Chapter Twenty: The Challenge
Adesina was awakened the next morning by a soft knock on her door. She was instantly on her feet in a defensive stance, a bit disoriented. As she remembered where she was, she straightened.
The knock repeated. “Adesina?”
It was E’nes’s voice.
She stepped to the door and opened it. Her brother’s face lit up when he saw her, almost as if he had been afraid that she had escaped during the night. He gave her a warm smile. “Would you care for some breakfast? K’eb has been making use of the fresh supplies that Sa’jan brought back from the village.”
She followed him down the hall to the main room, where the smell of fried eggs and toasted bread filled Adesina’s nose. There were also some thin slices of venison sizzling in the large pan, and a big kettle filled with some fragrant herbal tea.
K’eb first filled a plate for Adesina, and then one for E’nes. He was polite and pleasant, but said little to either of them. The three of them seemed to be the only ones interested in the morning meal.
“Where are the others?” Adesina asked.
E’nes, who had already begun to eat enthusiastically, swallowed before answering. “A’asil ate earlier. L’iam, Ri’sel and Sa’jan are still in the conference room.”
Her tone became incredulous. “Were they there all night?”
E’nes nodded slowly. “Yes, I believe they were.”
“But why? What could possibly keep them there so long?”
Her brother shrugged casually. “I am not privy to their counsel.”
This brought a question to her mind that she had been wondering the previous day. “E’nes, I heard K’eb call you ‘captain’ yesterday.”
He inclined his head. “Yes.”
“Are all of you members of your military?”
Adesina frowned in confusion. “Then why is L’iam the leader of this group? Surely both Sa’jan and Ri’sel outrank him.”
E’nes gave a humorous smile. “It helps that his father is in charge of the L’avan armies.”
He chuckled softly, as if enjoying a private joke. Adesina, on the other hand, didn’t see anything amusing.
“You mean that he is your commander merely because of his father’s authority?”
He laughed again, this time he was joined by K’eb. “Yes, I suppose that is the case.”
The levity of the moment didn’t last long. E’nes could see that Adesina was disturbed by this information, and endeavored to reassure her. “We all have great faith in L’iam’s ability to lead. We would not follow him if we thought him unworthy.”
Even with his words, it felt wrong to Adesina. In the Shimat order no one ever received promotions that were not thoroughly earned. Even she, with all her skill, had worked hard for years and years to get where she was at present. She kept her expression neutral, even though she felt a wave of disdain for the L’avan system, which was clearly flawed.
Adesina finished her breakfast and handed her plate back to K’eb. He gave her another pleasant smile, but said nothing.
E’nes looked as if he wanted to say something, but refrained. He watched impassively as she walked back down the hall and into her room.
Once there, she pulled back her hair in a simple braid and began doing her morning exercise routine. She had even less room than when she was in the High City, but she did her best to adjust.
After a short time, Adesina was joined by Ravi. “Where have you been?” she asked him.
He climbed up onto the bed, where he could watch her but keep out of her way. “I spent the night outside. It has been too long since I last slept under the stars.”
She was amused by the tone of his voice. “I did not know that it was so important to you.”
Ravi smiled as well. “Yes. I have lived most of my life out of doors. I missed my dear friends.”
“Your friends? Do you mean the stars?”
He wasn’t bothered by her teasing inflections. “Yes, Ma’eve, I mean the stars. Someday you will understand what I mean.”
The conversation ended after this comment because Adesina needed all of her breath and concentration. A fit of restless energy drove her to push herself harder and longer than usual. She lost all track of time as she practiced every one of her Shimat skills. Outside of the room she could hear the vague voices of people moving about the fort, but she ignored it all and focused solely on her training.
For a long time, her activity only gave her more energy. She continued on and on, until she finally decided it was time to wind down. She wasn’t tired, even after all she had accomplished, but something told her that much time had passed.
Adesina walked over to the table and poured water from the pitcher into the basin. She picked up the cloth lying next to it, immersed it in the cool water and washed away her sweat. It felt refreshing against her skin and she let out a small sigh. Ravi began humming softly as she sat down on the chair that faced the window.
They heard a soft knock at the door, which stood open. E’nes stood leaning on the doorframe. “Would you like to go for a walk, Adesina? You have not yet been outside the fort.”
The young woman nodded and got back on her feet as E’nes gestured to Ravi. “Would you like to come as well, old friend?”
He also got to his feet. “Thank you, but no. I think I will go hunt.”
With that, he disappeared.
E’nes smiled at the surprised expression on Adesina’s face and wordlessly invited her to follow him.
“How long have you known Ravi?” she asked as they walked down the hall.
A fond expression passed over E’nes’s face. “Since he was born. I was three years old at the time, and I remember the excitement. Our parents were good friends with his parents and I was close to his older brother, Ruvim.”
“He has a brother?”
E’nes nodded. “As well as a younger sister. Ruvim is out in the world, following his Purpose, but Rissa and their parents are still back in the Rashad homeland. They have not seen Ravi in two years.”
Adesina’s step slowed to a stop. “Why?”
E’nes also stopped, turning to face his sister. “He left to search for you.”
“He searched for me for over a year?”
E’nes studied his sister’s face. “I assumed you knew.”
Adesina was going to ask another question, but E’nes held up a hand. “Perhaps this is something you should discuss with Ravi.”
Another thought occurred to Adesina. “If you were three years old when Ravi was born, that would mean he is only two years older than me.”
E’nes was perplexed. “So?”
She struggled to explain why this was hard for her to accept. “I assumed he was older.”
Her brother smiled and continued walking. “Rashad reach maturity when they are two years old. So, in a way, he is much older than either of us.”
A’asil, the man Adesina had struck with her dart, was standing at the entrance of the fort as if on guard. He watched them as they walked away from the building. The stiff look in his eyes told Adesina that he was still nursing his wounded pride.
She paid him no mind and turned her attention to the forest. It felt young, even though it was probably several hundred years old. There were birds flitting through the branches and butterflies hovered over flowers. Sunlight streamed down through the boughs of the tilia trees, bringing to life a myriad of colors. The air was warm and vibrant, filled with a dozen different scents. Ravi may have said that it was similar to the forest of Dreams, but it felt completely opposite.
E’nes seemed just as affected as Adesina. He took in a deep breath and let it out with a smile. “It is almost like home.”
He instantly had his sister’s full attention. “Do you mean your home?” she inquired.
The young man nodded. “Yes. The home of the L’avan.”
It was obvious that the L’avan were from somewhere in the north, but no one knew the exact location.
Adesina studied the ground casually. “What is it like?”
A knowing smile crossed his face. “If you wish to retain the option of parting ways with us when we leave, I cannot answer that.”
She was a bit disappointed. “You have already said that it is located in a forest.”
“In a forest, by a forest, near a forest. None of this would help you in the north. There are forests everywhere.”
This may have been an exaggeration, but it wasn’t far from the truth. There were many massive forests that dotted the northern part of the continent.
Adesina shrugged. “It does not matter.”
E’nes gave her a sidelong glance. “Does it not?” When she didn’t answer he went on. “Do you not care about the home of your ancestors? Of your family?”
Or my enemies, she thought to herself.
Her feelings on the matter were so convoluted that she couldn’t even put them into words when explaining it to herself. There was a part of her that desperately wanted to know more about her past and her family. Another part was afraid to know, given their deep involvement with a group of people that she had been warned were dangerous. Yet another part was tugging at the back of her mind, reminding her of her duty as a Shimat to gather as much information as possible and then report it to her superiors.
Even with all her misgivings about these people, though, it seemed wrong to spy on them when they had given her their trust.
Adesina decided to take the conversation in a different direction. She picked the first subject of interest that came to mind that had nothing to do with herself. “What are L’avan soldiers doing in the central lands?”
E’nes took a minute to consider the information being requested. After some thought, he deemed it safe to discuss. “A number of things. Reconnaissance, trade, protection…”
She rolled her eyes. “Very descriptive.”
Her brother laughed. “For the most part the L’avan are a self-sustaining civilization, but there are a few things that require us to trade with the outside world. Also, trade helps develop trust between nations. That being said, we also value our privacy and are aware that there are many who wish the L’avan harm. Occasionally we send out people to lay false trails for those who seek to find us.”
A brief silence followed. “And the reconnaissance?” she encouraged.
E’nes hesitated slightly. “There have been some disturbing rumors over the past several months. The king asked us to investigate, and we are on our way home to report.”
She recalled that he had mentioned a king the previous night. Sehar had once been a monarchy, but that government had fallen almost a century earlier. She frowned thoughtfully. “You have a king?”
He nodded once, but was clearly against further discussion. She decided to try a different tactic to get information out of him.
“It takes seven L’avan soldiers to do the things you named?”
“I am sure that the Shimat would go about it differently,” he laughed, “but we have our own way of doing things.”
The sound of clashing metal broke through the harmony of the forest. Several feet ahead of the brother and sister was a small clearing where two crimson clad figures practiced their swordsmanship.
It was K’eb and Sa’jan. They were both in defensive stances when E’nes and Adesina entered the clearing. Sa’jan spotted them and straightened, dropping his guard. Instead of taking advantage of his opponent’s distraction, K’eb turned to look at them as well.
Sa’jan measured the expression on Adesina’s face and grinned. “You detect flaws.”
It was halfway between a question and a statement. When the young woman didn’t respond, Sa’jan took a step back and gestured to his spot. “What would you do differently?”
For a moment Adesina was torn. She wanted to step into the place offered to her, but she didn’t know if it was proper as a Shimat. She should not be offering assistance to the enemy, even if it was simply a matter of casual curiosity. On the other hand, it had been so long since she had had the pleasure of placing herself against a real opponent in a test of skills.
Her steps were slow as she walked over to face K’eb. The L’avan soldier looked at Adesina, slender and unarmed, uncertain what to do. He finally passed E’nes his sword and stood ready for hand-to-hand combat.
A small smile played at the corners of Adesina’s mouth as she began to circle him. K’eb circled with her, trying not to look as apprehensive as he felt.
She continued to circle slowly with a faint sneer on her face. Intimidation was a big part of the game, and Adesina was rather good at it. When she felt that he was nervous enough to lose his clarity of thought, she moved on to the next part of her strategy. She pretended to drop her guard in the slightest degree, inviting him to make an attack. K’eb saw it as his only chance to gain an advantage, and he moved forward as quickly as he could.
She was behind him before he could blink. She grabbed him around the shoulders and brought his feet out from under him, slamming him hard on the ground. K’eb’s breath was knocked out of his body, and it took him several moments to recover. By that time, Adesina was pressing her knee against his throat.
“Your problem,” she told him quietly, “is that you assume everyone is as honorable as you.”
The Shimat got to her feet and took a couple of steps away from K’eb. As she looked up, she saw a small crowd had gathered. E’nes and Sa’jan stood together, watching the contest with critical eyes. L’iam, A’asil and Ri’sel stood a little farther off. They appeared to have been walking somewhere else when they stopped to watch the match.
L’iam’s expression was unreadable, which made Adesina rather uncomfortable. After a few moments of thought, he gestured to his companion. “A’asil, how would you like the chance to regain some of the pride this young woman took from you?”
Sa’jan and E’nes turned around in surprise. They had not been aware of the others’ presence.
A’asil was eager for the opportunity. “I would be pleased for such a chance.”
L’iam looked at Adesina. “Would you be willing to humor us? I would like to see how the L’avan measure up to a Shimat.”
She considered for a moment and then nodded. What harm could it do?
E’nes wasn’t of the same mindset, and looked a bit worried. “What kind of challenge did you have in mind, L’iam?”
He shrugged casually. “A’asil is rather well known for his talent at throwing knives.”
A wide grin flashed across A’asil’s face, and Adesina also felt a wave of satisfaction. She cocked her head to one side, giving her opponent a superior smile. “I accept your challenge, and propose we do it in Shimat style.”
A’asil became wary. “What does that entail?”
She made her voice as offhanded as she could. “It is nothing too complicated. Both competitors stand facing away from the target, then turn and throw their knives without pausing, one right after another.”
He appeared to be at ease with this idea, and Adesina had to suppress a smile. She knew from experience that it was harder than it sounded.
L’iam led them to a spot behind the fort where targets were set up. A’asil was handed five throwing knives and gestured to go first. Adesina measured the appropriate distance from the target and pointed to where her opponent should stand.
He turned his back to the target, taking a moment to breathe and steady himself. He spun and threw all five knives one after another. Adesina watched carefully and thought that he did surprisingly well.
The first knife flew left of the target, the next one hit the outer ring, the following one hit the inner ring, and the last two hit the center.
There was a murmur of approval from the watching L’avan. In spite of that, A’asil was trying not to look disappointed. He walked up and retrieved the knives from the target, turning them in his hand as he walked back to the measured distance. Adesina took them from him and positioned herself with her back to the target.
She closed her eyes, shutting out all distractions and focusing on her goal. It was almost as if she could feel where the target stood and how she would need to throw her knives to strike its center.
In the split second between when she opened her eyes and when she turned, her eyes met L’iam’s. Her eyes were a glowing swirl of purple, gold and dark green. L’iam was stunned by what he saw.
Adesina whipped around and sent all five knives flying into the heart of the target.
She was met with an astonished silence.
The young Shimat had a hard time not looking smug. She glanced around the group of spectators, but all of her feelings of self-satisfaction were swept away when she saw L’iam and E’nes. They were both staring at her with strange expressions on their faces.
A’asil walked up to her and offered his hand. “That was extraordinary.”
Adesina took his hand and tried to force a smile past her concern. Why were they looking at her that way?
“Yes,” she said distractedly.
K’eb and Sa’jan also walked up to her, commenting on her skill. Adesina’s focus remained on E’nes and L’iam, who were speaking to each other in low voices. Sa’jan was in the middle of observing to the others the more minute differences of throwing styles when L’iam’s strong voice commanded her attention.
“Adesina, would you be willing to try something harder?”
This brought everyone around to look back and forth between Adesina and L’iam. Everyone seemed to anticipate the young woman’s next show of talent.
She gave a curt nod. Her months in the High City made her hungry for any kind of challenge thrown her way.
L’iam approached her and handed her two more throwing knives. “Directly behind you are two tilia trees. Without looking at your target first, I want you to turn and throw those knives at the lowest branch on each tree. And I want you to throw them simultaneously.”
Quiet mutterings of disbelief sounded on every onlooker’s breath. Adesina studied the face of the issuer of the challenge. There was no mocking gleam in his eye, no doubtful tone in his voice. It was merely a request, just to see if she could do it.
She closed her eyes again, focusing on the landscape behind her. A slight breeze stirred the air, giving her all the information she needed. She could hear where the wind met the resistance of the trunk and fluttered through the branches and leaves. It painted a picture in her mind of what she couldn’t see with her eyes. A moment more passed before her mind locked on her target and she began shifting her body accordingly.
She opened her eyes, once again meeting L’iam’s for a fraction of a second, and whirled around to release both knives. There was a single and distinct thud as both blades hit their mark at the exact same time.
This time the silence was mingled with something else: fear.
Adesina looked around the group again, taking in their expressions. She was aware that she should feel proud for representing the Shimat so well—in a way that struck fear into the hearts of its enemies.
But she did not.
Adesina knew that she was not like the other Shimat. She had skills that Shimat like Basha or Kendan could only dream of having.
Whether the L’avan were conscious of it or not, the fear that Adesina saw in their eyes was not of the Shimat. It was of her.
They were afraid of her.