharifal.”
Lanil’s face blanched as if the warmth of her enthusiasm was washed over by winter’s tide. There were many Shar, or instructors, at the school, but there was only one Sharifal. She was the leader of the Shimat, and rarely involved in student affairs. When she was, it was usually for disciplinary action. Severe disciplinary action.
“The Sharifal? Why?”
Adesina shrugged uncomfortably. “All students are interviewed by the Sharifal at the end of my year of training, whether they are marked or not.”
Lanil shuddered. “I do not envy you.”
Adesina and Lanil parted ways.
Each student was required to sit with the others of their year of training. As Adesina ate her simple rations, she looked down the table to see who had been marked and who had passed. For the most part she wasn’t surprised at what she saw, but there were a few marked who she had thought would pass.
Basha was seated at the far end of the table, a dozen or so stitches in her cheek. She and some of the other marked students were muttering darkly amongst themselves. Basha threw Adesina an icy stare. Her thin mouth was pressed into an almost invisible line, and her eyes flashed with undisguised fury. Adesina could only imagine the tale of treachery and woe that Basha was spinning about her to soften the disgrace of being marked.
There were twelve Shi in her year of training. When they had first begun as children, there had been twice as many students. Nevertheless, yearly advancement was never a guarantee, and proving oneself quickly became a daily requirement.
Adesina felt an all-too-familiar twinge as she reflected on her life as a student in the fortress. Her childhood ideas of what it would be like to train as a Shimat had been far from the reality.
Her initial reaction to her early training had been one of excitement. She had been anxious to prove herself worthy of such an honor. That excitement had rapidly been replaced by a form of desperation. Nothing she did ever seemed like enough, even if it was more than what her classmates could do. Her Shar pushed her more and more each year, expecting her to go beyond her best.
Half of her knew that it was merely part of the process of becoming all that she could be, but the other half of her continued to feel that desperation—that secret fear that she would fail. She hid this fear with bravado, but it was ever present in the back of her mind.
Shaking away these dark thoughts, Adesina turned her attention back to her meal.
After breakfast the Shi proceeded with their daily schedule. It was a review day, so most of their morning was spent in a classroom. Over the years, Adesina had been taught a variety of subjects from botany to psychology, tactics to languages and cultures of the world. Adesina retained information quite well, and usually found these review days to be tedious.
Today was different, for there was a palpable tension in the air. They were being taught by a substitute Shar, which meant that their regular Shar were most likely meeting with the Sharifal. Adesina, along with all of her classmates, had a hard time concentrating on the anatomy review.
To get her mind off of her anxiety, Adesina began studying the Shar teaching them that day.
She was a young woman in her mid to late twenties with striking auburn hair and sharp grey eyes. Adesina assumed that she was still training to be a Shar, based on how she reacted to teaching a class of near graduates. Her emotions were kept in tight check, but Adesina could sense a bit of underlying nervousness.
The Shar walked with a slight limp, perhaps from a broken leg that had been poorly set. She was also quite tall for a woman. Adesina wondered if such height was an advantage or a disadvantage as a Shimat warrior.
Adesina also began to speculate on what kinds of missions this woman would have been sent. Potential Shar were required to give at least five years of service before training as teachers, so this woman must have had some experience.
Perhaps she had been a bodyguard to an important Shimat. Perhaps she had been a messenger. But it was most likely that she had been a spy. Most Shimat were trained to appear as normal citizens and then placed in cities and towns in every nation all over the world. Sehar, the nation in which they were based, was one of three kingdoms in the northwest continent on the world map.
Such thoughts carried Adesina over into the midday meal at noon. All the students then massed back into the mess hall where they received rations only slightly more ample than their breakfast. Lanil gave Adesina another friendly smile, which Adesina had trouble returning. Her nerves were starting to wear thin.
After the meal, the Shi were sent out to the courtyard for time to practice their skills in weaponry and horsemanship. The courtyard was a large open area, divided into sections that each served a different purpose. There were obstacle courses for those on horseback as well as those on foot, target ranges, circles drawn on the ground for sparring and hand-to-hand combat, and so forth. The stones on the ground were worn smooth from many years of use, as were the blocks in the surrounding walls. Shimat guards patrolled along the top of the wall like caged panthers pacing back and forth, watching those within the fortress as well as any that might be without.
As usual, Adesina kept a close eye on Basha and her cohorts, who had the unfortunate tendency to “miss” their mark and send some sort of weapon hurtling in her direction. The first few clumsy attempts had been in their youth, so Adesina’s injuries had been minor. As they grew older and more skilled, so did Adesina’s capacity for sensing danger before it arrived. In a way, Adesina was grateful for the unintentional training she had received from those who meant her harm.
She began sparring with one of her classmates. They both held long wooden staffs, and wielded them with precision and force. In spite of this, it was clear that both of them were merely going through the motions, for they each had their minds on what lay ahead. Adesina’s thoughts kept turning to the tallest tower, where the Sharifal lived.
While there were plentiful rumors among the Shi about their revered leader, little was actually known. Those students who were taken to see her never returned, regardless of the reason for their summons. Adesina wondered what the Sharifal looked like and if she had seen her before; for it was said that the Sharifal disguised herself as a Shar and walked among the students.
Adesina’s sparring partner seemed to be thinking along the same lines. “What do you think she is like?” he asked in a tone of voice that was too casual to be natural.
She blocked his blow and returned with one of her own. “Who?”
Adesina frowned. “What makes you think I would know?”
He flashed his teeth in an expression that was half smile and half grimace as Adesina brought her staff down on his shoulder. “I did not say I thought you knew. I was asking for your opinion.”
The young woman stepped out of the way of his staff as he jabbed it forward and shrugged. “Why bother speculating? There is no benefit in it.”
He let his weapon drop ever so slightly, as if letting his guard down. Adesina knew he was just trying to draw her in, and ignored the gesture. She continued to circle cautiously and said in a voice of forced indifference, “I suppose we will know soon enough.”
There was a noticeable jump in anxiety as their Shar filed into the courtyard. Every Shi fell silent and their bodies became like those of small animals when a predator is sensed. They all stopped what they were doing and bowed to their instructors.
Per pulled out a list and read the order they were to go see the Sharifal. It alternated between a marked student and the one who had marked them.
Adesina was glad to hear her name near the beginning. She didn’t think she could bear the agitation of waiting for hours.
The three Shar left with the first student on the list, and the eleven remaining Shi tried to go back to their training. Some gave up entirely and began pacing along the edge of the courtyard next to the stone walls. Adesina bowed to her classmate, indicating that she was finished sparring, and walked over to the range.
She was particularly good at throwing knives and the activity took her mind off the stress at hand. Adesina walked to the end of the range and closed her eyes, imagining her goal. There were four targets on the opposite side of the range: one on each side, one in front, and one behind. The object was to run into the center of this circle of targets and throw the knives without breaking stride.
Adesina took a deep breath and began running at full speed. The calculations of each shot flashed through her mind and translated to action almost automatically. She threw knives at the front and left targets first, then spun and threw knives at the remaining two. She slowed to a stop and inspected each target to see where her knives had struck.
Three of them stood dead center, but one was slightly left of where she had aimed. Her nerves were proving to be more of a problem than she wanted to admit, and she shook her head in frustration. She gathered her knives and started again, this time with more concentration than before.
No students returned from their meeting with the Sharifal, but Shar Per reappeared at regular intervals to call the next name on his list. Adesina felt a twinge of satisfaction seeing Basha leave with Per pale and shaking.
Basha’s interview was longer than the students’ before her, which made Adesina even more nervous. Her mind flew over all of the things that could possibly prevent her advancement, in spite of the victory she won the night before. When Per returned and called her name, Adesina hoped she didn’t look as scared as Basha had.
As Per led her through the fortress to the Sharifal’s tower, the details of her surroundings stood out in Adesina’s mind.
The fortress was devoid of any sort of decoration. The walls were a dull grey stone, lined with torches that were rarely lit. Every so often there would be a brazier that lent a little heat, but not enough to overcome the chill of the season. It was a drab and gloomy place, but Adesina didn’t have much with which she could compare it. The only time she ever left the fortress was to train in the surrounding area, which consisted of the woods and the small strip of grassland along the coast.
They arrived at the base of the Sharifal’s tower, where Jareb was waiting. Jareb dismissed Per and led Adesina up the long winding staircase. At first Adesina silently counted the stairs as they climbed, but the numbers got higher and higher until she finally gave up. She sighed softly and stared at the back of Jareb’s head, wishing he would say something.
They finally reached the top of the tower, where Breyen stood waiting for them. He was standing next to two stern-looking Shimat who were guarding a simple wooden door. Breyen dismissed Jareb and waited until he left to speak.
“Shi Adesina, you have come before the Sharifal as victor of your trial. Enter and be recognized.”
He opened the door and stood back. Adesina walked through the door with as much confidence as she could muster. She found herself in a large circular room that was both meticulously tidy and minimalistic. A good portion of the walls were covered with bookshelves, some of which were bolted shut. There were two windows, one facing toward the courtyard and the other facing towards the ocean. There was a large desk placed next to the ocean-viewing window, which was covered with neat stacks of papers and books.As Adesina’s eyes turned on the Sharifal, she stopped in her tracks and stared in shock, unable to believe what she saw.