Chapter Three: Changes
The woman sitting behind the desk was the same woman who had raised Adesina when her mother died in childbirth. She had been a second mother to the young Shi, always encouraging her to go beyond her best. Adesina had assumed that Signe only served as a nursemaid for the Shar Children. Yet here she was, the leader of the entire Shimat order.
Signe was dressed in the black robes of a Shar, but with a heavy gold chain and pendant around her neck. She was a middle-aged woman with a strong build, raven hair and piercing blue eyes. There was a businesslike feeling to her gaze, and a deep determination that showed she was a woman to be reckoned with.
She patiently waited as Adesina struggled to find her voice. “You are the Sharifal?”
Signe indicated toward the chair in front of her desk. “Sit down, child.”
Adesina did so, numbly. “Why did you not tell me?”
“You know the answer to that question,” the woman said with a brief smile.
Adesina was completely dumbfounded by this revelation. She wasn’t sure how she felt about it, let alone how to react. Ignoring Adesina’s obvious discomfort, Signe pulled a stack of papers toward her and began glancing through them.
“Your Shar have all rated you quite highly.”
Adesina knew this. She had always been among the best.
“Your opponent was not complimentary of your performance.”
This didn’t surprise Adesina either. She knew that Basha would do everything in her power to discredit Adesina’s victory.
“She seemed to think it dishonorable for you to drop from the trees.”
Adesina made an exasperated noise. “Every fifth year Shi should know to use the environment and every advantage it offers.”
Signe pushed the papers aside. “What I really want to know is how you think you did.”
The young student thought over the previous night carefully. She was dissatisfied with what happened, but for entirely different reasons than Basha. She looked at the face that was so familiar to her and felt that she could speak without restraint. “It was…too easy.”
The Sharifal raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
Adesina shrugged uncomfortably. “I was just expecting something more challenging for our final test.”
The older woman’s expression was unreadable. Adesina felt the need to explain herself further, but waited for her superior to speak.
“A challenge,” she mused quietly. She raised her eyes to study Adesina’s face. “Do you think yourself above your training?”
This question caught Adesina off guard and she answered carefully. “No, but I have not felt truly challenged since my third year.” When Signe did not dispute this statement, Adesina went on boldly. “We both know that I have long been the best among all Shi. I have always had the most potential. That is why you began my training in my fifth year of life rather than my tenth. Yet I am continually placed in the same training program as every other mediocre Shi.”
Adesina stopped abruptly, afraid that she had overstepped her bounds. It was true that Signe had practically raised her, but she was still the Sharifal. Adesina lowered her eyes respectfully and sat in silence.
Signe was lost in her thoughts for several moments. When she brought herself out again, it was with some effort. “What do you suggest?”
This was the part that gave Adesina trouble. She had often thought about her restlessness, but had no idea what changes she wanted. She let her breath out slowly and shook her head. “I do not know, Signe.”
There was silence for a few minutes while they both thought about the situation before them. Signe clasped her hands on the desk in front of her. “Do you remember the question you always used to ask me when you were a child?”
The sudden change of subject momentarily confused Adesina. She had to think for a second before replying. “I…would ask you about my father.”
Although she wasn’t sure why, Adesina had always felt a strong need to find her father. As a child she had strange recurring dreams that urged her to find this man she had never met. These dreams usually consisted of her hurrying through the woods, pursuing a figure that she somehow knew to be her father. The feeling of desperation to catch up to him grew with every step, until she woke up in a cold sweat.
Sometimes she dreamed of the story she had been told of her mother. Signe once told her about how a beautiful young woman had been found wandering in the woods. It had been a harsh winter, and the woman was clearly reaching the end of her pregnancy. The Shimat took her in and cared for her until she had her baby. Before she died, just minutes after giving birth to Adesina, she said that her husband would come for their daughter.
But he never did.
Adesina had always wondered why he never came. Finally, at the age of five, she decided that if he could not find her, then she would find him.
Signe broke through Adesina’s reverie. “And do you remember what I said?”
That was much easier to answer. Signe’s words had been a driving force in Adesina’s life. “You said that if I wanted to find my father I would have to train very hard. That only the best of Shimat would have the means of finding him.”
Signe inclined her head. “Do you feel you have done this?”
Adesina nodded fervently. She had pushed herself harder than any Shar could have. This driving ambition, along with a great amount of skill, had shot Adesina to the head of her class at a young age.
The Sharifal leaned back in her chair, giving the young student a calculating look. “It has been recommended that your training be specialized.”
Adesina was astonished. Specializing was an option given to students who had graduated, but she wouldn’t graduate for another year.
Signe’s expression was once again unreadable. “Yes. All of your Shar agree.”
Adesina furrowed her brow. She was excited, but felt a sudden surge of concern as well. The words of ready acceptance stuck in her throat.
The older woman raised an eyebrow expectantly. “Are you willing to specialize your training?”
Adesina merely nodded. Signe’s smile was now without humor. “Good.”
She stood with a small folded piece of paper in her hand. Adesina also got to her feet, her gaze fixed on the paper in her leader’s hand. She had to remind herself not to be so presumptuous as to reach out for it.
Signe hesitated as she studied the young woman before her. Adesina could not read her expression, but did her best to appear confident. Whatever it was that the Sharifal saw, it seemed to satisfy her. She extended the paper to Adesina, who took it with a sort of reverence.
“You are excused.”
Adesina bowed and turned to leave.
She turned back. “Yes?”
“Do not prove us wrong.”
Adesina nodded slowly and went out the door. Breyen did not take note of her as she walked past, nor did the two guards. As she descended the stairs she heard the bell tolling for the evening meal. She unfolded the paper given to her by Signe and read the words carefully.
They were instructions on where she was to go for her new training, and the passwords necessary to get there. She was also admonished not to delay by going to her quarters for any personal items. This brought a grim smile to Adesina’s face. She had no belongings other than what she was wearing. Adesina put the paper on the first brazier she passed and made sure it burned before moving on.
Following the instructions given to her, Adesina went deeper into the fortress than she had ever been before. The northwest section of the fortress was off limits to students; and to ensure that no curious student got “lost” and found their way to that area, guards were posted at the door that led to it. The guards eyed her suspiciously, but let her through when she gave them the password.
Adesina studied her new surroundings and was somewhat disappointed with what she saw. It looked much like the rest of the fortress. The walls were the same grey stone, the braziers were the same blackened metal, and the hallways were the same dimensions as in the other parts of the fortress.
The corridors of the fortress were set up like a maze as part of the defenses. Everything was uniform, there were numerous doors, the lighting was dim, and it was incredibly easy for one to get lost. Even if an enemy were able to get past the outer defenses and into the center of the fortress, it would be almost impossible find the way out again. It was a common joke for older students to send the younger ones down wrong halls and make them late for class. It wasn’t amusing for the student who was punished for their tardiness, but they eventually found themselves doing the same thing to younger students in a few years time. Adesina knew the student corridors blind, but walking down the halls of this new section of the fortress, she felt as disoriented as a new student.
Adesina focused her thoughts on her instructions and she hurried through the halls to a courtyard almost identical to the one used by the students. At the far end of the courtyard stood a black-robed Shar, proud and tall as an obelisk.
His hair was jet black and his eyes were almost as dark. He had a strong, serious face that was remarkably handsome. Adesina guessed he was in his mid-twenties. He was quite a bit taller than she—Adesina estimated she would only come up to his shoulders. There was a deadly grace in his air, which defied his rather muscular build.
As she approached him, their eyes met and there was a subtle change in his expression. It was something akin to surprise, but slightly different. Adesina was accustomed to people regarding her abnormal coloring with astonishment, but this was not the same. There was a glint of admiration, or at least something similar to it.
Within seconds the well-trained neutral expression returned to his face. “Shi Adesina, I am Shar Kendan. You are to be my charge for the duration of your training.”
Adesina bowed to her new Shar, which he did not return. Kendan indicated for her to follow him. He led her to a room that was set up like the student quarters, only this smaller room was meant for one person rather than a dozen or so. There was a washstand and a small mirror, a small trunk in which she could store her clothing, and a cot in the corner. Kendan pointed to a set of black training clothes folded neatly on the bed.
“This shall be your room while you train, and you are responsible for keeping it up to code. Change into those and bring me your old uniform. You will wear black from now on.”
Adesina nodded. Color was one of the ways used to differentiate training ranks. Years one through four wore white, five through eight wore light grey, and nine through eleven wore dark grey. Black was reserved for Shar and graduated students.
Kendan walked out of the room with a few bold strides. “I will be waiting for you in the courtyard.”
Adesina looked around her new room as she changed her clothes. It was barely bigger than a cell, but she had never had a room of her own. Adesina allowed herself a small smile before gathering up her old uniform and leaving the room.
As Kendan had said, he was waiting in the courtyard. He turned to face her and she detected the same brief, subtle change of expression. Adesina bowed and handed him the clothes, which he took and passed to a small servant boy who seemed to appear out of nowhere and disappear just as easily. Kendan ignored the servant, keeping his eyes on Adesina.
“You are missing an essential year of training to specialize, Shi Adesina. To compensate, the main points of that year will be added into your training here.”
He began to walk through the corridors and down a set of stairs. Adesina followed him silently.
“This year you will learn advanced weaponry, languages and cultures of the world, medicine, survival in extreme conditions, accelerated problem solving, and carpentry.”
Adesina looked at him in surprise. “Carpentry?”
The stairs led down until it was clear that they were deep underground. A strange, earthy scent filled her nostrils, and felt unusually heavy as she breathed it in. Faint echoes could be heard from the distance, giving Adesina an eerie feeling. Kendan led her through another maze of corridors. The stone was slightly damp and the halls were lit by smokeless lamps. She stared at her surroundings in amazement. She had no idea that all of this existed beneath the feet of training students.
Kendan continued listing the planned curriculum. “In addition to all of this, you will be reviewing all that you have learned thus far as a student and there will be severe tests of your endurance. You will periodically be allowed less sleep and given less food…among other things.”
They stopped outside one of the many doors. Kendan looked at Adesina with a challenging gleam in his eyes. Adesina knew that he was trying to intimidate and overwhelm her. She lifted her chin and stared back.
He smiled at her response. “Are you ready to begin?”
Adesina didn’t smile in return. “Yes.”
Kendan opened the door to reveal a short, stocky man sitting at one of three long tables that lined the walls of the room. He looked up at their entrance. “Ah, Kendan. I think I-” He saw Adesina and stopped abruptly.
Kendan spoke smoothly over the awkward pause. “Zadok, this is Shi Adesina.”
He nodded quickly. “Of course, of course. One vial?”
Kendan frowned thoughtfully. “Three.”
Zadok looked surprised. “Three? Is that really necessary?”
Kendan ignored the question and turned to Adesina. “Give me your arm.”
Adesina held out her left arm. He pushed back her sleeve, drew a knife and cut the crook of her arm. She resisted the urge to flinch. Zadok handed Kendan three small vials, which were filled with Adesina’s blood and carefully sealed. Zadok took the vials over to one of the tables and bent over them, ignoring Kendan and Adesina as they left.
They made their way back to the ground level, passing other pairs of students and teachers on the way. They were ignored, just as Kendan ignored them.
He showed her a room filled with a large variety of minerals, dried plants, live plants, and other things used by apothecaries. There was also a cupboard filled with medical supplies standing next to a small fountain at the far end of the room.
“From now on you will treat your own injuries.”
The challenging gleam was back in his eyes. Adesina stiffened her back and walked over to the fountain. She picked up a shallow bowl sitting at its edge, filled it with water, and began to carefully wash the wound.
Her knowledge of medicine was limited, for she had only been studying it for a year. However, treating a simple cut, such as the one on her arm, was done easily enough. Adesina dabbed a healing salve on the wound, wrapped a clean bandage around it and pushed her sleeve back down. Kendan watched without comment and then led her back to the courtyard.
Another small serving boy stood at the end of the yard holding two scabbards. Adesina felt a wave of apprehension as she saw Kendan draw one of the two swords. Practice weapons used at the school were the exact image and weight of real weapons, but they were mostly made of wood and usually caused no lasting damage. The weapon in Kendan’s hand was clearly a real sword.
He offered it to her. “Here we practice with real weapons, not the ones to which you are accustomed.”
Adesina took the sword and spun it experimentally. Yes, it felt the same, but she was still disturbed by the idea of using it on her Shar. Kendan drew the other sword and bowed. Adesina barely had enough time to bow in return before he attacked. Startled by his speed and ferocity, Adesina immediately took a defensive stance. Form followed form, and Adesina found herself being pressed harder and harder.
In the back of her mind, she knew that Kendan was testing her limits. Her heart began to beat faster, and her face grew warm with indignation. It had been a trying day and Adesina was tired of tests. In a burst of energy, she did a quick feint, jabbed him in the side with her fist and knocked the sword from his hand.
Kendan pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Some would criticize you for attacking without your sword.”
Adesina lowered her guard. “Only if they were the one who had lost.”
Kendan suppressed a smile. “Perhaps.”
Then, with movements so fast even Adesina was surprised, he wrested her sword from her hand and brought it to her throat.
Adesina stared at him in shock. “That is not allowed. I won, you must yield.”
“Do you honestly believe that your enemies will follow the rules you have been taught?”Kendan sheathed the sword and did the same to the one that had fallen. He handed them to the serving boy with an almost careless expression on his face. He then motioned for her to follow and led her to her next lesson.