Chapter Thirty-one: Choosing Sides
E’nes was immediately all business. “Where will we find His Majesty?”
“In the Council Room,” replied the messenger.
He thanked the boy and sent him on his way. Adesina thought briefly that it was fortunate that it was just the two of them that morning. She didn’t like dismissing class or anything else that made the situation seem more official than what made her comfortable.
The brother and sister left the Protector training facility and walked the short distance to the palace. No’am was waiting for them on the steps leading up to the entrance and escorted them directly to the Council Room that Adesina had seen on her second day in Yavar.
The table was headed by the king, just as it had been then. His two sons sat on either side of him, and Ravi was seated not far away. They were also joined by various military leaders and head counselors, and there were a few white-robed religious leaders with their large books of scripture in front of them. Everyone looked up at the entrance of E’nes and Adesina.
King L’unn gestured for them to sit down, returning to the discussion that had been taking place when they had walked into the room.
“Given what we know about Shimat tactics of ‘scientific inquiry,’ we are left with few options.”
Adesina felt her stomach clench when she realized what they were talking about and why she had been called into their presence.
E’nes saw her gripping the armrest of her chair and shifted in his seat so as to be nearer to her. Ravi made his way over to her side and also sat close by.
King L’unn’s eyes fixed on her intently. “Adesina, is your father alive?”
She felt her words stick in her throat and forced them out with difficulty. “I do not know, your Majesty.”
His stare was unrelenting. “Of all the beings in Pevothem, you know the Shimat best. I am in need of that insight, whatever it may be.”
Adesina’s expression became unusually helpless. “I only know what they wanted me to know. I only perceived what they wanted me to perceive.” She shook her head, “I do not believe that you will find much aid in insight tainted by their own manipulation.”
The king leaned back, folding his hands in front of him. “The persecution suffered by the L’avan has always been fueled by the Shimat. They despise us for the gifts we have that they do not share, and their inability to influence us as a people. In fact, they have been attempting to recruit members of our race for many generations.”
Adesina shifted in her chair uncomfortably. She was beginning to realize why she had always been treated differently from the other Shimat students, and why she had been raised by the Sharifal personally.
King L’unn went on, “Over the past several years, there have been disturbing rumors of experiments involving captured L’avan. I have been trying to discover more about it, but it is one the Shimat’s most closely guarded secrets.” He leaned forward again. “Your father is not the first to be taken, and, had you not chosen to come to Pevothem, there would have been little we could have done to help him and the others.”
She studied the king warily. “Why is that, your Majesty?”
He spread his hands in a gesture of explanation. “Because we know nothing about them. Our people disappear without a trace, never to be seen or heard of again. We have never had anyone we could ask for help.”
After much thought, Adesina nodded slowly, still filled with apprehension. “I will help in any way I can, your Majesty, but I do not know how useful I can be. I may have been Shimat, but my knowledge was still limited.”
The king nodded gratefully, then repeated his earlier question. “Based on what you know of the Shimat, do you think your father is still alive?”
This time, Adesina answered without hesitation. “Yes. The Shimat never waste an opportunity, no matter in what form it comes. If there is something to be gained from a prisoner such as my father, they will go to great lengths to keep him alive.”
A thoughtful silence followed her words. After a few moments, the king posed another question with less certainty than before. “Would it be possible to rescue him and the others taken prisoner?”
Her initial reaction was to laugh at such a suggestion. There was no way to outthink the entire Shimat organization and take them by surprise. In spite of this, Adesina paused to consider possibilities, no matter how unlikely.
She had never heard of a traitor to the order in the whole of Shimat history. She was certain that such an action would be treated harshly, and that the perpetrator would be made into a public example. Therefore, being she had never heard of one, she was fairly certain that there had never been a traitor to the Shimat.
Before herself, that is.
Even though she had not planned to betray the Shimat, she knew she must now be considered one. She had broken her oath of loyalty, and she had no intention of renewing it.
It stood to reason that if the Shimat order had never had a traitor, they would not expect one now. And if that were the case, Adesina could probably help the L’avan to retrieve their captured people.
She voiced her musings cautiously. “There is a possibility, but it is slight at best. I do not believe that they currently view me as a traitor, but they are suspicious by nature and would regard any deviant action on my part as proof of disloyalty.”
L’iam straightened instantly. “We are not suggesting that you go and retrieve them for us.”
She gave a half laugh. “What are you suggesting, then? Nothing else would work.”
He gestured around the table. “There are many skilled warriors among the L’avan. You could show us how to enter the fortress and where to find the prisoners.”
Adesina immediately shook her head. “What if something were to go wrong? How could you possibly adapt when your knowledge of the fortress and the Shimat is so limited?”
The silence that followed was heavy with doubt. King L’unn’s voice was resigned, but firm. “She is right.”
“Father,” L’iam protested.
The king held up a hand, silencing his son. “There are too many variations in the situation to afford sending in a force of L’avan without the aid and experience of Adesina.”
She was immediately shaking her head. “You cannot take the Shimat fortress by force.”
“Then how?” asked L’on, speaking to Adesina for the first time.
She rested her gaze on the crown prince, measuring him deliberately. “Stealth is the only sensible option.”
He frowned. “What do you have in mind?”
Her thoughts immediately turned to Kendan. “I know someone who would be willing to help us. Someone who knows more about the workings of the order than I do.”
A feeling of warmth came over her as she pictured his handsome face. Everything that she knew about him told her that when he discovered the truth about the Shimat order he would do all that he could to help them.
L’on turned to his father with a doubtful expression on his face. “I do not like the idea of bringing in outsiders to help us. Especially those who are overly familiar with the Shimat.”
E’nes looked at the crown prince in surprise. “I think we can trust Adesina’s judgment, your Highness.”
The king seemed to be of the same opinion as his eldest son. “Who is this person you wish to ask for help?”
She felt strangely reluctant to reveal Kendan’s identity too soon.
“A friend,” she replied shortly.
King L’unn didn’t appreciate her avoidance of his question. He fixed a stern glance on the young woman across the table from him. “What is your plan, that this friend is so indispensable?”
Adesina lifted her chin proudly to hide her discomfort. “A set plan is useless at this point.”
They looked at her in shock.
“Do you mean you do not have a plan at all?” asked one of the aged counselors.
Her voice became defensive. “I do not have all of the necessary information to form an effective plan. My contact will supply us with that information.”
A wave of murmurs passed through the room, which quickly turned into a heated debate.
Every counselor seemed to have something to say, and not all of them were willing to wait their turn.
The king’s eyes were set on Adesina, but his thoughts had taken him far away. He ignored the noise around him and carefully considered the risks of the mission. When he came to a decision, he raised a hand for silence.
Everyone looked at him expectantly as he spoke. “How many men would you need for this operation?”
Adesina was startled by the question. “I intended to go by myself.”
Several protests were voiced at once.
“Absolutely not,” exclaimed E’nes.
“That is out of the question,” insisted L’iam.
“Impossible,” said King L’unn.
Her eyes strayed to Ravi, who merely smiled. “You know you cannot prevent me from following you.”
She turned back to the king. “The larger the group, the harder it will be to remain undetected.”
He nodded in understanding. “Even so, you cannot go alone.”
“I am going with you,” stated E’nes. He glared at her, daring her to argue.
“As am I,” said L’iam.
Adesina expected the king to dispute his son’s decision, but after a few slow moments he nodded solemnly. “I wish for Sa’jan to go with you as well.”
Sa’jan nodded readily. “Of course, your Majesty.”
King L’unn looked at Adesina with a question in his eyes. “Do you approve of this party?”
She glanced at each of the men assigned to go with her: E’nes, L’iam, Sa’jan and Ravi. She felt strangely comforted know that they would be going with her back into the heart of the Shimat world. When she spoke, she struggled to contain the relief she felt.
With this decided, the king got to his feet. “A plan will need to be devised, obviously, but you should prepare to leave as soon as possible. Our people have waited for our help long enough.”
“Sire,” protested one of the military leaders, “these men need further training before setting off to fight our greatest enemies.”
King L’unn shook his head. “They can train along the way, but no more time must be lost.”
There were several more objections, but the king silenced them with a glance.
“I have made my decision,” he said in a determined tone of voice, and walked out of the room without a backward glance.
The council also got to their feet and slowly began to disperse. When the door was opened, L’era could be seen speaking to No’am in a low voice. She spotted L’iam and waited for him to finish his quiet conversation with their brother. As soon as he stepped out of the room, she pulled him off to the side. Adesina, who was waiting for E’nes, could hear her hushed words.
“You are going with them.” It was more of a statement than a question.
Her brother feigned looking puzzled. “With whom?”
L’era gestured impatiently. “Whomever Father has chosen to go.”
He sighed in loving irritation. “L’era, you have a knack for prying into things you should not. If Father wants you to know about our meeting, he will tell you himself.”
She grabbed his wrist with both hands, refusing to let him walk away. “I am going with you.”
All pretenses dropped. “Do not be ridiculous, L’era.”
She smiled triumphantly, knowing now what she had only guessed before. “I told you that I would not let you leave without me again.”
L’iam’s expression was rigid. “That was when we were talking about trading or research. This is completely different.”
E’nes took hold of Adesina’s elbow and gently led her past the quarreling siblings. As they walked through the halls, Adesina could not help but think about all the things that could go wrong with a mission like this.
She hated starting without a definite plan in mind, but nothing could be done about that right now. She needed to contact Kendan and together they would find a way to save her father.
Apprehension weighed down on her heart as she silently acknowledged that she was heading into a darkness more deep than anything she had ever known before.
It was pitch black in the windowless room, but his eyes had grown accustomed to it. There was a bit of straw in the corner that was rank with mold and excrement. The stones of the floor and walls stole away any heat that existed in the room, leaving the huddled figure shivering from the chill. The slow drip of water into a rusted pail sounded like the seconds on a clock.
When he had first been thrown into this nightmarish abyss, he had counted each drip. It had occupied his mind and kept him from dwelling on the last image his eyes had seen. As time passed, however, the picture of her face pushed its way to the front of his mind, and he couldn’t ignore it any longer.
At least, she had looked just like E’rian. Deep down he knew that it couldn’t have been her. The eyes had been different and the features of her face had been just a touch too sharp. He had traced the lines of his wife’s face often enough to know them perfectly. Also, his mind told him that the face had been too young to be the woman he had lost so long ago.
That left only two possibilities, each worst than the last.
The first possibility was that the Shimat had found a way to make some sort of copy of his beloved E’rian. The second possibility was that the Shimat had his daughter, Ma’eve.
He couldn’t bear either thought.
In the distance he heard the echoing sound of footsteps, and through the cracks in between the heavy door and the wall could be seen a flicker of light. The figure braced himself for what he knew was coming.
The jingling of keys was followed by the door bursting open. The harsh torchlight caused the prisoner to flinch and shade his eyes. Two heavily armed guards and a woman dressed in black robes filed into the room.
She cast her eyes on the filthy, beaten figure before her. His hair was matted with blood and grime, and his face was bruised and swollen. His clothing had been reduced to rags, due to the numerous beatings he had received.
A cruel smile spread across her face. “You may think it strange that you have been asked no questions, but I find that the tongue is loosed after a bit of pain. It saves time and frustration overall.”
The prisoner looked up into the strong features of the Sharifal, but said nothing. As soon as he had realized where he was—however many days, weeks, or months ago it had been—he had determined not to say a single word to his captors. He couldn’t pretend to be mute, because they had heard his cries of pain. Still, he knew that his silence was the only power that remained in his grasp.
The woman’s vicious smile widened. “What is your name?”
The grim expression did not waver on the prisoner’s face. He closed his eyes, waiting for the pain that was sure to follow.
Signe merely shrugged. “It does not matter. A name will not save you here. In fact, a name has no meaning for you anymore. Your identity has been taken from you as easily as you were taken from your former life.”
The prisoner fought to hold back the emotion he felt, but he couldn’t hide the look of pain that flashed across his face when he thought about the circumstances surrounding his abduction. Signe observed his reaction with interest.
“Are you hurt by the betrayal of one of your own people? Or perhaps, is there more to all of this than we anticipated?”
The prisoner’s expression immediately became stony, trying to hide any trace of the answers for which the Sharifal was looking. Signe continued to study his beaten face for several minutes before straightening slowly.
“Well, a few more days of pain may make you more cooperative.”
She and her guards backed out of the cell, slamming the door shut with a reverberating clang. The prisoner waited for the footsteps to die away before burying his face in his arms and weeping for his lost child.